Vietnam Ventures – Halong Bay, Cruise & Hoi An
The Journey continuous as the three intrepid travelers pay visit to another awe inspiring location in Vietnam. Written by Indranil Saha and this is his story.
The next day morning, we set out for our Halong Bay cruise. After a long drive through high traffic areas of Vietnam, we arrived at Tuan Chau international harbor.
As we embarked on our cruise (Flamingo Cruise), we knew that this will be an experience that will stay with us for our lives. While the boat was no QE2 (it had 14 double occupancy cabins), it was a well-appointed boat (refraining it from calling it ship due to its size). What it lacked for in quantity (size), it made up in the quality of experience – from well-appointed cabins with large windows to gourmet meals, the experience was memorable.
As the boat sailed out from the harbour into the bay and the panorama unfolded before us, we understood why Halong Bay has the reputation it has. I would refrain from describing it, since it can only be experienced. The vista before your eyes changes as the sun sets and in the dusk, the silhouettes of the sentinels of the bay can hold you mesmerised till they get enveloped in the dark night. As night falls, sitting on the top deck of the boat, one can spend hours looking at the faint silhouettes of the hills and other boats, while listening to the melody of the waves caressing the boat. If you can enjoy solitude, sitting on the upper deck of the boat, post an early dinner, can be an elevating experience. The slight nip in the air only makes the experience more captivating.
Daybreak on the boat is also an experience to remember. Reclining on the sun deck, watching the daylight seep into the harbour in its own pace was a serendipitous experience.
The meals served on the boat gave us literally a taste of the North Vietnamese cuisine. Well prepared and presented, they were probably the best meals on the trip.
Also worth visiting is the MeCung stalactite and stalagmite caves in bay. A really huge cave system, it is well maintained and well lit, which makes it easier to visit. The caves take tens of millions of years to form and very few around the world are as well maintained. Take it slow and easy. Walk through the caves at your own pace and enjoy the formations which are created by the whims of nature. This is one experience that will not be easily replicated elsewhere. So, we slowed down and absorbed the different formations and shapes with all our senses.
Back in Hanoi, walking or taking a Cyclo tour are the best options to see the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter, with its narrow lanes, plethora of shops and roadside eateries is popular with tourists and locals alike. On a weekend, the area around HoanKiem lake becomes a walking street and comes alive with people thronging the area to enjoy food, music or to chill out. Impromptu street performances and dances let the locals and tourists mingle and get a taste of the local life.
And then I come back to food (will keep harping on the subject from time to time). The street food scene in Hanoi would gladden the hearts of any foodie willing to experiment with food. The food street in Old quarter becomes a pedestrian road on weekend evenings and delightful options are there to savour, sitting on the small seats on the side of the road.
And then there is the famous egg-coffee of Hanoi. In this coffee, the milk is replaced by egg white and is a delightful concoction. The egg provides a smooth character to an otherwise strong coffee, making it more palatable.
Hanoi, devastated during the war, has managed to rebuild itself nicely and today few, if any, scars remain. What you see is a vibrant rapidly growing city, hugely benefited from the opening of the economy.
Our next port of call was Hoi An. We landed at Danang Airport (from Hanoi). Danang is a vibrant port in central Vietnam known for its beaches. The city was developed as a port by the French and is a staging area to visit the marble mountains as well as Hoi An City (a 40 minute drive).
Hoi An, a small historic town of Champa people, was an established trading port on the Vietnamese coast in the 18th century. It was favourite of Chinese and Japanese traders and had Portuguese, Dutch and Indian settlers as well. Some regarded it as the best trading destination in whole of Asia. After the demise of the Nguyen empire, Danang emerged as the trading hub of the French empire in Indo China and Hoi An was all but forgotten. This also meant that Hoi An emerged unscathed from the tumultuous two centuries and managed to preserve the old city.
The heart of Hoi An is a small ’old city’. The city was originally divided into two parts, with the Japanese Bridge across a small canal dividing the Japanese and the rest of the population (including the Chinese). The Japanese Bridge or Chua Cau is a covered wooden bridge, build in the 15th Century on a brick and mortar base. In the later years, a Buddhist temple was built on its side, and thus it became a bridge with a temple attached to it. The bridge is a prime example of great indigenous engineering skills of Japan. Interestingly, Japan continues to fund and support a lot of infrastructure in Vietnam, including the beautiful new cantilever bridge in Hanoi. So, the Japs could claim to have built the most modern and the most ancient bridge in Vietnam.
The bridge rekindled my interest in covered bridges. Some parts of Europe and America have covered bridges, which while not as well sculptured as the one at Hoi An, are much larger (See the famous movie – ’Bridges of Madison County’ to see an American specimen)
The historical area of Hoi An is a small area (about 2 sq. km at most) is an atmospheric and delightful town, where the architectural clock has stood still for three centuries. The old townhouses retain their old charm, painted in bright yellow. There are some of the old wooden houses where 7 to 8 generations of the family have lived continuously and have mostly remain unchanged over the last couple of centuries. One can buy a ticket and visit them. We choose to visit a couple of them.
One, the Japanese home, which is now converted to a museum is a double storied home, made completely of wood. The access to the building was uninterrupted and we could walk through the whole building. The architecture, while not grand (difficult to build a grand building in wood), was reasonably well engineered. The house was built around a small courtyard at the centre of the house, as is the custom is the area. Again, very well preserved, given the fact that this area is beset by typhoons very often (more of this later)
The second historic home that we visited was a living house, where the descendants of the original owners (the 8th generation) were currently living. The original people were probably of Chinese descent and the home was much more ornate that the Japanese one.
In Hoi An, just walking through the streets of the old city is an experience nonpareil. One can just keep walking through the maze of brightly colored buildings, soaking in the town where time has stood still. The sights and sounds of Hoi An undergoes a metamorphosis once the sun sets and the lanterns that dot the shops and the streets come to life. The historic city then acquires a fairy tale like hue, which is, unfortunately marred by the volume of tourists thronging the area. But then, there are always the coffee parlors to laze and watch the world go by. The Vietnamese coffee, though, is an acquired taste and is too strong for most purveyors of coffee.
I could have wandered endlessly through the old city for a few more days, but that was not to be.
One word of caution though, the shops all seem to sell the same stuff and looked like typical tourist traps.
Like all good things, our visit to Hoi An had to come to an end since South Vietnam was waiting for us.