Vietnam Travel - a Journey from Past to the presence

If Hanoi Capital City is the grand old dame of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City is the brash young floozy, then Halong Bay, Hue and Hoi An, Nha Trang are the alluring mistresses you encounter along the way. Here landscape, architecture, culture and cuisine work their seduction via subtle charms rather than sensory overload.

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The first stop on our north-south journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City was a side trip to the unchanging wonders of Halong Bay, where thousands of limestone outcrops rear from the placid aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The voyage, on a luxury sleep-aboard wooden junk and VIP 5-star-class Halong Bay Cruise, was an immediate immersion in oriental serenity as we glided calmly through the narrow channels past floating fishing villages where life is lived on the water as it has been for centuries

We then flew south to the country’s geographic and spiritual heart, Hue, the imperial capital from 1802 to 1945. And from its perch overlooking the Perfume river, the Art Deco comfort of La Résidence – the elegant former French colonial governor’s home-turned-hotel – provided a majestic base for exploration.

Just across the river is the vast citadel laid out by Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen dynasty that ruled Vietnam for nearly a century and a half until the abdication in 1945 of Bai Dai, the last sovereign.

As befitting a Confucian traditionalist, Gia Long looked to China for inspiration for his Imperial City, placing a Forbidden City for his court at the heart of its concentric walls.

Meandering through this inner sanctum, within thick walls still pockmarked by the vicious hand-to-hand fighting of the Vietnam War, offers an immediate and visceral crash course in two tumultuous centuries – from imperial via colonial to communist.

The monuments and architecture from that heyday suffered heavy damage during the war and were initially neglected by a communist regime intent on turning a collective back on the country’s “reactionary” past after 1975. But major restoration projects are now returning the site to former glories.

We passed white-clad Buddhist nuns offering incantations at a funeral, watched young boys fishing in its lakes with home-made rods and ate a roadside snack of quail eggs and beer, while we balanced like awkward giants on tiny plastic stools.

That evening we dined out in style on the local speciality Bánh Khoai (a crispy pancake of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts) with nuoc leo (a peanut sauce), Bún Bò (spicy beef noodle soup) and seafood with vegetables.

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Cuisine in Hue is served with formality and elegance, with a tradition of “royal cuisine” where as much emphasis is placed on the aesthetics of a dish’s colors and presentation as its contents and cooking. It certainly made for a formidable treat for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

The next day we struck out for the elaborate royal mausoleums that the emperors built for themselves among the low hills south of town. Our reward for toiling through the heat on bicycles was some glorious snapshots of rural life – as well as the final imperial resting places themselves.

At the top of one notably arduous ascent, I caught my breath next to two teenage boys who were busily texting from their mobiles as they awaited customers for the recently butchered hunks of deer seeping blood on to the table in front of them.

If that image illustrated how the country’s young are as enthusiastic about technology as their peers elsewhere, then the timelessness of Vietnam was etched into the wrinkles on the face of the birdlike old woman dozing beneath her conical hat in a hammock next to a roadside snack shop in front of a glorious green vista of paddy fields.

It was amid this unchanging rural setting that the Nguyen kings built their mausoleums of temples, gardens, stelae and tombs. We happily lost ourselves in various sites before bobbling along rutted routes back to town where, enchanted but exhausted, we revitalized our saddle-sore bodies at

La Résidence with a retreat to the spa, a splash in the pool and cocktails at the bar.

Reluctantly prising ourselves from the hotel’s attractions the next morning, we made our way to Hue railway station to await the Reunification Express that snakes – at a speed that hardly merits the word “express” – from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in anywhere from 30 to 40 hours.

We opted for the three-hour stretch from Hue to the commercial hub of Danang, en route to Hoi An. A young man explained to us in English how much he loathed the communist regime, without bothering to drop his voice, even as two seats away a couple of uniformed army officers stared emotionlessly out the window. They were clearly unaware of his observations and would probably have cared little even if they’d heard.

We rattled past immense forests and mountains plunging to tiny beach-lined bays and sleepy fishing villages. But for passengers who had seen this all before, the focus of attention was the food vendor, as she negotiated bags and legs to push a cart piled high with grilled chicken and sun-dried squid through the carriage.

The bustling modernity of Danang holds little interest unless you want to see close up how wholeheartedly the country’s rulers have marched from Marx to Mammon. But we were heading for the slow-paced charms and architectural heritage of Hoi An, a

30-minute drive south that took us past the shimmering white sand expanse of China Beach, where the first US Marines waded ashore in 1965 and where luxury all-inclusive resorts and golf courses are now springing up with alacrity.

While Hue still carries the aloofness of its imperial roots and its northern reserve, the historic trading entrepôt of Hoi An feels like the start of the more freewheeling south. No need for a bicycle here – the old town is a grid of just a few streets packed with wonderfully preserved 200-year-old Chinese merchants’ homes and shop houses converted into art galleries, antique stores and tailors.

A few miles away, there is the chance to take a break from the sights and soak up the sun on the same glorious white-sand beach that runs down the coast from Danang. And at night, the town assumes a magical air, thanks to the lines of colorful illuminated lanterns that are strung across the streets, and the restaurants along the river come alive.

The next day, we ventured inland to My Son and its evocative clusters of ruined Hindu temples, built to worship the god Shiva by the Cham kings between the seventh and 13th centuries, but then lost to the jungle when their dynasty collapsed.

Yet even as we enjoyed the Indiana Jones atmosphere of the Unesco World Heritage Site, what was just as striking was that the relics of that ancient civilization had survived Vietnam’s recent violent upheavals at all. For the Vietcong used the site as a refuge during the war and, as the gaping craters illustrate, US commanders unleashed a pounding by B52 bombers to dislodge them.

From Hoi An, we headed south via the beaches of Nha Trang to the bustle, chaos and energy of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

Our arrival in Hanoi and departure from Ho Chi Minh City book-ended the trip with its own memorable sights, colours and experiences. But it was in exploring the narrow, central heartland of this long snaking land that Vietnam had most magically woven its spell.

WHAT TO AVOID

- You should ask for Price before touching or using anything. Do not sitting in any restaurants in the Ha Long Bay or Hanoi without bargaining ( Mostly in all small-medium size restaurants or some street stalls). Search on Google.com before buying or staying in any hotels in Hanoi. You should get their contact and possible call the receptionist before arrival of half an hour. some travel forums are for comments, advisors...such as Tripadvisor, viator...help that.

- Do not walking too late on the Hanoi Old Quarter ( Usually the City Curfews around 12pm. But in Saigon City at the First District like De Tham street, Pham Ngu Lao street are opened and seem tobe no Curfews) 

- You can book tour through Vietnam or Indochina Tours such as the following : Ha Long Bay Tours, Hanoi Tours, Nha Trang tour, Nha Trang Resorts or Ho Chi Minh - Saigon Tours, Vietnam Tours. Halong Bay 01 full day or Ha Long Bay- Hanoi trip...Vietnam Package Tours, Luxury Vietnam Travel in some of popular Travel Agencies or Tour operators LVP Travel, Luxury Vietnam Travel online LVP. one of the best Tour operators in Vietnam.

-You can pay by Cash or Credit Card when booking Vietnam Tours or spending meal, expense..in Vietnam Country..

- Pick pocket and robbery, lost your packages, wallet...when traveling. So take Care of all your precious propertie in the Safe box in your hotel or kept in the Receptionist at hotel where you stay