The country of Vietnam is long, in fact the coastline is more than 3,400km long. But geographically the country is rather narrow, with the Tonkin region in the north comprising the largest delta cum lowland area. Its existence had been fought over for well over two millennia, one of which when Vietnam was effectively part of dynastic rule of China.
Having endured the yoke of Chinese rule, Vietnam had carved out its own destiny only to be colonized by the French in the 19th century. And it had been an unfortunate century since that time as the country underwent occupation by the Japanese and lived through the carnage of the independence struggle against the French. This culminated in the long war that began in the 1960s and only concluded in 1975.
Today, Vietnam has re-emerged as a dynamic young growing economy with a young population eager to take their place in the world. The rest of world too has been granted opportunities to journey to the country and enjoy what is a unique blend of Vietnamese, Chinese and European influences. Imagine having croissants for breakfast that could be from Paris followed by a lunch of Phở, the local noodle.
So far, our sojourns had been limited to the north of the country. And nowhere had we started with our handprints than,
Capital and political center of the country. First thing that hits us when we got there is the traffic. Not having been here in the earliest years of the country opening up, it was difficult to compare. But if we extrapolated our experience from China, it must had been a phenomenal exponential increase in the road traffic.
Straddling the red river, Hanoi is said to be inhabited since 3000BC. In the ancient days before the rise of dynastic China, the region that is today south China and northern Vietnam were inhabited by a kinship of related peoples that still see connections in terms of the linguistic similarities. Because it served as capital for a very long period, the legacy of the various dynasties are left behind as relics and monuments for us to enjoy.
With Suan, we only stopped over for a day in the northern side of the city. But even then we saw aspects of life which contrasted between the new (booming skyscrapers in the background) and the old (folks fishing by the lake). Even in that corner of the city, we could find bakeries serving up fantastic bread from French legacy.
On the other hand, the old quarters of Hanoi was totally different. Bustling with people shopping or vendors hawking their wares, it was both chaotic and organized at the same time.
This contradiction stems from the fact that traffic weaves in the little roads and even smaller lanes adding to confusion as to which way to walk for the pedestrians on foot. The organized refer to the fact that there are streets where an entire trade (eg shoes and shoemakers) are located.
Finding authentic Vietnamese food was surprisingly challenging even in the old quarters, as the Vietnamese seem eager to learn, adapt and change. While there are still side street eateries, these appear to be a disappearing breed.
The former French quarters is a quieter but only a little less so. Many of the former colonial homes and buildings had been converted into hotels, shopping malls or restaurants. The city is rapidly changing. Today we still see lots of scooters, but it will not be surprising that this evolve into car traffic very quickly over the course of the next few years. Fortunately, there are still vestiges of a mostly unchanged Vietnam outside of the city. One such place was the inland Halong bay called,
About 90km south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is a springboard to the nearby karst formations that surround the village of Tam Coc. If you look up Wikitravel, they will say there is nothing to do in Ninh Binh, and we second that – it is just a dusty town.
Hopefully you would not have to stay there to explore the area.
We had obtained for ourselves a four nights’ stay in a resort in the mountains, well next to the mountains anyway. It was more of an experiment to exchange our timeshare with this affiliated one to see what is out here. And we spent the first two days lazing around.
However once we recharged our energy, it was time to get out to the sights. Do not be underawed by the old capital of Hoa Lu, for it was capital for the early dynasties though it is true not much have remained. However, if there is a must do – it is to visit Trang An with its many caves that are accessed by waterway. You might catch glimpses of wild goats roaming the hills!
Finally, if you have the religious fervor, make your way to the top of Bich Dong, the Jade grotto. Not a pagoda but a series of shrines built in honor of the Goddess of Mercy, it is a holy site for Vietnamese pilgrims.
The lazy bones in us did not rent the bicycle to go around on our own and that would had been an adventure in itself. Just need to watch out for the traffic and ducklings crossing!
For us there is a great many parts of Vietnam that is still up for exploring. Especially the central and southern end of the country. As the terminator said : “we’ll be back”.