Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wandering in Vietnam - Part 1 - The North

Ha Long Bay, in the North of Vietnam. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Chaotic Traffic, Hanoi.
We leave Cambodia, vowing to return again, soon. Siem Reap is directly connected to Vietnam and we take the Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport, where we are joined by Bitto and Dikky, Gurmeet’s sister and brother in law.

The hour long drive from the Airport gives us our first taste of Hanoi and Vietnam’s chaotic urban traffic.
Gurmeet and Bitoo at Fraser Suites.
Comfortably ensconced in ‘Fraser Suites’ near the west lake, we turn our attention to exploring what Hanoi has to offer.
Hanoi is often an asterisk on most tourists’ itineraries, as they hurry to and from the world famous UNESCO Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay. This is a mistake, as the city has a lot to offer. As the capital of Vietnam for almost a thousand years, Hanoi is considered one of the main cultural centres of Vietnam.

Hoan Kiem Lake.
Pavillion, Hong Kiem lake
A bustling active city of 2.6 million inhabitants, Hanoi has a lovely feel.
On one hand, elegantly laid out streets, buildings and cafes reflect its French legacy. On the other, the frenetic atmosphere of Old Hanoi’s markets makes for a stark contrast. Outlying areas are now giving way to modern Steel and Glass tall buildings, while many pockets still have an almost rural ambiance. The city has many lakes; the most famous are Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake and Halais Lake. There are many important temples along the banks or in the center of these lakes, Hoan Kiem is the most important and the West Lake the largest.

Morning Traffic Confusion, Hanoi.
Motorcycle 'Truck', Hanoi.
Vietnam is a ‘Young’
Country. Nowhere is it more evident than in its two major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City, the erstwhile Saigon. Legions of active young people throng these cities resulting in an exciting, happy and vital feel to the country. 
Most young people commute on the ubiquitous low powered mopeds, motorbikes and scooters. Umpteen thousands these are thrown into a seething mix of pedestrians, cyclists, man powered pedalos, pushcarts, cars, SUV’s, buses and trucks, every morning and evening, giving rise to amongst the most crowded and chaotic traffic conditions in the world.
Young Family on a Moped.
Recently, the Hanoi police suggested the banning of man powered cycle pedalos in order to reduce traffic chaos. A suggestion vigorously opposed by locals as well as the tourist trade, which offers pedalo tours of the city. 
Cycle Pedalo Tours, Hanoi.

'Pedestrian Moses Parting the Vehicle Waters'!.
Crossing a street on foot is not for the faint hearted. The best way to do it is to suspend your faculties and wade out into the traffic stream,  as the Vietnamese do. You feel a bit like Moses, when the ‘Vehicle Waters’ miraculously part and you make it to the other side.
Xe Om - 'Hug Hug Taxi'.

A unique  form of city public transport for individual locals is the motorcycle or moped taxi. As many as 3 to 4 or more Vietnamese climb on to one of these conveyances, uniquely if not imaginatively named "Xe ôm", the ‘Hug Hug Taxi’. The way they balance and cling on to each other is really something to watch.

Flower Shop, Old Quarter. 

The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake, is one of the great attractions of Hanoi. This old area of narrow streets and narrower houses is a happening place. Traditionally, each street had merchants and households specializing in a particular trade and the street names still reflect these specializations, although their original commercial character has changed.
Handicrafts Shop, Old Quarter.
The area is famous for its artisans and merchants, local cuisine specialities, as well as several clubs and bars. It is the night life center of Hanoi.
Many of the narrow houses have also been converted into small boutique hotels, some of which are excellent. It is a nice area to stay in, to imbibe the atmosphere of the place, as well as to be in the midst of the action.                                                                           
Night Scene, Old Quarter.

A night market (near Đồng Xuân market) in the heart of the district comes up on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.
Confucius Temple

Other interesting ancient places, worth a visit are: The Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), the site of the oldest university in Vietnam set up in 1010; One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột); Flag Tower of Hanoi (Cột cờ Hà Nội). A part of the 900 year old Hanoi Citadel can be viewed near Ba Dinh Square.
A number of French colonial buildings are also worth a ‘walk through’ or visit. The tree  lined boulevards with their  villas and mansions.  The Opera House,  The Saint Joseph Cathedral and The Presidential Palace are noteworthy.
Opera House, Hanoi.
Emperor Ly Thai To's Statue.

When tired of strolling around, you can always relax over coffee, in the beautiful, luxurious colonial building that is Hotel Metropole. 

Hanoi does not lack in entertainment options. A ‘must see’ for all visitors is the famous Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre which is absolutely absorbing. This great art and culture form is unique to Vietnam. There are at least two shows a day and advance booking is recommended.
Saint Joseph Cathedral. 
Water Puppet Show. 
Vietnamese Girls. Art from Vietnam. 
Hanoi has an abundance of modern and traditional theaters, cinemas, karaoke bars, dance clubs, bowling alleys; the Old Quarter is humming with activity into the early hours of the morning.

Hanoi has been named as one of the top 10 cities for shopping in Asia by Smart Travel Asia. Vietnam is famous for its exquisite lacquer work. Silk, is woven and crafted into various garments and articles of daily use, often beautifully embroidered by hand.
A Craftsman mixing Lacquer.

Pottery, too, is an ancient art and excellent examples of items, especially teapots, are widely available. 
Egg Shell Lacquer Vases. 

Hanoi offers the best of these handicrafts, at prices which are lower than those to be found in other Vietnamese cities. 

Hanoi is also the ‘Art Capital’ of Vietnam with a thriving art culture. The number of art galleries exhibiting Vietnamese art has dramatically increased in recent years, including excellent galleries such as "Nhat Huy" of Huynh Thong Nhat.
In the author’s opinion a few good Vietnamese paintings are a must in the shopping list of a discerning traveler, as they will delight you for years to come.

Hill Stream and Forests, Vietnam.
Moving out of Hanoi, the Northern Highlands are beautiful and offer vistas of Forests, Streams and Waterfalls. The mountains are populated by Tribal Highland people and their life and culture makes for interesting study.

Bull on a Bike, Vietnam.

The roads to the mountains are not in the best state, however, and travel is slow, with the ever present mopeds and motorcycles adding on to the congestion.
Tribal Village, Northern Highlands.
These vehicles are used by locals to transport people, goods or even livestock. As the picture shows, the SPCA is not very active in the Vietnamese Highlands and the Vietnamese are great improvisers.
Ha Long Port.

We move on to, what for most tourists, is the pièce de résistance of the North Vietnam tour. Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Limestone Crags in Ha Long Bay.

This Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes over 1500 islands and islets of limestone pillars, covered with vegetation. As many of the islands and islets are precipitous and offer no landing sites, these are uninhabited and relatively unaffected by human influence.

The elements have shaped these limestone islands into fantastic shapes and forms and many of the bigger ones have natural lakes and amazing limestone grottos. These form an ever changing, spectacular seascape, which is magical to cruise around in.

Ha Long Bay, 'Kissing Cousins' to the left.

We had hired a luxury 2 cabin junk for a 2 night 3 day cruise around the Bay. A short drive from Hanoi got us to Ha Long where are trusty junk ‘Dolphin’ awaited. We cast off, to lovely views of the port and bridges and leisurely cruise onwards into the Bay.

The Happy Cruise Party.
The day was spent viewing innumerable, curiously shaped islands, amongst them being ‘The Kissing Cousins’, the ‘Tea Kettle’. In the evening we moored at an island beach with many more cruise boats, most being far larger than our little ‘Dolphin’.
Evening Mooring.

The 'Tea Kettle'.
It was a curious lotus eating experience, cruising around with beautiful sea and island vistas all around. Just relaxing on the deck, drinking innumerable tall drinks and eating the tasty meals prepared by our on board chef, who catered to our whims, especially those of Bittoo, who was a vegetarian.
Lotus Eaters Relaxing!.

We visited many floating villages and many a time, boat people came around with offers of goods and fish, paddling their boats with great strength and precision over large distances. The protected calm waters are ideal for kayaking and we tried our hand at it, with no great expertise one might add. The level of our kayaking endeavors caused great merriment amongst the Dolphin’s crew, but we still managed to row through and view many sea caves.
The Boat Lady's Supermarket!.

Rock Grotto Formations.
The visits to various grottos were nice change, and the rock formations interesting, but the clambering around was steep and arduous, not really easy for unfit (fat) persons like the author.

A night moored off an island beach, along many other cruise boats, great festivities, and we set back next day, taking one last view of the lovely Bay and Islands.
Relaxed Night Mooring, Ha Long Bay.

It needs be mentioned here, that with rising tourism allied to the fact that Ha Long Bay is an enclosed body of water, pollution levels are rising and would soon affect the ecology of the area. The waters are not really clean. 
Ha Long Bay: The Debate, Tourism or Environment? 
The Vietnamese government and world environmental organizations are aware of the problem, but there is the eternal dichotomy of balancing the need for tourism dollars vis-a-vis protecting the environment.

Pho, North Vietnam Defined!.
No journey to any country can ever be complete without sampling its cuisine. North Vietnam especially Hanoi, has a rich food tradition and lay claim to many of Vietnam's most famous dishes, such as Phở, Chả Cá, Bánh Cuốn and Cốm.

North Vietnamese Vegetables.
North Vietnamese food reflects more of a Chinese influence than that of Central or South Vietnam. Soy sauce rarely appears in Vietnamese dishes except in the North. It has heartier dishes in line with the colder weather and uses lesser vegetables and herbs as compared to other regions. Black pepper is used more in preference to chillies. Of course the ubiquitous fermented fish sauce ‘Noc Mam’ is used universally, but in the North it is used unchanged mostly as a dipping sauce.
A Variety of North Vietnamese Dishes. Delicious!.

The most widely known North Vietnamese dish is Phở, a simple rice noodle soup made out of rich broth with vegetables and meat. Two varieties are Phở Bò, containing beef, and Phở Gà, containing chicken. Phở is served everywhere, from humble street stalls to gourmet restaurants. There is also a vegetarian version.
Phở has been nominated as one of the Top5 street foods in the world by global post.

Cha Ca - Fried Fish Morsels.
Other popular dishes are Bun Cha, grilled meat in broth with noodles, vegetables and herbs.Chả Cá, morsels of fried fish, with or without vegetables. 
Banh Coun - Spicy Pork Rolls.

Bánh Cuốn, spicy pork transparent spring rolls. Cốm Rang fried rice with vegetables or meat. Shell fish too is prepared very well with minimal seasoning to bring out its flavours.
Pepper Fried Crabs. To Die for!.
Vegetarians are well catered for and there are many tasty choices available, with fresh vegetables and 'mock meats' made out out Soy and Gluten.
Desserts are rice or Tapioca based and cakes too, make an appearance, in line with the French heritage.
Corn and Tapioca Pearls Dessert.

Hanoi also has special restaurants serving exotic Vietnamese food like worms, grubs, ant-eggs, and other exotic meat.
Worms in Lemon Leaf anyone?
Street Food in all over Vietnam is fresh, colourful, tasty, nutritious and inexpensive.
Many publications regularly rate Hanoi as one of the best cities in the world for street food.

Street Food, Hanoi. Fresh, Tasty and Great Value!.
Needless to say, there are many Mid Priced and High End restaurants, catering to all tastes and budgets, for those who do not like to slum it.
Vietnam grows some good coffee and the French occupation left a legacy of Cafes and Bistros.
Pavement Cafe. Fresh Coffee!. 

The bar scene in Hanoi is active. Worth special mention are the various microbreweries that can be found all over.
Microbrewery and Beer Hall. Affordable Binging!.

These range from small ones with some pavement seating to large beer halls in the Germanic tradition. The brews from these may vary in taste and quality, but some serve excellent varietal beers. They are reasonably priced, a night out on town, will not break the bank.
Imported liquor is a little expensive, but not prohibitively so. Vietnam also produces some 'interesting' wines.
Red Beer Microbrewery and Bar.

Cruises to Ha Long Bay from Singapore.

A word to tourists from India, a visit to Vietnam would involve transit through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, with the last two cities offering cheaper flights. Ho Chi Minh City is better served and probably would have better air fare deals. It is easy enough to enter Vietnam through Ho Chi Min City and take a reasonable Vietnam air flight to Hanoi.
There is of course the option of a Cruise Line voyage out of Singapore, which covers Ha Long Bay.

Happy Traveling!!.

It was time now to lave a last meal and drink in Hanoi, and vend our way to the old imperial capital city of Hue and then on to Ho Chi Minh City. That, however, shall be another episode.

A Limestone 'Sailing Schooner' Sails out of Ha Long Bay. Happy Cruising!.