Recounting some colorful and unforgettable experiences on my Vietnam vacation.
Exploring the French Façades and Night Markets of Hanoi
At first sight, I fell for the enigmatic pace of Hanoi, Vietnam’s storied capital. I arrived in the evening, and I immediately left my hotel to explore the city I had heard so much about, an area of lakes, parks, trees, and markets, where locals still convene at sidewalk cafes and barbershops amidst a busied pace of bicycle-filled boulevards and French mansions. Home to centuries-old architecture and a rich, colorful culture, I explored the maze of markets, temples, and street food vendors who make this city so bright.
With a fusion of Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French influence, Hanoi’s architecture is second to none. The French influence is most pronounced in the façades of Hanoi’s largest mansions, like the former Governor’s Residence (Presidential Palace), but One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist pagoda with a history steeped in folklore, is reflective of a completely different architecture, closely aligned with Vietnam’s traditional way of life.
Founded in 1070, I enjoyed visiting the Temple of Literature the most. The pagoda’s tombs were built for the temple’s first nuns and monks who reached the path of entitlement. Deserving of such burial rights due to their unyielding devotion, the tablets display the name of the monks, all they achieved in their life, and their date of death. As an excellent example of traditional Vietnamese architecture, the pagoda housed Vietnam’s first university which was established in 1076 to educate the sons of Mandarins. The temple, dedicated to Confucius, consists of five walled courtyards leading to a pavilion where stelae sit on the backs of giant turtles, symbolizing longevity and prosperity for all.
Learning of Vietnam’s history by day, I ventured to the markets by night, on my Vietnam vacation. Exploring an area full of loud music and people-packed streets, I threw myself into a chaotic fusion of food as I strolled the market to sample Hanoi’s most coveted street snacks. First, I tried boiled snails with fish sauce, a sea-oyster-based dish made with lemon grass and chili peppers, with a side of sliced potato chips on a kebab, known locally as khoai tay chien. I then tried corn stir-fried with shrimp, melon juice, grilled fish, and banh bao – buns stuffed with pork, vermicelli, and vegetables. For dessert, I feasted on banh da, a pancake with sesame on top, usually consumed with wine or beer.
With a full stomach and an unending appreciation for Hanoi, I ventured back to my hotel for a night of rest before departing to explore Ha Long Bay in the morning.
Sailing the Emerald Waters of the Ha Long Bay Archipelago
After exploring the bustling city of Hanoi, on my Vietnam vacation, I was shocked to see the inviting waters of Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an area often regarded as Vietnam’s eighth wonder of the world. The area contrasted immensely from the busy streets of Vietnam’s cities, and I found peace and solace in this isolated portion of the country, an area with vast natural beauty. Translating to Bay of Descending Dragons, Ha Long Bay resembles a land of fairytales, and I was mesmerized by the limestone cliffs, which rise sharply from the Gulf of Tonkin, standing resolute over a vast sea where emerald waters rest near rainforests of the 1,969-island archipelago.
Boarding a Bhaya Cruise, I explored the hidden alcoves and tucked-away portions of the islands, where rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking are plenty. I ventured to the largest islands of Gad Bah and Tuan Chau before exploring into the depths of Grotte des Island, a vast cavernous expanse where bats and other critters congregate amidst an impressive collection of stalactite and stalagmite formations. Although the islands vary greatly in size, all are equally magical, similar in both shape and structure. Outnumbering the islands are the limestone outcroppings, cliffs, arches, and coves, totally over 3,000, sprinkled throughout the sea and coastline of the archipelago.
During the mornings, I enjoyed my coffee at sunrise, reading as I watched the early morning hours float by. Local vendors paddled to our ship, selling everything from soda to candy. In the afternoon, I explored the natural landscape, kayaking the emerald sea to local townships and hiking to hidden grottoes tucked-away within the vast expanse of limestone cliffs. In the evenings, I practiced Tai Chi with our on-board practitioner, lulling myself into a peaceful state for the most comforting of evening rests.
I witnessed Ha Long Bay’s most inspiring vista at sunset: The limestone mountains turned black, as the sky turned to burnt rust, filling the horizon with a splash of yellow, contrasting starkly with the strong, stagnant mountains. Passing the evening on the boat’s top deck was effortless. I could have stayed forever, but my journey to Hoi An was still ahead.