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Vietnam April's Euphoria

From the North to the Central Highlands  -  Our first impression of Vietnam, as we arrived in one of its two most important cities, Hanoi, was that we had landed in a country besieged by thousands of motorcycles with reckless helmeted and masked drivers! 

Fortunately, this impression would quickly be contradicted as soon as we left the city!  The scenery, dominated with all the tones of green you can imagine, circled by mountains and crisscrossed by rivers, lakes and canals or bordered by the sea quickly made us forget about the masqued motorcyclists!  And we could finally see women wearing the traditional ao doi (white silk tunic) and the cone shaped hat!

The North

A night train, which was quite rudimentary but with clean berths and where you are offered slippers, takes us to Lao Cai, a small city located on the banks of the Red River, close to the Chinese border – so close you only have to cross a short bridge and you are there! 

This would be our starting point to visit this part of the country, mainly occupied by minority ethnic groups: the Thai, the Flower Hmong, the Black Hmong, the Red Daos or Tays. 

A small, winding road through mountains and hills takes us to the Can Cau Market. 

It is the biggest market in the northern region and known to be one of the most picturesque.  Every Saturday, it brings together the Flower Hmong, Vietnamese and Chinese, who are after all only 6 hours away by foot… not farther than many Hmong, who walk stunning distances, carrying loads of products they want to sell or exchange. 

It is an incredible and very colorful show, where you can find locally produced vegetables, fruits, woven and silk products, live animals (goats, cows, pigs, buffalo) and, as you may have guessed… innumerable “made in China” products.  It takes place in a fabulous surrounding of mountains, profound valleys and hills where terraces have been laid out to allow corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and rice to grow. 

At the foot of the Roof of Vietnam 

Sapa reminds us of a small French alpine village.  As a matter of fact, when the country was a French colony, the French elite elected Sapa as its favorite holiday destination and built many cottages in the area. 

Sapa looks upon the “Roof of Vietnam”, the Phan Si Pan, which culminates at 3,143 meters.  

Many hikers converge there for excursions through the magnificent scenery of valleys, mountains with their terraces: huge stairways of vegetables and rice. 

Sapa is also a village full of itinerant saleswomen, mostly coming from the two main minority groups of the region:  the Red Daos (with their black lacquered teeth) and the Black or Indigo Hmong. They sometimes walk more than 7 km to sell their handmade goods: scarves, handbags and very colorful woven clothes. Mostly old women and young girls, although not fluent in English or French, are however able to sustain basic conversation to try to establish a friendly relationship with you.  It is very difficult to resist their smile and small talk: “I have 7 children to feed or I have 7 brothers and sisters at home and I have to walk 4 hours to come here…”! 

A few hours of trekking in the valley takes us to Cat Cat, a Black Hmong village. With a few dozen houses built along rice terraces, it is named after the beautiful water cascade on the Muong Hoa River, which runs through the village.  Many other minority villages, all built amidst astounding scenery, can also be explored from Sapa. 

If a guide accompanies you, you will be able to visit a typical house where a family of 10 to 15 people live and store rice and corn, with a space dedicated to weaving and sewing. 

Should you have the time and the courage, a climb of Phan Si Pan, on top of which clouds and fog seem to be permanently hung, is possible and usually takes 2 to 3 days with nights at a mountain refuge.  Recommended for the reckless only! 

A page of history in Dien Bien Phu 

We arrive in Dien Bien Phu after a few hours on a winding, narrow and dusty road constructed through mountains and valleys and after a few stops in traditional Flower Hmong and Thai villages. 

Many Thai villages have been moved to allow the construction of dams on the Da and Na Rivers.  Modest wooden houses on stilts had been rebuilt in the traditional Thai style. Needless to say, our surprise was great when inside those houses we found the unexpected luxury of a large flat screen TV, a high-tech sound system and an inox fridge… the compensation they received from the Government must have been generous! 

Dien Bien is essentially a city crossed by two long avenues where there is a  concentration of hotels, banks, the post office and government buildings with their easily recognized yellow color.

The huge local market is worth a visit, and the War Museum as well. With its somewhat old-fashioned display, mostly of black and white photos, the museum does an excellent job making us realize the horror of the war and the disparity of the arms used by both sides – the look at the Viet-minh tanks effectively accomplishes that! 

The cemetery, where hundreds of unknown soldiers’ tombs are aligned through bonsai and sculptures, as well as the network of galleries and trenches on Éliane Hill, the site of the last battle, lost by the French in May 1954, are all part of the history lesson told by Dien Bien Phu.  As a final chapter, you can climb 333 stairs leading to the monumental Victory Monument.  The courageous and out-of-breath are rewarded with an unobstructed view upon the valley. 

Hanoi 

We went back to Hanoi for a visit to the famous Halong Bay.  We have already covered this part of the trip in another article.  

Halong Bay on land 

After Halong Bay, why not visit Tam Coc, known as the “Halong Bay on land”? 

Tam Coc is close to the city of Ninh Binh, capital of the region, which is considered the cradle of Vietnam, since it was the first state to free itself from the yoke of China. 

A few exquisite dynastic temples built in the memory of kings can be found in the surroundings. The Den Dinh, dedicated to the Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang and the Den Le, in memory of the Emperor Le Danh Hanh, a few meters away, with their sculpted columns adorned with mother-of-pearl, their lacquered royal statues and bas-reliefs of flowers and birds have kept their original shine and beauty. 

At Tam Coc, very different décor awaits us: karshtic rocky outcrops and caves.  On the river Nga Dong, which twists and turns for 3 km, our small bamboo boat sails with the current through caves and rocks, some crowned by a wig of trees, others completely bald, however no less spectacular with their rocky gray cliffs. 

And you have to see the very relaxed boatman rowing with their feet as though no effort is necessary! 

The Center  

Our itinerary into the center of the country starts with Hue. Considered as the intellectual and cultural heart of Vietnam, Hue is a necessary stopover.  It is a very charming city, with palaces, pagodas and tombs built on the banks of the Perfume River (Song Huong). 

A remarquable Citadel 

Once we enter one of the ten doors of the surrounding wall to the Citadel, a world of gold and purple welcomes us in the Imperial and the Forbidden cities.  Despite many traces of destruction due to both wars against the French and the Americans, a few palaces and pavilions remain remarkable. 

One has to stroll in the shaded alleys to discover the doors and gates sculpted with dragons and clouds, the roofs of the dynastic temples with their yellow and green porcelain tiles. 

The Pavilion of the Five Phoenix is stunning with its 100 columns; the Palace of the Supreme Harmony is very impressive with its 60 red and gold lacquered columns engraved with dragons, poems and traditional motifs and its golden throne; the Pavilion of the Splendor with its nine immense bronze urns is interesting… and its London telephone booth provokes smiles! 

In the surroundings of Hue, many royal tombs are also worth visiting, among which is the spectacular Khai Dinh. A real architectural gem, built in the middle of lush wilderness, it is a testament to the splendor of the royal dynasty and to the knowledge of the artisans and artists of the time. Its numerous columns, high ceiling and bas-reliefs covered with colored mosaics are true works of art.  Access to the building is via the Cour des Salutations, where stone mandarins, servants and elephants watch over on both sides of the court, impassive in their ceremonial dress. 

The Perfume River and its dragon boats 

“A long silk ribbon floating in the wind” is the way the Vietnamese describe the Perfume River.  Boarding a dragon boat, we will sail on this silk ribbon to go visit the

Thien Mu Pagoda (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady).  One must wander through the hilly gardens of bonsais and flowers to discover the pagoda with its four Buddha’s, the four towers encasing beautiful sculpted bronze bells and the tomb of the monk who set fire to himself in the sixties, calling for peace. 

Clouds and fog

The Mandarin road from Hue to Danang is spectacular with a crossing of the appropriately-named Col des Nuages (Clouds’ Pass). From the pass, the view on the turquoise waters of the Sea of China in the south, as well as on the Gulf of Tonkin in the north, is jaw dropping. 

Danang is a relatively modern city with fast-growing tourist infrastructure, mostly due to its beach and location exactly between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Located in a vast bay surrounded by fisherman’s villages and lagoons, its long beach – 70 km – is unfortunately being grabbed up by dozens of hotels and apartments under construction. 

The Cham Art Museum and the Marble Mountains are the main attractions of the city.  The Museum’s collection comprises of 300 original Cham works of art, mostly sandstone sculptures.    

The Marble Mountains (or Mountains of the Five Elements) are dedicated to water, fire, metal, earth and wood.  They are karstic mountains sculpted by runoff waters, such as those in Tam Coc, the Halong on land.  One can climb the highest one, dedicated to water, along a steep and long stairway of pink, blue and rose marble. At the top, pagodas and caves sheltering Buddha’s and goddesses offer a view on Danang and the four other mountains surrounded by dozens of workshops where marble is sculpted into statues and monuments. 

The charming Hoi An 

Hoi An, a small city with old fashioned charm, nestled on the Thu Bon River, shows very few traces of its past as an important commercial harbor and of the diversity of the exchanges and the influences the Japanese and Chinese had on Vietnamese culture. 

Classified as a Unesco cultural heritage site, its narrow pedestrian streets are bordered by houses, some shabby, some impeccable, sheltering clothing and shoe boutiques where modest artisans are bustling, cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. The city is entirely dedicated to tourism.  Would you like to buy a made to measure silk dress or suit?  You have found the place!

Historical sites have been identified in the city, and a tour itinerary, sometimes close to traffic – which our friends the motorcyclists seem to ignore – is suggested.  A tour itinerary pass must be bought at the beginning of the circuit and a map is provided. 

At the animated public market along the river you will be offered flowers, spices, fresh products and fish that still wiggle, a place for many discoveries to be made and in our opinion constitutes the heart of and most interesting site in Hoi An, with Cua Dai, the beautiful beach only 5 km away. 

Speaking of discovery… at the market, ladies will most likely be offered silk thread hair removal.  It’s fascinating to watch the women use a silk thread on your legs, eyebrows and even your whole face… with spectacular results.   They are very skillful and also experienced ... salesladies! It is best to set the price before beginning a whole treatment, as they will usually start with a pedicure at $1US and add on and on… until it becomes a rather expensive experience! 

Our hotel in Hoi An was located on the small island of Can Am, a 5 minute walk from the old city and the market and harbored a lovely herb and vegetable garden.  With its traditional architecture and charming bungalows – ask for 606 – the Pho Loi Riverside Hotel is most certainly one of the most charming in the city. 

You might be as lucky as I, and be able to enjoy one of the most beautiful moonlit nights of your life!  A huge orange ball reflects in a fragile fog on the tranquil waters of the river… a very romantic moment! 

Between Skanda and a few bombs 

Kingdom of the Champs, My Son, at the foot of a mountain bearing the same name, is a real gem of Cham architecture.  Built between the 7th and the 13th Centuries, the village is on a rich page of history, although many of its 70 original buildings have unfortunately collapsed, deteriorated or have been destroyed. 

My Son testifies to the grandeur and richness of the kingdom, expressed mostly in its religious art, as shown in the many statues and representations of Skanda and Ganesha.

The site, littered with columns, cornices and sections of walls, is also an eloquent reminder of the destruction brought about by American bombs.  A small museum displaying representations of phallic symbols in Cham art also shows a few American bombs… a very strong memento. 

A favorite: Nha Trang 

Laid against mountains and facing the sea, Nha Trang is built in a bay protecting many small lush islands.  Its long, magnificent beach, with a boardwalk planted with palm trees, is accessible to everyone.  The city has chosen to keep the beach public, allowing hotels to be built only on the other side of the avenue. 

It was late at night when we checked into the hotel and a lovely surprise was awaiting me in the morning when I opened my curtains: a stunning panorama of the bay, which I could see from new angles on the outdoor terrace, where breakfast was served. 

We take advantage of the cool morning to take a boat tour in the bay, visiting a few islands and picturesque fisherman’s villages.  One recommendation:  if you go to the aquarium – somewhat kitschy – where you can watch a few giant turtles, ask the guard to open up the gate, allowing you to walk through the village of Tri Nguyen.  It is very interesting to watch the day-to-day life: children at the kindergarten, caged roosters waiting for the next fight, fishermen repairing their fishing nets or small round boat (traditional to the region) and women preparing incense sticks and rice cakes. 

A visit to the most important pagodas of the city, the Long Son Pagoda, with its giant white Buddha and its immense reclining Buddha, its rich mosaics and well-preserved frescoes illustrating the life of Buddha, complete our morning. 

The afternoon will be dedicated to relaxation! Enjoying the warm waters and the beautiful sandy beach laid out over 7 km, with small clusters of beach chairs that can be rented for a few dollars a day, are found around bars and restaurants. 

The only “artificial” extravagance of this almost perfect scene are a few giant towers standing in the middle of the bay that support a cable car linking the city to islands where resorts and ecolodges are being built… tourism is required here! 

Com-Pho: Rice and noodles 

The traditional cuisine is varied, flavorful and made of fresh products. Everywhere you will see signs with Com – Pho: Com, for rice and Pho, for noodles.  It is the base of Vietnamese cuisine and they are made to fit every occasion. Served with pork, beef, goat, fish, snail, tofu or eel. With lettuce, coriander, corn, carrot, cabbage, spinach or morning glory. Variety and freshness is guaranteed, even in the small restaurants on the sidewalks. 

Bananas are omnipresent with melons, durians, dragon fruit, jackfruit, papayas and mangoes.  You have to try the tiny yellow mangoes, so delicious and juicy, with almost no pit. Fruits and vegetables are fresh and grown locally without any chemical products. 

Coffee is excellent, also grown on site, along with the tea and local beers (Hanoi, Tiger, and more.) 

A few culinary suggestions: 

  • Oc Hap La Gung (smails and shells) in Hanoi
  • Goat’s breast in Dinh Binh
  • Yellow noodles with pork and coriander in Hoi An
  • Ca Qua (fish crepe)
  • Cha Ca (fish stew)
  • Nem Nuong (pork crepe)
  • Rouo (rice or corn local alcohol) 

Silk, weaving, embroidery, mother-of-pearl and lacquer 

Indeed, the choice is immense!  Weaving: handbags and scarves; embroidered blouses or tablecloths; silk kimonos, nightgowns; wood sculptures encrusted with mother-of-pearl; ceramics; paintings and etchings (museums offer an excellent choice of original or limited print works at very reasonable prices) and finally, lacquered pieces. 

As far as lacquered pieces are concerned, if you want a good quality and a somewhat original piece, we would recommend you visit a workshop such as Huong Lacquerware & Silk, located at 438 Duong Buoi in Hanoi.  They offer exceptional pieces, true works of art. Artisans might put weeks or even months of patient work into a vase, picture, tray or candy box… they will also gladly demonstrate the many steps of creation for the lacquer pieces.  Fascinating! Did you know quails’ eggshells are used for lacquer? 

Affordable boutique hotels 

We chose to stay in three star hotels, with rates that varied from $45 to $60 per night.  Most of the time, we ended up in lovely hotels with impeccable service.  Some of them even offered Wi-Fi Internet connections in the rooms, and a few even supplied the computer in the room. 

A few recommended hotels: 

Budget 

Living in Vietnam is not expensive.  Prices are seldom displayed and one should not hesitate to negotiate. If displayed, prices in a tourist shop are often in American dollars and are usually different from the prices asked from a resident. 

It is easy to get a copious and delicious meal for $1 or $2 along a sidewalk or at a market stall and your bill will probably go up to $4 or $5, including the beer, in a more conventional restaurant. 

A bottle of water costs 10 000 VND, a beer 20 000 VND, as well as a substantial noodle soup (meal) in a boui-boui on the sidewalk. 

Practical Advice 

Money:  ATMs can be found everywhere, even in small cities, and we never experienced any problems with our debit cards.  Credit cards are accepted in large hotels, tourist restaurants and luxury boutiques.  You can usually pay either with dongs, the local currency or with American dollars, even at small boutiques on the street. One American collar is worth 22,000 dongs (VND).

Transportation: In the cities, mostly near public markets or tourists attractions, you will easily find xich lo or cyclo-pousses.  To watch them weave their way between hundreds of motorcycles, autos and buses is quite an unforgettable experience, especially in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. If you take a ride, wear a mask… and join the club of our masked motorcyclists! 

Beware of xe om or the Moto taxi which will cost you more than a regular taxi.  “Open Buses” are public, air-conditioned and very comfortable buses, going from city to city and tourist sites.  It is a very affordable way to travel that allows you to stop en route, visit a location and step on the next bus to continue your trip. 

Water:  Tap water is not potable and the Vietnamese boil the water before drinking or using it.  There should be no problem for you to accept a glass of water offered nicely with a smile.  Bottled water can be found everywhere.

To live and let live 

88 million people, mostly Buddhist, a majority of whom are less than 35 years old, 54 ethnic groups, more than 50 languages: this is Vietnam, this country which is spread over land 1,500 kilometers long. 

Vietnamese are very welcoming and cheerful even though most of them don’t speak French or English, even at tourist sites or hotels.   

Respect is one of the most important values in their Buddhist way of thinking and life:  they certainly apply that value to visitors.  It is a society that is still very traditional where respect for elders and ancestors is ever present and where a strong family unit survives with grand parents, parents, children and grand children all sharing the family house. 

It is a very clean country, dusty at times, mostly a result of road construction everywhere, however you will rarely see paper or garbage on the ground. 

In summary, we spent a month exploring the country from the north to the south and have kept unforgettable memories of its stunning scenery, of its cheerful people who show a remarkable openness to others, if not with words, at least with their cheerful smiles and gestures. 

To be continued… 

We will continue our trip towards the South in the May issue. 

Christiane Théberge 

 

Our thanks to Little Orient Travel, a travel agency in Hanoi that suggested and organized our itinerary, ground transportation, guides and hotels.

 


Near Can Cau


At the Can Cao market


Itinerant saleswomen in Sapa


Black Hmong in Cat Cat


A Thai house


Young Thai girl


Trenches on Eliane Hill in Dien Bien Phu


A boatman in Tam Coc


Tam Coc, the Halong on land


Pavilion of the Splendor, Hue


Mandarin at Khai Dinh Tomb, Hue


The Perfume River, Hue


Col des Nuages (Clouds' Pass)


At the Hoi An market


Thu Bon River, Hoi An


My Son


Fisherman's village in Nha Trang


Nha Trang's beach


Yellow and white noodles at the market 


Reclining Buddha - Nha Trang


Oysters for sale along the route


Sidewalk restaurant 


Black Hmong sewing 

Young Flower Hmong
A smile please...

Young Black Hmong


A Party billboard in Dien Bien Phu


One last wink... at 38 degrees!

 

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