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Published: February 26th 2009
as seen from the Amazing Caves
We arrived in Noi Bai airport late on Wednesday evening and were met at arrivals by the driver from our hotel, who proceeded to take us on a kamikaze spin through the city streets into Hanoi's Old Quarter. Two minutes into the drive, the beeping started....
There are no lanes or traffic lights in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Surprisingly, there are pedestrian crossings, but these appear to be more road art rather than serving any actual purpose. When crossing the road, foreigners are advised to step off the pavement and proceed slowly and confidently towards the other side - the idea being that the endless stream of mopeds, cars & cyclos will weave around you. We found that the best way to see the madness in action was to find a rooftop bar, grab a cold beer and enjoy the pandemonium from a safe distance. From a height, it's like watching an ant pile; there seems to be some semblance of a system though and it's fascinating to watch!
Another hazard when walking around Hanoi's Old Quarter is that the pavements aren't meant for pedestrians. Rather, they're used to park mopeds & cyclos and also for a myriad of everyday
activities - such as eating dinner, selling bread loaves, cutting hair, tailoring clothes, getting pedicures etc. - anything goes on the pavements here! The Old Quarter is organised into streets containing shops that all specialise in one particular item. So, there's a street full of shoe shops, a street full of pet shops, a street full of tour agents etc.
In the heart of the Old Quarter is the Hoan Kiem Lake. Legend has it that in the mid-15th century, Heaven sent the king a sword which he successfully used to drive out the Chinese Ming dynasty from Vietnam. One day after the war, the king was out rowing in a boat on the lake when a golden tortoise leapt out of the water, grabbed the sword and disappeared back into the lake. Hence, the lake was named Hoan Kiem (meaning Lake of the Restored Sword). In the northern part of the lake, a temple was built in the 18th century which houses the remains of a giant tortoise that is believed to have come from the lake. There are still some rare turtles living in the lake, though none have been spotted in the last couple of years.
Also in the Old Quarter beside the Hoan Kiem lake is the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre. Water puppetry originated over 1000 years ago in the rice fields of northern Vietnam where farmers would make the puppets from wood and use the rice paddies as the stage. We watched a performance in the theatre which was accompanied by music played on traditional instruments. It was an interesting experience and very different. The puppets enacted scenes from life in the rice paddies and also national legends, such as the story of Hoan Kiem lake.
Our main reason for coming to Hanoi, however, was to visit Halong Bay which is a UNESCO world heritage site. So, having had our fill of Hanoi's traffic, we decided to book ourselves on a 3 day/2 night cruise departing on Friday morning. Once we reached the harbour at Halong City, we boarded our junk (named the Pinta) for lunch and then set sail around the stunning limestone scenery. During the afternoon, we visited the Amazing Caves and then dropped anchor for dinner. The following morning, we rose for an early breakfast at 7am and sailed to a nearby floating village. The houses in the
Local rowing sampan
at Tam Coc national park
village were tiny; consisting of only one room for an entire family. Most also had a fish farm and 1 or 2 dogs to keep guard. There was a school in the village that was funded by the French government. However, not many of the local children attended this school, as they either help their parents with the fish farm or sell goods to tourists on passing boats. The locals like to listen to loud music and while we were there, Kylie Minogue was blaring out from some loud speakers! While anchored at the floating village, we also kayaked around some of the nearby limestone formations and into some caves. The scenery was spectacular!
After kayaking, it was off to Cat Ba island where we did a 2 hour trek through the national park. The trek was tricky going - climbing up & down rocks through forest - but it was worth the effort. In a remote part of the national park, we passed through the park ranger's house and were met by an old man in a Vietnamese soldier's uniform. He had served in the war and had lost an eye. As reward for his service however, the
Leading to Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kiem Lake
government had given him some land on Cat Ba island where he now lived with his wife, rearing chickens and managing his fish farm.
Lunch on Saturday was amazing. We were dropped off on a little beach at the foot of a limestone karst in the middle of the Bay. The crew then served us lunch on the beach, carrying plates of food down a plank from the boat! Back on the boat later on that night, we were joined by some more travellers and the crew laid on a karaoke party. It wasn't the usual music videos on screen though, instead we had images of people in temples, shopping at markets and sailing in boats while belting out the lines of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"! Certainly not your average Valentine's Day :-)
The scenery on the way back to Hanoi was beautiful, as we passed through Danang countryside with its green rice paddies, water buffaloes, farmers in conical hats tilling the land and traditional ploughs with oxen. We also saw all kinds of everything being transported on mopeds - from 2 big pigs to a crate full of live chickens!
About 94km south of Hanoi
is Tam Coc national park. Tam Coc is known as "Halong Bay on Land", as it consists of huge rock formations rising up out of the rice paddies. A river flows through the limestone landscape, so the best way to appreciate the scenery is to take a sampan up the river which takes about 2 hours. The sampans are rowed by local women who have perfected the unusual technique of rowing with their feet in order to give their arms a rest! Along the way, the river also passes through three natural caves. Nearby, Hoa Lu is a former ancient capital of Vietnam (between the years 968-1010) and though not much of the city still survives, there are two temples from the period remaining. The Chinese influence can be felt very strongly in the temples here which contain drums, paper lanterns, dragon murals and emperor's clothing.
Our trip to Vietnam has been challenging and it seems as though everyone is out to make a buck. Westerners appear to be viewed as walking dollar signs - we were constantly harassed by people selling books, street vendors and cyclo drivers - and on more than one occasion the locals tried to
swindle us! However, the countryside and stunning scenery are extremely rewarding and for us, it was definitely worth the trip to Vietnam.
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