Saigon to Hanoi, Vietnam - January, 2019

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January 21st 2019
Published: January 20th 2019
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Saigon to Hanoi, Vietnam

January 2019

Boarding a morning flight in Chang Mai, I’m more than ready to have a new country experience, and that begins when I touch down in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam a few hours later. First a short flight on VietJet Air (a low-cost local Vietnamese airline) out of Bangkok and then the insane chaos of immigration and customs. What a riot, hundreds of people jostling for the attention of far too few people manning the booths. The room was hot, humid and moving slow – I was never so happy to finally get into baggage claim and get the hell out of Dodge.

By the time I arrived at the Paragon Saigon Hotel it was after 4pm but within minutes, I was cranking up the a/c in my assigned room, checking out the Wifi signal and the English language channels on the TV – so far, so good. All I need now is a decent night’s sleep and I’m good to go – let the sightseeing begin.

A little bit of history:

The Vietnamese trace their roots back to the Red River Delta where farmers first cultivated rice. Millenniums of struggle against the Chinese then followed. Vietnam only became a united state in the 19th century, but quickly faced the ignominy of French colonialism and then the devastation of the American intervention. The nation has survived tempestuous times, but a strength of character has served it well. Today, Vietnam has benefited from a sustained period of development and increasing prosperity.

To get an idea of Vietnam’s turbulent history. all you must do is stroll through any town in the country and look at the street names. Then try it again somewhere else. You’ll soon get déjà vu. The same names occur again and again, reflecting the national heroes who, over the last 2000 years, have repelled a succession of foreign invaders. If the street borders a river, it’ll be called Bach Dang (after the battles of 938 and 1288); a principal boulevard will be Le Loi (the emperor who defeated the Chinese in 1427).

The Vietnamese, in the backyard of a giant neighbor, have first and foremost had to deal with China. They’ve been resisting Chinese domination from as far back as the 2nd century BC and had to endure a 1000-year occupation. The struggle to nationhood has been immense. In centuries past, the Khmers, the Mongols and Chams were all defeated. There was a humbling period of colonialism under the French. As recently as 1979 just after the cataclysmic horrors of the Vietnam War with the country on its knees, Vietnam took on an invading Chinese army – and sent them home in a matter of weeks. Inevitably all these invaders have left their mark. The Chinese brought Buddhism, Taoism and the principles of Confucianism (community above individual and a respect for education and family). The French introduced railways and bequeathed some grand architecture and fabulous cuisine. And though the Americans left a devastated nation, Vietnamese pride remained intact.

A short introduction:

A land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, the country is both exotic and compelling. Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims.

Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation's labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it's impossible to forget Vietnam's pivotal position close to the epicenter of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities' skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.

Thailand may contest the top culinary spot, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavors and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travelers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavors influencing the soups of the north, spices sparking up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typifying the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam's many regional markets.

If Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's largest city, then where is Saigon? Actually, the two are different names for the same city. Choosing what to call it can be a sensitive matter, mostly because it gives reference to what the city was called before the Vietnam War. Although as a foreign visitor you won't be held accountable, choosing which name to use could potentially show political leanings for Vietnamese people. Saigon was merged with the surrounding province in 1976 and renamed Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the reunification of north and south at the end of the Vietnam War. The name comes from the communist revolutionary leader credited with uniting the country. Despite official mandates, the label "Saigon" is shorter and is used more often in daily speech. The newest generation of Vietnamese youth growing up under the current government tends to use "Ho Chi Minh City" more often. Their teachers and textbooks are careful to use only the new name.

My first full day in country – it dawned bright, sunny, hot and humid – something that will become a “norm” over the coming days. A perfect morning for exploring what is arguably the most popular and well-known tourist attraction here: the Chu Chi Tunnels. Located approximately 35 miles outside of Saigon and open daily from 7am to 5pm, the Tunnels are part of a massive war museum, offering visitors a sneak-peek at the underground life of Vietnamese soldiers during times of conflict. If the tenacious spirit of the Vietnamese can be symbolized by a place, few sites are more symbolic than Chu Chi. At first glance there is scant evidence today of the fighting and bombing that convulsed the area during the period between 1960 and 1975. To see what went on, you have to dig deeper – underground. The site has over 80 miles of underground tunnels, with trapdoors, living areas, kitchens, storage facilities, an armory, hospitals, and command centers. After the war against the French, Vietnamese soldiers expanded the tunnels and included effective air filtration systems, which helped them survive the Chu Chi carpet-bombings conducted by American B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War. This was the site for several military campaigns and was the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968. Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Chu Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965, that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Chu Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese school children and Communist Party cadres.

The actual tour took about 2 hours, walking from place to place thru a heavily-wooded area, to view tunnel openings, ventilation systems and even some of the traps built to maim and kill the enemy. There were many tourist groups taking this tour at the same time I was there, including a horde of school kids (not my favorite people by a long shot). The heat was bad enough, but the humidity must have been in the mid 90% range causing rivets of sweat to erupt from every pore – I was soaked down to my undies in a matter of seconds. The final stop on this interesting tour, is the opportunity for anyone to actually enter one of the original tunnels and walk/crawl just a few yards (takes about 2-3 minutes total) to live the experience. No thanks, I’ll pass!

Driving back and watching the city in action, is Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the country forward with its pulsating energy. A chaotic whirl, the city breathes life and vitality into all who live here, and visitors cannot help but be hauled along for the ride. From the finest of hotels to the cheapest of guesthouses, the classiest of restaurants to the tastiest of street stalls, the choicest of boutiques to the scrum of the markets, Saigon is a city of energy and discovery. Wander through timeless alleys to incense-infused temples before negotiating chic designer malls beneath sleek 21st century skyscrapers. The ghosts of the past live on in buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but now the real beauty of the former Saigon’s urban collage is the seamless blending of these two worlds into one exciting mass.

The year was 1858 and after the French defeated Nguyen Dynasty forces in Danang, the French would soon spread their power across the entire region. During the late 1800s Saigon became the capital of the southern region of Cochinchina and quickly became a hub of colonial culture and commerce. Many buildings still remain from the years of occupation till 1954. Questionable progress continues to force many of the smaller and less exquisite buildings to disappear to rubble under the powerful strike of a wrecking ball, but many have also been restored to grandeur. Contrary to what some visitors may think, few people view them as reminders of repressive colonialism. As colonized Saigon in the 20th century, the French culture understandably has left various marks on the city, all of which remain places of interest to date.

Notre Dame Cathedral is arguably a representative of the religious influence the French made on Vietnam during their invasion. The cathedral was built to offer French soldiers a place for performing rituals. Built with bricks, glass and various other materials all brought over from France, this building has proved durable and has called for little reconstruction since its completion in 1880. There is a small garden out the front which seems to be where all the pigeons in Saigon regularly gather around the statue of Mary, (who caused traffic chaos in 2005 as she reportedly shed a tear down her cheek).

Outdated as handwritten letters are, they still mean a lot to the Saigonese, particularly those over 50. The Central Post Office was built by the French in 1860. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, father of the Eiffel Tower, the building instills a feeling of nostalgia in all locals who lived through the 20th century. Nowadays, it often acts as a reminder of those days and a perfect background for tourists. Once you move inside, the decorations are just as ornate as the façade and a huge arched roof curves down towards two large hand painted maps showing old Saigon city and the former south-eastern area of Indochina. These are originals. However the busy, energetic atmosphere was preserved and features such as the information desk can still be found where they were in the previous century.

Tourist tip: The church and the post office are adjacent to each other. Visit them independently before 8am for a lot more atmosphere.

Without previous knowledge of the place, anyone could easily mistake the Ho Chi Minh City Municipal Theatre (Saigon Opera House) building with an opera house in Paris because of its Gothic style. All materials were transported by plane from France and all external and internal features were designed by French architects as well. The high-quality sound and lighting systems provide 1800 viewers with spectacular performances, ranging from plays to Vietnamese cai luong and live performances of modern music.

Hotel Majestic Saigon overlooks the banks of the Saigon River, and wouldn’t look out of place if it were in downtown Paris. Built in 1925, it’s a six story, 5-star masterpiece, is one of the oldest hotels in Saigon and is as close as you can sleep to the busy river. The buildings most unique feature is the large arched roof that comes out from the hotel and over the sidewalk. Gold detailing adorns the entire building and individual balconies, while the large arched windows on the ground floor allow a good view (either in or out) of the grand lobby and dining area.

Made famous by the book and movie “The Quiet American”, the Hotel Continental has been the center of social and political discussions during darker days and was a place where journalists, correspondents, politicians and businessmen would regularly meet. Located beside the Municipal Theatre, it retains its original shape and charm and is the oldest hotel remaining in the city.

Another morning flight takes me northwards to Da Nang, which marks the halfway point between the capital in the north Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. It’s the fourth largest city in Vietnam. Apart from some shopping highlights and historical sights, the main reason for most travelers staying here is its proximity to the well-known My Khe Beach, Lang Co Beach, Hoi An and My Son. Lang Co Beach is lined with palm trees, the water of the nearby ocean crystal-clear and enticing, lapping onto white sand. It is a peninsula with a sparkling lagoon on one side, and the beach on the other. The area is fairly under-developed, although recent years have seen many new hotels opening. My Khe Beach is more developed, since it was a popular spot for American soldiers seeking R&R during the Vietnam-US War. Water sport activities here are in abundance, and it can get very crowded on weekends and holidays. Da Nang’s coastline stretches approximately 20 miles, renowned for calm, cool waters and also popular for fishing, water-skiing, diving, and yachting. Stroll along the Han riverfront and you'll find gleaming new modernist hotels, and apartments and restaurants are emerging. Spectacular bridges now span the river, and in the north of the city, the landmark new D-City is rising from the flatlands. Venture south and the entire Da Nang Beach strip is booming with hotel and resort developments. That said, the city itself has few conventional sightseeing spots, except for a very decent museum and a stunningly quirky bridge (or three). So for most travelers, a few days enjoying the city’s beaches, restaurants and nightlife is probably enough. Book an after-dark tour to see Da Nang at its shimmering neon-lit best. The city's street-food scene also deserves close investigation.

A little bit of history:

The city's origins date back to the ancient kingdom of Champa, established in 192 AD. The city of Indrapura at the site of the modern village of Dong Duong, about 31 miles from Da Nang, was the capital of Champa from about 875 to around 1000 AD. Also in the region of Da Nang was the ancient Cham city of Singhapura ("City of the Lion"), the location of which has been identified with an archeological site in the modern village of Tra Kieu and in the valley of My Son, where a number of ruined temples and towers can still be viewed.

In the latter half of the 10th century, the kings of Indrapura came into conflict with the Dai Viet, who were then based near modern day Hanoi. In 982, three ambassadors sent to Champa by the emperor of the Dai Viet were detained in Indrapura. This emperor then decided to go on the offensive, sacking Indrapura and killing the Cham King. As a result of these setbacks, the Cham eventually abandoned Indrapura around 1000 AD. The Dai Viet campaign against Champa continued into the late 11th century, when the Cham were forced to cede their three northern provinces. Soon afterwards, Vietnamese peasants began moving into the untilled former Cham lands, turning them into rice fields and moving relentlessly southward, delta by delta, along the narrow coastal plain. This southward expansion continued for several centuries, culminating in the annexation of most of the Cham territories by the end of the 15th century.

One of the first Europeans to visit Da Nang was Portuguese explorer António de Faria, who anchored in Da Nang in 1535. Faria was one of the first Westerners to write about the area and, through his influence, Portuguese ships began to call regularly at Hoi An which was then a much more important port than Da Nang.[Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, French and Spanish traders and missionaries regularly made landfall at Hoi An which is located just south of Da Nang. An American, John White, arrived at Da Nang on June 18, 1819 in the brig Franklin out of Salem, Massachusetts, and was advised that the country was recovering from devastating wars, and that what little produce there had already been promised. Conditions were such that trade could not be conducted, and subsequent missions of British East India Company agent John Crawford in 1823 and the two missions of Andrew Jackson’s agent, Edmund Roberts in 1833 and 1836, were unable to secure trade agreements. Following the edict of Emperor Minh Mang in 1835, prohibiting European vessels from making landfall or pursuing trade except at the Han Port, Da Nang quickly surpassed Hoi An becoming the largest commercial port in the central region.

Touching down in Da Nang just after lunch, the refreshing change of temperature when exiting the airport terminal was a delight – we had dropped at least 10 degrees of heat and maybe 15% of humidity since leaving Bangkok, and as I move further north, it should improve even more. My hotel for the next two nights is located about an hour away, in the ancient town of Hoi An, which is also a UNESCO listed site, since 1999. Hoi An is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site. Hoi An has no airport, and no train station. The only way to get there is by road. You can hire a taxi from Da Nang, and bus services are plentiful. Two days in Hoi An may seem like so little time that I’ll be missing out on a lot of sightseeing opportunities but, with the right planning, I will definitely make the most out of my short stay here. Hoi An houses old-town architecture, Buddhist shrines, French-colonial houses, art galleries and old canals, all of which are well worth seeing. Two great things about Hoi An’s Old Town are that it is small enough to get around on foot and the traffic is nowhere near as heavy as in bigger cities.

One of Vietnam's most iconic attractions, Hoi An's Japanese covered bridge dates back to the 18th century and is a beautiful historical piece of Japanese architecture. It is claimed that it was created by Japanese then living in Hoi An, as a way to reach the Chinese quarter across the water. The bridge was opened by Nguyen Phuc Chu Lord in 1719, who carved three Chinese symbols above the door in commemoration. The bridge also features the sculptures of two dogs and two monkeys representing the Chinese years in which many Japanese Emperors were born, along with the fact that the building of the bridge began in the year of the dog and was completed in the year of the monkey. The Japanese Covered Bridge underwent renovation work in 1986 which saw the restoration of the arch that was once flattened to make way for cars. Today, the bridge stands as a symbol of Hoi An and remains as aesthetically pleasing as it was when it first opened. On the north side of the bridge you'll discover a temple dedicated to the Taoist God of weather, Tran Vo Bac De. This is where locals will often pray to stave off any impending earthquakes. The monkey and dog animal statues guard the bridge at either end along with an ancient Chinese script at one end, listing all the benefactors who contributed to the restoration of the bridge. Crossing over the bridge you will find plenty of paintings for sale by artists living in the vicinity. The bridge is about 60’ long and simply, yet colorfully painted in red with a wooden pagoda roof. The Japanese Covered Bridge is very well preserved and features a roof meaning you can visit at any time of day regardless of heat or rain. The bridge is located at the west end of Tran Phu Street in Hoi An and is easily reached from the town center. There are no restrictions with regards to dress code and the bridge is always open.

I spent about two hours just walking the narrow streets, turning corners to discover more fascinating stores, restaurants and a temple or two for good measure. One discovery was the Museum of Folklore located in the oldest house in town - a two-story building with wooden floors and two facades. This place exhibits about 500 artifacts with 4 featured themes. This is one of the thematic museums that is special in Hoi An. Thanks to images, original artifacts and performed activities, this museum has shown the value of traditional culture, the creativity as well as the contributions of local residents in the process of construction and development here. It is expressed through sculptures, embossed wooden items, reliefs in porcelain, statues, decorative objects in bronze, terracotta – ink wash paintings, color paintings and lacquered boards.

As the sun began to set behind a grove of palm trees hundreds of gaily-colored lanterns started to glow, highlighting the structures along the canals, even the boats had neon signs in the shape of flowers – it was magical and the perfect opportunity for evening photographs. Just a few feet away from the Japanese Bridge is Citronella, a vegan-friendly restaurant on the banks of the poetic Thu Bon River, with an open-air patio. For the next hour, I dined on delicious, fresh Vietnamese food – don’t ask what the names were I can’t spell them, but I loved it all! Everything was served buffet-style on large platters. There was a fish dish, a meat dish, bok choy, sautéed veggies, soup, rice by the boatload and of course, fresh fruit to complete the marvelous meal. I strolled slowly back to the hotel giving my system a fighting chance to digest all this, while I took nighttime pictures of the historic area. It was still hot and very humid, but a cold shower and strong air conditioning in my room, fixed all that discomfort.

The following morning I sat down to a sumptuous breakfast buffet in the open-door patio next to the swimming pool. A deliciously-cool dawn around 70f with a brisk breeze blowing through the room, heralded another wonderful day of sightseeing in Hoi An. From a nearby pier, I boarded a tourist boat for an hour’s cruise of the famous Thu Bon River, and it was here I was able to photograph fishermen plying their trade as their ancestors have done for centuries. A stop at an island village for another hour completed my morning on the river and I was back at the pier close to lunchtime. Time to try something organic for a change. Tra Que Herb Village is located a couple of miles from the hotel and is named for the sweet-scented vegetables that spice up everyday meals served in the region. Thanks to the special condition of rich soil and water, the village has long been known for growing many kinds of vegetables and herbs which are grown without use of chemicals or fertilizers, but with a kind of algae found only in a lagoon in Tra Que. Thanks to this technique, Tra Que herbs and veggies are widely recognized for their quality, safety and especially outstanding taste and flavor. The organic techniques used by the village have created the traditional dishes of Hoi An like “Tam Huu” (local spring rolls), “Banh Xeo” (local pancakes) and their reputation has spread throughout the country. Very similar to last night’s dinner, lunch was served buffet-style totaling 7 courses in all – beginning with pancake appetizers, thru the meat, vegetable and fish platters and ending with fresh fruit. The wait staff kept bringing more food as these platters emptied and I finally had to call a halt to this feast – I was as stuffed as a Christmas goose! Probably one of the greatest lunches ever in my traveling career, and that’s saying a lot. The remainder of the day was spent relaxing on my hotel room balcony and just chilling out – no, I won’t be eating dinner tonight.

My short 2-day stay in Hoi An is at an end and its time to climb aboard the bus once more for a 4-hour drive northwards to the next “port of call” on my agenda, Hue. Departing the hotel immediately after breakfast, it was evident the weather was changing – dark storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and it was definitely a lot cooler than the previous couple of days. The journey north was back thru Da Nang with a short stop at My Khe Beach, which was first flung into the spotlight thanks to the China Beach television show highlighting US Vietnam War soldiers enjoying rest and play here. After the war, it became a well-known spot on the backpacker trail before heading upmarket to today's more glamorous resort scene. One more stop for photographs at the Golden Dragon Bridge spanning the Han River, which runs thru the city. Construction of the bridge began on July 19, 2009 and opened to traffic on March 29, 2013, on the 38th anniversary of the liberation of Da Nang City. It was built at the cost of almost $88 million US dollars and was designed by a New York base architectural company. The bridge was designed and built in the shape of a dragon and each weekend evening and on holidays, the dragon breathes fire and water to the delight of locals and visitors gathered at its base.

Leaving Hoi An in the dust, the scenery also changed drastically…. now we were driving on the Mandarin Road, considered to be the most scenic route in Vietnam with many beautiful landscapes, thru endless rice paddies on one side of the bus and soaring forest-covered mountains on the other. White mist clouds surrounded these mountain peaks like comfy scarves, twisting and turning thru the deep green pines. It started to rain lightly and continued for the duration of the drive into Hue, arriving in this last Imperial city around noon time. Hue is a city in central Vietnam that was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. It’s located on the banks of the Perfume River, just a few miles inland from the South China Sea and roughly 430 miles south of Hanoi. The major attraction is its vast, 19th century citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor's home; and a replica of the Royal Theater. The city was also the location of the Battle of Hue, which was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. The Imperial Enclosure is a citadel-within-a-citadel, housing the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces, and the main buildings of state within 18’ high walls. What’s left is only a fraction of the original – the enclosure was badly bombed during the French and American Wars, and only 20 of its 148 buildings survived. Hue was the capital city of Vietnam for approximately 150 years during feudal times (1802–1945), and the royal lifestyle and customs have had a significant impact on the characteristics of the people here - that impact can still be felt today. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access; the punishment for trespassing was death. Today little of this forbidden city remains, though reconstruction efforts are in progress to maintain it as a historic tourist attraction.

Hue also boasts some impressive tombs of former rulers of the Imperial City. One such edifice is located on the Chau Chu mountain. Here lies the 12th Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, Khai Dinh, and has been declared the most majestic imperial tomb (and last Imperial tomb) throughout Vietnam. It took 11 years to build (1920-1931), with many stories surrounding it. The most unusual one is the painting of 9 intricate dragons on the tomb ceiling. It was painted by Phan Vang Tanh, one of the most talented and famous artists of the time. However, the artist had an edgy character and had little regard for the king. It is told that when the king visited the unfinished tomb, everyone was expected to stop working to greet him, except Phan Vang Tanh who simply ignored him. Even worse, he was lying on a tall stool and painting with his feet. The king was so incensed at this disrespectful display, he wanted to behead the artist. However Tanh explained that if he had stopped to greet the king he would not have finished his painting. Moreover, he had to draw with his feet so he could view the entire picture from afar. Despite being so angry the king forgave him, but also stated that had he been able to find another painter whose talent matched Tanh’s, he would have executed him immediately. The painting of 9 intricate dragons still retains its beautiful colors after almost 90 years, and researchers are still examining the special protection coating the artist used.

Another tomb worth a few hours of sightseeing time is that of Tu Duc – this one was built in the record time of only 3 years from 1864–1867. Emperor Tu Duc enjoyed the longest reign of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, ruling from 1848-83. Although he had over a hundred wives and concubines, he was unable to father a son (possibly due to sterility after contracting smallpox), so he ended up writing his own epitaph on the deeds of his reign. He felt this was a bad omen, but the epitaph can still be found inscribed on the stele in the pavilion just to the east of his tomb. This stele is the largest of its type in Vietnam and had to be brought here from a quarry over 300 miles away--a trip that took four years. Tu Duc began planning his tomb long before his death in 1883. Once the major portions of the tomb complex were completed, he and his many wives moved in and remained in residence there for the rest of his life. After the Emperor's death, his adopted son Kien Phuc succeeded him as the next Nguyen Emperor, and as he died after only ruling for 7 months, a separate tomb was not established for him. Instead, he was laid to rest in a small corner on the grounds of Tu Duc's tomb. Between the tombs of Tu Duc and his adopted son is the tomb of Empress Le Thien Anh, Tu Duc's primary wife. Interestingly, despite the grandeur of the site and the amount of time Tu Duc spent here, he was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Hue. To keep the burial site secret, 200 laborers who attended the king’s burial were all beheaded. To date, the real tomb of Tu Duc remains lost for future generations to discover.

Another 2-night stay, this time at the Huong Giang Hotel Resort and Spa, located in the center of the city and on the banks of the Perfume River…. very appropriate, seeing as how the hotel’s name means “Perfume River” in Vietnamese. The place possesses a colonial feel with a combination of modern architecture on the exterior façade and Hue Royal Court decoration on the interior. The spacious rooms are exquisitely decorated and well-equipped with modern amenities, including free Wifi.

Another first for me in the early evening when I got to ride a cyclo for about an hour around the city, over the river and into the Citadel. These are 3-wheel bicycles with the single passenger sitting in front and the driver seated behind pedaling like mad – what a hoot! You are totally surrounded by gazillions of Vietnamese on their motorbikes coming within inches, and as lane lines are non-existent here, its sheer organized chaos. I had the time of my life, going eyeball to eyeball with the locals, and we were all grinning at each other like a bunch of reckless fools. I couldn’t take photographs fast enough recording life on the streets of Hue, and whenever we came to an intersection, my driver would be yelling for everyone to get the hell out of the way – in his native language naturally – I didn’t understand a word, but I quickly got the gist. We were up and down narrow side streets, thru a local market where everything under the sun was for sale, and along the Perfume River, until we passed under one of the Citadel’s archways and stopped in front of a restaurant where I was about to partake of an incredible dinner.

And what is my idea of an incredible dinner you ask? Well let me fill you in. Located inside this section of the Imperial Citadel complex is a family-run restaurant by the name of Y Thao Garden. The family runs the restaurant, which is actually their dining room, while they continue living in their original Garden House next door. This unique house you will only find in Hue, combining harmony between the traditional house and beautiful gardens. Prior or after dinner, you’re invited to view their living accommodations and admire the stunning collection of ceramic and rose wood furniture inside. But is really unusual and incredible, is that these family members are direct descendants of those who cooked for the Imperial Royal Family from 1802 to 1945, and now prepare and serve these identical dishes to their guests. Each course is authentic Hue cuisine using typical ingredients and served with stunning decoration and presentation. The set menu for this evening was: Spring Rolls on formed Peacock; Vegetable Soup; Hue Specialty Pancake; Banana Flower Salad; Grilled Chicken with Turtle-formed Fried Rice; Fresh Fruit and Fruit-formed Mung Bean Cake. A glass of delicious chilled white wine accompanied this multi-course feast, and I couldn’t find fault with any of it. My only negative comment would be that this restaurant is on “tour group itineraries”, so probably best to make dinner reservations when those groups haven’t descended on the city. It is a tad expensive, but worth every Dong in my opinion. Address: 3 Thach Han, Hue – Tel: 054.3523018

My time is Hue is over and it’s another long drive back to Danang Airport to journey to one of Vietnam’s most famous locations – Halong Bay – about 105 miles from Hanoi. The morning dawned cold, overcast and pouring down rain and other than the rain easing later in the day, not much changed. The hour-long direct flight to Hanoi was uneventful and shortly after 12 noon, I was on my way via bus to my final destination. The Royal Lotus Hotel in Halong City is a 16-story building in the center of town. The rooms are fabulous and at least twice the size of most Asian hotel rooms…. the bed is centered at the end of the king-size bed, with a living room setup behind it and facing the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. My room is on the 14th floor – you can imagine the views! Super modern and very spacious bathroom and as each room has individual routers, the Wifi is outstanding. I checked out the Wine and Dine Restaurant on the 4th floor for dinner but left unimpressed…..the food was nothing special and very similar to what I have had over the past couple of weeks.

A little bit of history:

Halong Bay is a beautiful natural wonder in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border, dotted with more than 3,000 limestone islands and islets covering an area of over 579 square miles. Towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay's scatter of islands, dotted with wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam's number one-tourism hub. For many tourists, this place is like something right out of a movie. The fact is that Halong Bay features a wide range of biodiversity, while the surrealistic scenery has indeed featured in endless movies. Halong translates as “where the dragon descends into the sea” and legend tells that this mystical seascape was created when a great mountain dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouging out valleys and crevasses. As the creature plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible. The geological explanation of karst erosion may be more prosaic but doesn't make this seascape any less poetic. In 2012, New 7 Wonders Foundation officially named Ha Long Bay as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the world.

Unfortunately my time here is extremely limited as the bus leaves to return to Hanoi in the early afternoon, but at least I have enough time to take a cruise around the bay and photograph it. Weather is a repeat of yesterday – cool, very cloudy and strong chances of rain – such is life in wintertime in northern Vietnam. Breakfast was strong Vietnamese coffee and a couple of pastries…. after last night’s dinner, a full meal this early simply isn’t warranted. Arriving at the dock just before 9am, I boarded the 2-deck structure which consists of a restaurant-style lower deck seating around 60 people in a pinch, and a sun deck up top. For the next couple of hours, we cruised in and out of the numerous islands dotted across the emerald-colored water of the bay. It was chilly with a fairly strong wind but seated behind the glass-enclosed lower deck, I was perfectly comfortable – it was only when I ventured outside to take photographs, that I felt the drop in temperature. This place is simply stunning, magazine photos can’t and don’t do it justice, you just have to be here to appreciate what a wondrous creation of nature this entire bay is. I watched as a hawk dropped from the heavens, extending its deadly talons and scooped up a large fish, before soaring off to its nest at the peak of a nearby limestone pinnacle. So many nests exist in the cracks and crannies of these mini islands, with the birds circling the peaks waiting for the opportunity to go fishing.

Many of the larger islands contain caves of varying sizes. Probably the most famous and most visited would be Sung Sot Cave on Bo Hon Island, which was allegedly first discovered by the French in 1901, who took it upon themselves to name it “Grotte des Surprises” or Surprising Cave, because of its ‘surprising’ beauty (although the name didn’t catch on until a good 40 years later). The cave welcomed its first visitors in 1993, a mere one year before Halong Bay would receive its first World Heritage site status from UNESCO.

From 520-470 million BC, Halong Bay was subject to intense tectonic plate movements, along with severe rainfall and flooding which caused the formation of underwater mountains. Millions of years on, the Halong Bay area began to experience a period of extreme heat and drought. The change in weather patterns is what eventually contributed to the emergence of the thick limestone formations that we can still see today. The steady erosion of these sea mountains eventually delivered to us the much-coveted caves of Halong Bay. The advancement of the sea and its effects on the formation of the caves can be seen on the ceilings, where a ripple-like pattern is often visible.

There’s a small dock at the bottom of Bo Hon Island, where tourists disembark and begin the trek up 100 or so steps to the mouth of this cave. The cave covers a staggering 107,639 square feet (that’s twice the size of the White House if that’s anything to go by). The cave is about 323’ high and sports a 1,640’ long passage (good news for the claustrophobics among us). The interior is separated into 2 caverns, the first of which is a small amphitheater-type space connected by a small passageway to the larger cavern next door, which is big enough to hold 1,000 people or more. The entire cave is covered with stalactites and stalagmites, which serve as endless material for the legend and ‘lore of the area. Among the 1,969 sunken limestone towers submerged in Halong Bay are a series of ancient caves and grottoes - many of which remained unexplored. To date, there are 59 caves listed on the official registry (this includes the most recent discovery of 23 ‘new’ caves), all of which have a special attachment to Halong Bay’s distinctive ecosystem. Sung Sot Cave has rightfully earned its near legendary status among visitors to the world-famous bay.

By 11:30am lunch was being prepared in the gallery and passengers were served a delicious 5-course meal starting with soup, thru the shrimp, fish and spring roll entrees, mounds of rice with a variety of sauces and finished off with fresh watermelon slices. There is something about dining onboard and watching this amazing bay drift passed the windows – it’s very, very special. Finally it was a slow, lazy motoring back to the dock where I disembarked around 1:30pm. Another couple of hours driving and I was checking into The Ann Hotel in central Hanoi City, for my final 3 nights in Vietnam.

Hanoi, located on the banks of the Red River, is one of the most ancient capitals in the world, where you will find well-preserved colonial buildings, ancient pagodas, and unique museums within the city center. A great place to explore on foot, this French-colonial city is also known for its delectable cuisine, vibrant nightlife, silks and handicrafts, as well as a multi-cultural community that’s made up of Chinese, French and Russian influences. Hanoi is packed with fascinating historical attractions, especially in the Old Quarter. The iconic Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the Old Quarter, is surrounded by shopping streets and great local eateries. Landmarks like Hanoi Opera House and Hoa Lo Prison are found in the French Quarter, along with high-end hotels and restaurants. To walk between the Old Quarter and French Quarter takes about 15 minutes, though crossing roads here can be challenging as traffic in Hanoi throughout the day is very chaotic. Many tourists having visited Hanoi, will probably tell you that it may be the most beautiful city in all of Asia - people have settled here along the Red River for a thousand years. Nestled along wooded boulevards among the city’s two dozen lakes, you will find architectural souvenirs left by all who conquered this great valley, from the Chinese who first came in the last millennium to the French, booted out in recent memory. Entering the city are poignant glimpses of modern Vietnamese life: farmers tending their fields, great rivers, modern highways that abruptly become bumpy roads. The drive is especially breathtaking at dusk when the roads fill with bicycles, and everything takes on the same deep colors as the modern paintings you see in Hanoi's galleries. Somehow the setting sun seems enormous here as it dips into the cornfields on the horizon. On the edge of the city, the road dissolves into a maze of winding, narrow, wooded lanes. You are surrounded by roadside artisans, shops and taverns, then by graceful villas and commuters on bicycles, cyclos and motorbikes. Modern buildings appear from nowhere, looking so out of place that it makes you wonder if they were dropped from the sky and just left where they came to rest. While you tell yourself that nothing as preposterous as Hanoi can be so beautiful, you cannot help but be dazzled.

A little bit of history:

From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political center of Vietnam, but was eclipsed by the Imperial City of Hue during the Nguyen Dynasty. In 1873 Hanoi was conquered by the French and from 1883 to 1945, the city was the administrative center of the colony of French Indochina. The French built a modern administrative city south of Old Hanoi, creating broad, perpendicular tree-lined avenues with an opera house, churches, public buildings, and luxury villas, but they also destroyed large parts of the city, shedding or reducing the size of lakes and canals, while also clearing out various imperial palaces and citadels.

From 1940 to 1945 Hanoi, as well as most of French Indochina and Southeast Asia, was occupied by the Japanese empire. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and on January 6, 1946, the city was declared the capital. Following the Vietnam War, it also became the capital of a reunified Vietnam in 1976. October 2010 officially marked 1,000 years since the establishment of Hanoi and to commemorate the occasion, a 4-mile long ceramic mosaic mural was created.

The Ann Hotel is an outstanding 4-star property, located on a tree-lined street in the heart of the city, within walking distances of many of Hanoi’s tourist attractions. The glass-enclosed bathroom (yes, it does have drop-down privacy blinds) is a delight with a rainfall showerhead ad strong water pressure. Wifi is very fast and stable…. the bed is super comfy, guaranteeing a decent sleep over the next 3 nights.

My first full day here was spent in exploration – top of my “must-see” list was the Opera House located at a downtown intersection where five main city roads meet. The building was completed in 1911 after 10 years of construction and opened on December 9, 1911. Its design is strongly influenced by the French architecture style from the 19th century. The front facade is very impressive with French neo-classical design shuttered windows, wrought iron balconies and tiled friezes. The interior design is even more impressive, with a T-shape white marble staircase centered with red carpet, crystal chandeliers, large wall mirrors, Corinthian columns and stunning dome covered in murals and reliefs. Consisting of three floors that include 589 velvet seats, with the second and third floors dedicated for private box seats. The building also has one meeting room called the “Mirror Room”, 18 make-up rooms, two rooms for voice training, and a library in the rear. In 1995, the building was restored in preparation for the 1997 summit of La Francophonie, which cost the government nearly 14 million US dollars. The building was acclaimed a Nation Relic, on its 100th birthday.

In the past, the theater solely hosted performances by western artists for French officials and wealthy Vietnamese. Nowadays, it is one of Hanoi’s cultural centers where art shows, concerts, dance performances and other events usually take place, with the scale ranging from national to international. The theater is the place where the Vietnamese Orchestra chooses to perform on a regular basis, occasionally along with famous artists from all over the world. In the past the place had invited the violinist Hilary Hahn, the cellist Yo-yo Ma, the pianist Wolfgang Glemser and the conductor Gudni Emilsson. The two remarkable classical concerts performed annually here are the Toyota Concert and the Hennessy Classical Concert, both of which are international-scale performances with renowned classical artists. Ticket prices vary depending on the scale of the events, but normally ranging from 100.000 VND to 500.000 VND ($4.31 to $21.54) and up to 2 million VND ($86.17) for a VIP seat, which is very reasonable by western standards.

Hoa Lo Prison was first used by French colonists for political prisons, and later by North Vietnam to house U.S. military personnel as prisoners during the Vietnam War. During this later period it was known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. The building was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains as a museum. The name Hoa Lo, commonly translated as "fiery furnace" or even "Hell's hole" also means "stove". The name originated from the street name pho Hoa Lo, due to the concentration of stores selling wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.

The prison was built by the French from 1886 –1901, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. They called it Maison Centrale – literally, Central House - which is still the designation of prisons for dangerous and/or long sentence detainees in France. It was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political ones agitating for independence who were often subject to torture and execution. A 1913 renovation expanded its capacity from 460 inmates to 600, but it was still often overcrowded. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people, with its inmates held in subhuman conditions - it had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and of the bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French.

The central urban location of the prison also became part of its early character. During the 1910s through 1930s, street peddlers made an occupation of passing outside messages in through the jail's windows and tossing tobacco and opium over the walls; letters and packets would be thrown out to the street in the opposite direction. Within the prison itself, communication and ideas circulated freely, with many of the future leading figures in Communist North Vietnam spending time here during the 1930s and 1940s.

From the beginning, U.S. POWs endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. The prison complex was sarcastically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American POWs, in reference to the well-known Hilton Hotel chain. There is some disagreement among the first group of POWs who coined the name, but pilot Bob Shumaker was the first to write it down, carving "Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton" on the handle of a pail. Beginning in early 1967, a new area of the prison was opened for incoming American POWs who dubbed it "Little Vegas", with its individual buildings and areas being named after Las Vegas Strip landmarks, such as "Golden Nugget", "Thunderbird", "Stardust", "Riviera", and the "Desert Inn". These names were chosen because many pilots had trained at Nellis Air Force Base, located in proximity to Las Vegas.

Only part of the prison exists today as a museum. The displays mainly show the prison during the French colonial period, including the guillotine room still with original equipment, and the quarters for male and female Vietnamese political prisoners. Exhibits related to the American prisoners include the interrogation room where many newly captured Americans were questioned (notorious among former prisoners as the "blue room") is now made up to look like a very comfortable, if spartan, barracks-style room. Displays in the room claim that Americans were treated well and not harmed (and even cite the nickname "Hanoi Hilton" as proof that inmates found the accommodations comparable to a hotel's). Propaganda in the museum includes pictures of American POWs playing chess, shooting pool, gardening, raising chickens, and receiving large fish and eggs for food. Needless to say, these claims are contested by former POW inmates.

In the tradition of most dictators (Lenin, Stalin and Mao for example), Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a monumental marble edifice, constructed from materials gathered from all over Vietnam between 1973 and 1975. It’s located in Ba Dinh Square and is one of the most visited attractions in Hanoi. Set deep in the bowels of the building in a glass sarcophagus, is the frail, pale body of Ho Chi Minh. This final resting place of the most iconic and popular leader of Vietnam, is known to his people as “Uncle Ho”. For visitors, a trip to Uncle Ho’s final resting place can be an extraordinary experience as it is not just an average attraction, it’s a part of a unique history. The mausoleum is usually closed from September 4th to November 4th while his embalmed body goes to Russia for regular maintenance. Started in 1973, the construction of the Mausoleum was modeled on Lenin's Mausoleum in Russia and was first open to the public in 1975. The granite building meant a great deal for many locals as it ensures that their beloved leader ‘lives on forever’.

The Mausoleum tears a page from the Communist leader personality cult handbook: embalm the venerable leader, place his body in a massive mausoleum in the middle of a gigantic square in a historic part of town. Ho's Mausoleum takes some inspiration from Lenin's in Moscow, with its dour, angular façade of gray granite. Above the portico, the words "Chu tich Ho Chi Minh" (President Ho Chi Minh) can be clearly seen chiseled into the pediment, which is supported by twenty stout granite-covered pillars. The rectangular mausoleum is 70 feet high and 135 feet wide, creating the impression of a massive bulk looming over Ba Dinh Square. This square is noteworthy as the site where President Ho declared the independence of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. The square is composed of 240 patches of grass divided by intersecting concrete pathways; visitors are heavily discouraged from walking on the grass. The door of the Mausoleum is guarded by armed honor guards, and a showy changing of the guard ceremony is performed mid-morning partly for the benefit of tourists. The Mausoleum is only open mornings, Tuesday thru Thursdays 7:30 to 10:30am, Saturdays and Sundays 7:30 to 11am. Admission is free, however donations are always accepted.

And what would Hanoi be without the world-famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre which has its roots in an art form that dates back to the 11th century. The tradition of water puppet theater stems from a time when rice paddy fields were flooded, and villagers would make entertainment by standing in the waist-deep water with puppets performing over the water. Using large rods to support the puppets, it appeared as if they were moving across the water with the puppeteers hidden behind a screen. This tradition is unique to North Vietnam but has recently found fame on stages all over the world, so it’s a rare treat to see the puppets perform in their original location at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Performances are accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music using drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes and cymbals. There are also authentic Vietnamese operatic songs telling the story that is being acted out by the puppets. Most of the shows recount Vietnamese folk tales and legends with topics including the celebration of the rice harvest depicted in a humorous fashion. Shows at this modern theatre are performed in a pool of water as the stage for the puppets. The puppets are controlled by no more than eight puppeteers hiding behind a bamboo screen. This renowned puppet show is considered to be one of the cultural highlights of Northern Vietnam dating back to a tradition that first started in the Red River Delta. Today’s performances usually include a number of short sketches rather than one long story, taking the audience on a journey of ancient village life, agricultural harvests and dances of mythical creatures. Most shows also feature the famous Legend of the Restored Sword of King Le which tells the tale of Hoan Kiem Lake and the giant tortoise. The live music plays an integral part of the show with singers often shouting words of encouragement to the puppets.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hanoi with tickets selling out well in advance, so it’s worth make reservations as soon as you arrive in town. It is also advisable to pay more to get closer to the action, as the theatre seats a few hundred people and the puppets are not that big. The theatre is modern and usually shows 17 short sketches within a one-hour performance. Aside from the general admission fee of VND 100,000 ($4.31), there's an additional camera or video fee if you wish to photograph or film the show. Opening hours are for individual shows scheduled at 3pm, 4:10pm, 5:20pm, 6:30pm and 8pm daily.

For my final day of sightseeing in Vietnam, I decided to go a little further afield and explore the countryside around Hanoi. An hour’s drive brought me to The Thay Pagoda which was built in the 11th century. Located at the foot of an arc-shaped limestone mountain in the delta of Sai Son commune, it is also known as Master Pagoda, and is situated in two villages namely Da Phuc and Thuy Khue. It is the charming natural scenery with the landscape very much like the islands in Halong Bay. The pagoda is associated with the name of Monk Tu Dao Hanh, who had great success in teaching and healing the locals, as well as organizing and establishing wrestling and water puppetry. Thay Pagoda with its historical and cultural values has become a major tourist attraction.

This ancient pagoda with its arched tiled-roofs was built with surprisingly spacious rooms in a very unique architectural style. It consists of 3 separate buildings including Ha (Lower) Pagoda, Trung (Middle) Pagoda and Thuong (Upper) Pagoda placed parallel to each other. It is one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam and has a large lake at its front door. The pagoda also includes a house in the middle of this lake, which is home to water puppet performances along with two small bridges, namely "Nhat Tien Kieu" (bridge welcoming the sun) overlooking Tam Phu Temple and "Nguyet Tien Kieu" (bridge welcoming the moon), both with pathways linking up to the mountain. Ha Pagoda is the place for ceremonies and offerings; Trung Pagoda is reserved for praying to Buddha and the biggest and largest is Thuong Pagoda, which houses three statues of Zen Master Tu Dao Hanh. I spent over an hour wandering around this incredible complex – its silence and serenity was noticeable, in spite of the many tourists on the grounds.

Having an authentic Vietnamese dinner seemed the best way to close out my time in southeast Asia, so for the last evening my choice was the Five Spices Restaurant. Located in an old French house built in 1923 in the heart of the city’s Old Quarter, it was established as a restaurant in 2010. They specialize in local dishes such as “Cha ca la Vong”, Pho Ga, Hanoi “Nem”, grilled beef wrapped in banana leaf, grilled pork with chili with lemongrass, and stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts. They hold regular cooking classes – mornings and afternoons – which include visiting local markets and purchasing all the fresh ingredients for the resulting meals eaten for lunch and dinner later on. Open every day for lunch from 10:30am to 2pm, and dinner from 5:30 to 9pm, contact information is 27 Hong Phuc, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, phone: (84) 024 371 53020. Vietnamese Dong, US Dollars and credit cards accepted.

Now It’s just a few hours before I board that Korean Airlines jet enroute to Seoul, as the first of the 3 legs which will bring me home late on Monday evening. It’s been a marvelous five weeks and I’ve had a ball, but all good things must come to an end. Where next you ask? Stay tuned and find out……cheers….

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