The Lunar New Year is a massive annual celebration here in Vietnam. Celebration of the New Year takes place roughly between the 25th – 5th January with weeks in advance of preparation for this colourful and joyful time of year. Time off work is given as holiday for people to return to their home towns and spend time with their families allowing them to invite their ancestors in spirit to be around them as they enter the New Year. I was lucky enough to have my Auntie fly out to visit me for a 12 day holiday and we had the most exciting trip planned ahead of us and even we did not realize just how magical these next few days would be. Since arriving into Vietnam I have been setting up a life in Hanoi and this trip gave me the opportunity to branch beyond the city and start to see Vietnam for its true beauties that lie deep in its countryside and authentic cultures.
There are two main things you’ll probably notice about the architecture in Hanoi. Firstly there are the foreign influences, particularly from the French colonial period. Secondly, many houses and buildings in Vietnam seem to be very tall and narrow. The reason for this is the way people are/were taxed on property – by the width of the front of the building. This is especially apparent in the Old Quarter of Hanoi (36 Pho Phuong) where people buy houses with very narrow frontages so that they minimise their tax burden while having a place to display their merchandise to passers by. These buildings are referred to as “tube houses” and often include courtyards partway through to improve air flow.
We started with a couple of days in Hanoi which I had not yet had the chance to really discover or see some of its local attractions and temples. In Hanoi there are a number of places to visit such the Hỏa Lò Prison which was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, though the gatehouse remains as a museum, including some of the Cells and dungeons with wax work figures replicating the way prisoners would have been kept- an eerie experience but a good place to visit if you like ‘horrible history!’
There is also The Hanoi Opera house – Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội which again reflects the French colonial influences and a traditional amphitheatre style with red velvet curtains. We watched an outstanding performance called Lang Toi – My Village, a cultural show that gave us a glimpse of authentic Vietnamese village life. Lifestyle of villagers backed with ancestral bamboo props, cirque, and stunning acrobats. We were amazed as this show was a one of a kind, world class entertainment that was given to us in the space of an hour. I seriously questioned whether these acrobats really had any bones in their bodies!
Their is also the National Museum of Vietnamese History – Viện Bảo tàng Lịch sử Việt Nam where its artefact collections have also been expanded to cover eastern arts and national history and now has over 200,000 exhibits displayed covering items from prehistory up to the 1947 revolution and founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, arranged in five major sections.
A city built between rivers on low land, there is a number of lakes in Hanoi which typically are swarmed with a variety of great restaurants and bars circulating them, giving people a calmer and more relaxed atmosphere whilst being able to eat and look over the lake which also glows throughout the night with many lights outlining the rim of the waters. My favourite lake to enjoy a more peaceful evening with good food and over the weekend some live music, is West Lake found in Ba Dinh District and in Vietnamese means Hồ Tây, one of Hanoi’s districts is named after the lake, Tây Hồ District. Inside a modern and dynamic city, there appears an antique quarter, the Hanoi’s Old Quarter – the represented eternal soul of the city. The top special historical vestige and sight-seeing of the capital, luring international visitors thanks to their mostly original state. Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Old Quarter has the original street layout and architecture of ‘old Hanoi’ with 36 Streets, each street holds merchants and households specializing in a particular trade, such as silk or jewelry. Local cuisine specialties as well as several clubs and bars can be found here also. A night market in the heart of the district opens for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.
Hanoi is also home to a number of Buddhist temples and pagodas, most of the more commonly known ones are found In the Old Quarter such as… Bach Ma Temple, Dong Huong Temple, Nam Huong Temple, Cau Dong Temple, Hoe Nhai Pagoda, Ba Da Pagoda, Ly Quoc Su Pagoda, Phu Ung Temple and Ngoc Son Temple. These may require a small entry fee to visit but the small donation is worth it as you have a chance to embrace some of the stunning traditional architecture and respectable Buddhist beliefs. The temples are also worth visiting after dark as the buildings really become alive with many colourful lights making them stand out from all around and is a great opportunity for pictures that show off Vietnams livelihood.
HA LONG BAY
So our real adventure began when we set off on a organised tour for 3 days from the city to the North East Islands of Ha Long Bay. 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, Ha Long Bay’s spectacular scatter of islands, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam’s number one tourism hub.
A 4 hour minibus ride from Hanoi was not so bad covering much countryside and towns along the way however the journey is not so comfortable as the roads have not been re-laid well and there for the constant potholes and high grounded road fillers means you are thrown around your seat for a majority of the journey. You are welcomed into the city by the sight of the monstrous Ferris wheel standing on the top of a mountain, reached via cable car and operated by ‘Sun World Ha Long Park’. When we reached the dock it doesn’t seem like much, until we were casted away in a small wooden motor-powered boat to arrive upon our traditional styled Junk Boat where we were given a cabin to stay in for the next 2 nights. The cabin was very comfortable and the meals that were including in the trip were extremely fulfilling – you will not go hungry on this trip!!
Day 1 – We were given the option between visiting a local floating fishing village or kayaking and swimming from one of the islands (an option for the 2nd day also) so we chose to visit the fishing village. We were taken to a floating decking station where small row boats pulled in to collect up to 6 passengers to tour around the floating houses and fishing farms. One tiny, petite middle-aged Vietnamese woman stood at the back of our boat with two paddles, rowing us all the way around a bundle of limestone mountains where we were able to see how these people lived with minimal facilities or belongings dedicating their lives to their business’s, the strength in these woman who must have circled this route for hours each day taking people sight seeing amazed me! Sadly this was probably for very little money. The last stop on the tour was at a pearl farm which again was all upon a floating deck, where they were taking pearls from Oysters, cleaning them and transforming it into jewellery which was displayed and sold there – for a very good price for genuine pearls! This trip was fascinating and covered some beautiful landscapes however as no one spoke English we were not able to learn much about the village other than to see. We would have liked to have been educated some more about what we were seeing and how these people lived as we passed by. On that evening we had a Vietnamese cooking class shown to us by our tour guide ‘Kent’ who was great fun! He showed us how to make a traditional Vietnamese dish called ‘Nem’ (similar to a spring roll). Nem consists of a mixture of vegetables such as onion and mushroom and also seasonings such as salt and garlic and any choice of meat… best with pork or even tofu for vegetarians and finally an egg is added, the mixture is then portioned into small table spoon sizes and rolled with in a sheet of rice paper before being fried and cooled ready to serve – it was delicious! With the clouds clearing through the evening we had the sun shine through in the late afternoon for the most beautiful sunset to appear laying itself across the water and reflecting off the sides of the limestone rocks piercing through the now still sea. Moments like that I am able to remove myself from everything going on around me for a second and take a minute to appreciate how lucky I have been to be there and see/feel these things.
Day 2 – We started the day early – 6:30am Tai Chi (A form of martial art) class upon the open deck which was a relaxing at to wake up as it was a slower form involving using the arms in a pushing motion and twisting the body, though we spent most the time trying to master moving from one position to the next gracefully! After some very gloomy, grey weather as this time of year is still Winter in Vietnam we finally had clear skies and the weather was beautiful! After living in the city with a constant air pollution of smog it was nice to see a bluebird sky and even at night a blanket of stars! This was the best day to get out of the sea and explore some of the islands beaches by Kayaking to a couple and soaking up the rays! We also kayaked to one of the caves which was very deep and meant we needed torches to see inside but had many different rock formations and crystalized surfaces. On this day we were able to spend time upon the boats sun deck and enjoy the sunshine taking some pictures of our natural surrounding beauty. During the evening we found great entertainment in joining in with the hosted activity and Vietnamese well known hobby – Karaoke! We took it in turns to sing our hearts out amongst the people we were travelling besides and it soon became a really funny and enjoyable evening after the first few songs once everybody had the chance to let their hair down a bit and shake off the initial embarrassment.
Day 3 – On the final day we only had the morning out on the boat before having to head back to the mainland and start the journey back Hanoi. So we visited one of the Islands famous caves, Thien Canh Son in Bai Tu Long Bay. This cave was more visited by tourists than the other we visited so was lit up inside once you entered through a narrow steep set of stone stairs. This cave was impressive with many shape formations inside and an opening deep on the other end where the view looking down was a lovely panoramic view of the bay, however being visited by most boats that morning their was a lot of people making the experience a little cramped between other sight seers. Later that day we headed back into the port where we prepared ourselves for another bumpy ride back to Hanoi for the night before our flight to the South of Vietnam the following day.
This 3 day trip around Ha Long Bay was a great opportunity to get out on the sea and embrace some of Vietnams incredible landscapes, its no wonder this place is one of the seven Natural wonders of the world. It was also a great place to learn new skills and meet new people from all over the world!
Our trip continues in my next post ‘The Holiday’ Da Nang – Hoi An, for the best part of this holiday yet!
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