There are three worthy treats in the north of Vietnam: one historical, another natural and the last unimaginable.
The Vietnamese do not like talking about the war for good reasons. One of those reasons, however, is the reality that North Vietnam and South Vietnam are still divided. Maybe not geographically but sociologically. It is somewhere around Vinh Linh in the Quang Tri Province – a town bordering what used to be the North Vietnamese side of the wartime demilitarised 17th Parallel – that, to this day, colloquial charm morphs into something more progressive. Charming and innocent ox-carts stacked high with hay lumber through early morning mists and emerge as rickety four-wheeled trucks laden with great bales of plastic. Swathes of padi fields dry up under an increasing amount of urban concrete. A farmer’s loose fitting cloth and iconic broad-rimmed straw hat give way to suit trousers and shirt – sometimes graced with a tie – spectacles and stylish, wax-held haircuts. Fleeting smiles are replaced with slightly more deadpan expressions.
From there on, the signs of modernity build until the crescendo – over 370 miles away via QL15 and QL1A – in Hanoi. It is here we reach the historic capital of Vietnam and an introduction to alternative methods of big-city urban planning – and it is big! Spreading over an area of 1,285 miles squared, almost twice the size of London and home to just over 7.5 million people, no city in South-East Asia truly compares to Hanoi’s bustling and hyperactive feel. On reflection, most visitors remember a never-ending sea of motorbikes and scooters with most clarity, a current to be crossed at one’s own risk. Yet now, in 2017, it is a city as deep as it is wide.
Shedding the grey industrial skin of the past, thanks to a recent boom in tech start-up entrepreneurs colonising the city’s outskirts, Hanoi has jumped at the cultural opportunities such a boom creates. The city’s attractions that are more antiquated now share tourist traffic with modern artisanal cultural demonstrations.
In the cool mornings, less stifled by daytime smog, the iconic Hoàn Kiếm Lake is surrounded by groups of young and old practicing their daily routine of Tai Chi. After which, attendees can be seen picking phones out of bags and checking the multitude of apps geared towards food, entertainment, public transport, weather and even job applications. Across the way, in the capital’s Old Quarter, life takes a congested turn behind ramparts that are centuries old. Mixed into this historic square kilometre are workshops for stone-carvers, furniture-makers and tinsmiths; merchandise ranging from pungent therapeutic herbs and fluttering prayer flags to ranks of Remy Martin and shiny-wrapped chocolates; fifteenth-century merchants’ houses otherwise found only in Hoi An; sacred sites – temples, pagodas, dinh and venerable banyan trees – hidden among the houses. Footloose travellers, lean and sun-kissed that only a life on the road can bring, will espouse exploring on foot. For the more laid-back visitor, new electric cars zigzag through its narrow streets and help pinpoint sites that are worth revisiting.
Yet in and amongst Hanoi’s cultural edifices that include St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, Hỏa Lò Prison (the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, where Senator John McCain was famously held captive), the 15th century Buddhist Quán Sứ Temple in stark contrast with Lenin Park and the Museum of Revolution, winds an undercurrent of contemporary art. When compared to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is usually considered disorganised, less economically prosperous and more difficult to live in, generally. However, many argue that Hanoi’s failure to grab at Western franchises and factories has fostered a unique spirit that nurtures artisanal creativity. They believe that art – both tangible and intangible – is far more intense in Hanoi than in Ho Chi Minh. Devoid of the order and structure that Ho Chi Minh’s art scene adheres to, Hanoi’s form of creative expression is more impromptu, experimental, critical and conceptual. For this reason, a visit to Hanoi would not be complete without going to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.
Nevertheless, if you find yourself chewing over the often-used platitude ‘a big city is a big city’, to the East of Hanoi lies a natural wonder unlike any other. Driving three and a half hours towards the Gulf of Tonkin, the smooth QL5B highway turns abruptly into the potholed DCT04, which stops suddenly at the water’s edge. Directly in front, out at sea, lying on the misty horizon, are the unmistakable blue mounds making up the 600 miles squared limestone islands of Ha Long Bay.
Booooooaaaaaannnngg! Cue James Bond musical revelry… And the image of 007 sailing into hostile waters on a traditional Chinese junk in Tomorrow Never Dies is not dissimilar to the fleet of silhouetted junks coming and going at sunrise or sunset in real life. Journeying on these flamboyant boats is as much a lure as the UNESCO World Heritage site itself. While relying on motorised propulsion nowadays, it is not hard to imagine the sail plumage of antiquity fanning above these iconic vessels. Made almost completely out of softwoods and bamboo, sitting in the deep shade of the seating deck, watching the emerald waters slip by underneath, almost feels like being in a moving, aristocratic wood panelled mansion.
Depending on the tour – a one day cruise, or three-day journey sleeping on the junk and barbequing on one of the thousands of beaches every day – there are a host of things to do. At regular stops, guests can go snorkelling, canoeing, diving or just merely enjoy the scenery. Guides add a bit of spice by pointing out rock formations dubiously representing… things: Stone Dog, Teapot, Toad, Fighting Cocks.
By far the most popular attraction – and therefore Ha Long Bay’s busiest – is the Thien Cung Cave. True to its moniker as ‘Heavenly Palace Cave’, this huge, 10,000 square meter limestone complex is a cavernous forest of stalagmites and stalactites (stalagmites grow from the ground – ground dwelling, like mites, is a good way to remember the difference) all fantastically illuminated by green, yellow, blue and pink lights hidden amongst the rock. For the hyper-imaginative – children and child adults – it is not far off being transported to your very own Wonderland, through its ‘rabbit hole’ entrance… a place where Lewis Carrol would have had a creative field day.
The first mistake of most travellers after they have enjoyed Ha Long Bay’s scenic grandeur is to leave it last on their itinerary. The second is to hop back to Hanoi and fly out. It is a mistake because the far north of Vietnam is filled with other experiences that culminate in the unimaginable. From Ha Long Bay, depending on how much time you leave, one can either skirt the country’s northern border westward – through the mountain provinces of Lang Son, Cao Bang, Ha Giang and Lao Cai – or, return to Hanoi and then dogleg north-west. Despite the route taken, the fabled destination is wine country; Sa Pa.
Digressing slightly, before we get to Vietnam’s tipple hill station, the route following Vietnam’s northern border needs mentioning. The northern border to China is home to one of Asia’s most stunning mountain ranges – the Annamite Range – hiding some of the most inspiring scenery in South-East Asia. If Ha Long Bay was a tad disappointing due to its busyness, why not stop off in Bai Tu Long National Park where similar collections of limestone karsts stand apart for its comparative lack of tourism. Further north, in the Province of Cao Bang, Ba Be National Park’s languid beauty is ripe for those expecting a more active exploration of Vietnam. Comprised of three interlocking lakes at its heart, Ba Be’s jungle, lake and mountain charm provides adventurers with hikes, kayaking and bicycling. Homestay accommodation border the lakes and, on those chilly mornings, there is no greater sight than thick white mist cascading down the mountain sides and over the surface of a mercury-still lake.
Following the border still, only now, instead of traveling north, one slowly bears to the west, Cao Bang Province holds some hidden treasures (some for good reason!): the breathtaking Ban Gioc Waterfalls; arguably Vietnam’s most impressive cave system, Nguom Ngao Cave; and, as a respite from the imposing monuments dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, Hang Pac Bo Cave where Ho Ch Minh first launched his revolution in 1941.
By the time you reach the picturesque Sa Pa hill station, tired and frayed after the arrogant minibus trip through the mountain roads, it would be wise to pick up a bottle of wine. Unlike the country’s grape wine grown in southern Da Lat, three types of wine are offered in Sa Pa. Rice harvested from stepped padi fields and cool water from the Po Sen stream is collected to make San Lung wine, either black/brown or white crystal in colour. This elixir, believed to be a gift from the Gods by the indigenous Dao, either gives the drinker limitless energy if taken in the morning or a bottomless appetite for conversation when drank at night. In Bac Ha, corn is boiled and fermented with hong my trees for 5-6 days to make a warming corn wine, which – apparently – makes the drinker passionate and impulsive! Lastly, Teo Meo wine – this made directly in Sa Pa – is made from the cat apples growing prolifically in the region resulting in a kaleidoscopic flavour profile of sweet and sour, acidic and bitter. For those familiar with Malaysia’s toddy, Teo Meo wine has similar characteristics; cloudy and pungent, capable of being blended – some would say mercifully – rather well with beer.
The north of Vietnam has a lot to offer. Its historic capital, natural wonders and indigenous culture all meet to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts, a synergistic destination unparalleled elsewhere in the region. Go north if you visit Vietnam, you will not be disappointed.