Vietnam is hot, sweaty, and above all else stunningly beautiful.
Our trip started in Hanoi, a city on the rise with a unique old town feel. The bridge that spans the river running through the city lights up the night sky as it changes colors in a dazzling way, and the old quarter, in which we stayed, is alive with fruit vendors, tourist bars, and local cafes.
After the rendezvous with our group in Hanoi we set out bright and early for the mountain town of Sapa. A little over 6 hours on the bus and some very picturesque views of the flatland to mountainous landscapes and we had arrived. Greeted by a welcoming party of the local residents and the rain of course, we trekked through the city to do a quick bag drop and were back out the door of the hotel to the Dragon Mountain garden! The garden lies roughly in the center city and is accessible by a literal maze of winding stairs and paths. Even though the winding trails had even the most navigationally sound person of the group puzzled we trekked on and found our way to the, rickety, lookout! What a view it was! The entire city could be seen from the point; to include the lake, track, and church below. In the surrounding areas clouds could be seen coming over the mountains and sinking into the valleys below, creating a picture perfect scene of grey on lush green with the sun peering through.
The hike to the top of Dragon Mountain was “civilized” compared to that of the next adventure. After a good night’s rest and some traditional pho for breakfast our crew set out on another hike but this time it was downhill. The downhill hike was very entertaining, the sights were beautiful, the company warm, and the mud, slick (since it had rained the past day). Luckily I made a friend who helped me through the mud! She was an 8 year old girl from one of the villages who was smart enough to wear rubber boots! I was lucky to have her help, as she held my hand down the slippery parts and guided me down the steep trails. Going down from the mountain town visiting smaller villages of the Vietnamese mountains and seeing and speaking with people who had never left these places was a unique experience that will be rivaled by few others. We had a delicious meal of traditional Vietnamese food at the second village including spring rolls, rice, and cabbage. The grand total of our hike down from Sapa was 12 kilometers, 1 fall, 1 lost pair of shoes, an incalculable amount of photos, and an immense amount of fun!!
From Sapa we caught an overnight train to Hanoi and from there a flight to Danang followed by a cab ride to Hue City.
Hue city was incredible and jam-packed full of sights and heat. Taking a group tour around the city our tour guide, Danny, showed us the Thien Mu Pagoda, or the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. This since converted Buddhist temple was built by an ancient king when the celestial lady foretold he would build the pagoda for the prosperity of the city. It stands today at the entrance of the Buddhist temple, which itself is a tranquil and beautifully constructed place.
Danny took our group down the river by dragon boat to the Forbidden City of the King.
The ornateness of the city is fascinating, the roofs are colour coded identifying which ones the king lives and works under and are topped with intricate carvings of dragons. Walking through the Forbidden City gave us a close look at what life was like for the kings and showed the small details that went into making the artifacts that were spread all around the city, such as the nine 2 ton urns that were decorated with images of what the kings best thought represented Vietnam.
From the Forbidden City our guide, Danny took us out to two tombs of former kings. Although I live in Egypt and have seen the impressive tombs of the Pharos, the tombs of the kings in Vietnam are something to be rivaled with. These tombs themselves were estates that the king would construct before his death to live and die peacefully in and were built in a beautiful place. The first of the tombs was modeled much like the Forbidden City complete with a courtyard that housed the stone statues of the grounds protectors, a manmade lake, a monumental marble tablet to account for the king’s story, and in the center of the grounds a hill. This hill, closed to the public, houses the king’s remains, and the location in the hill unknown to any living being, the king rests.
Before visiting the second tomb, we stopped for a delicious meal! We had chicken and mushroom soup, fried duck spring rolls, egg plant with ginger sauce, braised chicken with lemongrass and chili, red snapper fish with sweet and sour sauce, and steamed rice. Of course, to drink we also had fresh lemon juice which was one of my favourite parts of the trip! It is delicious and tastes like freshly squeezed lemonade.
The second tomb was much more vertical than the first tomb. Up 127 roasting hot black stone steps, the king lay in rest under a ceramic statue of himself. This tomb was incredible; the inside of the building was covered completely in shards of coloured ceramic. Said to have taken 11 years to build, due to the amount of foreign ceramics used, and due to the overwhelming detail they are organized in, this tomb is not only a testament to the king it holds but to the artist who brought it to reality.
Our group’s last stop on the trek through Vietnam was Ha Long Bay. Just a short plane ride from Danang to Hanoi followed by a comfortable 3 hour taxi ride to Ha Long, and we had arrived. One of the new 7 natural wonders of the world and even across the bay from the shore of our hotel’s beach it was easy to see why. The lime stone mountains are absolutely awe inspiring. But beauty had to wait. In-between our arrival to Ha Long and our tour of the bay, we elected to partake in some good old fashioned amusement park fun. A Ferris wheel towering over the city, an alpine slide twisting through the hills, and the Guinness book world record holder: tallest gondola tower in the world pulled out the carney side in all of us.
We also spent an afternoon at our hotels pool and private beach. While at the beach I was actually stung by a jellyfish which is very unpleasant!
The final attraction of the trip would prove to hold some of the most amazing sights. We were supposed to leave bright and early in the morning for the boat tour, however, because of rain, it was postponed till later that morning when the rain subsided. The rain in Vietnam was a result of a typhoon hitting China. The boat ride through Ha Long Bay was indescribable. Because it was off season, we were able to rend a two level tour boat for only four of us. The crew was wonderful, and we were served a delicious Vietnamese meal consisting of fish, shrimp, rice, spring rolls, squid salad, spinach, lemon chicken with vegetables and different dipping sauces.
All around our vessel the cliffs rose and fell into the water, covered in fresh green vegetation, these monoliths did nothing but humble us as passed through them. As our boat twisted and turned through this dreamlike world we caught glimpses of caves high in the cliffs and below the boat jellyfish the size of several pillowcases floated silently. The natural beauty of the bay was only enhanced when our boat docked at the largest cave in the bay. A short hike up, took us to the entrance of the cave that had three chambers averaging 25 meters in height. The limestone caves were carved in such a way but the ocean waters that could never be matched by an artist, although the colored ambient lighting did add a sense of wonder and beauty to the underground structures.
From the cave our boat took us on a short ride to the kayak lagoon. This lagoon only accessible by kayak was amazing. Again the limestone cliffs of the bay rose to incredible heights and they were littered with trees, vines, and monkeys. The monkeys would drop down to the water for a look at the kayakers, and then just as easily as they came down they would climb the wall in such a way that would put even the best rock climber to shame.
We then visited a pearl farm, where we learned about how they harvested pearls. An oyster makes pearls on its own by secreting nacre, or mother of pearl, around an irritant that gets into its shell. … At oyster farms, when the mollusks are large enough, a worker carefully pries open the shell and inserts a small bead, as well as a piece of membrane cut from another pearl oyster.
Our final stop on the boat cruise was the only island that could be climbed up to an observatory. This gazebo on top of the mountain truly gave us the best view of the bay. It was a sight that could only be described as a screensaver on a computer. The randomly placed mountains poking out of the ocean could only be truly enjoyed by sitting in silence while viewing them. The day was finished by a sunset cruise back to the docks. And as if it was even possible for this place to be more beautiful, it achieved this feat. Ahead of a rainstorm our boat trudged through the water towards the falling sun, giving the best view of the daylight through the openings of the clouds and the cracks of the peaks.
This view and moment will always be ingrained in my mind and is one of the many reasons this country is so special. The trip had concluded. The wallet was lighter but the bag of experiences is heavier and the wander lust continues as I leave this hot, wet, and prodigious country of Vietnam.