My journey begins in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. A bustling city unlike any other, Hanoi is a compact city in northern Vietnam, made up of quarters.
The Old Quarter, where some of the oldest buildings can be found, is a warren of streets, each named after the trade that exists there.
Row upon row of shoes, hats and other goods are displayed alongside pavements full of food being prepared and eaten. To cross the roads, you walk into the path of the moving vehicles, a continuous flow of traffic from every direction which never stops. Bikes, scooters and bicycles full of fruit or other items for sale negotiate a path around you, tooting as they go, informing the other vehicles they are there. Organised chaos. Bikes laden with everything you can imagine go about their daily deliveries. This is the only place in the world that you will see this display of bikes laden with everything from crates of beer to dead pigs going to the market.
The centre of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake where the traditional Red Huc Bridge leads you to the Den Ngoc Son Temple, a delightful building sitting on its own island.
The water puppet theatre along the side of the lake is a beautiful old building with hand-painted walls and handmade silk lanterns hanging from the ceilings. The theatre holds one of the oldest shows in Vietnam. The entire cast are puppets with musicians dressed in traditional costumes, the stage set is a lake where the ancient life of the Vietnamese people is acted out by the beautiful handmade puppets all immersed in water. Fireworks light up the stage and dragons breath fire, golden carp fly through the air whilst fishermen try to capture them … a truly unique performance.
From Hanoi, I travelled to Sapa where the rice terraces dominate the hills; quite a different experience meeting the Humong women who still dress in their tribal clothing, handmade entirely of natural fibre they collect from the surrounding area then dye, spin, weave and embroider.
The trek takes you through the rice terraces where you are immersed in beauty. Water Buffalo stroll along the mud paths whilst wild boar can be seen snuffling in the undergrowth and butterflies displaying beautiful colours and markings settle on the orchids growing in the area.
The night is spent in a homestay, the home of a Humong family. Food is prepared on the fire, fish that has been caught that day in the stream at the bottom of the valley is cooked along with chickens from their grounds, herbs grown in the area are used to flavour the food, home-grown vegetables are steamed with the local rice – a banquet of delectable food all prepared in a small area outside on a fire laid on the floor.
Halong Bay, North East of Hanoi … this iconic bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is a bay of beauty with its numerous uninhabited islands. Fishing is still a large part of the lives of the villagers. At dawn you see the traditional methods still being used. Cruising through Halong Bay, the mist creates a mysterious vision. As the night draws in, the food is prepared in the galley. Again the freshness and flavours are exquisite. The evening draws to a close sitting on the upper deck looking out at the distant twinkling of lights from the other boats, laughter echoes around the bay.
The next day dawn emerges through the mist creating a feeling of calm and excitement as the islands appear bathed in the light of dawn; a graduation of shades reveal their true natural beauty.
The Perfume Pagoda, a trip from Hanoi, takes you to another part of history that is more recent. As you stop on the journey to the river you are faced with the reality of life. Here you find some of the child victims (now adult) of the Agent Orange used during the Vietnamese war.
The government has set up training schools to teach the young lesser-abled to integrate with society. Here they produce some of the best embroidery I have ever seen. They sit embroidering as the tourists watch. Some have no legs whilst others only one arm, but their happiness shines through. They say with pride they are giving something back to society.
When I arrive at the river, I transfer to a metal boat. A local village woman rows us along the perfume river for an hour. Lining the banks are graves beautifully decorated. These are the family members who lost their lives during the Tet offensive when the bombs destined for Hanoi were often dropped by the river killing the local fishermen and villagers. The tombs are a reminder of where they died. I asked if they have any animosity about the war and am told “no” as they never look back but look forward to a brighter future.
Arriving at the heavenly Kitchen Pagoda you see the beauty of the buildings that survived. New temple buildings have been erected next to the old, all equally as beautiful. A cable car takes you up to the Perfume Pagoda. The views across the Perfume mountains are breathtaking.
Descending the stone steps to the temple, incense fills the air and chanting from the Buddhist monks echoes around the cave, stalactites and stalagmites appear still in the process of forming. Young couples come here to ask Buddha to be granted a child. Further into the cave, the alter is laden with offerings of food and other items, incense sticks burn in large quantities filling the air and giving the Perfume Pagoda its name.
Hue, the former Imperial City and original capital, has the oldest history in Vietnam, dating back to 1802. Built by the Emperor Gia Long, the citadel was built using the rules of Chinese geomancy where each building is replicated on the opposing side, the gardens laid out in unison. Water gardens house the traditional water lilies and water hyacinths while beautiful topiary of animals and Pagodas mark the corners of the gardens.
The citadel was badly damaged during the Tet offensive in 1968 although, since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, most of the buildings have been renovated, the Champa sculptures replaced, exhibiting the exquisite workmanship in carved stone. The museum houses some of the handmade gold books that were part of the Emperor’s family possessions. These were made for members of the family as special gifts – poems and writings are engraved in Chinese characters on the pages.
The Royal tombs on the outskirts of the city are set in beautiful grounds. The tomb of the Emperor Minh Mang is spectacular. As you walk along the gardens you come to a courtyard lined with statues of elephants standing guard over the emperor. As you ascend the stone steps, you enter the first building, a temple used for prayers. The gardens are framed by the bright red wood of the temple; from here as you look into the distance, past the beautiful buildings, your eyes converge on the area where the emperor was laid to rest.
Vietnam is a fast-growing country with lovely-natured people. Well worth visiting.
By Dianne Watson