Immerse yourself in Vietnam’s mesmerising culture and momentous history on a journey from the bustling Hanoi in the north to the lively Ho Chi Minh City down south.
Lying on one of the sunbeds on the upper deck, sipping on a chilled glass of local Saigon lager, I closed my eyes and tried to soak up the moment. Balmy sea breeze gently stroked my hair, a faded golden light from a setting sun melted into the violet sky, and giant karsts casted shadows on the calm glistering waters, as we slowly drifted by them. It was one of those moments when you wish for the time to stand still, so you get to live it just a little bit longer. But the day was nearing its end, and we had to head back to the port.
I was on a luxury cruise to Bo Hon Island, gliding somewhere in the heart of Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Earlier that day, I had explored endelessly in the day — from enjoying a huge lunch spread of Vietnamese spring rolls, crab curry with sticky rice, braised chicken, and fresh-cut fruits onboard, exploring one of the sustainable floating pearl farms, to kayaking through the calm waters and hidden creeks in Luon Cave, and exploring the famous Hang Sung Sot grotto. The garishly-lit ‘Cave of Surprises’ is known for its cluttered serpentine ascents, stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and phallic rock formations.
Locals believe that Ha Long Bay’s location first appeared on a French marine map in the 19th century with the rumour of a water dragon being spotted by a young marine. Later, it turned out that was a giant sea snake! Hence the name ‘Ha Long’, or ‘the landing dragon’, or so I was told by my guide, Thang.
Surrounded by endless emerald waters, hidden grottos, towering limestone karsts, and over 1,600 islets and islands, the UNESCO-listed site is, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam’s number one-tourism hub. Once you are done exploring the grottos, tour the brightly-painted huts and little fish farms in Cua Van, one of the many floating villages here; meet the endangered white-headed langurs on Cat Ba Island; and take a day trip to Da Nang to walk down the Golden Bridge.
For luxury travellers in the know, Vietnam has long been one of Asia’s best value destinations to kick back and have truly immersive cultural experiences. Before I went off cruising the scatter of islands and their wave-eroded grottos, I, much like most travellers, started my maiden odyssey in the Southeast Asian country by visiting its beguiling capital Hanoi.
Crossing the bridge that snakes over the silt-laden waters of the Red River and its surrounding mangroves to reach mainland Hanoi from the Noi-Bai International Airport, I felt Hanoi was chaotic, but in its own interesting way. I was suddenly surrounded by swarms of mopeds and buzzing streets surging with local vendors selling everything from a hot bowl of pho to fresh flowers!
In Hanoi, you can enjoy luxury at little cost. With design styles varying from colonial French architecture to soaring new skyscrapers, good accommodation options are aplenty. I checked into Sofitel Legend Metropole, a historic luxury landmark since 1901. Right in the heart of the city, the strategic location of the property ensures that all the major attractions are merely a short walk away.
I spent next few days strolling through the Old Quarter marvelling at colonial architecture packed into narrow streets, taking cyclo rides around the sleepy Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and hopping from one cutesy café to another trying out everything from pho, banh mi sandwiches, to ca phe trung or the ‘egg coffee’. (try Café Giang for the bestcuppa against picture-perfect views).
The capital in the north seems to be racing to make up for time lost to the ravages of war. But do slow down to take in the contrasting beauty of the old and new, by ticking off all the non-negotiable sites that offer a glimpse into Vietnam’s history. Witness the ceremony of ‘changing of guards’ at Ho Chi Minh Museum, visit the UNESCO-listed Imperial Citadel of Thang Long for its grandeur, read the records of scholars and know about Chinese philosopher Confucius at the Temple of Literature, learn all about 54 different Vietnamese ethnic groups at Museum of Ethnology, and see wartime artillery at Vietnam Military Museum.
I ended my Hanoi experience with the world’s first bamboo circus at Hanoi Vietnam Tuong Theatre. Lang Toi–My Village depicts daily life in Vietnamese villages, wherein acrobats throw themselves in the air, musical scholars perform live with 20 folk instruments at once, elegant barefoot ladies walk on top of bamboo sticks with no support, and artists juggle props with mind-bending ease!
For the last leg of my Vietnamese trip, I flew down to the always-moving, high-on-energy Ho Chi Minh City. The pulsating energy of this chaotic whirl of a city is almost dizzying! Think an urban collage of soaring skyscrapers, art galleries, Instagrammable restaurants, and of course, luxury hotels. But then, there are also the ghosts of a gruesome past living on in buildings and sites that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil. You can choose which side of Ho Chi Minh City you wish to witness. I picked both.
I based myself at InterContinental Saigon, a lavish stay located in the city’s very centre, featuring three restaurants, an outdoor pool, and a relaxing spa. After spending a day just lazing around in luxury, I managed to pull myself away from the sheer comforts of my room, and headed out to check out the timeless alleys. Downtown Saigon, as most call it, is full of surprises — gleaming buildings, street-side impromptu concerts, chic designer stores, and glitzy bars hidden in corners where you can enjoy the nightlife of this city with a pulsating energy. I even made time to browse through the Ben Thanh Night Market to get a taste of smokey hot grills, chilled craft beer, and get crazy bargains on street fashion items and souvenirs.
On the very last day of my trip, I left early to cover the one-hour drive to reach Cu Chi Tunnels in Ben Duoc. A well-defined extensive network of underground tunnels, the site is a grim reminder of the US-Vietnam war. Communist forces first dug the tunnels in the late 1940s to primarily serve as a communication hub between villages and to evade the French army sweeps. Later, the same tunnels were gradually expanded when the US escalated its military presence in South Vietnam in the early 1960s.
Along with a dedicated guide, I walked through the woods, and saw everything from preserved missiles and command centres, to camouflaged booby traps, and underground rooms. Descending into the famed tunnel network and crawling through a long, dimly-lit 200-metre burrow, for the first-hand experience, had me gasping for air within 15 minutes! Mind you, this isn’t for you if you’re claustrophobic or panic easily.
If you still have the heart, relive the horrifying past and feel the agony of war victims at the War Remnants Museum back in the city. The haunting photos and memorabilia spoke to me about the resilience of the people and the gruesome consequences of a war. But I had my eyes fixated especially on The Terror of War, the Pulitzer-winning photograph of ‘Napalm Girl’, a nine-year-old Kim Phuc, screaming in pain and walking unclothed towards the camera after an airstrike. Taken by Nick Ut in 1972 in a suburb of Saigon, it had shook the world then, and it certainly shook me now.
Aboard another cruise, this time a riverboat dinner sailing trip to mark my last night in the ‘land of the Ascending Dragon’, I took in the panoramas of the city’s glittering skyline running along Saigon River. Vietnam is a story steeped in unexpected surprises and war lessons, I thought to self. And it will offer you exactly what you wish for.
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