Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and most beautiful of cities with winding tree lined streets in the old part of town, several lakes, traditional and colonial architecture and, most of all, the addictive smile and laughter of the Vietnamese people, make it one of my top Vietnam experiences.
Here you will see Vietnamese life taking place out on the streets right before your eyes, from families and friends gathering to eat, drink and socialise over coffee or a ‘Bia hơi’ the local brew, to people selling, buying and bargaining. All of this adds to the uniqueness of this city and your overall experience.
An unforgettable highlight for those who awake early is to make your way to Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the city for a real experience of how to start your day the ‘Vietnamese way’.
Here the locals come to take in their daily morning exercise routine before the city slowly starts to wake up and the traffic starts to flow. It is a sight like no other as you watch locals join in to form a long congo-line where they vigorously massage each other’s shoulders, heads and backs or see a group of pyjama clad women practicing the elegant martial art of Tai Chi using swords and large red fans.
Here you will see shirtless men weight lifting with their own home-made dumbbells, elder ladies working out to their own remarkable form of yoga/aerobics/stretching/hip shaking and groups of friends walking backwards while others play serious games of badminton and all of this taking place amongst joggers and power walkers with many still wearing their mismatched pyjamas! There is even a public aerobics and Tai Chi class which you can join if you like for all are welcome!
After, find a nearby cafe and enjoy a glass of iced Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk (cà phê sữa đá) as you watch the city spring to life before returning to your hotel for breakfast. This really is a fantastic way to start your day the Hanoi way and gives you an insight into local life.
There are certain places in this world that evoke strong feelings and Halong Bay is one of these places for me. On every visit, and there have been many, this magical place brings a sense of tranquility to my soul. It’s a place where you start to relax as soon as you arrive, where you put your phone away and soak up your surroundings for there is a visual wonder right before your eyes.
The best way to experience the true beauty of the bay is on an overnight cruise on a luxury junk boat. The further in to the bay you sail through emerald waters navigating past some of the 2,000 magnificent limestone islands and islets with dramatic cliffs, arches and coves, the further away your worries seem. Here you’re surrounded by nature’s splendour. The sight of the sun’s light painting the sheer cliff faces with its warm golden glow at sunset and sunrise is delightful.
For a humbling yet memorable encounter, visit one of the four floating fishing villages and meet some of the simple and proud fishermen that have been living in a real ‘water world’ for generations. Sheltered amongst the limestone islands, you will find basic floating houses tethered together to create a village.
There’s a total of 400 floating houses and up to 1000 people with only one community house, a clinic and a single classroom school. The children can swim before they can walk and are experts at casting nets and fishing on their own by the age of 5. The school brings hope for a brighter future out of this unique yet difficult life. Although life here is arduous and very hand-to-mouth, you will be touched by the smiles and laughter you hear around you.
For the adventurer, grab a kayak and paddle through the serene jade waters under naturally carved arches and caves getting up close to these limestone giants to really appreciate their grandness. Once back on board dare to dive off the deck of your boat and float in the refreshingly cool clear water! Go on, jump in, it feels great!
A fantastic and unforgettable experience is to dine in the Hang Trong Cave. Imagine sitting down to dinner surrounded by hundreds of candles in a cave in the middle of Halong Bay as the moonlight shimmers off the water! This enchanting night is a once in a lifetime dining experience and is simply spectacular!
If I could use only one word to describe Halong Bay it would be ‘awesome’. There is no question as to why this geographical marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and New7 Wonders of Nature.
Hoi An is a jewel in Vietnam’s crown. With an appealing mix of Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese influences due to its heritage as a merchant trading town. It’s picturesque, easy to navigate, a joy to explore and gives a sense of stepping back in time. Add to that some of the best cuisine in the country and pristine beaches only 5 km away and you’ve got a great holiday spot.
Here, pace slows as you meander the narrow streets of this preserved town dotted with little eateries, tailors, shops and art galleries all crammed into ancient buildings that are reminiscent of times gone by. Get up early and visit the bustling wet fish market at dawn; a must see if you can stomach the rich fishy smells before breakfast! Here you will see fishermen paddle up to the dock to offload their catch from the previous night, while the women shout coarsely as they sort, scale and gut the catch of the day.
One of the things that I love about this area is that nothing much seems to have changed over the years. I remember driving my scooter down country lanes passing verdant rice paddy fields when I came upon an amusing scene. Picture this…. an old man with a tanned crinkled face and only a few teeth in his grinning mouth wearing raggedy miss matched pyjamas sitting atop a water buffalo in the middle of a rice field holding a brand new iPhone that had only just been released to the world! The mind boggles as to how, in this rural part of the country, an old farmer, who to all appearances is eking out a meagre existence, owns such a modern piece of technology!
Sadly, there are several orphanages in Hoi An and the surrounding areas where some children are ‘orphaned’ due to their parents not being able to care and feed all of their family. These families have had to resort to giving their child to an orphanage to ensure they are cared for. It really is worth visiting one of these homes, as no matter how difficult this might be for you, it brings so much happiness to them. Gifts are always welcome such as toys, writing pads/pens, colouring books and crayons or useful items such as tooth paste, tooth brushes, milk or rice. On that note, please do not bring anything that is bad for their teeth such as lollies, sweet drinks, soft drinks, etc. You will be happy that you made the effort to visit and both you and the children will be enriched by the experience.
Many visitors upon departing Hoi An wish they’d stayed longer and I, for one, never tire of visiting this beautiful town.