VIET­NAM

Friday - - Travel -

W aves of mo­tor­bikes flowed through the nar­row streets, open­ing on to huge round­abouts and built-up districts, food mar­kets and the street hawk­ers of Ho Chi Minh City, the for­mer cap­i­tal of South Viet­nam (or Saigon as most lo­cals still re­fer to it). Loud, crass and a mix of thrust­ing moder­nity and an­cient struc­tures, it’s a to­tal as­sault on the senses.

It’s not un­usual here to see a mod­ern apart­ment block next to an an­cient tem­ple for Con­fu­cius, the Chi­nese civil ser­vant who founded Con­fu­cian­ism, a way of or­dered life still revered in Viet­nam. Con­fu­cius pro­moted civic or­der, re­spect of one’s elders and a life ded­i­cated to learn­ing and pub­lic ser­vice. But this city was far from calm, serene and wellordered. The heat, smog and noise all hit me at once as I wan­dered around the neon-lit, cramped District 1, an area pop­u­lar with back­pack­ers.

Hav­ing quit my job in Dubai back in March, I’d been plagued by itchy feet, and so de­cided to spend a month on my own ex­plor­ing Viet­nam.

No other coun­try con­jures up as much mys­tery for me as this South East Asian haven, with its rich his­tory, en­dur­ing Com­mu­nist rule, world-fa­mous bowls of com­fort­ing pho and iconic rice paddy fields.

I’d trav­elled through Viet­nam’s neigh­bour­ing coun­tries over the years. Now I wanted to fo­cus on this nar­row stretch of land that hugs the South China Sea coast like a back­wards J; slowly trav­el­ling from Ho Chi Minh in the south up to the hu­mid cap­i­tal of Hanoi in the north.

My senses awak­ened, it struck me that there is no es­cap­ing the re­cent his­tory of Ho Chi Minh City. The Viet­nam War (or rather Amer­i­can War as lo­cals call it) from1954-75 still casts a long shadow over the present. Nearly all city tours in­clude the War Rem­nants Mu­seum, but I opted for a visit to the Post Of­fice, a stun­ning colo­nial build­ing de­signed by Gus­tave Eif­fel (of Eif­fel Tower fame).

As the sun set over Ho Chi Minh City, I headed to one of the most fa­mous ho­tels in Viet­nam, the Caravelle. For­eign jour­nal­ists would re­port on the war from the safety of its rooftop bar. It of­fered them, and me, a stun­ning out­post to watch the sun set.

For a real sense of mod­ern Ho Chi Minh, I de­cided to take an evening

street food tour ($72 or about Dh264, www.xo­tours.vn). I climbed on the back of my guide’s mo­tor­bike and off we went, an­other bike in the throng of two-wheeled traf­fic. It was a fan­tas­tic, if slightly hair-rais­ing way to see the bustling me­trop­o­lis.

O ne of Viet­nam’s big­gest at­trac­tions is the street food. All life is con­ducted on streets here, and most meals are eaten on tiny red plas­tic chairs among the bus­tle of traf­fic. At each street-side restau­rant my guide de­scribed the dishes and where we were, which was well off the tourist track. While it was per­fectly safe, the restaurants could never be found by an ea­ger tourist alone.

In one night I dis­cov­ered the best banh mi (a de­li­cious Viet­namese baguette) in town, the banh xeo (a de­li­cious fried rice pancake with bean sprouts and meat), de­voured fresh crab, nib­bled on del­i­cate quail wings and rounded things off with a huge plat­ter heaped with ex­otic fruit. A per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to city life.

Be­fore leav­ing Ho Chi Minh, I took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tun­nels ($10 from any lo­cal tour op­er­a­tor), lo­cated around two hours from the city. Cu Chi was a Vi­et­cong strong­hold, with a huge net­work of tun­nels that al­lowed fighters to live un­der­ground and prac­tise guerilla war­fare. A cou­ple of tun­nels, less than a me­tre high, are open to tourists and are a poignant re­minder of the war.

Eight hours by train from Ho Chi Minh City is Nha Trang, a beach­side re­sort that’s as pop­u­lar with the Viet­namese as it is now with Rus­sian guests. The town it­self is busy, fun and has a renowned nightlife, but I de­cided to ex­plore the ar­eas around Nha Trang, hav­ing passed some of the most beau­ti­ful scenery as the train snaked its way north.

The town is backed by a small tem­ple-stud­ded moun­tain range and plenty of paddy fields. In less than 10 min­utes from the town cen­tre I was out in lush green rice fields and sur­rounded by white but­ter­flies, the odd stork and grey wa­ter buf­falo loung­ing in the rivers. This was the Viet­nam I’d come look­ing for, I thought as I drove through the coun­try­side where rice was be­ing dried on ev­ery avail­able bit of dry land, from people’s drive­ways to com­mu­nal ar­eas in vil­lages, and even on the road.

In a cou­ple of fairly re­mote vil­lages I met a fam­ily who made the rice into noo­dles at the fac­tory in their home, full of boil­ing vats and churn­ing ma­chines, and an­other fam­ily who

turned the crop into crispy rice paper, a pop­u­lar snack all over the coun­try. These in­dus­tri­ous home businesses ex­ist every­where in Viet­nam, with rice an es­sen­tial ex­port for the coun­try.

N ext I headed to Six Senses Ninh Van Bay (a se­ries of is­lands 20 min­utes by speed­boat from Nha Trang) for a peace­ful re­treat, with a white sandy bay, crys­tal clear wa­ters and spec­tac­u­lar snorkelling around the re­sort’s house reef.

Nha Trang bay is also home to a se­ries of is­lands and the area is pop­u­lar for div­ing and snorkelling. The lo­cal reefs are home to 350 types of co­ral and there’s warm weather all year round, which means it’s al­ways hol­i­day sea­son here.

Six Senses also has an on­site herb and scent gar­den and fruit or­chard. Ma­rine bi­ol­o­gists are reg­u­larly brought in to guide the in-house staff on car­ing for the reef and en­cour­ag­ing co­ral growth. Even on a short snorkel tour I saw plenty of fish and stun­ning co­ral be­neath the azure sea.

Just as I thought my trip couldn’t get any bet­ter it was time to move on to Hoi An – the place I’d dreamt about the most when re­search­ing my trip. I took the train from Nha Trang (around eight hours) through more quin­tes­sen­tial Viet­namese coun­try­side. The train traced its way up the coast, me­an­der­ing past paddy fields and wooded moun­tains. There are so many shades of green in Viet­nam it seems im­pos­si­ble to take them all in. There’s no train sta­tion at Hoi An, so I dis­em­barked at nearby Danang sta­tion and took a half-hour taxi ride to the town. While scoot­ers are the way to travel with­out lug­gage, taxi cabs aren’t ex­pen­sive (and handy when it rains).

Hoi An is all about the Old Quar­ter, a Unesco-pro­tected two-storey town, whose 18th century French faded glam­our is part of the charm. Ochre yel­low build­ings, which were once part of the most im­por­tant trad­ing towns in South East Asia, now hide tailors’ shops and tiny eater­ies, while lan­tern-lit bridges at­tract people over the small slow river. It’s mag­i­cal.

To­day, Hoi An is known lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally as the place to get clothes made. I took items I wanted to have copied – there is no end to the tailors who can make a suit from scratch in less than 24 hours.

The best way to choose a shop is to wan­der the streets and get a sense of who is the busiest and what fab­ric they stock. Hag­gling is es­sen­tial and the more you com­mis­sion the cheaper it gets. The streets were bustling with tourists pick­ing up their new wears or get­ting mea­sured up.

O n my way back from the tai­lor I joined a small cook­ing class. Most restaurants in Hoi An of­fer a les­son with a lo­cal chef for about just $5, and classes are ad­ver­tised on boards out­side. They are a fan­tas­tic way to ex­pe­ri­ence Viet­namese cui­sine and meet other trav­ellers.

I learnt how to make sum­mer spring rolls (with soft rice paper and

veg­eta­bles) and other lo­cal dishes such as banh xeo (fried rice pan­cakes), and met new bud­dies to travel to the sea with the next day.

It’s easy to for­get that tiny Hoi An is on the coast. We hired a bi­cy­cle ($1 a day) and set off along the flat roads for the few kilo­me­tres to the sea. Bi­cy­cles are in­te­gral to how the Viet­namese get around, and it’s a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence to be out on the more serene roads among the paddy fields. The coast of­fers re­fresh­ing gusts of wind and af­ter a week of laz­ing around lis­ten­ing to the rough surf pound the sand, en­joy­ing Hoi An’s tiny streets and eat­ing far too many spring rolls, I flew up to Hanoi.

I t’s about an hour-long flight from Danang air­port (there’s no air­port in Hoi An) and costs around the same as a 15-hour train jour­ney (ap­prox $75). Hanoi has the same chaotic flow of mo­tor­bikes as Ho Chi Minh City, al­though hel­mets seem to be op­tional here. It has been the cap­i­tal of North Viet­nam since 1954, and the uni­fied coun­try since 1976; how­ever, it has been the in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal cen­tre for around 1,000 years. And no place demon­strates this his­tory bet­ter than the Tem­ple of Lit­er­a­ture, Viet­nam’s first univer­sity.

Beau­ti­ful wooden build­ings form court­yards hous­ing an­cient stone tablets on the backs of stone tur­tles. These hold the first names of the grad­u­ates of the univer­sity from the 1400s. Tur­tles are one of four spe­cial crea­tures in Viet­namese lore – the other three are the dragon, phoenix and uni­corn – and they are thought to rep­re­sent the uni­verse.

Tur­tles are also cen­tral to the myth of Hanoi’s lake, Ho Hoam Kiem, around which lo­cals spend evenings walk­ing and jog­ging. It’s thought that Em­peror Ly Thai To de­feated the Chi­nese army in the 1600s with a mag­i­cal sword, but the day af­ter his vic­tory, while boat­ing on the lake, it was snatched out of his hand by a golden tur­tle, who re­stored it to its right­ful own­ers. There are still thought to be tur­tles in the lake to­day and any sight­ings cause great lo­cal ex­cite­ment. How­ever, even tur­tles aren’t safe from the prodi­gious ap­petite of the Viet­namese and some do wind up on din­ner plates. Snakes are also con­sid­ered a del­i­cacy al­though, I ad­mit, I shied away from tast­ing ei­ther.

What I did dis­cover was more amaz­ing street food. Ma Mai Street in the Old Quar­ter of Hanoi is home to no-non­sense restaurants serv­ing stun­ningly tasty dishes such as duck cur­ries in cute clay­pots and the lo­cal ver­sion of the ubiq­ui­tous spring roll (the Hanoi style is a dozen bite-sized rolls, rather than one or two large ones) for just a few dol­lars.

It’s the per­fect meal to start an evening ex­plor­ing the nar­row streets of Dong Xuan, a huge mar­ket that comes to life af­ter dark. Each street spe­cialises in dif­fer­ent items, from party dec­o­ra­tions to fry­ing pans, while stalls run down the mid­dle of busy roads, of­fer­ing pineap­ples, lo­cal sweets and bar­be­cued meat.

N o trip to Viet­nam is com­plete with­out a visit to Ha­long Bay. Four hours’ drive east from Hanoi, the bay is made up of 1,000 lime­stone is­lands. I booked a two-night ex­cur­sion on a small junk boat. On ar­riv­ing it seemed as if rocks had been scat­tered on the sea, like bread­crumbs on a table­cloth.

Ha­long means ‘de­scend­ing dragon bay’, as in Viet­namese folk­lore drag­ons were em­ployed to pro­tect the coun­try from in­vaders and spat out pre­cious stones that turned into the rocks in the sea.

Nowa­days the rocks are Viet­nam’s busiest tourist at­trac­tion. I joined the throng on a misty af­ter­noon, ea­ger to see what all the fuss was about. Even in the mist (and later the rain), the craggy, sharp is­lands rose out of the fog like mag­i­cal teeth. The wa­ter sur­round­ing them was as flat as a pancake, with boats glid­ing be­tween these an­cient mon­u­ments. It was hard not to be im­pressed.

The bay is also home to an enor­mous cave called Sung Sot, which means ‘amaz­ing’, and was found only 100 years ago. I fol­lowed the trail of steps through sev­eral cham­bers, where sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites have formed over thou­sands of years.

A small com­mu­nity of Viet­namese spend their en­tire lives in float­ing houses farm­ing fish and pearls, and now they have be­come a tourist at­trac­tion in their own right. The Real Kan­ga­roo Café of­fers a two-day Ha­long Bay ex­cur­sion for $159 per per­son, with boats that sleep up to 14 (www.kan­ga­roocafe.com), which I opted for. I was rowed round on a small cor­a­cle, past this float­ing vil­lage and even a float­ing school.

If you have the time, spend a night at the nearby Na­tional Park on Cat Ba, the largest of the Ha­long Bay is­lands. Home to the en­dan­gered Cat Ba lan­gur mon­key, the is­land cov­ers ev­ery type of land­scape, from forests and dra­matic moun­tains to man­groves and la­goons, which you can ex­plore by mo­tor­bike or foot.

I re­turned to Hanoi to fly home hav­ing fallen for Viet­nam. It’s a be­witch­ing coun­try at ease with it­self, where an­cient cus­toms sit be­side 21st century tech­nol­ogy, sprawl­ing cities swarm with scoot­ers and rice fields re­flect a way of life un­changed for cen­turies. But if you ask me, the street food is rea­son enough to re­turn time and again.

TRAVEL

Soak up the lush green­ery of the rice paddy fields

This fa­mous ho­tel in Viet­nam of­fers a stun­ning sun­set view

Street food tours are a great way to learn about lo­cal life

I tried to mas­ter lo­cal cui­sine with a cook­ing les­son in Hoi An

The­War Rem­nants Mu­seum at­tracts a lot of tourists

TRAVEL

Hoi An is the place to go for tai­lor-made suits and gar­ments

TRAVEL No trip to Viet­nam is com­plete with­out a visit to Ha­long Bay

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