Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY BRIAR JENSEN

World Her­itage-listed sites of­fer both nat­u­ral beauty and cul­tural his­tory on a trip to North­ern and Cen­tral Viet­nam.

All is quiet ex­cept for bird­song as my kayak glides silently over the glassy jade wa­ter. Lush ferns and figs drip from ver­ti­cal lime­stone cliffs that plunge into the sea, cor­ralling me inside the wa­tery grotto of the en­closed tidal lake ac­cessed via Luon Cave, a low, eroded arch­way in the rocks – so low it re­quires hunch­ing over at high tide.

Leg­end has it the lime­stone karsts of Ha­long Bay, in North­east Viet­nam, were formed from emer­alds dropped by drag­ons to ward off sea­far­ing in­vaders. Ha­long trans­lates as ‘Place of De­scend­ing Dragon’ and while the rock pil­lars may have de­terred an­cient at­tack­ers, they are a draw­card for tourists, es­pe­cially since granted UNESCO World Her­itage sta­tus in 1994.

The prox­im­ity of the 1600-plus is­lands and islets to

Ha­long City makes them eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble for day trips and overnight cruises. The pro­fu­sion of boats si­mul­ta­ne­ously surg­ing out of the har­bour each day is a sight to be­hold, jostling for po­si­tion as they weave be­tween gritty cargo barges and toy-sized wooden junks.

I’m trav­el­ling aboard the newly built Par­adise Ele­gance, a modern ves­sel with old-world char­ac­ter – think nau­ti­cal white ex­te­rior and el­e­gant, dark tim­ber in­te­rior. With

31 cab­ins, it’s the largest of the Par­adise fleet, yet has an in­ti­mate feel with ex­cel­lent ser­vice. All cab­ins have a bal­cony, a ho­tel-wor­thy bath­room and a dress­ing room port­hole so you never miss a view.

Within two hours of de­part­ing the base on Tuâ` n Châu

Is­land we’re at Sung Sot Cave, the largest in the area. Fer­ried ashore, we climb for views over the bay be­fore de­scend­ing into the cave. The one-way route tra­verses cathe­dral-style cav­erns, past the­atri­cally lit sta­lac­tites and sta­lag­mites in dra­matic sculp­tural shapes, rang­ing from an erect phal­lus revered as a fer­til­ity sym­bol to a hum­ble tor­toise, a pseudo shrine sym­bol­is­ing longevity.

Ti­tov Is­land, named af­ter Soviet cos­mo­naut Gher­man Ti­tov who vis­ited in 1962, pro­trudes from the wa­ter like a con­i­cal Viet­namese hat. A sweaty climb up the steps to the top is worth it for the panoramic vista of craggy is­lands that re­sem­ble the spines of drag­ons. The pocket-sized beach at the base, while crowded, pro­vides a wel­come swim to cool off.

Back on­board, it’s cock­tail hour as the sun sil­hou­ettes the dra­matic karst land­scape against an or­ange sky. I forgo the cook­ing demon­stra­tion in favour of a pre-din­ner salt scrub in the spa. Din­ner is an el­e­gant af­fair, fol­lowed by en­ter­tain­ment in the lounge bar, cour­tesy of a lo­cal duo on pi­ano and vo­cals. Rem­i­nis­cent of a gentle­man’s club, it’s a cosy spot to linger, al­though most guests re­tire early.

Throw­ing open the door of my cabin to catch the evening breeze, myr­iad cruise boats re­sem­ble gi­ant float­ing glow worms twin­kling in the inky black­ness.

We wel­come the morn­ing with tai chi on deck be­fore break­fast while cruis­ing to­wards Luon Cave. Mo­tors are banned within the cave so pas­sen­gers trans­fer to lo­cal bam­boo boats they can pad­dle them­selves or have ma­noeu­vred by an oars­man.

I opt for kayak­ing, al­low­ing me to get close to a mon­key fos­sick­ing at the waters’ edge, and to drift silently in the grotto as shards of sun­light il­lu­mi­nate schools of tiny fish. It’s peace­ful and free of the float­ing de­bris that’s a con­se­quence of the area’s pop­u­lar­ity. (I’m pleased to learn Par­adise Cruises par­tic­i­pates in the an­nual Ha­long Bay Clean-Up Day, with staff do­nat­ing their time to pick up rub­bish.)

“Throw­ing open the door of my cabin to catch the evening breeze, myr­iad cruise boats re­sem­ble gi­ant float­ing glow worms twin­kling in the inky black­ness”...

Back aboard Par­adise Ele­gance it’s time to re­turn to port. Al­though called a two-day, one-night cruise, it’s a lit­tle shy of 24 hours and, while of­fer­ing a scenic slice of this wa­tery won­der­land, it leaves me long­ing for more. We were to have ex­pe­ri­enced the new three-day, two-night cruise, which ven­tures fur­ther afield, but due to an im­pend­ing typhoon the port author­ity can­celled all cruises.

Hop­ing to es­cape the ten­drils of the typhoon we head south to Cen­tral Viet­nam but, as we ar­rive at Lăng Cô, an hour’s drive from Da Nang In­ter­na­tional Air­port, it’s rain­ing.

De­spite the driz­zle, there’s plenty to do at La­guna Lăng

Cô, an ‘in­te­grated re­sort’ cov­er­ing 280 ha fronting a 3-km cres­cent of beach. It in­cludes two ho­tels, the con­tem­po­rary, yet fam­ily-friendly Angsana, and the lux­u­ri­ous Banyan Tree, along with a cham­pi­onship golf course.

Freshly rinsed frangi­pani and gar­de­nias fra­grance the air in the lush gar­dens, but rain puts a damp­ener on swim­ming in my Angsana bal­cony plunge pool and float­ing along the

300 m swim­ming pool that swirls snake-like through the re­sort. So I don a rain­coat and head to the beach for some high-oc­tane ac­tion.

Against a brood­ing black sky we head off on ATVs (all­ter­rain ve­hi­cles, a.k.a quad bikes). Veer­ing into the for­est we bounce over rut­ted tracks and swerve be­tween trees. I can’t stop laugh­ing as we power through pud­dles, wa­ter ex­plod­ing be­neath our wheels. My Yamaha is nick­named Griz­zly, so

I give it some grunt, blat­ting back along the beach at 40 km/h.

La­guna Lăng Cô is cen­trally lo­cated be­tween the UNESCO World Her­itage cities of Huê’ and Hôi An and I take ad­van­tage of the re­sort’s tours to both.

Cap­i­tal of the Nguyen dy­nasty from 1802 un­til 1945, Huê ’ (pro­nounced ‘Hway’) lies on the banks of the Per­fume River. The Ci­tadel, be­gun in 1804, is a walled city-within-the-city, cov­er­ing 520 ha. Sur­rounded by a moat, the 10 km crenel­lated outer wall pro­tects two in­ner walled sanc­tu­ar­ies: the Im­pe­rial En­clo­sure, once home to the af­fairs of State; and the in­ner­most For­bid­den Pur­ple City, the per­sonal do­main of the Em­peror.

Though se­verely dam­aged dur­ing the French and Amer­i­can wars, what re­mains is a labyrinth of crum­bling walls and dec­o­rated arch­ways that beckon, evoca­tively, to be ex­plored.

Fur­ther along the river is Thiên Mu Pagoda (Pagoda of the Heav­enly Lady) marked by a seven-storey oc­tag­o­nal tower ded­i­cated to Bud­dha, the un­of­fi­cial sym­bol of the city. Here, monks chant in the in­ner tem­ple as tiny skinks scale the walls. Far more elab­o­rate is the tomb of Khai Ð.inh, the penul­ti­mate em­peror who reigned from 1885 to 1925. A solemn hon­our guard of mono­chrome Man­darin fig­ures out­side con­trasts starkly with the gar­ishly lit, con­fetti ex­plo­sion of coloured mo­saics within. Planned by the em­peror him­self, it took 11 years to build – two years longer than his reign.

In Hôi An we wan­der the nar­row car-free streets of the

Old Quar­ter in plas­tic pon­chos as rain­drops trans­form the Thu Bô` n River into a dim­pled can­vas. A ma­jor in­ter­na­tional trad­ing port dur­ing the 16th and 17th cen­turies, the town fea­tures Chi­nese, Ja­panese, Dutch, Por­tuguese and French in­flu­ences. The or­na­mented Ja­panese Cov­ered Bridge, span­ning a small canal, dates back to the 1590s and there are nu­mer­ous elab­o­rately dec­o­rated Chi­nese as­sem­bly halls where hang­ing in­cense cones burn for up to three weeks.

But it’s the shop­houses I love, where weeds sprout from crum­bling fa­cades, vividly painted doors con­trast against ag­ing stonework, and un­ruly bougainvil­lea tum­bles over sag­ging awnings. Lantern-mak­ing is pro­lific here and the lus­trous silk, hand-painted de­signs are ev­ery­where; sus­pended above the streets, swing­ing from trees and adorn­ing shops and restau­rants.

The con­tin­u­ing rain has rinsed the colour­ful scene of dirt and dust, but rain, hail or shine, Hôi An’s beauty and time-hon­oured ele­gance shines through. •

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Briar Jensen.

Open­ing im­age: Lo­cal fish­ing boat in Ha­long Bay. Clock­wise from above: Sun­set over Ha­long Bay; View from the top of Ti­tov Is­land, Ha­long Bay; and the Man­darin hon­our guard at the tomb of Khai Đi.nh in Huê´.

Right, from top: Huê´’s Ci­tadel is a maze of paths and arch­ways; Hôi An is renowned for silk lanterns.

Above, to far right: Par­adise Ele­gance cruis­ing Ha­long Bay; Trans­port­ing street stall equip­ment in Hôi An.

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