History is what binds Vietnam and enriches its flavor. Yes, there are cities like Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City or just HCMC), with tall, modern buildings and a crush of cars that look like any intensely crowded Southeast Asian metropolis. But there are also places like Ha Long Bay and the Old Town of Hoi An whose past define them.
Ha Long Bay — Bay of the Descended Dragon — there is magic and mystery to this place. Yes, there are also tons of tourists (one estimate says 300 day and overnight boats take 3 million visitors a year across these ancient waters).
But there is a way to see all this in comfort and luxury. And also a way to get off the beaten path.
Ha Long Bay is the scene of legend. According to the stories, the people long ago were fighting Chinese invaders when the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. The dragons spit out jewels and jade, which turned into islands, and towers that linked together to form a great wall against the invaders.
Today, the bay has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And with good reason. Ha Long Bay is karst topography (geological formations shaped by the dissolution of layers of soluble rock such as limestone) at its finest … more than 2,000 islands and towering limestone pillars, chewed and etched by rain and weather over eons.
We looked at the bay’s tourist offerings and realized the standard trip is way too short. It’s only a single night aboard a boat, hardly enough time to cruise the most traveled end of the bay.
Emeraude: Bygone Luxury
Then we learned of the Emeraude, an elegant, 37 cabin, 180-foot (55-meter) replica of a 1906 paddle-wheel steamer. You can just close your eyes aboard the ship and feel the atmosphere of bygone days. There is polished brass and gleaming teak, fine meals, and wonderful diversions.
Upon boarding, we immediately upgraded to one of the three suites … a spacious cabin with a king size bed, polished wood floors, and plenty of room to stretch out.
At dawn, we woke to a world whose sharp peaks were softened by fog. It was a perfect time for a tai chi class, then a cup of Vietnam’s wonderful coffee. We could have booked a massage, but rather, we wanted to participate in the activities of the bay.
On standard one-night trips, everyone visits the pearl “village,” which actually turned out to be fascinating because the men are truly farming, cleaning, harvesting and liberating real pearls from oysters on the spot. This is also a place to buy fine pearls … single gleaming black pearls on a silver chain that seem to pulse with life or the purest white pearls strung in strands.
Everyone also winds up in Sun Sot Cave (Surprise Grotto). But again, this is truly worth it. Huge chambers are filled with fluted, folded walls and dripping columns of rock that go from floor to ceiling. In the second chamber, there is one particular formation, lit in neon pink, that you should not miss. You will know it when you see it.
But what lifts the Emeraude above the rest is the chance for a second day … an adventure off the ship with a local company, Asia Outdoors/Slo Pony, run by two westerners, Onslo Carrington and Erik Ferjentsik.
Onslo, all muscles and bubbling enthusiasm, is a rock climber. And he’s keen to get everyone up on the bay’s rock. But some of us are definitely not meant to defy gravity. And for those, he’s got kayaking and a cultural visit to Cat Ba Island.
Onslo picked us up in a little wooden boat and off we went south to the less traveled, less crowded Lan Ha Bay. Here, the islands are closer, so you get a better feel of threading through a maze of sculpted, streaked rock art. Floating villages dot the water, with kids riding bikes on makeshift docks, toddlers wobbling about, and boats carrying groceries, wood, even motorcycles.
We stopped at a rock face with an arch, then climbed into kayaks and paddled into a large lagoon ringed by convoluted limestone rock studded with ferns, bamboo, and palms. Suddenly, Onslo’s guide, Nguyen Van Vu, was out of his kayak and plastered onto a bit of rock, climbing it in rubber flip flops, of all things.
“Vietnam’s strongest climber,” Onslo grinned.
To prove the point, later as we motored on in one of those ageless local boats, Onslo and Vu got into a pull up competition, hanging off the edge of an upper deck. Vu won. He did 30.
From the lagoon, we made our way down to Cat Ba. At the harbor, there were hundreds, no thousands, of floating houses, each with an address, some with TV antennas, a few with satellite dishes, and even one with a wind turbine. Shrimp boats were festooned with football size electric lights.
We left Cat Ba town on an asphalt road which devolved into concrete that quickly shrank to the width of a sidewalk and then turned to dirt. Onslo’s culture tour goes to the tiny village (population 36) of Lein Minh where you can sit in a field and paint, learn how to make spring rolls at one small house, or visit the village bee farm.
It was a bit of a trek back to the Emeraude, but we were glad to be back in time to watch a blood red sun slip behind the karst towers.
And then we settled in with everyone else to watch the movie “Indochine,” the Catherine Deneuve epic that traces the rise of rebellion and communism in Vietnam from the 1930s to 1954, with of course, plenty of scenes shot right there in Ha Long Bay.
Hoi An: A Time Capsule
History surrounds you in Vietnam if you know where to look. And while Ha Long Bay is more myth and scenery, places like Hoi An are solid time capsules.
So when we were done with the bay, we headed for Hoi An in Central Vietnam, not far from Danang.
You should understand that many parts of this area have surrendered to modern whims. Nearby China Beach is now wall-to-wall mega-hotels and resorts. They are the finest modern structures. But many are also sadly sterile.
And then, there is the Old Town of Hoi An.
Twenty miles (32 kilometers) south of Danang on Vietnam’s central east coast, Hoi An was a major international trading center in the 16th and 17th Centuries where Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and Portuguese left their mark on houses lining the narrow streets. And since receiving UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, its wonderfully ancient Old Town is being carefully preserved.
Hoi An’s market along the Thu Bon River has the same crushing intensity of Hanoi or HCMC, but here, it’s manageable, quaint, picturesque rather than sweaty and uncomfortable. You thread through the narrow paths surrounded by live ducks, , spices, fruits, vegetables, fish, and endless kinds of eggs. The exotic aromas and sounds surround you, but in a friendly, fascinating way.
Visits to the old houses now require permits (though that is usually covered if you are on a tour),but the important thing is the houses are still there. And the owners are genuinely happy to see you.
Meanwhile, if you want to escape the relative bustle of even Hoi An, the countryside with its fields, traditional houses, postage stamp gardens, and quaint, narrow alleys are just a few moments of cycle or bicycle travel away.
We could have bicycled, as some people we met did, since bikes are available at most hotels. But instead, we opted for a cyclo tour, a tricycle with a seat at the front where passengers sit and the driver seated behind. No, it’s not the speediest mode of travel.
We went through nearby Cam Nam village, past people farming their bananas, corn, potatoes, and pumpkins, past peanuts drying on the street, past roosters and chickens and a cook-hut with a cow and three pigs. Tiny plots of vegetables were tucked between equally tiny homes with picturesque tile roofs. This, not high rises and choking motor traffic, is what we had hoped Vietnam would be.
Yes, we surrendered to the temptation to have something tailored. You can have the most elegant clothing made here, but choosing among the estimated 500 tailors working in the city can be a bewildering task. It’s best to ask for recommendations, perhaps at your hotel. Or see what fellow travelers have bought. Guidebooks warn to make sure you have enough time in town for the shop to do a good job and know what you are getting (for instance, synthetic fabric melts, real silk burns).
And there’s one more thing we enjoyed. Central Vietnam’s best boutique and resort hotels are here. We’re not talking China Beach, but rather, small or small-ish places right on the edge of Old Town … Life Heritage Resort Hoi An is perhaps the most elegant of the bunch and the only one of international standard.
The hotel is only seven years old, but its French Colonial architecture with Asian touches hints of the town’s past. Other nice touches, such as old black and white photos from the 1950s that line the Heritage Bar, add to the feel of history.
So, at the end of a hot, sticky day, we simply retired to the swimming pool of our hotel, the only one with such a facility within walking distance of Old Town. It was shaded, the water was cool, the orchids were lovely … and the place has a spa.
We were sorely tempted to indulge in the Life Spa Signature (three hours, including footbath, massage, body scrub, honey wrap, and tea ceremony), but we went, instead for the shorter Harmony of Energy (80 minutes and seven massage techniques). It felt wonderful, what we could remember of it before falling asleep.
That evening, re-energized, we headed out again. The place for us was dusk at the ancient, picturesque bridge over the river at the center of Old Town. We stood there as cyclos and motorbikes wove around us and the lights of the multi-colored silk lanterns glowed against the blues of twilight.
Then we went off for a young coconut filled with cool water and a spring roll snack while sitting on tiny stools at the edge of the river. Small boats of ancient design floated past. And history enveloped us.
If You Go
Vietnam is 1,000 miles (1610 kilometers) long and stretches from true tropics to temperate, ranging from frost in the mountains of the north in winter to temperatures well over 100 degrees (37 C) in the south in summer. October through March can be damp and cold in the north. Above all, avoid the mid summer rainy season. Your best bet is April, May, and October.
— Story and Photos by Yvette Cardozo