Pristine, Beautiful, Ethereal Vietnam !
Until this trip which was my first visit, Vietnam to me, meant a brutal war and farmers in conical hats ploughing terraced paddy fields. With my knowledge of the country biased by the movies, I was unprepared for the epic beauty I was to experience. A country full of diversity, ancient culture, old ways of living, friendly people, pristine mountains, serene bays and unparalleled natural vistas, Vietnam surprised me in every which way, be it the visual flavours or, the warmth of its people.
Arriving in early July, a light afternoon drizzle greets me upon exiting the airport at Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Formerly known as Saigon, it is the largest city in Vietnam and the French Colonial influence is amply visible, be it the architecture or the wide boulevards. My tour started with a sightseeing trip around HCMC with Mrs. Hoa, my very kind and knowlegable guide. Giving me insights into the history and culture at each step, we visit the Renuification Palace, Notre Dam, Post Office , The Opera House and the War Remnants Museum. Containing grapic images by many war correspondents and photo journalists of the period, the War Museum exemplifies the futility and sadness of war. On the grounds outside, a few aircrafts, tanks and artillery pieces are on display. A visit here is a humbling experience and for a long time after I exited, the horrors and suffering the Vietnamese had gone through, played on my mind.
Hitting the streets around my hotel later in the evening, the vista I see, is a mix of the modern and the traditional. Old tiny shops interspersed with luxury brands, numerous street vendors with shoulder baskets, people eating at roadside kiosks, families milling around , couples in romance mode and the cacophony of bikes in rush hour traffic. A metro is under construction causing traffic jams and yes, there is a lot of noise. One of the first things that you will notice in the streets all over Vietnam, is the variety of bikes, both the motor and the pedal types. The next thing you will notice, is the variety of cargo carried on bikes. Livestock and furniture is passe, I saw this huge load of vegetables being deftly tied down and balanced for transport. Street photograpy immersed me for hours each evening in Vietnam.
A must see for anyone visiting HCMC, my second day starts early at 7.30 am with a 2 hour drive to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Viet Cong used this vast man made 155-mile network of underground tunnels as command centers', ammunition stores, field hospitals, war bunkers and even as schools during the Vietnam War. Most sections of the tunnels are off limits to tourists now, however, the portions available, is sufficient to understand ingenious techniques of gureilla warfare, deployed by the Viet Cong. Knowing how entrances were kept secret, techniques to cook underground without the smoke being detected, seeing the ingenious booby traps, crawling through some of the tunnels and firing some hand guns ( extra payment), makes this an interactive experience.
Going onwards on a 3 hour drive, we reach the transit point for a tour of the Mekong Delta. Boarding a long-tail boat my guide fills me in on the area’s culture and history. Stopping on an island to taste tropical fruit right off the tree, passing by a crocodile farm, touring a coconut candy factory, visiting a bee farm, a horse cart ride, a private orchestra group performing for me and the grand finale, a rowboat ride through hard-to-reach areas deeper in the delta, gave me an insight to the local life . A 3 hour drive brings me back to my hotel in HCMC. It has been a long tiring day.
Its my third day of tour and I fly down from HCMC to Hanoi. Located North of HCMC it is the second largest city in Vietnam and located on the banks of the Red River. My half day tour of the city takes me through ancient pagodas, colonial buildings and a walking / cycle rickshaw tour of the Old Quarter. Narrow streets, old traditional shops, eateries, vendors, merchants, street food, quaint people and orderly chaos, the Old Quarter is like stepping back in time and to me, it is the heart and soul of Hanoi. This is THE place for street photography in Hanoi. The cycle rickshaw drops me off at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater and I take in the amazing show.
On my fourth day, we depart Hanoi for Nin Binh province. Located about 100kms away from Hanoi, Nin Binh is known for its inspiring Landscapes and experiential tours to the rural side of Vietnam. En-route , hundreds of limestone cliffs emerging from the ground justapoxed between rice fields, till as far as the eye can see, has me riveted to my car window. After visiting an ancient temple en-route, we arrive at the Trang An Landscape complex.
A notified UNESCO World Heritage site, Trang An is a gathering of 31 valleys, 50 cross-water caves, and home to 600 kinds of flora and over 200 kinds of fauna. Pristine, ethereal and poetic vistas visible in the distance, I went on a 3 hour row boat ride that took me through water filled grottoes and mind blowing landscapes.
The best part of Trang An is going through the grottoes and it is a must do experience. I had never visited any kind of grotto before and the first grotto was a bit scary. Other than being dark, one has to duck frequently to avoid hitting the ceiling or hanging stalacites and when the boat bumps and scrapes against the submerged speleothem at some places, my imagination of being trapped, ran wild. The ride is very safe otherwise and I overcame my fear whilst going through subsequent grottoes.
Upon expressing my desire to redo the ride, my guide is happy to inform me of Tam Coq a short distance away and is where the movie King Kong was shot. I opt for a 2 hour boat ride. Paddy fields on both sides, a sprinkling of rural houses along the way and a much narrower stream with solemn mountains rising on both sides, is what makes Tam Coq different to Trang An. The grottoes here are however, just as scary! I was lucky, as due to it being late afternoon, the crowds were sparse and I could get clicks of uncluttered vistas.
The grand finale of my last 2 days in Vietnam is a cruise at Ha Long Bay and it takes about 4 hours to reach from Ninh Bin. Towering limestone karst topped by vegetation rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay's scatter of islands, dotted with wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam's number one tourism point. The best way to view Ha Long Bay is on one of the cruises. I had opted for a 1N2D cruise.
The surrealistic scenery of Ha Long Bay has featured in endless movies and it is very difficult to put your camera down. Each minute brings up a different opportunity as also the cruise offers activities like kayaking around the krasts which I undertook.
Kayaking is one of the best ways to visit the various islands, inlets, caves and dark grottos that dot Ha Long. Even though the bay itself is calm and smooth, paddling around or under tonnes of limestone krast can be unnerving. Disturbing small mouse-grey bats that twitter and flutter away into deep crevices I enter a mysterious world of interconnected lagoons surrounded by monumental cliffs, carpeted with tropical vegetation and bamboo, pass by a traditional floating fishing village and go under an limestone arch to obtain a view of Bo Hon.
One of the largest island chain in Vietnam with many of Halong Bay's famous caves like Sung Sot, Luon Cave, Thien Cave, Trinh Nu Cave and Trong cave, Bo Hon takes your breath away with its series of high peaks, steep cliffs and consecutive mountains.
One of my most amazing experince was a visit to Thien Canh Son Cave which is located on Cong Do island, in Bai Tu Long Bay. The beauty of stalactites and stalagmites in the cave is stunning and mysterious. Guides and locals will make you stretch your imagination and you’ll be told that the formations resembles a baby elephant, or the lotus flower, or a group of gnomes holding a meeting.
Anchored for the night on my last day in Vietnam, lazing on the upper deck, gazing at the stars and also watching the play of the ship’s light on the water, I am at peace and happy. Before I fall asleep a thought I dwell upon is – I must be back for more.
Text and images: Prasad Kotian