An old UNESCO heritage site and a vibrant young city
On one of my recent business trips to Asia, I had a free weekend in between meetings in Taipei and Shenzhen. On a whim I decide to take a little side tour to Vietnam. Halong Bay had been on my bucket list for years and I had heard great things about Hanoi.
So after a three hour flight from Taipei we land at Hanoi airport on a clear and warm Friday night in June. It is just after 11PM when we clear immigration. Our guide and driver are waiting to bring us to our hotel located at the bank of West Lake on the outskirts of Hanoi. It is late and dark so we don’t get too many impressions on our way to the hotel. Although we do see a lot of people – a lot of young people – on the streets. We also notice that the atmosphere is very friendly.
The legend of Halong Bay: descending dragons and emeralds
In the morning our guide is picking us up in a private van for our day trip to Halong Bay. Once we get out of the busy city streets, the roads are new and good. On our way the driver pulls up at a pearl factory. Our guide tells us we will have a quick tour as this factory is famous for the local pearls. Of course after showing us how they cultivate the variations and sizes of pearls, we end up in the store. As a result we get trapped inside longer than we want. The staff is trying hard to convince us to buy some of the jewelry.
Our Private tour
Eventually we are on our way again. Soon we reach the little harbor town where most of the boats to Halong Bay depart. Our guide checks us in and we hop on our boat. To make the most of our day, our tour guide has booked a private boat. As a result, as soon as we are on board and the captain has signed the necessary paperwork, we are on our way. Our boat is nice and modern and after leaving the harbor we go upstairs to lounge on deck and take pictures.
Soon the amazing rock formations that form one of the new Seven Wonders of the world called Halong Bay come in sight. It is unbelievingly beautiful, almost surreal.
The Legend of Halong Bay
Our guide explains the legend of Halong Bay:
“The legend says that during the old time when the country was newly formed, Vietnamese had to fight against fierce invaders coming through the sea. Feeling sorry for the country, The Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her children descending on earth to help ancient Vietnamese people defend the country.
While the mighty enemies were attacking the main land, The Mother Dragon and her children suddenly appeared and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall that left enemy battleship fleet sinking. Thanks to the dragons, the Northern invaders were finally swept away and the peace finally came back the South East Asian country once again. After thousands of years, the wall of emerald turned into island and islets of different sizes and shapes.
After the battle, The Mother Dragon and her children didn’t come back to the heaven, but stayed in the mortal world and turned into human form and help people planting, cropping, raising cattle, reclaiming, and expanding the country.”
Caves and Kayaks
We dock at Dong Thien Cung, a spectacular cave that is millions of years old. Our guide takes us inside for a tour and points at all the stalagmites and stalactites. At every turn we see more beautiful rock formations. An although we try to capture them, it’s hard to take good pictures that do them justice.
Our next stop is another dock, this one out in the water. Here we have the opportunity to get into kayaks and explore the bay. This allows us to see the rock formations more up close and personal. After an hour or so of kayaking, we climb back onto the boat. We are hungry so the wonderful lunch prepared by our own personal chef is a welcome treat. Served with cold beer and wine, we couldn’t ask for anything more.
Hanoi is a wonderful city. We explore the famous temple of literature and have a Banh-mi sandwich in the original banh-mi shop. We are taken by bike on a tour of the old town. Lunch is at Bun cha Huong Lien, the local restaurant where Anthony Bourdain and Obama had their famous meal together. That lunch not only put this restaurant on the map, but in addition it thought people about local food and habits. Or as Obama reflected after Anthony’s tragic dead:
“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.
Obama’s pictures are covering the wall and every table has a menu with “the Obama combo”. We decide we have to try that and minutes later we are served Bun Cha. A dish of grilled pork, noodles, herbs with a side of dipping sauce and fried seafood rolls. A cold Hanoi beer to wash it all down with, it’s simple, it’s delicious and it’s ridiculously cheap. Lunch for the eight of us is less than $25.
Colorful street markets
We explore the streets and the colorful markets, where we taste all kind of new fruits. We are amazed seeing how at night, the whole city comes to life. In the downtown area, they close off the streets. The Vietnamese local people flock to the streets to watch the street performers and musicians and buy things from local vendors. The crowd consist mostly of young families and youth and we learn that 70% of the population in Vietnam is under 30. There must be close to half a million people out on the streets; it’s colorful, it’s peaceful, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Worth the visit
In conclusion, Hanoi and its lively atmosphere have captivated me and I wish I had had more time to just walk the streets of the old town. Next time I visit, I will for sure skip the lacquerware and tourist stores our guide took us to and focus instead on the local and authentic stores in the old town.