In 2010, shortly after Christmas, we escaped the horrible snow in Germany and set off for Asia for three weeks. It wasn’t easy to get to the airport at -15°C and snow mountains as far as the eye could see. But when we arrived in Hanoi at 23°C we knew it was worth the fight. Before traveling on to Cambodia, we spent two and a half weeks roaming the lively streets of the capital, enjoying an idyllic cruise through Halong Bay and driving along the coast. We were very impressed by the street life in the different cities as well as the culture and nature.
Our first impression of Hanoi’s streets was that chaos reigns here. Traffic rules didn’t seem to exist, and if you wanted to somehow cross the street, you just had to throw yourself into the never-ending stream of two-strokes. The themed streets of the old town were organized in a certain way: streets with shoes only, streets with only buttons and zippers, streets with only sweets, streets with toys, streets with mannequins and so on and so forth.
After walking through the smog of Hanoi for two days, we realized why many locals wear face masks. But it’s definitely worth spending the time in Vietnam’s capital on the streets, because that’s where life takes place. The goods are not only sold on the sidewalk, they are often manufactured there as well. People cook and eat on the side of the road, have their hair cut on the sidewalk, make the broom for street cleaning. There is no privacy as we know it in Germany – for example, Vietnamese dental practice have large shop windows.
We could write forever about all the differences to Europe – for example the supermarkets with cash drawers where all the bills were thrown all over the place, or the can shelves where sodas with different juices and various beers were happily piled up – but you have to simply experience. It all adds up to a really endearing mix that is well worth exploring!
What didn’t impress us too much was our Perfume Pagodas day trip from Hanoi. We drove around by car and boat for ages and then only had 1.5 hours to see the temples. Our unmotivated tour guide was not entirely innocent. It’s a shame, because we think there would have been more to see in the area.
A real contrast to bustling Hanoi was the two-day tour through Halong Bay on the “Dragon Pearl”. It was quiet and idyllic here, and in the evening you could cruise through the karst rocks with a glass of wine on deck under the starry sky. During the day we visited a floating village with a nice group of 20 people, explored a cave and went kayaking. This tour really shouldn’t be missed. In retrospect, we would have liked to have stayed longer on board. But we had to go back to Hanoi because the New Year’s Eve party at “Sofitel Metropole Legend” was waiting for us
Ninh Binh, Tam Coc
Then we went south by train. This is not quite as idyllic an affair as some travel guides claim. Some carriages have more cockroaches than people on board, and once you’ve managed to squeeze your way onto the train with the rushing pack – all charity ends on the platform – you’ll be greeted at an unbelievable volume with Vietnamese singing shows or “Lara Croft ” films.
Our first stop was Ninh Binh, where there are all kinds of interesting and beautiful temples to visit in the area. From there, in an adventurous old car with a driver, we made a day trip to the Bich Dong Pagoda, Hang Mua, the ancient imperial city of Hoa Lu and Tam Coc. From the pictures one expects spectacularly green rice fields in Tam Coc – but they don’t exist in January …
Bai Dinh pagoda
The next day we drove to the Bai Dinh pagoda, which our driver had announced to us as “big pagoda”. He was right! Although still under construction, everything here was of monumental proportions – both the seemingly endless staircases with the many stone statues to the main buildings and the golden Buddha statues inside. Absolutely worth seeing!
Phong Nha Caves
Every now and then we felt like we were on another planet on our Vietnam tour. The aliens were obviously us: in Ninh Binh we were surrounded for minutes by a Vietnamese school class that had five cameras pointed at us to photograph the exotic Europeans
Next we made a stop in the unassuming Dong Hoi. We simply recommend that to everyone! From here you can reach the nearby Phong Nha Caves by taxi and boat, which – at least in 2011 – were relatively deserted. We were rowed across the river into the caves, where we moored on a sandy beach and were able to explore the huge stalactite cave, which stretched over two floors. There were three of us and we couldn’t hear anything except the lapping of the water. The stalactites and stalagmites in the cave have every imaginable shape and some are illuminated with colored lights, which makes this fairytale world even more incredible. One of the most impressive natural phenomena we have ever seen!
Further south, authentic Vietnam was over. In Hué, the tourist density was clearly higher than in Ninh Binh, for example. Since it rained constantly, we didn’t do too much. We explored the citadel with its partly burnt ruins and partly colorfully restored buildings and paid a visit to a few imperial tombs in the vicinity. Otherwise, we just had a good time in our great hotel, the “Pilgrimage Village” – beautiful grounds, nice staff, great bungalows and delicious breakfast. Everything is right here!
If you take a taxi from Danang to Hoi An, you can see the frightening development that is happening here on the coast. Mass tourism is coming. One is being built on those stretches of beach where there isn’t yet a hotel resort.
In the beautiful old town of Hoi An, you only meet tourists on the street. We spent most of our time here in the shops where you can buy hand painted pictures, bespoke clothes and shoes and much more at very affordable prices – a great place to stroll and shop! However, you have to be prepared for the fact that what you can have made in the cheaper tailors won’t fit the first time – so it’s better not to buy at the last minute 🙂
My Son, Marble Mountains
We did two day trips from Hoi An. The famous ruins of My Son, while historically interesting, weren’t that impressive to us. However, the world of insects is great; large tropical butterflies and all kinds of other strange creatures can be spotted here.
We were even less impressed with our tour of the Marble Mountains. The temples artificially built into the karst rocks have none of the charm that can be found elsewhere. The “great view” from the mountains reveals the view of some hotel complexes on the beach and numerous tourist shops in the streets.
Our trip to Vietnam ended in Hoi An, which showed us how different life can be from Germany. But we didn’t returned home yet, but went to neighboring Cambodia for a few days. Since you can experience a lot at Angkor Wat in four days, there is a separate post on our travel page.
Addendum September 2014:
I always believed that memories are permanent. That an once beautiful moment remains forever as a positive experience in our mind. But that’s not the case.
When you hear a faint whimper, while being on a journey somewhere far away from any civilization, and you find an injured and emaciated stray dog in a hole in the ground, pull him out, dress his wounds and share most of your provisions with him, than this experience is only going to be a wonderful memory until that dog jumps in your face and, out of sheer greed and selfishness, makes off with the rest of your rations.
You can forgive this mutt. Animals act mostly instinctively and outside of our moral values. That distinguishes them from us humans.
In September 2014 I discovered Julia’s true colours. The person she was pretending to be had very little to do with her true nature.
Since then, I no longer consider this blog post as a record of my favorite memories of Vietnam, but only as a reminder to never forget that it is not important whether you share a beautiful moment with someone, but with whom.