“Alone, it’s just a journey. Now adventures, they must be shared”
—John D. Payne
A SEQUEL AS AN END
As I said in my previous article, two weeks in Vietnam is a bit short, there’s so much to places to see, so many magnificent venues to explore. We didn’t even finish our first week, that our second was already fully booked and tightly planned. The rhythm was becoming more tense by the day. But there’s no other option when you want to make the best of your time. For our second week in Vietnam, we’ll explore the northern part of the country. Through the rice fields of Ninh Binh, the agitated city of Hanoi to finally end our trip with a two day boat trip in the majestic landscape of Ha Long bay. An exploration oscillating between inhabited nature and urban jungle.
RICE FIELDS AND STEEP HILLS
After visiting Hue, our journey intensified greatly. Although lacking time, we wanted to see a little bit of the countryside. So we decided to take a night bus to go to Ninh Binh, the most easily accessible town with rice fields and sandstone mountains around Hanoi. The only thing was that our night bus would arrive at 5h in the morning. Meaning we had a full day to kill in Ninh Binh. Also meaning we’d have to find things to do before cafes are opening. Because yes, first coffee, this is how we usually operate.
But this time, we opted for a short hike, first thing. We wanted to climb to a high vantage point, to see the sunrise on Ninh Binh’s mountainous surrounding. Little did we know, the clouds were obstructing the sky and all we could see was a dim, white sun rising up. But the view though, was definitely worth the early walk through pitch darkness on uneven stony stairs. When we reached the highest point, we could see multiple sides of the typical Vietnamese landscape. On one side the countryside, bordered with mountains, flooded rice fields at their feet and small farmer houses scattered all around. On the other side, a mountainous landscape stretching to the horizon.
INTRODUCTION TO SUBTLE ENTROPY
The human proximity in the old district of Hanoi is one of the most vibrating we could experience in all Vietnam. Our first evening out in the city was a real show. People were moving in all directions, scooters and cars were relentlessly honking, trying to avoid each other. Small shops, halfway on the street, selling basically anything were scattered here and there. Barbecue were running up and people all around, were eating on the sidewalks, sitting on small plastic chairs. Abundant smell from the food was diffusing their perfume on the city’s air. In all that maelstrom of agitation you realize that other worlds exist and that even if they’re different, they work too.
Most of these Vietnamese people on the street haven’t much, but always try to do things the best they can. While driving in the countryside I realized how it is those modest persons who are actually populating the world. It is not the wealthy that are making the world go round, but those humble people. Only them represent the reality of their country, not the ones in glass and concrete castle dominating the streets.
Just going around in Hanoi is satisfying as life is sparkling everywhere in the streets. But if you like to plan a little there are some notorious places around the city. A well known and funny place to see is the Cura Nam district, where you can see a passager train going through the dense urban fabric. As a matter of fact, the railway is a road itself, some houses are only accessible on that side and kids play badminton when no train is around. You’ll just have to be careful, because policemen are watching out for people not to stack up on the railway. Another good place to see is the imperial citadel, far from being the best historical place in Hanoi, it remain interesting to see how ancient buildings can cohabit with Vietnam’s war tunnels and underground bunkers.
THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
One of Hanoi’s most interesting and beautiful place is the temple of literature, a school dedicated to the veneration on Confucius. It is an ensemble of building dating from the beginning of the eleventh century. The whole place is a garden promenade punctuated by classical Chinese buildings, arranged in a hierarchical order. The pathway leading to Confucius statue memorial is a succession of courtyards with different fonctions and shapes, each courtyard has to be crossed in order to go further. To emphasize the procession, each courtyard is surrounded by a wall, accessible by a distinct door. The further you go, the closer you feel to the eldest’s higher hierarchy.
The temple of literature used to host a hundred of elite students. In Vietnam, not only gods are venerated but also high personalities. Confucius as well as many important teachers have their altars or steles. In the temple of literature, tens of teachers have their own tombstone located on a turtle statue, a symbol of longevity and wisdom. Students would make offerings to them and prey at their feet. This tradition is still very common in Vietnam, where altars for the elders are in many houses.
MUSEUM OF ETHNOGRAPHY
If you’re looking for a glimpse of Vietnamese history, summarized in one place, the museum of ethnography is a great deal. Although extremely complexe, because Vietnam is home to tens of different ethnies scattered from north to south, it gives a overview to understand where the diversity in Vietnam comes from.
But fear not, if the evolution of ethnicities through centuries is too hard to digest, the museum also has a great eco-museum. An outside compound, where traditional buildings are constructed in a park. Although not the original ones, they give a very good idea of the mean of construction used in every tribe. At that time, the morphology of the buildings were defined by rational concerns, solved with local material and traditional techniques. For instance, the wooden houses with an outside coursive have a double layer roof. One is made out of earth, to grant an insulation against heat. The second is made out of wood to protect the house from the heavy rain. In between the space is empty, allowing air to circle through.
The museum is incredibly rich in material, information and artefacts, if you really have time you can spend 4hours as the place is divided into three spaces. There are two buildings with Vietnamese people’s artefacts and temporary exhibitions, and the outside eco-museum. We spent 2 hours and had to rush the second building as the museum was closing.
FANCY A DRINK ?
Vietnam is the second world coffee producer, right after Brazil. Coffee shops are everywhere and of exceptional quality. For two weeks we were cafe hopping like crazy. Not once we went twice in the same cafe. still following ? Because cafes in Vietnam are social places. They are often open on public spaces allowing locals to sit outside to observe the life going through the animated surrounding streets. My long time favorite in Hanoi would be the Blackbird cafe, for its great interior combined with their special egg coffee. Sounds weird but incredibly delicious, it tastes like a tiramisu without biscuit.
If you are looking for fresh fruits too, don’t hesitate to take a smoothie, they’re good everywhere. From the smallest street stall to the biggest restaurant. Vietnamese are awesome cooks and make tremendous smoothies.
HA LONG BAY
HOME OF THE SANDSTONE GIANTS
What would a journey in Vietnam be, without sailing through the magnificent wild mountains of Ha Long bay ? A big miss I’d say. Ha Long bay might be the most touristic place in Vietnam but there’s no way getting around it. To visit those high cliffs in a one of the most beautiful natural scenery you don’t really have a choice, you have to book a cruise. As usual, you’ll find all time and rates, but we opted for a two days boat trip, on the sometimes-turquoise waters of the bay.
Two days is exactly what you need to take your time and enjoy both sunset and sunrise at the bay. For early risers of course. The whole boat trip included two Kayak tours, three meals, a cooking class which actually was more like “look at me while I cook a spring roll” kind of thing, and an introduction to Tai Chi at 5am on the sun deck, also for early risers. All of that punctuated with some brief alone time to furtively contemplate the incredible scenery. Condensed in a 24h time frame, it doesn’t let you get bored, trust me.
Vietnam will surprise you. No matter what you expect, it will. If you expect a peaceful stay, watching sunsets by beach, you’ll be troubled by Vietnam’s relentless agitation. If you are looking for a stimulating experience, some sort of cleavage with your peaceful life, you’ll be amazed by the composed landscapes and the beautiful temples that Vietnam has to offer. Whichever the case, this country will leave a permanent mark on you.
On a side, I had the chance to share this whole experience with Pierre, one of my best friends, which is priceless. I am grateful to him, whom supported me while I took countless pictures, sometimes waiting five minutes at the same spot.