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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Vietnam.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Vietnam.
Deep inside Hung Ton Cave, a wooden ladder dropped iom down into darkness. As I stood alone at the bottom waiting for my fellow trekkers to descend, only the faint sound of muffled voices drifted from above. I scanned with my headtorch: the slate-grey of the cave wall was punctuated with bright dots, shining like diamonds; closer inspection revealed them to be the reflective eyes of huntsman spiders, each with leg spans as large as my outstretched hand. As I trained my beam on a particularly large specimen, the quiet of the cave was abruptly broken. Shouts of “Snake! Snake!” came from the top of the ladder. We had been promised an Indiana Jones-style adventure and, just 30 minutes into the first of the treks many caves, that promise was being delivered in spades.
Welcome to the world’s biggest cave – Hang Ton sits in the wider Tu Lan Cave area in Quang Binh province, a wild region of barely penetrable jungle-clad limestone karst that occupies Vietnam’s skinny waist-land, close to the border with Laos. The area is riddled with hundreds of deep caves, including one of the largest in the world – Hang Son Doong -which contains a cavern so tall that a skyscraper could fit inside it. A jungle also thrives in its vast interior, providing a habitat for monkeys and flying foxes. I’d been to the area before, and had met Howard and Deb Limbert, members of the British Cave Research Association. They were part of the team that first explored Son Doong, having been led to its mouth by local man, Mr Ho Khanh.
“When Mr Khanh spoke of the entrance to the cave, I knew we could be onto something extremely special,” Howard had told me. It was the mapping of Son Doong and its opening to tourists in 2013 that was the catalyst for the establishment of Vietnam’s newest adventure playground in the area around it. Howard is a former biomedical scientist who speaks in a soft, measured Yorkshire lilt; that is, until he gets onto his favourite subject: the caves. Then, he is in his element, and it’s near-impossible not to be swept along by his enthusiasm. “I’ve caved all over the world, but this place is special,” he said. “The people I work with here are real jungle folk – they are hard, hard men, but sociable and deeply honest.
Sitting around a campfire with these guys, singing and enjoying some rice wine in the evening, adds an extra layer to an expedition.” But while the massive Son Doong Cave has grabbed all the headlines and visitors, Howard, Deb and other British cavers have been busy scouting the area for alternative adventures: “I’m convinced there could be something even bigger here,” said Howard. “However, it’s not all about being the biggest – we’ve also found plenty of long, river caves for people to explore which we call the Tu Lan adventure. We’re talking about swimming through caverns full of fascinating formations and getting a real Indiana (ones feeling. You should try it.”
Eden on the edge – Those words were still fresh in my mind when, later that year, I travelled back to Phong Nha, the small town that is basecamp for the area’s trekking adventures, with a view to tackling Tun Lan myself. I checked in at the homestay owned by the discoverer of Son Doong’s entrance, Mr Ho Khanh. Not long ago, the road in front of his house was a rutted track peppered with old arms and ammo rusting in the scorching sun. Today it is smoothly paved, and his homestay business is growing. The money that the caves have brought to the town is evident. Nearby, the road crosses the Ho Chi Minh Highway West, which snakes close to the original Ho Chi Minh Trail – a key supply artery during the Vietnam War. We turned onto a side road bordered by glowing paddy fields as gaggles of school kids wearing bright-white cottons and carrying red plastic stools weaved their way around us.
Groups of farmers worked the land, their conical hats bobbing: the women hacked the crops with scythes while the men carried the bundles away. Once we were geared up with waterproof bags, lifejackets, headtorches and other supplies, we headed toward the caves. As we walked along a muddy farm track, our guide, Bamboo, pointed out the height of the last major flood in 2010. Looking around at the flat expanse between the hills, what Bamboo described was unfathomable. “The waters swelled to such a height that tall stilt-houses were totally submerged and countless cattle were killed,” he said. As a result, safe houses have now been built on higher ground and, in the nearby villages, numerous small huts perch on buoyant barrels, ready to be loaded with valuables should the waters rage again.
At the tail end of the dry season under a cerulean sky, the river still flowed strongly, meandering through buffalo-filled fields in the shadow of the vibrant-green hills. After a brief stop under the beating sun to photograph this Eden-like scene, we waded across the river and reached a rocky path that pitched skyward over a pass before descending into a hidden valley. “Illegal loggers set this path up before we came here,” Bamboo explained, pointing out the planks of wood they used to drag up timber. “They would use motorcycle-engine-powered winches to haul massive pieces of wood from the jungle.” Illegal logging and hunting for animals is still rife in the area, but the jobs provided through tourism are doing much to make the practice less of a necessity.
Going down – Before long we arrived at the mouth of the first cave: Hang Ton. Safety instructions were issued, then we cautiously stepped into the darkness. Grouped together at the bottom of a 6m-long ladder, a hush descended. In the daylight, conversation had flowed, but in the eerie darkness we stood quietly, training our torch beams on the glistening rock formations around us. As we approached the river that flows inside the cavern, the only sound was the drip-drip of droplets falling from stalactites onto the water’s surface.
Nowhere has Vietnam’s charm and history endured longer than in the ancient port city of Hoi An, which for centuries was a major center for Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Chinese, and French merchants and seafarers.
A miracle left the city and its more than 800 historic structures unscathed by the Vietnam War, and today its people are understandably proud of their architectural heritage. You’ll find many homes, temples, wells, pagodas, bridges, and stores in varying degrees of preservation, many of which are open to the public free of charge, allowing visitors to stroll in and out of the centuries.
A contemporary of Malaysia’s port town of Malacca, Hoi An has so far escaped the overzealous tourism-incited preservation that’s given that city something of a theme-park look, and the beautiful stretch of beach at Cua Dai, just outside town, is still blissfully free of resorts and hawkers. Development is in the wind, though, so make this your first stop.
Nostalgia rules at the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar, once a home away from home for ex-pats and wartime journalists, who gathered here around the clock to nurse a scotch and swap scoops. Old habits die hard, and the newly redecorated bar continues to be the city’s most popular watering hole, embellished with year-round Christmas lights, singing birds, and topiary shrubs.
There’s a great view of downtown Saigon, where artillery has been replaced by the lights and cacophony of a perpetual traffic jam of bicycles, cars, motor scooters, and three-wheeled cyclos. Posh it isn’t, but the Rex is dripping with history, and few Westerners pass through town without an obligatory tipple. The standard rooms are not the city’s most luxurious, but fit the bill for visitors in search of the Saigon Experience and must be booked well in advance.
Although it recalls earlier times, the Rex is also the hub of modern-day Saigon. There’s a real international buzz here. You’d never know you’re in a Communist country.
Ditto for your inevitable reaction to the Ben Thanh Market, the French-built municipal marketplace that lies to the west on Le Loi Street. An explosive wave of entrepreneurship has hit Vietnam, and Saigon has become one big selling game, with over forty markets spread around the city.
Ben Thanh, the traditional alternative for vendors who can’t afford the high commercial rents charged elsewhere in town, is the market. Enjoy it: Hundreds of vendors create a narrow maze of stalls touting everything from the latest Japanese gadgets to bolts of silk, cobra wine, and Coca-Cola.
The traditional is stacked up alongside the modern and the fierce haggling is eternal. Go for the color and the exotic chaos, but realize that no matter how honed your negotiating skills, you’re still going to pay twice as much as a local customer.
One of the most memorable attributes of Vietnam is its gastronomic tapestry of Asian and French-influenced cuisine, in which beef, fish, rice, and produce from the fertile Mekong River delta are infused with explosive flavors and complex but delicate seasonings.
Owning to this mix, the simple national dish of pho, a rice noodle soup eaten by rich and poor at breakfast and at every other hour of the day, can be almost lyrical. If you’ve only sampled it elsewhere, prepare yourself: The pho you have here will be like nothing you’ve tasted before.
Jump into a pedicab and make your way to Pho Hoa, perhaps the best known of the country’s thousands of noodle restaurants. Pasteur Street is pho heaven, lined with nondescript storefront shops and stalls selling this specialty, but for twenty years Pho Hoa has been considered the best.
The soul of pho is the broth, and an enormous cauldron at the Pho Hoa boils the seasoned and flavorful brew for five hours before your steaming bowl arrives, chock-full of slippery and soft chewy noodles and thin slices of beef or chicken. Go for breakfast so you can come back for lunch and dinner too.
Located between the green oasis of Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red River, the mazelike Old Quarter of Hanoi has been a shopping venue since the 15th century. Nearly forty of its narrow, crowded streets are named after the goods once sold along them: Rice Street, Silk Street, Pots and Pans Street, Gold Street – there’s even a Gravestone Street.
It remains to be seen if names like Pirate Video Street or T-shirt Street will follow. Open dilapidated storefronts give new meaning to “window shopping.” These cubbyholes are sometimes just large enough to hold a wizened old merchant amid goods stacked to the ceiling.
After decades of suppressions, every square inch of the Old Quarter is once again alive with capitalistic fervor. Noodles, flowers, antiques, and handicrafts are yours for the bargaining.
The venerable French Quarter and its faded colonial charm is what sets Hanoi apart from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), its onetime rival in the south.
Built by the French when Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina (1887-1954), most of the area’s once handsome buildings are sorely in need of repair – even a coat of paint would be welcome – but the wide, tree-lined, still-elegant boulevards, and sprawling tumbledown villas afford visitors a glimpse of a proud, albeit struggling country’s European legacy harmoniously blended with Chinese and Vietnamese architecture.
Visit the 900-year-old Temple of Literature (the country’s oldest university) and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a pedicab ride away. Better catch it soon: While city officials decide what to do with this potentially potent tourism attraction, historic structures are being modified with modem additions and satellite dishes, or even being razed—not unlike what the French did in the name of modernization upon their arrival.
For accommodations in the Quarter, the Metropole hotel, recently restored to its original 1920s style, is once again a standout in Vietnam’s limited hotel market, recalling the days when it was operated by the French and was a gathering place for artists, writers, and government bigwigs.
A modern wing has been added, but you’ll be happiest in the original building, where architects have carefully preserved the buffed hardwood floors, green-shuttered windows, and other elements that give European distinction to the white stuccoed facade. No hotel has a better address: guests are just one block from the enchanting Hoan Kiem Lake, where smiling women twice your age and three times as supple encourage you to join their crack-of-dawn t’ai chi classes.
For more than seven decades, Cha Ca La Vong’s dedicated clientele has been on to something: namely, cha ca, the restaurant’s most famous – and only – dish.
This succulent fried-fish masterpiece, whose recipe has been in the Doan family for generations and whose name translates roughly as “curried Red River fish,” has become so entrenched in Hanoi’s epicurean mythology that the city renamed the lane out front in its honor.
Cha ca is an informal and entertaining affair. A rickety flight of wooden stairs leads to the unremarkable second-floor restaurant full of equally rickety chairs, where patrons cook chunks of seasoned garoupa fish themselves on a charcoal clay brazier, stirring in chives and dill.
The rich, oily stew is then spooned into bowls of vermicelli rice noodles and enlivened by the addition of shrimp sauce, fried peanuts, and pickled vegetables. But the real secret ingredient? If you can believe the rumors, two drops of an essence extracted from the perfume gland of the ca cuong beetle.
It’s said that dragons once descended from heaven and spouted streams of jade droplets that fell into the waters of Halong Bay, forming thousands of islands and islets to protect the bay and its people from invading marauders.
Today this mysterious body of water, with its nature-sculpted limestone islands and outcroppings that resemble (and are named for) dogs, elephants, toads, monkeys, and other animals and shapes, has the surreal quality of classical Chinese and Vietnamese paintings, especially when the sails of sampans and junks are silhouetted against the horizon like giant butterflies.
More than 100 miles in length, Halong is home to sandy unpeopled beaches and centuries-old floating fishing villages, whose boat people still honor the deities of these timeless waters.
A ragtag fleet of tourist boats and inexpensive personality-free hotels have sprung up around Bay Chai and Hong Gai, but the only way to really experience the hidden lagoons and caves of stalagmites and fantastic rock formations is by joining a kayaking trip and zigzagging your way through the maze of jagged isles.
A cool retreat from the sweltering heat of Vietnam’s coastal plains, Dalat became the hill station of choice for the French, who created here their own Petit Paris on a plateau close to 5,000 feet above sea level.
Enjoying mild, springlike weather year-round, Dalat is called the City of Love because of its longtime popularity with Vietnamese honeymooners, who come for the high-country magic and a landscape dotted with clear lakes, waterfalls, evergreen forests, and flower gardens. Traditional French elegance blends with Vietnamese graciousness in the loveliest hotel in town, the Sofitel Dalat Palace.
Overlooking Xuan Huong Lake, it was built in 1922, when Dalat was still Indochina’s premier mountain resort. The hotel’s world-class 18-hole golf course is a rarity in Vietnam, for the moment the only one of its kind.
It’s a long and bumpy ride north from Hanoi to Sapa, the country’s most picturesque hill resort, perched at 5,000 feet in an incredibly beautiful mountain area that the French used to call the Tonkinese Alps, near the Laotian and Chinese borders.
The area is home to a wealth of hill tribes – collectively known as the Montagnard (“mountain people”) – who come to the Sapa marketplace on Saturdays to sell their homegrown fruit and vegetables and handicrafts and to share news. Of the thirty-odd ethnic groups that live in distant villages on the mountainsides or deep valleys, the friendly Black Hmong and Red Dao dominate. You might get a good deal on a water buffalo.
Sapa is the perfect base for day trips or overnight treks to Mount Fansi Pan (Vietnam’s highest peak) or to the Montagnard villages, where the natural beauty of steep, terraced vegetable gardens and crystal-clear streams are easy on the eyes and refreshing to the spirit.