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But when I first arrived in Hanoi, the welcome greeting was different: when the hold door of the plane opened, the humid and heavy air of Asia hit me as a very light rain was falling down on the Hanoi airport. Little did I know about the country. To be honest, when I booked my flight and I started planning the trip, I thought Vietnam was as big as Italy. I was soon proved wrong. Little did I know about its history: since I was born at the end of the cold war, few days after the fall of the Berlin wall, Vietnam to me was something linked to the Hollywood movies or some stories told by our parents who did not experience the war in a significant way as their peers born in the States. But I was really willing to know more about it, exploring it with some sort of virgin eyes, which is somehow a privilege nowadays since we are constantly bombed by images of trips on Instagram.
Our trip started in Hanoi. As we drove from the airport to the center I noticed the growing sound of scooter’s horns, the amount of cars rising and the building getting taller and closer to one another creating an exciting but also harmonious chaos.
Built literally between the trees Hanoi serves as the capital of Vietnam but it’s by far the less international and modern city of the country: the most authentic soul of Vietnam showing itself with no filters. Hot, humid, polluted, crowded but also magic and charming. Hanoi has a lot to offer: nice coffee places to freshen up during the day (you need to try the typical Vietnamese coffee served with cream and ice) and charming restaurants to dine at during the night like (e.g. the Dong Phu restaurant). The best is by far to get lost as in an ancient city: a maze of shops, scooters, tiny streets and people selling everything on the street. If you want to rest, you can join the local old people in the early morning practicing Tai Chi in the main parks. If you are not a morning person you can head to Onamori Spa, for a very special massage: the center is a non-profit organization that values diversity. The masseuses are blind people who, thanks to Onamori Spa are able to fully participate in society, encouraging independence and self-confidence.
A very good start for our 15-days trip.
After Hanoi we headed north. The north mostly covers the Sapa region, a border area between Vietnam and China and the very famous Ha Long Bay, which is located north east on the map.
To reach the Sapa region, once a countryside area where the French colonies used to rest from the very hot and humid summer days of Hanoi, we took a night train. Built in the 30s by the French colonies, the train had cabins with white blankets beds, a small coffe table with an a-bat jour and a vase with flowers on it and its walls painted in a dark navy blue, which softened up the lights and created a very cozy atmosphere.
As we arrived in Sapa we went to Sapa o Chapu, a local organization that connects the tourists with the Hmong communities. The Hmong is a minority group which do not refer to themselves as Vietnamese. They have their local languages and uses, and are divided in different groups depending on the color of the clothes (Black Hmong - Red Hmong and so on). It’s a 5 hours walking trekking in an amazing and charming region with tons of rice-fields and few small forests where to rest from the hot sun.
There are few local restaurants on the way. Most of the tour guides include lunch in the package deal, so you don’t get the chance to pick where to eat. For us, it was a tiny local unnamed restaurant where we had the best spring rolls of the entire vacation.
Once we reached the homestay, a big house located on the top of a hill, we decided to rent a scooter and hit the road and we were very lucky to catch the sunset on the top of a hill where the rice fields were turning gold because of the light.
The next day a driver took us to Bac Ha market, where you can buy local indigo fabrics dried by the Hmong women.
After Sapa we started to move south with a stop at Hạ Long Bay.
Hạ Long Bay is one of the most famous natural places in Vietnam. A Unesco World Heritage site from 1994, Hạ Long Bay is composed of thousands of limestone karsts and little islands which dive directly into the green sea. The best way to visit it is by booking a small cruise. There are several options you can choose from, but we opted for a 2 days trip with one night on board. A down-side of visiting Hạ Long Bay is that being very crowded, sometimes you might have the feeling of being in a very touristic place. To avoid this, we decided to visit a smaller yet beautiful bay, which is called Bai to Long, still located in the same main bay of Hạ Long.
After Hạ Long Bay, we started descending the country, with a stop in the Ninh Binh area.
One of the best attractions of the area is Tam Cốc (which literally means “Three caves”), located on the Ngo Dong river. Tam Cốc is a scenic landscape complex of green fields and caves that you can visit with a small boat along the river. It was also the set of the latest King Kong movie, which is something the locals are very proud of. We took a room at the Mua Cave Ecolodge, a very nice place at the bottom of a hill, where you can have an amazing view of the valley from. The place was very peaceful and charming, with a balcony directly on the rice fields.
Our very last stop was Hồ Chí Minh, or Saigon as it was called before the war. This was one of the places that most suffered the war days. A part of the city is very modern, with fancy boutiques and high skyscrapers, which made it look more like Singapore or Hong Kong, an international asian city with a lot of energy. But there is also a lot of history: like the post office that resembles Paris with the green iron structure and the portrait of the most famous French scientist carved on the main entrance, built by the French during the colonialism era. Or Hotel Continental, which is not a monument but as the name might recall, it is the hotel where journalists used to sleep and report from during the war days.
To be honest I regret spending just one day there. I did not have the chance to visit the Reunification palace, but luckily, I had enough time to visit the War Remnants Museum, a very interesting visit to get to know more about one of the most terrible wars of the 20th century.
The next stop was Huế.
Huế was the imperial city and the former capital of Vietnam and the main attraction is indeed the 19th century citadel surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. The city was also the battleground for the Battle of Huế, which was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Part of the palace was bombed during the war, but enough was left of it to have an idea of the ancient history of Vietnam and how the emperor used to live before the French colonialism.
If you are searching for less bitten paths, you can rent a scooter and visit the Royal Tombs outside the city. It’s a very nice drive through the suburbs of Huế which gives you also an idea of how people live outside the main urban area.
We had dinner at the Les Jardins de la Carambole. The restaurant is located in a former colonial villa close to the Citadel; and is run by a French chef and his Vietnamese wife serving fusion food of the two cuisines. It’s a very charming place, where time seems suspended. Try the amazing pancakes, a typical Vietnamese food that looks like a fried version of the French crepes, served with vegetables.
For a more Asian-like place, we tried the very famous Hand Restaurant. Here you can try the Huế specialities like Bahn khi or the Banh bao.
Hội An, also called the “Lantern City” due to the numerous lanterns hung in the center, is a small city located on the west coast. A former important harbor it is now the least Vietnamese city of all, a place where time feels suspended. As you walk through the small streets of the city center at night, illuminated by the warm light of the lanterns, you can notice how its buildings and street plan are reflecting different foreign influences. There are also important historical monuments like the covered Japanese Bridge, dating to the 16th-17th century. The center is closed to cars and scooters which makes the chaos and pollution of Hanoi seem very far away.
The city is also famous for its food and to be one the best places to experience the Vietnamese cuisine. You can indeed choose between several restaurants or also test your chef skills with different cooking courses.
The best way to kick off is to have a coffee at Reaching out tea house. The place is run by deaf and mute people which means that you need to write down your order on a small sheet of paper, or use the pre-composed words written on some wood sticks ( like “thank you” “the bill” “I would like this”). Silence is king. A true restorative place to start your day in Hội An.
The city is also very close to the sea, and after almost 15 days traveling we decided to give ourselves a break, laying on the An Bang beach.
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