Tag: Vietnam Field TripView All Tags
An hour south of Hue, Hoi An offers a brighter side of Vietnamese history. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site unto itself, a preserved shipping village. The entire city rests inside the low-hanging slope of scalloped, stone roofs that characterize Chinese-Viet architecture.
In town, you can watch local artisans, paint, sculpt, and embroider, visit the many gated, ornate homes dedicated to familial ancestors, or stroll across the wooden Japanese Covered Bridge. The whole place is almost too quaint, and you will be surrounded by plenty of wholesome families spending there days eating and shopping. It’s certainly a great place to do both.
Vietnam Field Trip / Embedded Travel Guides / Hue Travel / Forbidden Purple City / Demilitarized Zone / → All Tags
After trekking through the terraced mountains, I climbed back aboard the train, headed back to Hanoi, then south to Hué (pronounced Hway), a small city in the center of Vietnam, dense with history. It seems almost half the city is contained within the walls of the Citadel, the royal capital of Vietnam’s ousted monarchy.
Inside the stone gate, neighborhoods, moats, and pagodas all surround the Forbidden Purple City, the complex once accessible only to the Nguyen kings and his concubines and eunichs. I expected a maze of opulent palaces; I found a grassy field. Fighting during the American War 40 years ago virtually razed the Forbidden City, and like most things unrelated to the Communist party, little has been done to restore it.
The liveliest part of the grounds is the massive koi ponds near the main entrance, where young Vietnamese feed bread to giant fish who flap and scramble over each other, mouths agape, trying to catch the crumbs.
After returning to Hanoi from Halong Bay, I rode our first overnight train northwest to Sapa, the mountainous town famous for its proximity to Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest mountain, and for the ubiquity of indigenous tribes.
Riding Vietnam’s national railroad is an experience in itself, and during my travels through the country, I slept on four trains. Cars range from whimsical, antique wooden boxes that look like something straight out of Darjeeling Limited to dingy, plastic cells with mattresses covered in hair.
True story—I found a bottle of warm urine resting on the windowsill in one of my rooms.
From Hanoi, we headed east to Halong Bay. More than 3,000 limestone islands jut out of the Gulf of Tonkin, so it's often compared to Krabi in Southern Thailand, though I visited there in November and Halong’s landscape is far more impressive. It does, however, lack the sandy, white beaches.
Like many UNESCO sites, the beauty of Halong Bay is constantly at odds with the ugliness of heavy tourism. Its adjacent city is the worst of rapid, unchecked development, with hideous high-rises abutting massage parlors and slums. The bay itself is littered with “junk boats,” heavy wooden boats that ferry tourists through the maze of islands.
While the antique boats themselves look quite beautiful lumbering through the water, there is simply too many of them. Often, the iridescent glean of oil is visible on the water, and I floated past empty bottles and debris.
The seasoned—and spoiled—traveler often complains of desensitization. After viewing a few world wonders, everything becomes banal. So when an amazing place comes along, particularly one without a ton of hype, it restores a traveler’s basic belief that there are places in the world worth seeking out and crossing great distances to experience.
For me, that place is Hanoi. When I traveled the length of the country last month, I started in the capital, and it exceeded all expectations. Sure, its inhabitants say the city was even better 10 years ago, but it's still great and I don't risk sanctions by my home country now for visiting it.
Perhaps you’ve heard the city is quaint, with vendors lining narrow streets, selling bowls of steaming pho and two-cent glasses of ice-cold local beer. I promise—it’s more charming than the image in your mind right now. And even if people have mentioned that the country, while economically liberalized, remains staunchly communist, you can’t conceptualize the ubiquity of political propaganda—with posters, flags, and Ho Chi Minh’s face virtually everywhere.
Even if someone told you Hanoi’s dotted with lakes surrounded by parks with giant, looming trees and well-kept promenades, you can’t imagine how green the city truly is. In Asia, the “pave paradise, put up a parking lot” ethos is often an unironic way of life. Historic buildings are demolished and replaced with high rises; lakes filled and parks razed to make way for new developments. In Vietnam, a country that spent most of the last century at war, it’s amazing that its centuries-old architecture—and trees—somehow managed to survive.
Our only warning is that once in Hanoi, you might be met with a strong and sudden urge to never leave. However, if you stick around for only a few days, here are a few Best Ofs in town.