‘She rose from the genital wave…’ So wrote the poet, Charles Olson of Aphrodite. Though he could just have easily been writing of the verdant, serpentine country that is Vietnam.
Languid, mysterious, and romantic, this landscape is the stuff of honeymoons.
I thought associating the ancient Greek Aphrodite with Vietnam may have been a mythical leap too far; until, that is, I saw Thanglong Water Puppet Theatre, in downtown Hanoi, showcase Vietnam’s creation myth which features the marriage of Lạc Long Quân (Dragon Lord of Lạc) and Âu Cơ (an immortal mountain fairy).
One moment, the dragon and fairy are drifting about, wooing one another. Next thing, a giant sac emerges from the depths of the water-filled stage—the fruit of their union—and out crack one hundred eggs from which one hundred Vietnamese children spill out across the crest of the waves proving (to my fertile imagination, at least) that, like Aphrodite, Vietnam ‘rose from the genital wave’.
But staying with this theme of water, when I told friends I was visiting Vietnam, the first thing everyone asked was whether I’d be visiting Hạ Long Bay. Four hours’ drive east of Hanoi, Hạ Long Bay is located on the Bac Bo Gulf off the north-eastern coast. In 1994 it was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In 2012 the New 7 Wonders Foundation officially named Hạ Long Bay as one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. With such accolades heaped upon it, I don’t think I have to spell out how mind-bogglingly beautiful this area is.
Reminiscent of Krabi in Thailand, approximately two thousand stone islets bearing lush vegetation—some of which look like giant, limestone helter-skelters and others like women’s bodies lay partially submerged in the water—are dotted about in viscous, emerald green waters. Apparently, the islands are the peaks of underwater mountains. Hidden in many of them are natural, water-formed caves. Moneys, too.
Continuing the Vietnamese people’s penchant for all things mythical, the accompanying story for Hạ Long Bay is that ‘Hạ Long’ translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ or ‘descending dragon bay’.
Legend has it this area was created by a dragon which lived in the mountains. As its mighty form charged towards the coast, its tail lashed, this way and that, gouging out valleys and crevasses along the way. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area was submerged with water, leaving only the topmost forms visible.
Watching this otherworldly landscape drift by from my bedroom on board our junk, The Pelican, I wished I’d have been visiting with a loved one. Though it was foggy and drizzly during our visit, it only added to the evocative and ethereal atmosphere. Languid, mysterious, and romantic, this landscape is the stuff of honeymoons. Of this area, former prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Ho Chi Minh said: “It is the wonder that one cannot impart to others”. But I rather like the more poetic stance taken by the Vietnamese writer, Huy Cận, who said: 'Night breathes, stars wave Hạ Long's water’.
Should you wish to visit Hạ Long Bay (and if you plan on visiting north-east Vietnam, you really should), don’t bother staying at Hạ Long City which doesn’t make for the most ideal of introductions to this incredible area. Instead, make like the majority of visitors and opt for a cruise tour in which you can sleep out in the bay. And when it comes to choosing your boat, don’t scrimp. As many only visit for a few nights, it’s worth staying on a boat which is comfortable, safe, and well maintained.
Back in Hanoi, I agreed with a fellow writer friend’s description of the city as ‘frenetic’. One of Hanoi’s former names was Thăng Long which means ‘Soaring Dragon’—a rather apt description for a city seething with scooters and motorbikes leaving a trail of fumes which lend a hazy air to proceedings. Pollution masks are de rigueur. Eyes in the back of your head, even more so (unless you’re a hardened traveller, I’d recommend a local tour guide to make the most of your stay here—I, for one, was glad we had one).
My tour guide: Duoc Vu VanNight and day, the streets teem with a never-ending assault of folks zipping about. It’s dizzying, but fun. Let’s just say Hanoi makes the streets of Naples look calm in comparison.
Speaking of Italy, the café culture, here, is also booming. I thought I loved Italian espressos (and my beloved Turkish coffee) until I tried traditional Vietnamese coffee—hands down, it’s in a league of its own. Rich, fragrant, and intoxicating, one early-morning cup of their potent brew had me set to ‘hyper-speed’ for the rest of the day. If you’re a coffee aficionado, it’s well worth tracking down and learning how to make it, Vietnamese-style (avec condensed milk), at home.
The French have left an indelible impression on the city with their wide boulevards, grand villas, and striking architecture all of which sit side-by-side with ancient Asian temples and skyscrapers fit for the modern age. No doubt about it, this place is flourishing.
Further evidence of Hanoi’s ascendency is its successful bid to host the Asian Games in 2019 as a result of which, much needed infrastructure is being put in place and an immense collective pride swells the gnarled streets.
Though my visit was brief, my impression was lasting. From the multitudinous shades of green which blanket the lush landscape to the soulful shimmer the down-to-earth, industrious people radiate, Vietnam is an enchanting and intriguing country.
Long may she continue to soar.
Follow Thea on Twitter @UrbanDeva
Thea flew from Manchester to Hanoi with Finnair. Finnair will begin flying to Hanoi in Vietnam in summer 2013. Finnair will become the only European airline to offer a direct connection from Europe to the capital of Vietnam. Starting on June 14, Finnair will begin service to Hanoi from its hub in Helsinki with three frequencies per week.
The Hanoi route will be operated during the summer schedule season, which lasts until 27 October 2013. Finnair has three time weekly flights to Hanoi from both Manchester and Heathrow via Helsinki.
The below return fares include taxes, service and booking fees starting from:
Business class: £2,280
Economy class: £597
Business class: £2,290.37
Economy class: £607.37
Tickets can be booked at www.finnair.co.uk or 0870 2414411. For more information please see www.finnair.co.uk
For up to date offers and news follow Finnair on Twitter @finnairuk
AY097 4.30pm - 6:40am +1 Mon, Thu, Sat (Flight time 10h10min)
AY098 8.25am - 3.20pm Tue, Fri, Sun (Flight time 10h55min)
Manchester-Helsinki-Manchester timetable (two flights daily):
Manchester - Helsinki:
AY2934 10.25am - 3.10pm
AY2938 5:50pm - 10.30pm
AY2933 8.25am - 9.25am
AY2937 4:05pm - 5pm
Finnair also fly to 12 other Asian cities in Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, Thailand and China with Xi’an also beginning in June 2013.
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism: www.vietnamtourism.com
Hanoi: information and bookings of package arrangements, hotel accommodation, and city tours can be arranged by Phoenix Voyages:www.phoenixvoyages.com
For a local tour guide, email the highly recommended (Mr) Vu Van Duoc:firstname.lastname@example.org
Thea stayed at Sofitel Plaza in Hanoi (www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-3553-sofitel-plaza-hanoi/index.shtml) and on board The Pelican in Halong Bay: www.pelicancruise.com
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