I love Vietnam (starting in the North)

For the past four decades, I have been a serial traveler. I love to see other countries, cultures and to explore the ways of being of people from around the world. To that end, I have been fortunate enough to visit around 42 countries, some of them many times. I love the heat and so have mainly confined myself to climates that provide the capacity to get rid of extra layers of clothes and bask in the glory of blue skies and hot skin. I enjoy sitting in the sun…for about an hour…and then get restless for some adventure, some activity, getting out and about.

I had little to no desire to visit Vietnam. My focus was more on the Americas. And then I decided to enroll as a volunteer with VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) and ended up in Hanoi for 2 years and continue to spend as long as possible there. I forever thank my lucky stars for that opportunity as I totally fell in love with both Hanoi and Vietnam as a whole.

So what is so special about Vietnam? Here, I want to share some thoughts and insights……

Long and relatively narrow, Vietnam has just about every time of countryside you could want. Imagine that you are dropped into the country with the rugged and  glorious mountains, the home of many of the tribes of the 54 Ethnic Minority groups of Vietnam. Each district of the Mountainous area has its own unique character and countryside, some even more spectacular than the rest. Technically if you land at the most northerly point, you are in Ha Giang district and what a treat you have to wind along the mountain roads. You can head east towards the East Sea. west towards the famous town of SaPa, even further west to Son La. Or go south towards Hanoi and, for me, the jewel of Vietnam. 

Ha Giang     Sapa 9

Sapa 29       Sapa 12

OK, I am biased, living in Hanoi for 2 years, I was able to get to know the city very well. So what can you expect to see as a visitor staying for just a few days? Hanoi is something of an assault on the senses and for a few days, you can simply sit back and enjoy it. When you get hooked, you can explore more and more during future visits! The center of Hanoi is loud (too many bikes in many narrow streets), the variety of architecture, street vendors, changes of character from one district to another all fill the vision to the level of overload. There is a strong street culture that thrives in Hanoi much as it has done for centuries. People set up cafes and mini restaurants on the pavement (sidewalk) where you can get a drink or a full meal. The smells permeate the air. In all truth, there are sometimes some less pleasant smells that permeate the air but they are the ones to  hurry past. Hanoi is also of interest and, at times, a challenge to the kinesthetic sense of touch, That street culture and those ‘too many’ bikes on narrow streets, create something of a maze of obstacles to meet, greet and deal with. You cannot be in a rush in the center Hanoi but who cares about rushing when you are on holiday!


Other delights of the North of Vietnam include the famous Ha Long Bay. This has now been designated as being one of the 7 natural wonders of the world…and with good reason. The first time I went to the Bay it was at the end of January and day one saw a mist on the Bay. This all just added to the mysteriousness of this quite amazing place. After the chaos at the port, you arrive on your boat and relax while the crew take the boat out into the Bay. Its difficult to describe the impact that it made on me….I was just dumbstruck. I had seen pictures like you probably have but was not prepared for the atmosphere that is created as you sail around these magnificent mini mountains that emerge out of the sea like some sort of magical monster. Vietnamese lore does indeed describe the Karsts as being dragons that came down from heaven to save Vietnam from some ancient threat of invasion and they turned into stone to act as a protection against an invasion of the country by water. The whole experience is a total delight so much so that I went back twice more. If you have time, add in a trip to Cat Ba Island where you can enjoy a delightful old fashioned seaside town and glorious countryside. Just a few hours drive from Hanoi, this is a must for any traveler to the northern part of Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay    'Wate village' in Ha Long bay

The other jewel of the area that I would add to the ‘must do’ list is Ninh Binh. This area is packed full of treasures. You can see Tam Coc, nicknamed the ‘inland H aLong Bay’…..which is sort of true but belies that fact that the river that you travel down has its own unique flavor of rocks and water. There are also some beautiful old buildings in the area, an ancient palace and many pagodas including one of my favorites in the whole of the country, built into the rock face. And if you want some fresh air and fancy visiting one of the oldest forests in Vietnam, you can to to the Cuc Phuong National Park. In my opinion, the Ninh Binh area is worthy of as long as you can afford to stay there, it has so many hidden treasures to offer the visitor.

P1010647    P1010677

Coming back nearer to Hanoi, you have other areas of interest nearby, there are the craft villages, the Perfume Pagoda and Mai Chau, a delightful town nestling in the valley at the foot of the mountains. But I will come back to these places in more detail in further blogs.




A Day in Ha Noi

You have a free day in Ha Noi. What can you do? Wow, what a question. I always think the first response to a question is another question. What do you want to get out of the day? Do you want history, culture, ambiance, local color? The easiest way of course to get a little of everything is to organize a tour for the day. Of course you can do this in a group with a prearranged set of places to go or you can plan the day yourself with a driver and guide.

So let’s plan a day in Ha Noi that covers all bases, a sort of pick and mix approach.

Just driving around this vibrant city is an education in itself. The Old Quarter is a must (time allowing) to walk through but as an additional treat, drive down the narrow and frenetically busy streets. Progress will be slow as it always is when heavy traffic flow meets narrow roads. The good news is that this allows you to see and absorb sights and sounds as you crawl along.

Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Ha Noi and is a treasure to see and enjoy. Make sure you stop to visit the Ngoc Son (“Jade Mountain”) Temple. Parts of the temple date back to the fourteenth century, although the current buildings were probably built in the eighteenth century. The temple is dedicated to the hero Tran Hung Dao, who defeated a force of 300,000 sent to invade Vietnam by the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. Oh and while you are at the Lake, keep a careful eye out for the ancient turtle that is said to live in the lake…..legend says that this will bring you a lot of luck.
Hoan Kiem Lake

Luck is often what you need to negotiate the Hanoi roads but a little skill also comes into play. The key thing is to walk slowly across the road and give clear indications to the motorbike riders what you are doing and then they will weave around you. The same strategy does NOT work for cars….cars you simply avoid!

After Hoan Kiem Lake, a drive through the French Quarter will show you the dramatic difference between the narrow roads and tiny houses of the Vietnamese and the wide tree lined streets and grand buildings of the French during their occupation of the country. The magnificent Opera House is worth a visit if you ever do have a spare evening and fancy a little culture.

opera house hanoi

Next stop?…...one of the best museums in Ha Noi is in the French quarter, the Museum of Women. It is a very well organized and presented insight into the lives of women in Vietnam past and present. Don’t miss it and don’t miss enjoying a drink in the cafe.

The Temple of Literature is a good option next. This was the first University in Vietnam. There are Temples to honor various scholars of the past, interesting artifacts from the era when it was very active all set within a walled area that exudes peace within this rather noisy and crazy city. it is well worth the trip.

Travelling back north of the city, you come to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum compound. This is a grand area snuggled in neatly next to the Presidents Palace. Depending on time, you can simply enjoy the outside environment with the splendid view of the Mausoleum set  . The Mausoleum itself is a very grand setting worthy of such a revered and respected leader. Go towards the museum and you will see the gardens and get to enjoy the shelter of the trees….very welcome on a hot day. If you are blessed with more time, the Museum is splendid, informative, fun and very quirky. Ho Chi Minh’s house has been reconstructed in the gardens to visit and if you choose to, you can also visit and pay respects to the man himself inside the Mausoleum. HCM1

A short drive further north takes you down a road of splendid government buildings to the southern edge of two lakes, on the left is West Lake (the largest of all the lakes in this lake rich city) and Chuc Bach Lake on your right. There are some good places to eat, grab an ice cream, drink or to just sit in this area. You can even take a ride on one of the lakes on a Swan peddalo  if the mood takes you. Whatever else you decide to do. don’t miss the oldest of the Pagodas in the city.  The Pagoda is called Trấn Quốc Pagoda which is Vietnamese for “Stabilizing the Nation.” It is on West Lake and accessed over a short bridge.

Ha Noi is a city full of hidden treasures which can engage you for years and still throw up surprises for you. It is a city of diversity and high energy with a vibrant street culture that at times enforces the pedestrian to walk in the street or to simply join the locals to have something to eat or drink on the roadside. Is one day enough? Well it’s enough to get a snapshot but if you are intrigued and fall in love with the city as so many people do, you can be assured of finding more and more treasures hidden away just around the corner waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

As they say in Vietnamese, Hen Gap Lai (see you again). P1090091

Pat Sawyer