16.07.2009 - 29.07.2009
The old part of Hue made for a prettyish city, the imposing concrete walls of the citadel rising like an ironclad from a lily filled moat enclosing a mostly ruined palace complex. The surrounding countryside is littered with temples and mausoleums including the Buddhist Thien Mu Pagoda which is the symbol for the city and the mausoleum of Khải Định, covered in beautiful glass mosaics.
Hanoi was surprisingly non-descript, though its busy streets and bustling markets were a hive of activity day and night. The water puppet shows that the city is famous for were wonderfully whimsical and
Halong Bay, a 4 hour drive from Hanoi, is justifiably a fixture on every Vietnam visitor's itinerary. A multitude of tiny islands just off the coast jut out of the sea in striking limestone cliffs. Hundreds of boats it seems, depart every day to take passengers on a mini cruise into the archipelago and yet once you are there you are lost within the karst outcrops, there seems to be hardly anyone around. We kayaked into hidden lagoons through tiny cay tunnels, the tops of the little islands brimming with wildlife. The sunset that night was one of the most stunning sunsets of my travels; the cloudless sky showing off the deeply saturated rainbow & the water reflecting it back in smooth wave-pools of liquid colour. We paddled into it, basking in the deep red/orange/yellow and it was only after 5 minutes I thought to look behind me at the other kayaks following behind against a backdrop of musky purple. It was beautifully surreal & I was entranced.
Sapa - tourist capital of the far north - was already full of "minority hill tribes" when we arrived after an exhausting overnight bus ride. It was impossible to cross the town centre without being asked by at least 25 "minority" saleswomen and children to buy their handicrafts. It felt incredibly crowded and staged and I wondered if anyone would wear the traditional costume if it wasn't for the brisk tourist trade. I left the next day on a local bus heading deeper into the mountain range, taking with me a sense of pervading consumerism.
The mountains were simply beautiful, the verdant slopes catapulting their way to first place in my all time favourite mountains. The variety of their shapes, from steep valleys to lolling rounded peaks amazed me and the lush density of the vegetation that covered them surpassed anything I had seen so far. The minority tribes people, so concerned with tourism around Sapa, were here just going about their traditional, agriculture based lives. And yes, they still wore their traditional clothing.
As lovely as the mountains were, the roads left something to be desired. We rounded a corner and I spotted across the valley what looked like a quarry with a sheer sandy ledge dug out of the hillside. I remember thinking "That can't be the road", but of course it was. Road improvements were underway for a good half of the two day journey (daylight driving only) and this ranged from dry sandy dirt tracks to muddy bogs. We had been driving through a sticky, splattery version of the latter type for about an hour when we arrived at a road block. Some sort of construction seemed to be going on, but all it consisted of was a digger chucking boulders down a hill onto the road. We waited for half an hour as the digger trundled down the hill and nudged the boulders off the road. Tentatively we moved off, the driver using considerable skill to keep us on the fine line between getting stuck in the mud and slipping on the surface towards the sheer drop on our right. On the other side of the bend we went past a broken down bus, but we couldn't stop, it was all we could do to swerve around it, fishtailing wildly before pulling off it the right direction.
Having spent two days travelling to Dien Bien Phu, I can appreciate why the French believed the Vietnamese army would never be able to get their artillery through the impassible mountains, but, like me, they arrived at this little border town and the rest is history.
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