International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
From the island-studded seas of the north to the meandering waterways of the south, Vietnam is a country defined by the diversity of its land and the resilience and generosity of its people.
Halong Bay: Best for coast
Once upon a time, a friendly dragon lived in the heavens above Halong Bay. With invaders from the seas threatening Vietnam, the gods asked the dragon to create a natural barrier to protect its people. The dragon kindly obliged, performing a spectacular crash landing along the coast – digging up chunks of rock with its flailing tail and spitting out pearls – before grinding to a halt.
This scene of devastation is now known as Halong Bay – Halong literally translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. Less exciting explanations of this landscape involve eons of erosion by winds and waves – but nobody disputes the splendour of the end result. Rising from the shallows of the Gulf of Tonkin are thousands of limestone islands – towering monoliths lined up like dominoes, some teetering at worrying angles.
‘In Vietnamese culture, dragons are the protectors of people,’ explains Vo Tan, a guide who has been bringing people to Halong Bay for two decades. ‘I once saw a picture of Halong Bay taken from above, and it even looked a bit like a dragon.’
Sailing into Halong Bay, it’s easy to understand the hallucinatory effect these strange shapes can have. The islands’ names testify to the overactive imaginations of sailors who’ve spent too long at sea – Fighting Cock Island, Finger Island, Virgin Grotto (which is said to contain a rock the shape of a beautiful woman). Having largely resisted human settlement, the islands have become home to other creatures. From above, sea eagles swoop down to pluck fish from the waters, carrying their prey – still flapping – high into the air, and squawking congratulations to each other from their nests. Down below, countless jellyfish drift about the hollows that run beneath the cliffs.
A local legend tells of another, altogether more sinister creature lurking in the waters of Halong Bay. A gigantic sea snake and close cousin of the Loch Ness Monster, the Tarasque was seen on three occasions by 19th-century French sailors, with sightings sporadically reported in Vietnam’s tabloids since. I ask Tan who would win in a battle between the Tarasque and Halong Bay’s famous dragon.
‘Of course the dragon would win,’ he grins. ‘In Vietnamese stories, the good guys are never allowed to lose.’
Where to stay and eat
Most visitors to Halong Bay arrive as part of an organised tour sailing from Halong City. Bien Ngoc Cruises offers a spectrum of day trips and overnight tours, with many itineraries including Titop – an island with outstanding views of the bay (two days from £60 per person).
Hanoi: Best for city life
It’s rush hour in Hanoi, and the streets of the city’s Old Quarter throng with hundreds of scooters. The pavement and the central reservation are fair game in the chaos; zebra crossings exist more as a personal challenge than a guarantee of safe passage. These are streets where Evel Knievel might have written the highway code; where a grandma on a scooter will think nothing of driving headlong into a tidal wave of oncoming traffic.
Hanoi is a city that refuses to grow old gracefully – a millennium-old capital of crumbling pagodas and labyrinthine streets, now undergoing a werewolf-like transformation into a 21st-century Asian metropolis. In the Old Quarter, ancient temples now neighbour karaoke joints, and dynasties of artisans ply their trade next to shops selling cuddly toys the size of grizzly bears. Hanoi is a city that muddles up its past with its present – where a statue of Lenin raises a clenched fist to teenagers who skateboard past him every afternoon.
Few have studied the changing face of the city as closely as Do Hien, an artist who has spent a lifetime painting Hanoi’s streets. He welcomes me to his studio, and idly leafs through sketches of city life – couples waltzing beside the willows of Hoan Kiem Lake, and alleyways where hawkers prepare steaming bowls of pho.