The departure of the French in the middle of the last century effectively closed North Vietnam to western travellers. The countries of Indochina, Thailand apart, were not yet on the included among those attracting tourists in significant numbers despite the fact that they each had much to offer. That remained the case until the end of the Vietnam War when Hanoi became the Capital of a unified Vietnam. As tourist numbers into South East Asia grew, Hanoi was revealed as a city with much to recommend it, including the French colonial architecture. Those with limited time, yet wanting to get a flavour of Vietnam as an introduction to the region as a whole, can enjoy three contrasting places in the North which they can see in just a week. Hanoi, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Halong Bay and the Northern Highlands with the SaPa Terraces will leave travellers determined to come back for more.
Hanoi has an international airport and there is an excellent transport network to take tourists both east to Halong Bay and north into the Highlands. I used a good tour operator in Hanoi, Vivu Travel, who made all the arrangements for me, beginning with the highlights of Vietnam’s capital
One of the real attractions of Hanoi is the environment itself; a bustling city with street vendors, hectic traffic and really friendly people. The City is a mixture of colonial architecture, temples and museums. One place popular with locals is Hoan Kiem, the Lake where legend says that King Le Loi returned a sword to the Gods after they had given him the means to repel the Chinese back in the 15th Century.
Ho Chi Minh is revered as the father of the country and his name is remembered when the unified country renamed Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City.
The Old Quarter and the Night Market should not be missed; I stayed close by after getting advice by my tour operator and really enjoyed the whole experience. It was time then to move on and within minutes of leaving the City to go to Halong I was in the countryside, villagers farming the land within minutes of a large conurbation.
Halong Bay is 170 kilometres east of Hanoi, a UNESCO World Heritage site with around 2,000 small islands and 120 kilometres of coastline. There are small villages dotted throughout the Bay, fishermen and their families living in houses on stilts.
I decided to take a cruise which included overnight on a traditional junk in the Bay. It was a great experience and every bit as good as I expected having seen plenty of photographs of the Bay and the Vietnamese Coast in general. I could have stayed longer but the third leg of my short holiday awaited, the hill tribe communities to the North of Hanoi.
SaPa and the Northern Highlands
The Highlands up towards the Chinese border are at 1,500 metres, a remote and poor region yet home to a naturally hospitable people. The SaPa rice terraces are the highlight, terraces on hillsides providing plenty of colour when I visited, in July.
The rice had been planted in April so there was a real splash of colour. I am a little old for trekking but the whole area seemed ideal for keen walkers. Three contrasting locations in a week and delightful people, urban, rural and coastal. I boarded the flight out of Hanoi with a camera full of great shots and just as many ‘’pictures’’ in my mind; a great experience. I’ll be back.
Steve Smith from South West Turkey