Hue – Day 1

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Vietnam’s old imperial capital Hue is home to an enormous citadel, which counts the Imperial City within its walls, and the delightfully-named Perfume River, which cuts a swathe through the city centre. The historical city’s a fascinating place with its mix of modern, traditional and French-style buildings, while the citadel has an impressive feel to it, despite its faded glory.

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On my first day in Hue, I was up bright and early to visit the citadel and the Imperial City. The citadel, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, is surrounded by a moat and to get to it you have to cross a narrow stone bridge, then pass through a gate in the huge walls.

Walking into the citadel, which was built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805, I was struck by its size. It’s massive and its enormous stone walls and watch towers (topped with the Vietnamese flag, above) create a forbidding impression. Nowadays, it looks tired and worn, but it must have been an imposing sight during the imperial era.

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We made our way over to the Imperial City, across another moat, passing through the wonderful Ngo Mon Gate (above) to get inside. Beyond the gate, we found ourselves in a large, pretty courtyard with a couple lotus ponds. Then in front of us, across the courtyard, was the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is home to the Thai Hoa Palace, the Royal Theatre, a couple of halls and extensive gardens, and it got its name because, during the imperial period, the emperor was the only man who was allowed to enter it. We had a good look around the Forbidden City, taking in all the sights, as well as a few small exhibitions.

Large parts of the Imperial City are sadly in ruins and this was especially evident in the Forbidden City. But it’s in the process of being restored and the parts that have been restored, such as the theatre, are incredible and give you a glimpse into how stunning the entire complex must have been during the 19th century. I’d love to come back when the place has been fully restored because I suspect it will be an incredible sight.

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After the Forbidden City, we then moved onto a series of temples in another part of the Imperial City, the Mieu and Hung Mieu temples, which pay tribute to past emperors and imperial family members, as well as a splendid pavillion across the courtyard from the Mieu temple.

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After spending a couple of hours exploring the faded glamour of the Imperial City, we made our way down the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda. There we climbed a series of steep steps to reach the pagoda, which turned out to be a tall tiered octagonal tower. It was an attractive building and after stopping to take a few pictures, we carried on exploring the rest of the complex.

While wandering around the grounds, one of the guys who worked there drew my attention to a series of rock and bonsai gardens on tables, which were unusual but charming. He also pointed out a blue car in which a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death in Saigon on 11 June 1963 in protest against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime’s discrimination of Buddhists.

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After a spot of lunch, we headed out to the tomb of Tu Duc. The tomb is one of a series of seven royal tombs dedicated to the Nguyen emperors in the countryside surrounding Hue. We opted to visit the tomb of Tu Duc, who ruled between 1848 and 1883, which is said to be one of the most magnificent. The complex was built in 1864-1867 and is home to 50 buildings, as well as the tombs of the Empress Le Thien Anh and Emperor Kien Phuc, who ruled in 1884.

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The complex was vast with a series of walled courtyards and monuments, and a large lake in the middle. Much like the Imperial City, the tomb was worn and shabby, but it must have been an impressive sight during its heyday.

Parts of the complex were being restored during my visit and like the Imperial City, I’d love to see it again when it’s been fully refurbished. The most notable sight for me was the square stone and brick pavilion with a giant stele (above) inside. Apparently, the stele is the largest in Vietnam and features a self-critical autobiography by Emperor Tu Duc.

I really enjoyed my first day in Hue, exploring Vietnam’s imperial past. I didn’t know much about Vietnam’s history before my trip as I couldn’t find any books that discussed anything other than the war, so I was really interested to learn more about the country’s past.

I’ll have to make another trip to Hue in 20 years’ time to see the sights once they’ve been fully restored as I suspect they’ll be somewhat spectacular and it would be interesting to compare the before and after.

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The mouse that pooped – Hanoi to Hue by train

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To get from Hanoi to Hue, I took an overnight train. It was the first time I’d spent the night on a train, and while I wasn’t expecting the grand splendour of the Orient Express, I did expect it to be a little swisher… and less eventful.

The train was huge and our carriage contained a series of cabins, a wash area and a couple of toilets. All the first-class ticket holders were assigned a cabin, which could hold up to four people. There were no male-only or female-only cabins, so everyone was mixed together, and if you were travelling in a group, you weren’t necessarily with your friends.

The cabins were teeny and super sparse with two metal bunk beds on either side with thin mattresses, a thin pillow and a sheet. Between the bunk beds was a metal table. There were no ladders to get up to the top bunk and no locks on the door. So much for the luxury of first class.

These were nothing like the overnight compartments you see in the movies, and about as far removed from the cabin Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint shared in North by Northwest as you can imagine.

Out in the corridor, a woman with her toddler daughter was having to sleep in a broom cupboard beside the wash basins, surrounded by cardboard boxes that the adorable little girl kept throwing onto the floor of the carriage.

In our teeny cabin, my three other cabin-mates and I squeezed ourselves in, artfully manoeuvring ourselves and our luggage inside. I was relieved to find I’d been allocated the bottom bunk – thankfully no pitiful attempts to haul my ass up onto the top bunk for me.

My cabin-mates and I sat down to a cramped takeaway meal, chatting about our lives and travel experiences to while away the time as random people we didn’t know popped their heads inside our cabin to say hello. It wasn’t long before we heard about the mouse in a cabin a few doors down from us, apparently someone had spotted the rodent running across the floor.

We checked our cabin, but it appeared to be mouse-free and I thought no more about it until I went to sleep. With no lock on the door, I curled myself around my valuables as I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them lying around at the foot of my bed.

I’d just started to nod off, when I felt something brush past my head. I yelped and leapt out of bed at breakneck speed towards the door (how I didn’t wake my cabin-mates is beyond me). Cowering by the door, my heart pounding, I switched on my phone’s torch and ran it past my bed. Nothing. I flashed the light over the floor and surrounding area. Again, nothing.

Calmer, I got back into bed, telling myself it was just my imagination and that I’d been spooked by the news of the mouse further down the carriage. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.

The following morning I was up and awake before dawn. For some reason, my cabin-mates and I mistakenly thought we were getting off the train at 6am (turned out to be closer to 8.30am). I was super tired and blurry eyed, and I drowsily got dressed and ready for the day, marvelling at the beautiful sight of the sun rising across the Vietnamese countryside.

As the time wore on, we realised we weren’t getting off the train any time soon so I settled in to read my book. It was only then that I realised my bed, around the outline of where my body had lain, was covered in small little droplets. So was the table and the floor.

Turned out we’d had a visitor (or two) during the night. The mouse that brushed my head wasn’t a figment of my imagination after all…

Halong Bay – Kayaking to Monkey Island

 

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“Booooooommmmm!” sounded the ship’s horn as I turned around and saw a massive ship hurtling towards us. We, by contrast, were in a little kayak in Halong Bay and up until that point, neither I nor my paddling partner Anna, had realised we were in the path of a giant ship. That handily seemed to be speeding up as it descended upon us at a rate of knots.

“We can make it,” said Anna, reasonably calmly, “just paddle faster…”

Our little kayaking trip had started out quite uneventfully. We’d been told we could paddle to Monkey Island, an island in Halong Bay where they’d imported a couple of species of monkey to amuse the tourists. I studied primates as part of my degree and am pretty obsessed with the creatures, and having never had the chance to see one in the wild, I jumped at the chance to go to the island.

We hopped into our kayak in the middle of the bay and paddled in the direction of a couple of limestone rocks ahead of us. We passed through the gap in the rocks, then turned to the right – before us was Monkey Island. Our destination was an enclosed lagoon, accessible only by kayak or small boat, through a low arch in the rock.

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We kayaked through the cave into the lagoon and as we were passing under the arch, an American kayaker told us there were some monkeys on the cliffs to the right. We headed in that direction, but despite keeping our eyes peeled (possibly more peeled than they’ve ever been before), we didn’t see any monkeys.

Undeterred, we slowly made our way along the edge of the cavern, looking out for the slightest movement. Still no monkeys. Finally, after kayaking at a snail’s pace and keeping the eaglest of eagle eyes on the rocks around us, we had to admit defeat. If we’d stayed any longer, we’d have lost the rest of our group.

I’m not going to lie, I was gutted, especially as we’d been so close. I had been stupidly excited about the prospect of seeing a monkey in the wild. If we’d only arrived five minutes earlier, we’d have seen them…

We kayaked back out of the lagoon to rejoin our group, then headed out to the right, to slightly choppier seas where we could see oil tankers in the distance. We then looped around a limestone rock and snaked our way through a very small, very narrow opening in the rock.

Out the other side, we were kayaking straight ahead when we heard the booming ship’s horn. Realising there was no way the ship was going to stop for us, we paddled as if our lives depended on it (and let’s face it, they did) as the boat inexplicably quickened its pace and began parping is horn with increasing frequency (really not helpful!). As I looked behind me, I realised the two kayaks behind us hadn’t been as foolhardy as us and had stopped on seeing the ship.

We made it – just – and I descended into hysterical laughter, unable to believe what had just happened. As the ship passed us, we waved at the passengers onboard, who waved back at us, probably wondering what on earth had possessed us to take on their ship. Gathering ourselves, we continued kayaking back towards Monkey Island where we were to disembark.

The sun was setting and the light fading fast, so we hurried up and got out of our kayak just as it was getting dark. As I stood on the dock, one of the other kayakers shouted and pointed up at the limestone cliff before us. There hopping across the edge of the cliff, were the shadows of the monkeys. Not quite what I was hoping for, but still, I finally saw a monkey!

Halong Bay

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Possibly the most iconic and most picturesque sight in Vietnam, in person Halong Bay doesn’t disappoint. The 1,500 km2 bay, dotted with some 2,000 oddly shaped limestone rocks, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and legend has it, was created by a dragon’s tail when the creature dove into the Gulf of Tonkin.

Having been wowed by the sight of Halong Bay when I watched the Top Gear special in Vietnam years ago, the bay was at the top of my must-see list and there was no way I was going to Vietnam without seeing it.

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On arriving at the port, we hopped onto a rickety old wooden boat, which took us out into the bay and to our mother ship where we’d be spending the night. From the outside the ship didn’t look like much, but inside it was elegant.

I was staying in a cabin on the lower deck – it was small with dark wooden panelling and floors, two single beds with crisp, white sheets and a bedside table. The en-suite bathroom was lovely and I was surprised by how great the shower was, it had excellent water pressure and a steady warm temperature.

After dropping off our bags, we headed to the dining room on the middle floor for lunch. There we were treated to a lavish and delicious banquet of prawns, squid, spring rolls, fishcakes, chicken curry with rice, cucumber and tomato salad with garlic and rice vinegar, and a plate of fruit for dessert.

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Tummies full, we hopped back in the small wooden boat to explore a nearby cave in one of the beautiful limestone rocks. We had to climb some steep steps to get to the cave and from the outside (as with most caves), it didn’t look like much but as I walked inside I realised it was huge and much more extensive than I’d anticipated.

We followed the trail through the cave, admiring the various rock formations – our guide kept pointing out various shapes in the rock that were meant to represent different animals. The cave was incredibly humid and it was so hot, I was soon  dripping  with sweat. I’m used to European caves, which tend to be quite chilly, so the sweat-inducing cavern was a bit of a shock to the system.

On leaving the cave, I walked back to the harbour where I was fascinated by a group of enterprising women sitting in their boats along the dock preparing and selling fish, fruits and other food stuffs for the passing tourists. The Halong Bay equivalent of a tourist café.

Once I got back to the boat, I grabbed my book and headed up to the top deck to sit in the shaded area at the front of the boat. It was so peaceful, reading my book and taking in the splendid views before me. Despite there being lots of other tourist boats around (Halong Bay is very touristy and there were tons of other boats in the bay), it was really quiet and all I could hear was the sound of the sea and the boat’s engine.

That night, we enjoyed another sumptuous feast aboard the boat with dish upon dish appearing before us – each one was fantastic. There were grilled prawns, a baked oyster in a delicious Vietnamese sauce, papaya and carrot salad, squid cakes, pork curry with rice, ginger-boiled cabbage, baked white river fish cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and platters of fruit for dessert.

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The following morning, I again retreated to the top deck with my book to marvel at the sight before me. The jutting limestone rocks in all their shapes and sizes are breathtaking, photos don’t do justice to how pretty and serene it is. I could’ve stayed on the boat for days just gazing out across the water. I’d really been looking forward to Halong Bay, and, despite being more touristy than I’d have liked, I was so pleased it lived up to my, admittedly, rather high expectations.

Hanoi – Street food

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One of the things I was really keen to do in Vietnam was try some street food. So on my second night in Hanoi, I joined a street food tour. And I’m so glad I did, it was a brilliant night and ended up being one of my favourite experiences in Vietnam.

After meeting our guide Thian, a cheery Hanoi native, and the rest of our group, we headed to a large wholesale market nearby for baguettes filled with Vietnamese paté. The baguettes are a tasty and popular snack, combining Vietnamese flavours with the classic French baguette. Having devoured the baguettes, we had a quick look around the market, which sold all sorts of food, including more varieties of dried mushrooms than I knew existed and dried fish including squid.

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We came out the other side of the market, where there were a number of streets filled with food shops, as well as a couple of women selling flowers from their bicycles. A policeman was sitting at a table in the middle of the road keeping an eye on all the vendors.

We wandered around the shops, fascinated by all the food stuffs on offer. There were shops selling spices, onions, fruits, nuts, pulses and more, and each vendor specialised in a particular food stuff – the onion vendor, for example, just sold lots of different varieties of onion. Outside the shops, women were sitting on the street in front of buckets preparing their produce, throwing their scraps onto the street.

We stopped to try some local fruits that Thian had bought from one of the vendors – pink dragon fruit, which is sweeter than the white variety, and jack fruit, which had a slightly banana-like flavour. I’d never had jack fruit or pink dragon fruit before and the juicy flesh of the dragon fruit was a revelation and I spent the rest of my time in Vietnam seeking it out.

We headed further up one of the streets, passing vendors preparing and selling meat (all parts of the animal, including the intestines, tongues, ears, feet and so on). The streets used to be home to only the one trade and so were named after the trade they represented – silk street is one such example. One of the streets we passed was the paper street and its shops sold Christmas decorations of every kind, including tinsel, santa suits, lights and more.

Our next stop was Banh Cuon Gia Truyen for banh cuon, a super-thin steamed rice pancake filled with mushrooms and topped with coriander and fried shallots that you dip in a dipping sauce before eating. All I can say is they were really good and didn’t last long.

We continued on to Thai Dat, an outdoor barbecue place that sells textiles by day. We sat on little stools in the middle of the street with a cooking pot on a small table in front of us. Everything went in this pot – frog, chicken, pork, beef, corn, aubergine, cherry tomatoes, pak choi, even sweet, honey-covered bread. We then dipped the food in a mixture of dipping sauces, including chilli sauce, tamarind sauce and kumquat juice mixed with chilli and salt. Everything was delicious and we washed it all down with a cold Hanoi beer.

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As we continued our tour of the old town, Thian pointed out a Vietnamese hearse, which was adorned with ribbon, a rosette and a statue. He then took us up onto a railway line that snakes its way through the city, hidden from the streets below. I was blown away by the railway line as people were living on either side of the tracks, without any barriers separating them from the trains.

We walked alongside the railway line, amazed as the locals (including children) hopped across the tracks. People were hanging their washing outside their homes right beside the tracks and there were even restaurants that opened out onto the railway line.

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We carried on along the track when Thian suddenly announced a train was coming. We quickly hopped off the narrow path onto someone’s porch as the enormous train came whizzing past at breakneck speed.

While we were all acutely aware we were walking beside a railway line, I’d just assumed that small, slow trains used the tracks. I certainly hadn’t realised that massive, rapid locomotives were passing through. We were all dumbfounded as to just how close we had been to the deadly train and were left in no doubt as to how dangerous it was to live right beside the railway line.

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Jaw-dropping experience over, we continued through the old quarter until we reached a tiny dessert place, Hoa Beo. Again we crouched down on little stools as we ate our pudding – a selection of seasonal fruits (strawberry, mango, dragon fruit and so on) mixed with condensed milk, coconut milk, cubes of coconut and water chestnut jelly, and four-to-five tablespoons of ice. The dessert was sweet and delicious, especially the water chestnut jelly.

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For our final destination, we stopped at a secret rooftop café, Café Pho Co, that overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake. We had to walk through a silk shop to reach the café, where we discovered a ton of scooters parked inside the entrance. We then headed up a series of rickety staircases to get to the rooftop. It was a relaxing little hideaway and we were here to taste Vietnamese coffee.

Vietnamese coffee is a cup of coffee topped with a foaming mix of condensed milk, egg yolk and sugar (above) and I had to give mine a good stir before drinking it as the mixture had separated. I don’t like coffee, so I can’t say I enjoyed it, but the foamy mixture was drinkable enough, if rather sweet. The hideaway café was an unexpected delight and a great end to a fantastic, whirlwind tour of Hanoi’s food.

Hanoi

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I was up bright and early on my second day in Hanoi and immediately made my way to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The monument to the country’s great leader, which houses his embalmed body, is huge and there were lots of guards, all in pristine white uniforms, milling around and making sure the visitors behaved suitably respectfully.

Despite being just after 8.30am, the queue to go inside the mausoleum was enormous and stretched all the way around the complex – I couldn’t even see the end of the queue. The only queue I’ve ever seen of a similar size was the queue to go inside the Vatican.

Rather than join the masses, we made for the presidential palace grounds instead. The presidential palace is a grand, yellow colonial-style building (below), but Ho Chi Minh snubbed the palace, preferring to live in a more modest house in the grounds instead.

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The grounds consisted of a small complex of houses, including a section that showcased the presidential cars and a house on stilts that Ho Chi Minh used as a summer residence. The house was very sparse inside, and there wasn’t much in the way of comfort or belongings. There was also a bomb shelter with a warning bell system – one ring meant the enemy planes were 100km away, but two rings meant an attack was imminent.

The palace grounds were incredibly busy and there were so many people you couldn’t walk around at your own pace as there were bodies everywhere you turned. We ended up joining an enormous queue of people that snaked around the complex, slowly walking around in a giant line.

After the mausoleum we headed to the Temple of Literature, the oldest place in Hanoi. The 11th century temple was built in honour of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It’s a beautiful complex of temples and gardens and that day, it was packed with smartly dressed students having their graduation photos taken. The gardens were really pretty and the temple of Confucius impressive. As I walked around, taking it all in, a couple of female guides pointed out a series of stone tortoises topped with stone slabs inscribed with information about the scholars who studied there between the 15th and 18th centuries.

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Then it was on to a much bleaker site, the Hoa Lo Prison (above), nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by US prisoners of war. The prison was grim with dingy rooms in which multiple prisoners were confined.

The conditions were even worse for those on death row – they were locked in tiny cells, with barely any light, and forced to sit, shackled, on very uncomfortable-looking wooden benches. Some of the photos on display were horrific, and there was a bizarre, propaganda-like display about the US prisoners of war that made it sound as though they were in a holiday camp. Visiting the prison was a sombre, sobering experience, and one which brought home the horrors of war.

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It was now lunchtime so we headed back towards Hoan Kiem Lake to the City View Café for lunch. The café is high up, with superb views over the lake, and I tucked into a plate of spring rolls with crab. With the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to spend the rest of the day sightseeing nearby.

First up, was St Joseph’s Cathedral, an impressive French-style gothic cathedral, before heading through the streets to the Opera House (above), a grand building in a chic neighbourhood – a neighbouring street was filled with designer boutiques such as Valentino, Hermés and Chopard.

We then walked back towards the lake where we found lots of beaming couples having their wedding photos taken. Vietnamese couples traditionally have their wedding photos taken the day before the wedding so they can show them to their guests on the day.

The women were dressed beautifully in long dresses split to the waist, which they wore over silk trousers, while the men were in suits. Some of the women were holding a bouquet, others a bouquet in a basket, and some were accompanied by make-up artists. Most couples had friends with them or bridesmaids who were also being photographed. I really enjoyed sitting beside the water, watching the constant flow of happy, excited couples posing ahead of their big day.

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After a nice relaxing half an hour on the park bench, watching the world go by, we wandered up towards the Den Ngoc Son temple, crossing the red wooden bridge to get to it. It’s a peaceful little place and the temple is home to the remains of a giant turtle that once lived in the lake, as well as a very living cat.

While we were admiring the temple, a number of people came in and placed money on the shrine in front of us, before kneeling down to pray. We left the worshippers to it and headed back outside, but by this point the heavens had opened, so we sheltered under a large canopy until the rain eased off.

Vietnam is well-known for its water puppetry, an ancient art that developed in the rice paddies, and keen to see one of its famous shows, our next stop was a water puppet theatre opposite the lake. In the centre of the stage, there was a waist-deep pool where the puppets would pop up from under the bamboo backdrop and perform. Six musicians, all clad in traditional dress, sang and performed on either side of the stage.

The puppetry was very clever with fire-breathing dragons (I have no idea how the fire worked on water), men, women and various birds of paradise all popping up during the course of the show. It was an incredible experience, and a pleasant and relaxing end to a very busy day of sightseeing.

Hanoi – First impressions

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My first stop on my Vietnamese trip was Hanoi and after flying into the city, I headed straight to my hotel in the old town to dump my bags and have a quick shower. Then it was time to get my bearings and explore Vietnam’s capital city.

Hanoi’s old town is a maze of narrow streets and on leaving the hotel, I found myself in a narrow alley packed with vendors selling every kind of clothing imaginable, but mostly underwear. Despite its narrowness, there were countless scooters attempting to drive up and down it, much to my amazement.

My destination that afternoon was Hoon Kiem Lake, a large lake in the heart of the city surrounded by parkland. To get to it, I gingerly tagged along behind some locals to cross the busy and chaotic ring-road that encircles it. The first thing that caught my eye was the Den Ngoc Son temple or Jade Mountain temple in the middle of the lake and the long arched red wooden bridge (the Huc or Sunbeam Bridge) that leads up to it.

After taking a few photos, I carried on walking, stopping to admire another structure in the middle of the lake, the Thap Rua or Turtle Tower, a small stone pagoda that represents a local legend. According to the myth, General Le Loi was given a magical sword by a golden turtle that lived in the lake, which he used to banish the Chinese from Hanoi and become emperor. While he was out sailing on the lake a little while later, the turtle reappeared to take back the sword – hence the name of the tower.

The lake was incredibly pretty with lots of people strolling along its paths, as well as vendors selling food, drinks and souvenirs, including delicate paper cards with pop-up origami centres. At the bottom of the lake, I spotted an elderly man doing tai chi, a popular past-time, at the water’s edge.

The park was very well maintained, with lots of gardeners, all wearing the traditional conical bamboo hats, hard at work looking after them. After finishing a loop of the park, it was getting late so I headed back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.

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I enjoyed my first experience of Vietnam – it was overwhelming, but exhilarating. Hanoi was wealthier than I was expecting and the entrepreneurial spirit rife, with people selling goods everywhere I went.

The streets of the old town were packed with shops selling all manner of things, including sellotape (in all sizes and colours), tinsel, Christmas decorations, metal cages, ladders, and loads more. And I was amazed by the number of shops selling the same things, often right next to each other, and the amount of street vendors selling food, including round hard hollow doughnuts, fruits of all description, soft drinks, souvenirs and so on.

I was expecting Hanoi to be busy, but not as busy as it was – there were people everywhere. But the thing that struck me the most was the endless stream of scooters. The roads were relentlessly busy, yet it seemed to be organised chaos. Scooters didn’t stop at pedestrian crossings or traffic lights and there were no road markings, just a vehicular free-for-all and lots of beeping horns. But the Vietnamese appeared to be very skilled drivers; their weaving skills were incredible.

I didn’t have much time to look around on my first day, but the brief glimpse I had of Hanoi left me raring to get back out there and further explore the city.

 

Vietnam – Top tips

img_7778-2If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, here are some of my top tips to help you make the most of your visit:

Climate

Vietnam is hot pretty much all year round – in the north it’s cooler in the winter months between November and February, but in the south it’s sweltering all year round. I visited in November/December and it was hot and humid everywhere. As a tropical country, Vietnam has a rainy season, which usually lasts from May to October. It was mostly dry during my trip, but when it did rain, it tended to chuck it down.

Money matters

The Vietnamese Dong is the official currency of Vietnam, although many tourist places also accept US dollars. I took a mixture of both currencies, but mostly spent the Dong.

Vietnam is the only place I’ve been able to refer to myself as a millionaire as the Dong comes in high denominations, such as 100,000d, 200,000d, and 50,000d, which made currency conversions tricky. If you run out of cash, there are lots of ATMs throughout the country and I didn’t have any problems withdrawing money or using my debit card.

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What to pack

Vietnam is hot and humid, so sun protection is essential – suntan lotion, a hat and sunglasses are a must. But an umbrella or poncho is also handy for those inevitable downpours. I only had an umbrella with me and ended up buying a luminous pink poncho during one particularly heavy rain shower as my umbrella just wasn’t cutting it.

A lot of the public bathrooms don’t have soap or toilet roll, so it’s worth packing hand sanitiser and toilet roll for when you’re out and about. You should also consider taking basic medical supplies, too. I tend to have a fairly strong stomach when I’m travelling. Not so, in Vietnam. By the end of the trip, I was having to eat Western food with some regularity – much to my disappointment – because my body was just saying no. Needless to say, the diarrhoea tablets I’d packed came in very handy.

What to wear

It’s hot and sticky pretty much everywhere, so I stuck to a mix of cool summer dresses or shorts and t-shirts depending on where I was. I mostly wore summer dresses when sightseeing in the cities, and shorts and t-shirts for activities. It sometimes got a little cooler in the evenings, so a cardigan or jumper is handy for when the temperature drops.

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Negotiating the crazy traffic

The traffic in Vietnamese cities is like no other and defies logic. Apart from in Ho Chi Minh City and at the odd set of traffic lights, no one really pays attention to the traffic signals and every type of vehicle you can think of comes at you from all possible directions at the same time. Miraculously I didn’t witness any accidents and all the drivers seemed to effortlessly weave around each other.

The traffic is incredibly intimidating at first, but luckily there’s a knack to crossing the roads. If you can, look for other people to cross the road with and if you find a group, spread out horizontally and cross the road in a line together.

But whether you’re crossing by yourself or in a group, make sure to walk at a slow but steady pace – don’t stop or change speed, just keep going steadily – this allows the drivers to judge how fast you’re going and they’ll weave around you. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get used to it and it (almost) becomes second nature.

Shop ‘ til you drop

Literally. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to take a half-empty suitcase. I’m not a massive shopper when I travel, but Vietnam is a shopping dream, especially if like me, you love home wares.

There are so many beautiful things to buy and it’s all incredibly cheap. I came home with pretty ceramics, wooden objects, paintings, clothes, table mats, coasters, scarves, to name but a few. And I would have bought more if a.) I had more room in my suitcase and b.) I wasn’t worried about breakages. I’m looking to buy a house this year and if I could, I’d fill it with Vietnamese crockery.

One of my favourite shopping streets in Ho Chi Minh City was Le Loi and I especially loved the Saigon Boutique, a small store selling lovely home wares. I bought quite a bit in there including bags, mugs and combs, so much so, they gave me a little wicker shopping basket for free for buying so much. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city.

If you like fashion, the town of Hoi An is renowned for its tailor-made clothing stores. I’d never be able to afford made-to-measure clothes at home, but I had a dress and a pair of trousers made up while I was in the city. I had great fun choosing the designs and fabrics, and then going to fittings to make sure everything fit perfectly. It’s definitely worth doing, even if it’s just for the experience.

Relax with a massage

One of my favourite discoveries in Vietnam was the cheap massages. At home, a massage is a very rare treat as I can’t usually afford them. But most of the hotels I stayed in had lovely spas with rock bottom prices, so I indulged in more than a couple of massages during my trip. It was the perfect way to unwind after a day of non-stop sightseeing.

Indulge in a beer – or two!

Before going to Vietnam, I hadn’t drunk beer in about 15 years. I hated it. But beer is ubiquitous in the country with the restaurants and bars selling different brands, usually something local. Hanoi, in particular, is famous for its fresh beer. As the old saying goes, when in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do (or something like that), so I found myself drinking quite a bit of beer – and surprisingly, liking it!

Vietnam

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A long, narrow slither of land, stretching along the Eastern edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, Vietnam had been top of my ‘must-visit’ list for years after watching the Top Gear special in the country years ago. Before watching the show, Vietnam wasn’t somewhere I’d really thought of visiting, but I was mesmerised by the stunning scenery, friendly people and rich culture.

I often see places on TV or read about them in magazines or blogs, and think to myself, ‘that looks like a nice place to visit’, but rarely am I so bowled over by somewhere that I spend the next few years chomping at the bit to visit. Vietnam was the exception.

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I spent two weeks travelling the length of the country, which is home to some 92 million people. Starting in the north, in the capital Hanoi, I travelled south stopping off at some of the country’s most famous sites before ending my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, the financial capital, in the south.

Along the way I stayed in the old imperial city of Hue, the pretty port of Hoi An and the laid-back Mekong Delta, with visits to the ancient city of My Son (Vietnam’s Angkor Wat, above), picturesque Halong Bay and the infamous Cu Chi network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

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The country was incredible and the scenery, especially in Halong Bay, more than lived up to my expectations. The Vietnamese people were friendly and helpful, and the food flavoursome. As a former French colony, the influence of the French is inescapable, whether it’s in the food, the city planning or the architecture – the Gustave Eiffel-designed General Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City is sublime. Yet traditional Vietnamese culture abounds, too.

In Hanoi, the old town is a warren of streets and alleys, and the traditional shopping district is home to all kinds of shops (from blacksmiths and silk specialists, to sellotape stores and Christmas shops). All the shops selling similar goods tend to be clustered together in the same little street so all the food shops are next to each other, the hardware stores are side-by-side and so on.

One of the things that struck me most during my trip was the contrast between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – both are bustling to say the least, but whereas Hanoi feels like the traditional heart of the country, Ho Chi Minh City feels like an up-and-coming global metropolis.

After spending a couple of days in the busy cities, it was nice to escape to the relaxing surroundings of Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, where, when I wasn’t taking in the beautiful scenery or examining the wildlife, I could be found reading on the deck of a boat or lounging in a hammock.

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Traces of the Vietnam War are never far away – from the Hoa Lò Prison in Hanoi, which housed US prisoners of war, to the Cu Chi tunnels and the harrowing photographs on display in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. All were, unsurprisingly, told from the perspective of the Vietnamese and in the Military Museum in Hue (above), in particular, the language used in the displays was combative. Having seen lots of US-made films about the war over the years, it was really interesting to finally read about the war from a Vietnamese point of view.

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Before my trip, I’d been warned about the crazy traffic in the cities by some friends who’d visited the year before, yet I was still taken aback by the essential free-for-all in the city centres. A never-ending stream of cars, scooters, bicycles, tuk tuks and other vehicles would come from different directions, effortlessly weaving in and around each other and any pedestrians attempting to cross the roads. Vietnam is a safe country and once I’d mastered the art of crossing the roads, I felt very comfortable walking around by myself.

Vietnam is very much a rising tourist hot spot and I’m glad I had the chance to explore it before it becomes another major stop on the global tourist trail. Ho Chi Minh City is already showing signs of becoming a generic metropolis in the centre with high-rise skyscrapers, shopping centres filled with the usual big name high street brands and coffee shops on every street corner. But the country has a wonderful charm and strong cultural identity, and I hope whatever the future brings, it holds on to them as it’s a truly magical country.

Looking ahead to 2017

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I’m still a little staggered as to how quickly 2016 passed, I can’t believe the year is up already and 2017 is just hours away. The past year has been full of ups, as well as a few downs, and I’ve had fantastic travel experiences and met some wonderful people. In spite of all the turmoil in the political world, in other respects it’s been a great year and I’m very much looking forward to what’s next.

I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, liked or followed my blog over the past year. I’ve really appreciated your support and it helps motivate me to keep going. I’m slowly getting to grips with blogging regularly, and while at times it can feel like a chore, I’ve enjoyed it and it’s incredible to look back over the past year and revisit all those many experiences I’ve written about.

I’ve also really enjoyed getting to know all the many blogs I follow, plus the new ones I keep discovering, and reading about what other people are up to. I’ve found them really inspiring, lots of the hints and tips have proved useful, plus I’ve found myself mentally chalking up yet more places to add to my ever-expanding must visit list.

Coming up in 2017

As yet, I don’t have any travel plans for 2017 – but I never do at this time of year (I’m not much of a forward-planner). But top of my wish list is Jordan and the ancient city of Petra. I keep seeing photos of it everywhere and it looks incredible, plus I’ve never been to the Middle East so it would be great to discover that part of the world. I’m also considering Krakow or one of the Baltic countries for a city break – and if I can afford more than one, Seville and Granada or Stockholm or Oslo would be ideal. I also expect I’ll find myself back in France at some point as I manage to squeeze in a visit most years.

As far as the blog goes, look out for the upcoming Vietnam series. I spent 14 days travelling from the north to the south, starting in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City, taking in Halong Bay, the Mekong Delta, South China Sea, and more along the way. I’m also looking to start a new series of Insider Guides, giving you a local’s perspective of London and Cardiff.

I spent years living in London and spent a lot of my spare time exploring the city and I’d like to share some of that knowledge with you. So far, I’ve planned guides to the city’s art galleries, walks, cocktail bars, stately homes and museums, plus food and shopping guides to Notting Hill. But if there are any others you’d be interested in reading, please let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.

Last but not least, I’ve finally linked the blog to my Instagram account, so if you’d like to stay up-to-date with my latest travel pics, I can be found at @thislittleoldworld.

Happy New Year! Here’s to a great 2017!

Bx