A Cruise Around Ha Long Bay

A Cruise Around Ha Long Bay

I am so behind with the blog posts, but hey, ‘Shit happens’ so they say. After a serious Motherboard failure on my PC which couldn’t be repaired and bootstrapping my other business, Phythian Limited, both time & technical resources seemed to be working against me.

After two months The PC got fixed, after no DELL service in Cambodia, DELL agreed to a free under-warranty repair in Malaysia, which I’ve just got back. I have so many things to write about.

Here is the final blog post on our visit to Vietnam. The very popular & beautiful Ha Long Bay.

With the excellent assistance of Tony, from aptly named ‘Tony’s tours’, a small shop on the north side of Hoan Kiem lake (details below) we chose Cristina Diamond cruises.

What to expect

As a family of four, two young children aged one and three, travel is not always easy. We have a lot of luggage. Originally two large suitcases, easily weighing 30Kg plus, has now been split into three. A changing bag, stroller and two PC equipment rucsacs mean we don’t do boat cruises easily.

We get around this by staying when possible for extended periods in apartments for a month or so at a time. We did that in Hanoi in a great new-build 2-bed apartment (AirBnB) where we could leave our stuff and just take the essentials to Ha Long Bay, meaning one bag for us to share for the one night, two-day cruise.

The coach pick up from Hanoi centre takes approximately three hours to reach the Hon Gai port for embarking. Once arrived we wait for the cruise ship to arrive and we’re on board one hour later via small ferry boats. We sailed off at about 1 pm with the necessary safety briefings over a buffet lunch.

There are a number of excursions during the cruise, which allows you to see more of the area which makes up Ha Long Bay.

Street food for $4

Floating Village

The first day after lunch is a visit to Vung Vieng floating village and Pearl farm.
We heard there were many more people who originally lived in the floating villages but were re-settled in Hanoi and the surrounding regions to conserve and beautify the area. The remaining farmers live in the huts for months at a time.

Pearl farming has been a staple industry here for hundreds of years. Because of the previously closed business environment, it was little known in the West. A tour of a Pearl farm and (obligatory) shop finalise the tour.

Beach and Kayak

After the Pearl farm, the boat takes you to Ban Chan beach for a swim and optional kayak session. This is a nice relaxing finish to the day’s activities before returning to the cruise ship.

Thienh Can Sonh Cave

After an early rise to view the sunrise, breakfast and a visit to Thienh Can Son cave. Up a steep and slippy walkway, the views were brilliant of the boats moored in the area.

Dalat Railway station

Food demo

Once returned and for the return back to port the on-board chef does a demo of some food preparation and the group take part in making fresh spring rolls.

Lam Vien square, Dalat

Amazing Views

We were lucky with the weather as it made for a beautiful view. As we arrived back in the port, the heavens opened and the squall meant you could barely see 20metres ahead.

We would definitely do this again and recommend this as an essential part of a Hanoi trip. We were concerned from reports beforehand that the area was overcrowded, but that was never the case. We were moored at night with only 3 other boats so felt relatively isolated.

Crazy House - Dalat

We booked with Tony’s Tours: 116 Cau Go (Next to Cong Caphe), Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Www.halongtripadvisor.com / tonystour.com Email: vnsinhcafe87@gmail.com

We sailed with http://cristinadiamondcruise.com/

Crazy House - Dalat Gourd room

Next stop: Cambodia, Siem Reap and the gateway to the Angkor temple complex.


NhaTrang from Po Nagar

SaPa – The village of Tribes

SaPa – The village of Tribes

SaPa is a Vietnamese frontier township in Lao Cai province in the far Northwest of Vietnam, bordering China in the North.
It stands in the shadow of Vietnam’s largest mountain, Fansipan (locally known as Phan Xi Pang). Also the largest mountain in Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) at 3,143 metres.
Its population is approximately 60,000. Consisting mainly of indigenous highland tribes such as the H’mong and Dao (D’zao or Yao). It’s estimated about 15 percent of the population are Kinh Vietnamese(lowland or native Vietnamese).

SaPa was a French colonial town until WWII complete with its military barracks. Most colonial buildings have been bombed, either by Viet sympathisers in the 40’s or by the French in the 50’s in the first Indochina war (fighting for independence from French colonial rule). For those with some knowledge of military history, Dien Bien Phu is a tortuous 7-hour road trip but only 270Km.

SaPa had a sleepy existence after the independence of 1954. There was a brief spell in 1979, when the Chinese invaded for a month during the Sino-Vietnamese war, in retaliation for invading Cambodia.
It has become a magnet for tourism since the early 1990’s.

Unfortunately, this means that the number of tourists is pressuring the town to such an extent that it will be unrecognisable in ten years time as high rise hotels get built. It already has the World’s largest three wire cable car will take you up near the summit of Fansipan, a span of over 6km.

The Black H’mong

make up one of the majority tribes within SaPa. The women dress all in black and generally live in wooden huts tending the rice fields. As with all H’mong tribes, they come from Southern China, where they have moved from to find Arable land and over the years escape persecution.
They don’t speak the traditional Vietnamese language and are famous for their dyeing of clothes with Indigo, hence the black clothes.

The Red Dao

(Yao or D’zao) women wear a distinctive red head dress with tassels and ornaments hanging from it. Their clothes are very colourful with both men and women usually dressed with a square of embroidered cloth on their back. The symbolism is such that they believe they are the Children of God. They believe in a mix of Confucianism (the majority Buddhist sect in Vietnam) Taoism and Buddhism.
Again they speak a different language to the Vietnamese called Mien based around the ‘Kim Mun’ language. A dialect spoken by approximately 200,000 people in Southern China.

Bac Ha Market

We went to SaPa at the same time the annual horse racing festival was on during the Sunday market at Bac Ha, a three-hour drive. This is a once a year event where the leading horse race breeders race their horses by bareback riders. It’s an amazing spectacle.

The Flower H’mong

are similar to the Dao and Black H’mong, living in other villages such as Bac Ha. They are named because of their brightly coloured costumes. However, they speak similar languages to each other and are also derived from Southern China.

The history of the H’mong peoples is a potted one across South East Asia, as they were persecuted in Southern China, have been persecuted in Laos and Vietnam, as part of some of their tribe siding with the US during the ‘Secret War’ in the 70’s in Laos. There are many refugees of H’mong descent across the World with the largest in California, USA, as well as the Thai/Laos border.

Bac Ha annual horse race

Bac Ha has a Sunday market. Possibly the most colourful market on the planet! Once a year they have the annual horse racing, which makes for a great day out.
Bac Ha and the surrounding areas were originally an area where war horses are bred, so the area has a long heritage of breeding famous horses.
We didn’t really understand what was going on, and I think more often than not, having two young blonde girls made us more of a spectacle than the horse racing. We were probably one of five or six westerners we saw on the horse racing circuit with one thousand plus spectators.
The racing was fast and to see these riders at breakneck speed with only a bridle was brilliant to see.

Tourism in SaPa

The small town of SaPa is under pressure from over tourism. Its small population, which is very poor gets spoilt by the estimated 2.7m visitors per year.

What do I mean by spoilt?

The rich visitors (they aren’t all western any longer) want to see these attractive indigenous tribes in their primitive environment with beautifully decorated dresses.
Do they embellish their costumes more than is traditional for tourists?
Will they continue their animist beliefs with the village witch doctor?
Are they kept here by the Government on purpose as a social attraction?
Food for thought, as I don’t know the answer to these questions. Unbridled tourism cannot be good for the future of small social groups in return for earning tourism dollars.

We stayed at the SaPa Vista hotel as part of a package put together for us by Tony’s tours. A small tour operator we found on Lao Cai, underneath the ‘Cong Caphe’ place, just next to the roundabout from Hoan Kiem. Tony was good at giving us options and deciding on rooms etc. We caught the early morning 0700 coach to SaPa on Friday morning and arrived at 1330.
On our return, we caught the Pumpkin express train from Lao Cai to Hanoi on Sunday evening. We arrived after a ten-hour journey to Hanoi at approx 5.30am. We then had to deal with the taxi mafia at Hanoi station.

If you do visit, I would recommend staying 3 or 4 days to explore some of the other sites around SaPa, such as the cable car.

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

Hanoi is a big city so my review can only cover what we did and where we stayed as a family. I can imagine there is definitely something for everyone here – families, teenagers and hedonistic ‘Kidults’.

Our travels started in Vietnam, in Saigon. We stayed initially for 3-4 nights. Great if you want to burn-out within a few weeks: Packing and unpacking, travelling with all the stuff we carry and only just getting to know an area. We only venture for half days because with a three-year-old and one year old; they need their rest. We ended staying at each place longer and longer and finally in Hanoi for one month as a base.

We stayed in a new apartment 15 minutes south of the centre surrounded by shops with a shopping mall in the basement (Times City Megamall). The apartments each had children’s play areas with swings and slides between each of the blocks. It gave us the freedom to go out when we wanted, unlike a hotel and eat when we wanted.

Taxis cost USD $3-4 to get to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I class as the centre. Uber and Grab both operate in Vietnam and are very competitive. I wonder how people make a living when they charge $2 for a taxi journey but illustrates how cheap living can be in Vietnam.

Hoan Kiem or ‘Central’ Hanoi

Hoan Kiem lake or ‘Lake of the returned sword’. From the legend of Emperor Le Loi returning his sword after defeating the Ming Chinese to the turtle king who lives in the lake. The lake is surrounded by the main centres of Hanoi. To the east is the French quarter. The north and west are the old quarter, and the south is the University, embassy and main department store shopping district. Further afield are other areas such as the Presidential palace and mausoleum, again surrounded by more embassies.

The Old Quarter

is relatively easy to navigate. A rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese will help you find your way around. Each street is named after the goods originally sold. What is interesting is to see such narrow shop fronts, originally based on how much they would be taxed. Hence the houses are called Tube houses, which could be as little as 3m wide x 60m long.

The old name was ‘36 streets’ after the ‘guilds’ or groups who set up in the area. It is thought there were originally 36 streets making up the Old Quarter. Many start with the name ‘Hang’, meaning merchandise or shop.

Hang Bac – Silver
Hang Ca – Fish
Hang Bo – Baskets
Hang Bong – Cotton
Hang Chai – bottles
Hang Da – Leather
Hang Giay – Shoes etc., etc.

These were the names from approx. The 13th century, so it‘s no surprise the shops sell different items today. You can still see many commonplace items sold along the same street though. Another example of regional working groups benefiting each other on a local basis.

While Hoan Kiem and the Old Quarter are generally where tourists visit. The expats regularly frequent the Tay Ho area surrounding West Lake. The more affluent side of town. A large freshwater lake with approximately 17km of shoreline. Attractions include the Ho Chi Minh museum and Presidential Palace area, a short walk south of the lake.
Visit the oldest Buddhist Pagoda in Vietnam (Tran Quoc) on the causeway separating West Lake and Truc Bach. See the Bodhi tree (Religious Fig tree) planted from a seedling donated by the original tree from India. The tree the Buddha sat under and found spiritual enlightenment (or Bodhi).

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province – ‘The Old capital’

Ha Noi wasn’t always the capital of Vietnam. The capital of Dai Co Viet (Great Buddhist Viet), as Vietnam was formerly known was originally in Hoa Lu province some 100 km south of Ha Noi.
The Emperor Ly Thai To the founder of the Ly dynasty, (see pic) moved the capital from Hoa Lu in Ninh Bin province to Thang Long. The original meaning Ascending Dragons (modern day Ha Noi) was far more exciting than Interior River!
The terrain was naturally defensive surrounded by the small but steep limestone mountains making the area almost impenetrable to invasion.
As well as the Hoa Lu temple complex Tam Coc village is a beautiful river setting where you can take a river cruise by a rower controlling the boat by their feet. (see photo)

The Temple of Literature

was originally built in 1070 by King Ly Than Tong to educate the bureaucrats and scholars of Dai Viet. It is a temple dedicated to Confucius where students still come to pray and make offerings in return for good results in their exams.
Each student had to read the four books and five classics as part of the traditional Confucian reading material. The books were all written by Confucius disciples and tested on each.
As the Brits have Oxford University, the Italians Bologna, Vietnam’s first university pre-dates or was built at a similar time in the 11th Century.
Unfortunately, it’s not a continuing University. It was a French war hospital during Tonkin times and has undergone some reconstruction.
It still doesn’t claim to be the earliest whose accolade goes to the University of Al Quaraouiyine, in Fes, Morocco from 859.

Hoa Lo Prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton)

Hoa Lo prison was initially set up as a French prison for Vietnamese political prisoners in the heart of Ha Noi. Nicknamed, the Ha Noi Hilton (allegedly due to the soft treatment of its US inmates) is famous for holding many US PoW. Most notably Governor (and former Presidential candidate) John McCain, after his plane was shot down in West Lake during the Vietnam War.
I still wonder what they call the Hilton hotel nearby?

In the area next to the citadel lies the Ha Noi Military History Museum. The Museum explains (from a Vietnamese viewpoint) the recent wars from the time of Dien Bien Phu. The lead-up to Vietnamese independence and the fall of French colonialism in 1954. There are the many US, French and Soviet built aircraft and military equipment confiscated after the Vietnam war. Many (defused) unexploded ordnance and guns confiscated after independence in 1975. It’s always interesting seeing the terminology, ‘American Imperialism’ on write-ups.

Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s affectionately known, died in 1969 aged 79. Against the wishes of his will, his body is on display at the Mausoleum in Da Binh square. Allegedly to allow all of Vietnams citizens to pay their respects after reunification in 1975.
Behind the Mausoleum are the one pillar Pagoda and his home, a modest stilted house. He chose not to live in the Presidential palace, preferring to live amongst his people.

The Museum of Ethnology

If the many tribes of Vietnam are of interest, but you don’t get a chance to visit any of the villages such as SaPa, then the Museum of Ethnology is well worth a visit to understand the genealogy, culture and language behind the many tribes which make up many of Vietnam’s people.
There is also an excellent photo gallery and mini museum by the French photographer, Rehahn in Hoi An worth visiting.

Get a Tour Guide

We stayed a month and still didn’t see many of the sights. I would recommend getting a tour guide for a day to take you around Hanoi area and to explore the various sites. It’s easy to get lost in the myriad streets. We used a free tour guide service for students who want to practise their English (http://hanoifreetourguides.com).
The girl provided, Huyen, was brilliant and explained so much about the area. The local cultural meanings behind the placement of altars (Feng Shui), gift offerings and general Buddhist practice was well received. Worth it for 1/2 day. We paid her meals & taxis as well as an extra tip for the day.

Our stay in Vietnam showed us a fiercely proud nation, with a willingness to embrace all nationalities.
We have never once felt unwelcome and often got mobbed by young children practising their English. Westerners including French and American are welcomed with open arms. Unlike the, often joking, animosity between French (Frogs), British (Le Rost Boeuf) and Germans (Krauts) which prevails across Europe.
The Vietnamese have an innate curiosity of everything Western and seeing a family with two blonde girls was no exception.

It is rapidly developing, which in some areas it needs to. It needs to balance this with retaining some of its historical and cultural charms. Too many high rise towers are being built, which the infrastructure cannot cope with. Traffic, especially in Saigon and Ha Noi can be a nightmare to navigate. The increased air pollution is a problem, while the overflowing drains during periods of heavy rain need urgent attention. An anti-litter campaign might also be useful as many areas are spoilt by the overload of plastic bags, which has become an ecological threat in some areas. This is the same so far of everywhere we’ve been in South East Asia.
The warmth and smiles of the Vietnamese people are addictive. I will certainly be looking to return in the future.

Hue – The Ancient Capital of Vietnam

Hue – The Ancient Capital of Vietnam

Hue – The imperial capital of Vietnam from the early 19th Century to 1945. The city predates this to the Nguyen Lords when, in 1600, Hue became the capital of Dai Viet or ‘Great Viet‘. The name ‘Viet’, originating from the Chinese ‘Yue’, meaning non-Chinese people from the South/Vietnam.
Reading the history of the Vietnamese people illustrates how long and impressive this country is. I recall in high school the introduction to the medieval ages, the Renaissance, Reformation, Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution related to England and the United Kingdom. I presumed we (English) were so advanced alongside other Western economies surrounding its empire. Little did I realise how much longer a history many Asian countries, such as Vietnam had.
In 1902, the first Nguyen emperor, born Nguyen Phuc Anh, renamed himself Gia Long after reuniting Vietnam and overthrowing the Trinh Lords from the North. Gia Long changed his name from ‘Gia Dinh’ (present-day Saigon) and ‘Thang Long’ (present-day Hanoi) to represent the joining of the country.
The Nguyen Lords (often unrelated and known as the Vietnamese Shogun) de facto ruled the lower 2/3rds of Vietnam (known as ‘Dang Trong’) from 1558 until 1770. Gia Long was a nephew of the last of the Shoguns.
About 40% of Vietnamese are named Nguyen (pronounced Ng, with a guttural sound, similar to the ending of -ing, then Wee’yun) as it’s the most popular family name in Vietnam due to the trait of changing names to that of the current ruler to prevent earlier dynastic reprisals.

Entrance to the Citadel Hue
Vietnam flag at Hue Citadel - Largest in Vietnam
Mandarin corridors Hue

Gia Long renamed the country, Viet Nam, (Nam meaning South), while Hue had a new citadel built with French assistance.
The Citadel was built surrounded by a moat with walls 2km by 2km long.
Inside is the imperial city and within this lies the Purple Forbidden City, which was restricted only to those of the Emperor and his immediate family.
A visit to the Citadel is a must if you’re in Hue and if you’re a history buff, will easily take a full day of your time.

Hue Women

Hue appears different in many ways to the remainder of Vietnam as the layout, culture and food seemed different. Many of the foods available were developed to suit the more delicate tastes of the Emperor’s concubines & in keeping with royal tradition, had to be of a much higher standard than the rest of the country.

Most of the food has travelled across Vietnam now, but you can sense the influence, with foods such as Nem Lui (Spiced Pork/Beef on Lemongrass Skewers), Banh Beo (steamed rice cakes), Banh Khoai (Fried rice flour pancake with vegetables) amongst others.
If you travel to Hue, be sure to search out some of the food establishments. We went to different places & was impressed even with many of the open fronted, street food restaurants, especially for the prices and the quality.

The first thing to strike me about the layout is the first time we’ve been able to walk along the pavement with the buggy/stroller, without the pathways used as parking for mopeds – everything seems better planned & laid out.

Emperor’s Burial Tombs

The Emperor’s upon their death were buried in ornate tombs surrounded by an altar amidst beautiful scenery. We visited two – Minh Mang (born 1791-reigned 1820-1841), who ruled after Gia Long (Gia Long’s tomb is very simple and in ruins since the Vietnam war) and Khai Dinh (born 1895-reign 1916-1925).

The Nguyen Emperor’s nearing the end of their reign weren’t particularly liked for reasons such as their continued abuse of power and allowing the French to invade and become a colony state. Some were more popular than others.

Minh Mang was a good example. There was a revolt against Khai Dinh due to him increasing taxes to pay for his elaborate tomb. He ordered the arrest of many nationalist leaders such as Phan Boi Chau and being described (by Ho Chi Minh in his play ‘The Bamboo Dragon’) as a powerless puppet of the French regime.

Vietnamese Ao Dai
Minh Mang (born 1791, reign 1820-1841)

Minh Mang was the second Emperor who effectively closed off Vietnam, especially to the French Jesuit priests and embraced Confucian Buddhism. He banned all French missionaries from entering Vietnam and had all French vessels searched. Christianity was a ‘perverse European’ practice, which ‘corrupted the hearts of men’, as stated in a Royal edict.

After numerous US, British and French vessels unsuccessfully attempted to bridge relations and trade with Minh Mang he was drawn into a battle with Siam (Thailand) over the rule of Vietnam’s vassal state Cambodia (Gia Long had annexed Cambodia & installed his own ruler for Cambodia). This occurred at the same time as a Catholic civil uprising in Saigon, supported by the Siamese. This expensive uprising and the neighbouring Opium wars of China left Vietnam feeling under threat, leading Minh Mang to reversing his earlier decision of isolationism and seeking partners and support from the West.

He was known as a progressive ruler who got rid of many of the Fiefdoms run by the Mandarins of the royal court and set-up a more efficient government. His treatment of French priests and isolationism led to the French, particularly Napoleon, who had their eyes on Vietnam for some time, to invade Tourane (Da Nang) after his death to ‘teach the Vietnamese an overdue lesson’.

Minh Mang image
Minh Mang Tomb
Khai Dinh Tomb
Khai Dinh's burial place
Khai Dinh (born 1885 reign 1916-1925)

Khai Dinh came to power as a result of his two predecessors, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan being removed from office by the French because of their anti-French sentiment and exiled to Reunion Island.

Considering the first Nguyen Emperor sought and received help from the French Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine, in 1802, it seems over 200 years later what he had sown had surely come to be reaped.

It’s therefore arguable that Khai Dinh had any choice in the matter other than to be a puppet monarch of the French colonial powers in place. He was hugely unpopular although his only son, Bao Dai was to succeed him as the last Emperor.

Bao Dai Public domain image
Bao Dai's home at the Citadel
Bao Dai (born 1913 reign 1926 – 1945)

A special mention goes to the inauspicious thirteenth and last emperor Bao Dai, again a French puppet at a turbulent time in European and Asian times between 1926 and 1955.

After WWII he finally abdicated to Ho Chi Minh in 1945 and became Chief of State for South Vietnam, finally being overthrown in a fraudulent political coup by President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955.

He spent the remainder of his days in exile in France and died in 1997. If nothing else he will probably be remembered for abdicating his position and therefore conferring his role and royal ‘Mandate from Heaven’ to Uncle Ho providing even greater legitimacy to Ho Chi Minh’s role.

Thien Mu Pagoda – tallest Pagoda in Vietnam

Also known as Temple of the Celestial Lady, after one of the Nguyen Lords built it after a local legend of a woman who sat on the hill where it was originally built. She foresaw events of the time and the temple is an unofficial symbol of Hue.
In 1963 it was an organising post for the Buddhist marches against President Diem’s discrimination against Buddhists.
The car which drove the monk Thich Quang Duc to his self-immolation is exhibited here.
In the 80’s there were also anti-communist protests after a death and some monks arrested for public disorder offences.

Temple of the Celestial Lady
11 June 1963 – A Silent Buddhist Protest 

In the early Summer of 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem’s Government passed a law which prevented the flying of the Buddhist flag, amongst other religious flags. The only flag allowed in Southern Vietnam was that of the Vatican state or Catholic church in commemoration of President Diem’s brother (Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc) consecrated as Archbishop of Hue.

On the birth date of the Gautama Buddha, May 8th, known as Phat Dan or Vesak, there was a peaceful Buddhist protest where the Buddhist flag was raised resulting in the shootings and death of nine unarmed Buddhist monks.

On 11th June 1963, a group of Buddhist monks quietly drove Thich Quang Duc to a peaceful protest in Saigon, where he burnt himself alive, in protest at the ongoing Buddhist persecution.
This act led to Worldwide coverage of the plight of Buddhism in Vietnam, where it was an estimated 90% of the population classify themselves as Buddhist.

The ‘Buddhist crisis’ led to the arrest and assassination of President Diem on 2 Nov 1963.

Thich Quang Ducs Car
A Buddhist sacrifice
Forbidden Palace Hue
1968 Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive 

Hue’s rich heritage was almost destroyed during the Tet offensive of January 1968, when Northern Viet Cong and the Northern Republican Army led some surprise attacks against the Southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the US army and allies.
After invading Hue, the ensuing battles lasting over a month resulted in the destruction of hundreds of years of history.

Little of it remains today in its original state, but as a result of UNESCO heritage status, it has been restored where known. Unfortunately little is known about the forbidden palace and therefore it remains untouched. It is a worthwhile sight when visiting Hue.

Modern History

As you can see this post shows travel isn’t always about sunset dinners and beaches, especially in Southeast Asia, an area with a very conflicted history. For me, this is what makes travel so interesting, although not particularly on a detailed level such as the Tet Offensive above, more about the passage of time and its effect on the norms and culture such as that with the Nguyen Emperors.

As an English language site and coming from Europe we often tend to think of ‘History’ as some old tome to be dusted off, but when visiting other countries and cultures we realise we also live within it, contribute towards and influence modern history.

Next Stop: Hanoi the modern capital of Vietnam. 

We stayed in Vietnam for 3 months and realised travelling too fast didn’t do our finances or stress levels much good. Moving slowly is much better, so we decided to rent an apartment in Hanoi for one month as a base to travel from.



Hanoi North of Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoi An – the ancient trading capital of Asia

Hoi An – the ancient trading capital of Asia

Chuc Thanh Pagoda

On the central coast a few miles inward of the Song Thu river delta, lies the ancient trading capital of Hoi An. Formerly known as Fai Foo. It’s relatively easy to get to as the overnight bus travel from Nha Trang takes approximately ten hours. Alternatively get the train north or south and stop at Danang, before grabbing a taxi to Hoi An.

Japanese and Chinese traders would visit this river delta to set up one of the largest trading regions along the ‘silk road’, where ceramics, pottery, silk and leather goods were exchanged. Fortunately, Hoi An was never spoilt by the ravages of war, which affected so much of the country and leaves it remaining a beautiful town.

Awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1999, it’s melting pot of trade and commerce is reflected in the architecture. From Chinese wooden shop fronts and communal halls, a covered Japanese bridge (the only Japanese bridge worldwide with a temple) and French colonial buildings, the town originated in the 15th century. It continued as a trading post until the 19th century, when exclusive trade rights were given to the French operating from nearby Da Nang. The loss of trade and the possible silting up of the river delta led to the loss of status for Hoi An, what the Japanese believed was the trading capital of Asia.

Japanese Bridge Hoi An
Hoi An Ao Dai

The old quarter, a largely pedestrianised area, entrance costs 150,000 Dong (approx US $6) which is a one-time fee regardless of how long you are visiting. The entrance ticket also includes 5 additional tickets for entry to the various Chinese congregation halls and museums, which makes it good value.

When Chinese traders arrived in Hoi An, they would often set-up meeting places based on their origin, such as Fujian. As a result there are a number of Chinese assembly halls, usually entered through an ornate gate, into a courtyard. There is a meeting area presumably to conduct trade negotiations with a large ornate table. At the rear, a shrine where they would worship in deference to a specific God and ancestral worshipping area for the founders. The best one is possibly the Phuc Kien (Fujian) assembly halls built in 1690. They are still in use today.

Chinese assembly hall Image Hoi An
Hoi An riverbank panorama
My Son Sanctuary Temple
My Son temple sanctuary

Hoi An’s early history is entwined with the history of the Cham peoples and nearby My Son temple sanctuary, a collection of 70 plus Hindu temples are a must for history buffs. Only a one hour drive to one of the biggest temple collections outside Angkor in Cambodia.

Marble Mountains

Above the village of Non Nuoc, where you will see shops with amazingly large statues, lie the Karst rocks of the marble mountains.

Climbing the stairs or taking the lift (preferable if you have kids), the central peak has been converted from a mine to a tourist destination of Buddhist shrines in the middle of the caves within the rock.

The shafts of light brightening up the shrines and the peaceful temples where practising monks might be performing a ceremony make for a great experience.

Marble mountain temple
Men playing Chess by Full moon in Hoi An
Anbang Beach

After wearing your feet out touring the old town of Hoi An, it’s worth spending a morning, depending on the time of year going to Anbang beach.

Make it early as the sand gets too hot to walk on or hire a beach bed and parasol, it’s one of the few places in Vietnam where we’ve found you can swim in reasonable safety (There’s no floating oil or beach mess).

The number of eating establishments means breakfast after a couple of hours before heading back to the hotel and venturing further afield again.

Hoi An has been one of the highlights of our visit to Vietnam, offering a lot for young kids with the proximity of the beach and the relative safety from mopeds and cars in the pedestrianised old quarter.

Other things to do include:

  • Pottery village
  • Silk village
  • Getting clothes made (silk shirts are a bargain)
  • Dining out – especially when the local beer (Bia Hoi) is 5000 Dong (approx US 22¢ cents) per glass.
  • Walking or Cyclo tour
  • Diving or snorkelling – usually a one day trip to Cham island

Hoi An – definitely recommended.

Next stop – Hue. The imperial city of the Nguyen emperors and capital of Annam.
Hue Flagpole