VietnamDiary 11 – The Lan Ha bay cruise.

For every tourist visiting Vietnam, Ha Long bay, is a must visit place. Not only due to the fact that it is a part of the new seven wonders of the world but also because of its sheer natural beauty and charm.

In local Vietnamese language Ha Long means a descending dragon. It is believed that when Vietnam begin to develop as a country, Gods sent a dragon to prevent the invaders from attacking the people who were starting a life here.

There are two more beautiful bays neighboring it namely Lan Ha bay and Tu Long bay. We chose the Lan Ha bay for two reasons, first it is far away from Hanoi so not many tourists boats venture here and secondly there are many white sand beaches. Also it is the best place for sailing and kayaking. In fact my personal view is that you do not have to visit all three, pick one and enjoy.

Map showing the Ha Long bay and its surrounding bays. (pic source Internet)
Lan Ha bay.
Lan Ha bay.
Floating shop comes to your cruise ship.

Lan Ha bay lies on south and east of Cat Ba town but it is part of a different province of Vietnam as a result ships from Ha Long bay are not allowed to enter in to La Ha bay due to provincial restrictions. There are many species of fish, Mollusca, hard and soft corals and some large marine animals such as seals and dolphins, though there are very few of them.

From here you go in a small boat to see caves.
Kayaking.
The limestone caves.
The Limestone caves.

It occupies an area of about 1553 sq kms made up of about 2000 limestone islets, formed in almost 500 million years. Human presence in this area has been confirmed by historical research. In 1994, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our trip from Hanoi started early and we drove to the Cat Ba town. From here we were transferred to the Cruise ship via a smaller boat. After we were transferred to the Cruise ship we really felt happy that we chose Era Cruise. It was a new ship and the suites, decks, food and staff were all really superb. We could not have asked for more.

The Limestone caves.
Our Cruise ship.
Sunset @Lan Ha bay.
Sunrise @Lan Ha bay. It was a bit cloudy that day.

The first activity was a sumptuous lunch after which we went to see the caves. On return it was time for swimming and kayaking followed by music and drinks on the deck. Post dinner we called it a day as we had to rise early to see the sunrise.

The morning began with a Tch chi class on the deck, followed by a brunch. After that we were transferred back to the Cat Ba island for our return journey to Hanoi.

 

VietnamDiary 10 – A day trip to Hao Lu and Tam Coc village.

Next day we went for a day tour to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam and Tom Coc village. The tour started from the Old Quarters where we were met by a driver and a minibus outside the travel company through whom we had booked the tour.

Layout of the ancient capital.
Main entrance of the city & temples.
Main gate.
The temple.

The ancient capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu was laid out in a valley between steep limestone mountains. The idea was to have protection via these mountains which even today are mainly accessible to mountain goats. Hoa Lu lies between rice fields about 90 kms from away from Hanoi.

Dinh Tien Hoang, the first Dinh emperor founded this city in 968 AD following years of civil unrest and a bitter war with the Chinese. There are two temples built in honour of Dinh Tien Hoang, Le Dai Hanh and Queen Durong Van Nga, who was first married to the first king and then later married to the second one. The tomb of Dinh Tien is also here.

In 1010, after the death of Le Dai Hanh, the new King Ly Cong Uan moved the capital to Thang Long which is now known as Hanoi.

After visiting the ancient capital we headed straight for a Vietnamese Buffet Lunch which was good with a vast variety of items.

Though their respective governments do not recognise each other, the ordinary people are least affected, Malaysians and Israelis on the same table.

Our next stop was the Tam Coc village, which is also called the inland Halong Bay. You take a 1.5 – 2 hours boat ride to see the three flooded caves which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Vietnamese, Tam Coc actually means “three caves”, Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Ba, all three of them are on the Ngo Dong River. This area is particularly beautiful and boat ride is fun. It is interesting to see both men and women pedal the boats with their feet. We also toured the village on bicycles.

Tam Coc Village.
It is interesting to see who these women row the boats with their feet.
The flooded caves.
A women selling cold drinks and fruits.
The flooded caves.

Tam coc village.

VietnamDiary 9 – Hanoi tour continues.

Next day we started our Ha Noi exploration trip from West Lake, Vietnam’s biggest freshwater lake. It has a shore length of 17 kms with gardens, hotels, restaurants and entertainment centers.  The residential area around it is prime real estate of the city.

West Lake.
West Lake.
Restaurants and hotels around the West Lake.

The  historical Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Pagoda in Vietnam (1,450 years) is right in the middle of this lake. It was built by Ly Nam De in the 6th century. Then there is Quan Thanh Temple, one of the four sacred temples of ancient Ha Noi. The Chu Van An High School, oldest high schools in Vietnam is also close to the lake.

In the pagoda grounds is a Bodhi tree, which is a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India given as a gift to Vietnam by the visiting Indian President, Dr Rajendra Prasad.

The Quan Thanh Temple dates back to the 11th century and is dedicated to Xuan Wu, one of the principal deities in Taoism. As one of the four temples it was built to protect the old city from the evil spirits.

After lunch we headed straight to the Old Quarters and Haon Kiem Lake.

Haon Kiem in Vietnamese means the “Lake of the returned Sword”. The lake is in 12 hectares and is the most beautiful and happening part of Ha Noi. There are number of hotels and restaurants surrounding the lake and in the evening this are looks magical with coloured lights.

In the middle of the lake is the Turtle Tower. It was built on the Turtle islet, a fishing site during the 17th century.

The Old Quarters is the ancient part of town which has existed since the imperial times outside the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Each street here specializes in one type of manufacturing  or commerce. There are about 76 streets where there are number of Hotels, restaurants and bars. This is one place where action never stops way past midnight.  It is still the main shopping area of the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 8 – Ha Noi tour continues.

Next day we began our Hanoi tour with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square. The mausoleum is a massive granite structure which took 2 years to complete and was inaugurated on 29 August 1975. It is the final resting place of the great leader also called Uncle Ho.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

It was Ho Chi Minh’s wish that his body should be cremated and his ashes are scattered over the North, Centre and South of the country. However the Vietnam government did exactly the opposite and gave him a treatment like the Soviets do to their leaders. They embalmed his body and installed it in an imposing concrete and granite structure modeled on Lenin’s in Moscow.

As no photography is allowed inside the mausoleum, I could not take any pictures.

Our next stop was  Ho Chi Minh Museum which was built to express the deep gratitude, people of Vietnam have for their President. It contains account of his life and his personal effects. The museum was inaugurated on his 100th birth anniversary.

The Presidential Palace is quite huge and grandeur and during his revolutionary life he lived and worked here. He was in fact a simple man who lived a simple life in a custom-built stilt house, behind the Palace till his death.

Presidential Palace.
Stilt house.
President’s car.
President’s car.
A pond in the palace premises adds to its beauty.

Mango path where Uncle Ho used to walk and do his morning exercise.

Next on our list was the One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple. Emperor Ly Thai Tong built this one pillar pagoda in the middle of a Lotus pond during his rule during 1028 to 1054. He was childless and one day in his dream he met the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshva, who handed him a baby son while seated on a Lotus flower.

The Pagoda is built of wood, on a single stone pillar 1.25 m in diameter and 4 m in height, and it is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, which is a Buddhist symbol of purity.

In 1954, the original was destroyed by the French before withdrawing from Vietnam after the First Indochina War. The current one was rebuilt later.

One Pillar Pagoda.
Ho Chi Minh Museum.
Ho Chi Minh Statue in the General Introduction Hall.
Uncle Ho at his desk.

The other attractions were covered next day.

 

VietnamDiary 7 – Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour

The Hanoi Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour starts from the Old Quarters at 900 hours and there is a bus every 30 minutes. There are a total of 13 stops where you can hop on or hop off and the tour ends at the starting point.

We got on to the bus from The Temple of Literature and covered the following Hanoi attractions. The rest of the attractions, we did it on our own.

Hoa Lo Prison

This prison was in use during the French occupation of Vietnam and was mainly used  to house the political prisoners. Later North Vietnam used it for U S Prisoners during the American War. Ironically in those days the Americans called it the Hanoi Hilton.

Layout of the prison.
Pictures and drawings of the prison in those days.
The main Gate.
The Cell D – for male prisoners designed for 40 prisoners. But sometimes it even had up to 100 prisoners.
Cachot area – “hell of the hell:, meant for prisoners who broke prison laws.

The name Hoa Lo in Vietnamese means the fiery furnace as there were lot of stores selling wood stoves and coal fire stoves on that street. In fact this was the village which produced earthen home appliances such as kettles, teapots and portable stoves.

In those days the prison occupied an area of 12,908m making it the largest fortified prison in IndoChina. It was later demolished in 1990 except the gatehouse, which is now the Museum.

Opera House

The Opera House is modeled on the Palais Garnier, Paris as it was built during 1910-11 by the French. Various cultural programmes, performances, concerts and Government functions are held here.

The Flag Tower of Hanoi

It is a very important landmark of the city standing tall at 41 m (including the Vietnam flag). It was built during the Nguyen dynasty as an observation post to the Hanoi Citadel in 1812.

The Flag Tower of Hanoi.
Wreckage of French and American planes which were shot down.
Canons.
Wreckage of American B 52 D bomber which was shot down.

Unlike some other landmarks it was not destroyed during the French invasion as it was used as a military post. Now it is part of the Vietnam Military History Museum.

The museum houses war photographs and war propaganda from Vietnam’s war with China, France and America. Many French and American planes captured are displayed here together with structures built out of wreckage of these planes.

For the other attractions, read my next blog.

VietnamDiary 6- The Independence Palace

 On our 2nd last day in Sai Gon, we went to another very important and historical landmark of the city, The Reunification Palace, which is now known as the Independence Palace.

This was built, in 1968 on the site of old Norodom Palace surrounded by beautiful palm trees.

The Independence Palace.
The Lobby.

During the American War, Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam worked and lived here with his family and decided to rename it to the Independence Palace.

However, just 8 years later it was destroyed by the bombing during a coup. The President later ordered the remains to be destroyed and a new palace to built in its place.

The new structure includes three main floors, 2 mezzanine floors, one terrace and one upper floor with 95 rooms each decorated in accordance with its function. It has two exhibition rooms and a 33 room Guest House. In 1975, it was captured by the Communists ending the Vietnam war. Now the Palace is used as a Museum only. The two original tanks used to capture it are parked in the Palace grounds.

While we were visiting the palace, there was a very good exhibition going on there called From Norodom Palace to Independence Palace, 1868-1966 in the two story villa, only colonial era building that stands on the ground of Independence Palace.

On the first floor of the building there were exhibits showing life in colonial Sai Gon. On the second floor, were the exhibits showing rise and fall of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, the destruction and rebuilding of the Independence Palace.

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 5 – The famous Mekong River Delta.

Another major landmark in Sai Gon, usually oversold to tourists is the Mekong River Delta. Historically this has been an important region of Vietnam right from Funan Kingdom as a trading port due to its proximity with present day Cambodia. Some even suggest that this was probably the capital of Funan Kingdom.

IMG_6325
The Mekong River Delta.
IMG_6360
The Mekong River Delta.
IMG_6416
The Mekong River Delta.
IMG_6367
The Mekong River Delta.

After Vietnam gained independence from France, this western part of Vietnam has contributed immensely to the rice production. It also supplies fruits and vegetables. It is often referred to as the “biological treasure trove” after many new animal species and plants have been discovered here. Overall it is Vietnam’s most productive region in agriculture and aquaculture. It has almost half of Vietnam’s capacity of offshore fishing vessels.

IMG_6356IMG_6369IMG_6372IMG_6380

The area is dominated by flat flood plains in the south and a few hills in the north and west. It also has a small forest region making it attractive to tour operators. However since it is low lying it is particularly susceptible to floods when the sea level rises.

Most of the people living in this area are local ethnic Viet but it is also has a the largest Khmer population outside Cambodia with some Chinese calling it home too. Life in general here revolves much around the river as many of the villages are often accessible by rivers and canals rather than by road.

In my view this region needs to be explored in leisure, however our tour operator and all others operating in this area have reduced it to taste the honey, see coconut candy being made, cruise on the water, see a temple, take a picture with a snake, see how rice paper is made and, of course, visit the floating markets. Thank you for visiting Mekong Delta.

IMG_6395
Coconuts shells are removed.
IMG_6396
Coconut is scapped.
IMG_6397
The scapped coconut is heated.
IMG_6398
The scapped coconut after heating and removing the oil is turned into a dough to make candies by rolling them in sugar.
The beans are grinded to make powder.
Coffee beans.

VietnamDairy 4 – Visit to the Sai Gon’s Cathedral and Central Post Office.

Among Sai Gon’s other important landmarks are the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica and Central Post Office. They are just next to each other so we visited them together. Unfortunately, the Cathedral was undergoing some major repairs so no one was allowed entry into it.

After the French conquest of IndoChina, the Roman Catholic church established Vietnam’s first church in an abandoned Pagoda. It was too small so a new church was built on Ngo Duc Ke Street but it was damaged by the termites as it was made of wood. As a result the prayers and other church services were later shifted to the French Governor’s Palace.

Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, SaiGon.
Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica.
Gardens outside.
Gardens outside.

During 1863 and 1880, a new Cathedral was built with two bell towers rising up to about 190 feet each and having six bronze bells each. On top of each tower, crosses were installed and with this the total height of the cathedral went up to 60.5 m.

In the front beautiful flower gardens were planted with a bronze statue of Bishop of Adran, Pigneau de Behaine. It was a bit of a dampner that we could not see the Cathedral from inside.

Next door is the Sai Gon’s Central Post Office built during the 19th century. The building is beautifully constructed with Gothic, Renaissance and French styles.

Central Post Office, SaiGon.
Inside Central Post Office.
Shopping inside Central Post Office, SaiGon.
Telephone booths inside Central Post Office.

There is an enormous portrait of Ho Chi Minh inside the post office which you see as you enter it. On the entrance are two maps, one of Saigon & its surroundings and the other is of telegraphic routes of South Vietnam and Cambodia. There are also the historic telephone booths inside which were used for international calls but have now slowly faded into the history of telecommunications. In some of these booths, cash dispeners (ATMs) have been installed. Apart from sending a Post Card to your loved ones, you can also shop for souvenirs here.

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 3 – The most popular Museum in Vietnam, War Remnants Museum.

Next day we visited the second most important and popular attractions of Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon), the War Remnants Museum. It was opened to public in 1975.

IMG_6279
War Renants

Vietnam has been engaged in different wars for over 100 years, first with the Chinese, then French colonialists and later Americans. This museum contains exhibits relating to first Indochina war with French and those relating to the American War.

IMG_6276IMG_6277IMG_6280IMG_6278IMG_6281IMG_6282IMG_6283

The Museum is operated by the Vietnamese government and was earlier called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet crimes. Later the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. However, subsequent to normalisation of its relations with the United States, in 1990 the name was changed to the War Remnants Museum.

There are several themed rooms and it also house a Huey Helicopter, F5 fighter, several tanks and a conventional bomb weighing 6,800kg. American troops had used these weapons against the Vietnam.
IMG_6243IMG_6267IMG_6272IMG_6274IMG_6268

Tiger Cages of South Vietnam, where political prisoners were kept are also displayed here. There are a number of exhibits relating to the deadly effects of Agent Orange and several award winning photographs.

Every year almost half a million visitors visit this museum and of this two-thirds of the visitors are foreigners.

This shocking reminder of the long and brutal American War is an absolute must visit place in Vietnam.

VietnamDiary 2 – Vietnamese Lacquer paintings.

Before we hit the Cu Chi tunnels, our conducted tour guide stopped on the way at Lamphat Company, which makes and sells lacquer paintings. All the artist which are employed there are handicapped and war victims. Since they are unable to be employed in regular office jobs, they have been trained in this art form and rehabilitated.

IMG_6163.jpg

Lacquer painting is an ancient art form of Vietnam and is part of their heritage. The lacquer is made from a resin obtained from trees native to Vietnam. Each piece of a painting undergoes a complex process of creation, from wood preparation, drawing, lining, polishing, varnishing, inlaying of mother of pearls or egg shells etc. The finished paintings then have a brilliant shine on them.

This process is better explained in the picture below.

IMG_6164.jpg

IMG_6151IMG_6153IMG_6155IMG_6154IMG_6156IMG_6157IMG_6158IMG_6159IMG_6160IMG_6161IMG_6162

It was a real treat to see these handicapped artists work with such precision and dedication producing such masterpieces.

In the end we did not buy, as we thought the prices were too touristy. Hopefully in our next visit we will try and pick up a piece.