Over 3,000 stunning limestone and dolomite rock formations jut from the waters of Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site about four hours outside of Hanoi. This area of over 1,500 square kilometers literally takes your breath away when you first see it, though you have likely seen pictures of it many times before. The scale, the colors, the expansiveness is something you can’t experience until you arrive. And it is absolutely worth the trek and effort to get there.
We were fortunately advised to take an overnight boat excursion to properly appreciate Halong Bay. There are day trips out of Hanoi, but some feel that they are rushed and exhausting.
We arrived at our boat midday, with about 20 other passengers. Our trip included bountiful Vietnamese meals, excursions within Halong Bay including incredible cave explorations, kayaking, and beach time. Activities on the boat included cooking demonstrations and a tai chi class.
After an amazing stay in Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, we headed for Central Vietnam via an overnight train to Da Nang. Our hotel was kind enough to send an employee with us to the train station and get us to the right platform, train and cabin. Phew! I’m not sure how we would have figured that out.
Outside of a few backpackers, we are the only non-locals on the train, which is great! Only trouble is no one speaks any english and the train stops and directions are only in Vietnamese. The train is clean, comfortable and basic, and rattles through the dark of night at a pretty good clip. Not sure how much sleep we got, but we wake up to this view.
The coastline of Vietnam is one of the most beautiful, unspoiled coastlines we have ever seen. We are totally unprepared for this breathtaking sight and would not have seen it if we had traveled any other way. GRATEFUL.
We arrive in Da Nang, near the former DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). A driver from our hotel takes us to Hoi An, a formerly busy trading port town and now a World Heritage Site. Hoi An is known for it’s genuine Vietnamese architecture, influenced by Chinese and French styles. Although much of Vietnam was destroyed during their many wars, Hoi An survived.
The Old Quarter of Hoi An is filled with cafes and restaurants, shops, cooking classes, art galleries, tailors. There are boat excursions and an open air food market. Hoi An is especially beautiful at night when the town is lit by colorful lanterns. It can become crowded with tourists here but it really didn’t affect our experience.
When we are traveling for an extended period in large cities, we try to plan in some beach time somewhere. We attribute this to the needs of our children, but in fact it suits all of us. On this trip, we decided to stay on the beach just outside of Hoi An. Our hotel was on Cua Dai Beach, an extensive stretch of white sand and warm, clear blue water.
A few days at the beach provided just the respite we needed before embarking on the second half of our journey in Japan. Our stay in Vietnam was extraordinary, from the breathtaking natural beauty to the chaotic, noisy cities … from opulent beach resorts to third-world living conditions for many. We will remember the exotic tastes of Vietnam, the aromas and sounds of the country, and especially the very warm and welcoming people. They are a population that has been through so much, much more than we can ever imagine. And they have risen from it, looked around, saw what unique treasures they still had and are capitalizing on it. And from that they seem to be building a better life for many. We will go back to Vietnam because there is so much more to see, but in the meantime we promised we would tell everyone we knew about our time there. It was wonderful, in a very different way. But wonderful.