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Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain

Don't go to Vietnam for the conventional 'beaches and temples' Southeast Asian holiday. Outside its northern cities, the limestone topography will take your breath away

Published: May 17, 2014 06:39:01 AM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2014 11:37:12 AM IST
Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain
Image: Corbis
Ha Long Bay, listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco

Vietnam isn’t thailand. the tourism infrastructure isn’t nearly as well developed, there are no comfortable, direct Rs 20,000 return flights and the visa-on-arrival will end up costing almost $100. But if you’re willing to brave a bumpy bus ride or two, the beauty of the magnificent limestone formations that blossom from the paddy fields, river deltas and placid bays will amaze. Northern Vietnam is blessed with unique natural beauty that will reward the intrepid.

Two days in Hanoi are more than enough. The city sleeps early (most things shut by 10 pm) and the colonial French influence one would expect has largely been sullied by unimaginative architecture under communist rule. Other than the Central Post Office and a few buildings in the quaint Old Quarter (and baguettes at every meal), you’d probably never guess the French ruled Indochina from 1874 until 1954 when Vietnam gained independence. Perhaps, ironically, it is French hotel chain Sofitel with its luxurious heritage Legend Metropole that pays tribute to this past better than most. However, most travellers stay in the many backpacker hotels near Hoan Kiem Lake. A walking tour through the Old Quarter, ending in the Tortoise Pagoda in the middle of the lake, is a good morning’s excursion and works up an appetite. That brings me to the real genius of Hanoi—food.

Vietnamese food is different from other Asian cuisines in that you can eat till you’re full and still feel light on your feet. You can’t go wrong with the ubiquitous noodle broth, Pho (pronounced fuh), available at just about every street corner. Light, fresh and packed with greens, this delicious noodle soup has an unmistakable aroma and is best enjoyed with beef (Pho Bo). Another great Hanoi lunch option is Bun Cha, assorted grilled pork cuts in a sweet sauce with rice noodles. Either of these will set you back by only around $1.50 and are best followed by Bia Hoi, the light beer brewed daily in many of the typical roadside bars. Vietnam is refreshingly cheap and you’ll need your mental math to convert Vietnamese dong prices to dollar or rupee: $1 is 21,000 dong, Rs 100 is 34,000 dong. Hanoi is defined by tiny hole-in-the-wall cafes where patrons sit in large groups on comically small plastic stools on the pavement. Locals, with a toothpick and a cup of lukewarm coffee, watch the flocks of scooters zoom haphazardly through the bustling streets.

Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain
Image: Getty Images
Hoan Kiem Lake

Spend the afternoon taking in the stark, grand and aptly named Lenin Park—where skate boarders grind metres away from megaphone-wielding political rallies. Though Vietnam is unapologetically communist, the system is at odds with the country’s growth and ASEAN aspirations. Young Vietnamese people tell you how the education system is great until high school and then drops off at university level. Yet, the country is surprisingly well connected: There is free Wi-Fi absolutely everywhere—even the smallest café in the smallest town will have internet access.

High-end Vietnamese fare at the Chim Sao restaurant in the Hai Ba Trung District is the best way to cap your day. Built into a restored French townhouse, it offers North Vietnamese delicacies like Mince Pigeon on Prawn Crackers, Duck in Tamarind Broth, Sauteed Water Buffalo, the outstanding Deep Fried Crispy Pork Stomach and strong but refreshing apple wine. Each item costs 150,000-200,000 dong ($7-10) but foodies should not resist. Follow this up with a good night’s rest—Hanoi doesn’t have much of a nightlife—to catch the early morning bus to Ha Long Bay, the Unesco World Heritage Site.

Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain
Image: Corbis
Tourists among rock formations on Halong Bay

Ha Long Bay is famous for its limestone islets that jut dramatically out of the placid waters. A full day boat tour, including kayaking, snorkeling and lunch from a reputable tour company like Cat Ba Ventures or Asia Outdoors, will set you back by $30 per head.

The double-decker boat (similar to Hong Kong’s famous ‘Junks’) leaves early: Pack a jacket and your own F&B since every coffee or beer you order on the boat costs extra. Once the sun is out and you’ve picked up the kayaks from the floating village, head to the top deck and take in the scenery.

Words don’t do justice to the majesty of the bay and the peace you feel as you cruise gently through the gullies and lagoons of the Gulf of Tonkin. After a while, you tune out the noise of the engine and forget the bumpy roads and pushy vendors that may have dampened your spirits. If you get the morning mist, the uninhabited islets topped with lush vegetation will reveal themselves every few minutes as you chug along. Once in a while you’ll pass a ‘tower’—a sliver of rock that rises spectacularly from the water miles away from the nearest islet. There are many grottos and caves to explore—your guide will take you crawling through tiny gaps and into humid caverns of stalactites that sparkle under torch light.

The bay is even more stunning by kayak—paddling under crevices that undercut the huge karsts and into hidden lagoons, you get a better sense of the islands’ scale. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the rarest species of monkey in the world, the White-Headed Langur. Less than 70 of these monkeys exist in the wild and are only found near Cat Ba Island. They swing fearlessly from the branches that extend from the cliffs, trusting their limbs to latch onto whatever foliage lies below; a single slip and they’ll plunge over a hundred feet onto the sharp rocks of the lagoon. Lunch on the boat is a feast below-deck, usually including Chinese-style greens, steamed fresh-water fish and squid stuffed with mince pork. As the dropped anchor induces pause and the afternoon sun begins to beat down, it becomes even more evident why this place is a Unesco World Heritage site: The sight of white-green islands breaching and re-entering the water so steeply is unique.

Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain
The Vietnamese tourism industry’s need for innovation is exemplified by the eating options on Cat Ba Island: The marina is lined with perhaps 50 local restaurants with identical menus and pricing. But for the most part, they lie empty. Everyone is found at the only Western-looking joint on the strip. Reason: For the same price (200,000 dong) as a main and a drink at the characterless cafes, the Noble House Restaurant offers a huge seafood mix-grill, a beer and baguette. The food isn’t a stand-out but the deal is good, the offering is different and the atmosphere is welcoming; the music and chatter from the back-packer bar upstairs is enticing.

Image: Pavlos Christoforou / Alamy
A Bun Cha street restaurant in Old Quater, Hanol

An early morning boat and a six-hour bus ride take you to the city of Ninh Binh, the picturesque Ngo Dong river and Tam Coc-Bich Dong—another must-see destination in North Vietnam. One of the great things about TripAdvisor is that it’s made the tourism industry a meritocracy: Finding good accommodation is simple and it’s easy to see why friendly family-run hostels like Canh Dieu Hotel rise to the top. They will organise day tours for four people in an air-conditioned car for about $25 per head.

The limestone karst surroundings are back but this time, the ocean is replaced by the flat paddy fields of the river delta. Under misty, overcast morning skies, the three-hour boat ride down river is magical. Around every new bend, sheer cliffs and agile wild mountain goats (the local delicacy) introduce themselves silently. Watch the women paddle the boats—they use their feet to push and pull the oars! Though they start cheerfully enough, at the halfway stage they try to sell you cheap, uninspiring goods and turn sour if you refuse to buy. It can be unpleasant and, if you’re not careful, it will ruin the calm of the experience. Enjoying Vietnam is about tuning out overzealous vendors; this is how foreign tourists must feel in India.

Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain
Image: Getty Images
Rice fields and karst tower in Tam Coc valley

The scenery around Tam Coc (meaning Three Caves) is reminiscent of Vietnam War films: Lush, green hills and still, grey waters. It is sobering to think that this peaceful, agricultural country was carpet bombed and napalmed so indiscriminately. The views from the 15th century Bich Dong pagoda at the top of the nearby hill are spectacular. The higher you climb, the fewer tourists you jostle past. If you’re intrepid enough to clamber up the sharp rocks to the top of Ngu Nhac Mountain, you’ll get a unique view of the valley.

The final imperative is a steep 500-step walk up Ma Yen Mountain for the majestic views of the river valley. You’ll reach the summit panting but deep breaths of the cool, moist air will prepare you for the vistas: Like something out of the old Oriental landscape paintings, the limestone outcrops shoot vertically up from the paddy fields, shrouded in mist. Those used to the gradual inclines of hills will have our senses challenged by the sheer drops and awesome canyons.

For every pushy vendor and scheming driver, there is a Mr Hung. Guests at his Canh Dieu Hotel rave about his service: He’ll gently wake you up with green tea and a packed breakfast in time for your 5 am bus. He’ll drive you to the bus station and buy your tickets himself. Many travellers use Ninh Binh as a quick stop to catch the train to the central city of Hue, but those who want to experience the unique eco-tourism of the northern hills can catch the early morning bus to Mai Chau.

Less touristy than the Sapa Mountains, Mai Chau gives you a chance to stay in family home-stays or luxurious eco-lodges like Mai Chau Nature Place and experience rural Vietnam. The nature of the travellers has changed by now: Gone are the young backpackers—this is for more mature couples looking for a good place to hike and bike. Trekking groups leave Lac Village in the morning and you can rent a cycle for the afternoon. In the fields that sprawl across the valley, you feel encircled by the dense forests of the mountains—cut off from the outside world in more ways than one.

Behind Vietnam's Limestone Curtain
Image: Terry Whittaker / Alamy
Golden Headed langur on Cat Ba Island

The nights get very cold and are best spent sharing stories. You can enjoy a 5-star meal for $7 at the lodge or head into the village for an authentic $1 bowl of Pho. Refreshingly, locals here are more curious about foreigners than preoccupied with trying to sell trinkets. On Friday night the silence of the starry sky is broken by karaoke from nearby guest houses—a pity, and another test of your ability to ‘tune out the bad stuff’.

By now you’re used to the enterprising bus drivers, so when they load a live pig (limbs bound and squealing) and a motorcycle onto the roof, you’re not surprised. Vietnam’s travel experience is raw: You need to be willing to get on a bus or a kayak or a bike or into a pair of boots and take a chance on the beauty of a landscape yet to be sculpted by man. This country is not quite the finished product that a typical tourism destination denotes. Perhaps that is a good thing.  

Trip Planner
The limestone landscapes of Ha Long, Ninh Binh and Hoa Binh are all a five- to six-hour drive from Hanoi. November to January will be cool and misty, especially in the mountains. The rest of the year is sunny and humid.

Vietnam isn’t well connected with India. Flights via Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur are upwards of Rs 40,000 return. Low-cost carriers such as Air Asia usually involve long stopovers. Buses from Hanoi to nearby destinations are typically 200,000 dong ($10).

Hanoi has 5-star hotels like the Sofitel Legend Metropole, but TripAdvisor can point you to many comfortable hotels for $10 a night. Hostels are easy to book online a day or two in advance, using the ubiquitous Wi-Fi.

Your hotel or hostel will be able to organise tours and, equally importantly, pick-ups for you. TripAdvisor is great at screening the best operators.

(This story appears in the March-April 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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