We took 2 water taxis from our hotel to Wat Arun a large Buddhist Temple complex we didn't have time to see on our 2010 visit to Thailand. Of course we made the most of out 24 hours and sampled grilled meats, local foods and re-explored some of Bangkok's many outdoor markets...
The adventure continued when we arrived in Hanoi. I had my visa on arrival paperwork, but managed to forget our passport-sized photos - one of the requirements for American entry into Vietnam. The line was long and the green-uniformed Vietnamese looked decidedly Stalinesque. The uniformed woman who listened to our plight just smiled and took us to the front of the line. She grabbed a digital camera and took the photos right there in the immigration terminal in front of a crowd of 3o other international visitors. Thankfully, forgetting our passport photos only cost an extra US$2 and got us to the front of a long line.
Our time in Hanoi was cut a little short due to the connection mishap, but we still managed to tuck in a little sightseeing.
The highlights included the famous water puppet theater near Hoan Kiem Lake, and the ancient (1075 AD) cloister of buildings now called the Temple of Literature. This was Vietnam's first University.
From Hanoi we traveled 14 hours south by sleeper train through the old 'DMZ' to Danang and out farther post south on this trip, the sea-side town of Hoi An. We had our own cabin and 4 berths. It was clean and the trip was decidedly smoother than our similar experiences on Indian and Sri Lankan trains.
Hoi An old city has become an UNESCO World Heritage site. There are quite a few tourist (mainly French, Australians and Americans) here. The town is being very developed for tourism, but is still a perfect place to relax, have a beer (bia), a bowl of pho (traditional noodle soup) or baguette sandwich.
The beach is only 5km away - a 15 minute bike ride. We rented bicycles on 3 of our six days and spent late afternoons in the sand and waves. The kids and I made new sand-structures each day and jumped in the big waves of the So. China Sea. It's a long stretch of beautiful beach, extending from Hoi An north to DaNang. This 20km stretch includes the famous China Beach.
One of my favorite activities was the cooking class we took. We learned how to make 3 traditional dishes: Pho Ga, (chicken Noodle Soup), Cau Lao (a local Hoi an Specialty - pork and noodles) and fresh spring rolls. All a relatively quick and easy to make and very healthy!
We took a day trip by bus and boat to the Ancient Champ (4th Century Hindu) religious center of My Son. The place was somehow familiar to us, since these temples refect the style and beliefs of their builders from South India. Ganesh and Shiva are intermixed with images of Yin and Yang (Linga and Joli) symbols of masculine and feminine. Our Vietnamese guide made it clear that much of the site, including a massive 24 meter tall temple (only the base remains) were destroyed by B-52s in the Tet Offensive of 1968/69. He noted that the Viet Cong unfortunately used the isolated My Son Valley as a refuge from American forces. It was part of a network of trails used to resupply NVA soldiers during that war.
The next leg of the trip took us on a 3 hour bus-ride to the Ancient Imperial capital of Hue. Unfortunately, much of this city was destroyed during 2 twentieth century wars - in 1947 and in 1968, but enough remains to celebrate its unique history. We visited the great walled portion of the city that was once the "Forbidden City" of Hue. Similar in many ways to it's counterpart in, Beijing, this Forbidden City was home to the last of the Vietnamese Imperial Dynasties: the Nguyens.
After just one night and a quick tour of Hue we traveled back north to Hanoi and our final destination - the unique and very beautiful, Halong Bay. We spend parts of 2 days and one night exploring some of the channels and 2,000 limestone islands that make up the bay. Our hosts on the boat were kind, despite having left our overnight bag on the curb at the harbor (We managed to recover they bag after paying a small fee to the street vendors for finding it). We got to explore the large Sung Sot Cave, observed some of the many unusual rock formations and saw several "floating villages" made from anchored houseboats. The largest of these has a year-round population of 200 inhabitants and includes a floating bank!
We loved our experiences in Vietnam - the people, the beauty, food and culture. We hope to return again sometime soon to explore the southern part of this lovely country. Maybe even add a side adventure to nearby Cambodia and Angkor Wat!