Enchanting Vietnam

Hot and steamy the old town area of Hanoi, the Capital of Vietnam is a city with a unique atmosphere, very different to anywhere I’ve ever visited.

Only the very rich have cars but everyone seems to have a motorbike. Crossing the road is an art. “Step out and the traffic will work around you” said our guide Louis. Easier said than done, but it was surprisingly easy. A ride in a cyclo, a bicycle where I sat on a comfy seat steered by a gentleman who sat behind me, was my initiation into getting around the traffic and a fun experience. Currency is the dong and there are thousands to the pound so everything sounds madly expensive but is in fact very cheap. The roads in the old town are named according to what they sell. One street has shoe shops while another jewellery. “You’ll have to barter”, said Louis. I found my way to a silk shop where I was able to buy silk nightwear for a fraction of the price in the UK.

The city has several lakes and with the majority of the population Buddhists, the place ia awash with temples and pagodas. One of the must-sees is the Temple of Literature built in 1070. Young people dressed in their best were being photographed by friends. “It’s the custom to have your photograph taken prior to graduation,“ said Louis. “Students also come here to touch the stone turtles to bring them luck.” I indulged myself in this superstition, making a wish while touching the stone crane birds guarding the statue of Confucius.

Unique to the country is the Water Puppet Theatre where puppets are manipulated on a stick on water by people behind a screen. We were initially entertained with music from an instrument comprising a long upright handle that when manipulated produced enchanting, wishful music. The puppets performed various different scenarios while being glided across the water, a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

Restaurants try to accommodate visitors, adapting their recipes to European tastes. Vietnam, with China on its Northern border, shares a lot of similar food. Bread isn’t served in restaurants although in the street, vendors on bikes sell it. Food is eaten with chopsticks, but generally cutlery is also available. Vegetables tend to be cut up or shredded into tiny slivers as is fish and meat. When eating out with several people, the dishes are put in the middle of the table, and everyone helps themselves. The soup I found in general to be very glutinous, although happily not Pho, a nutritious noodle broth often served by street vendors. Shell fish is cheap and in abundance with the many of the dishes having  crab, shrimps, prawns or oysters in them. Vietnamese love their chilli which is used in the majority of dishes or accompanying dips. Rice is put on the table but usually after all the other food. Perhaps one of the reasons why I didn’t see any fat Vietnamese!

Deep fried jumbo prawns wrapped in a tapioca batter, weaved to look like a bird’s nest not only looked impressive but tasted delicious, as did the oysters baked with chives and peanuts. Hanoi has its Michelin Star chefs. Two star French chef Alain Dutournier can be found at the Press Club in the chic part of the city where the remains of the city’s French influence is still visible in the architecture.

A must see, and a four hour drive from Hanoi is Ha Long Bay. Bordering the Gulf of Tonkin the area, covering 1,533 sq. km is a World Heritage Site because of its outstanding landscape as well as being an UNESCO Natural World Heritage site, recognised as one of the seven new wonders of nature. Thousands of rock formations tower out of the water, some containing grottoes and caves. The most popular and really the only way to see this area is by boat. An overnight stay on a boat is a must, and if you’re looking for a romantic interlude there are also boats for two. There is lots to see and do amidst an incredibly relaxing environment. Swimming in the clear water is one option while another is kayaking. I enjoyed a ride in a sampan rowed by a lady with her infant son at her side. On passing the nature reserve of Cat Ba Island golden-headed Langur, a rare species of monkey, were frolicking on the rocks.

Back on board, the upper deck was used for a demonstration of how to make spring rolls, one of the country’s national dishes. The cooking on board embraces the ancient Taoist belief that in order to attain the highest level of health and nutrition, food should have the perfect balance and harmony of the five elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Following this philosophy the dishes with their diverse colour encompassed five essential flavours – sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty.



About Natasha Blair

Travel journalist who enjoys discovering new places in style, where possible, with her dog, a Coton de Tulear, called Poppy. Good food, not necessarily gourmet, is important as is the atmosphere as she also writes about restaurants. Culture is another love, and as she is based in London, she reviews theatre and art exhibitions.
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2 Responses to Enchanting Vietnam

  1. ericlarsen57 says:

    I enjoyed your post. Heading to Hanoi in a few week with my teenage son.


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