Vietnam's appeal wins over chaos

00:34, Dec 07 2012

The chaos of Hanoi is infectious but it’s the steep limestone mountains of north Vietnam that are beckoning to be explored.

The traffic is the first thing to hit you in Hanoi. And if you don’t learn to master crossing the roads quickly, then hit you, it will. If the heat doesn’t floor you first.

A heaving mass of never-ending chaos is the only way to describe the capital of Vietnam. It’s a land where there seems to be no notion of road rules and you are only limited by what you can fit on the back of a scooter, which seems to be, literally, anything.

Within minutes of hitting the streets it’s worth learning: you don’t dodge the traffic, it dodges you. It’s a notion that goes against every bone in your body when standing in the middle of an uncontrolled intersection with dozens of scooters careering toward you.

For the most part, they seemed to avert a mass pile-up of twisted arms and metal, although we had more than a few close calls. How the drivers know exactly where the others are is beyond me.

Every driver constantly has a finger to the horn to let the others know where they are, but with a near solid wall of sound coming from every direction, I still haven’t figured out how it works. It just does.


An indelible haze sets over the city at dusk. The haze, a mix of humidity and exhaust fumes, is always there but at twilight it gives the break lights on the scooters an extra twinkle while the horns keep at it long into the night.

"Some people don’t like the sound of the scooters and horns, they complain all the time, but it is the Hanoi symphony," says Duke.

Me? I couldn’t get enough of it.

Beginning in the capital our expedition saw us hitting the roads - and I use the term "road" loosely - on a nine-day tour of Vietnam’s Rocky Plateau, finally ending in Halong Bay.

It has only been in the past few years that tourism has really opened up north of Hanoi. The south is well populated, and from the locals we talked to who spoke English, the north and south may as well be two different countries.

Indeed to the west, Sapa Valley is crawling with tourists, but for the truly untouched experience, veer east up the country toward Dong Van which sits on the far north Chinese border.

The distance from Hanoi to our first stop in Ha Giang (pronounced Ha Zhang) - about half way to the northern border - was just under 300km. The travelling time however is just over nine hours, which goes a little way in explaining the quality of the roads - or lack thereof.

Many stops along the way of the first leg north make for a bearable day of travel, the first stop of which, was to the first and only temple we saw.

Hung Temple - a 4000-year-old dedication to Vietnam’s first kings - is one of the most sacred places in Vietnam. Locals from across the country pilgrimage to the site in Co Tech village in the Phu To province.

It is a complex consisting of several temples dedicated to the cult of Hung Vuong - the very first King, said to be born out of the marriage between a dragon and a fairy.

That was one of the few Vietnamese legends we heard, and the only temple we saw, with our guide giving a very good reason for that.

"For me", Duke says, "Communism is my religion".

Socialist Vietnam has been under the rule of the Communist Party since 1975 when North Vietnam won the "American War", as it is called there.

While Communism is aligned with atheism as a rule, there are minority religious groups who live throughout the country without bother or persecution. Buddhists, we were told, are scattered throughout Vietnam. Their temples are called Pagodas within the country to differentiate them from those such as the Hung Temple.

A particularly austere catholic church also stands in the heart of Hanoi.

Aside from that, family altars and hanging pictures of "Uncle Ho" seem to be found as the main places of worship inside most Vietnamese homes.

Back on the road, it suddenly dawns that expectations have no place in Vietnam. The further into the "Vietnamese heartland" we go, the more utterly jaw-dropping the scenery becomes. Nothing however, comes close to the homestay in Tien Thang Village, within the heart of Ha Giang District.

It is the only way to experience life in these out-of-the-way places - living in elevated huts as the locals do. Breath-taking scenery combined with a solemn silence - the place just exudes history and tradition. It was a part of the trip that stayed with the entire group long after reaching New Zealand soil.

With a few thousand years history, mainly punctuated by wars with the Chinese, the French and US, it is astounding the locals are so friendly. Blonde hair always garners intrigued stares, but a wave with a warm "chao" - hello in Vietnamese - and a wide and hearty smile quickly spreads through the crowds, like contagion.

In the far north highlands, Dong Van sits right on the northern Chinese border. Great limestone rises reach skyward and dusk is barely a flicker before the sun sets behind the cliffs which surround the town.

And after a Tolkeinesque journey, there is no better way to relax than on a private junk in Halong Bay.

A jewel on Vietnam’s east coast, Halong Bay is more than 15000 square feet and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just this year, it was named on of the New Seven Wonders of World.

By far the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam, more than 5.5 million visitors flocked to the tepid warm waters last year, but junks cruises which carry about 18 to a boat keep the groups small.

Cavernous limestone cliffs rise out of the water and laying on a deck chair looking up, it could be a scene from Gulliver’s travels.

From the electric bustle in Hanoi to an untouched world filled with culture and a touch of mysticism, North Vietnam is a rare place where true beauty hasn’t yet been diminished by it own success.

Visit, because there aren’t many of those left in this world.

Getting There Unfortunately, Vietnam is set to hike its visa fees for incoming travellers from January 1, next year. According to a circular from the Ministry of Finance, fees for single-entry visas for foreigners and Vietnamese residing abroad will be increased to US$45 from US$25 (NZ$54 from NZ$30 ). Multiple-entry visas will be divided into three categories with validities of one month, six months and more than six months, which will cost NZ$100. Visas can be applied for at the Vietnamese Embassy in Wellington, or through its website
Flights into Hanoi from New Zealand take about 13 hours with a stop in Singapore.
World Expeditions’ Rocky Plateau package is a new adventure excursion for those of reasonable fitness. While considerable time is spent travelling by car, mountain hikes and light kayaking in Halong Bay requires some stamina.
For nine days, the package includes a guide, meals, accommodation and transport at a cost of just under NZ$2000

The Food
Despite the opportunity to learn how to cook Vietnamese spring rolls in a cooking demonstration in Halong Bay, my efforts to replicate them back home have been woeful... and it’s killing me.

Spring Rolls have been forever ruined by the little rice paper counterparts which can only be described as pieces of heavenly joy. If a traveller takes only one piece of advice before heading to Vietnam it should be: Eat all the food.
It is fresh and full of flavour, and it is highly disappointing coming back home to cook your own dinner. Flavours draw from leafy broths, filled with garlic spices, lemongrass and coriander. Lean meats just explode with an intense aroma.
Vietnam, like a number of Asian countries, is also home to some pretty exotic fruit - the most standout of which, is, ironically, the bananas.

Shorter and fatter than the typical New Zealand fare, the bananas in Vietnam are incredibly sweet. With Banana trees one of the most iconic sprouts of the Vietnamese jungles, close to every house has a freshly cut branch, laden with dozens which keep for days.

Dessert was often fresh fruit, and Pomelo was a favourite of the locals. A crisp citrus fruit native to South East Asia, it tastes like a sweet, mild grapefruit.

The Guides
Our guide Duke was a "government appointed" guide. A larger-than-life character, he was invaluable in running a smooth operation. We had food within minutes of sitting anywhere, we seldom had to wait in traffic, and people just seemed to make things happen when we arrived.

Anyone who works for the government in Vietnam has to be a member of the Communist Party.

And while it is undoubtedly in the nature of the locals to make their guests feel welcome, we wondered on more than one occasion whether Duke was pulling the "Communist Party card" in his conversations with our hosts, or whether he was just a slick talker.

Either way, a government appointed guide comes highly recommended. They are knowledgeable, speak the language and we were certain a Communist Party seal on the outside of the private minivan gave a little extra berth on the roads.

All guides with World Expeditions in Vietnam are government appointed.

Vietnam Facts:
Currency: Dong (although US dollars are useful)
Population: 87.8 million
Language: Vietnamese
Capital: Hanoi
Largest city: Ho Chi Minh City
GDP: $320.8 billion

The writer travelled courtesy of World Expeditions.