I’m a sucker for off beat destinations-keep me away from the beaten track please so when Conde Nast listed Vietnam as one of the must go destinations for 2013 I was hooked. My sister, Parvati, the family sceptic , was only convinced when i told her Vietnam is the place where not only high street favourites Gap and Mango are manufactured but is also a favourite destination for bespoke clothing, with people flying in from as faraway places as Europe and Australia to get their wedding gowns stitched. That said, Parvati was converted pretty fast and headed to pack her bags .
Thats how me and Parvati landed up in Hanoi in March 2013 – me with a semi functional right arm, thanks to a multiple fracture I invited 3 months earlier. But, as the actress said to the Bishop in one of their famous Saturday Night conversations , ‘that story deserves its own space’ so back to Nam . Here we were at Ho Chi Minh Airport currency exchange counter and shaken out of our mild jet lag at the oodles of local currency we were saddled with-21,000 dongs (And before your imagination goes wild let me clarify thats what Vietnamese Currency is called) to a US dollar. Once we got over the shock of spending 30,000 (thirty thousand) Vietnamese dongs on a can of beer and 20,000 (twenty thousand) for a bottle of water at a ‘dust cafe’ we were on a roll. Super thrilled to be billionaires so what if it’s only in Dongs. Parvati was not so happy to discovered that her morning caffeine shot had to be replaced with the Vietnamese version of the French press coffee-that too with condensed milk-hahahaha! As someone who has been dragged by Parvati in various remote corners of the world frequently trying to converse with people who don’t understand a word you are saying and all in pursuit of that one perfect morning cup of coffee-this was my sweet revenge on her! It was either the condensed milk French Press coffee or uncaffeinated she would have to remain-hehe!
In Hanoi, one of the highlights was the water puppet show which was beautiful- every single depiction of stories-whether it was the dragon spewing fire (I don’t know how they managed that in the water) or the depiction of folk lore showing the history of the Vietnamese people, all the stories were performed by puppets floating in water.
The next stop was the ‘Hanoi Hilton’-which is how the American POW’s referred to the Hanoi prison where they were kept during the Vietnam war. Disturbing sights like the long metal rod which chained all the prisoners by their feet in one straight line and the gullitone which was used by the French for Vietnamese freedom fighters quietened down the noisy tourists and made us all somber. Truly there is no greater cruelty than what man inflicts on fellow man on the basis of ideology, religion or whatever. Was surprised to get to know that John MaCain (former American presidential candidate and first ever American ambassador to Vietnam) also spent time in this prison as a POW.
Nightime we discovered the grown-up, late-night side of Hanoi we never imagined existed. Cool, mustachioed Quyen Van Minh is Hanoi’s sax maestro – a cool cat who blows a mean horn. He holds court in his smoky jazz club nightly, often playing host to guest performers from around the world. Another tour which was highly recommended (though we didnt get time to try it ) is the Kangaroo Cafe, located in Hanoi.
The second stop of our holiday was Halong Bay which is a world UNESCO site and very rightly listed as one of the most beautiful places in the world. We stayed on a little ship where we had quaint slightly above sea level cabins with the best part of all-open windows with the sea breeze blowing straight into our faces. While it may be called a “junk trip”-thats far from the truth since it had all the luxuries of a mini cruise liner including an open air massage deck where one can take a massage with the night sky above you and the peaceful sound of waves in your ears. Among the other delights was a quaint little fishing village where the entire population of of the village lives in boats. There was even a school on a boat
Our next stop was the city of Hoi An which had spectacularly beautiful beach locations and was a great place for inexpensively tailored clothes. The expat population gives way to some interesting West meets East culture and for those like me who list seafood as their faourite food, it was a gastronomic delight.
Another must seem in Vietnam, specially for those whole love art and culture is the lacquer factory which has stunningly beautiful paintings with exotic finishes which range from mother of pearl to multi-coloured broken eggshells.
The only thing I regret missing was seeing the tunnels in HoChiMinh-the tunnels is where the Vietnamese soldiers lived while fighting the Americans-they stretch underground over 75 miles and housed barracks, classrooms and even their kitchens.
I came back spectaculary impressed with the gorgeous architecture , rich culture , the strong sense of Vietnamese national identity , pride and , above all – their courage and belief in shaping their own destiny . Let’s not forget that this tiny country is the only nation in the world which has beaten back the French , the Japanese, the Americans and the Chinese too.
Vietnam-so little seen, so much to see-I will be back.