Story and Photos by Lee Daley.
While traveling from Hanoi to Saigon during the month of December, a time of warm and balmy weather, I felt completely immersed in the diverse cultures of Vietnam. On show everywhere, from art galleries to design centers, from colonial architecture to ancient wooden vessels plying the Mekong, from stunning cuisine, both haute and humble, cultural diversity reigned.
True to Vietnam’s multi-cultural influences, our second-story Hanoi rental exuded vintage colonial décor. In the front room, tall windows exposed an eye-catching view of the bustling street below and flooded the space with streams of light. Two Burmese teak chairs invited rest. Behind louvered doors, airy mosquito netting draped over a four-poster bed gave the sleeping quarters a romantically tropical feel.
With a bird’s eye view of Hoan Kiem Lake from our front windows, my companion and I began each day with early morning forays to the lake. Willow-shaded benches lined the walkways along the lake’s curved shore. Lively groups of Vietnamese, old and young, vigorously exercised in the soft morning light. Amidst the groups, we’d come across a lone Tai Chi practitioner. Men and women seemed to form separate groups, sitting and chatting on benches as the city slowly warmed with the rising sun.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter: Seeming worlds away from the serenity of the lake but located just one street away, we found the tumultuous jigsaw of narrow lanes that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Dating back to
medieval times, the 36 byways of the quarter still bear names reflecting the artisanal trades that flourished here more than six centuries ago. Lanes often feature a specific specialty. All of Vietnam is known for its silk values so Han Gall Lane is chock-a-block with vendors offering hard-to-beat bargains on hand-crafted silk robes, dresses and scarves.
French Influences: We were impressed with the striking silk paintings displayed in several shops and learned that, during the 19th and 20th centuries, French influence was absorbed into Vietnamese art. Most depict idyllic landscapes. Because the artist applies the paints directly onto the silk, the colors are vibrant yet translucent. Done well, the effect looks magical, almost mystical.
Meandering aimlessly, we took in all on offer from artful bamboo trays, lacquerware, and even elaborate headstones. Wandering the quarter’s sinuous side alleys, we stopped to sip fresh-roasted coffee au lait at a sidewalk cafe before buying prayer flags to bring home.
For a Westerner, stepping into the streets of Hanoi is an act of bravery. Mopeds, bicycles and scooters careen madly past. Pedestrians pulling handcarts, even the sporadic pony cart, all vie for position. No one stops. I quickly learned that, by stepping into this maelstrom, I became a player in a street ballet. My role required that I keep moving until I reached the other side having, I hoped, conducted myself admirably in one of the world’s most chaotic examples of improvised choreography. Usually, I would wait for a group of locals and join behind them. Often a pedestrian would cross with an outstretched arm as she flapped her hand while moving steadily forward. Ultimately, we realized this was just the way it is done and learned to negotiate our way calmly but carefully.
The French Quarter: Using Hoan Kiem Lake as a reference point, we navigated the city streets knowing we could always find our way back home from there. On the southeast side of the lake, in the French Quarter, wide boulevards lined with tamarind trees evoked a timelessness that seemed untouched by the tide of vehicles zipping by. Here is where the French occupation has left its most visible thumbprint. And where the Louis Vuitton and Dior devotees can satisfy their shopping itch.
Here, the Hanoi Opera House, a neo-classical gem built by the French in 1911 as a cultural center for the French and Vietnamese elite, reminded us that France ruled Vietnam for nearly six decades. When Vietnamese revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh declared independence for North Vietnam in 1945, the area around the Opera House became known as August Revolution Square. Today, both traditional and popular cultural events crowd the Opera House programs. Look for superstars like pop singer My Linh or cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the schedule.
French culture left its mark on Vietnam’s lifestyle in many ways. Just as we saw in silk paintings, it is obvious in the country’s cuisine where café culture thrives. As in Paris, popular outdoor terraces and sidewalk cafes proliferate. No longer tea drinkers like most Asians; Vietnamese fuel their early morning wakeups with a strong cup of coffee au lait, often accompanied by a croissant or baguette. At an outdoor terrace, one warm afternoon I sat under the shade of a banyan tree and watched the parade of pedestrians passing by while enjoying another French favorite, crème caramel, listed on the menu as bánh flan.
While the French Quarter was one of Hanoi’s quieter districts, elsewhere, from dawn to dusk, even late into the evening, pavements teemed with pedestrians. Early mornings, young women scurried along toting baskets of warm bread while soup vendors squatted over steaming pots of the country’s famed pho, a rice noodle soup with chicken or beef. Entrepreneurs everywhere hawked flowers, shoe shines, fruits and vegetables. Honking horns and bell-ringing bicycles created lively syncopated background music. We couldn’t help but feel caught up in the drama, a living stage set of diverse cultures, only in Vietnam.
Heading to Ha Long Bay:
Overnight side trip: We used the services of Kim Café, a combination internet café/travel agency to book transport to Ha Long Bay that included lodging, exploration of island caves followed by a cruise on the Bay.
Our fully occupied bus, containing a mix of Canadian, American, European, Asian and Australian travelers, left Hanoi very early for the 4-hour drive through the countryside, Along the main road, we observed lots of new homes under construction. Farther along, village scenes were interspersed with miles of rice paddies, where barefoot farmers worked the fields alongside water buffalo. Over-nighting in Cat Ba at the very clean and pleasant Sunflower Hotel, we awoke early the next morning, throwing open the windows to a glorious view of the harbor with its colorful sampans and sailboats.
Our afternoon cruise along Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was unrushed and peaceful. Aboard a wooden junk, we floated between thousands of karsts and limestone outcroppings that rise up out of the sea like stone cathedrals. Ethereal and otherworldly, some appeared barren, rocky and weather-worn, while others, heavily cloaked in vegetation, hid their stone surfaces in greenery. As I stood on deck and looked out on the mist-enshrouded islets, the vista before me appeared both beatific and surreal. I felt as if I had fallen into an Asian brush painting.
Around lunchtime, a fishing family of four pulled a rowboat alongside our vessel, offering up buckets full of freshly caught seafood. We purchased huge portions, enough for a feast. Before long that’s exactly what we enjoyed, compliments of the fine cooking of our onboard chef. Still today, thoughts of Ha Long Bay conjure up dreamlike images of an otherworldly landscape, stark yet serenely beautiful.
Returning to city life, we visited the Craft Link Organization, a not-for-profit outlet serving handicraft workers throughout the country. Vietnam has more ethnic minority groups than almost any other Asian country, and many fine handicraft artists live in the outer remote mountainous regions. Craft Link’s sales benefit these artisans by providing them with an outlet and teaching them good business skills to market their wares
On display were wonderfully original products such as hand-carved wood furniture, silk scarves, lacquerware and other handicrafts. Silk paintings like those found in the Old Quarter were also on sale, many beautifully framed. Vietnamese woodblock prints, a folk art with a long history in Vietnam, have reached a level of sophistication and demand outside of the country and several beauties were on display. We found the distinctive items on sale to be of exceptional quality. The sophisticated black silk Hmong jacket with its embroidered collar I found there now hangs in my closet as an elegant reminder of classic handcrafted workmanship not found anywhere near my hometown
Heading to Hoi An: Six days into our trip we flew to Da Nang and were transported by car to the beguiling city of Hoi An, about 18 miles from the airport. A 2-night stay at the Hoi An Riverside Resort proved to be a restorative retreat. Our river-view room, set amidst lush gardens, was part of a 2-unit villa. Staff and service were superb. After an early morning exploration of the countryside along the Do River, we enjoyed breakfast al fresco in the covered outdoor patio dining area where local fishermen paddled past as we watched schoolchildren scamper along a path on the opposite bank.
The ancient town’s appeal lies in its timelessness, the simplicity of its daily life and its ties to the sea. At dawn, village women in small boats meet the larger fishing boats offshore, collect the morning catch and ferry it back to be weighed and sold. Around noon, if you stop by one of the sidewalk cafes scattered around the waterfront, you’ll want to try the seafood soup. It only gets fresher if you catch it and cook it yourself. Many chefs are second and third generation. The passed-down recipes are even older.
Memorable Encounter: One morning, while walking along the river, we sighted a curved wooden bridge. As we detoured into the fields for a closer view, we met a farmer and his wife. Speaking English, the man asked if he could look at our cameras, then asked if we were American. “Gunfire killed my father,” he said, “in the American War.” Stunned, we offered condolences. “You are not to blame,” he said in a calm voice. “You are welcome in my country.” Holding my camera in his hands, he pointed it at me and offered to take our photo as a memento of our meeting before we parted. This was one of our most memorable encounters in all of Vietnam.
Fashionable fittings: Hoi An is also known for its wealth of antique homes built by prosperous Chinese merchants. Today their descendants number about one-quarter of the city’s residents. Because it is a textile and art center, we were approached several times by women who asked us to visit their tailoring shops for a “fitting.” We succumbed to having a few outfits stitched at one shop. In the process, we found the subtle charms of Hoi An most exemplified in the friendliness and warmth of the shop employees.
By the time we had returned for a few fittings, we knew each of the seamstresses by name. I arrived just before dark one late afternoon to pick up my order of silk pajamas from Binh when a sudden heavy rainstorm poured down. Binh quickly threw on a rain poncho and handed me one as well. Without a second thought, she brought her scooter around to the entry and motioned for me to climb aboard behind her. Skirting splashes and slicks, she safely maneuvered her scooter through the narrow byways, delivering me safely to my hotel. Now, that’s service!
Hoi An shows its magical side come dusk when thousands of colorful lanterns light its cobbled lanes. One evening, we happened upon an electric cultural performance of traditional music and dance befitting the city’s reputation as a performing arts center. At the Traditional Arts Theater, on a cramped stage, a dynamic male dancer–clad in a red silk costume– leaped and pounced as he fought an imaginary foe before a rapt group of tourists and locals.
The iconic Ao dai: Most Vietnamese people save the wearing of traditional dress for special occasions. Throughout the country, though, one will often see women wearing an Ao dai. A two-piece garment with a high necked form-fitting tunic with splits on the sides from the waist down extends along the hips over loose-fitting trousers that cover the ankles. Though modest in design, the Ao dai conveys feminine elegance and sensuality.
Saigon: From Hoi An, we flew with Vietnam Airlines into Saigon. While Hanoi had impressed us with its heritage and history, Saigon’s dynamism blew us away. For sheer energy and cultural diversity, this city can hold its own against Manhattan, Hong Kong, or any other major metropolis.
And yet the sweetness of the Vietnamese people continually shone through. We still found sidewalk vendors selling fresh noodle soup. We still found the simple decency that had accompanied us throughout our journey. One evening, exhausted after a day of museum visiting, we gave our pedal-powered rickshaw driver some cash and asked him to pick up a takeout of roast duck from a recommended restaurant. Not knowing his name and not sure if he would return, we wondered if we had been too trusting. Within the half-hour he returned, bearing a freshly roasted duck and wishing us a good evening.
Cafe Culture: As in Hanoi, cafe culture thrives in Saigon. Each morning we’d make our way to Highlands Cafe, a few blocks down Dong Khoi Street. Chic surroundings and fabulous coffee, along with a complimentary house copy of the International Herald Tribune made this a favorite spot for a hit of java. In the evening, scores of young people gather at Highlands where ice cream sundaes are added to the menu.
Diving into the city’s myriad cultural options, we spent our last few days browsing bookstores, visiting art galleries and museums. On our last night in Saigon, we celebrated Christmas Eve at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza Hotel where we indulged in a lavish buffet dinner accompanied by live Vietnamese entertainment. Musicians played both contemporary tunes and traditional ones, performed on a harp and a xylophone.
That evening, the markets and upscale boutiques pulsed with activity as scores of shoppers turned out. Leaving the Sofitel close to midnight, we found the streets alive with confetti-tossing revelers. By the time we reached the sanctuary of our apartment, we had become part of the throbbing throng of celebrants, covered in confetti and cocooned in the great bond of a people who were celebrating their own brand of freedom.
This article, originally published in April, 2018, has been updated for recent changes.
Related: Read about a river trip on Myanmar’s Irawaddy River here: In Burma, on the Road to Mandalay