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Trekking across Vietnam, as my travel bug brought me back to my homeland.

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Since I left in 1978, this was my fifth trip back to my native country. With each return, I expected it to be my last as I felt that it had adequately appeased the nostalgia for my birthplace. But somehow there was always another reason that pushed me towards another trip. This time, it was mainly to accompany my cousins who had not been back for over four decades. I suspected it would be a boring repeat for me, but I wanted to show my relatives the Vietnam that I had discovered on my previous trips, also the Vietnam we couldn’t experience growing up during the war.  However, only within minutes of landing in Noi Bai airport in Ha Noi, I realized that this would not be a boring repeat. This old country has continued to grow and evolve with formidable passion and energy. The metamorphosis is so extensive that this fifth visit felt like the first.

Ha Noi

My dad was born in Ha Noi. While he and his family emigrated to the south in 1954, they kept their memory alive throughout the years. Needless to say, this town holds a very dear spot in my cousins’ and my hearts.

Our hotel is in the north of the Old Quarter (Pho Co), a few steps away from lake Hoan Kiem.  Although Ha Noi is much more developed than when I last visited 9 years ago, the Old Quarter is still a well-preserved area.  Our sightseeing included the main attractions such as Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda), Chua Tran Quoc (Tran Quoc Pagoda), Cu The Huc (The Red Bridge), Ho Tay (West Lake) …  However, the true charm of Ha Noi is best appreciated with a stroll around the lake in the early morning and late evening.  Every day, we witnessed how people attempted to weave exercise, relaxation, and romance into the fabric of their busy urban life. Overall, the city is cleaner and greener, embracing modernization without compromising its charm and character.

After the worst of Covid, it seemed like Ha Noi had regained its normal rhythm and was more than ready to welcome Tet, the Lunar/Vietnamese new year.  Every street and storefront competed to showcase their best holiday decorations.  The flower market displayed the most glamorous apricot, peach, and orchid blossoms, some gathered in elaborate unique arrangements for highly exclusive customers.

Trang An

From Ha Noi, we took a day trip to Trang An, a scenic area in Ninh Binh, 90 km south of Ha Noi. Known as “Ha Long Bay on Land”, this UNESCO World Heritage site features the most stunning formation of karst mountains which are best admired from a boat ride on the river.  While navigating us through impressive caves and stopping by beautiful temples, our boat guide reminded us of the significance of the region.  Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh, was the first capital of the ancient Vietnamese kingdom Dai Co Viet in the 10th and 11th century.  I heard mentioning of our brave kings and heroes’ names, such as Dinh Bo Linh, Ly Thai To, Dinh Tien Hoang… which are reminiscent of the History classes in my high school days.

Sapa, Lao Cai

Lao Cai is found on the southwest border of China. The bridge from Lao Cai to Hekou remained closed when we were there, a stark reminder of the lingering threat of Covid.

My first time in Sapa was in 2014. Sapa has undergone tremendous losses and gains since. There has undoubtedly been a great amount of effort invested in this town, enough to give it a complete facelift in recent years. The hotel where I stayed before had disappeared, overtaken by newer buildings. The lake and its surroundings that used to remind me of a quiet Switzerland landscape were now busier and noisier, more like other Vietnamese townscapes. The luxury Hotel de la Coupole now serves as the new landmark, bringing back impressions of the French Indochina era.

On our first day, we took the tour to Fansipan in Lao Cai. Being the highest peak of the Hoang Lien Son Mountain range, Fansipan is known as the “Roof of (French) Indochina”. The long cable car took us to the summit of over 10,000 feet. To have conquered the treacherous height of this mountain and to have realized this magnificent Buddhist wordship site testify to human’s utmost determination, strength and spirit.  The picturesque setting of Fansipan resembles the dreamy landscape in old Chinese paintings where mountain slopes meet with swirling clouds, keeping us afloat in the air and befriending us with the sky.

On our second day, we hiked the Sapa valleys where the Vietnamese ethnic minority groups live.  This area is known for its breathtaking landscape, from terraced rice paddies to mountain views and scattered villages.  However, the beauty of nature could not hide the wrinkles of poverty in the homes and lives of its inhabitants.  As we trekked through the villages, we were followed by a persistent group of Hmong, Tay, and Dao locals who insisted on serving as our guides and selling us miscellaneous trinkets and souvenirs.  As much as I loved the prosperous look of downtown Sapa, the desperation that was imprinted on these people’s faces deeply saddened me.

Ha Long

A visit to Ha Long was an overnight cruise through the bay. Our stay on the ship was comfortable and the tour of the caves was an interesting experience. However, the beauty and charm of Ha Long were significantly diminished by the damp weather and poor visibility in the winter months.  My first two trips to Ha Long were in the summer when the scenery was more vibrant under the sun.  This time, I kept looking for the same bright green on the mountains and alluring jade in the water, but the sky refused to clear up and the colors stayed blurry and indifferent.

Quang Binh

This area is home to two of the most famous caves, Thien Duong and Tien Son, parts of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The limestone interbedded with shales and sandstones forms the most outstanding indoor scenery and demonstrates a diverse ecosystem that has evolved over 400 million years. Our cave “exploration” produced many pictures which, as interesting as they were, could not do justice to the true beauty and vastness that only bare eyes could behold and appreciate.

Hue

Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen dynasty, starting from the 17th century. Our three days in Hue were met with wintry and drizzling weather. This added a note of melancholy to this city that had known unspeakable tragedies and destructions during the war and that continues to endure natural disasters and economic challenges. However, the shortage of tourists allowed for a more leisurely visit than usual. We were able to tour Thanh Noi (Imperial City), chua Thien Mu (Thien Mu Pagoda), Lang Khai Dinh (Khai Dinh Tomb), and Lang Tu Duc (Tu Duc Tomb), admire their priceless beauty, and immerse in the wonderland of our country’s illustrious history without having to fight the crowd of avid visitors.

Lang Co

Lang Co is a beautiful and unspoiled beach 60km south of Hue. The arc shaped sandy beach, translucent water, and cloud-veiled mountains in the background made Lang Co an inviting site on the traveler’s way to Da Nang and Hoi An. The panoramic view from the top of Hai Van pass beckoned for a quick stop, no matter how pressed we were to reach our next destination.

Hoi An

Hoi An is a historic town in Central Vietnam, famous for its well-preserved historic temples, Japanese covered bridge, colonial French buildings, Vietnamese tube houses, and Chinese wooden houses. The town was most glorious at night when the rows of colorful lanterns along the canal and their reflections on the water offered a double vision that mesmerized our eyes and romanticized our hearts.

More pleasant surprises were also waiting for us outside of Hoi An. The river tour of Rung Dua Bay Mau (Bay Mau Coconut Forest) in the thuyen thung (round basket boat) was a fun and unique experience. But most memorable was the afternoon spent at Tra Que Vegetable village. This is an organic vegetable farm that offers tourists the chance to experience a few hours of living and working with the local people through farming activities and cooking lessons. After our “hard work” in the sun, we were rewarded with a great massage and a sumptuous lunch. The view of the peaceful farm lined with rows of green herbs and vegetables and the feel of the flirting afternoon breeze gave us the relaxation and tranquility that we really needed amidst our busy travel schedules.

Da Nang

Da Nang is a coastal city known for its beautiful beaches. It is also the best city that may represent the booming economy of the country over the past two decades.  Domestic and international tourist resorts span several miles along the coast.  Modern buildings and high-rises proliferate the townscape. The iconic Dragon Bridge illuminates the city at night, enchanting visitors near and far. Our tour included shopping at the limestone factory and climbing up Ngu Hanh Son Mountain. A short drive through town convinced us that we should have planned more days in this dynamic city.

Nha Trang

Before beginning our two days at the beach resort in Nha Trang, we visited Thap Ba Ponagar in town. This is a Cham Hindu temple built in the seventh century and dedicated to Yan Po Nagar, the Goddess of plants and trees. The unmistakable architecture and art style of this place, remarkably similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, were precious remnants of an ancient civilization that was widely influential in Southeast Asia. A short stop by the beach led us to the Hon Chong promontory. This is an exotic area of rocks naturally piled into unique shapes from which various folk legends and tales were conceived. A short boat ride took us to Vinpearl resort on Hon Tre Island. The view of the beach from our balcony immediately convinced us to change into our bathing suits. The white sand and pristine water in the ocean and the pool were perfect for swimming and sunbathing, giving our tired bodies a much-needed rest. It seems like Vinpearl never stops growing. The amusement park features many attractions, including roller coaster rides, a water park, a zoo, an aquarium, several botanical green houses, a Japanese garden…  In the evening, the Musical Water show, and the multimedia Tata show offer amazing entertainment that enchant children as well as bewitch adults.

Phu Quoc

Like most parts of the country, Phu Quoc has changed significantly in recent years.  I could hardly recognize the mushroom of stores, hotels, and resorts that had sprung up since my last visit. Vinpearl Phu Quoc, with its lavish accommodations and exciting amusement attractions, is a formidable competitor to its Nha Trang counterpart. After over 2 weeks in Vietnam, it took traveling all the way to Phú Quốc to catch the sunset. And what a riveting sunset it was! I could say the beaches of Phú Quốc are my favorites beaches in Vietnam.

Saigon

I was born and raised in Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam. Although this city was renamed as Ho Chi Minh City after the North took over the South in 1975, for many of us, it is still Saigon, our beloved hometown, where fond memories of our childhood stay imprinted in our hearts and defy the passage of time and change of regime. Throughout our trip, I kept reminding my cousins to enjoy the peace and quietness in the small towns and brace themselves for the noise and chaos in Saigon. However, we were met with a calmer city and a more pleasant atmosphere than anticipated. Like the rest of the country, Saigon was still recovering from the rampage of Covid. Despite the struggling economy, the preparation for Tet was no less impressive. As our people believe that our actions, endeavors and experiences on the 1st few days of the year would determine our luck for the rest of the year, we do our best to attract positive energy into our homes, businesses, and workplaces.  From different parts of town, flower markets feature the best displays of mai lan cúc trúc, the typical blossoms of the season.  Red and gold decorations adorned the exteriors and interiors of every hotel, store, and public buildings.  All food stalls were filled with banh chung banh tet rice cakes, fresh fruits, and other items essential to the tradition.  The plaza on Nguyens Hue Street was closed to the public for several weeks, only to reopen three days before Tet, with the promise of the best showcase of flower decorations offered by generous corporate sponsors.

For the first time in four decades, my cousins and I had the chance to celebrate Giao Thua, Lunar’s New Year’s Eve, in Saigon. Watching the festivities in front of our hotel, waiting impatiently for the mua lan (Dragon Dance) to begin, and walking among the crowd through the lavishly decorated Nguyen Hue Plaza brought back sweet childhood memories that swelled my eyes with tears. How fun, how magical, how precious! I hope Saigon and the rest of the country will fully recover from the economic downturn this year, even if it means more noise, more traffic, and more crowds. Its face may be totally different from the romantic town of my yesteryears and most of its population may be too young to understand the heartache and nostalgia of my generation, but I still love Saigon.

This was my last day in Vietnam. From the banging sound of the dragon dance, this trip certainly ended on a high note.

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