People were always perplexed when I told I was honeymooning in Vietnam. Questions ranged from ‘What’s there?’ to ‘Why not Mauritius’. An honourable few told us how cool the whole thing was. We chose Vietnam primarily as a compromise option. Most places where too cold (Europe) or too far (South America) or too much in the peak season (Australia, South Africa) or too honeymoony (Mauritius). In the end it turned out to be an excellent choice with beautiful scenery, tasty food, pleasing lack of Indians and a mild list of tourist spots that could be easily ignored when we felt like relaxing.
The first stop was Hanoi, the rich and old seat of the original Vietnam. We stayed by the Hoan Kiem lake, near the Old Quarters at the Sofitel Metropole. Filled with wonderful restaurants, green paths by the lake and a busy shopping area, it provided a quick feel of the city. We popped into say hello to Uncle Ho whose embalmed body is on display at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and got a guided tour by an enthusiastic, propaganda- spouting guide. The Temple of Literature close by was also charming, with mundane structures that had interesting names like ‘The Well of Clarity’. LP had recommended a few museums as well. But we decided to stick to their restaurant recommendations instead in keeping with our plan to primarily relax.
From Hanoi, Halong Bay was a 3.5 hour drive past a countryside that looked stunningly like someone had taken India, shaken out all the dirt and Indians and filled it up with Vietnamese. Halong Bay itself was an impressive stretch of limestone rocks sticking out from the ocean. We stayed in a private junk cruiser (Columbus Adventures) for a couple of days and tried our hand at Kayaking and visited floating villages located entirely on the sea.
From North Vietnam, we moved to the Central parts. This was the bit that had divided the communist North from the American-controlled South. We, however, stuck to Vietnam’s ancient history instead of venturing into the recent past. The first stop was Hue which was filled with 15th – 18th century structures like the citadel, Du Luc tombs, Pagoda etc. From there, we moved onto Hoi An, stopping at Danang on the way. Danang’s chief delight is the Museum of Cham sculptures. The Chams were a Hindu race who had reigned from 5th to 15th centuries in Central Vietnam. The sculptures were of Hindu gods and goddesses and an excellent reminder of how much the Indian culture had travelled back then.
From Danang, it was onto Hoi An and its wonderful beach and old town. We were at the Victoria Hoi An beach resort, which had cottages with large windows overlooking the beach. The old town, which has UNESCO world heritage status, was nearby. The old town bordered the river and one could wander through the narrow alleyways, checking out old houses, temples, museums, souvenir shops and art galleries. We spent an entire morning there and came back in the evening for more.
From there, we headed to Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is known these days. HCMC is like any other bustling metro – women made up a notch more fashionably than the rest of the country, tall buildings, crowds and nothing much to see but a lot to feel. A friend took us to the wonderful Saigon Bar at Caravelle Hotel, commanding a view of the famous Rex hotel where the American headquarters had been located during the Vietnam war. We also managed to squeeze in a trip to the impressive Cu Chi tunnels the next day. The intricate network of tunnels had taken twenty years to build and contained tunnels too narrow for non-Vietnamese, with booby traps to kill anyone who did get in. Sadly the AK 47 shooting range near the tunnel was closed and we could not try our hand at it.
Taken in slowly, am sure there would have been a lot more depth we would have discovered in the country. We were happy enough with the sights and sounds we managed to see. The food was delicately flavoured and light and the long walks ensured both of us returned looking happy and healthy. Perhaps if we had not been on honeymoon, we would have probably done the quick tourist round of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the ten days we had. In the end, it was worth taking the time and carrying memories of slowly driving through the deserted, hilly Hai Van pass with the ocean by our side far below.