text and photos © Lee Daley
From its beginning in Saigon, my month-long sojourn through Vietnam continues its way north, though the hills of Dalat and down to the central coast village of Hoi An. In the 17th Century before its river filled with silt, Hoi An’s port welcomed Chinese junks. Over the millennia, Portuguese, English, Japanese, Dutch and French trading ships stopped at this old-world trading post, each leaving vestiges of their stays behind. No longer bustling with traders of old, Hoi An’s visitors now explore its ethnically influenced architecture and outfit themselves with custom made clothing from the multitude of tailors who’ve set up shop in town. Silk, above all other commodities, has remained Hoi An’s stock in trade.
After a long lazy nap, I head for the market. Cobblestone streets slow one’s step and by slowing down, I am able to take in the beauty of several Asian temples along the way. The French influence persists as well. Many homes feature second-story balconies with Parisian style balustrades. Scattered among them are pre-colonial era teak merchant houses. These appear to be in various stages of renewal. The city’s historical status has been elevated by its listing on the UNESCO World Heritage List; thus insuring the maintenance and restoration of its most important architectural buildings. Hoi An is a small place packed to the gills with history, art, and great dining. The town is so small you could easily see most of its temples and pagodas in a day yet still find time to get yourself measured for a hand-tailored suit.The 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 off shore, 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 and fish 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.
Upon arrival, my immediate destination is Life Resort, a divine hideaway tucked into a quiet enclave on the banks of the Thu Bon River. The serene French Colonial style villa with its soothing pastel yellow exterior transforms itself at night with dozens of glowing glass lanterns lighting its pathways. Traces of bygone days abound in the Japanese-themed rooms, the patisserie called Café Vienna and the Amsterdam Bar.
Dark paneled French doors lead from my front balcony into the cool uncluttered space of a studio-style room. At one end, Japanese sliding doors open to reveal a spare yet inviting bathroom. Over the heart-shaped shower/tub combo, a large plate-sized showerhead promises a pulsating waterfall massage.
Le Loi Street is Clothing Central. While all the shops are good, I am addicted to Thu Thuy Tailors for the quality of their materials and workmanship. I am still wearing the beautiful silk robe I purchased here three years ago. On this visit, I am fitted for an ao dai (pronounced “ow zai”) similar to that worn by the young shop girls working
at Thu Thuy. Within 24 hours, I am back for a second fitting to check the cut of the elegant blue garment with its flowing satin pants and Chinese-collared long sleeved silk top. Later that afternoon, I return for a final fitting. This time it is perfect.
In a sudden downpour, the shop girl, Lu, extends an offer of kindness so typical of her country people. She supplies me with a waterproof poncho, sits me on the back of her moped and taxis me back to my hotel room, thus providing me with my first ride on a Vietnamese moped.
HA LONG BAY
Inspired by my walks along the river in Hoi An and wanting to spend more time on the water, I travel next to Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. One of the great natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the bay is densely populated with towering limestone islands –called karsts-, which rise out of the sea like dragon’s teeth. Many myths surround the origins of the bay and the Vietnamese consider it their country’s most naturally spiritual site. As such, it is an oft-favored destination for locals and travelers.
Feeling that a night spent on a boat under a blanket of stars would make my Ha Long Bay experience all the more memorable, I book an overnight cabin on The Emeraude. Named for a French paddle wheeler that plied these waters in the early nineties, the ship is almost a complete replica of its namesake.
Seeming worlds away from the serenity of Ha Long Bay, Hanoi becomes my new favorite city. From dawn to dusk, the pavements are full. Food is everywhere. Cafes, hotels, bistros, street vendors all offer up the mainstay of Vietnamese life. Entrepreneurs sell not only fruit and vegetables but also shoeshines, flowers and moped rides. It feels like a streaming video on steroids. What I am witnessing is Doi Moi in action. Doi Moi-literally meaning “new life”- is the government’s controversial system that allows the country’s market economy to flourish freely under a Socialist regime. Despite criticism, Doi Moi has obviously created more cash flow and catapulted Vietnam into the global marketplace.Arriving in Ha Long City, I head to the waterfront and the Emeraude’s private pier. A shuttle boat carries me and several other passengers to the ship where we are greeted by welcoming drinks. I sink into one of the oversized wicker chairs on deck just as Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” comes over the ship’s music system. The ship’s décor echoes the music’s retro theme too. My cabin, one of 38, is warmly furnished with hardwood floors, touches of teak, and a brass reading lamp.
All afternoon, I gaze out at the bay’s otherworldly panorama. We pass houseboat communities, red-sailed junks and small fishing craft. I enjoy a sumptuous dinner of fresh local seafood and then return topside to stake my claim on deck. The planets are aligned and as the moon rises, it glistens on the water. A golden glow paints the rims of the high limestone peaks. For one suspended moment, I feel as though I’ve fallen into an Asian brush painting and Ha Long Bay is definitely “under my skin”.
ON TO HANOI
Because my hotel is within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake, I spend early mornings on photography forays to this popular strolling spot where local residents gather in droves. Willow shaded benches line the shore and groups of Vietnamese, old and young, vigorously exercise in the soft morning light while the lone t’ai chi practitioner can be seen here and there. Men and women form separate friendship groups, sitting and chatting on benches as the city slowly warms to the rising sun.
Near the lake is another world of its own, Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Dating back to medieval times, the quarter’s 36 byways bear names reflecting the artisan trades that flourished here more than six centuries ago. There is the alleyway called Conical Hats and another named Rattan Rafts. I love wandering the quarter’s sinuous side alleys, stopping to sip fresh roasted coffee at a sidewalk café and peering into its shops now catering to tastes that are more modern. At one of the stalls, I buy exquisite lacquered chopsticks. At another, I find prayer flags to bring home.
Still another enclave is the city’s French Quarter where wide embassy-lined boulevards shaded by tamarind trees evoke a timelessness that seems untouched by the tide of vehicles zipping by. Each neighborhood walk unravels another string in the endless fabric of this most Vietnamese of cities.For a Westerner, crossing Hanoi’s streets is an act of bravery. Mopeds, bicycles and cyclos careen madly past. Pedestrians pulling handcarts and even the sporadic pony cart, all vie for position. No one stops. Doing so is tantamount to suicide. I quickly learn that by stepping into this maelstrom I have become a player in a street ballet. Horn honks and street noise add an urban syncopation to the choreographic improvisation… Fearful at first, I soon find myself following other pedestrians as I choose an opening and step into the fray.
To gain more insight into Vietnamese cuisine, I talk with Chef Jurgen Kauz of the Melia Hanoi Hotel where I am staying. “Geography and history greatly influence our menus,” he says. Kauz goes on to explain that the Vietnamese culinary map consists of three regions. Northern Vietnam’s proximity to China and its variable climate inspire seasonal dishes that tend to be milder and lighter than dishes served in the rest of the country. In Central Vietnam, one finds what are considered the most culturally authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Spicy and well seasoned, its major influence is the Imperial Cuisine of Hue, the country’s ancient capital.
Southern Cuisine is the most varied. An abundance of vegetables, seafood and rice has contributed greatly while French, Cambodian and Thai tastes have distinctively flavored it. Dishes are more tropical and sometimes sweeter than Northern Cuisine.
As an example of Northern cuisine, Chef Kauz created a dish of grilled TROUT PICASSO served with almond and banana.
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
1 piece chive
3 cherry tomatoes
a pinch each of salt & pepper
Marinate the trout with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Slice the leek into bite size pieces and sauté in butter
Separately sauté the almonds with butter until they have some color,
Add the banana slices; lightly sautéing with a dash of salt and pepper.
Grill the trout to taste,
Lightly grill the cherry tomatoes..
On a serving dish, place the grilled trout atop washed watercress.
Place the cherry tomatoes around the edges of the plate.
Garnish with the fried leeks and banana.
“I have worked all over the world”, Chef Jurgen says, “from Oslo to Dubai to China and I love the Vietnamese. My kitchen staff is part of my family; they are so eager to learn; they are just fantastic and the best I have worked with in my 15 years in Asia.” Duly impressed, I have found the proof of his accolades to be more than accurate during my travels. Now, after weeks on the roads, rails and waterways of Vietnam, the comforts of the centrally located Melia Hotel feel almost as good as home.
Before leaving for home, I recount the various forms of transport that enhanced my trek from Saigon to Hanoi and all the stops along the way. Each is memorable in its own right: the gloriously romantic Reunification Express rail trip from Saigon, the nostalgic night spent on the Emeraude in Ha Long Bay, the wildly adventurous sidecar ride through the Central Highlands, the zany plastic sled slide down Phan Thiet’s sand dunes, the Honda Dream moped puddle-jumping glide in Hoi An.
Surely, I ponder, the Hanoi muse can muster up one more memorably mobile adventure. Outside the Melia, I flag down a fringe-topped bicycle rickshaw and take one last site-seeing ride through the Old Quarter. Past fruit and flower stalls, weaving through moped and auto traffic as chaotic as a stampeding cattle drive, the rickety rickshaw’s nimble driver navigates the narrow streets. Indicative of Vietnam’s dizzying leap into the future, my amble in this old world vehicle reminds me of the words of a Hoi An shopkeeper. “We’re racing to catch up with the rest of the world,” she said, “but we’ll never forget our Confucian roots.”
IF YOU GO:
United Airlines (www.united.com) remains the only branded North American carrier flying into Vietnam, (800) 538-2929.
United flies daily to Hong Kong from San Francisco and Chicago and then on to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.)
Domestically, Vietnam Airlines’ new fleet provides full service flights. www.vietnamairlines.com.
Life Resort, #1 Pham Hong Thai Street, Hoi An. www.life-resort.com, Tel: 84-510- 914 555.
Thu Thuy Shop, 60 Le Loi, Hoi An, www.hoianthuthuysilk.com. Tel: +84-510-861 699.
Emeraude Cruises, 59A Ly Thai To, Hanoi, Vietnam. www.emeraude-cruises.com. Tel +84 4 934 0888
Melia Hanoi: Award-winning 5-star hotel with in-house travel desk, two fine restaurants, afternoon tea, evening entertainment, Open Bar in Executive Lounge.
www.meliahanoi.com, www.solmelia.com. Tel +84 4 934 3343
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