Our three weeks of touring and trekking in North Vietnam became, by happenstance but certainly uniquely, three distinct immersions. First, we encountered the madcap motorbike traffic and bustling commerce of the urban markets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Next, we were greeted by the physical challenges of mountain hiking and the resplendent colors of women’s fabrics and agrarian produce of the hill tribes dwelling in the verdant highlands above Hanoi. And, finally, we enjoyed the serene offshore idyll of floating aboard wooden junks at barely a couple of knots per hour among the myriad limestone karsts and islands of Halong Bay. My wife and I, along with 16 others — including a leader and an English-speaking Vietnamese guide — were in the group organized by Dutch adventure travel organization SNP.
My wife, who is Dutch, and I — each in our mid-60s and among the older folk on the trip — prefer to take on more active ventures, and Vietnam long had appealed to us based on our fondness for Southeast Asian cuisine and our sense of what the terrain and culture would offer. We were not, however, quite prepared for the steep ascents of the first days of the trekking, which required precarious negotiating of rice paddies and mucky paths left by water buffalo.
The first leg of our journey featured home stays with ethnic-minority farming families in their large bamboo houses built on pillars. Often we slept on an open floor — the same floor used for dining — above the water buffalo, pigs, ducks, chickens, and other livestock that lived below. The days of hiking among rice paddies and across plateaus with stunning panoramas led us to Sapa, a centuries-old market town near the border of China. Developed by the French in the early 1900s, Sapa is something of a retreat and today resembles an Alpine ski village. There, as in other northern market towns, women would wear skirts and tops brocaded in robust reds, oranges, blues, greens, and blacks to peddle their wares and socialize. The cuisine in these huts included beef, fish, pork, duck, and a variety of vegetables including steamed water spinach and Chinese cabbage, plus fruits, noodles, and rice.
In Hanoi, a sprawling city of more than 6 million, we visited the regal mausoleum with the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh on display, as well as the nearby statue of Lenin and a host of museums, shrines, temples, lakes, and densely crowded shopping districts. Here the tastiest street food was in ample abundance. We ate pho, the steaming broth laced with glass noodles, vegetables, and either chicken or beef; and bun bo, a bowl of noodles with meat and spices. Both were savored while sitting on plastic chairs in storefront kitchens.
Halong Bay was an exquisite dessert. About three hours by bus east of Hanoi, this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Gulf of Tonkin proved a welcome respite after the rigors of the mountains and the bustle of Hanoi. We boarded a junk outfitted for tourists with sleeping quarters and dining rooms, and proceeded to laze on deck as the boat nudged from dawn to sunset among several thousand limestone islands and jagged vertical formations resembling tropical icebergs. We were wined and dined on board, but mostly, as we seemingly drifted through the bay, we were at peace.
Click on any image below to launch the gallery. All photos by Liesbeth Slosberg, except where noted.