After finishing our bike tour in Cambodia, we flew to Hanoi and started a two-week tour of Vietnam designed by Mike Smith and superbly handled locally for the two of us by Exotissimo.


From Hanoi, we visited the Perfume Pagoda to the south of the city.


We drove to gorgeous Halong Bay (a World Heritage Site) and spent the night on a luxury junk.


Back in Hanoi, we took an over-night sleeper train to Sapa (NW of Hanoi) on the Chinese border. We spent two days trekking in the hills and visiting hill tribe villages.


After returning to Hanoi on another over-night sleeper train, we flew to Hue from where we drove to Hoi An.


From Danang, we flew to Camran Bay (Nha Trang) and then drove via Dalat to Saigon.



Hanoi was a fascinating experience. The city has an incredible vitality in its cramped old quarters.

We stayed at the Majestic Salute Hotel (what a name!) which is the white building in the picture. The street shown is blocked off one afternoon/evening and converted into one huge market. It was really fun just stepping outside and being at the center of the action.


A word about the traffic: It’s mostly scooters and small motor bikes which are constantly flowing without anybody seemingly pushy: like a graceful ballet.


We just wonder what kind of congestion it will be in ten years when people have upgraded to cars. 












Temples, houses, transformers, overhead wires, motor bikes, pedestrians, eating places and stands on the side walk: what a sight.














This fellow was selling fruit while smoking his traditional bamboo pipe.






One of the “must see” events in Hanoi is a water puppet performance. It’s a traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment in which puppets are manipulated with under-water bamboo sticks from behind a screen by puppeteers standing in the water (they’re shown on the left after the performance when they came to the “stage”).  The scene above shows the legend of the “Restored Sword”: King Le Loi after triumphing over Ming invaders returns the magic sword to the giant turtle.




Vietnam seems to accept and embrace almost any religion. While the major religion is Mahayana Buddhism introduced from China, it also has still strong Confucian and Taoist influences (more about Christianity later). Worship seems to be non-dogmatic and we were told that people go to temples not on a regular schedule but when and if they feel like. The Quan Thanh temple (from 1028 CE) in Hanoi is dedicated to the Taoist deity Tran Vo. The temple is beautifully maintained by lay people (there is no clergy). The 4-ton bronze Tran Vo image on the left holding up his left index finger dates from 1677. On the right below, is a statue of Trum Trung who created the monumental statue on the left.




For many Vietnamese the Perfume Pagoda complex is the most important religious area in the whole of Vietnam and many devout Buddhists will try to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lives. It’s a forty mile drive from Hanoi, a 2 mile boat ride and a 2.5 mile hike.


No other landscape in Vietnam so closely mirrors the preternatural world of a Chinese ink painting. The journey alone is a deeply spiritual experience.







The Perfume Pagoda is a complex of 16 separate halls, temples, and grottos in a hilly landscape.




The entrance gate to one of the temples encountered while hiking in the Perfume Pagoda area is shown on the right.


We liked the proud-looking guardian.








The main destination is the mystical Huong Tich Grotto.


 Inside are a number of shrines amid spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. The entrance is said to resemble the mouth of a dragon with the giant stalagmite in the center being its tongue.


During the first two months after Tet, the Perfume Pagoda can get very crowded with pilgrims.












Deeper inside the grotto, dedicated to Quan Am, stalagmites serve as altars.








Another shrine in the Perfume Pagoda complex shows frequently seen objects of worship in Vietnam: a group of mother goddesses who are responsible for ocean, land, and mountains.





Vietnam’s most famous natural marvel is Halong Bay located east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin. Several thousand limestone islands stick out of the emerald green waters.


UNESCO designated it twice as a World Heritage Site, first in 1994 for its outstanding natural beauty and in 2000 for its geomorphology and biodiversity.


From Hanoi we drove to Halong Bay and boarded a junk on which we spent the night.







According to legend, the bay was formed when a dragon plunged into the sea, whipping its tail from side to side in a frenzy that carved the region into a grand archipelago (Ha Long means descending dragon).


Most main-stream geologists are troubled by this explanation.


We’re not.







From Hanoi we took a sleeper train to Lao Cai on the Chinese border and drove from there to Sapa, one of Vietnam’s five top tourist destinations.


Sapa is a trekker’s paradise with valleys and mountains and colorfully dressed ethnic hill tribes.


On the right Is one of the valleys with its many terraced rice fields.




Using wooden plows pulled by water buffalo is still the major agricultural technique.


Below are a few pictures of women and children dressed in traditional, often quite colorful dresses and ornaments. Many women sell handicrafts to tourists. Frequently, women and often quite young girls carry babies. Below are women of the Black Hmong and Red Dao groups.








The beautiful headwear above left is worn by Tay women; the silver earrings above right are favored by Black Hmong women. The color refers to the clothing colors they prefer. We had to hike the farthest to visit the Tay as they are the most remote group in the area.




Between treks, we used an old Russian  jeep. This is a picture of the locals from inside the jeep.






Yvonne crosses a little stream.










Our guides usually cooked for us. On the bottom left is our guide Tuan in the grey sweater (who was with us for our entire Vietnam tour) and the local trekking guide. Both are cooking a tasty meal that we enjoyed below right.













We’re now in the Imperial City of Hue.


Hue was severely damaged during the Tet offensive in 1968. What’s left or rebuilt is still magnificent and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the right is part of the Imperial City gateway.













Another gate in the Imperial City.









Nine dynastic urns stand before the Hien Lam Pavilion.


The 2-ton urns date from the 19th century and served both to collect the heaven’s mandate and to celebrate the country’s beauty and dynastic stability.









One of the Imperial city’s regal gates. The middle portal of triple gate was reserved for the king, while mandarins used the doorways on either side.













Outside the Imperial City are a number of spectacular pagodas and tombs. We liked the serene mood at one of the tombs.



Marble mountain lies between Hue and Hoi An. In one of its many caves we found this beautiful statue of Quan Am with the inscription: “forgiving is forever.”  Quan Am is usually depicted with a downward pointing vessel in her left hand. Her compassion flows from the vessel ready to be received by worshippers. Quan Am is the major Mahayana deity found in Vietnam. She was introduced to Vietnam from China where she’s called Quan Yin. Quan Yin in turn is the Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who became a female deity when Buddhism was introduced to China reflecting the emphasis on family there (btw. In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara).



Catholic missionaries were quite successful in Vietnam partly because Vietnamese spiritual beliefs were scattered among so many traditions. Catholic missionaries were also responsible for changing the Vietnamese alphabet (similar to Chinese) into western characters. About 8% of the population is Catholic today.

It is interesting that statues of the Buddhist saint Quan Am and the Catholic saint Mary are often quite similar in appearance. Below left, is a Vietnamese Mary with Jesus next to Quan Am. On the right side below is a selection of marble statues (marble mountain supplies the material) ranging from Mary statues in both Vietnamese and western depiction, Jesuses, Quan Ams, and Chinese lions. Larger houses often have on their balcony a life-size marble statue of either Quan Am or Mary.









The charming, historic town of Hoi An is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Hoi An used to be an important trading port and still retains Chinese and Japanese influences. When Hoi An lost its importance in the late 19th century to other ports it went into hibernation leaving it today as the best preserved port of an old era.






Street scene in Hoi An. On the left is one of the Chinese assembly halls.







In Hoi An that we watched a fascinating and very colorful funeral procession below. The fellows dressed in the interesting outfits in front of the bus are keeping order for the elaborate procession.





Our tour company had arranged for a cooking class.


We didn’t realize it was only for the two us and was given by the premier chef in town. Her name is Miss Vy and she owns three restaurants with 130 employees. She showed us and had us fix some incredible dishes.  For example, below left is a single eggplant which turned out absolutely divine. Below right is blue-fin tuna with rice noodles cooked in banana leaves. One of the problems duplicating her dishes here is that she uses so many fresh ingredients and spices that are difficult to find here. Fortunately, we have a sizeable Vietnamese population in San Diego with their own markets. 





This was her mango salad (right), outstanding in appearance and flavor.


Vietnamese cooking in general is remarkable. Below are a few shots of restaurant food that we had on our travels.












Since we stayed in Hoi An for several nights, Yvonne used the opportunity to have two Vietnamese dresses made.


One is a traditional black and white dress, the other a special piece of fabric that she’s discussing on the far left. Two days and several fittings later, the dress is finished and Yvonne shows it with one of the ladies who worked on it. The brown pattern on the top of the dress is found on bronze drums that date from more than two millennia ago.










Part of the Vietnamese religious traditions is ancestor worship. Quite frequently one finds shrines displaying an empty chair or chairs dedicated to specific ancestors.











Part of the Japanese tradition in Hoi An is this famous covered bridge that is over 400-years old.




SW of Hoi An is My Son which was the holy center of the Cham culture from the 4th – 14th century CE. In the 1960s, the Viet Cong used it as a base and the US launched a bombing campaign that ruined many structures. Today, 20 of the 71 Cham buildings are more or less intact.


UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.


The Cham culture was the dominant culture in Vietnam roughly at the same time the Khmers ruled Cambodia.










Restoration is hampered by the fact that it’s unknown how the buildings were put together.


Either the Cham didn’t use mortar or used some unknown form of mortar that doesn’t allow vegetation growth. Anything that has been restored so far is soon covered with green.












Vietnam’s finest extant Cham towers are just west of Phan Rang. They were built in the 13th century



Houses look quite different in Vietnam. Zoning codes allow for either 3m or 4m frontal property. Therefore, houses go straight up based on these dimensions even in the middle of nowhere. Usually, the sides are left unfinished expecting someone else to build. Below are samples taken all over Vietnam (from a moving car). New houses like these are sprouting up everywhere!




The End