55. On Reopening the Border

With Vietnam preparing to reopen its international gateways, the author begins making plans to get back on the road.

Nha Trang, immensely popular with Russian visitors, will be among the first resort cities to reopen. (iStock photo by Huy Thoai)

At long last, Vietnam is preparing to reopen its borders to foreign tourists. Beginning next month, the resort island of Phu Quoc will welcome visitors to its international airport on a four-month trial basis. If all goes well, the tourist centers of Nha Trang, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Da Lat will follow in December with eased quarantine restrictions.

In announcing its intention, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism said all tourists must carry proof of full vaccination (with two doses) against the Covid-19 virus, and follow other prevention and control procedures including regular testing. That will apply to domestic travelers as well, of course, but the emphasis is on reigniting a stagnant international tourism market — beginning with charter flights from cities in eastern Russia, a prime market for Viet beach resorts.

That’s all fine and good, but what about foreign residents like me who live in smaller cities and still await our first Covid-19 vaccination? I’m regularly assured it will happen soon; meanwhile, my frustration grows. I didn’t come to Southeast Asia to sit in one town for months on end.

Hoan Kiem lake nestles in the heart of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. (iStock photo by Thanh Ngoc Tran)

Planning ahead

Now I have begun making specific plans, in anticipation of being fully vaccinated and cleared to travel before Christmas. By then, I will have been working two years for APAX Leaders, my English-education center. I am entitled to a “contract pause” of two months. I want to take the cooler winter months to properly explore the north of Vietnam and share my experiences and discoveries with you on this blog site.

Up to now, my Vietnam travel pieces have featured various locations in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, where I lived during my first year in Vietnam) as well as Phu Quoc, the seaside towns of Vung Tau and Mui Né, and the hill town of Da Lat. I’ve also made brief visits to one corner of the Mekong Delta and the religious center of Tay Ninh. And of course I have written about Buon Ma Thuot (“BMT”), the provincial capital of DakLak, where I have lived since February.

My plan is to launch my extended journey with a flight from BMT to Hanoi, the national capital and Vietnam’s second largest city after Saigon. From there, I will spend several weeks traversing a region of 110,000 square kilometers (over 42,000 square miles), about the size of Iceland or the American state of Virginia. All eight of Vietnam’s UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites are in the northern half of this serpentine country, half of them within a four-hour drive of Hanoi.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter retains the intimate feel of decades long past. (iStock photo by vinhdav)

The capital city

From what I’ve learned in conversation and reading, there are distinct differences between the northern capital and its rebellious southern sister that extend well beyond latitude, climate and dialect. (For the record; The air distance from Saigon to Hanoi is 1,161 km or 721 miles, a little more than from San Francisco to Seattle. As for climate, Saigon is tropical, with a summer monsoon; Hanoi has a more temperate four-seasons climate.)

The money is in modern Saigon. Vietnam’s hub of international trade drives the country’s economy. Western influence has been strong since the Vietnam War era.

But the government (and the attendant bureaucracy) is in Hanoi, by far the more conservative and traditional of the two major cities. There are fewer skyscrapers here, and more Chinese temples and French colonial architecture. There’s a greater sense of history in its everyday urban life, and travelers rave about the street food.

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Hanoi. (iStock photo by mikeinlondon)

In particular, I look forward to exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter — its narrow lanes, street markets and ancient temples, on the west side of the broad Song Hang (Red River). While it is customary throughout Vietnam for individual blocks to be dedicated to a single craft or trade, Hanoi takes it to a whole different level. There’s one place to look for shoes, jewelry, medicinal herbs, ceramics or toys … or for woven straw, Buddhist altars or hand-carved gravestones.

The city is built around several lakes, small and large, which I know will beckon me for morning walks. Hoan Kiem Lake spans Hanoi between the Old Quarter and the quieter French Quarter. Bai Mau Lake is embraced within Thong Nhat Park. Truc Bach Lake, surrounded by vibrant flame trees, adjoins large Ho Tay (West) Lake; its 15-km (9½-mile) circumference will probably be best suited for a bicycle ride.

As I am a history buff, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is on my must-see list. Acclaimed by UNESCO, the complex was built 1,000 years ago, in the 11th Century. The communist government’s military command hub during the Vietnam War, it served a similar purpose for a millennium prior. Ongoing archaeological digs have revealed pavilions, imperial gates and other ancient structures.

Small cruise boats nestle in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s #1 tourism attraction. (iStock photo by Jaroslav Sugarek)

Ha Long Bay

Arguably Vietnam’s best-known natural attraction is Ha Long Bay, a maritime fantasy land of chiseled limestone pillars that rise from the iridescent waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. More than 2,000 islands of all shapes and sizes spread for about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Chinese border all the way to Cat Ba island, at the gateway to the seaport city of Haiphong.

To date, I have only seen photos of this otherworldly landscape, whose ports of entry are only three to four hours by limo bus from Hanoi. No doubt, I will want to book a cabin to cruise for a couple of nights through this sunken karst plateau. I will want to kayak among its monolithic isles, their summits shrouded in thick tropical vegetation. I will want to venture into some of its yawning caves and gnarled grottoes, sculpted over the ages by wind and waves.

Whereas the celebrity of the larger bay has made it a tourism mecca (and one I’ll want to see), I’ll want to spent a few more days at Lan Ha Bay on Cat Ba island. Sailing and kayaking are said to be excellent here, with guided excursions into sheltered lagoons and floating fishing villages. There are also numerous trails into the inland hills of Cat Ba National Park, which might be a good warmup for my plans to explore Vietnam’s highest mountain area—along the Chinese border—in subsequent weeks.

A kayaker pauses to enjoy the view of limestock peaks in Ha Long Bay,. (iStock photo by Cristal Tran)
Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Vietnam’s leading natural attraction. (iStock photo by mihtiander)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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