Travelling by road for about three hours in a comfortable van from a hotel in Hanoi to Halong Bay in north-east Vietnam on a day filled with overcast grey skies, our tour guide Tuong (we addressed him as Mr Tony) announced, "We will stop in about 20 minutes for a Harmony Break!
Having not heard this expression before, and being aware of the past civil war conflicts in the region, I thought: "Is it something to do with that?'' Well, it turns out that it was a well-needed restroom break to ensure we do not fight our bladders any more and reconcile to reach a state of inner harmony. That achieved, we hit the road again.
Having experienced in fair abundance the terrain and culture of a few Western nations in the continents of Europe, America and Australia, it was a long term desire and dream to visit countries that are distinctly different, and rich with their own history, culture, demography, people, food, fish and fruits. This we got on our 10-day voyage in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
After a quiet Christmas, my family and I travelled the next day from Bengaluru to Bangkok, to meet up with another key member of our family who flew in from Melbourne. After a one-hour- 45 minute flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, we descended into Da Nang Airport. It was filled with Christmas decorations greeting us at every nook and corner. From there, we journeyed in a van on to Hoi An, a small city about 45 minutes away from Da Nang.
On day two, we explored Hoi An, a beautiful central coastal ancient town reflecting past and present cultures. From a blend of Chinese, Japanese and French cultures, a distinct Vietnamese lifestyle has emerged.
Our most exciting afternoon was spent walking around the day/night market along the Hoi An River. The market has it all â€“ fresh produce, fruits (lots of mangoes) rice, cooked noodles in bags, vegetables, sea food and meat, souvenirs, candies - the whole lot displayed in a raw but most attractive style. Several hot and steamy food carts with built-in eating tables were located all over the market. Each of which were occupied by tourists and locals enjoying the delicacies the town had to offer. Cafes, bars and ancient homes gave the streets along the river plenty of character.
One particular ancient home, the famous Tan Ky House, was of great interest. It is built approximately 200 years ago and has had seven generations of the family live in that house. The other attractions included the 18th century Japanese covered wooden bridge, Chinese Assembly Halls, temples and much more. On the roads of the vibrant market, there was a steady stream of bicycle rickshaws with one or two passengers tring-tringing along the backdrop of hundreds of shops and ancient buildings painted pleasant rusty yellow.
Bargaining at the market is lot of fun. Women in straw hats sitting on the pavement or carrying weighing balances with baskets filled with fresh produce hanging down shouting 'one dollar' were the dominant part of the market. On day three, walking through Cam Thanh Eco Water Coconut Village was personally highly fulfilling, as we ourselves hail from a village (Mittur) in the district of Kolar.
After spending two full days and nights in Hoi An, we flew north from Da Nang Airport to Hanoi. It is a crowded city with vibrant life. Most eye catching were the street dinners. Families and friends in fives or tens on the foot paths sat on tiny stools with small tables supporting hot woks on stoves cooking and eating freshly stir-fried noodles, rice, veggies or meat. What a way to bond! On day four, we left Hanoi along with our tour guide Mr Tony for a four hour drive towards Halong Bay. Before reaching there, we stopped by a famous pearl farm.
Our next stop was Tuan Chau International Marina, the entry port to catch a boat to witness an elegant natural wonder. Our boat 'Du'c Phu'o'ng 68' sailed us for four hours in pristine emerald waters frequently and pleasantly interrupted by hundreds of limestone islands each filled with the greenery of rainforests and bird life. One island called 'Kissing Rocks' to us was the most spectacular one.
Sumptuous lunch was served on the boat right before we climbed the steps of the 'Surprise Cave' ('Sung Sot'). The colours and light made the small and big pockets of the cave highly spectacular. As we stepped out of the cave to get to our boat, we were greeted by the floating market vendors. We then stopped by another island called Ti Top and climbed the steps for a view of the incredible Halong Bay.
We spent the night in a nice hotel on the shores of Halong Bay. The next morning, we headed back to Hanoi with a break at Jade Factory. We had a look at the Jade products including the 'Lady Buddha' ('Goddess of Mercy'). We arrived in Hanoi, visited the official governance area filled with mostly French-style Government buildings used by Ho Chi Minh. Located nearby a very large lake, it is also home to the biggest Pagoda of Buddhist religious significance built in sixth century and founded in 10th century. In its peaceful premises is an enormous peepal tree, the sapling of which was gifted and planted in 1959 by Rajendra Prasad, the first president of Republic of India.
After sipping Vietnamese regular coffee by the side of the lake we headed to the airport to catch a flight to our next country in the itinerary â€“ The Kingdom of Kampuchea (Cambodia). In Vietnam, there is a distinct kind of coffee called Civet Cat Coffee ('Kopi Luwak') a highly expensive product made from the coffee beans after the berries have been digested and purged out by palm civet cat found in Indonesia. Well, we did not try this as the regular coffee was good enough for us.
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