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Exploring the… Red River Delta

| 23 Feb 2017

We drift along placid waters, weeds wafting in the shallows beneath and all around the craggy, forested peaks rising abruptly from the river. I hear the shrill cry of birds but rarely spot any amid the dense vegetation on the shoreline, just the occasional wild goat perched on a rock, munching nonchalantly.

Vietnam rowboat

This is the life, although I do feel a pang of guilt when I glance behind me at the small, smiling Vietnamese lady rowing our heavily loaded bamboo boat.

We have left behind the chaotic sights and sounds of Hanoi city and are gliding through Trang An, an area of limestone karst peaks in the southern margins of the Red River delta. The two-hour drive here has taken us past steamy, water-logged fields where we have seen all manner of agricultural activity: cyclists wobbling along narrow, rutted tracks on their way to the fields, farmers in conical hats cutting rice by hand, herds of water buffalo keeping cool in the muddied canal waters and duck farms with multitudes of white feathery livestock. Every inch of land is used for growing one crop or another: neatly planted paddies, expanses of wilting lotus flowers, sweet potatoes, beans and peanut crops. On the roadside farmers rake out rice to dry and stalls sell a variety of fruit and veg including lychees, pineapples, coconuts and corn. On the road itself it’s not just people on the move: pigs eye me from passing trucks and fluffy little birds squint into the wind from cages tied down to the back of scooters.

Farmer and cows

So it’s oddly unreal to arrive into tranquil Trang An, devoid of human activity except for strings of boats, leisurely making their way downstream. The stunning landscape attracts locals as well as tourists, including brides-to-be. Having photographs taken before the big day is a popular custom in Vietnam: couples dress up in all their finery and pose for perfect pictures in dreamy locations, like this one. It’s a bizarre sight to behold. The brides lounge in boats stationed along the river’s edge in their billowing white dresses, held in romantic poses by their other halves as professional photographers busily snap them.

Leaving the flock of lovers behind, we carry on down river, lulled by the rhythmic slap of the oars against the water. Up ahead I notice that the river comes to a dead end. We carry on regardless, heading straight for the rocks. Slowly I gather where we are aiming for – a cave, but surely too low for us to enter? It seems not. We bend down instinctively and continue twisting and turning through one limestone grotto after another, bowing our heads each time, almost as if in reverence to the mountains that are allowing us passage through them.

boat going into grotto

I turn to check that our courageous rower is not about to pass out with exhaustion. Aghast I see that she has removed her hands from the oars. She is now leaning back in a relaxed posture and rowing with her feet. She beams a toothy grin at me as we continue through into the next cave, skillfully steered around rocky promontories by her dexterous toes.

This has certainly been a highlight of the trip so far, but there’s another cruise that I’m awaiting with even greater anticipation. After the bamboo boat ride we head back north again and stay the night on Tuan Chau island, the departure point the following day for our cruise into Halong Bay.

Tuan Chau island

Local legend has it that Halong Bay was formed by dragons sent from the gods to protect the Vietnamese from foreign invaders. The dragons spat out thousands of jewels that fell to the sea and formed numerous islands and islets, creating a handy line of defense between the coastline and the ocean.

Halong Bay aerial
We set out into this magical landscape bathed in glorious sunshine – a perfectly timed spell of sunny weather following the tropical storms of the last two days – aboard the splendid Paradise Luxury. Built according to traditional Vietnamese boat design, it’s by far the best-looking cruise ship in the bay. Inspired by the design of ancient Chinese junk boats, this ship is decked out in rustic wooden paneling coupled with plush fabrics and spacious outdoor deck space.

Paradise Luxury sundeck

From the private balcony of my cabin I see the otherworldly karst limestone landscape of Halong Bay begin to emerge out of the heat haze. In my excitement I dash to the top deck to watch the emerald-green mounds and peaks draw closer across the glittering water.

Paradise Luxury private balcony
In my imagination they take on all sorts of different forms, from the outline of a giant’s head and an ambling elephant to ripples of fabric or the pillars of an immense temple. Eventually we are engulfed in a disorientating maze of shapes; I have no idea which way we came from and what direction would take us back to land.

Halong Bay

We come to rest in a sheltered corner surrounded on every side by protective islands. Hidden away here is a floating village, or the remnants of one. Once thriving fishing communities, there are now just a few of these villages remaining, eking out a meagre existence from waters that are no longer saturated with fish and from the tourist trade that comes in on the cruise ships.

floating village halong bay

We board bamboo boats again (or kayaks, if you feel that way inclined) and head out to take a closer look. Colourful wooden houses rest on plastic barrels, all trussed up together to create floating platforms. Inside, families crouch around their midday meal, children slumber through the heat of the day in hammocks and dogs and cats prowl the decking. There are also fishing boats, some doubling up as homes, that are decked out with huge nets and festooned with light bulbs which, when switched on at night, attract the fish. Floating corner shops stuffed with all manner of goods – packets of Oreo cookies, tubes of Pringles, toilet rolls, toothpaste – row between the houses selling goods from the mainland.

boat vendors red river delta

Back on board our somewhat more sumptuous lodgings we eagerly await sunset, and it doesn’t disappoint. There are no flaming bright colours – the humidity allows for something more subtle and mysterious than that. Instead there is a soft pink and orange glow followed by velvety rays of sunlight thrown up over the silhouetted outcrops as the sun sinks.

Halong Bay sunset

The sunrise is equally gentle, prior to the thick heat that rapidly follows.

Happily, we find ourselves in a cave the next morning, just as the sun begins to hot up. Sung Sot cave, meaning ‘surprise cave’, lives up to its name. Be prepared for a short, sweaty climb up some steps, leading to a wonderful viewpoint over the bay, then plunge into the rocky depths.

View over Halong Bay

The opening to the cave is relatively small but the path leads through into a cavern the size of a concert hall (or bigger still). The floor is strewn with immense boulders and pools of water while the ceiling, sculpted into wavy patterns by the sea, is supported by thick columns of stalagmites and stalactites. The mind’s eye can run riot with the fascinating rock formations, conjuring up everything from monkeys and stampeding horses to sentinels standing guard and fairy-tale gardens. Sections of the cave are floodlit in lurid shades of green, pink, yellow and blue. It all reminds me of a landscape out of the film Star Wars.

Sung Sot cave

Out in the brilliant sunshine again, we sail back into harbour (god knows how the captain finds it) and then board a bus back to reality – Hanoi, the capital. This is an ancient city that is quickly reasserting itself after years of war and occupation. Following a dreamy few days, I’m not quite as alert as I need to be amid the zipping scooters, blaring horns and generally intense activity. The roads are a free for all with no traffic lights or rights of way while the pavements provide a platform for daily activity: families sit out and eat their breakfast noodles, women pluck chickens and do the washing up, men have their hair cut and children play.

hanoi woman buying groceries

Faded colonial buildings make up the French Quarter while a warren of lanes create the lattice pattern of the Old Quarter, with the scenic Hoan Kiem lake caught in its centre. We tour the sights between these two areas including Ho Chi Minh’s stark mausoleum, peaceful pagodas, and temples with gaudy gold and red interiors.

Ho Chi Minh masoleum
Hoa Lo prison, or the Hanoi Hilton as it was sardonically named by American POWs, is the most haunting visit. Now a museum, it is almost a memorial to the previous century or more of sufferings that this country has endured. Built in the 1880s by the French, it was first a prison for Vietnamese political prisoners who rebelled against French colonial rule. Men and women lived here in brutal conditions, frequently subjected to beatings and torture. From the 1960s through to the 70s it became a prison for captured American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The treatment they received here is also questionable, although the cheerful images of the inmates on display paint a surprisingly happy picture.

Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi

All this is remarkably recent history, but the country has confidently moved on, and at an incredibly fast rate. In Hanoi, there are luxury hotels that would contend with top 5-star properties in London, such as the Sofitel Metropole, where we stay for 2 nights. Behind its gleaming white facade is a calm, colonial oasis where we are treated to impeccable service.

Sofitel Metropole pool
Hanoi’s culinary scene is also extraordinary. Out and about, we dine on some of the freshest and tastiest dishes imaginable in the charming, rustic surroundings of Home restaurant and Ngon Villa: light broths of seasonal vegetables and clams, beautifully fresh green mango salads, deep fried soft shell crabs, chargrilled beef in rich soya sauce and tiger prawns in gently spiced tamarind.

Hanoi traffic

Our last night is spent at the Pan Pacific Hanoi, where we enjoy cocktails in the stylish rooftop bar as the sun dips over the city, leaving behind a blaze of city lights. Even from this height I can hear the buzz from below: mostly the roar of an army of scooters but also cars horns honking, music drifting across the air and the general hubbub from the pavements.

Pan Pacific Hotel terrace

Just as the fields in the countryside are awash with activity, so the feverish hum of the city continues, as if the people here are determined to make up for lost time in this new age of peace and productivity. Long may it continue.

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