With a silent prayer, I stepped off a curb into an onslaught of rushing motorbikes and motorcycles, some with several people squeezed onto the single seat. The environment was very different in a remote mountain village where the people grow rice and maize, and live in houses elevated on stilts much as their ancestors did.
These are among countless memories of Vietnam, a distant destination with an inviting combination of extraordinary natural beauty and fascinating cultures. Another revelation was how friendly the people are to visitors from the United States, decades after what they call “the American war.”
That was explained by Le Van Cuong, the outstanding guide who led the Myths and Mountains tour group with which I was traveling. He reeled off a list of conquerors that had come to his country and then gone over many centuries. Given that history, he explained, the 20-year U.S. military involvement “was only a blip on our radar screen.” Also, he added, “It’s the nature of Vietnamese people to forgive and forget.”
While recollections of that “blip” may prompt expectations even years later of war-torn cities and devastated countryside, the reality is different. Over 1,000 miles of coastline are rimmed in places by broad white sand beaches. Hillsides terraced by rice paddies rise up to steep mountain peaks. Cities bustle with life.
My trip concentrated on northern Vietnam, primarily Hanoi, the surrounding region and the magnificent mystical scenery of Ha Long Bay. Must-see sights for visitors to Hanoi include the mausoleum where the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lies in state, and the Temple of Literature, a university built in 1070 A.D. and dedicated to Confucius.
Hanoi’s vibrant and colorful Old Quarter consists of a tangle of thoroughfares that was laid out in the 15th century. Some are named for goods – paper, tin, mats, herbs – which centuries ago were sold there, and which still are offered by shops and sidewalk vendors.
Traveling north from Hanoi is to exchange urban crowding and broad avenues choked with motor vehicles for rural serenity. There lies some of Vietnam’s most awe-inspiring scenery, jagged mountains, hillsides blanketed by rice paddies and isolated villages inhabited by many of the 53 ethnic minority people that comprise about 13 percent the nation’s population.
Most of these groups adhere to ages-old traditions that extend to housing, clothing, food and customs. They range in size from a few hundred people to an estimated one million.
My immersion in these colorful cultures came during leisurely strolls along gently sloping paths and narrow dirt roads that connect settlements. The village of Thai Giang Pho is inhabited by the Flower Hmong, whose ancestors in the past fled from southern China. Their name comes from the dazzling display of dyed and elaborately embroidered cotton from which the women’s clothing is made.
In another village occupied by Red Dao people my traveling companions and I learned that they cultivate rice and maize and build houses both on the ground and elevated on stilts. Women wear a turban-like headdress decorated with silver coins, beads and tassels.
Our most personal introduction to minority people came during dinner shared with the Ta Cuong family in their Tay village. Neighbors descended upon the simple mud and straw house to observe the foreigners from a distant land.
They watched us aw we helped to prepare spring rolls, then dine at a small table while balancing on rickety chairs. We all watched as Mr. Cuong prayed to his ancestors at a simple altar, which many houses in this region have.
Our guide explained that our host family owns four horses, two pigs, a water buffalo and chickens. Their proudest possession is an electric-powered rice husker, but because the electricity is turned off during much of the day to conserve energy, the hours they can use it are limited.
Ha Long Bay offers a very different experience, an other-worldy setting of limestone islands, caves and inlets encircled by 600 square miles of calm water. Jagged spires emerge from the bay and rise skyward.
While the vessel that we called home for several days resembled an old Chinese junk, it offered sumptuous buffet meals and comfortable accommodations. We shared the scenery with a variety of other water-borne craft, ranging from rowboats to bamboo basket boats. There also were houses floating on wooden platforms, some attached to each other to create seaborne mini-villages, with catches of fish, shrimp and crabs stored in cages underneath.
The tranquility of Ha Long Bay contrasts sharply with Vietnam’s countryside and the frenzy of life in Hanoi. Together, they provide variety that makes a visit there mesmerizing and memorable.
A good way to visit Vietnam is with a tour company, which can provide helpful pre-trip information, an interesting itinerary and outstanding local guides, and handle the practicalities of travel. I went with Myths and Mountains, a leading tour operator which focuses upon the culture and people of destinations around the world. Call (800) 670-6984 or see MythsandMountains.com