All of Vietnam seemed to travel on two- wheelers. Motorbikes and scooters whizzed past in a hurry, choking the narrow streets and sputtering occasionally. I, on the other hand, had managed to slump on the seat of a local cyclo. Once, this ubiquitous, three-wheeled bicycle had been the traditional mode of transport but now, it served more as a tourist offering and a photo-op. To experience Vietnam like a local would be to strap on a helmet and drive around on scooters.
In the Old Quarter of Hanoi, my cyclo manoeuvred through cafés and shops that lined the streets. On the wide footpaths, people sat on small, vibrant plastic stools that circled street vendors, who provided everything from a quick snack like rice paper rolls to a full-blown, nutritional meal. They slurped their meals and drank ice-cold drinks.
My destination was the humble, hole-in-the-wall Café Giang, the first place in Vietnam to ever serve the now-famous egg coffee. Inconspicuous in a crowded lane, it was filled with locals and tourists alike. Old sepia-toned photographs traced the café back to 1946. I hesitantly followed the strong smell of egg to the open kitchen at the end. Egg yolk was whisked with coffee and condensed milk to make this popular drink. The coffee was served both hot and cold, and took an odd, bright yellow colour. I was pleasantly surprised; even with the strong smell, the coffee did not taste like it had any signs of eggs in it. Instead, its sweetness and thick, creamy texture were similar to that of a crème brûlée.
As I braved the iced egg coffee, I was served a plate of sunflower seeds. A formidable combination. People spent hours just hanging around, breaking the soft shell and popping the seeds in. The shells were usually scattered under their tables, and no one bothered cleaning it up. From then on, in true Vietnamese fashion, I stuffed my pockets with sunflower seeds and snacked constantly, egg coffee included or not.
That night, I sat in a theatre to watch Lang Toi (My Village), a bamboo circus and one of the longest- running productions in the country. Produced by Lune Production, the 200 performers and musicians weaved the story of a traditional Vietnamese village using acrobatics, bamboo and dramatic music.
The hour-long performance offered no words, but graceful actors pranced from one beam to another, with a happy (sometimes eerie) background score. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex in Ba Dinh Square is integral to the spirit of Hanoi. Patrolled by guards and visited in equal measure by tourists and locals, the mausoleum is the final resting place of President Ho Chi Minh (fondly called ‘Uncle Ho’). I had reached early in the morning to beat the long queues and had walked to the mausoleum, and then, to the luxurious Presidential Palace—initially constructed for the French Indochina Governor— which the beloved president refused to reside in. Instead, he lived and worked in House No. 54, a small, three-room house made for an electrician.
My guide spoke of Ho Chi Minh’s humility as he took us around the lush gardens and the fishing ponds in the complex. Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house was across the pond, constructed like the houses found in the hilly terrain of northern Vietnam.
Another early morning took me to Ha Long Bay. In Vietnamese, it translated to ‘the bay of the descending dragon’. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it is located in the Gulf of Tonkin and has around 1,600 islands. A quick security check later, I was ushered to my cruise. Ha Long Bay was quite magical; hundreds of towering limestone islands seemed to sprout from the emerald waters as we moved further in. My cruise was equipped with a bar and restaurant, but the focus remained on the surrounding view.
When docked on one of the nearby islands, I was relieved to note the weather. The day wasn’t particularly sunny and the cold breeze was perfect for my chosen activity. Usually, when one attempts a watersport, detailed instructions are expected. But, clearly, canoeing is an exception; the moment I sat in the canoe, I was unceremoniously pushed into the waters, left to figure it out on my own. Slowly, I twisted my torso in sync with the paddles and moved deep into the lagoon.
Next, up on the itinerary was the the Hang Sung Sot cave, also known as the ‘cave of surprises’. The trek up to the cave was quite steep, and inside, rock formations were lit up in bright colours. The surprise? A large, penis-shaped rock bathed in orange. I haven’t yet decided if it was worth the climb.
Later, back on the cruise, I sat at the edge stunned by the glorious sunset. Set against the limestone cliffs, Ha Long Bay had an ethereal glow, dressed in orange and a vivid blue. Its beauty remained unsurpassed.
The journey from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and then to Ho Chi Minh City was marked by the stark variation in the weather. The north had been mildly chilly and the south, with its long coastline, was humid. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City was loud, crowded and striking with its matchbox- like buildings. In all my pit stops around this country, one thing was quite evident: to visit Vietnam without acknowledging its history would be a great disservice; its people are proud of what they have overcome.
In 1975, when Saigon fell, the government had started a museum called Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. A clear political statement, until the two countries mended their relations and the USA lifted the trade sanctions that had crippled Vietnam’s economy. Now, it is called the War Remnants Museum. Outside, large vestigial pieces of military hardware were propped up. Once inside, the museum was nothing short of horrific. Gallery after gallery showed the atrocities of war, from barbaric jails, chemicals and the weaponry used. The statement that echoed in each detail was quite clear: peace is paramount.
My last stop was the Cu Chi Tunnels. Located a bit outside the city, they were surely worth the drive. Nothing has ever affected me so much. Built in the late 1940s, these underground tunnels were part of the defence against the Americans. During the war, this whole patch of green was carpet-bombed and the tenacious Viets survived on the pure genius of these tunnels. Each tunnel system went down several levels with hospitals, kitchens, meeting rooms and a water source at the bottom. They were equipped with booby traps, ventilation shafts that could provide oxygen for thousands, and measures against flooding. Shooting ranges and theatre spaces have been installed and certain tunnels have been widened for tourists.
For most though, it was still a daunting task. Crawling through the tunnels for 20 minutes was quite suffocating, certainly not suitable for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Climbing out, I sighed in great relief; the tunnels really put things in perspective. War tourism may be a murky area, but much like the War Remnants Museum, it made a strong point. The analogy was very simple, visitors could leave the tunnel easily, but much like the war for the Vietnamese people, it is an experience that can never leave you.
I flew Vietjet to Hanoi. The airline has introduced several, low-cost flights to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and Da Nang from Delhi and to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh from Mumbai.
Where to stay
>In Hanoi, stay at Super Hotel Candle (from `4,500 per night; superhotelcandle.vn). The property, with its Japanese architecture, offers all amenities.
>Ha Long Marina Hotel (from `8,300 per night; marinahotel.vn) near the Ha Long Bay is a four- star property with an indoor pool and a fitness centre.
>In Ho Chi Minh, Alagon Central Hotel & Spa (from `4,500; alagonhotels.com) is close to landmarks like the Ben Thanh Market and Reunification Palace.
What to do and eat
>In Hanoi, try the egg coffee at Café Giang on Nguyen Huu Huan Street in the city’s Old Quarter.
>Don’t forget to take an hour out to see the Lang Toi show.
>Enjoy authentic flavours at Grandma Restaurant.
>In Hanoi, visit the Old Quarter, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius.
>Take a day-long cruise in Ha Long Bay and try canoeing, kayaking and caving in the many limestone formations.
>In Ho Chi Minh City, don’t forget to visit the night markets and concerts.
>Visit the gripping War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels.