Soaking in Pho land: Vietnam, Land of the Ascending Dragon, is now a choice destination for global travellers
There is something truly enchanting about soaring through the magnificent skies to a new destination.
The magic and lure of local culture, food and people, opens the mind to possibilities that shift from a worm’s eye view to a bird’s eye view.
Aboard Vietjet Air’s newly launched direct flight route between New Delhi and Hanoi, we experience the leisure and charm of the in-flight experience, after a 12-hour workday.
And just as we succumb to slumber and let this meditative silence deepen, the Captain announces our arrival in Vietnam — the land of beaches, rivers, Buddhist pagodas and bustling cities.
Locals in vibrant helmets incessantly zipping on the busy roads, pavements chock-a-block with people, tourists and street food vendors — all this and more in the backdrop of a city with a concoction of culturally rich and politically tumultuous history.
A bus ride from the Noi Bai International Airport to our hotel was all it took to prepare us for our four-day sojourn at the ‘land of the ascending dragon’.
While it was almost time to take a step back and soak ourselves in the town’s antiquity, it was de rigueur that we did it after slurping down a generous bowl of comforting Pho (Vietnamese rice noodle soup) for breakfast.
Strains of chatter, local guides holding vivid flags, tourists waiting in a snaking queue to get their pictures clicked and armed honour guards in crisp whites — as we walked past a myriad of absorbing sights, a massive grey granite structure loomed into our view.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which houses the embalmed remains of President Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of Vietnam’s nationalist movement.
Overlooking a majestic Ba Dinh Square — the historic venue where Ho read the Proclamation of Independence — the massive grey mausoleum, with the words ‘Chu tich Ho Chi Minh’ chiselled above the portico, stood in all its glory.
A few metres away, an extensive yellow building, reminiscent of Vietnam’s then French Colony status, caught our attention. As streams of sunlight scattered through the trees that skirted the grand Presidential Palace, the former residence of the Governor-General of French Indo-China gleamed in the afternoon sun.
While trailing along the expanse of the important area, Thang Victor, our guide peppered our tour with engaging anecdotes about Ho.
“He was a very simple man. After Vietnam got its independence, he refused to live in this building. Instead, he built a stilt house on the grounds and lived there,” he detailed, pointing to the late leader’s humble abode which was made into the Presidential Palace Historical Site in 1975.
Tip: If you are here, remember to not walk on the kempt grass. And if you do, be prepared to hear the cacophony of the guards’ whistles! Also, keep an eye out for the well-orchestrated changing of the guards’ ceremony.
Soon, we were amid a garden, an elegantly fashioned pond and a numinous 11th-Century structure. The Temple of Literature — the country’s first national university built under the Ly Thanh Tong dynasty to honour philosopher Confucious.
Here, the altars dedicated to Confucious and his disciples, and the famous heads of the Stelae of Doctors (turtle statues) in bluestone were the highlights.
We were told that students rubbed the turtle heads before their exams to bring good grades. A belief that’s too close to home.
Now, the faith has taken a backseat, conservation has taken precedence, and the act is forbidden.
With an influx of tourists, it could be a task to bask in the underlined tranquillity, but we highly recommend you give it a shot.
The city had already served us with dollops of memorable moments — from a cyclo ride around the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake and the bustling streets of the 2,000-year-old Old Quarter to a breathtaking Vietnamese Bamboo Circus performance of Lang Toi (My Village) at the Tuong Theatre.
So it was only understandable when our two-hour journey to UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay via a scenic highway was bedewed with nothing but anticipation and excitement.
A bay to remember
While night cruises are popular, pressed for time, we embarked on a day trip aboard Bai Tho Junk’s boat tour across the emerald seascape at Gulf of Tonkin’s Ha Long Bay.
A part of us was stunned by the cave, surrounded by layers and layers of islets and limestone islands while another part, with vehement enthusiasm, chose to replay ‘silver screen moments’ of the pristine bay — Kong: Skull Island and James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies topped the list!
If you are an experience seeker, try paddling your way through the waters in a kayak, with an ethereal sunset for company.
With multiple caves in the vicinity, our boat docked at Bo Hon Island. Serpentine ascents through fascinating landscapes led us into the centuries-old Hang Sung Sot caves.
With stalactites hanging from the ceilings, narrow passages and small chambers, pockets of water bodies and the touted phallic rock formation — the imposing cave served a surprise at every crack and crevice.
A perfect balance
When in Vietnam, food becomes a sensory and philosophical exploration.
A perfectly brewed balance between taste, fragrance, colour and the five elements — the cuisine is for those gastronomes who seek something unique in every bite.
Every meal is a feast and a typical one includes flavoursome noodles in a rich broth, platters of crunchy Tet are cha gio (spring rolls), sticky rice, pickled vegetables and fresh salads, tofu, a generous serving
of fruits, braised chicken with lime leaves, strong notes of ginger, lemongrass, vinegar and chilli in fermented fish, shrimp and crab, soy sauce and hoisin sauce for condiments and a cup of black coffee or a bottle of Bia to wash it all down.
A slice of South India
The last leg of the journey took us from Hai Phong’s Cat Bi Airport to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). On a balmy evening, exploring the culture of the populous city, the night markets, street food and architecture are what we set out to do. But here’s what we stumbled upon.
An apartment building teeming with cafés at the Nguyen Hue Walking Street, and a slice of South India — a temple dedicated to Goddess Mariamman a few blocks away from the famous Ben Thanh Market.
The café apartment, built in the mid-1960s, has transitioned from housing American military officers working for the South Vietnam government to now being sublet by local tenants to businesses.
From cafés to bookstores, the vibrant building currently houses over 30 shops.
While, the Mariamman Temple is said to have been built in the late-1800s by the Nagarathars, a mercantile community from Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region who made Saigon their home.
Today, the temple, tucked amid sidewalk cafés is open every day to visitors.
A requiem for the resilient
Our earliest knowledge of Vietnam was from years ago, when a Class X History chapter introduced us to the National Liberation Front (NLF), the US’ entry into the infamous war, and the napalm bombings.
Cut to the present, with our high trip almost coming to a close, we were suddenly sobered up as we stood in the centre of the multi-storey War Remnants Museum amid haunting photographs and artefacts, reminding visitors the horrors of colonisation and the Vietnam War in graphic detail.
While we internally argued if or not the museum had an impartial recounting of the war, the resilience of the Vietnamese is what stood out to us.
For the locals, freedom came with a price. We rounded off the trip at the extensive well-concealed and well-ventilated 250-mile network of underground tunnels in Cu Chi District — a grim reminder of terror, yet powerful testimony of the Viets ingenuity.
The channels were manually dug by the Viet people and Cong guerillas to protect themselves from the bombing by the US forces.
A session of how the tunnels were conceived in the late-1960s, devilishly booby-trapped and camouflaged was followed by us crawling into the three-level dim-lit network to get a first-hand experience of the dark days.
While we ignored the forewarning, a board that read: 'Those suffering from claustrophobia, asthma, blood pressure and other heart-related ailments are recommended to not enter', we advise others heed the warning.
As we sat at the airport lounge gazing at our last sunset at the war-weary country, we couldn’t but ponder over how the authenticity, alluring character and the unassuming nature of Vietnam and its people have stemmed from the ashes of conflict.
A SMALL WORLD
Vietjet has officially commenced two direct flights from New Delhi to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, becoming the first airline to connect India and Vietnam.
For this writer, impeccable in-flight services, hospitality and other special services made it a journey to remember. For details visit the official Vietjet website.
Kolkata’s Ho Chi Minh Sarani is named after the Vietnamese revolutionary leader.
If you are looking to get a fix of Vietnam’s famous sweet and creamy cà phê trung (egg coffee), here’s where you can head to — Cafe Giang, Hanoi, the birthplace of this kind of coffee. Have it steaming hot or cold at this quaint little café.
The writer was at Vietnam by invitation from Vietjet Air.