Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Viva Vietnam – Part 2 : Nature’s bounty

(This is the concluding part of the 2 part series of my recent trip to Vietnam. This part consists of my rendezvous with natural wonders and deep blue seas.)
Halong Bay
We reluctantly left Hanoi to get to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and not many would know this, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The uniqueness of the bay is that it is a beautiful panorama of several little hills that crop up in the middle of the sea. You read right, in the middle of the sea like someone had sprinkled them over the bay and was a breath taking site to behold. We had decided to take a one night, two day cruise along the Bay. I had built this side trip into our itinerary, as I thought we would have a nice laid back time on the cruise reading books and doing nothing after all the tiring city hopping. But boy was I wrong. The cruise started off in a relaxed way  with some really great food. It was on the cruise that I realized the delicate flavours of Vietnamese food and the amazing choice that was given to the only vegetarian on the table, much to the chagrin of my meat eating friendsJ. Eating on the cruise was a gastronomic delight and after a heavy 5 course meal, I went up to the sun deck to lie down and read. I was rudely woken up by the guide Teddy, to go see some caves and follow it up with a swim on the beach. The swim on the beach was a great idea but no matter how I tried I could not explain to him that I did not want to see the caves. He just laughed and pushed me along on the steamer boat that was headed to the caves. Initially, I had thought it was a language problem, but then I realized it was his sneaky little way of dealing with troublesome foreigners who didn’t stick with the program. The caves were gigantic at 2000 sq mtrs and tiring to climb throwing my dreams of a laid back time out of the window. However, I discovered the local folklore behind the Bay. Locals believed that the little hills on the bay were actually spikes of a divine dragon that had immersed itself in the sea to aid the Vietnamese in another ancient war. The cutest part of the story was that they believed that the smaller hills were spikes of baby dragons that had come along with their mother for the adventure. However, after trudging across the caves a dip in the sea was a welcome respite and yes we did get to relax the rest of the evening or whatever was left of it.

 Unsuccessful attempts at lazing on the sundeck
 Panoramic views from the caves made it worth the climb
Mother dragon and baby dragons protecting the bay
We were woken up at 7 am the next day to be taken to a fishing village before we returned to the mainland. Again, I wasn’t interested in seeing a fishing village but Teddy would not have it. So I dragged myself to go with the rest of the group. Turns out I owed Teddy big time for dragging me on the trip as it turned out to be the highlight of the whole cruise. The fishing village was an actual floating village with school, temple, hospital and the works. About 500 people spent their entire lives in this floating village. The school was a two room boat, one for the elder children and one for the younger children. People’s houses looked like normal houses on land, except that they were floating and had boats tethered outside instead of cars parked on the driveway. It was interesting to imagine the locals  zooming or rather rowing away on their boats to attend a party or a wedding in a neighbouring villageJ. This way of life was supported by the Government who provided aid, education and required medical care to them. In return, the people of this village, kept the water around the village and the nearby lagoons which were popular tourist sites in a sparkling clean condition. It was here that I discovered the Vietnamese’s penchant for cleanliness, so much so that the fisherwomen carried trash bags in their boats that they would use to dispose waste they found floating on the sea. I wished for a quarter of this kind of cleanliness and civic sense in the Indian mind set before I was totally taken in by the beauty of the lagoon we had gone to see. We travelled to the lagoon in a 2 seater boat called the ‘sampan’ manually rowed by the local women of the village who seemed to be having a friendly race amongst themselves on who would reach the lagoon first. Needless to say our sampan won, aided by some shameless cheering by the passengers. But the cheering and hooting of the win was completely silenced by the majesty and the serenity of the lagoon we beheld. It seemed completely untouched and unspoilt in spite of the tourists and I wondered as to how these pristine surroundings were not yet discovered by Bollywood. Then, I sent up a prayer that it would not be discovered so that it continued to remain as pristine and untouched as when we found them. We left the bay humbled by the natural beauty we had seen and touched by the hard work and pride with which the locals lived their lives around this natural wonder, taking great pains to keep it clean and unpolluted. It could truly be a case study for us to preserve the many wonders we have in our culturally and naturally endowed country.

 The 'Sampan' race
 Peace and solitude of the lagoon
Floating schoolrooms

Nha Trang
No trip to Vietnam is complete without visiting the beaches the country is so popular for. We chose to visit the beach city of Nha Trang on the recommendation of a local friend. This beautiful beach town captivated me even before we had landed at the tiny airport. The collection of little islands, with sandy white beaches and plush green mountains that I saw as we were landing pushed my excitement to disproportionate levels and I could not wait to get out of the plane. As we drove away from the airport, towards the beach stretch, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Vietnam and not in paradise. The road was completely bump free and thanks to the extra caution of our driver (did I tell you people in Vietnam do not believe in overtaking or driving over 40 MPH J), I had lots of time to take in the panorama of green trees, colourful flower displays, blue skies and clear waters that dotted the entire drive. We had a surprise in store when we got upgraded at our hotel and got to stay in the Presidential Suite, overlooking the sea. Words cannot describe what I felt when I got my first glimpse of the two shaded sea outside the room. All I could see was blue, green and white. But the best feature of the beaches in Nha Trang had to be the beautifully manicured lawns and the clean, cobbled promenades that the Government had built across the beach strip. What amazed me was that this was one of the busiest beach stretches in the country (though not as crowded as the Thai beaches) but still the promenades were so clean that one could eat food of the pavements.

 Beauty of the multi-shaded sea
Manicured lawns and wiped clean promenades that added to the beaurty of the sea
The first thing we did once we had settled in was to take an island hopping tour in a speed boat. My first speed boat ride was an exhilarating adventure and I also got to ride it for a bit while my friends held on for dear life. Of course they all lived to tell the tale. It was on this speed boat trip that I had a life changing experience – Snorkelling. It was my first time and while I had friends who were seasons divers, I put on a brave face, padded up with the equipment and got into the water. The first few minutes were the most terrifying in my life and I almost gave up until I put my head down and suddenly saw a colony of fish swim by. That’s it, I was captivated. I forgot my fears and discovered a whole new world out there. I saw multi coloured coral reefs, families of sea anemones, colonies of beautiful fishes and felt like reaching out and touching all of them. I marvelled at the completely different life that existed underwater and resolved to get my diving certification asap. These waters were some of the best or snorkelling and it is certainly an experience one should not miss when in Nha Trang.

 Cloudy islands and pebbled beaches
The trail we leave (on the speed boat)
The other big surprise for us in Nha Trang was the pub life. The beach stretch had only 2 pubs to boast of for foreign tourists, so we were not expecting much in the way of night life. But the 2 pubs made up for it my playing some truly amazing music, having bon fires by the beach and serving unique and delicious concoctions of drinks and shots that had us hooked. We sang and danced till the wee hours of the morning at the Sailing Club and were in truly high spirits when we realized that the actual action on the dance floor started after the music went off and the lights went on. It was hilarious to see youngsters trying to get the numbers of the pretty girls they were dancing with once the lights came on and flirting started in all its force at 3 am in the morning. We ourselves, missed being picked up by a few high spirited Australians, who mistook us for Bollywood dancers, I still wonder why (I suspect tipsy husbands were to blame J) and reached the hotel back intact, happy, high and hungry

The true party started only after the lights came on. Strange but true.
That was our last night in this amazing country and I we boarded our flights with hung over heads and heavy hearts. While introspecting on the flight back home, I realized that this had been such a complete holiday. We did everything one would want to do on a holiday, right from exploring history, learning about new cultures, trying amazing food, taking a cruise, enjoying water sports and life on the beach and partying till the wee hours in the morning. I could not have asked for more from a holiday and felt happy that my choice had been validated. For those of you who are wondering, I have not been paid to write this article by the Vietnamese Tourism Board. I simply wanted to share the wonderful experiences we had on this holiday with friends and family and make the world realize, how this small country is slowly but surely, finding its way on the world map and re-building its life with pride and a true vision.  I hope to go back to this great country and explore the Central region that we did not get a chance to see some day and hope to bring back many more heart warming memories. Untill then as they say in Vietnamese “Chuc Suk Khoe” – Cheers Vietnam

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