Northern Vietnam is very much land of minorities, even in Barbie form

Looking back briefly on three weeks Vietnam, and the pros and cons of traveling out of season. Oh, and about one other major change!

Vietnam is another country we return to, this journey. We came here first in 2011, eight years ago. But then we entered in the South, travelled to the middle of the country, and never reached Hanoi, because we ran out of time. So this is not really a return, in fact we are breaking new ground. And gaining new impressions: where eight years ago we were somewhat disappointed, after coming from Laos and Cambodia, this time we were pleasantly surprised by the extraordinary friendliness of so many people, especially in the northern mountainous area, but also in Hanoi, Haiphong, Ninh Binh. After coming from China.


in real life they are even more colourful, these minorities

although this is perhaps even more quintessential Vietnam

There is the possibility, of course, that the friendliness is just an artificial attitude that comes with the tourist business – after all, our almost three weeks in Vietnam were, in that respect, the total opposite of China; here, everywhere touts, tours and travel agencies. But I don’t think so, in Catba, the centre of Vietnam’s prime tourist location, people were mostly indifferent, and many of the tour operators, face-to-face in Sapa or via internet contact to arrange Halong Bay cruises, were, if anything, complacent, couldn’t care less if you went elsewhere – but without ever being unfriendly, or impolite. The ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, by the way, says quite a lot about the status of the tourist industry. It is going well, and there is loads of money being made, otherwise there would be far more competition, and willingness to negotiate, for the tourist dollar.

work in the paddies

Which makes me contemplate a little more about the experiences of those past few weeks. I know I have complained a lot about the weather, and at some moments it was indeed rather infuriating, if a time-bound opportunity was spoiled by rain or fog, but the other side of the story is, of course, that it is not for nothing that it is low season. And I would hate to be here in the high season! When the ethnic markets are crowded with foreigners, the walking trail in Sapa clogged with tourists, and every single sampan in use on the various river trips around Ninh Binh. Not to speak of Halong Bay, where so many more boats surely obscure the scenery far more than a cloud or two. Perhaps, on balance, a bit of bad weather is preferable over the big numbers during peak season. Because if one thing has changed over the last eight years, it is that Vietnam has established itself firmly on the tourist trail.

view into one temple

into a second one

and a third, thankful photo subjects

the dragon on the temple roof

the colourful parasol inside

and a tomb in the back – you know

and this sums up our weeks in Vietnam….

Oh, and there is another thing that has changed. On our last afternoon in Hanoi we, at one point, thought that our hotel had been the target of a terrorist attack. Not only from downstairs, the restaurant, came the screams, also from across the road. As it turned out, there was a football match going on, and the last minutes were a nail-biter. And when Vietnam won, which turned out to be the semi-final of a rather unimportant tournament, the Asia Football Championships for Under-23 year olds, the streets exploded into a sea of celebrating people. Cars and motorbikes carrying the Vietnamese flag, all sorts of horns an sirens, and passengers with red shirts, red stars on their cheeks and red headbands. Pedestrians were waving on street corners and banging pots and pans in an attempt to make even more noise than usual. Great atmosphere, which went on late into the night, many hours after this historic victory. Apparently, for the first time a Vietnamese football team had survived beyond the group stage of any international football tournament. Now, for Vietnam, that’s a major change!

celebrating Vietnam’s football victory

with flags, noise, motorbikes

scarecrow in the rice fields around Ninh Binh

More disappointing weather affects our boat trip plans in Ninh Binh – but it does not affect the photographic potential of the area (too many pictures, again!).

another misty day, clouds obscuring the mountains

Because of its many karst hills, onshore rather than offshore, the area around Ninh Binh is often called ‘the dry Halong Bay’. Not when we were there! Ten minutes after our first outing – once more on a bicycle, but in a much more benign environment this time – it starts raining; not a lot, but enough to be annoying. And to affect our intended program, because the prospect of a three hour trip in a small, open boat to the Tam Coc caves suddenly becomes a lot less appealing. So we cycle on to the Bich Dong Pagoda, a few kilometres past the jetty from which the Tam Coc boats depart.

Tam Coc sampan

with boat woman well protected against the rain

the entrance to the Bich Dong Pagoda

and the view just beyond the entrance

you know, by now, I have this obsession with tombs

The Pagoda, originating from late 17th Century, is situated on the slopes of another karst mountain, and consists of three levels, each with their own temple, and expansive views across the surroundings. Which were somewhat inhibited, to say the least, by the low hanging clouds that produced the rain lower down, but at the same time also obscured the tops of the karst hills. So we cycle on a bit, for fun – really! Did I say somewhere that I don’t like cycling? To add insult to injury the fun was exacerbated by a flat tire; admittedly, not difficult to have repaired in Vietnam, where every 500 meters there is a tire repair shop.

tire repair services; that’s my bike, on the floor

and boat woman making appointments

boats waiting for customers at the Van Long jetty

the cave we came to see

and ourselves, as major tourist attraction

Missing out on the boat trip was going to be compensated the next day, with a visit to the nature reserve Van Long, where another river leads to another cave, in between other karsts mountains. Hmmm. Let me put it this way: we are not the only ones (which probably would not have been different in Tam Coc, either). Our little sampan moves in convoy, with several others, through the reed landscape, which is oddly lacking any birds, to the rocks, where the entire fleet stops for a while to look at some distant, high-up monkeys, and then continues to the cave, which we enter one by one, before commencing our return. On our way back, meeting a stream of sampans filled with mostly local tourists, I have the strong impression that we are even more of a tourist attraction than the monkeys.

well, one bird, then, in the redds

which in itself can be photogenic

especially if they hold a bunch of fish eggs

and this is the village itself

village woman doing laundry

rice paddies and karsts at Kehn Ga

Our next target is Kehn Ga, yet another boat trip, to a village which is, according to my guide book, entirely surrounded by water, and thus has no cars, neither motorbikes. Not anymore. Several pontoon bridges have connected the village to the main land, which, of course, also limits the reach of our boat. Which is probably why this is a far less attractive tourist destination, these days: we are the only ones. Well within the hour we are back from where we started, a bit unfair given the effort it had taken to get here, circumventing road works and streets blocked by weddings. But where the village tour was perhaps somewhat underwhelming, this is compensated by the environment, extensive rice paddies, some already green, and lots of people working them. Where they have planted the young rice seedlings already, the fields are protected by lots of fabulously constructed scare crows.

entertaining scarecrows in the rice paddies

great constructions, complete with straw hat

planting the young rice seedlings

often team work, to achieve a structured approach

the young plants are bright and green

no sunshine, no need for the hats!

beautiful view of the paddies, even though it is somewhat foggy

kingfisher somewhere else

fence at the Trang An area

the karst mountains at Trang An

On the way back to Ninh Binh we pass by the Trang An area, famous for – you guessed it! – its boat trips, through – you guessed it again! – the karst mountain landscape. We give the boat a miss, but we do walk some of the area, which is, in the late afternoon sun, a pleasant enough experience. Better than sitting somewhere inside the flotillas of rowing boats that we observe from a distance.

also Trang An, now with mirror image in the water

the football stadium inside

which has had its better days

the occasional seat lacking

Perhaps the tourist activities around Ninh Binh are a little disappointing, especially after Halong Bay, of course. And the weather doesn’t help, either. But Ninh Binh itself is a nice enough place, nothing special – or it must be the completely empty football stadium, which, since the local team collapsed some years ago, is not being used anymore, other than for a friendly game between local youths. The daily market next to the stadium provides lots of interesting nutrition to the shoppers, who pass on motorbike on their way home. And from the town’s railway station the train brings you – us – in less than three hours comfortably back to Hanoi, again (remember the picture of that narrow single track in Hanoi? That’s the one!).

the market providing for motorcycle riders

attractively coloured products

as well as more dubious food, like frogs, tied to prevent them jumping away

and even – poor souls – crabs, tied to prevent them biting their buyer

this sums up Ninh Binh, ‘Boat trip to Tourism’, but a little rusty

police woman managing the traffic chaos in Haiphong

Atmospheric Haiphong has its harbour, and little else, besides a few temples on the way to Ninh Binh.

For being the third-largest city in Vietnam, Haiphong is strikingly devoid of tourist attractions. We stayed in town before and after our Halong Bay trip, so we made the most of it, which wasn’t much. There is the theatre, built by the French at the beginning of the 20th Century. There is a statue of the female general and Vietnamese heroine Le Chan, almost as serene as the female police woman attempting to manage the traffic during rush hour. The flower market is gearing up for the Tet Festival, the Vietnamese New year in four weeks’ time. In the small Den Nghe temple the staff are collecting the offerings of the day. The museum, another impressive French colonial building, is closed; according to my guide book, “even during its advertised opening hours the museum is often closed, but you’re not missing much”.

the French-built theatre: they wouldn’t have approved of the current decoration

Vietnamese heroine general Le Chan

the museum, another Fench colonial relic

traffic jam: mothers picking up the children from school

And yet, Haiphong has a certain atmosphere, a certain character, that makes it special. The city is alive, and not just because of the chaotic traffic, the thousands of motorbikes that work their way through the old colonial streets. Or the hundreds of mothers on motorbikes that come to pick up their children from school. The pavements are busy, but people are not pushy, they smile, friendly. Nice place. Pity there is so little to do, except for the beer gardens.

Of course, by then we have seen the harbour already, on our way to Catba and back. Big container ships and other sea-going vessels share the waterways with river boats carrying goods inland along the Red River. A small ferry puts people and cars across one of the arms of the delta, another serves as river taxi to jetties further away. Still, it is all fairly quiet, there is not much of the usual harbour activity going on. A huge bridge, apparently paid for by Chinese money, is under construction, but nothing seems to move there, either.

one of the bridges near the harbour

with lots of river boats moored, waiting

a new mega-bridge being constructed

some smaller vessels do move, in an otherwise very quiet harbour

and the smallest one, a little canoe in front of sea-going ships

clock tower of the Chua Keo Buddhist monastery

a few old tombs in the back of the monastery

scupltures inside the Chua Keo temple

and some interesting masks, not seen anywhere else yet

We arrange a car to take us to Ninh Binh and visit a couple of sights on the way. The outskirts of Haiphong are mostly industrial, and not very attractive, but beyond the factories the Red River delta is an agricultural power-house, with endless rice paddies. Near the town of Thai Bing is the Chua Keo, a Buddhist cloister originally established in the 11th Century, but relocated to its present position in 1611 after flooding. Several with dragons and phoenixes decorated wooden temples align, and culminate in a 12 meter high clock tower at the far end of the complex.

a look inside one of the Dan Tren temples

one of the Tran kings in the Dan Tren temple complex

and the emergency temple, not to interrupt the stream of believers and their offerings during refurbishment

The Den Tran temples, in the village of Tuc Mac, have been built in honour of the Tran Dynasty who ruled from 1225 to 1400, during a for Vietnam prosperous period. All 14 kings are represented in sculpture form in one of the temples, their ancestors have a separate temple. A third one is being restored, but a temporary building has been constructed from corrugated iron not to interrupt the offerings process. The one thing that strikes me about this, and so many other temples in Vietnam, is that they are very active: obviously, lots of people come to observe their religion here, a process that keeps many people in the temples occupied, too.

next: Ninh Binh

these are some of the offerings

sunset over Halong Bay

Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions, didn’t disappoint, partly thanks to our rather comfortable arrangements.

The biggest tourist attraction of this entire trip is Halong Bay, the karst landscape off the coast of Northern Vietnam. So we had carefully analysed the weather forecast, to ensure our visit would coincide with the best possible conditions during our two weeks in Vietnam – quite a challenge, on account of our experiences so far.

a row of hotels at the Catba harbour front

Early one morning we took the hydrofoil from Haiphong on the coast to Catba, the centre of Halong Bay tourism on a small island in the bay. And lo and behold, halfway the clouds, at least most of them, cleared and a watery sunshine established itself, which held for most of the rest of the day.


the floating village from where the tourist boats leave

quite a few floating houses, in fact

densely packed together

and little fishes, to be fed to the bigger ones in the fish farms

a collection of connected jetties and pontoons

vintage Halong Bay

with isolated steep karst hills

sometimes eroded at sea level

and the effect of varying water levels from the tide

ripple-less water surface in a small secluded bay

isolated palm trees on sharply eroded limestones

and a family of monkeys debating the next steps

not only tourism, also fishing is economically important

either with so-called Chinese fishing nets

or through nets that are being picked with small canoes

another Chinese net, attached to a floating family house

our sail, not especially hard working

haphazard tourists struggling in a kayak

kayaks are being rented out from several places

And then Halong Bay is very nice indeed! We had booked ourselves on a private boat, a junk equipped with sails, just two cabins for the three of us, large and comfortable deck chairs, a captain and a cook. Which was all we needed. By ten in the morning, the captain steers the boat away from the harbour whilst we establish ourselves in the deck chairs, by twelve the cook has prepared us a fabulous seafood lunch, for which we temporarily leave the deck chairs, and by two we have installed ourselves once again in the deck chairs. To see the many small bays, tiny little beaches and rocky karst hills pass by, to watch the fishermen check their nets, to observe the various villages and fishing farms go about their daily business. Occasionally our captain approaches an island where many other boats are moored, indicating a touristic attraction – think of monkeys, or a kayaking centre -, but on most of those occasions we manage to convince him to continue. It is, in any case, too cold for a swim. My two more active and sporty travel companions do, at one stage, get into a kayak to frustrate themselves for an hour, or so, but for the rest we maintain our peaceful course, as far away as possible from the other boats.  To emphasize this peaceful atmosphere, we suggest to the captain to raise the sails and switch off the engine. But the sails are obviously only for the show, they are being raised late afternoon, but not for sailing. And the engine is never switched off. “Then we will capsize”, is the captain’s view. He has never sailed before in his life, so much is clear.

another view of Halong Bay

these are empty baskets, stacked on a pontoon

several fishing boats moored together

fish farm

another little floating house, with boat

one of the rather nice tourists boats, also with useless sail

In the evening we anchor in a small bay. Sunset, more food, early night. And the next morning, more of the same – albeit with less sunshine. Back in the harbour at noon, after an early lunch. Great way to have spent a day.

next is Haiphong

and sunset over Halong Bay, again

the Long Bien bridge, for trains, motorbikes and bicycles, across the Red Rivver

The tourist industry has developed many tour opportunities in Hanoi; not all of them are equally attractive, as far as I am concerned.

We have been a few days in Hanoi now, and I got the know the city reasonably well. Including the mad traffic – not as bad, perhaps, as Bangkok, or Saigon, but pretty chaotic nevertheless. The good thing is that trucks don’t seem to be allowed during daytime, so the streets are entirely the domain of busses, cars, motorbikes, and the occasional lunatic on a bicycle. And the pedestrians who have been forced off the pavement, either because there is no pavement, or because the pavement is occupied by motorbikes parked, or a noodle restaurant, or anything else that prevents the pedestrian from passing normally.

the traffic at a random Hanoi junction

The rules are fairly clear, the one who occupies that piece of road first, has right of way. Not necessarily the biggest, but certainly the most agile – motorbikes cut corners, and go against the traffic if opportune. Especially when traffic lights change colour, everything mingles together without any form of order, the ones who depart from the traffic light early anticipating green and the ones just too late to avoid red, but getting through anyhow. Needless to say that all of this goes accompanied by the liberal use of the horn, from cars, and even more so form motorbikes.

The safest solution for the accidental tourist? Stay inside, in your hotel. Ok, get out very carefully, and walk the pavements of the main avenues, which are mostly OK. If you have to, walk the smaller roads, but as little as possible. And whatever you do, do not get onto a bicycle, these are only for lunatics.

Which was exactly what my travel companions – there are temporarily two of them – suggested. Our hotel offered a half-day tour, cycling in and around Hanoi, see the rice paddies in the Red River Delta, a temple or two, a fruit farm, nothing really strikingly out of the ordinary, really. And anyhow, I don’t like cycling to start with. So why on earth would we risk our lives? “Because it was something else to do; we would get a bit of exercise, we would get to places where we otherwise would never get to…”

the Long Bien bridge, oldest bridge across the Red River

To cut a long story short, we booked the tour, which started with lunch in the old town. So far, so good. But then we were given a mountain bike each, a flimsy helmet, and the instruction to follow our guide, who was also on a bike. And then we dived into the Hanoi traffic. As lunatics.

Miraculously, we made it to the Long Bien bridge, a rusty metal construction and the oldest bridge to cross the Red River – for a long time even the only bridge across the river, which is why it was such a tempting object to bomb during the Vietnam War, yet unsuccessfully. In fact, the traffic from the saddle wasn’t as bad as it looked from the pavement, and with everybody else experienced in avoiding collision, we were all still alive.

On the other side of the river traffic was slightly less, and less chaotic. But by now I was preoccupied with something entirely different: I started to feel my buttocks, thanks to the uncomfortable bike saddle. Did I say earlier that I didn’t like cycling? It is just not very comfortable, that’s why.

another brranch, another bridge to climb

and another view of the bridge, looking back to Hanoi

Red River, vast expanse of water, and this is just one branch

Yet the next challenge was presenting itself already, the Vietnam-version of the Brienenoordbrug (my Dutch readers will know what I mean). Luckily, the bike had just enough gears to get me to the top. On the other side, we finally moved to the smaller roads, thankfully with much less traffic. But also with many more potholes. And the Vietnamese version of the cobble stones. Thing is to get out of the saddle, if you see some unequal surface coming. If you don’t – see it coming, or get out of the saddle, either way -: a further attack on the buttocks. Which were already suffering pretty badly. Things get worse. Our guide steers towards the rice paddies, and especially, to the ridges between the rice paddies. Which have been muddy, some time ago. And which are rather uneven, to say the least. Buttocks! Oh, and which have low hanging branches from trees, too.

significantly smaller channel, smaller boat, rural area outside Hanoi

the Co Loa location, whee Vietnam’s history begins

temple decoration

which much better forms of transport than a bicycle

colourful baskets ready for a temple festival

rice paddies under water

and paddie worker

chicken blocking our rural road

bananas in the afternoon light

In between, we visit a few temples, amongst them those at the locality of Co Loa, allegedly the founding place of Vietnam. Which was nice enough. And an opportunity to get out of the saddle, and some relief. Dreading the moment we would continue again. To the fruitfarm with a stable full of white rabbits. Past the rice paddies, with people working up to their knees in the water. And past all these Vietnamese who you can almost hear thinking: “lunatics!”. The only consolation was that there are a few other cyclists, too: giggling and “hello”-shouting children going home from school. What didn’t help was that my travel companions kept on saying how nice all of this was; that we would otherwise never had gotten here; that it was so good to see Vietnam from a different angle. They like cycling. They have done it before.

Hanoi by night, from the bridge

Anyhow, we got back some five hours later. Our guide knew a short cut. Which involved crossing an eight-lane motorway. It got dark. The roads are fairly well lit. But many traffic participants don’t have light. Neither did we, except for a reflector. It was rush hour, crossing that bridge was suddenly challenging for different reasons, thanks to the hundreds of motorbikes sweeping past. Surrounding four cyclists. Lunatics!

My travel companions loved every moment of it. I didn’t. Self-inflicted suffering, I know. And I even paid for this!

something growing in the water

lunatics at work

there was at least one other lunatic on a bicycle


incense burning in one of the pagodas outside Hanoi

Outside Hanoi are many evocative pagodas, three of which we visited, each with their own style, all with a serene peaceful atmosphere.

There are several tourist itineraries outside Hanoi, the most popular being visiting craft villages and visiting the Perfume Pagoda. The villages are no doubt interesting, but there is often a fine balance between that interest and the inevitable annoyance from having to beat back the sellers of those crafts. As for the Perfume Pagoda, being the prime tourist attraction outside Hanoi, this is likely equally infested with people who insistently try to sell me something I don’t want.

So we settled for a trip along a number of ancient pagodas in traditional Vietnamese architecture, possibly less touristic than the other options.

Chua Thay, the Thay Pagoda, across a small lake

one of two bridges from 1602, dedicated to sun and moon

and the other small bridge, leading to a smal islet

temple front decoration

the temple inside, thick wooden pillars

a wooden horse, ready to march

offerings under a parasol

another red parasol against the ceiling

colourful Buddhist cloth

a mythical princess, headless, object of the Thay Pagoda

First on our itinerary was the Thay Pagoda, the Chua Thay, some 30 km from Hanoi in the village of Sai Son. We were dropped in front of an ugly new construction, corrugated iron roof, obligatory carper pond. Traditional?  Until we realised that our driver had brought us to the wrong temple, and that the real thing was 300 m further, opposite a small lake. The pagoda was founded in the 11th Century by the monk Tu Dao Hanh, also called the Master – hence its other name, the Master’s Pagoda (as well as yet another name, Pagoda of the Heavenly Blessing). Story has it that the Master reincarnated as Buddha, and then also as the future king Ly Than Thong, who subsequenly – complicated, complicated – was in his turn saved again by the monk Tu Dao Hanh. Which has all contributed to the somewhat cult-status of this pagoda.

arched entrance to the karst hill behind the temple

Obviously, the pagoda has undergone many restorations over time, but it maintains an old, very tranquil atmosphere, with three wooden halls one after the other, filled with old statues, some of them apparently as old as the pagoda. The lake outside, and the two small covered bridges, add to the experience, as does the steep karst hill immediately behind the buildings, which can be climbed to several small temples and a cave or two, filled with further statues. And almost no other tourists – although there is obviously potential, for busier days, as the many unused stalls suggest.

tree roots protecting the entrance of a small cave

whicch is filled with several Buddha statues

prayer stone outside the cave

the stairs up to the Tay Phuong Pagoda

Buddha sculptures inside the pagoda

and more sculptures, very evocative

individual sculpture

and one of a soldier, or guard

part of a group of sculptures

tree in the temple courtyard

Nearby is the Tay Phuong Pagoda – the Pagoda of the West. This one is situated not at the foot, but on top of a hill, to which leads a long flight of steps. Again, no tourists to speak off, and yet, this is perhaps one of the most impressive pagodas I have been to during this entire trip. Once more a series of wooden halls, the roofs beautifully decorated with dragons and phoenixes. Inside is the most venerated collection of wooden sculptures, some of which are apparently on display in Hanoi’s Fine Arts Museum. Inside the central hall, they create a very peaceful atmosphere, notwithstanding the sometimes violent activities the sculptures seem to be involved in.

decorative lamps – I think

corridor inside the pagoda

temple building outside the main Tram Gian pagoda

a bit of a pagoda has a drum, of course

another panel, in more detail

one of the wooden panels inside

The third pagoda on the trail is the Tram Gian Pagoda, founded as a Buddhist cloister in 1185 on a low hill. Here, too, many wooden sculptures, as well as carved wood panels, in at least part-old temple buildings, and a calm and tranquil atmosphere.

All of these pagodas are obviously still being used for worshipping, with the smell of incense everywhere and rich offerings of fresh fruit, like pomelo, and huge boxes of biscuits, mostly of the cheese and chocolate varieties, in front of each shrine. Which adds further to the serene air that each of the pagodas exhales.

and a guard panel, carved on the outside corridor

decorations on one of the buildings

the one-toothed lady outside the temple

and, presumably, her husband

Tortoise Tower in the middle of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake

Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is a lively city, with a mix of old and new tourist attractions, and lots of tourists.

We take the bus to Hanoi, from Bac Ha. The only bus available is the one to Haiphong, but according to the driver that’s no problem, he will stop in Hanoi. Well, not exactly, he stopped at one of the motorways outside Hanoi, but close enough to a junction from where we could pick up a taxi. But in any case, we were happy enough to get off: Vietnamese long distance buses are all of the sleeper-type, which means three rows of fully reclining seats, two of those above each other, and with isles in between so narrow that one can hardly turn. It is only that the seats have been designed for Vietnamese, which are in general rather less tall than I am. And less wide, too. Let me say this: especially with a seat more upright, the way I prefer, it was not very comfortable.

colonial architecture

and a window, just a window

blue shutters, could be colonial, too

But Hanoi makes up for the journey. Vietnam’s capital, and second largest city after Saigon (or Ho Chi Min City, as it is officially called these days), is a pleasant enough place to spend a few days. Traffic is chaotic, but not as bad as Saigon, or Bangkok; it all still moves, albeit not that fast. Along the old boulevards of the French Quarter, where our delightful hotel is, new modern office buildings rub shoulders with elegant colonial villas, some of them well maintained, and in use as embassies, others in various stages of decline. And not only the villas, also many smaller houses, with once attractive balconies and gables, are remnants of a more glorious past – as opposed to several Karaoke Bars, representing the somewhat less glorious part of the present.

modern office building rubbing shoulders with old houses near the railway station

The closer we get to the heart of Hanoi, the Hoan Kiem Lake, the more expensive the neighbourhood, the flashier the boutiques. This is where the Opera House is, and Trang Tien, the Champs Elyse of Hanoi, lined with galleries and coffee bars. The Lake itself is nothing special, in fact, but it has a mythical meaning for the Vietnamese, as the source from which Le Loi, the national hero who defied the Chinese in 1428 and retook Hanoi, obtained his miracle sword – which, 10 years later, he dropped back in the lake again, where it was swallowed by a giant tortoise. Which is now honoured by the Tortoise Tower, on a small island in the centre of the lake.

the opera building, definitely colonial

Notre Dame-like church in central Hanoi

lamp inside the Metropole Hotel

typical Old Town houses

tourist stuff packed on a bicycle

or displayed against the wall

tricycle, for tourist transport only


The areas around the lake contain lots of interesting monuments, too, like a church which resembles the Notre Dame, several small and very active Buddhist pagodas, the old Governor’s Residence and the Metropole Hotel – where according to one French journalist of the last century the barman “could produce a reasonable facsimile of almost any civilized drink except water”. We just had a coffee.

The most touristy section is the Old Town, north of the lake. A tangle of narrow alleys, with restaurants and bars, and every kind of shop imaginable – with a clear focus on what the tourist wants. The streets are clogged with motorbikes, bicycle taxis and pedestrians – most cars know better than to come down here, but some still try. And clogged with tourists, who are the only customers for the bicycle taxis, of course, and likely for the shops and restaurants, too. A fun area to wander around for an hour, or so, and admire the architecture, the small narrow high rises Hanoi-style, the balconies and roofs of old colonial houses. And then leave again, and don’t come back.

and this is the curious form of Hanoi highrise

very narrow, tall buildings surrounded by much lower ones

and packed with apartments, it seems, in this case in a strange shape

cables feeding the government announcement system 

at the other side of the Old Town, the covered market building, almost exclusively for locals, again

lantern shop, Old Town

and coffee, Vietnam being a major producer

cloths for sale in the locals only covered market

part of the Temple of Literature

and grills in front of one of the temple windows

wooden puppets, also in the temple (but they may be for sale)

Hanoi’s most important sights are a little further away – all still perfectly walkable, though. The Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s most important temple complex, and its oldest university, dating back to the 1070s. Five walled courtyards, adorned with ponds and lawns, ultimately end up in the ceremonial hall and the Confucian academy, a tastefully restored two-floor wooden building. Halfway the complex, a total of 82 original stelae record the names of all successful graduates between 1442 and 1779 (except those on the approximately 30 stelae that got lost over time), an impressive list, but mostly because it shows how difficult the study program was – sometimes, there are only a few names recorded!

this is the main rail track to Saigon – really! (we did part of the trip, back into town)

Another important pagoda for the Vietnamese, the One-Legged Pagoda, is actually a rather underwhelming, often reconstructed, small affair, a wooden platform on a concrete pillar in a miniature artificial lake. Part of being underwhelming is that it almost entirely disappears in between the Ho Chi Min Museum and the old man’s Mausoleum, both your typical, ugly, communist era constructions. Totally fitting in this entourage is the huge parade ground, Ba Dinh Square – you can just imagine the military vehicles, the tanks, and the troops marching down here -, and the equally unattractive National Assembly Hall, used for Party congresses.

and the National Assembly building, modern, functional, and not that ugly

although the guarding of the Assembly may need some strengthening

the massive Ba Dhin Square

Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum – against the express wishes of the man himself

and Uncle Ho’s museum, appropriately communistic in style

the pride of Hanoi, a shot-down American B52 bomber

and for good measure, there is also a MIG-22 in town

the Tran Quac Pagoda, Hanoi’s oldest

and several old tombs on the premises

From here it is a short walk to the B-52 bomber, one of 23 that were shot down in December 1972, and which is now proudly presented to the public outside a Military Museum also showing a range of antique anti-aircraft artillery, not to be confused with the Military History Museum, where a MIG-22, in much better state, is displayed outside. What is it, with all those plane wrecks?

We ended up at the West Lake, taking a short cut through some of Hanoi’s typical residential quarters, with narrow lanes and small ponds, and active temples, as everywhere in town. At the lake itself is the oldest of Hanoi’s pagodas, the Tran Quac Pagoda, on a small peninsula. Probably dating back to the 6th Century AD, the temple was originally located near the Red River, which flows through Hanoi, but this was considered too vulnerable a place, upon which it was decided to move it to its current location. Most interesting, perhaps, are the burial stupas, some of which are pretty old, other rather new, honouring the past masters of the pagoda.

Oh, and the other thing about Hanoi: you can eat here really well, whether from the Eclairs served in the trendy coffee bars, or from the French restaurant’s foie gras de canard, of which rather a lot is represented on the menu – even a pho, the traditional noodle soup, made with foie gras!

no need to further explain this one…

a minority woman in the Bac Ha market

From the large Sunday in Bac Ha there are also more photographs of ethnic minority dress, many of which are, at least in this area, rare – but not less colourful.

colourful women and colourful greens in the Bac Ha market

another market woman, but with the national symbol rather than minority headdress

baby carrier, equally in style

one of her kind, in the market

and also unusual

like this lady, although familiar colours

children are taught at an early age

richly decorated, to say the least

another unusual outfit

or this blue jacket

this type we have seen before

with similar yellow star

pensive blue

pensive orange

a more familiar dress, by now

group from the same village

ethnic minority lady in Can Cau

And a few more pictures from the Saturday market in Can Cau, pretty wet when we were there, but still a colourful affair.

even in miserable weather

not happy, umbrella up

happier, also with umbrella

one of the ladies

another of the ladies

and a third, with rain poncho

equally nice from the back

this one, too

Flower Hmong, perhaps

dreid red chillies getting wet

the motor cycle parking lot of the market

ethnic minority at the Muong Hum market

A few more pictures of the women of the Muong Hum Sunday market, a really nice and authentic market in Northern Vietnam; although I wouldn’t be able to name the different ethnic minorities.

two ladies of the same tribe, obviously

and this is another one

market lady in blue

in blue-green

and in green

and don’t forget the lower legs, also often beautifully covered

these are Red Dao, or Red Hmong, not sure

these, too

another elaborate headdress

keeping an eye on things