Journey from Hanoi to Hoi An

Steeped in myth and boasting some of Asia's most spectacular scenery, Halong Bay is the perfect microcosm for the land of contrasts that is Vietnam. And just one of the highlights of a trip through the country's heartland.

Kayaking is a must-do Halong Bay experience.
  • Imogen Lepere
  • June 2019

A young woman sitting outside a small metal shack is chopping a fat grouper fish with one hand and clutching a rope, which occasionally grows taut, in the other. It’s tied around the waist of a wispy-haired toddler who is enthusiastically rolling around with a dog. It’s a fairly typical rural Vietnamese scene in many ways, except the house is bobbing up and down on a small, wooden raft in the aquamarine water of Halong Bay and the rope is keeping the child safely on board.

I am exploring the floating village of Cua Van in a kayak as part of an eight-day tour through Central Vietnam, journeying from Hanoi to Hoi An, and this is just the first of many moments when I feel charmed and amazed in equal measure by this idiosyncratic country.

For now though, I am concentrating on staying upright in my kayak as a floating convenience store chugs by, sitting low in the water beneath mounds of mung bean cake and bottles of coconut shampoo.

Picturesque Halong Bay is home to many floating villages
Picturesque Halong Bay is home to many floating villages.

About 700 people now live on this huddle of rafts that is Cua Van – most making a living through fishing and rowing tourists around the sheltered inlet they call home. Situated in north-east Vietnam, about 150 kilometres from Hanoi, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of sparkling blue waters and over 1600 limestone islets with soaring cliffs. On muggy mornings, low hanging clouds snag on these peaks and roll down their slopes like icing on a cake, eventually being absorbed by dense rainforests which echo with the call of langur monkeys.

As I paddle along, the snail-like pace of village life gradually envelops me.

The mother ties up the dog and puts her toddler down for a nap, his restlessness soothed by the gentle bobbing of the waves. A little further down, a sun-wizened old man sits on the edge of his raft house, cooling his feet in the water while sipping a steaming cup of green tea. I am beginning to understand the hold Halong Bay has on this ancient community.

The fishing village of Cua Van have lived here for centuries
The fishing village of Cua Van have lived here for centuries.

On a single night’s cruise aboard Bhaya, a luxurious junk boat, I not only get a glimpse into the idyllic – if hard – life on Halong Bay, I get to swim, kayak, visit a pearl farm, go caving and even learn to cook – all in good time to enjoy a sundowner on deck. I can already tell that this is my kind of trip.

My cabin features an enormous bathtub, a silk-trimmed daybed, plus a private terrace, but I don’t linger, as the first item on the agenda is a fun cooking class. We learn to make spring rolls – crispy, golden cylinders bursting with succulent pork and spring onions – and try them after the lesson, but we are warned not to eat too much. “Dinner is after the swim and there’ll be much food,” advises Hung Do, our guide.

I work up an appetite with a brisk front crawl in the teal waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. In winter, visibility in the bay is low, so I don’t get to snorkel, but in summer, its famously diverse coral seascapes are dazzling. After the swim, we feast on locally caught shellfish, noodle soup, dumplings and stir-fries.

Bhaya's overnight cruises include local tours and cooking classes
Bhaya's overnight cruises include local tours and cooking classes.

Post dinner, I embark on my favourite activity – squid fishing. The glow of the ship’s lights extends a few metres below the surface, attracting the naturally curious squid towards us. The crew show me how to lure them in with a simple line and bait before leaving me sitting quietly in peace on the back of the boat.

Sunrise the next morning is spectacular. Islands (and cruise ships) loom through the mist and there’s a touch of mauve in the sky. A fisherman in a canoe paddles silently through the water as a whale-like cry bounces between the rocks. It’s our captain alerting us that it’s time to explore Tien Ong Cave, named after the gnarled stalagmites that locals say look like “Tien Ong” or sprites.

My travelling companions and I climb aboard a motorboat that carries us towards the cave’s gaping mouth. As we journey inside, ducking under stalactites and scrambling over boulders, empty mollusc shells (the legacy of hungry locals from ancient times) crunch under foot. Anna, a young woman from Hanoi who works on our ship, says fishermen came to the cave to shelter from typhoons as recently as 2010 but it’s now off-limits since the discovery of archaeological remains from the 2000- year-old Hoa Binh culture. There’s something mysterious and magical about the cave and this feeling of the past overlapping with the present persists throughout the trip.

The mysterious Tien Ong Cave is named after the sprite-like stalagmites it is home to
The mysterious Tien Ong Cave is named after the sprite-like stalagmites it is home to.

Over thousands of years, Vietnam has gone from a playground of imperial dynasties and colonial powers, to a divided, war-torn nation. It is now emerging from its dark past and striding towards a new, industrial future.

Our intimate group of 14 started our journey with a hair-raising ride around Hanoi’s French Quarter, where thousands of unpredictable scooters dart past each other at worrying speed down side roads narrow enough for washing to be strung between balconies on either side.

An overnight train ride filled with fleeting snatches of Vietnamese life deposits us south in the city of Hue at dawn, where we embark on a walking tour of the royal remains and wander through the Tomb of Tu Duc, who is recognised as the last emperor of independent Vietnam (French colonisation began in earnest after his death in 1883). His final resting place is a complex of gorgeous gardens shaded by frangipani trees and populated by elephants carved from white marble.

Vietnam's last emperor, Tu Duc, rests in this historic tomb
Vietnam's last emperor, Tu Duc, rests in this historic tomb.

From Hue, we journey towards Hoi An and are wowed by the views from the Hai Van pass, one of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world.

Along the way, we stop to paddle in the South China Sea at Da Nang, in the shadow of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, the tallest Buddha statue in the country. The port town of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of ornate buildings that hint at its chequered history of Chinese, Japanese and French occupations.

Wandering through the teeming market of its beautiful old town the next morning, where stalls are verdant with bunches of mustard greens, lemongrass and spring onions, and the air is thick with the smell of quail eggs frying inside crispy rice flour pancakes, it’s hard to believe Vietnam was once a famine-ridden country. But this is exactly the sort of paradox that makes this country so fascinating. I find it in the skyscrapers being built on the outskirts of all the cities and the curious superstitions that still govern so much of daily life.

I also find it in the difference between the urban bustle of Hoi An and the rustic charm of Tra Que village, only a 3.5-kilometre bicycle ride away. I ponder this as we cycle back after a day of farming shoulder-to-shoulder with hard-working villagers and sharing a home-cooked lunch.

A bicycle is the best way to explore the countryside surrounding Hoi An 
A bicycle is the best way to explore the countryside surrounding Hoi An.

Suddenly, rain begins to lash our faces and it’s hard to keep the bikes on the narrow ribbon of path that winds between shrimp farms and sodden rice paddies waded by water buffalo. Stopping to tighten my poncho, I see a group of elderly women stoically hoeing the ground, unfazed by the rain, their faces protected by wide-brimmed straw hats. They remind me of the lady with her child on the boat in Halong Bay. They remind me that in this enigmatic country, it is the indomitable spirit of its people that make up its true beauty.