Vietnam – Part 2
Things covered in this second part of our Vietnam trip:
- Hoi An
- Halong Bay
- Nin Binh
- In closing
If you haven’t seen part 1 of this epic journey – CLICK HERE
“Travel brings power and love back into your life.” – Rumi Jalalud-Din
A little gem of a place
Just a taxi ride from Da Nang, this coastal town is an excellent example of a historic trading port and a modern favourite for travellers from afar. We stayed in the quaint and elegant Ha An Hotel, which offered good food, spacious rooms and, more importantly, a pool.
The hotel was a couple of minutes’ walk from the Central Market, so we grabbed our cameras and headed straight out again. The colourfully painted old buildings with rustic doors and window shutters were covered with paper lanterns and dark mould seen in many coastal towns. It’s a little gem of a place and my favourite of the entire trip.
Hoi An ancient town
The ancient town that straddles the river is where most of the action is for an urban photographer. It’s a haven of tourists and Vietnamese sellers pushing their wares. Small family shops (and residences) face the busy rickshaw and scooter filled roads. At night they are all lit up with lanterns overhead and the gleam of lights from open doorways.
The Central Market is filled with stalls that sell fresh fish, produce, flowers and spices. Get up early and wander around the fish market just as the small fishing boats moor up against the concrete quay to deliver their catch. Baskets of fish, crabs and eels are tossed up from colourful boats to the waiting vendors. The colour around the market is astounding and makes for epic travel photography.
There are a few temples and other historical landmarks around the ancient town, and be sure to check the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall and Japanese Covered bridge.
From friendly hotel staff to the smiling vendors to the overzealous clothing salespeople, the Hoi An people are very welcoming and wonderful to talk to. That’s why we travel, right?
Anneli ordered some dresses, and these bespoke tailors and seamstresses can have your items ready in a very short time. Tailored three-piece suits can be picked up after twenty-four hours with a forty-five-dollar price tag. I was very tempted but didn’t feel like lugging it around Vietnam for the rest of the long trip
I took more photos here than in any other place on our four-week trip. It’s a sensory tsunami, and the excitement could be pretty overwhelming when you’re out there, camera in hand. Luckily, we had a pool and a pool bar where we could lie and take stock before going out there again. Recording the scenes and people was one of the reasons for the trip, so you have to relax and let the photos come rather than chase them. Keep walking around as much as you can, and the scenes will unfold before your eyes.
“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.” – Isabelle Eberhardt, The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt
The capital city
Despite being the second-largest city in Vietnam, it is the cultural and political centre of this breathtaking country. We focused our movements in the French Quarter of Ba-Dinh and Hoam Kiem as well as the Old Quarter. They have been well preserved, with remnants of their colourful past all around you. Lakes and parks with shady streets and boulevards leading off the main streets. A claimed six-hundred temples and pagodas are dotted around for you to see if that’s what interests you. Our hotel was near the Hoam Kiem lake with its Ngoc Son temple, so we were pretty centrally placed to walk around.
One of my bucket list items was always to take photographs with us on train street, so despite there being a lot to see in Hanoi, this attraction was top of my list. What a weird and wonderful thing to be excited about – standing on a railway line.
You can get a taxi there, but we walked the distance because there was just so much to photograph along the way. After getting lost a few times – always a good thing for urban photography – we found the train tracks and started walking. Coffee shops and small family restaurants have sprung up to service the tourists, and you can chat to them about the trains, etc. These venues are people’s homes, and you’re welcome to their facilities as you wait for the train. They’re great entrepreneurs, and you’ll be surprised with what you can buy while waiting.
We found a spot near a place that sold beer and spent four to five hours sitting and photographing the people and the three or four trains that came past. No one really knows from which direction the next train will come from, which heightens the excitement. Sitting there gives you a chance to take it all in and chat with fellow travellers who are all on their own journey around Vietnam.
Much like so many old areas in cities, the old quarter thrives as a working business area. Modern fast food and chain store coffee shops alongside small family-owned eateries and scooter rental places. The narrow streets bombard you with colour, the glorious smell of food being prepared mixed with scooter exhaust fumes. The old buildings on either side of the road are generally two to three floors high, and the street is framed with crisscrossing power cables and rows of lanterns spanning the street. All this frames the scene perfectly for nights out eating, drinking and photography.
Ha Long Bay
“The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” – G.K. Chesterton
Ha Long Bay is a place you see in those epic blockbuster fantasy movies. A place you expect to see mythical gods doing battle in amongst the misty mountains. The green and grey outcrops you see hide all manner of sailboats and fishing villages. It was a magical place, so we spent two nights on a cruise. This was a five-star experience for us as we slowly sailed amongst the limestone islets. Other than just sipping tea on the upper decks, you can visit a pearl farm, kayak or swim in one of the many inlets or visit one of the large caves that exist.
We also visited a floating fishing village, getting into a small boat to be rowed around the self-sufficient floating houses. Each village is a self-contained society living off the sea where people here eat, sleep, work and go to school in this little eco-environment.
Ha Long Bay was a relaxing and pleasurable cruise around a stunning part of Vietnam.
“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Moving north in Vietnam, we booked four nights in one of the more rural provinces. The town of Ninh Binh is small but quaint and has everything you need as a traveller. We hired bicycles here because this was the easiest and cheapest way to get around to some of the rural sights.
We visited the Bich Dong with its iconic gateway to climb up into the clifftop temples. Also, we also took a boat trip at Trang An which I highly recommend. They offer two- or three-hour trips, and we took the shorter one as it was freezing out there in December. Tip the staff well here because a lady will row you around for a long time. It is back-breaking work so use the oars provided to help out where you can. To be fair, it also helped to warm us up, so there was that.
Another great activity was to scale the Hang Mua Peak. A light climb on narrow, rocky paths that jagged left and right as they went up. There were many people moving up and down the climb, so passing one another was real fun with the rocky drops below. It allows for incredible panoramic views of the surrounding rice fields and rivers. During our visit, there was a lot of mist, so the photography was more challenging with the haze all around.
I ate two or three apples here from a vendor and immediately regretted it as my usually cast-iron constitution consigned me to the porcelain bowl for twenty-four to thirty-six hours. It made the drive back to Hanoi for New Year’s celebration quite a hoot.
All great things must come to an end, and after celebrating New Years in Hanoi, we headed back to London as changed people. We both believed that this trip did change us for the better, which is what you’d expect from such a journey.
I use the word “epic” far too frequently but travelling through Cambodia and Vietnam was nothing short of that. Hospitable smiling people, fascinating history, bustling and noisy streets and quiet beaches filled our days. At night, it was colourful lights and lanterns and the endless parade of scooter lights, boat rides and cruises fuelled by great local food and beer.
The overall poverty level will be hard to take for some at first, but having been born and raised in Africa, you can look past that and see the genuine happiness of people who have a lot less than you. Support the small businesses and local diners as opposed to simply going to eat in large chain stores – this sends your money into the real economy on the street
My main suggestion to anyone going? Spend two weeks in Cambodia and a full four weeks in Vietnam if you want. Even if you can split it over two trips, it will still be a great adventure. There is simply too much to experience and photograph to short-change yourself.
“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” – Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
If you’d love to improve your travel photography on your next trip, here are ten tips to start you off.
We are both photographers and love travelling the streets of foreign places. Hope you enjoyed sharing the adventure with us