Ha Long Bay on a warm summer's day by Christian Berg
As travellers, we can’t have too many ‘aha’ moments. Every small discovery brings us closer to the places we came to see. One reason we love UNESCO Heritage Sites is because they promise to be jackpots for these moments. They also promise us something exceptional: exceptional beauty, exceptional insight, exceptional experiences.
In Central Vietnam, in the city of Hue, lie the magnificent vestiges of the Nguyen Dynasty. Here, against a backdrop of forested hills with a meandering river at their feet, the Nguyen emperors erected administrative offices, military headquarters, palaces, temples and even their own tombs.
Vietnam’s feudal capital was strategically built along the banks of the Perfume River, with easy access to the sea. Taking inspiration from Beijing’s Forbidden City, the structures within the citadel were carefully laid out to be in cosmological alignment with the five elements, cardinal points and colours. The result is unlike anything else you’ll find in Vietnam.
Take a leisurely amble around the complex and watch Imperial Vietnam come to life in full colour. Imposing statues, priceless treasures and intricate mosaics wait around every corner. You can almost hear the strains of Hue’s famous court music and smell the aromas of the elaborate palatial dishes presented each evening.
Although the Nguyen Dynasty ended in 1945, the symbolic significance of the Hue Monuments–once the political, cultural and religious heart of Vietnam–still echoes today.
One of Vietnam’s most atmospheric destinations, Hoi An was once a bustling trading port, welcoming merchants from far across the seas. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Chinese, Japanese and Europeans settled along the banks of the winding Thu Bon River. Today, 30 hectares of this ancient town is preserved as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site.
Hoi An’s unique fusion of cultural influences reveals itself within its narrow streets. Weathered shop-houses squeeze shoulder-to-shoulder alongside ancestral homes, their tiled roofs decorated in exotic wood carvings. Tucked away from the old ferry quay, you’ll find an open market, several pagodas and a timber bridge built by the Japanese. A stroll through Hoi An is a stroll back in time, and it’s even better in the evenings, when the faded streets glow in the light of thousands of silk and paper lanterns.
A mythical seascape if there ever was one, it’s no surprise Ha Long Bay is home to as many legends as it is islands. The name ‘Ha Long’ means ‘descending dragon’ and Vietnamese tell a tale of a dragon that descended from the sky, spitting out thousands of pearls that became the islands and islets we see today.
This spectacular bay and Natural Heritage Site stretches across the Gulf of Tonkin, 165 km from Hanoi. Hidden among more than 1,600 limestone formations, are secret grottoes, sparkling beaches, and jaw-dropping caves. You could stay a week and not see all Ha Long’s wonders, but perhaps the best way to go is on an overnight cruise.
Falling asleep and waking up among the splendour of the karsts is the highlight of many a traveller’s time in Vietnam. Mornings are for watching the sunrise, practicing tai chi or sightseeing in the caves. Afternoons are spent swimming, kayaking or simply relaxing on the sun deck. Evenings arrive with striking sunsets and soothing sea breeze, and leave behind a sky riddled with stars.
The scenery in the bay is enhanced by the local life that continues in this dream-like setting. Floating villages rest on rafts, children row to school, men fish for a living, and women cook and sell their wares–all in the company of Ha Long’s majestic karsts and emerald waterways.