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Crystalline waters shine in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Last April, I finally had a chance to get a glimpse of the country where my maternal grandfather fought in the Vietnam War. Based on the stories my grandfather told me while I was growing up, I arrived in Vietnam expecting to see evidence of the war. InstAead I was surprised to see how modern the country is.

Halong bay view

But honestly, the thing that really impressed me was the food, and the bakeries in particular. Although we have bakeries in Korea, the coffee and bread in the bakeries of Vietnam overwhelmed me with their flavors, a mix of tastes and textures from France and Asia, surely a remnant of the country’s colonial past.

I was in Vietnam at the invitation the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry and Asia Europe Foundation to report on an Asia-Europe Meeting workshop that took place from April 28 to 29 in Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province in the northeastern corner of Vietnam. At the workshop, ASEM workshop participants agreed to forge stronger ties through cultural diplomacy linking Asia and Europe.

On the last day of the workshop, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry took us on a cruise of Ha Long Bay, which covers 1,553 square kilometers (600 square miles) and has 1,969 islands. After the 10-minute ride from the Halong Plaza Hotel where we were staying we arrived at the pier and boarded a waiting cruise ship.

The other passengers and I sat down at tables set out on the deck and were treated to a feast that was a mixture of Western and Asian cuisine. Around us, thousands of limestone islets rose out of crystalline emerald waters that glistened in the sun.

Pham Sanh Chau, director general of the department for cultural relations and UNESCO under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, said Ha Long Bay is the first World Heritage Site in Vietnam. UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site in 1994 and again in 2000 in recognition of its natural beauty and geological value.

“Ha Long Bay deserves to be named as one of the seven new wonders of nature because it’s like paradise. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world,” Chau said. “It’s not an area just for tourism. It also serves as buffer zone against climate change. It’s rich in marine biodiversity and many scientists say this should be a geological park.”

As we sat back with our plates full of food, fishing boats large and small passed us on their way to their next catch. People exclaimed in excitement when they saw a small tent set up on the waters of Ha Long Bay. The tent, we learned, had been built to accommodate fishermen in need of a break or a place to sleep.

Our trip around the bay was nothing if not idyllic, but our tour guide explained that tourists who visit the area usually take overnight cruises to Ha Long Bay. The cruise starts with lunch aboard the ship and continues with stops at various caves for kayaking and swimming. Guests then sleep on the boat that night.

Because of my tight schedule, I had to return to my hotel that night and wasn’t able to take advantage of what sounded like a lovely diversion, but before I did I took a tour of the boat’s lower deck, where the sleeping rooms are located. The rooms are cozy and designed to accommodate two people. Each one is fully furnished with a bed, sofa, shower booth and toilet, just like in a hotel.

Although my journey to Vietnam was short, I picked up a few tips for my next trip that I’d like to share. First, you don’t have to set an alarm because there is an endless stream of honking motorbikes whizzing by every morning in Hanoi and the noise is enough to force your eyes open. Most Vietnamese people start the day early and most offices open at 7:30 a.m.

Second, you need to be extremely brave when crossing the street. There are no street lights like the ones you find in other major cities. When you try to wade into the traffic that is rushing by, drivers of cars and motorcycles swerve around you without slowing down. On my first day in Hanoi, I stood on the street for 10 minutes waiting for the right time to cross when I finally found a group of Vietnamese women intent on jaywalking.

Third, although the traffic is insane, make sure you stroll around the city on foot. This is the best way to experience a typical day in the life of the Vietnamese people. Women balance poles laden with heavy baskets of vegetables and flowers on their shoulders, passing people who squat on the sidewalk or sit in plastic chairs, sipping tea and eating pho (beef noodle soup) at outdoor food stalls. This is where you can feel the energy of the people.

If you are planning a trip to Vietnam, I recommend you go to Hanoi first, take a tour of Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter and then take the overnight cruise of Ha Long Bay.

By Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]

Recommendation in Halong bay, Vietnam: Indochina Sails

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