By Lily Riani on September 30, 2016
Vietnam is generally divided into three regions. Northern Vietnam is the oldest of these three since the collective Vietnamese culture originated over 2,000 years ago in the Red River Delta. The area is also home to the famous hill tribe of the north covering the Truong Son mountain range. Travellers – especially those who seek off-the-beaten-path experience – can still find the locals maintaining their traditional way of life, inhabiting wooden houses on stilts, practising age-old rituals and carrying out swidden (slash-and-burn) farming, totally unspoilt by time and progress.
Outside of the vibrant Hanoi in the north and the boisterous Ho Chi Minh City in the south, Danang is an underrated and untapped destination despite being bestowed with nature’s greatness, wondrous heritage sites, beautiful five-star resorts and long stretches of sandy beach. Travellers will be taken in not only by the popular attractions but also by the obscure charm of the road less ventured, the untouched territories and the hidden wonders. Besides cultural and heritage tourism, ecotourism and spiritual tourism are also segments that are growing quickly in Vietnam.
Sculpting Cham’s heritage
Located near the Han River in Da Nang, it was founded by Henri Parmentier in 1915. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Cham sculptures. Governed by the Kingdom of Champa from 192 A.D to 1697, Southern Vietnam architecture and sculpture design is strongly defined by Hindu civilisation and culture. Approximately 1,800 sandstone sculptures and artefacts collected from Cham temples throughout central Vietnam that date back as far as the 7th century are on display. This once long forgotten history is now recognised as a national treasure by the Vietnamese government and currently ranks as the most visited museum in Vietnam.
Where East meets West
Compared to its sister town Hội An, this quaint town called Hué is often overlooked by travellers, though it is actually full of tourism attractions to be reckoned with such as the Tomb of Khải Định, the Imperial City and Thiên Mụ Pagoda, which are all just the tip of the iceberg. Its recognition as a UNESCO heritage site clearly proves that Hue is a must-visit destination.
Nguyễn Dynasty shaped what Hué is today – a 140-year old UNESCO-enlisted ancient city that was once a walled fortress and palace. There are ten main majestic gates into the citadel that lead towards the Imperial City, the Purple Forbidden City containing hundreds of rooms and the Grand Emperor Palace. A ring moat was built around the imperial wall to deter invaders. This ancient city had survived three wars and has been well preserved and maintained for Vietnam’s future generations.
Gracefully blending eastern and western architecture, this unique Oriental mausoleum encompasses Hindu, Buddhist, Roman and Gothic design elements that leave lasting impression on travellers. The gate is a reflection of Hindu architecture while the pillars, Buddhist. The column and interior is of Roman design and the barrier, Gothic. Similar to the Terracotta Warriors of Xian, rows of statues are seen fiercely guarding the Khải Định’s tomb at the courtyard. It is said that these warriors were to accompany the emperor in his afterlife. Every built has a story, intricately crafted and opulent in taste resulting in a series of sculptures that are as legendary as the story it immortalises – definitely a tomb like no other.
An underdog compared to its siblings in South Korea and Cambodia, this well-kept secret is the dividing line between North and South Vietnam situated at the Ben Hai River. At 17 degrees 0 minutes 54 seconds N latitude is known as “the 17th parallel”, separating the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in the north with the Viet Minh controlled state under Bảo Đại, the 13th and final emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty in the south. Besides the Hien Luong Bridge to reminisce the effects of the First Indochina War on Vietnam, travelelrs can also pay a visit to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the Rockpile, Truong Son National Cemetery and Khe Sanh Combat Base.
A cultural confluence
Being the largest and most prominent South-East Asian trading port promulgates Hoi An as a trading centre and melting port (pun intended) for Vietnam, drawing Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian merchants, inadvertantly creating a cultural confluence. Hoi An is indeed a great example of a well-preserved architecture across all eras, earning it the status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and marking it as a culture center.
In bridging the cultural and trading gap between the Japanese and the Chinese, the Japanese took the initiative to build the “Japanese Bridge” or “Chùa cầu” bridge, a unique covered structure with a Buddhist temple. In line with the Chinese culture, the temple is dedicated to the Taoist God of weather, Tran Vo Bac De. It also features the sculptures of two dogs and monkeys representing the Chinese years in which the bridge was built and the year it was completed.
Hội An ancient town is easily accessible and best covered on foot so that travellers can embrace the past while savouring delicious phở (soup noodle with meat and vegetables), cao lầu (dry noodle with meat and vegetables), or banh bao vac or white rose (clear white dough filled with spiced minced shrimp) as they take in the surrounding colours and shapes of history.
The architecture of Kiến Phúc Assembly Hall (Fujian Assembly Hall) was greatly influenced by the Chinese settlers. The assembly hall was later converted into a Thien Hau Temple, a deity from Fujian province. Once served as the place where the Fujian Chinese settlers gathered, socialised and worshipped, it now attracts local childless couples who come to pray for offspring.
Astounding geological heritage
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, Phong Nha-Kẻ Bang National Park’s astounding geological diversity – comprising limestone plateau and tropical forests – sets it apart from the other natural wonders in Vietnam. Crafted some 400 million years ago during the Palaeozoic period, this limestone karst ecosystem is also the oldest karst area in Asia, forming over 104 kilometres of caves and underground rivers, an example of great biodiversity.
Quintessential Ninh Binh
Listed as UNESCO World Heritage site and known as “Ha Long Bay on land”, the Trang An grottoes are blessed with caves carving its way through a secret stream, the Bich Dong mountains that enfold peaceful valleys, trees waving travellers passing by and historic relics that stand strong through the test of time.
Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex comprises Trang An Ecological Area, Tam Coc-Bich Dong River Landscape, and the Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel. Luring travellers with its geological history of 245 million years, it then excites them with the hypnotising scenic view of limestone karst emerging from waterways.
Renowned as a Buddhist pilgrimage site, Gia Viễn District in Ninh Bình Province is where the Bái Đính Spiritual Temple and Cultural Complex (consisting of connecting Buddhist temples on Bai Dinh Mountain) is located. Check out the four prominent attractions here: the Tam The statues and the Great Buddha Sakyamuni statue; the “Great Bell” weighing 60 tons; five hundred Arhat (meaning ‘perfected person’ in Sanskrit) stone statues (setting the record for a spiritual complex with the most Arhat statues in ASEAN); and the original Bai Đính pagoda, located in a small cave at the foothills of the mountainside some 800 metres from the new temple.
The City of the Ascending Dragon
Vietnam’s Northern corridor to is home to many scenic lakes, hence it is no surprise that Hanoi sometimes referred to as the “city of lakes”. Once the political centre of Vietnam, Hanoi is now set to be the culture centre of Vietnam, where one can experience the charm of the French quarter, the assimilation of Chinese culture, being entertained by the water puppet maestro, and even sample the phở (soup), bánh cuốn (rolled cake) and gỏi cuốn (summer spring rolls).
Thang Long Imperial Citadel was built on a reclaimed land of the Red River Delta, marking the independence of the Dai Viet. The most significant site is the 18 Hoang Dieu Archaeological Site, which contains an archaeological value, relics and artefacts dating as from as far back as the 7th century up until the end of Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945).
Mystical seascape of limestones karst towering the calm blue sea, junks playing hide and seek among the 775 islets, the sound of waves murmuring symphony of the sea – all these are hypnotising travellers on board the cruise along Ha Long Bay. This 20 million years of evolution created diversity in terms of eco, geo and biosystems. With the opportunity to experience the area either on day trips or overnight cruises, travellers are advised to visit Ha Long Bay between the September-November and March-May periods for their drier weather and hospitable temperature, enabling travellers to experience activities offered on board such as boat trips to the caves and grottoes or swimming.
This article is included in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 11.2. Read the magazine for free HERE.