Although largely devoid of beaches, Vietnam’s northern coast boasts one of the country’s foremost attractions, and one of the most vaunted spots in all of Southeast Asia – the mystical scenery of Ha Long Bay, where jagged emerald islands jut out of the sea in their thousands. Heading in by boat, you approach wave after wave of hidden bays, needle-sharp ridges and cliffs of ribbed limestone. The waters here are patrolled by squadrons of attractive, old-fashioned tourist junks, on which you’ll be able to spend a night at sea; wonderful Cat Ba island is another great place to stay. You’ll find similar karst scenery inland around the small city of Ninh Binh, while other notable sights in the area are the colonial buildings of Hai Phong and the caves around Dong Hoi.
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Geography and history of the region
The northern coast stretches all the way from the DMZ to the Chinese border. Heading north from the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone) the first stretch is hemmed in by the jagged Truong Son Mountains, which separate Vietnam from Laos. Here, Vietnam shrinks to a mere 50km wide and is edged with sand dunes up to 80m high, marching inland at a rate of 10m per year despite efforts to stabilize them with screw-pine and cactus. The first place of note on this stretch is Dong Hoi, a largely uninteresting city, but one that serves as a jump-off point for the spectacular cave of Phong Nha. This was regarded as the largest cave in the country, until another was discovered nearby – Son Doong cave, held to be the largest in the world.
The area north of Dong Hoi is one of the poorest in Vietnam, and has little to detain the traveller; however, the mountains brushing the Lao border are home to a number of unique animal species, including the elusive saola ox and the more numerous giant muntjac deer. The only place that sees travellers in any number is Vinh, another rather dull place, but a logical stopover on this long stretch; you may care to track down Ho Chi Minh’s birthplace in the nearby village of Kim Lien.
Planning your trip
Despite the presence of these attractions, the vast majority of tourists make a bee-line from Hué to Ninh Binh. This is yet another unattractive northern city, but such is the wealth of nearby sights that visitors tend to stay for at least a couple of days; said attractions include majestic karst scenery, underground rivers that can be paddled through by boat, an ancient capital city and Vietnam’s largest temple complex.
From Ninh Binh, most travellers push straight on north to Hanoi. However, it’s quite possible to head directly from here towards Ha Long Bay, via the buzzing city of Hai Phong – one of the largest in Vietnam, and infinitely more appealing than most northern cities thanks to great colonial-era architecture and a young, friendly populace.
Ha Long Bay
Then, of course, there’s Ha Long Bay itself. A doyen of local tourist literature, you’ll most likely have seen dozens of images of this unbelievably scenic place long before your arrival – happily, it really is that pretty. Tourism now rivals fishing as the prime activity, but the bay retains a certain authenticity, and its generous proportions are enough to swallow up the hordes or visitors, for the time being. Many overnight aboard a traditional wooden junk; their tea-coloured sails are just for show since almost all vessels are motor-driven, but there’s a timeless, romantic air to floating amongst pristine moonlit peaks. By far the largest island in the bay, the wonderful Cat Ba makes an appealing base for exploring the area with some fine scenery as well as being home to Cat Ba National Park, a forest and maritime reserve that requires the usual mix of luck and dedication to see anything larger than a mosquito.
Ha Long City
Vietnam evidently has grand plans for Ha Long City. South-facing, and with Ha Long Bay raising its limestone fingers just across the sea, this place has great potential – unfortunately, development has been haphazard, and the vast majority of Western tourists hitting the bay do so on the express service from Hanoi, seeing the city only on the short walk between bus and junk. However, tourists from Vietnam and China pack the place out during the busy season, and the city now boasts several huge resort-style hotels.
Ha Long City is an amalgam of Hong Gai and Bai Chay, two towns merged in 1994, and now lassoed together by a bridge. For the moment, locals still use the old names – as do ferry services, buses and so on – as a useful way to distinguish between the two areas, each with its own distinct character, lying either side of the narrow Cua Luc channel. The hub of tourist activity and accommodation is Bai Chay, a rather unattractive beach resort and the main departure point for boat tours. For those in search of more local colour, or who are put off by Bai Chay’s overwhelming devotion to tourism, Hong Gai provides only basic tourist facilities but has a more bustling, workaday atmosphere.
Cat Ba Island
Dragon-back mountain ranges mass on the horizon 20km out of Hai Phong as you approach Cat Ba Island. The island, the largest member of an archipelago sitting on the west of Ha Long Bay, boasts only one settlement of any size – Cat Ba Town, a fishing village now redefining itself as a tourist centre. The rest of the island is largely unspoilt and mostly inaccessible, with just a handful of paved roads across a landscape of enclosed valleys and shaggily forested limestone peaks, occasionally descending to lush coastal plains. In 1986 almost half the island and its adjacent waters were declared a national park in an effort to protect its diverse ecosystems, which range from offshore coral reefs and coastal mangrove swamps to tropical evergreen forest. Its value was further recognized in 2004, when the Cat Ba Archipelago was approved as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. However, change is coming – at the time of writing, a huge resort was under construction outside Cat Ba Town, and may be the first of many.
National Parks on the island are somewhat of a treat in themselves. With hundreds of indigenous plants and mammals, it is a haven for those who adore wildlife. The Island is home to the Cat Ba Langur, one of the rarest primates in the world - so keep your eyes open for a unique spotting.
When you think about travelling to an Island in less developed country, you almost automatically assume it will not be such an easy ride. Yet, surprisingly getting to Cat Ba Island is relatively easy, although half-a-day is probably needed. Many local tour companies in Hanoi offer one-way trips to the Island (getting back is just as easy as getting there) inclusive of hotel pick-up and drop off.
If you would prefer to make your way to the Island without a company, you can purchase tickets from Luong Yen Bus Station. Here you will ride a bus to Hai Phong City and catch a boat to Phu Long Pier before another one-hour ride to Cat Ba Town.
Getting around Cat Ba Island
Motorcycle taxis are the most common and affordable means of transport on the Island. With the town being fairly small, walking and riding via bicycle are common choices of transport, however with very little road traffic, it is also an option to hire your own motorcycle to travel to the more remote areas, such as the National Parks. Just make sure you have a driving license and travel insurance beforehand.
Things To Do
Cat Ba Island has a range of things to do, from more relaxing pastimes such as swimming and sunbathing on the beach to more active experiences such as caving and rock-climbing in the National Parks. The island has many scenic beaches and much of its nearby waters are protected due to it's diverse and rare range of marine life, therefore snorkelling and diving are rewarding activities with lots of fish and corals to be seen.
Trekking is also popular, particularly in the rocky areas of the National Parks. For a more historical touch, treks to the Old Fort sat upon a hilltop is a good trip that allows you to explore
several war bunkers that still contain eerie war remains and propaganda posters on its walls. For obvious reasons, the Island was a strategic look-out point during the war and had several uses.
If this interests you, you may also visit the Hospital Cave, an impressive three-storey building amongst the caves used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and a hideout for important members
of the Viet Cong.
To explore further afield, you can also hire a kayak for the day and make your way to either Monkey Island or Lan Ha Bay. Both offer secluded scenic beaches and make a nice change of scenary, kayaking on the open waters around the Bay is also quite spectacular.
Food on the island is something not to be missed. Although there are international restaurants that cater for all taste buds, the seafood is somewhat of a delicacy on Cat Ba. Freshly caught fish
is cooked in traditional methods, be sure to try classics such as geoduck clams, mantis shrimps and oysters. Local beers on the island are also very cheap, as with most beers in South East Asia.
Brief History of Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island was named many centuries ago, and translates to 'Womens Island'. It is believed that three women were killed during the Tran Dynasty and that their bodies washed ashore onto three seperate beaches on the Island. The women, found by local fisherman and mourned by islanders, had temples built in their honour. Eventually the story became part of the island,
hence the name.
Archeological evidence shows that humans inhabited Cat Ba’s many limestone caves at least six thousand years ago. Centuries later these same caves provided the perfect wartime hideaway – the military presence on Cat Ba has always been strong, for obvious strategic reasons. When trouble with China flared up in 1979, hundreds of ethnic Chinese islanders felt compelled to flee and
the exodus continued into the next decade as “boat people” sailed off in search of a better life, depleting the island’s population to fewer than fifteen thousand. Now that prosperity has come in
the form of tourism, the population is growing rapidly.
Discovering the island
One of the most rewarding ways to explore the area is by boat from Cat Ba Town, passing through the labyrinth of Lan Ha Bay, a miniature version of neighbouring Ha Long Bay but one which receives fewer visitors. There are floating villages and oyster farms in the area, which can be included in tour itineraries. Other options are kayaking, rock-climbing and visits to isolated beaches where the water is noticeably cleaner than elsewhere in the bay. Be warned, though: Cat Ba is by no means undiscovered and during the local summer holidays (June to mid-Aug) hotels and beaches in the area can be swamped.
The rest of the island
One of Cat Ba’s main draws is its rugged unspoilt scenery. A recommended outing is to rent a motorbike or a car for the day and explore the island’s few paved roads and its isolated beaches.
Quan Y Cave
The main cross-island road climbs sharply out of Cat Ba Town, giving views over distant islands and glimpses of secluded coves, and then follows a series of high valleys. After 8km look out on the right for the distinctive Quan Y Cave, a gaping mouth embellished with concrete, not far from the road. During the American War the cave became an army hospital big enough to treat 150 patients at a time.
Cat Ba National Park
Taking up much of the island is Cat Ba National Park, established in 1986 and little changed in decades. Its most famous inhabitant is a sub-species of the critically endangered golden-headed langur, a monkey found only on Cat Ba and now probably numbering fewer than sixty individuals. Considerably more visible will be the rich diversity of plant species, including some 350 of medicinal value, as well as birds, snakes and plenty of mosquitoes.
Cuc Phuong National Park
In 1962 Vietnam’s first national park was established around a narrow valley between forested limestone hills on the borders of Ninh Binh, Thanh Hoa and Hoa Binh provinces, containing over two hundred square kilometres of tropical evergreen rainforest. Cuc Phuong is well set up for tourism and sees a steady stream of visitors, attracted principally by the excellent primate rescue centre, but also by the easy access to impressively ancient trees. With more time, you can walk into the park interior, overnight in a Muong village and experience the multi-layered forest. The most enjoyable time for walking in these hills is October to January, when mosquitoes and leeches take a break and temperatures are relatively cool – but this is also peak season. Flowers are at their best February and March, while April and May are the months when lepidopterists can enjoy the “butterfly festival” as thousands of butterflies colour the forest.
Cuc Phuong’s flora and fauna
Even now the park has not been fully surveyed but is estimated to contain approximately three hundred bird species and ninety mammal species, some of which were first discovered in Cuc Phuong, such as red-bellied squirrels and a fish that lives in underground rivers. Several species of bat and monkey, including the critically endangered Delacour’s langur, inhabit the park, while bears and leopards roam its upper reaches. Hunting has taken its toll, though, and you’re really only likely to see butterflies, birds and perhaps a civet cat or a tree squirrel, rather than the more exotic fauna. What you can’t miss, though, is the luxuriant vegetation including 1000-year-old trees (living fossils up to 70m high), tree ferns and kilometre-long corkscrewing lianas, as well as a treasure-trove of medicinal plants.
Walking in Cuc Phuong
Of several walks in the park, one of the most popular starts at Car Park A, 18km from the park gate. For a steamy 7km (roughly 2hr), a well-trodden path winds through typical rainforest to reach the magnificent cho xanh tree, a 45m-high, 1000-year-old specimen of Terminalia myriocarpa – its dignity only slightly marred by a viewing platform. Dropping back down to the flat, take a left turn at the unmarked T-junction to bring you back to the road higher up at Car Park B. This second car park is also the start of the "Adventurous Trail", an 18-km hike through the park to Muong villages, noted for their gigantic wooden waterwheels, for which you’ll need a guide and a night’s accommodation.
Almost entirely flattened in the American War’s bombing raids, Dong Hoi has risen from its ashes to become a prosperous, orderly provincial capital of over sixty thousand people. Tourists who pass by here usually use the town as a base for Phong Nha Cave, a hugely attractive system of caverns 30km away, and recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. As such, the town itself gets very few visitors and, while there is precious little to see here, the relative lack of tourists makes it a nice step off the beaten track.
The Nhat Le River oozes through town just before hitting the sea, with the bulk of Dong Hoi clustered around its west bank. Here you’ll find remnants of a Nguyen dynasty citadel – the only notable part is its pretty south gate, which has been restored and now functions as the city’s focal point; it’s actually located away from the main body of the complex. There’s a lively riverside market east of the gate and an area of covered stalls where in summer vendors sell ice-cold glasses of sweet-bean chè. Just to the north of the citadel are more ruins, this time of a church destroyed during the American War; only the bell tower is now standing, with a couple of small trees maintaining a lonely vigil on top.
Crossing the Nhat Le, you’ll find yourself on a small spit of land, named My Canh. This is also the name of the small beach rifling down the eastern edge of the isthmus. As with sandy stretches up and down the land, it’s being developed as a resort area.
Phong Nha and Around
By the end of a trip to Vietnam, you may well be sick to death of caves – especially once you’ve been around Ha Long Bay – but if you see just one on your travels, make it Phong Nha, an otherworldly cavity only accessible by boat. It’s a whopping 8km long, but only the first kilometre or so is open to the public, but this alone is beautiful enough to make a visit worthwhile. It was revered as the largest cave in Vietnam until the discovery of the nearby Son Doong Cave, now widely regarded as the largest in the whole world.
These caves form part of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, yet to be fully opened to international visitors. It’s a place of intense beauty, at its best in the morning when banks of mist soften its jagged contours. There are other caves in the area, including the colossal Thien Duong, as well as the Nuoc Mooc eco-trail.
Brief history of Phong Nha
Since time immemorial the underground river emerging at Phong Nha Cave has held a mystical fascination for the local population. The earliest-known devotees were ninth- and tenth-century Cham people, followed by Vietnamese who petitioned the guardian spirits during periods of drought, with great success by all accounts. When Europeans started exploring the caves early in the twentieth century it’s said the rainmaker took everlasting umbrage. However, the explorers were undeterred and by the 1950s, tunnels 2km long had been surveyed and the number of visitors warranted the construction of a small hotel. Owing to the intervening wars, when Phong Nha provided safe warehousing – you can see evidence of an American rocket attack on the cliff above the cave entrance – nothing further happened until a British expedition was allowed to investigate in 1990. They began pushing upriver, eventually penetrating deep into the limestone massif.
Phong Nha Cave
The only way to Phong Nha Cave is by boat. These seat up to fourteen people, and though it’s theoretically possible to join other groups, you’ll likely be told to charter one of your own. The boats wend their way 5km (30min) upstream to the cave entrance, after which the pilot cuts the engine and starts to paddle through. You’ll drift awhile between rippling walls of limestone, and see immense stalactites and stalagmites, all lit by multicoloured spotlights. The boat eventually draws into a small subterranean beach, from which you follow an easy, 500m-long trail around the cave (flip-flops will be fine) – note that visitors must stick to the path to avoid any risk of rock damage. Your driver will be waiting for you at the end of the path.
Tien Son Cave
You can follow up your visit to Phong Nha by taking a steep, 330-step climb up to Tien Son Cave. From here you’ll have a grand view of the valley, while inside there are Cham inscriptions dating as far back as the ninth century. Unfortunately, their magnificence is diluted somewhat by lurid lighting, presumably placed here to make for a more visually vivid experience – unless you’re a true cave fanatic, you’ll likely be happy with visiting Phong Nha alone.
Thien Duong Cave
Before the discovery of Son Doong, Thien Duong, or "Paradise Cave", held a brief period in the limelight as the longest cavern in Vietnam. Under the same management as the Sun Spa Resort in Dong Hoi, the first kilometre or so has now been fully opened up to tourism – a truly baffling staff-to-visitors ratio shows that there are high hopes of making this one of Vietnam’s major drawcards. This partially explains the high ticket price, though this also affords you a golf-buggy ride to the trailhead, and a (largely unnecessary) guide for the cave itself. It’s a sweaty climb up, but the jaw-dropping beauty of the cavern makes such exertion worthwhile – there’s nothing in particular to see, but it’s simply a joy to be walking in a cavern of such unworldly size – in places, over 100m in both height and width.
Nuoc Mooc Eco-trail
Sprawling along picturesque riverside territory and lassoed together with bamboo bridges, this 1km-long eco-trail shows the reassuring direction in which local tourism is heading. You’re highly unlikely to see any animals, but there are a couple of opportunities to swim – the entry price will see your bags taken care of, though you’ll have to pay extra for drinks.
The world’s largest cave
Rarely can the word "cavernous" have been used with such justification. In 2009, a group of British cavers attempted the first-ever detailed survey of the Son Doong cave, in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, finally giving up 4.5km in. Their records and photographs showed chambers large enough to swallow up whole city blocks – the largest found so far is over 250m high, and 150m wide. Subsequent investigations have added another 2km to the cave’s charted length, and shown the presence of 70m-long stalactites, gigantic shards of crystal and grapefruit-sized calcite pearls. The cave is highly remote and, at the time of writing, had not yet been opened to the public, but it seems almost certain to become one of Vietnam’s most alluring sights.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a network of trails, footpaths and roadways once used as a military supply route that led from North to South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia. The communist-led group, The Viet Cong, also known as the National Liberation Front, used the route to send weapons, ammunition and manpower to their allies in the South. The mass political organization, who fought against the USA and South Vietnam, were eventually on the winning side of the Vietnam war.
History of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
At the end of its "working" life, the Ho Chi Minh Trail had grown from a rough assemblage of animal tracks and jungle paths to become a highly effective logistical network stretching from near Vinh, north of the Seventeenth Parallel, to Tay Ninh Province on the edge of the Mekong Delta. Initially it took up to six months to walk the trail from north to south, most of the time travelling at night while carrying rations of rice and salt, medicines and equipment; in four years one man, Nguyen Viet Sinh, is reputed to have carried more than fifty tonnes and covered 40,000km, equivalent to walking round the world. By 1975, however, the trail – comprising at least three main arteries plus several feeder roads leading to various battlefronts and totalling over 15,000km – was wide enough to take tanks and heavy trucks, and could be driven in just one week. It was protected by sophisticated anti-aircraft emplacements and supported by regular service stations (fuel and maintenance depots, ammunition dumps, food stores and hospitals), often located underground or in caves and all connected by field telephone. Eventually there was even an oil pipeline constructed alongside the trail to take fuel south from Vinh to a depot at Loc Ninh. All this absorbed thousands of men and women in maintenance work, as engineers, gunners and medical staff, while as many as fifty thousand Youth Volunteers repaired bridges and filled in bomb craters under cover of darkness.
The trail was conceived in early 1959 when General Giap ordered the newly created Logistical Group 559 to reconnoitre a safe route by which to direct men and equipment down the length of Vietnam in support of Communist groups in the south. Political cadres blazed the trail, followed in 1964 by the first deployment of ten thousand regular troops, and culminating in the trek south of 150,000 men in preparation for the 1968 Tet Offensive. It was a logistical feat that rivalled Dien Bien Phu in both scale and determination: this time it was sustained over fifteen years and became a symbol to the Vietnamese of both their victory and their sacrifice. For much of its southerly route the trail ran through Laos and Cambodia, sometimes on paths forged during the war against the French, sometimes along riverbeds and always through the most difficult, mountainous terrain plagued with leeches, snakes, malaria and dysentery.
On top of all this, people on the trail had to contend with almost constant bombing. By early 1965, aerial bombardment had begun in earnest, using napalm and defoliants as well as conventional bombs, to be joined later by carpet-bombing B-52s. Every day in the spring of 1965 the US Air Force flew an estimated three hundred bombing raids over the trail and in eight years dropped over two million tonnes of bombs, mostly over Laos, in an effort to cut the flow. Later they experimented with seismic and acoustic sensors to eavesdrop on troop movements and pinpoint targets, but the trail was never completely severed and supplies continued to roll south in sufficient quantities to sustain the war.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail Today
Today, parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail have vanished beneath time, nature and tarmac but this does not stop eager tourists hoping for a taste of history amongst the green scenic jungle. The route, when followed in full, sees travellers through the isolated beauty of Cambodia and Laos. With increasing popularity, the trail has provided big business for tour companies and bike hire companies alike. With many choosing to opt for guided tours on bikes or choosing to travel solo, the business in Vietnam for hiring motorcycles is booming. Many small local villages have also jumped on the bandwagon, and opened up their homes for a small price to provide tourists with local food and an authentic, rural place to stay whilst passing through on the route. Families share their stories not through language, but through photographs of their loved ones who would have also provided shelter for guerrilla fighters passing the trail themselves.
Unfortunately, the trail cannot be followed lightly and caution is recommended at all times. During the war, around 15 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Vietnam alone. In Cambodia and Laos there was a total of around 5 million tonnes dropped, many of which still remain killing and injuring hundreds of local people each year. It is highly advised to stay clear of wandering of the track as waiting bombs may be lurking beneath the undergrowth, especially in the remote regions of Laos.
Buzzing Hai Phong is a great place to get a handle on urban Vietnam. A city of almost two million souls, it’s the third largest in the land, though with just a fraction of the big two’s tourists and expats, your presence is likely to be greeted with genuine surprise. Most travellers rifle straight past the city to Ha Long Bay, but those who choose to alight in Hai Phong will see a wholly Vietnamese city. Although a little scruffy around the edges, it’s central broad and bustling avenues are shaded by ranks of flame trees and dotted with well-tended colonial villas. Most of these villas lie along the crescent-shaped nineteenth-century core that forms a southern boundary to today’s city centre, where you’ll also find some other superb specimens of colonial architecture.
Hai Phong is well connected to both Hanoi and Cat Ba and can function as a good stopping-off point for those who don’t fancy joining a Ha Long Bay tour. It’s a good place to hole up for a while, thanks in part to its strong café culture – there are clutches of giai khat on every major road, and most of the minor ones too.
Brief history of Hai Phong
Hai Phong lies 100km from Hanoi on the Cua Cam River, one of the main channels of the Red River Estuary. Originally a small fishing village and military outpost, its development into a major port in the seventeenth century stems more from its proximity to the capital city than from favourable local conditions. In fact it was an astonishingly poor choice for a harbour, 20km from the open sea with shallow, shifting channels, no fresh water and little solid land. The first quay was only built in 1817 and it was not until 1874, when Hai Phong was ceded to the French, that a town began to develop. With remarkable determination, the first settlers drained the mosquito-ridden marshes, sinking foundations sometimes as deep as 30m into huge earth platforms that passed for building plots. Doubts about the harbour lingered, but then, in 1883, the nine-thousand-strong French Expeditionary Force, sent to secure Tonkin, established a supply base in Hai Phong and its future as the north’s principal port was secured.
The 20th century
In November 1946 Hai Phong reappeared in the history books when rising tensions between French troops and soldiers of the newly declared Democratic Republic of Vietnam erupted in a dispute about customs control. Shots were exchanged over a Chinese junk suspected of smuggling, and the French replied with a naval bombardment of Hai Phong’s Vietnamese quarter, killing many civilians (estimates range from one to six thousand), and only regained control of the streets after several days of rioting. But the two nations were now set for war – a war that ended, appropriately, with the citizens of Hai Phong watching the last colonial troops embark in 1955 after the collapse of French Indochina.
Barely a decade later the city was again under siege, this time by American planes targeting a major supply route for Soviet “aid”. In May 1972 President Nixon ordered the mining of Hai Phong harbour, but less than a year later America was clearing up the mines under the terms of the Paris ceasefire agreement. By late 1973 the harbour was deemed safe once more, in time for the exodus of desperate boat people at the end of the decade as hundreds of refugees escaped in overladen fishing boats.
The battles of Bach Dang River
The Vietnamese navy fought its two most glorious and decisive battles in the Bach Dang Estuary, east of Hai Phong. The first, in 938 AD, marked the end of a thousand years of Chinese occupation when General Ngo Quyen led his rebels to victory, defeating a vastly superior force by means of a brilliant ruse. Waiting until high tide, General Ngo lured the Chinese fleet upriver over hundreds of iron-tipped stakes embedded in the estuary mud, then counter-attacked as the tide turned and drove the enemy boats back downstream to founder on the now-exposed stakes.
History repeated itself some three centuries later during the struggle to repel Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies. This time it was the great Tran Hung Dao who led the Vietnamese in a series of battles culminating in that of the Bach Dang River in 1288. The ingenious strategy worked just as well second time round when over four hundred vessels were lost or captured, finally seeing off the ambitious Khan.
At first glance, the provincial capital of Ninh Binh appears to be yet another dusty, traffic-heavy northern town. However, glance to the west and you’ll be beckoned to stay by a thousand fingers of limestone – a land-lubbing Ha Long Bay, with a clutch of historic and architectural sights to add to its geological beauty.
Despite the wealth of sights surrounding it, Ninh Binh itself claims just one sight of its own: a kilometre to the north a picturesque little pagoda nestles at the base of Non Nuoc Mountain. This knobbly outcrop – no more than 60m high – is noted for an eminently missable collection of ancient poetic inscriptions and views east over a power station to the graphically named “Sleeping Lady Mountain”.
Twelve kilometres northwest of Ninh Binh, Hoa Lu makes another rewarding excursion. In the 10th century, this site was the capital of an early, independent Vietnamese kingdom called Dai Co Viet. The fortified royal palaces of the Dinh and Le kings are now reduced to archeological remains, but their dynastic temples (seventeenth-century copies of eleventh-century originals) still rest quietly in a narrow valley surrounded by wooded, limestone hills. Though the temple buildings and attractive walled courtyards are unspectacular, the inner sanctuaries are compelling – mysterious, dark caverns where statues of the kings, wrapped in veils of pungent incense, are worshipped by the light of candles.
Making the most of Ninh Binh
While the town itself has little to detain you, the surrounding hills shelter Tam Coc, where sampans slither through the limestone tunnels of “Ha Long Bay on land”, and one of Vietnam’s ancient capitals, Hoa Lu, represented by two darkly atmospheric dynastic temples. On the way to Hoa Lu is Trang Anh, a less-touristed version of Tam Coc, while further on is is Bai Dinh Pagoda – though decidedly non-ancient, this ranks as the largest Buddhist complex in Vietnam, and quite possibly the whole world, and is worth a look for its sheer scale alone. All of these places can be tackled in one day by car or motorbike, or by bicycle via the back lanes.
To the east, the stone mass of Phat Diem Cathedral wallows in the rice fields, an extraordinary amalgam of Western and Oriental architecture that still shepherds an active Catholic community. Heading west instead, Cuc Phuong is one of Vietnam’s more accessible national parks and contains some magnificent, centuries-old trees.
More boat trips are in store at Kenh Ga, to visit a limestone cave, and at Van Long nature reserve, both on the Cuc Phuong road. These last sights are more distant: the cathedral requires a half-day outing, while Cuc Phuong and either Kenh Ga or Van Long can be combined in a long day-trip. Hanoi is only a couple of hours away, and the Hoa Lu/Tam Coc–Bich Dong circuit makes a popular and inexpensive day tour out of the capital. However, with more time, it’s far better to take advantage of Ninh Binh’s hotels and services to explore the area at a more leisurely pace.
If you want to see whole swathes of bleak, Soviet-style architecture, you could do worse than heading to Vinh. Although a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese tourists – Ho Chi Minh was born in the nearby village of Kim Lien – it receives very few foreign guests, most of whom use the city as a stop on the long journey between Hué and Hanoi, or a jumping-off point for the Lao border. Still, the place has its merits – plenty of cheap accommodation around the train and bus stations, and the chance to discover a real Vietnamese city, almost entirely unaffected by international tourism.
Brief history of Vinh
Vinh fared particularly badly in the twentieth century. As an industrial port-city dominating major land routes, whose population was known for rebellious tendencies, the town became a natural target during both French and American wars. In the 1950s French bombs destroyed large swathes of Vinh, after which the Viet Minh burnt down what remained rather than let it fall into enemy hands; the rebuilt town was flattened once again during the American air raids. Reconstruction proceeded slowly after 1975, mostly financed by East Germany; the decrepit hulks of barrack-like apartment blocks, totally unsuited to the Vietnamese climate, still dominate the city centre. Things are beginning to improve, however, as trade with Laos brings more money into the region: Vinh’s streets are being repaved and pavements laid; smart new villas and hotels are being built; and there’s even a multi-storey supermarket stocked with all manner of goodies.
Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 in Hoang Tru Village, Kim Lien commune, 14km west of Vinh. The two simple houses made of bamboo wattle and palm-leaf thatch are 1959 reconstructions, now surrounded by fields of sweet potatoes. Ho’s birthplace is said to be the hut by itself on the left as you approach, while behind stands the brick-built family altar. At the age of 6 Ho moved 2km west, to what is now called Lang Sen (Lotus Village), to live with his father in very similar surroundings. The two Sen houses are also replicas, built in 1955, with nothing much to see inside, but the complex is peaceful and alive with dancing butterflies. The museum nearby illustrates Ho’s world travels with memorabilia and photos.
The life of Ho Chi Minh
So inextricably is the life of Ho Chi Minh intertwined with Vietnam’s emergence from colonial rule that his biography is largely an account of the country’s struggle for independence in the twentieth century. As Ho adopted dozens of pseudonyms and never kept diaries, uncertainty clouds his public life and almost nothing is known about the private man beneath the cultivated persona of a celibate and aesthete, totally dedicated to his family – a concept that embraced all the Vietnamese people.
Ho’s origins were humble enough – he was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, the youngest child of a minor mandarin who was dismissed from the Imperial court in Hué for anti-colonialist sympathies. Ho attended high school in Hué but was expelled for taking part in a student protest; he left Vietnam for France in 1911, then spent several years wandering the world. He worked in the dockyards of Brooklyn and as a pastry chef in London’s Carlton Hotel, before returning to France in the aftermath of World War I, to earn his living retouching photographs. In Paris, Ho became an increasingly active nationalist, and caused quite a stir during the Versailles Peace Conference when he published a petition demanding democratic constitutional government for Indochina. For a while Ho joined the French Socialists, but when they split in 1920 he defected to become one of the founder members of the French Communist Party, inspired by Lenin’s total opposition to imperialism.
Ho’s energetic role in French Communism was rewarded when he was called to Moscow in 1923 to begin a career in international revolution, and a year later he found himself posted to southern China as a Comintern agent. Within a few months he had set up Vietnam’s first Marxist-Leninist organization, the Revolutionary Youth League, which attracted a band of impassioned young Vietnamese eager to hear about the new ideology. But in 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese nationalists, turned against the Communists and Ho was forced to flee. For a while he lived in Thailand, disguised as a Buddhist monk, before turning up in Hong Kong in 1930 where he was instrumental in founding the Vietnamese Communist Party. By now the French authorities had placed a death sentence on Ho’s head, for insurrection; he was arrested in Hong Kong but escaped with the help of prison hospital staff, who managed to persuade everyone, including the French police, that Ho had died of tuberculosis.
Ho disappeared again for a few years while the fuss died down, before reappearing on China’s southern border in the late 1930s. In 1941, aged 51, he re-entered Vietnam for the first time in thirty years, wearing a Chinese-style tunic and rubber-tyre sandals, and carrying just a small rattan trunk and his precious typewriter. In the mountains of northern Vietnam, Ho, now finally known as Ho Chi Minh (meaning "He Who Enlightens"), was joined by Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong and other young militants. Together they laid the groundwork for the anticipated national uprising, establishing a united patriotic front, the League for the Independence of Vietnam – better known by its abbreviated name, the Viet Minh – and training the guerrilla units that would eventually evolve into the Vietnamese People’s Army. But events conspired against Ho: in 1942 he was arrested as a Franco-Japanese spy when he crossed back into China to raise support for the nationalist cause, and he languished for more than a year in various prisons, writing a collection of poetry later published as the "Prison Diary".
Meanwhile, however, events were hotting up, and when the Japanese occupation of Vietnam ended in August 1945, the Viet Minh were ready to seize control. Ho Chi Minh, by this time seriously ill, led them to a brief period in power following the August Revolution, and then ultimately to Independence in 1954. For the next fifteen years, as President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Uncle Ho took his country along a sometimes rocky socialist path, continually seeking reunification through negotiation and then war. But he didn’t live to see a united Vietnam: early in 1969 his heart began to fail and on September 2, Vietnam’s National Day, he died. Since then, myth and fact have converged in a cult placing Ho Chi Minh at the top of Vietnam’s pantheon of heroes, true to Confucian tradition – though against Ho’s express wishes.