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Travel & Holiday

Under Hanoi's spell

Travellers voted to crown Ha Long Bay one of the new seven natural wonders.
The Business Times - July 28, 2012
By: Helmi Yusof
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Under Hanoi's spell CHARMINGrnThe Metropole Hotel is a good place from which to stroll and lose yourself in the bustling, winding streets of Hanoi. - PHOTO: SOFITEL

SOUTH-EAST Asia lays claim to many spectacular islands dotting its map. But even the most jaded sun worshippers will stand awestruck at the sheer magnificence of Ha Long Bay, a breathtaking seascape of some 2,000 limestone islands and islets in Northern Vietnam.

These dramatic rock formations are some 500 million-years-old. And as your cruise ship gently weaves its way around them, you experience something almost transformational - a sense of euphoria followed by an epiphany of your own smallness amid Mother Nature's effortless majesty.

"Look what I can do without man's help. Aren't I something?" she seems to ask nonchalantly. You nod in dumb agreement. These craggy rocks have inspired many poets and politicians with their transcendental beauty. Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam, called it "the wonder one cannot impart to others".

And more than a million global travellers agree. Last year, they voted to crown Ha Long Bay one of the new seven natural wonders of the world, along with the Amazon forest, Iguazu Falls, Jeju Island and three others.

One of the best ways to experience Ha Long Bay is on the Emeraude Cruise (emeraude-cruises.com) which takes you on a two-day bay voyage for US$149 per person (twin sharing).

When it anchors amid the limestone splendour at night, you can enjoy the wonderful breeze on its spacious deck while the crew plays the 1992 film Indochine set in 1930s Saigon starring Catherine Deneuve. The ship's standard cabin boasts an attached bathroom and comfortable beds with a choice of four types of pillows. Try to wake up at dawn when the bay looks almost celestial.

Hanoi's Raffles Hotel

Back on land, it is a four-hour drive to Hanoi, the country's second largest city and one of its most charming.

You'll know when you're approaching Hanoi: Dusty roads suddenly give way to tidal waves of scooters streaming around you. These scooters carry everything - from four adult pillions squashed behind the rider, to 12 small chicken coops tied to the sides of a seat. You might even see a large washing machine balancing precariously between a rider and a pillion.

By now, the landscape would have change too from anonymous roadside houses, to a charming European-styled city replete with tree-lined boulevards, placid lakes and regal French colonial buildings.

No colonial building is perhaps more regal that the très magnificent Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a 110-year-old luxury hotel that remains the best place to stay in Hanoi. Imagine Raffles Hotel - only grander and at one-third of the price. (Standard rooms start from as low as S$200). The Metropole's white colonial facade and famous sidewalk cafe are pure Parisian charm. Inside, the dark wood panelling, teak furniture and marble floors exude Old World glamour.

The rooms are luxurious and well-appointed, with little touches such as wooden ceiling fans and shutters to remind you of its past.

Indeed, the Metropole Hotel can tell you a lot about Hanoi's history. Along its corridors are cabinets displaying historical photos and artefacts - remnants of Hanoi's French colonial rule, the country's struggle for independence and the Vietnam War. Whether you are a guest or not, you'll be allowed to visit the bomb shelter beneath the hotel bar, where the staff will play you an actual recording of folk singer Joan Baez strumming her guitar and singing in the shelter while the war raged outside the door.

Quintessential quirks

The Metropole Hotel is a good place from which to stroll and lose yourself in the bustling, winding streets of Hanoi.

Close by is the thousand-year-old district of the Old Quarter. It is also known as 36 Streets because each street specialises in a specific trade. So there is the Flower Street, Herbal Medicine Street, Shoe Street and Metal Street, among others.

You don't need a taxi when you're in the Old Quarter - a basic map suffices. Let your feet (and perhaps wallet) do the rest.

Also close to the hotel is the Hoan Kiem Lake, a tranquil lake that looks out onto the Ngoc Son Temple that sits on the water. Much local activity can be found around the lake, but the one that's bound to amuse are the unusual morning exercise routines many locals practise.

Some flap their arms like winged birds before beating their chests like apes. Some hop on one leg over a distance. Others whip their forearms against tree trunks. Still others rub their bellies in quick circular motions. Most of these routines look improvised, if not for the fact that they're practised by so many.

If these folk ever make it to Singapore, they'll probably look askance at our gym and yoga cultures, wondering why we pay so much for something they do for free.

Glimpses of the past

Among the tourist attractions, there is one that should interest Singaporeans for various reasons. The Temple of Literature is a beautiful Chinese-influenced 900-year-old shrine that was the first university in Vietnam for the country's scholars. An oasis of calm in the heart of the buzz, the complex opens up to several courtyards, temples and lotus-filled pools.

Under one roof are 82 stone tortoises bearing slabs inscribed with the names of the best students from 1442 and 1778. Today, students from all of the country come to the temple to rub the stone tortoises' heads before an important exam, because that supposedly bring blessings and good luck to students. Now that's one attraction Singapore needs to build. In the evening, there is one activity that you simply cannot miss - watching the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Rated in travel forums as the No 1 must-do in Hanoi, these charming water puppets provide a glimpse into the life of ancient Vietnam, and was once the equivalent of a 3D movie for farmers and fishermen.

If these quaint and magical puppets can't make you fall in love with Hanoi, nothing will.

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