I had doubted and dithered over whether to visit Vietnam, but travel guides represented it as such a fixture of southeast Asia tours that I booked a short stay in the capital city.
After the metropolitan sprawl of Bangkok, Hanoi startled me. It exuded character – a strange and fascinating blend of chaotic market and modern brilliance, embellished throughout with the remnants of colonial French architecture.
I arrived wide-eyed at my hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter, where property has purportedly sold for $15,000 – per square meter.
The Golden Legend Diamond Hotel didn’t quite live up to its spectacular name, but it did offer comfortable accommodations with some touches of elegance, a generous breakfast spread enriched with tropical fruit, and a staff devoted to service.
As soon I arrived, the man at the reception smiled, “You’ll want to tour Halong Bay.” With a recommendation like that, how could I refuse? He enrolled me for 8am the next mornng.
After the guide collected me personally from the hotel, our mammoth transport squeezed through the dense streets with impressive skill. We burst out onto the highway for a smooth ride to northern Vietnam’s star attraction.
A pearl workshop welcomed us for the first stop. Impeccably articulate, a lady dressed in sapphire blue illuminated for us the intricacies of cultivating pearls, including a live demonstration. She then released us into the showrooms to examine their treasure hordes.
We boarded a cruise ship next, at a terminal mobbed with holiday-goers. I piled my plate with noodles and seafood from the lunch buffet. Outside, cliffs garlanded with greenery rose from the glassy waters – reminding me instantly of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand.
The tour packed in activities: hiking a limestone cavern, kayaking a lagoon, climbing to a lookout point overlooking the bay’s only beach authorized for swimmers. I befriended another solo traveler: a fellow from the Philippines, currently employed in Bangkok. We whiled away the afternoon discussing our travels and bucket lists, exchanging reflections on Asia and the Pacific.
Evening descended as we boarded the bus home. The scenes flashing past the windows revealed again a city of contrasts: from blazing skyscrapers to the warrens of the Old Quarter. I anticipated adventures to come when I embarked the next day on my own footing, in pursuit of an international church service.