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Hanoi - a mixture of discreet charm and excitement

To visit HANOI is to steep yourself in history, tradition, and legend in a capital that has been inhabited continuously for almost a millenium. Visitors often note that the city is quieter, greener, and "cooler" than other big cities of Vietnam. Indeed, Hanoi itself, and the Northern Vietnam, have quite clear four seasons, and October to March are lovely pretty cool months whilst other towns southward just have dry and rainy times. It probably influences in the mentality of the inhabitants and the city seems attract more intellectuals and artists, while Saigon is great for entrepreneurs and hustlers.

Hanoi's present architecture is mainly from the 19 th and 20 th centuries, and the French-built section of the town is largely intact. Yet, the city preserves many old religious temples and shrines dedicated to the nation's heroes or deities, who supported the farmers to cultivate and protect the fertile land on the Red River right bank and gather the first commercial guilds to form what later became an exciting urban town. Hanoi street life now is fascinating. In the early morning, you can see people both young and old practicing "tai chi quan" or martial arts in the parks and joggers along pretty lakes. Outdoor barbers with mirrors simply hung on the street walls and women selling great French baguettes and flowers are also at every street corner. If you go for a walk, the motorbikes and cyclos may make you wonder a bit which directions they move on, but as soon as you get a chance to try one of them, you could say they are not so risky like they seem to be, as the local drivers have extremely special skills to avoid one another (!). Thus a deliberate Cyclo tour for one or two hours is so far the best way to visit the Old Quarter , 90% of which are narrow and short streets.

During the two Indochinese Wars in 20 th century, Hanoi had been heavily damaged, but there is virtually no evidence that now and the particularly thin, tall, often awkward-looking buildings that you see on streets are not a result of bombing, but are created by landowners who own only a thin slice of land so build up rather than out. Hanoi has a number of lovely parks and big Lakes which inspire the ancient architects to build graceful temples nearby , and Museums with precious exhibits of Vietnam's Fine Arts, Ethnology, History and Recent Wars that attract not only historians but foreign visitors and local people.

Finally, the Hanoians are reckoned the warmest and most approachable in the country. Though English is not as commonly spoken as in Saigon, most of the shopkeepers have learnt English quite enough to discussion on the commodities and price, and many of the older generation have a working vocabulary of French. Regardless of language, people will attempt to chat with you irrespective of whether you can understand them. Many of the cyclo drivers speak some English and often have very interesting pasts that they are now willing to discuss with foreigners. At times in Hanoi, you could be sitting in a café sipping excellent coffee that Vietnam plant in the Central Highlands for domestic use and export, eating great pastries that is a pleasant trace of the French time, chatting in French to an old beret clad gentleman, whilst as you look out the window you can see posh French-style villas in the shadows of fig trees or malabar-almon trees. Then you can really wonder just what country you really are in. In a single word, Hanoi is a city to be savoured.


Hoa Lu - Tam Coc - Bich Dong
most remarkable sights of Ninh Binh Province

Hoa Lu used to be one of the many old capitals of Vietnam before Thang Long – presently Hanoi – take its historical role. From an exciting town and centre of cultural and military activities of the Dai Co Viet Kingdom in 10 th century, the area now is more wellknown for its landscape since almost relics of the urban excitement had been collapsed, except in the Temples of King Dinh and King Le. A trip to Hoa Lu should be started from Tam Coc ("three caves") , which takes more than two hours driving from Hanoi, and visitors may say that distance is not a matter after seating in a boat rowed by one or two local persons in Hoang Long river and see the first limestone mountains, which will run along their riverway for several kilometers. The boat will run, sorry, will be rowed, through three caves on the river, all created by wind and water from a legend time, while the sea had occupied this area. The tide-mark is still on the rock about 2m above the water, and in higher mountainwall the erosion have carved some strange shapes that now filled of green grass, delicious foods of the goats that local people breed everywhere. If you are lucky, sometimes you can see mischievous monkeys. The river trip is wonderful for photo hunters, especially when local people come to harvest the water rice planted along the river, or when they transplant some seedling for the next crops. The tourists often compare the place with Guilin – China, or more closely, to the limestone islets of Halong Bay in the Tonkin Gulf for their similar geological structures and shapes. Thus Tam Coc is also called Halong-Bay-On-Land.

From the wharf of Tam Coc you can go further till reaching Bich Dong Pagoda , a combination of three pagodas on the Lower, Middle and Upper levels of a pretty mountain. You will need to climb a little bit till you get to the top of the Upper pagoda and your eyes catch the overall panorama of the paddy fields between Truong Yen mountain. All the pagodas, or lean upon a cliff, or simply have some statues inside a large grotto, deserve the name "Bich Dong" (emerald-like grotto). A scene of the popular French movie "Indochine" had been completed here in 1991, remarking a rush of the French-speaking tourists to Vietnam, who usually do not skip Halong Bay and Tam Coc-Bich Dong where the leading actress Catherine Deneuve left her footprints.

On the way back from Tam Coc – Bich Dong to Hanoi you can pay a visit to the last relics of the ancient capital Hoa Lu – the Temples dedicated to King Dinh and King Le , the two heroes who lived in 10 th century and chose Hoa Lu to build the citadel of the capital city. From time to time, archaeologists have excavated buried parts of this citadel with rusty weapons and ceramics. The temples are said to be built on the old foundation of their original palaces in 11-12 th centuries and restored in 17 th century. Though the temples are not maintained entirely some precious antiques are still preserved well like the whole-stone dragon thrones, wooden bas-relieves and lacquered statues of King Dinh, Kinh Le, Queen Duong Van Nga who in turn got married both of the kings, and the princes of the two dynasties.


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