Impressions of Vietnam

November 17, 2011
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Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

For a land protected by the cosmic spirit of the Blue Dragon, this is a developing country and a booming destination in Asia.

Photo journalist Alice Nower captured her journey around North Vietnam from its heady metropolis of Hanoi to the paddy fields that carpet the landscape of Sapa further north.

Hanoi, located in the Red River Delta, is Vietnam's cultural heart and soul and it is the capital. Daily life sees a seething mass of four million people plying all manner of trade and most get around on motorbikes. You can hire one and join the melee, but beware there are seemingly no rules, no lanes and red lights are a mere suggestion. It is chaos and startled pedestrians find crossing the road intimidating.

A must-see is the water puppet theatre a show that is unique to Hanoi. It used to be pratised by rice farmers in flooded paddy fields for centuries, and is handed down from generation to generation. The technique involves wooden puppets manipulated by bamboo wooden sticks hidden beneath the water. The puppets tell Vietnamese folk tales and stories of daily life.

Sapa rice fields

Sapa rice fields

The lives of the hill tribes in the remote northwest mountains, in places such as Sapa, Cat Cat and Ta Van are entwined with the land but many ethnic minorities - savvy older women in particular - make clothes and blankets to sell to tourists.

Ha Long Bay, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Quang Ninh Province in the Gulf of Tonkin.

It stretches 580 sq miles and the seascape comprises a spectacular cluster of more than 1,600 limestone monolithic islands that rise majestically out of the ocean. Each is topped with jungle vegetation and many extend into arches and caves.

Boat tours, in vessels called junks, include stop-offs at some of the caves and offer the opportunity to explore the waters by kayak.

The bay is home to several floating communities, dotted around the sea. At the last count there were around 1,600 people living on floating houses. Though tourists cannot take alcohol onto boat trips they will have ample opportunity to buy this and other refreshments from persistent floating traders.

Cat Ba Island can be reach from Ha Long Bay by boat, a place many head for to trek in or cycle around the Cat Ba National Park. Two miles away is a speck of an island called Monkey Island. The island is private and is home to Monkey Island resort which offers a clutch of 15 bungalows . Though rustic on the outside - they are made from bamboo and wood - inside there is air conditioning and other modern conveniences.

Vietnam is a communist regime yet historically it is a nation of highly spiritual people.

Buddhism is the most common religion and many Vietnamese make a pilgrimage to Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Huong) in Huon Son Commune to sort out their Karma. They greet each other with the phrase Namo Amitabha Buddha.

The Perfume Pagoda, overlooks the Suoi Yen River, is a vast complex of 30 Buddhist temples and shrines that have been built into the limestone Huong Tich mountains. Get there for the Perfume Pagoda Festival (February to May) and revel with the locals while they celebrate this three month long festival.

    Last updated: 11:23am, November 17 2011