No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a cruise through Ha Long Bay. This Unesco World Heritage Site is a bay off the northern coast of Vietnam that is filled with giant stone islands jutting out of the water. When you’re inside the bay they loom over you, so that the entire horizon is dominated by their overlapping shades of blue.
I spent two days in the middle of them all, living on this boat. It’s a traditional Chinese junk, and was absolutely gorgeous. I toured a cave, went swimming, hiking, and kayaking. More pictures of that next time!
On the way to Ha Long Bay, I got to make a stop at a ceramics factory. A guide walked me through every step of the process, from the mixing of the clay to the final glaze.
It was amazing to see the precision that went into this work! Every single piece is made by hand, from the mixing of the clay, the shaping of the dish, the etching of the pattern, and the painting of the design.
This woman’s job was to hand carve the spectacular swirling pattern on the the outside of each pot. I was amazed by her speed and accuracy. I can barely stay within the lines in a coloring book, but she effortlessly sketched elaborate designs into the curved sides of still wet clay day after day. It was really incredible to watch.
Rows of giant ovens baked the final product, making all the colors much more vibrant. While I was visiting the power went out (as it occasionally does in Vietnam) and work continued like normal. All the tools had a non-electric powering option as well. For example, the men turning the pots had foot pedals they could use to keep everything rotating when they lost electricity.
I was allowed to help with the painting of one of the small dishes. In the time it took me to color in the pre-painted black lines, the woman next to me had turned out a half-dozen beautiful dishes.
Vietnam is bookended by two beautiful and historic opera houses, one in the capital and one in the south in Ho Chi Minh City, the countries economic center. These buildings are the sights of countless events and often feature prominently in advertising spreads and photo shoots. When I visited, the building view was obstructed by New Years preparations, but I was lucky to get to see a photo shoot in progress none-the-less.
If Hanoi revolves around its bustling old town, Old Town revolves around Hoan Kiem Lake. Easily conceived as a sort of Central Park for Vietnam’s Capitol, the lake is a favorite of locals up for morning Tai Chi, tourists heading to a water puppet show, university students looking for a place to study, and couples and friends gathered together to talk and share a baguette with the turtles.
After a few busy hours spent jostling through the ever-crowded markets right off the lake, emerging from between narrow roads to see the lake spread out in front of me brought a palpable sense of relaxation. I walked the path around it, watching New Years event preparations, catching couples sneaking kisses, and even overhearing part of an English lecture a professor was giving to several attentive students–it seems they had decided to hold class outside for the day. After making a circuit, I picked a cafe, ordered a latte, and sat outside with a book, relishing the total peace this park provided in the heart of a constantly loud and busy city.
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum dominates a large open square in Hanoi. Visiting it, you leave the crowded alleys and narrow winding roads of the old town abruptly behind, trading them for military precision, straight lines, and sprawling gardens.
I arrived on a Sunday, during which the grounds were closed. While I regretted missing the gardens, I was lucky enough to witness the changing of the guards, a formal military ceremony taking place a few times a day.
Feeling no desire to commune with Ho Chi Minh’s cadaver (a pleasure available for all who chose to open his Stalin-esque tomb), I opted to limit my observations to the impressive exterior of the monument.
One of the highlights of the city is the Temple of Literature, the site of the first Confucian university in the country. The grounds are beautifully manicured, the buildings open air stone chambers designed to catch the breeze. To western viewers, the temple hardly resembles a college, and of course it is no longer used as such, but it is still the site of many special events. The day I was there, both a photo exhibition and a graduation were making use of the space!