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Prepare to be mesmerised by natural wonder as you sail into Halong Bay, weaving between thousands of limestone monoliths and gazing up at the miniature jungles atop these imposing beasts. Legend tells of how a family of dragons helped defend Vietnam against invaders by spitting jade and emeralds into the sea, jewels which later transformed into these spectacular karsts.
Shaped by millions of years of tropical weather, many of the uninhabited islands are named after their unique forms. Take to the sea on a double-decker junk boat or a captivating kayak tour to get the best views of this UNESCO National Heritage Site. Pass by bamboo fishing boats as you visit sheer cliffs, secret coves and tranquil lagoons, then disembark for a look inside mystical caves. Discover Thien Cung, where slightly eerie stalactites and stalagmites are illuminated by coloured lighting, and the large Go Dao with its nineteenth century French graffiti belying its history as ‘La Grotte de Merveilles’ (the grotto of marvels).
A few hours’ drive from Halong Bay is Hanoi, Vietnam’s ancient capital. A visit to this cultural city is certainly worth the trip as thousands of years of history make it both picturesque and fascinating.
Ho Chi Minh, the Communist revolutionary, prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was a hugely important part of its recent history. Join the crowds paying their respects to ‘Uncle Ho’ at Ba Dinh Square, the site of his 1945 declaration of independence of Vietnam from France. Marvel at the imposing granite Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, before viewing his embalmed body. You can learn more about his life with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum or by taking a trip to the humble teak cottage he used to live in.
Don’t miss the chaotic buzz of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a bustling maze of markets, French Colonial architecture and lakes. Hunt for vibrant silk souvenirs or escape to the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake) where giant turtles swim beneath the Bridge of the Rising Sun and harmonious locals practice tai chi and play chess.
Embrace the city’s religious heritage as you admire the iconic One Pillar Pagoda Buddhist temple, then feel inspired by its intellectual past at the eleventh century Temple of Literature. The site of Vietnam’s oldest university and dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucius, its ancient pavilions make for a tranquil stroll.
If there’s time to spare before dusk falls, catch a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to hear ancient legends relayed in a unique and traditional manner.