· Travel · · T. Joana Rebelo · P. Rights Reserved


A country of contrasting landscapes 

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The holidays are approaching and both body and mind join forces to rest. It’s no longer winter and the sun is in no hurry to go to bed. It’s a time of swirling passions and states of madness, buoyed up by a desire to explore. Hand in hand with life, we head towards Southeast Asia, touching down in a country of rice fields in the north and idyllic beaches in the south. Its name, loaded with meaning, is Vietnam, but those who harvest and plant from the land recognise a diamond in the rough. Embark on a journey of discovery and sharing, and who knows, maybe it’s time for an emotional and spiritual journey. 
Eight days (and seven nights) are planned to discover the most stunning peaks and valleys, the most exotic beaches and villages perched on the most unexpected places. But first of all, we need to gather some information about the destination. Culture shock can be lessened if you are well informed beforehand.
Getting to Vietnam takes an average of 17 hours and 30 minutes, which in the long run is worth it. There are no direct flights from Portugal, but many airlines offer tempting stopovers, so not everything is negative. With your feet on Asian soil, after a long trip, you will feel the first cultural impact with the official Vietnamese language. Fear not, as French is the second most widely spoken language, largely due to the French occupation of the country until 1946. It might be nice to pick up two or three words from the official language, which could lead to more harmonious moments – xin chào (hello); xin lỗi (sorry) and cảm ơn ông (thank you). Before we get you up to speed on the climate, you should know that the official currency is the Dong and that the exchange process is fairly easy. You can even do this on arrival at the airport, if you prefer. Another less obvious fact is tipping. In Vietnamese culture, tips have no value, so don’t feel obliged to give them. With its varied landscape and vast territory, the climate is diverse. From snow-capped mountain tops to 40 ºC southern beaches, it’s useful to keep an eye on the weather forecast. From May to October, the forecast is for hot and humid weather, except in areas protected by the mountains. When it comes to travelling around the country, there are great deal of alternatives. There is a varied choice of public transport, from buses and trains, to flights in the interior of the country. But let’s begin our trip, not forgetting the visa and the required documentation.

There are many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Arriving in the capital with luggage in your hands, the adventure begins. The first three days will be spent here, in Hanoi, our first stop. Settled into the hotel, with a shower already taken, it’s time to stretch our legs and see what the city has in store for us. With its low buildings and tree-lined streets, you can’t quite catch sight of the sea on the horizon, nor the luminous beaches, but rather an expanse of green that pervades the viewer’s soul. The first visit is to the Temple of Literature. Built a good thousand years ago in honour of Confucius, the space was designed to transmit harmony between culture and nature. Among statues and idyllic gardens, you can discover a little of the country’s history. Walking down the long Hung Vuong Avenue, you can see the legacy of the colonial era. The marks left by the struggle for independence are still visible, something also evident in Ba Dinh Square. In a matter of minutes, you’re there. You know you are close when the grey granite of the façade bursts into view. The religious dimension is huge, as is the setting of veneration. Silence is absolute and photographs and hands in pockets are forbidden. We are, after all, talking about the square where Vietnam’s independence was declared in September 1945. 
The days we have left in the city are spent exploring the markets and gastronomy, not forgetting Hoan Kiem Lake, a perfect place to witness local life. Amid eye-catching views, we did not want to leave the capital without the opportunity to observe the process of incense drying in Quang Phu Cau, an aromatic material that is an important part of Vietnamese culture. Burnt on special occasions in social life, incense symbolises a connection to the spiritual world.
The next leg of the journey is Huế, an hour’s flight from Hanoi. What draws you to the city is the famous range of monuments of Huế, considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a walled fortress, a site that in former times was the capital of Vietnam. Inspired by Beijing’s Forbidden City, the fortress preserves what has survived from the war, and is a fascinating tourist spot that requires time to see in detail. We would be lying if we hadn’t also been coaxed by the white sandy beaches and crystal-clear water. With the heat driving the desire for refreshment, all that remains is to visit White Thuan An beach and Tam Giang lagoon. 
Having regained the melatonin that has been lost throughout the year, our next stop is the world’s largest cave: Sơn Đoòng. Hidden away in Phong Nha-Ke National Park, in Quảng Bình province, the cave comprises some 150 caverns, many of which have yet to be explored. Fascinating, don’t you agree? But there’s more. Historians claim that that cave, more than three million years old, is so deep that an entire New York neighbourhood with 40-storey skyscrapers could fit inside. As well as the caves, the National Park offers views of mountains and forests, not to mention a whole array of wildlife. The guided tours extend over four days, each with a 25-kilometre route. 

The largest cave in the world, more than three million years old, can be found in Vietnam.
 The trip ends at Halong Bay, where we float through the native vegetation for a few hours. For a few minutes, we believe we can catch a glimpse of paradise. Legend has it that the gods made it, beautiful and sacred, and one thing is certain: it is otherworldly. 
Travelling between the city and the countryside, we got to know an eclectic culture, from the delicious cuisine to the sublime landscapes. Next time we’ll want to visit Mù Cang Chải, the district known for its rice growing, where Mother Nature produces a bucolic spectacle never seen before. But we shall be back one day, to take in even more. 
Joana Rebelo
T. Joana Rebelo
P. Rights Reserved
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