There’s a magical place in Vietnam so serene and so eerily beautiful that I may have to go back one day.
It’s Halong Bay, a watery world of silence made mysterious by 3,000 weird limestone formations that jut out of the South China Sea.
Your boat floats off from a crowded harbour alongside a dozen other tourist boats, and you fear that the whole picture-perfect scene will be ruined by frolicking, noisy groups who hove into view every time you try to take a photo.
But the bay is so vast that it quickly absorbs every other vessel. Besides, there’s something so other-worldly about the bay that it seems to instill a peace and awe in all its visitors, you feel strangely tranquil as you drift between the odd formations draped in faint ethereal mist. As the morning grew brighter we swam in the warm water, dwarfed by peaks and pinnacles of stone.
But Halong Bay must have more savage moments too, because despite a lack of colourful coral I saw vivid patches fluttering in the water. The crew snorkeled down and resurfaced clutching items of clothing that the sea had claimed a few days earlier. Bad weather had sunk an over-laden boat, although no one was hurt as other boats quickly appeared to rescue the soggy survivors.
When I return I’ll make sure Saigon is back on the agenda too. Why a city as delicate as Saigon was ever renamed Ho Chi Minh City is a mystery. This isn’t some practical, industrial metropolis that deserves to labour under such a functional, unromantic name. It’s an enchanting place of glorious colonial buildings, gaudy temples and delicate Asian ladies riding elegantly on their bikes despite wearing long, tight silk sarongs.
Getting around Vietnam’s main cities is easy, with the younger generation eager to practice their English on anyone who looks vaguely lost. Saigon Opera House prints its information in English too, sparking off a memorable visit to a ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits. It was a fabulous evening as we arrived in peddle-car taxis and took our seats in an interior of olde-world charm.
There is, of course, far more to Vietnam than temples and Tchaikovsky. There’s the entire bloody history of the Vietnam War, which has now been turned into something of tourist attraction. It’s emotionally stirring stuff as you slither through tunnels the Viet Cong dug to evade detection and mount covert attacks, and as you see horrific photographs of death, destruction and deformities inflicted by the American’s chemical warfare.
Now Vietnam is being invaded again by almost every nation as its reputation grows as a tourist destination. It’s a beautiful land of vibrant cities, stunning scenery, affordable food and accommodation, yet an old-fashioned air of detachment from the modern world.
Yes, I think I’ve convinced myself to return before too many other tourists discover this delicate, skinny country.