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Travel and Tourism

Hanoi’s lullaby

RENDEZVOUs - Christine S. Dayrit - The Philippine Star

Like a soft lullaby, mystical Hanoi quietly draws you in. Vietnam’s capital city has retained an almost whimsical, dreamlike charm with a pastel-hued skyline of French-inspired facade, women and children roaming the city with jet-black hair and slanted sky-blue eyes, and impossibly narrow roads ruled by buzzing swarms of motorbikes. Hanoi invites you, ever so gently, to see the stunning world not as it is but as it could be.

 The city is a synergy of sights and senses. The minute you land here, you discover a sense of place. Ladies in high heels and men clad in suits riding motorcycles around the thoroughfares. Women in their traditional ao dais on bicycles with fresh French bread in their baskets. Fruit stalls line the pavement before the crack of dawn while busy bodies clean the sidewalks and streets lined with French-inspired buildings and cafes that are truly charming and quaint.

Our group of Philippine Travel Agencies Association members, my niece Alexandra Dayrit (who is now editor-in-chief of the Philippine edition of Shape magazine) and I traveled to Hanoi just three hours away and found the city to be truly amazing and delightful. A shopper’s haven, one can find beautiful fabric, embroidered placemats and tablecloths with linen comforters and blankets. There are also colorful ao dais, the Vietnamese national costume, and fans and lacquer boxes all in a neat row. One will get dizzy with the choices of what to shop for here.

As we checked into our hotel called Silk Boutique, a charming French-style edifice that had been restored to its former glory, we noticed that the night market was just around the corner and the ladies in our group raced to check out what the merchants were selling like baskets and bags and what- have-you.

From the Silk Boutique, we took a city tour riding what resembled a huge golf cart. We also visited Ho Chi Minh’s vestige, where the former president of Vietnam lived and worked in the latter years of his existence. He lived a very austere life and we were amazed by his simplicity despite his powerful position. In lieu of grand palaces, he lived in humbly furnished House No. 54 and a traditional stilt house, which showed the great leader’s simplicity and modesty. While other heads of state spoiled hundreds of guests with lavish banquets, Ho Chi Minh received guests beneath a beguiling flower trellis, and for entertainment took serene walks along the property’s lush mango path.

The simple sophistication manifested in Hanoi’s infrastructure and history was also clearly evident in its sumptuous cuisine. That day, we had lunch at Viet Deli, a quaint restaurant owned by the Tuan Chau group who owned a bevy of hotels, restaurants and luxury cruise liners, which we eventually embarked on. We were served a set menu of traditional Vietnamese fare. One delectable dish was brought out after another, each rich with unique flavor. 

Our set menu at Viet Deli featured braised chicken and lotus seed broth, sweet and sour morning glory and crispy pork char siu, deep-fried spring rolls, wok fried prawn, roasted chicken with wild honey, seasonal vegetable with spicy “mam” sauce, caramelized fish with pepper, braised pork spare rib with Vietnamese pickles and seasonal fresh fruit platter. Each dish never failed to surprise as the wide range of sweet and spicy flavors and textures went together perfectly.

True to Hanoi’s spirit, the star of the meal was the morning glory salad, which was crisp and sweet at first bite, and then satisfyingly tender and tangy as you eat it. Leave it to Hanoi to create a masterpiece out of a simple salad.

 We also had dinner at a cozy place aptly called Home, a very quaint French villa of yesteryear that has been reconstructed. The restaurant itself was breathtaking. Home emerges out of nowhere. Like a mirage, the grand yellow chateau breaks the sea of ubiquitous infrastructure in the neighborhood it graces. Even before you walk through the property’s gates, you can hear the romantic music of a string quartet fill the cool air. The bright blue windowsills looked out to a secret garden strung with fairy lights and the interiors were lit by charming caged lamps arranged to hang like a handsome chandelier. Walking up the winding staircase, you discover walls of exposed brick adorned with blue and green ceramic plates of varied sizes. Home felt like a dream but it was right before me to feel, to hear, to experience and most importantly, to taste.

The food here is never second best. We had braised beef in coconut juice broth, marinated river clams with crispy sesame cracker, deep fried pork paste cake with young sticky rice, steamed squid with local spring onion, wok fried chicken with chili, stir fried flower clams with chili garlic, colorful fried rice in a clay pot, marinated morning glory with eggplant pickle, Hanoian minced pork broth and for dessert young sticky rice with lotus seed. It was a heavenly meal. Every dish had magic of its own and to my delight was best eaten with sweet and spicy sauce that really went with practically everything. 

Early the next morning, we embarked on our next adventure. Four hours away from the bustling streets of Hanoi is the famed Halong Bay with its emerald waters and jungle topped limestone formations as far as the eye can see. 

Every day, people from all over the world flock to Halong Bay to see this natural wonder. The best way to experience Halong Bay’s beauty is by taking a junk ship or a cruise liner to discover over a thousand islands that emerge from the peaceful waters like inverted icebergs.

Our group took the Paradise Luxury cruise liner for an unforgettable adventure along Halong Bay. The sun deck looked out to a sea of mountains, skirting the water and skimming the sky, towering over ships and sailboats and reigning over the entire bay. Each cabin had a private balcony where I would sit for hours to get fresh air and admire the serene waters, as our vessel was never disturbed by a single wave and merely floated above Halong’s blanket of green. I will never forget how comfortable the cabins were with duvet blankets and charming bathrooms. We wined and dined to our heart’s content and many of the group joined the trekking and the cave explorations.

 My niece Alexandra and I joined the many travel agents who were so excited to explore all the nooks and crannies of Halong Bay. We kayaked between the colossal limestone, laying flat on our backs as we barely squeezed through low caves opening out to coves of majestic mountains floating right on the water. We listened as the gentle giants echoed back every breath, sound and song in an infinite chorus that filled the entire bay with a cheerful melody. 

Our group hastily climbed 600 steps to the top of Ti Top island, which boasts the best vantage point of Halong Bay. At the top, we were greeted by lush mountains as far as the eye could see, framed between the water and the sky. The whole scene looked like it was pulled straight out of a movie with the little white junk boats lining the water, ready to explore the strange new world.

 We also explored Sung Sot cave, a large and lofty space with beautiful rock formations and an otherworldly landscape. The stalagmites and stalactites were nature’s very own masterpiece, kissing the walls of the cave together in elegant, intricate patterns as they were lit up in multicolor spotlights.  

 For a special treat, we had an evening of wine, dinner, song and dance in the huge cave across our luxury liner. The delightful dinner featured mouthwatering international cuisine specially prepared by a brigade of chefs and servers at one side of the vast cave. Our meal started off with prawn calypso sabayon with mango relish and creamy spring potato soup. Our delectable duo of entrees featured mouthwatering pan seared salmon fillet with spring vegetables and passion fruit emulsion and succulent fillet of Australian prime beef tenderloin with Cabernet Sauvignon sauce, mousseline potatoes and seasonal vegetables. To top off the wonderful meal, we were served tiramisu with strawberry coulis. Later in the evening, everyone got on the dance floor to melt away the calories that were definitely worth the degustation dinner.

 We retreated to our cabins with smiles in our hearts and on our faces. Our group vowed to return to this sanctuary where the people and their culture will arrest your senses and satisfy your hearts and souls. Halong Bay, with all its beauty, is a destination begging not only to be known but also, more importantly, to be experienced.

On our final day, we checked out the other properties of the Tuan Chau group and were amazed by the developments that we explored. We drove back to the city where the ladies and gentlemen in our group went shopping even more. It was a luxury as well to enjoy the shoppers haven one last time.

Many will think that Hanoi is a regimented place due to the many government institutions that can be found here. There may be a language barrier but the people here try their very best to satisfy each tourist and local who visits here.

Looking out to the whimsical streets, I still hear the echoes of the mountains deep within Halong Bay. I am witness to the beauty and grace of Hanoi, which borders on magic. Hanoi proves that with a little creativity and imagination, a humble abode could house a king, caves can dance and mountains sing. There are places so fantastic they seem to exist only in dreams. But if you open your eyes and see the world as it could be, there are places like Hanoi that lure you in with a gentle whisper of wind.

 

 

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For more information, call the Philippine Travel Agencies Association at 552-0026 to 29. You may also send inquiries to info@paradisecruises.vn or info@wlinktravel.com or log on to www.paradisecruises.vn or www.wlinktravel.com.

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Email the author at miladay.star@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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