With 15 days in Vietnam, the scope of our visit had to be limited. We stuck to northern Vietnam and didn’t deviate too far off the tourist trail in order to take in the highlights. We had two goals: to see lots of limestone karst, and to get a taste of hill tribe culture. Outside of Hanoi, we made three stops: Lan Ha Bay, Tam Coc, and Sa Pa and the surrounding villages.
Limestone karst formations are one of my favorite geological features. Limestone is porous and susceptible to erosion that leaves behind all kind of lumpy and bumpy formations. I have always thought that limestone karst landscapes have a special feeling. Maybe it’s because limestone is made of the skeletons of coral and other sea creatures, so it represents a joining of land and sea. Limestone hills can conceal caves with underground rivers and spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. In the Yucatan, cenotes or sinkholes were believed to be passages to the underworld.
I had seen beautiful limestone karst caves and cliffs in southern France, Bosnia, and Mexico, but nothing like the spectacular karst scenery that stretches across Vietnam, Laos, and southern China. Seeing these landscapes was a priority on … Read more
Big cities haven’t been the highlight of our trip. With a growing middle class and globalization, a lot of Asian cities feel boringly similar to home in many ways. Local people shop in air-conditioned malls and drive shiny new cars. Pollution and traffic jams are rampant. The best experiences of our trip have typically been on remote beaches or mountain trails away from massive population centers.
But Hanoi has something special. With a population of 7 million and serious air pollution, it has its share of the problems that affect all the world’s major cities. But the Old Quarter and the surrounding neighborhoods in the core of the city retain an unmistakable charm. It’s noisy, hectic, and pedestrians need to perform elaborate dances to avoid motorbike collisions. Sidewalks aren’t for walking: they’re where street food vendors set out tiny plastic stools for customers, fruit sellers thread between traffic with shoulder poles or bicycle baskets, and merchants hawk their goods in streets that are still designated by trade. Our friend and seasoned traveler Arik once compared the Old Quarter of Hanoi to Kathmandu as cities that have an absolutely unique and special atmosphere, and we agree.… Read more