For Gabrielle

February 2016.

Exploring Vietnam’s natural wonders

Dear Gabrielle,

Welcome to Vietnam. I have prepared an itinerary that reflects both the natural wonders and cultural richness of this fascinating country. When you arrive in Hanoi, you will be greeted by your guide, Bao, who is delighted to accompany you through these ancient lands, their enduring cultures, and their timelessness roads. She will provide a formal overview to your itinerary on your way to the Metropole Hotel.

Day 1: Hanoi

Your journey through Vietnam begins with the life of the city, past and present, experienced through some of the iconic and insightful cultural sites that shaped the country as we know it today. Begin your exploration of Hanoi at Ho Chi Minh’s cottage house, a piece of political and architectural history nestled among the charm of ochre-colored colonial buildings, tree-lined boulevards, and scenic lakes.

Then, feel the serenity of the One Pillar Pagoda, originally built in 1049, which rests, lotus-like, on a single stone pillar emerging from the water. Inside the Pagoda is a statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Quan The Am Bo Tat, for whom the temple was built, with her legendary “thousand arms and thousand eyes.”

The cottage and the pagoda will be put more fully in perspective during your visit to the Temple of Literature, the first University for the sons of mandarins, where you will get an overview of Hanoi culture.

In the afternoon, a visit to the Hanoi Ethnology Museum will offer a chance to familiarize yourself with Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. From fishing instruments, to jewelry, to an outdoor area blooming with ethnic houses, the Museum’s rich displays showcase the cultural heritages of diverse communities. On the way back to the main town, given your passion for ethnological studies, you will be delighted by a stop at 54 Traditions Gallery, which houses a fine collection of antiques, artifacts and art.

Once back in town, a walking tour will transport you back through time via the Old Quarter of “36 streets and 36 wares,” dating back to the 11th century when this quarter of Hanoi was bustling with merchants and households, silk traders and jewelers. The street names nowadays still reflect these trade specializations, although few of them remain exclusively devoted to their original commerce.

At the end of the day, as the sun stretches itself across the calm surface of the Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword), walk above and amid the reflection on the water over the iconic brilliant red Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge) on your way to the Ngoc Son Temple. Traversing the bridge is, in itself, a contemplative act, and stepping foot on the island that houses the temple brings homes this sacredness.

Finally, I have made reservations for you at the restaurant we discussed. Enjoy a late evening dinner of traditional Bun Bo Nam Bo, southern rice noodle dish with aromatic lemongrass beef.

Day 2: Halong Bay

Given your preference to spend the majority of your trip exploring Vietnam’s vast land and seascape, you will surely be pleased by spending your next full day on the water. Fly by seaplane and enjoy a bird’s eye view of Halong Bay and board your private junk for an overnight cruise. The emerald waters are rendered magical by the limestone islands, clothed in rainforest, that dot the Gulf of Tonkin. This is a paradise for those nature-lovers who wish to scuba dive, snorkel, rock climb or simply sail along, enjoying the view of water and mountains from beneath the dragon-wing sails of the junk.

Day 3: Quang Binh province

Move from sea to land and the expansive limestone cave passages of Quang Binh province in central Vietnam. After landing in Dong Hoi and settling into the hotel you requested, you will have a chance to prepare for five days of exploring the caves and four nights of a private camp beneath the stars and stalactites.

But first, a visit to Hang Va Cave, laced with raft and toyor cones, will set the stage for the larger caves you will explore later. These natural formations are an entirely different kind of architecture than what you experienced in Hanoi, shaped by waters, winds and time. Far removed from the city, the caves remind us that travel is about losing oneself in the strangeness of place in order to find oneself again.

Days 4-9: Son Doong Cave

Hidden in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, the recently discovered Son Doong Cave is a landscape so foreign it seems more likely to have been created in the imagination than by nature. On this five-day adventure, you will trek through jungle into a cave so enormous, it could consume a Boeing 747 and a skyscraper in one gulp. Leaving the dense vegetation outside, you will enter an entirely different flourishing jungle under the ground. Misty clouds envelop the whole scene, swirling around the stalactites and stalagmites, proving that the cave has its own weather system.

The cave was discovered in 2009 by two British explorers who, many years prior, were drawn by a local hunter’s tale of a place where he claimed “the ground fell away.” Over the last seven years, fewer people have set foot in Son Doong than have summited Everest since it was first conquered over six decades ago. Experts in geology, wildlife and spelunking continue to find new species in the cave and to revise upwards their estimate of its true size—it is generally considered to be the largest yet discovered.

Days 10-14: Nui Chua National Park

You will depart from the natural wonder of Son Doong Cave to a cultural wonder: the resort you requested on the coast of the Nui Chua National Park. After such a thorough exploration of the Vietnam’s unique caverns, five days of meditative rest and reflection are surely in order. The park is one of Vietnam’s largest natural conservation sites, and the resort overlooks the heart-stoppingly beautiful East Sea and pristine Vinh Hy Bay. Both forest and marine habitats are flourishing in the park, and during a walk by the water or hike in the mountains, you’re likely to see once threatened but now thriving wildlife and vibrant flora and fauna unlike anything you will find at home.

Gabrielle, it has been my pleasure to design your inaugural trip to Asia in a way that reflected your appreciation of nature and culture. I look forward to curating your further explorations of this vast, geographically and culturally vibrant continent. If I can be of any help do give me a call.