Well for us, a tour group of ten tripping around Vietnam, it’s 4 hours but that doesn’t stop the grown-ups asking the kiddie question “are we there yet?”. We’ve emerged unscathed from a whirlwind itinerary around Ha Noi and now find ourselves in Ninh Binh Province, 130kms south where we stop at Phat Diem Catholic stone cathedral and Bai Dinh Pagoda that teeters above rugged limestone cliffs and where Enlightenment is a mere thousand steps away.
Think Good, Speak Good, Do Good is our guide Dong’s philosophy and we’re looking forward to checking into Emeralda Resort Ninh Binh to do just that. Nestled at the edge of Van Long Nature Reserve, elements of the tropical rainforest echo through the resort’s architectural choices of natural timbers and stone. 172 spacious guest rooms are divided into 9 clusters surrounded by lush gardens and after poolside cocktails, we’re wrangled into the resort’s Organics restaurant where a delicate fusion of French and Asian cuisines delivers a divinely healthy dinner.
Rowing on the River
Next morning, we join a procession of traditional sampans along the southern margin of the Red River delta in the Trang An Tourism Landscape Complex, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site and Vietnam’s original capital.
Selected by ancient kings for the perfect protection afforded by encircling limestone mountains, our multi-tasking local oars woman skims across jade water rowing with her feet while chatting animatedly on the mobile. Entering low-hanging limestone caves where water has carved an aquatic pathway over millennia, the walls are sweating almost as much as we are! Crouching to avoid great pendulous growths we emerge into sunlit lushness where unobtrusive temples lodge in forested hillsides and limestone sculptures loom all around. Despite the river traffic, it’s a scene of enduring serenity.
Meanwhile, back on the bus….
On our 4 hour drive north to Ha Long Bay, settlements spring up like towns in the Old West. Narrow concrete houses, an architectural signature in these parts, perch by riverbanks interspersed with hotels and karaoke clubs. Clusters of small enterprises keep local commerce humming and the countryside is a pastiche of meandering milky waterways patch-worked with rice paddies and banana palms.
We’ve entered Quang Ninh Province, the richest in the country, whose fortunes can be attributed to Ha Long Bay’s tourism – it attracts 4 million international visitors and countless locals each year – followed by natural resources, particularly coal. And the kicker: a deep sea port that links Vietnamese produce with Chinese markets.
There’s no doubt that things are on the move here in Ha Long. A new airport is slated to open in 2017 and the USD450 million Ocean Park, a beachfront Disneyland-style centrepiece of amusements and accommodation opens in 2018. We’ve a good view of the building site that’s being transformed into this tourist mecca from our superior room at the Novotel Ha Long, a popular leisure hotel and conference spot for Chinese and Asian guests.
It’s a smart property, the Executive Lounge on the 12th floor will provide VIP service for house guests on two executive floors while the spa and gym have mesmerising views of Ha Long Bay’s mystical limestone mountains, our next port of call for an overnight cruise. We’ll see whether coal’s natural resource and Ha Long Bay’s natural beauty make for good bed-fellows…..
Tags: a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, Bai Dinh Pagoda, cocktails, Enlightenment, Executive Lounge, French and Asian cuisines, Ha Long Bay, Ha Noi, limestone caves, limestone mountains, Ninh Binh Province, Novotel Ha Long, Phat Diem Catholic stone cathedral, Quang Ninh Province, Red River delta, Rowing on the River, Trang An Tourism Landscape Complex, Travel Vietnam, tropical rainforest, Van Long Nature Reserve