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Flavor and Beauty of Vietnam's UNESCO Sites

A golden sunrise illuminated the Old Quarter's ancient dwellings draped in fuchsia bougainvilleas. It also lit the Thu Bon River, where the small fishing boats had just pulled up to shore. It was 5:30 a.m. as I approached the central marketplace, where I experienced the tastes, sounds, and energy—the real life of the local people. Vietnam's gem-city of Hoi An was just awakening.

Women in conical straw hats with bright smiles balanced long poles over their shoulders. Their poles were heavy with hanging baskets stuffed with vegetables, fish, and even live geese, as they scurried along the dirt pathways. The endless array of baskets filled with herbs covered the ground in a blanket of greenery, while pungent fish and spice aromas permeated the air.

I stopped and tasted a small, spiny chom chom, or rambuten, similar in sweetness to a lychee, proffered by an old woman sitting cross-legged on the ground surrounded by exotic fruits.

By 6:30 a.m., all was quiet as the fishing boats pulled out and the larger vessels, piled with motorbikes, entered the shoreline. Before the town fully awoke, I strolled along Bach Dang Street in view of the Japanese Covered Bridge (circa 1593), replete with a roof and temple. According to legend, the bridge began the Year of the Monkey and was completed in the Year of the Dog, so forms of each of these animals are on opposite sides to guard the bridge.

Hoi An is a shopping mecca, with tailor shops lining the narrow streets from Tran Hang Dao Street to Le Loi, and everywhere in between. Some people brought photos and designs of clothes to be made, since custom-made clothing is so inexpensive and can be ready within 24 hours or less.

The city showcases not only clothing shops but also an array of art galleries, cafés, and high-quality restaurants. Ly Café 22, run by chef/owner Miss Ly, serves unforgettable fried rice, which has lingered on my taste buds since. Another favorite local dish, White Rose, consists of steamed shrimp wrapped like a flower in rice paper.

Other dishes that I enjoyed were Cau Lau, a thick, rice noodle soup topped with sprouts and pork; and Com Ga, a rice dish with steamed chicken and fresh herbs. The Cargo Club, a French-style patisserie, was a place where I ruminated over a foamy latté and luscious pastry. For ale lovers, most beers are 50 cents or $10,000 dongs.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in Central Vietnam, Hoi An was once a popular trading port as early as the 17th century. Vestiges of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and French cultures are still evident amid the colorful architecture of this relatively calm enclave.

I caught a glimpse of the city at a good time, devoid of racing motorbikes, which are restricted several days and hours a week. What a relief, since the country has about 24 million of these bikes zooming throughout its cities.

Hoi An was just one stop on my 10-day, small-group journey of the historic sites of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. The tour was organized by eco- and socially-conscious Travel Indochina, experts in Asian travel exploring the history, culture, natural beauty, and people of this area.

Our next venture was a four-hour drive along the Hai Van Pass on the National Highway to another UNESCO Site, Hue, once the capital during the Ngugen dynasty in the 19th century. We traveled along the scenic Pacific coastline reminiscent of California's Big Sur, with bold mountain ranges wrapping around the waters. The difference, however, was the farmlands riddled with rice paddies, accented by colorful lotus flowers, and boys on buffalos posing along the roadside.

We made a stop 30 minutes from Hoi An, just south of Danang, at the towering Marble Mountains, where we climbed some 200 steps up a stone and marble stairway (a bit slippery going down). A larger-than-life Buddha and female Buddha (the Goddess of Mercy) awaited us amid the strong scent of incense that filled the decorated pagodas.

The hidden cave there (once a hospital for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War) was the most memorable, with a cascade of light shooting through the top opening that created a surreal, mystical effect.

We finally arrived at Hue, the sun glistening on the Perfume River, which got its name from the scent of wild ginger blowing in from the forested area nearby.

This city of pagodas, palaces, tombs, and 130 Buddhist temples survived destruction from conflicts with the French and the United States. The moated citadel, built in 1804, has maintained its beauty despite the ravages of war.

We walked through the ceremonial halls, garden areas, and in front of the Forbidden City, once reserved for the privacy of the emperor but now open to the public. Our next stop was the Tomb of Tu Duc alongside a lake with lily pads. Yet, the most impressive site was the Tomb of Khai Dinh, named after its emperor in the 1900s, which had an awesome sculptured stairway and a courtyard full of stone soldiers guarding the tomb.

The afternoon sightseeing ended with lunch at Mandarin Café on Hung Vuong Street, just a few blocks from our hotel and the river. The owner, Mr. Cu, is also an accomplished photographer who sells his postcards to visitors. I couldn't resist a handful.

As I walked back to the hotel, I discovered a cultural center, XQ Co Do (established April 1994), where young girls were demonstrating the revitalized art of Vietnamese silk embroidery. I then relaxed at a spa adjacent to the Huong Giang Hotel with an hour's worth of full leg and foot massage for a mere $8.00.

After Hue, we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, where the city was celebrating its 1,000-year birthday. The city touts lots of history, from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the body of the former communist leader resides, the nearby Presidential Palace, and Ho Chi Minh Museum, to the 12th century Confucian Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university—all surrounded by some of the country's most stunning French colonial architecture.

Hanoi has six million people and a swarm of three million motor bikes, which I had to skirt constantly while saying many prayers!

The wooden junk glides past limestone islands jutting from emerald waters in Halong Bay.

The highlight of my journey through the historic cities of Vietnam was the UNESCO Site and natural wonder of Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Just a four-hour drive east of the capital city of Hanoi, Halong Bay drew me into a magical setting of 3,000 limestone islands, formed from sea deposits millions of years ago, jutting out of emerald waters. However, legend tells how a dragon's flailing tail carved out these magnificent islets.

Our group stayed overnight on a junk, or large wooden boat, which appeared to glide along the bay as we relaxed on board while viewing awesome grottoes and caves. As we toured through one cave, I was amazed by the massive stalactites carved by the water over millions of years and the spaciousness of the tunnels, which made this cave appear more like a fantasy underworld—a la "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Later, the group donned bathing suits and joyfully jumped into the cool, clear waters as a relief from the heat.

During the next morning's breakfast, I savored the fresh, sweet taste of pineapple and papaya on my palate, which was enough to energize me for the return trip back to Hanoi.

As I gazed out at the diamond-sparkling waters, I realized how grateful I was to be far away from any remembrances of war, the whizzing of motor bikes, and the frenetic city life. All was so peaceful and calm amid Mother Nature's creative sculptures and landscape.

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