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Cruise Around Hanoi on a Vintage Motorbike

One of Hanoi’s most visited area’s, the Old Quarter is filled with labyrinthine-like roads, pastel-coloured shop houses and is home to flocks of motorbikes. The Old Quarter is also home to the Hanoi Opera House, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Hoan Kiem Lake, and a maze of guild streets.

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The Old Quarters can easily be explored on foot, but why walk when you could tackle the labyrinthine streets through a unique perspective. Sidecar Tours Vietnam lets visitors cruise around the Old Quarter on Soviet-era Ural motorbikes.

The Old Quarter was established during imperial time centuries ago and has long been a centre of trade in the city. There are about 36 guild streets and each street is associated with a product, each of which was dedicated to a specific craft ranging from bamboo to copper, cotton, silk, and even lacquer-ware to name a few.

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Streets such as Hang Chieu Street is named after sleeping mats, having the lanes dedicated to straw bedding which would keep one cool during humid summers. However, despite being a dedicated street for sleeping mat, modern day Hang Chieu street has evolved to creating other products such as plastic bags.

At the end of Hang Chieu street comes the stately Quan Chuong Gate. It was built in 1749 and is the last of 21 brick and stone gates that once protected the fortified city. The rest of the gates were taken down during the French era.

Just past the gate is the Hang Ma Street, or Paper street. Hang Ma Street is not known for dedicated office or school stationery, instead it’s a street for paper offerings. Paper iterations of luxury items such as cars or bags that are burned as offerings to the deceased during festivals.

Known for being the busiest—and noisiest—street of the Old Quarter’s guild streets, Hang Thiec Street is famous for their welding, metal and sanding works. From tin boxes to dining utensils. The street is lined with overflowing shops full of tools and crafts.

The Old Quarter is truly Hanoi’s heart of the city. Every turn you take is a whole new world of commerce.

Vietnam is Moving Towards Ethical Elephant Tours

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Yok Don National Park in southern Vietnam has stopped offering elephant rides and now encourage visitors to see elephants in their natural habitat. This would also be the first ethical elephant experience of its kind in the country.

In the past, the Yok Don elephants (just like many others around the country) were chained up for extended periods of time, often without access to water. They would be harnessed with heavy riding baskets and could be carrying tourists around the part for nine hours a day. With this new change in place, visitors can instead observe the animals roaming freely in their natural habitat.

Yok Don is Vietnam’s largest nature reserve and is located near the Cambodian border. The nature reserve is also home to other wildlife such as leopards, red wolves, muntjac deer, monkeys and snakes.

The nature reserve has made this change as part of an initiative by Animals Asia which campaigns for long-term changes in animal welfare and tourism in China and Vietnam. The agreement will be valid up till April 2023 and the first tours have already taken place earlier this month. Over the next five years, the management is hopeful that this new model will provide as much or perhaps even more revenue for owners as compared to riding, and at the same time encourage mahouts and elephant tourism companies to follow suit.

The group of retired elephants consist of three females Bun Kham, Y’Khun and H’Non, and one bull, Thong Ngan. The elephants are now capable of forming bonds with one another and have begun displaying the naturally complex social and emotional behaviour that is often observed amongst herds living in the wild.

It is estimated that there are only 65 to 95 elephants surviving in the wild and according to conservationists, it is not viable for survival. The numbers has declined dramatically over the past few decades, from over 2,000 in the 1980s to the small numbers today. Campaigners and charities are going in with the goal of educating the industry around the world, and demonstrate how ethical elephant experiences can also be profitable, especially when it comes to retired and rescued animals.

Into the Abyss: Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave

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Located in Quang Binh province in the northern part of Vietnam lies one of the world’s largest caves – so large that it has its own localised weather system. Despite being discovered by a local named Ho-Kanh in 1991, this cave was only recently explored by the British Cave Research Association in 2009.
Text by Julian Rosario. Photos courtesy of Aidan Lyon.

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Vietnam: Village People

Northern Vietnam has only truly opened up to tourism in the 90s, but the speed of development in this country means that even though small villages are tucked in remote mountain area accessible only on foot, it doesn’t mean they have to live without electricity or cable TV.

Women in the terraced rice fields

Those who come to Vietnam can experience a traditional way of life in some of these far flung villages. Homestays are so common these days that outhouse latrines have been replaced by flushing toilets to make visitors feel more ‘at home’. Yet, it isn’t difficult to find a home where you’d have to take a torchlight to do your nightly business outdoors if you prefer.

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Hanoi: A Capital(ist) Idea

Hanoi vendor

Hanoi vendor

When looking for a taste of classic Indo-China, compact Hanoi makes a decidedly more laid back option to brash, bustling Ho Chi Minh City, but don’t let that fool the inner shopper in you. The entire Old Quarter of Hanoi was literally created over a the last few centuries as an excuse for shopaholics – a trend that still continues today.

The Old Quarter is divided into roughly 36 streets, which were created to each showcase a specific craft like silk, silver, lacquer or embroidered goods. However, they’ve been recently joined by decidedly more chic cafés, trendy stores and boutique hotels, so if you’re tired of haggling over a t-shirt from a man at a stall, you can head into a classy shop and pay three times the asking price for the exact same thing.

Needless to say, possessing a good set of bargaining skills is as essential as bringing a clean set of underwear.

St. Joseph's Cathedral

There are plenty of ways to spend money here. Regular visitors come to get tailor-made clothing (you can walk in a tailor’s, get measured and have your custom suit in hand before your flight the next day), while backpackers seem to collect communist paraphernalia like reproduction propaganda posters and small busts of “Uncle Ho”, and nothing says “Good Morning Vietnam” more than the ubiquitous yellow star t-shirt. Then there are gallery owners who flock here to stock up on artwork by Hanoi’s next Picasso.

A movable feast

Apart from shopping, the Old Quarter is also the best place to experience the city’s history, which dates back 1,000 years, and is influenced by everything from Vietnam’s ancient kings to French colonials. So you’ll see a pompous cathedral that sits alongside cramped local buildings so narrow you can touch both walls with your arms outstretched, or expensive French bistros right next to local eateries where locals sit on what look like tiny plastic stools made for toddlers.

When you’re hungry, you can head to a trendy café (of which Hanoi has a profusion of) or a squat-stall hawking the ubiquitous pho ga (chicken noodle soup). Throughout the city, you can see tiny women peddling an entire movable restaurant on her shoulder (she carries a pole on which she balances her cooking equipment, along with stools and collapsible tables), and in the backdrop is an expensive French or Italian restaurant. Such is the juxtaposition that is Hanoi.

Hanoi al fresco dining

Low-stool dining

Whether you’re an errant traveller or a hardened shopper disguised as a culture vulture, you’ll be glad to know that Hanoi’s citizens are far more capitalistic than Uncle Ho would have liked, and this is because competition drives them: if there’s a cafe that’s popular, you’ll find another (newer, better one) across the street. If there’s a boutique hotel that’s constantly full, you’ll find several others sprouting nearby.

This is all good news, because it means you can get very plush hotel rooms that cost less than one at a youth hostel in Hong Kong or French fare at a fraction of Parisian prices.

Vietnam’s Terraced Fields

Terraced rice fields

Northern Vietnam’s mountains are home to some of the most colourful hill tribes – like the Hmong, Tai and Dao – in Southeast Asia. Various tribal villages dot the countryside, each with its own architectural style and living arrangements. Rice is a staple here, and in this mountainous region, the only way to grow them is by making terraced fields. These fields drape every inch of the mountains, a testament to the people’s ingenuity and hardiness. Just before the harvest season, these fields enhance the beauty of the countryside when they turn electric green.