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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 Homestays are so common these days that outhouse latrines have been replaced by flushing toilets to make visitors feel more ‘at home’.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.