Travels in Vietnam with Francesca

Traveling with a baby does pose this problem: We’re generally too busy traveling with the baby to write about traveling with the baby. Every day that the baby gets fed, changed, washed, played with, and coaxed to sleep a couple of times feels like a victory. If we also manage to see some sights, post a picture of the baby on Facebook for her relatives at home to enjoy, and eat some good meals, that’s a bonus. Writing about the day goes way down the list of priorities.

That said, here’s a rundown of the places in Vietnam we’ve visited. Photo galleries of many of them will be posted in the coming days. Mainly we’ve been traveling by train, working our way down the coast of this very long country in segments, from the northern capital to a point roughly halfway down the country (about 150 miles into what used to be South Vietnam). Along the way, we’ve seen huge changes in scenery and weather—from cities to farmland to mountains to beaches, and from cool and misty to hot and sunny and humid.

Hanoi: This city of 6 million people, the capital of Vietnam, is a crazy place. Full of very tall, very narrow houses painted bright colors, which remind me of slices of lavishly frosted layer cake. The old quarter, where we stayed, is a warren of narrow streets crammed full of shops and tiny eateries and gracefully decaying old houses from the 1910s and 1920s. The sidewalks are an obstacle course of parked motorbikes, cafe stools, hawkers’ wares, and families spilling from the tiny front rooms of their apartments into the open air. Here and there, older buildings with low, tiled roofs—many of them Confucian temples dedicated to famous figures associated with certain trades—hint at what Hanoi’s old quarter looked like when each street was the domain of a different craft guild.

Tam Coc: We chose this little town, near the provincial capital of Ninh Binh, for its beautiful floating karst landscape. Imagine twisted gray limestone crags, like those in a Chinese ink painting, rising out of a flat plain. Now imagine the plain flooded with green rice fields and overflowing rivers. And imagine gliding silently through that watery scene in a rowboat that a woman is rowing with her feet. That’s the mystique of Tam Coc. The low clouds and misty rain that hung over it while we were there made the resemblance to a Chinese landscape painting even stronger. A problem booking train tickets kept us in Tam Coc a day longer than we’d planned, but that gave us time to get our laundry done and discover a great little restaurant with wonderful grilled pork. While in town, we also sampled the local specialty: goat meat grilled with lemongrass and chilis, which was crispy and tender and delicious. (Francesca was a big fan!)

Dong Hoi: We used this beachside city as a jumping-off point for Phong Nha National Park, home to the world’s biggest cave (its discovery was the subject of a cover story in National Geographic magazine in January 2011). That cave is accessible only to explorers, but the park has dozens of other huge caverns. Some contain rivers, and we toured one by boat, which was an amazing, other-worldly experience.

Hue: The capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, Hue (pronounced “whey”) was the site of the imperial court of the Nguyen dynasty of emperors. There they built a smaller version of China’s Forbidden City and erected many beautiful temples and imperial tombs in park-like settings. Hue is known for its food; it’s also full of students, as it’s home to several prestigious schools.

Hoi An: This carefully preserved old trading city is self-consciously picturesque, in the manner of Colonial Williamsburg; Rottenberg, Germany; or Antigua, Guatemala. It’s very touristy but still charming, with its antique houses and lantern-lit riverfront. Hoi An is also famous for its silk, which we’ve been having fun shopping for.

An Bang beach: With temperatures around 90F, we left muggy Hoi An for a few days at a nearby beach. We rented a pretty house in a small village and spent our days relaxing under the shade of thatched umbrellas on the sand, bobbing in the waves, and eating lots of local seafood.

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