Right after breakfast, I walked to the nearest Tube station to catch a train to Victoria Coach Station, exactly as the tour brochure at my hotel in London’s Earl’s Court had recommended. Boarding a mini tour bus at Victoria Station, I was excitedly on my way to a half-day tour of Stonehenge. The image of Stonehenge was a familiar one, as many computers come preloaded with it as a desktop wallpaper, but I knew very little else about the ancient place.
I needn’t have worried though as the bus driver’s introductory talk was packed with all the interesting information. “It was so saddening when I heard one man say that it is just a pile of big stones,” the driver said with genuine hurt in his voice, expressing dismay at visitors who have no sense of history. After all, what appears to be the remains of incomplete, but ‘thoughtfully arranged big rocks’ at Stonehenge is nearly 3,500 years old, making it one of the most important prehistoric monuments in Britain.
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at Stonehenge is the surrounding perfect English countryside — beautiful, lush green fields interspersed with delightfully yellow strips of rapeseed; a perfectly laid highway that runs more like an artist’s brush, making one long stroke from end to end.
Vehicles, especially long trucks loaded with new cars, suddenly appear up the curve and disappear below, before reappearing at the next curve and finally disappearing out of sight.
Lending a picture-perfect touch was a flock of well-grown fluffy sheep grazing on the hillsides. It was especially delightful to watch them drink together from neatly arranged water troughs.
Prehistoric labour of love
Each visitor is provided an audio guide, with a pre-recorded voice narrating the history of the place. The best part about this arrangement is that you can always pause and rewind to the sections you may have missed at first hearing.
The structure we see today is believed to have come up in three stages — an earth bank and a ditch came up in the first stage; the second stage is the dramatic part in which gigantic bluestones were dragged on rollers and sledges over a 240-mile track, all the way from Preseli Mountains to Amesbury. The third stage, set around 2000 BC, saw the arrival of Sarsen stones; after 1500 BC, the bluestones were rearranged to appear as we see them today. This truly is an awe-inspiring history in stones.
Popular heritage site
Located a little more than an hour away from London, in the English county of Wiltshire, the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge is a popular tourist attraction. The site is also revered as a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids and others who follow pagan or neo-pagan beliefs; in June it turns into a popular venue for those celebrating the Summer Solstice.
‘The most luxurious hotel’ reads the board, right outside Grand Plaza, standing tall in the heart of Hanoi. Though it sounds too confident, it can be your choice, particularly if you had a tiring journey boarding a flight at an unearthly hour as most flight from Indian cities are. If you are too eager to soak in what the hotel had to offer, it may not disappoint you, as it does offer luxury honestly. Obviously there are choices when it comes to finding a hotel in Hanoi.
The beauty of this chaotic yet idyllic Vietnam city, the spectacular Halong Bay and its magical islands are bound to leave you enamoured.
There is a clear evidence of lavish space and grandeur in the facade and the interior starting from the hotel lobby, with high roofs and crafty decor in dominating gold. Le Jardin, created tastefully with a touch of fine interiors, offers all-day dining with a specialty being the Vietnamese style boiled vegetables with steamed rice. Grand Plaza also hosts the elegant Taoyuan restaurant that serves a choice of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai specialties. The Fuji offers an extensive menu of authentic Korean and Japanese dishes with traditional decor to suit your mood. In all if you are on a quick trip and want to give the usual Hilton, Intercontinental and Sofitel Metropole a miss, this abode is good.
Now that bit done, if you are eager to experience the true beauty of Hanoi, the capital city has lots to offer. Starting from the Hanoi Museum as a witness to the past, the grand old St James church standing tall as a testimony to strong faith, the most famous Red Bridge as a perfect stage for every tourist to strike a pose and much more. Talking of exploring Hanoi, one cannot resist but mention the unbelievable traffic. Yes, unbelievable even for those who traverse in unruly Indian traffic every day. For any first time visitor, the city’s weird traffic patterns is a challenge to even understand. And hundreds of lean and mean motorbikes swamping you the moment you step out makes for a freaky start.
Enroute to Halong Bay
The place that amazes you most is Halong Bay. Beautifully described by Vietnam’s national poet Nguyen Trai as ‘a marvel of the earth erected towards the high skies’, a first glance at it brings the complete imagery of his poetic line to life. Situated in the North-East region of Vietnam, Halong Bay is part of Bac Bo Gulf and comprises the sea area of Halong City, Cam Pha Town and a part of Van Don island district, Quang Ninh Province. It’s a reasonably long drive, and even though the road isn’t kind enough to allow a smooth ride, it is worth the effort to reach this natural beauty. It also borders Cat Ba Island to the South-West and the Mainland to the west with a 120km-long coastline. Enroute, one can stop by to witness local artists who are physically challenged, creating incredible works of art, be it with thread or paint. It is difficult to get out of this place without picking a piece of their craft. The chances are that you may instantly fall in love with many a piece that depict so beautifully, the real imagery that is so Vietnam.
The Luxury Cruise
Soon a captivating smell of the sea that draws you, a busy pier dotted with a large number of boats, some small and beautifully crafted, others big like a modern cruise. All of them head to the Halong Bay. Now when it comes to taking this beautiful trip, there are a few options but your pick could well be ‘the Paradise Peak’ cruise. Stylishly crafted in a traditional way, this high-end boutique boat is a classical work of art made of wood and from the finest materials that can be found in Vietnam. As one of the paradise cruise line, the Paradise Peak is a most refined one in its class and beauty that offers royal luxury and comfort. The cruise offers 8 lavishly designed suites, an awesome spa treatment, a fine dining restaurant and an outdoor bar.
An interesting sight of the fruit vendors who hop in and out of boats in the middle of the waters with such ease teaches you a lesson or two ‘on-the-sea-mobile-delivery’. When the cruise gets closer to nature’s wonder, you could spot the varied shaped rocks lapped up in green, appearing in the middle of the sea in large numbers. The different shades of grey and green kept getting clearer as you get closer.
Halong Bay covers a total area of over 1500 km, including 1,969 islands of various sizes, 989 of which have been given names. Limestone and schist are concentrated in two main zones: the South-East which belongs to Bai Tu Long Bay and the South-West that belongs to Halong Bay. It appears as if parts of earth right in the middle of the sea just woke up and stretched towards the sky in an attempt to reach greater heights, competing with each other. Exploring the bay, you will find those legendary stone islands appearing to keep changing their shapes depending on the angle and natural light. And it is bound to keep a shutterbug very busy. Based on their interesting shapes, these islands are given many amusing names such as ‘Human head islet’, ‘Dragon Islet’, ‘Cock and hen Islet’ and so on.
These natural islands are considered to be between 250 and 280 million years old. Apart from the magnificent mountains coated thickly in rich, the mystery of Halong Bay is incomplete without the grottoes and caves. Each of them flaunts its own grandiose architectural creations. At the first stop you get to explore the most remarkable caves that are unbelievably formed right into the massive mountains. Over the last 100 years, the advance of the sea and the strong erosion by the heavily salted water has resulted in geological evolution with deep engravings on these stones, adding to its real beauty. The regaling guide will point out and urge you to see familiar forms such as dancing dragons, elephants, a man’s face and so on with a bit of imagination. Simply amazing, it makes you stand in awe while witnessing the precious geological museum that has been naturally preserved over 300 million years. The sight of sun-rays piecing through a small opening into the caves adds drama to every shot on your lenses.
Sailing in to discover
After witnessing the captivating caves that was recognised as the world natural heritage by the committee of UNESCO twice, you get onto the boats to sail through some of the spectacular sights.
Passing through some of most beautiful rocky forms in the sea, you will suddenly find yourself entering a little ‘village on water’. A few families have made this their own with their boat-houses. They even have a school for the little ones. Operating the boats and kayaks for the tourist is their livelihood. And right there, you find yourself all set to go kayaking to one of the best ever hide-outs that you may have ever been in your life. With only one narrow entry to get in you will find yourself in a natural hide-out surrounded by beautiful green topped tall rocks, still green water and blue sky above. You may so not want to get out of this paradise when you are there, as it brings an end to this awesome trip. While sailing back to the pier, the interesting setting of the rocks on the sea is sure to keep you busy with your camera.
Back in the city, the ‘historical Hanoi’ promises to keep you busy walking through the numerous streets with shops, food and an adorable over-dose of vietnamese culture.