Vietnam - Hanoi

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
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Where I stayed
Hanoi Elegance Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

As soon as we touched down in Hanoi and bundled into the taxi, we knew we had stepped foot in a city that would be both hectic and crazy. Every vehicle on the road, be it car, van or one of the millions of motorbikes in the city drive permanently using the horn - there are no rules apart from the bigger vehicle gets right-of-way!
 
We knew we were in Vietnam straight away; even the highway from the airport to the hotel featured dozens of paddy fields, workers in conical hats and loads of free-roaming cows.
 
From this point on we encountered a whole list of problems. Now, we could fill an entire Travelpod with the hassles we came across in Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam but we'll try and make it brief!
 
The hotel we had booked before arriving in Vietnam turned out to be a disaster. Firstly it had at least 4 different names; Sofitel Plaza (not the nice big expensive one), Darling Back-Packers Guesthouse, The Real Darling Café, and Hello Vietnam Hotel. This is a common problem in Hanoi as hotels, and dishonest businessmen, will take the name of successful hotels and try to fool tourists into staying at the 'fake' one.
 
This was dodgy enough but on seeing the room we found that it was nothing like the website had shown. The hotel manager was mid-argument with another guest and turned very nasty. We asked another guest and found that these arguments (over dodgy tours) were commonplace. We checked the other hotel names on Tripadvisor.com and found very bad reports.
 
We walked down the street and found another hotel quick smart - sacrificing a nights rent just to get the hell out of there!
 
The problems with hotels would become a running theme of our Vietnam experience.
 
Another theme of our time in Vietnam was the totally alien way that you have to cross the road. There's no waiting for a clearing in the traffic, or for the lights to change to allow you across. The only way to cross is to go for it - slow and steady and letting the traffic steer around you - it's a very strange practice for westerners the first few times you attempt it!
 
The hotel we had settled on introduced us to another Hanoi quirk. Almost every building in the city is narrow and very tall (as rates are based on the width of street frontage) and few have elevators. We were right at the top, 82 steps up to the 5th floor.
 
Our new hotel helped to collect our bags, with two mopeds! We took our first (hair-raising) moped ride, through the back streets of the old quarter, to the previous hotel and then had to try and get all of our 8 bags back to the new hotel. This involved Verdi carrying two bags whilst walking the one moped (which was loaded with two big bags) back to the hotel. At the same time Andrew was carrying another three bags and chasing the other moped, through the crazy streets of Hanoi (PICS) to make sure the rucksack didn't fall off the back of the bike.
 
We wandered the streets looking for somewhere to eat, hoping for a place with a few westerners to give us some confidence of the quality of the food. We came across 69 Bar, Café, Restaurant and managed to get the last table. We were then joined by another English couple who asked if they could join us on the last available seats. We got chatting to Andy and Sarah, who had been travelling for 6 months, and we all got on really well, exchanging travel tips and stories before heading back to our hotel.
 
 
Now came the turn of our second hotel to mess us around. We had repeatedly asked for a double room on a lower floor and had been told that we could change to a second floor double the following day. To cut a long story short we were not given the room; despite having the room change confirmed three times we were finally told that the current occupants had extended their stay.
 
A long argument ensued; we were given a reduced rate and stayed for one more night before finding somewhere else!
 
 
Hanoi is often used as a base for travellers to venture out to two very different places in Northern Vietnam; Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay. We had planned to go to both but discovered that the trip to Sa Pa would require at least 3 days to do it any justice. Sa Pa is a region in the far north-west and is popular for trekking and visiting hill-tribe villages. We did not have the time to visit Sa Pa and had already seen hill-tribes in Chiang Mai so opted to visit Ha Long Bay instead.
 
Ha Long Bay is on the northeast coast and can be visited on a day-trip, though most travellers stay overnight on a junk (traditional boat) to spread out the long return bus journey.
 
There are loads of places in Hanoi that can organise these tours, but in the same way as there are many dodgy hotels there are also a glut of un-reputable tour operators. After a bit of research we discovered that there are two very good tour operators; "Handspan" and "Kangaroo Café". We used the latter as they are slightly cheaper!
We spent few hours at the café, looking through their tour catalogue and eating a great meal with proper cups of English Tea! The place is run by an Aussie and thus has a certain standard of service and cleanliness that you often don't find in Asia.
 
 
We checked into our third hotel in 3 days, the Hanoi Elegance Hotel (PIC), and found that we still couldn't get away from the annoying Vietnamese habit of wanting to keep your passports. Every hotel we had been to was desperate to keep our passports, each time we had to strongly insist that we got them back. Apparently this is done as a security measure in case the guest racks up a huge phone bill, however, we have heard that many hotels will withhold your passport for ransom if you don't book a tour through them! After taking your details there is absolutely NO reason for hotels to keep your passport (the most valuable thing you carry) and we always make sure we get it back the same day.
 
 
Finally settled in a hotel room we started our sightseeing. First stop was Hoan Kiem Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple that juts out into the water (PICS). The temple is an elegant little place with few outstanding features. A giant tortoise replica is encased in the temple and accompanies the legend that a huge golden tortoise once gave a magical sword to a king of Vietnam. Apparently giant tortoises still live in the lake but are seldom seen. A tower in the middle of the lake also pays homage to this legend with a statue of the shelled beast atop its turreted walls.
 
 
In an attempt to get Verdi locked up for various heinous crimes against Andrew we made our way around to the 'Hanoi Hilton' - the infamous prison (PICS). Unfortunately it was closed for its 2-hour lunch break and we didn't have the inclination to wait around for another 90 minutes for it to reopen.
 
Instead we walked back to the lake and called in at the recommended 'Fanny's Ice-cream'! (PIC) Andrew couldn't help but snigger when we paid for Fanny's goods with a handful of Dong! (Vietnamese currency)
 
 
We found that Vietnam has a huge market in fake books. Lonely Planet guides for every country you can imagine are sold in photocopied form for a fraction of the original price. Some copies can be extremely poor with illegible maps and whole sections missing, but some can be a real steal. We would like to say that we didn't aid this highly unethical (some might say illegal) business but we needed a book and they had it - cost us less than 3 quid!
 
 
The popular Water Puppet Show kept us off the streets for an hour during the stifling midday heat. The show was absolutely packed to the rafters and was a very clever form of puppetry, where the puppeteers are behind a screen and control the puppets via long levers that go under the screen and work under the water. (PICS) Unfortunately the show dragged on a bit and the continuous traditional music that plays throughout the show started to drive us slowly insane!
 
 
Back in the Old Quarter of Hanoi we found the Tamarind vegetarian café. The café is based in the same shop as the aforementioned 'Handspan' tour company and serves some of the most amazing food we have ever had! This surprised us, not only because it was in Southeast Asia but also because it had NO MEAT! Andrew couldn't quite understand how meals with no dead animals mixed in could be so damn tasty! We would recommend this café to anyone who goes to Hanoi - be you veggie or not!
 
 
Our next meal was back at 69 (across the street from Tamarind) and in stark contrast to our first meal we were very disappointed. Verdi's chicken dish must have been made from a rubber chicken, whereas Andrew's Fish Clay Pot was more bone and clay pot than it was fish. We complained, got Andrew's meal refunded and hot-footed it back to Tamarind for a proper feed!
 
 
On our way to the HoChiMinh Mausoleum we discovered yet another Vietnamese scam. Our taxi driver agreed freely to use his meter to take us across town, this is fairly unheard of in Asia as most drivers would rather agree an extortionate price rather than charge the real amount shown on the meter. As soon as the journey began he started to point out tourist sights to us and was very helpful. He would also continually beep his horn (just like everyone else in Hanoi) and it wasn't until halfway through the journey, when the price had already crept over what we had anticipated, that we realised what was going on. Every time he pointed out a sight he would double-beep his horn and the meter would shoot up. His horn was linked to the meter and as his helpful hints distracted us the meter would jump up a few thousand Dong extra. We caught on to his trick but it was too late - we arrived at the mausoleum and had to pay over double the regular rate. Never again!
 
 
It took about half an hour to get into the mausoleum (PIC); after walking around in circles to get to the only entrance, then queuing to check in our bags, then queuing with thousands of other visitors to get inside. There was tight security all around, making sure people didn't use cameras...or speak...or lift their hands up past their sides!
 
Eventually we filed past the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the revered liberator of the Vietnamese people from French occupation. We were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard inside the crypt and within 1 minute we were back outside. The most ironic, and frankly disgraceful, part of the whole place is that Ho Chi Minh had requested that he be cremated! The Vietnamese people ignored his final wishes and stuck him in a glass box for millions of people to gawp at - now that's respect!
 
 
In the same complex as the mausoleum lie the palace, museum and One-pillar Pagoda. We didn't bother with the first two but stopped to take a few pictures of the unique design of the pagoda (PICS). We then found the nearby Temple of Literature, a large temple with many well-dressed buildings and some interesting little statues (PICS). Unfortunately it wasn't quite the 'quiet haven from the noise, dirt and hustle & bustle of the city' that it is promoted as - we could still clearly hear all the horns being over-used outside the temple walls.
 
The temple featured a group of musicians playing traditional instruments, a few of which were fascinating, especially one which was played by clapping your hands next to different length bamboo tubes (PICS).
 
 
Rather than risk another scam artist taxi driver and knowing full well that our well fed butts weren't going to fit on the back of one moped (along with the driver) we refused all the offers (or should that be nagging hassle!) from drivers outside the temple and opted to walk all the way back to the lake.
 
En route we popped into a pharmacy to pick up some meds for Verdi's newest cold. After trying to explain what we wanted we were promptly given some 'prescription only' tablets, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be for prevention of meningitis! We swapped them for some Paracetamol and Strepsils!
 
 
The morning of our Ha Long Bay trip we took our luggage over to our 4th Hanoi hotel, the Win Hotel around the corner from Kangaroo Café. The taxi driver tried to charge us 50,000 Dong even though our hotel manager had just agreed 20,000 Dong right in front of the driver!!! One look from Verdi and he knew exactly how much he was getting!
 
We met our 4 tour companions outside Kangaroo Café and boarded the minibus. For the next 33 hours we would spend our time with Nandon & Michelle (an Indian-American and Chinese-English-Canadian from Dubai), Samuel & Fanni (Swiss) and our tour guide.
 
The 3˝-hour bus journey took us past local workers in paddy fields, complex man-made irrigation systems, cows, weddings, wild dogs, and loads of pineapple stalls (PICS). We also noticed a strange feature of Vietnamese buildings, that most only have the front wall painted - albeit very decoratively - the rest of the walls are left as bare cement!
 
The obligatory stop at a handicapped handicraft market split our journey in two before we arrived at Ha Long City and grabbed a buffet lunch at a local hotel restaurant.
 
We joined the throngs of tourists jostling to get onto their boats in the harbour. Around 1000 boats can go out into Ha Long Bay each day and we were looking for just one! (PIC) We found a large boat and were told to 'walk-the-plank' to get aboard, and were then taken out of the harbour to reach our smaller, 8-person junk. We settled into our well-kept traditional boat and appreciated our decision to go for the smaller boat with less people. There was plenty of room for 6 of us! (PIC)
 
The boat motored out into the bay, passing a beach and pagoda set high on one of the limestone outcrops (PIC). We could have opted to make the climb up to the pagoda but we all preferred to stay on board the boat and continue chatting. The conversation flowed well, surprising due to the different nationalities on board, but we all had similar interests and travel stories to share.
 
Most boats go straight to the main caves in the bay but our tour guide suggested we go the following day when it would be much quieter. We took his advice and cracked open some beers on the top deck. The views from the boat were a mixture of fantastic and disappointing. The heavy fog in the bay meant that visibility was fairly poor but it did add a certain mystical and ethereal feel to the views. (PICS)
 
As an added bonus one of the crewmembers took the six of us out into a lagoon area of the bay on a small rowing boat before we returned for a great dinner (PICS).
 
No sooner were the dinner plates cleared away then the Karaoke was powered up! Asians seem to love their karaoke and perform with such exuberance and energy- totally out of character with their otherwise calm and inhibited lives. After subjecting us to half a dozen ear-shattering renditions of 60's American classics our tour guide opened the floor to his guests. Nandon bravely took the stand and belted out a couple of early 70's hits (well, they were apparently hits where he comes from!). A few more Vietnamese crackers and Andrew had no choice but to give in to the pressure and take the floor. Starting simple with 'The Bear Necessities' Andrew warmed up the crowd before completing his eclectic set with 'Ice, Ice Baby', 'Mack the Knife' and 'Bye, Bye, Bye'. (PICS)
 
Enough was enough and as the applause died down Andrew decided his singing days were over - at least until the next time! The six of us chatted and ploughed through the alcohol until the early hours and then retired to our 'cosy' cabins.
 
 
The following morning, as promised, saw us leave the boat for the caves. The multi-levelled caves had a number of impressive formations and were well lit to give a great atmosphere. The one slightly phallic creation had us dumbstruck, especially being lit in such a way - must be the Vietnamese twisted sense of humour! (PICS)
 
Having conquered over 400 steps up and down we returned to the boat and made our way back to the harbour. Another meal at the hotel restaurant and another 3˝-hour bus ride and we were back in Hanoi. The following day would see us head south.
 

We have been asked repeatedly whether we would recommend the Ha Long Bay trip. Many tourists find that for one reason or another they are only able to do either Sa Pa or Ha Long Bay and want to know if the latter is worth the time and money. Our simple answer is probably 'No'. We had a really good time on the trip but this was mainly due to being lucky enough to be placed with 4 other people we clicked with. The bus journey is a long one and the scenery is invariably foggy so the views are seldom as good as the glossy brochures suggest. The water in the bay is both freezing cold and quite dirty so doesn't encourage a dip. 

There are alternatives to Ha Long Bay, such as Phang Nga in Phuket and Tam Coc (known as 'Ha Long Bay in the Rice Paddies'). The latter can be done in a day trip from Hanoi.
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