Hanoi and Halong Bay

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
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Trip End Apr 01, 2012


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Where I stayed

Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Thursday, January 26, 2012

We're staying at Hanoi Guesthouse in Hanoi and despite the very obvious name, there is only one of them were as in true asian style there are several hotel elegance, hotel princess, hotel sunshine etc and you are lucky to find the one you are booked at. This hostel may be even better than the last – the staff are friendly and helpful, the rooms are nice and breakfast is included.  I feel we may be spoiling ourselves too much but we’re enjoying it.  In our first morning in Hanoi, we leave the hostel map in hand and we get lost within the first half hour.  When we finally find our way back to roads we know, we realise that the whole time we were never more than fifteen minutes from the hostel at any point but we had managed to walk just off the map then lose our sense of direction completely.  Following directions from locals didn’t help either, in an effort to helpful they sent us the wrong way just so they could help us rather than shrug their shoulders.  Given that we haven’t got too lost in our trip yet, the credit goes to Hanoi.  Hanoi old town is a maze of little streets that curve and bend that traditionally were called whatever was sold on that street.  So you had cotton street, dog street (dog is delicacy here and no we won’t be trying it voluntarily) etc.  This has now lost a bit of the traditional sense as more and more tourist shops pop up but we definitely did find baby milk street and whisky street although I cannot confirm this due to my lack of understanding of Vietnamese.  We do have a better chance of understanding Vietnamese as at least it’s the roman alphabet.  So after getting back on track we walked around the old town where woman were selling fresh fruit and vegetables.  They were also selling fresh fish, when I say fresh fish I mean fresh fish.  The fish which were at least 1 foot long were still swimming around in small basins and so when you chose which fish you wanted they then cut it’s head off.  Can’t get fresher than that.  We arrived in Hanoi when it was still the bank holiday after new year and so most shops and cafes were shut and so the town was a little quieter than usual which turned out to be a good thing as gave us some peace to walk around without having to dodge motorbikes.  Everyone in Vietnam must have at least one scooter and that’s how they get about – whole familes, tables, pigs anything can go on the back of a scooter.  But the way they drive is the most interesting thing to watch.  When they come up to a junction they don’t stop or slow down they beep their horn and so junctions are full of motorbikes miraculously avoiding each other, pedestrians, cars and bikes and continuing on.  I think the pecking order goes like this: Fancy, expensive car; bus; normal car/taxi; motorbike; little hardy Vietnamese woman; locals; tourists (who learn to walk across the road at a steady pace and trust the system); finally tourists (who dart about the road trying to find space or eventually give up trying to cross the road). 

We then walked around the lake in the city centre which has a mini temple in the middle down to the French Quarter which is a bit more orderly.  The roads are wider, the buildings bigger and grander and everything seems a little cleaner.  We went to have a look at the Opera House and discovered a real Louis Vuitton, Dior and many other designer shops.  In a country where it is obvious many people struggle to get by, there seems to be a growing and booming middle class and then an extraordinarly wealthy upper class (we have assumed from these shops and the cars we saw i.e. Aston Martin, Bentley, and numerous other expensive cars around the city).  As all these products are priced at UK prices or higher, the gap between the rich and the poor seems to be enormous and is quite obvious in Hanoi. 

We grab some lunch at one of the few cafes open which was called Le Pub and looking back on our first Vietnamese food, I would call it average stir fry which was a bit disappointing.  However later on we did find a French cafe where I had a great hot chocolate.  I think as it was cold outside (we’re down to about 12 degrees) and the cafe felt like it could be in Paris, it was the first time it had felt like Christmas to me (bit late I know!)  This area around the cathedral was filled with cafes, shops and street stalls with all the Vietnamese sitting out on stools on the street having soups or drinks – it was quite a nice area, still a bit Parisian with an Asian twist.  For dinner we went to Little Hanoi which was our 3rd choice after finding the other two restaurants closed although the highlight of that walk round the restaurants was when Jonny managed to kick a rat.  At the restaurant I had tasty catfish and Jonny had a good 5 spice chicken dish but the restaurant was spoilt by the constant arrival and departure of tour groups and there is nothing like a tour group to spoil the atmosphere of somewhere then leave the door open when its cold outside. 

The next day is the 6th day of Vietnamese new year and it’s meant to be lucky to open up your business again so we had high hopes of having a bit more choice of where to go plus a bit more buzz to the place.  This did happen gradually after mid morning, stalls started opening up and outside the houses families were burning fake money and paper as offerings which is quite a cool to see.  We decided to go to the Temple of Literature which was the first university in Vietnam.  We didn’t realise that half of Hanoi also decided to go to the Temple Of Literature to offer money and incense to the gods.  Although it was busy, again there was a good buzz to the place and it was interesting to see more of the Vietnamese culture.  After the temple we headed for lunch at a restaurant that serves street food aka a safe environment to try street found where you even know what you’re eating as they have a menu.  This was one of my favourite places to eat so far as we sit in a covered courtyard, all the street food stalls are around the courtyard and we could pick a few plates to try.  We discovered we didn’t like Vietnamese pancakes, but pork noodle salad and fresh spring rolls.  Very tasty and fresh and each dish comes with a special dip – we are both definitely big fans of Vietnamese food now.  Next stop is the military museum which has a lot of artefacts from the Vietnam war, but not so many actual facts.  The most interesting part is seeing all the old aircrafts and guns – that is the scrap US places and the glorious Vietnamese guns that shot down these planes.  Finally we went up to see the Ho Chi Ming mausoleum from the outside as it was closed.  This area has been finished very well, with statues and nice garden areas – definitely a strong Communist influence to the design.  We walked back to the hostel, on the way noticing all the street cafes with chairs outside to sit on the street – perhaps another French influence.

On our way back we got distracted by beer hoi corner which is where the fresh beer is sold at about 15p a glass.  This is where we met Lowell and Natalie, an English couple that had been travelling around Vietnam.  We shared a couple beers with them before arranging to meet them later for drinks.  I quite like beer hoi but Jonny isn’t a great fan of the beer itself as it’s so watery, he prefers the sitting on the street part, watching the world go by.  We head out for dinner at a recommended Indian restaurant which was pretty good and they served proper naan bread, something that we haven’t seen much of on our trip.  Then we went for a few drinks with Lowell and Natalie which ended up in a bar full of expats, finding out what they all did out here.  One thing we learnt was that the main skill required was English and then you could 'consult’ on pretty much anything.

Next morning we’re picked up at 8am to go on a trip to Halong Bay.  It was a four drive to the port which included the obligatory half an hour stop at a rest spot aka shop selling all kinds of souvenirs.  When we arrived at the dock we were picked up by a tender and brought out to our boat.  On the way we had several moments of ‘please not that one, please not that one’ and in the end our boat was a nice, traditional, three level boat.  We had booked through the hostel and been shown pictures and the boat actually lived up to the pictures which was nice.  Our guide was a friendly Vietnamese girl that pretty good English if you bear in mind one fact.  In Vietnamese there are lots of silent letters in words and the Vietnamese tend to apply the same rules when speaking English.  Therefore it can be a bit of a guessing game of what word that might be but overall she was pretty good.  Once on the boat we were treated to a lunch of fresh seafood, salad and stir fries and we set sail out into the bay.  Halong Bay is a beautiful spot with thousands of little islands with limestone cliffs and green forest.  Unfortunately we were sharing this space with a lot of other tour boats and a couple of coal tankers but the sail was still pretty peaceful and interesting.  Especially when woman appear out of nowhere on row boats trying to sell beer, crisps and biscuits – random.  Our first stop was Surprise Cave which was a rather large cave which we could walk through.  We debated whether it had been made overly touristy but in the end we think the lighting actually helped us to see the scale of the cave and so it’s been done quite well.  The guide didn’t tell us much about the caves but did spend most her time pointing out obscure shapes like tiger rock, lucky Buddha rock.  We’re finding tours a bit strange regarding what the tour guides think tourists would want to know but more about that later.  Just outside the caves we were given the opportunity to kayak from the floating village.  People live in the bay permanently on boats and the children get a boat to school, all seems a bit strange but I think it stems from tradition.  Despite the weather and that we had just 25 minutes of allotted kayak time, most people took up the opportunity and headed out to see how many tour boats they would have to dodge to get anywhere.  We went for a quick kayak around one of the nearest islands, dodged a couple boats and managed to get back to the floating village only half soaked.  Our afternoon is activity filled and our next stop is at the beach for those who want a swim (bit chilly for that) or to walk up the hill to a viewpoint over the bay (most people chose this option).  A few hundred steep steps later we are at the top looking over the bay and the view is worth the climb, we even manage to squeeze into a spot to get our photo taken in between the many other tourists doing the same thing.  Then it’s back to the main boat to put on more layers before having a pre dinner beer and chatting with the other guests.  We had a good group of people on our tour, most pretty sociable including an English guy who was also staying at our hostel, an older American couple that got everyone chatting together, a French guy who had managed to make friends despite speaking very little English and a couple from Brighton who had been travelling even longer than us – 18 months.  Another good meal was served, we had some more beers and when we could hear that other boats were starting the karaoke, we started squid fishing off the back of the boat.  In the end we only caught one squid but it was a nice evening.  I even got to practice my French by translating so Dominique could be involved in the conversations. 

After a pretty good sleep – a very positive thing about Halong Bay is that you can barely feel that you’re on a boat – we have breakfast and have a look outside to discover that visibility today is pretty poor.  So that was the end of the photo taking but it was still worth looking out at the views as we headed back to shore and the bay is quite atmospheric with the low cloud. 

Back in Hanoi we met the Brighton couple (Jim and Katie) and the English guy (Ash) for dinner at New Day restaurant recommended by the hostel.  This was good, traditional Vietnamese food and we even tried some Vietnamese wine Dalat, which isn’t great.  That night again ended up in the expat bar which was certainly a bit quieter but we did get to find out more about what expats do here.  One guy in particular who owned the bar and a club was also advising the government on equality for woman. I thought the owned some bars and clubs restaurant story was a bit more plausible from the look of him but he definitely was an interesting character.

Our next day we head back to the street food court place for lunch and get a bit more adventurous with our ordering.  However at one point the waiter did come over to tell us that we were eating it wrong and showed us how to wrap our fresh rolls and dip them in the sauce.  We then went to the Ho Chi Ming museum which I found a little disappointing as it was more propaganda based with strange modern art installations and pictures of the newest bridge built aided by Russia.  However the one room on Mr Ho Chi Ming was interesting with photos of his life. 

After as we walked back to the hostel, we saw that there were large groups of people around the mopeds parked up.  The police seemed to be doing a clear up and a lot of mopeds were going into the back of the truck, not sure what was going on but people didn’t look too happy.  Then further down the road in front of us there was a loud bang and everyone started running towards where the sound was made.  Not wanting to get caught up in whatever was going on we crossed the road and waited to see what had happened. In the end it appeared that a large window had been smashed and that everyone had just run down to have a look at what was going on.  The crowd started getting bigger and traffic was building up as people on their mopeds were slowing down to see what was happening as well.  We still have no idea what was going on and that seems to be common for us, we just shrug and keep on walking.  For dinner we meet up with the same guys and go for a drink afterwards, but have to now part ways as we’re all moving on at different times and to different places. 

Our final day in Hanoi is spent wandering around the streets as this is the most interesting part of being in a Vietnamese city before we get on an overnight train bound for Hue.  The train is pretty basic but we were lucky enough to share a 4 berth cabin with another British couple and manage to get some sleep despite the abrupt braking technique of the driver.
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