Published: May 16th 2011May 9th 2011
The sleeper train to Hanoi was, by all relevant standards, a remarkably comfortable affair with the train not stopping too many times during the night. Even better, for the first time, everyone was in our carriage by the time we set off so they didn't wake us up in the night, until 4:00 am when we had to get off the train.
A short, if slightly dubious taxi ride later (dodgy meter), and we were outside our hotel with 24 hour check-in facing a metal shutter and no doorway. At the insistence of the people sitting on the street we banged on the gate and, a few minutes later we were greeted, somewhat bleary eyed, by Miss Moon, the hotel owner. Miraculously our room was the only free one so we could check in and actually get some more sleep.
Despite the odd nights sleep we got up early the next morning and headed out to apply for a Mongolian visa. After the taxi driver eventually found the consulate we handed over the passports hoping the man had understood that we wanted the application done on the same day and headed out with two aims: firstly to explore Hanoi;
secondly to find some US dollars to pay for the visa.
Both of these were somewhat difficult to achieve. Most of the main attractions in Hanoi, namely the the museum and the mausoleum all seem to shut at about 11:30, meaning they were closing by the time we actually made it to them. That said we continued unperturbed and checked out the One Pillar Pagoda, which is basically what is sounds like - a small pagoda on one pillar in some water. Granted it wasn't the original one pillar pagoda as this was knocked down by the French, but it was a replca with a concrete pillar. We also checked out the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh's stilt house. Checked out is a bit of an over exaggerations as you were very limited as to what you could actually see. So we saw two sides of the Presidental Palace from the outside and three rooms of the stilt house that Ho may have stayed in every now and again. We also got to see some of his old cars and some rooms made up in the style he would have had them. Overall definetly not worth the entrance
We also checked out the Temple of Literature. The temple had 4 courtyards with some nice gardens and lots of stone turtles with tablets on the back commemorating all the people who had successfully passed through what had previously been the first form of university in Vietnam. It was actually quite impressive, which surprised me slightly, and was easily the best of the tourist sites that we saw during the day. It was also a nice respite from the crazy Hanoi traffic.
As for the visas, it appears that there is a lack of money exchangers in Hanoi. The banks, after querying why you would want to change the beloved Vietnamese Dong into any other currency, explained that you couldn't change the Dong in any event. We eventually found out that we could exchange the money in the jewellers at a fairly good rate. With the money in hand we headed over to the consulate and collected our passports with a nice new visa attached.
The next day we headed out to do the walking tour in the guide book around the old quarter of Hanoi. It was really interesting to learn about all the different
streets, named after the trades that used to be carried out there and also to explore some more temples. The tour was a little disjointed due to some bad maps of the area, but getting lost is all part of the fun. We also booked the tour to Halong Bay, to include a day on Cat Ba island. It was a little pricey but we had heard that a lot of tour companies did not follow the itinerarys that they claimed so we paid a bit more to go to a recommended company that would follow the itinerary.
We ended the walking tour a little early, as we needed to freshen up before the nights main entertainment, the water puppet show. A much more classy showing than Punch and Judy on water the puppetry was very impressive, but nothing to the authentic Vientamese music that was being played to accompany the puppet show. It was very impressive, if a little ruined at the end by all the people taking photos with flashes (the artists were trying to hide as they made the dragon fly and the affect was completely lost)
The next day we headed out early to
the travel agent to get the bus to Halong Bay. It was a long bus drive, stopping off at an overpriced station, before arriving at the Bay and getting on a very nice boat. We then had lunch as we cruised out into Halong Bay before having a little time to relax before the first activity, kayaking. Stephie acquitted herself well, at times, but seemed much more interested in taking photos then paddling the kayak. That said it was a great, if slightly wet afternoon kayaking around the bay and into some of the lagoons.
After the kayaking, a second boat took us to Cat Ba island where we would be staying in the national park. We were a little apprehensive as the bungalow did not look the greatest but, after a brief bike ride, we arrived in the village we would be staying in and found that the accommodation was actually rather good. We ate another great meal before heading off for an early night ready to climb navy peak, which loomed ominously in front of our bungalow.
The next day we got up and had a hearty breakfast before getting ready to climb to Navy Peak,
a former lookout during the Vietnam War. Our guide told us to take a small bottle of water and that it would only take about 2 hours in total. Whilst he was about right with the time he was slightly wrong about the water requirements and when I arrived at the top I was about ready to collapse and fall back to the bottom. That said the views over the bay were terrific and definetly worth the climb. The way down was a little more treacherous, as it was very slippy but by the time I reached the bottom I had only landed on mine once, and without breaking a leg this time!
After the climb we had a quick shower before another great meal. We then biked back to the port to get the boat to take us to the sleeping boat waiting in the bay. It wasn't quite as nice as the boat on the first day and, whilst the new arrivals went kayaking we swam in the bay. It was a bit cold but you soon got used to it. We then enjoyed a sunset cruise to the sleeping point before eating yet more food. I
think by the end we'd had about 21 courses throughout the day.
On the final day we woke up early to watch yet another anticlimatic sunrise before heading down for another large breakfast. We then headed over to the amazing cave, the largest cave in Halong Bay. These caves are so called not only due to the size of them, but also due to all of the images that can be seen in the shape of the rocks. Personally I think some of the images and creatures you could see would only be apparent after a hefty dose of alcohol! That said, Steph did manage to spot the rare and mystical “Large Lemon Squeezer in the Sky” shape.
All that was left after the caves was another large, if slightly disappointing meal, before heading back to Hanoi where we killed some time using the internet in the travel agents before getting on yet another sleeper train, this time heading off to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa and where we would eventually cross into China.
There are more photos below