Vietnam - A Week In Hanoi and Stunning Halong Bay


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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hanoi
May 25th 2013
Published: May 31st 2013
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Hanoi Street SceneHanoi Street SceneHanoi Street Scene

In the Old Quarter, not far from my hotel.
I was so thankful to finally arrive in Hanoi. It has taken me so long to get here and now I find myself waiting for 45 minutes at the baggage carousel in the airport before my luggage finally appears.

I rush through customs and no one there gives me a second glance. In the arrivals hall I look for the person holding a sign with my name, as I have already paid for a private transfer to my hotel. He is there, a representative of 'Trails Of Indochina' tours with his brand new car. He whisked me away and 40 minutes later drops me outside the An Hung Hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

This hotel is everything I could wish for. Attentive staff, a lovely modern room with a good bed, a spa bath and a rather large TV on the wall. All modern cons we take for granted at home, but this is the best room I've stayed in since leaving home and I plan to enjoy it!

My first priority now I'm in Hanoi was to replace my burnt out USB adaptor. Without it I can't charge my iPad or camera, two essential pieces of equipment. I explained my problem to the reception staff and showed them what I needed to buy. They made a couple of phone calls to local shops and found what I wanted. They then ordered me a taxi to get there, and told me how much the fare should be. So, I was able to replace my adaptor with a good quality one without any hassles, and the taxi driver even waited while I shopped and returned me to the hotel. I was so grateful for their help, they saved me time and stress and got the problem sorted in no time. If only all hotel staff were like that!

As I had no sleep the night before, I wasn't interested in leaving my room this afternoon. I plugged in my iPad and caught up online, read a new book, enjoyed a fabulous shower, ordered room service for dinner and had an early night.

Saturday morning I woke feeling refreshed and was looking forward to exploring the streets around my hotel. An Hung Hotel is situated in the Old Quarter, which is Hanoi's historic heart. The streets are narrow and congested and crossing the road is an
Hanoi Street SceneHanoi Street SceneHanoi Street Scene

Standing on the corner...
art form. Opportunities to part with my Vietnamese dong are endless. The shops are filled to overflowing with clothing, cosmetics, musical instruments, paper products, plumbing supplies, jewellery, spices, silk embroideries, woven mats, the list is endless.

In the 13th century, Hanio's 36 guilds established themselves here, each taking a different street, hence the original name of '36 streets'. But that has grown to more than 50 streets today, typically named Hang (merchandise) followed by the word for the product traditionally sold in that street. Exploring the maze of streets is fascinating. The area is known for it's tunnel or tube houses. The shophouses are long and narrow, owing to an ancient tax that charged shop owners for the width of their storefronts. Thus they did a work-around – keeping storefronts as narrow as possible, while maximising space out the back.

I knew I would get lost wandering around, and I did. But, the streets are well signed, I had a map supplied by the hotel, and I was able to find my way around without any problems. I also got to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is within the boundaries of The Old Quarter, and 20 minutes walk from
Hanoi Artist at WorkHanoi Artist at WorkHanoi Artist at Work

At first glance I thought these were photographs, but they're not. They are charcoal drawings.
my hotel. Ngoc Son Temple is situated in the lake and can be reached by crossing a graceful, red painted wooden bridge. It's an active place of worship, where monks and devotees perform their religious duties, and the smell of burning joss sticks filled the air. The lake is surrounded by shaded walkways and is a pleasant place to spend some time. I ate lunch at 'The Little Kitchen' and enjoyed the water views before returning to my hotel to get out of the heat.

Later in the afternoon, when it was cooler, I ventured out again. This time I was looking for an address - 87 Ma May Street. The house at this address was built at the end of the 19th century and is now heritage listed. It's a fine example of the traditional tube house with the facade built entirely of timber and all the rooms and courtyards preserved. It's furnished with traditional style furniture and the front room operates as a shop, with a small selection of mainly paper and ceramic items for sale. It was an interesting, and rather peaceful place, to walk around as hardly anyone was there.

It's another fine hot
Ngoc Son TempleNgoc Son TempleNgoc Son Temple

Walkway to the temple in Hoan Kiem Lake.
day on Sunday and I decided to visit The Temple of Literature. It was marked on my map, but looked too far to walk, so I hired a cycle rickshaw to do the hard work for me. I wasn't there for long, it was over crowded with other tourists, school kids and couples taking wedding photos. I've found I dislike visiting attractions which are over run with other people. I prefer to have places to myself, even though I know this is unreasonable and down right impossible at times.

I walked the 2klm from there back to Hoan Kiem Lake. I thought I would check out the Water Puppet Theatre, but the next show was hours away and I knew I'd be long gone by then. I had lunch in the cafe next door and browsed in some shops on my way back to the hotel. The mercury was hitting 42 degrees, and I decided a cold shower and a sleep in the air conditioning were a good way to spend the afternoon.

Later that evening, after 7.00pm, I headed out again to the night markets. I didn't have far to go as they were at the end
Ngoc Son TempleNgoc Son TempleNgoc Son Temple

Calligraphy artist in the temple.
of the street. Stands had been set up down the centre of the road which was blocked off to traffic. There wasn't anything there I hadn't already seen, as all the products on offer were overflow from the surrounding shops, mainly clothing, cheap jewellery, sunglasses and covers for iPhones. I walked through it once, wasn't tempted to purchase anything and returned to the hotel. Looks like another early night.

On Monday I had booked myself into a full day trip to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc, about 95klm south of Hanoi, in Ninh Binh Province. This trip was with Go Asia Travel, cost $35 and was booked through the hotel. The mini van was right on time (8.00am) for my pickup. We had a couple of other pickups to do, at other hotels in The Old Quarter, and then we were underway.

Not a lot to see in Hoa Lu, which was the capital of Vietnam back in the 10th century, except a couple of temples. They both reminded me of the Temple of Literature, as you had to pass through a number of gateways before the actual temple was reached. I took a couple of quick photos
Hoan Kiem LakeHoan Kiem LakeHoan Kiem Lake

Small temple on a tiny island in the lake.
and was ready to move on.

I found Tam Coc, meaning three caves, more interesting. Often referred to as 'inland Halong Bay', as it has the same limestone peaks towering over the landscape. Tam Coc covers a 2klm stretch of the Ngo Dong River and boasts a landscape of surreal beauty, with rice paddies from the waters edge to the limestone peaks in the distance.

It is a very popular destination and an endless procession of rowboats, each ferrying two tourists, made its way up and down the river. We passed through the three caves after which the area is named, the trip taking about two hours in total. The rowers used their feet to propel the oars, whilst holding umbrellas over their heads. Not as easy as it looks, I'm sure! Lunch at a local restaurant was included and we also had a 40 minute cycle ride through the local village and surrounding area. It was a long day and everyone dozed in the minivan on the way back to Hanoi. I was dropped at my hotel around 6.30pm,where I ordered room service for dinner and had an early night.

On Tuesday morning, I'm packed up and ready for my 7.30am pickup for Halong Bay, a four and a half hour trip away. I'll be away for two nights so have checked out of An Hung Hotel, but I'm leaving my suitcase in storage there as I'll be back On Thursday night. I have packed my backpack with everything I'll need for a couple of days/nights away.

This 3 day 2 night Halong Bay trip was with Hu'ong Hai Junk Tours. I had high expectations of this few days cruising the bay, and was looking forward to it.

Majestic - inspiring - words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay. Imagine 2000 or more limestone islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong Bay is Vietnam's number one tourist attraction in the north east, and is visited by tourists all year round. In 1994 it was designated a World Heritage Site.

There were only seven people on the boat and we quickly settled into our cabins. There were a few things I wasn't happy with during the trip. Were my expectations too high? I don't think so.....

The meals on the trip were a set menu and beautifully presented but lunch and dinner consisted mainly of seafood. I'm not a great lover of seafood and it would have been nice to have options. It would also have been handy to be able to purchase snack foods on board, but nothing was available. There was a small bar selling outrageously expensive drinks at $6 each, and wine from $30 a bottle + corkage.

The boat was a little run down and disembarking was sometimes unsafe. Standing on a chair, then climbing over the railing onto the edge of the boat and stepping quickly off onto the wharf didn't sit well with me. Accidents can happen too easily. The cabin air conditioning was switched off during the day, which I queried, and there was no hot water at all. The boat lacked comfort in the common areas. What a difference a couple of sofas would have made, allowing passengers to linger and interact in comfort. There were timber deck chairs on the upper deck but they were in the blazing sun/rain and not a place to sit in the middle of the day. Complimentary tea and
87 Ma May Street87 Ma May Street87 Ma May Street

This is a traditional house which has been preserved and is now heritage listed.
coffee would have been appreciated too. Just a little more consideration for passenger comfort would have made all the difference.

Despite my gripes, it was a relaxing couple of days. On the first day out we visited a cave complex called Hang Sun Sot which had three vast chambers. Coloured lights placed in strategic points lit up the caves giving them a surreal appearance. Other activities were swimming and kayaking and just enjoying the spectacular scenery.

It rained on Wednesday morning, but cleared later in the day. It had set in again by Thursday morning as the boat headed back to port at Halong City. I was back in Hanoi and safely settled into my room at An Hung Hotel by 4.00pm, and it was still raining.

Friday is my last day in Hanoi and there's still lots I haven't seen or done. But it's impossible to cover everything and today I have decided to hire a bicycle and ride around West Lake. With a shoreline of 17klm, Tay Ho, or West Lake is Hanoi's largest. So, I got reception to call a taxi for me. I'm heading to Don's a Chef's Bistro, situated on the lakeside
87 Ma May Street87 Ma May Street87 Ma May Street

A game of backgammon set out on a table.
pathway. According to my Lonely Planet guide I should be able to hire a bicycle here.

I found the bistro without any problems and was able to hire a bicycle (70,000 dong or $3.50 per hour) and set off down the pathway on my 17klm ride. The path follows the edge of the lake all the way around, so I shouldn't get lost. There wasn't really a lot to see, but it was nice to be out on a bike anyway. The ride took me just under two hours, I wasn't in any hurry. When I returned the bike to Don's I sat in their air conditioning, indulged in a fruit smoothie and planned my next move.

I decided to walk back to Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is Hanoi's oldest Buddhist temple, situated on the lake. I had passed it earlier but couldn't go inside as I had no lock or chain for the bike. As luck would have it, the temple was closed when I got there and wasn't reopening for another two hours.

So, I grabbed another taxi back to the Water Puppet Theatre near Hoan Kiem Lake, thinking I'll see a show. The ticket
Wooden DollsWooden DollsWooden Dolls

These weird little characters can be yours...
office was closed, as the next show was at 5.00pm, four hours away. I'm not having much luck today. So it's back to my air conditioned hotel room, for a shower and a nap. I have kept the room for an extra night even though I'm being picked up at 8.30pm to catch the overnight train to Sapa. I hate being 'homeless' after checkout time and it's worth every cent of the $25 tariff to have the use of the room until I leave.

Tomorrow morning I wake up in Lao Cai, which is right on the Vietnam-China Border. From here I have a private transfer to my accomodation in Sapa, my next destination.


Additional photos below
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Tube Houses

A good example of the old tube houses. These days there are shops at the front of them all.
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Blue and white ceramics for sale.
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A musical instrument shop. Red drums in the foreground.
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Hanoi Street Scene

Flower seller.


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