Our last stop was north Vietnam where we would be based for 8 nights exploring the capital city Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh.
We arrived in Hanoi at night via a Vietnam Airlines flight sandwiched between a group of American High School students feeling pretty old. We progressed through immigration with relative ease as we were eligible for a visa exemption. British citizens staying for fewer than 15 days don’t need a visa up until June 2021.
We collected our luggage and went out to find our hotel transfer. We were warned by our hotel about common scams at the airport where unauthorised taxi drivers would copy names and hotels on signs to trick you into using their services. As a precaution, our hotel gave us a code to check with the driver to ensure we were being collected by the right guy. We found him, checked codes and were on our way to Hanoi.
Once we hit the Old Quarter in Hanoi, I had never seen so many mopeds and bikes in one place and our poor driver was expected to navigate the two wheeled packed streets without knocking anyone off. He used his horn… a lot, but in southeast Asia, they are used as warnings not as acts of aggression like back home in the UK. They are used to let someone in front know you are there and our poor driver had to let a lot of people know, he was there.
Once we arrived at our hotel we were tired and relieved. The staff at JM Marvel Hotel were amazing at getting us checked in quickly and taking us straight to our room where we pretty much crashed.
Over the next two days we explored the city, feeling like we were risking our lives every time we crossed the road. Never before were the wise words of Dory more useful in a real life situation… “Just keep swimming…” or in this case, “Just keep walking…”. However, Hanoi is a beautiful, busy city that is full of personality and a range of architecture.
We explored the National History Museum, which was less informative than other national museums we have been to, but extremely interesting none the less. It went a long way to explaining the mix of architecture in Hanoi with room after room reflecting the continuous occupations by neighbouring empires. The information was limited but was still able to portray some idea of the different periods in the Vietnamese history, especially the sections dedicated to the Vietnam war. It is definitely worth the $4 entrance fee which covers the whole day, allowing you to leave and return if you want to take a break or if the museum closes for an hour and a half for its own lunch break… which it did!
The following day we were collected from our hotel for our Vespa Adventure tour of Hanoi. It was gift given to us by my husband’s cricket club. It was not something we had ever considered doing ourselves but on the morning of the tour, we were a mix of excitement to be shown the city in such an unusual way and uncertainty after spending two days watching how bikes ruled the roads.
Being so close to the chaotic traffic was terrifying to begin with and there was a deep imprint of the side of the vespa on the inside of my legs from trying to prevent the amputation of my knees. We met ‘Muse’ our tour guide at a local restaurant where we ordered a drink and had a nice welcoming chat. She explained the tour and asked us for permission to take photographs.
After, we all hopped on the bikes (us on the back of course) and headed to the first sight seeing spot, Long Biên Bridge, a bridge that had lasted since the French occupation and was the only train crossing into the city. We actually happened to be driving along it as the train was crossing. We stopped half way down the bridge so Muse could give us the history lesson and point out to us a small community living on the river.
It was hard to hear how some people couldn’t afford to live in the city so they live on the water and attempt to farm along the riverbed to make money.
Our next stop was the famous Hanoi’s train street where Muse explained some facts. It is a famous instagram location and I was thrilled to see it but it turned out to be a little uncomfortable to be honest. Our guide kept pointing out people’s homes or shacks to show us examples of the poor life in Hanoi as if they were tourist attractions… whilst some of the people were there! Overcoming the minor disrespect, it was so impressive to see how the residents here had formed such a tight community and they were happy. A true example of how money is not the most important thing in life… its the people you surround yourself with. I took some pictures of the street itself and it is scary to think that the train passes so close to these people’s homes without causing any damage or injury.
On the way back to the bikes we saw a barber working out on the street. Why pay for rent if you don’t have to?
We then headed to a local market where only locals attended. There Muse, showed us around pointing out the various unusual foods then stopping at a fruit stall where we were allowed to try some fresh fruit. We opted to try a mangosteen and a fresh pomegranate. They were delicious.
Moving on we headed to a local temple. In some ways it was very different to those in Japan but in other ways it was very similar. The Buddha imagery was very different and the symbolic imagery around was uniquely Vietnamese including the five coloured flag and the statues of a Flamingo standing on a Tortoise. However the guardians guarding the temple were very similar to those in Japan.
Just around the corner from the temple was a small pond where the remains of the US B52 bomber plane that was shot down during the Vietnam war still protruded out of the water.
Our final stop was at a traditional tea house where we were treated to a ceremonial sound ceremony and some red lotus tea. It was a unique experience and we enjoyed having a casual chat with Muse and our tea host. Before leaving we felt a little pressured to buy some tea to take away with us so we picked one similar to the one we had tasted. It was inexpensive and as we hadn’t paid for the tour itself, we really didn’t mind but we did feel we were taken advantage of.
It was here that we parted ways with Muse and our trusty drivers returned us to our hotel. Later that week we received an email with all the photos taken of us during the day… for free. It was a nice touch and some of them I have included in this post.
After three really fun days exploring the streets of Hanoi, we were ready for our Ha Long Bay cruise. There are so many cruise companies to choose from and it felt like an impossible decision but I came across Indochina Junk on one of the instagram accounts I was following. I did some research on them of my own and decided to take the plunge. It turned out to be a great choice!
We were picked up from our hotel by a luxury shared minivan at 7:40am. There was a French family of four already inside so we took the back seats behind Sideshow Bob and Jean Paul Gaultier. It took 3 and a half hours to get to the port with a quick stop at a very strange statue shop that sold every conceivable souvenir possible. We arrived at the port around midday and after a short wait, was being being shipped to our cruise boat.
We were then taken to the Dragon Legend 2 where we were given a safety briefing then given our room key to relax before lunch.
Lunch was a set menu with five courses. There was a mix of seafood, meat and vegetables cooked in traditional Vietnamese style (but they can cater for almost all dietary needs).
After lunch there was an afternoon activity choosing kayaking, taking a slow boat to one of the island beaches or staying on the boat to relax on the sun lounger deck. I wanted to kayak but with Rob’s dislike of water and my dehydration headache brewing, we decided to relax on the sun lounger deck instead. It was perfect, we had the whole place to ourselves and the sun was shining. It was the most relaxed we had felt all trip.
After the activity everyone returned and our serene afternoon turned into a bit of a boat party with music and alcohol being served. It was quite fun actually especially as my headache had gone. We stayed for a while then went back to our room to get ready for dinner. Again it was a mammoth set menu of beautifully cooked Vietnamese food served dish after dish after dish. The staff then treated us to some entertainment including music and some impressive magic tricks performed by Harry Potter (yes that was his nickname).
The next morning we were up early for a buffet breakfast before heading out on a cave excursion. It was busy, full of tourists, but we climbed the 100 steps to explore the cave. It was small and extremely humid in there but the view from outside was beautiful.
We headed back to the boat where we had some time to relax before check out at 10am. There was a final buffet lunch before returning to land to wait for our transfer back to Hanoi. We ended up having the minibus all to ourselves on the way to a traditional old village where we watched a water puppet show.
It was cute and a nice break on the journey back.
Indochina Junk made our visit to Ha Long Bay a very special and enjoyable experience. They are one of the few companies that operate around Bai Tu Long Bay- a less explored part of the famous world UNESCO site. It was so quiet that we felt like we were the only people out there amongst the thousand plus islands for most of the cruise. It was only at night when we were anchored and at the cave that we ever saw other boats. The rest of the time we were completely alone and it was perfect. Also if you are an Eco Warrior, they care about the nature and have made great strides to reducing plastic pollution. They offered a free drink to anyone who collect a kilogram of plastic during the kayak activity and there was limited plastic used on board. I would highly recommend them.
Once back at the hotel in Hanoi, the staff at the JM Marvel were amazing…again! They had hot coffee waiting for us, our luggage was already in our room and it turns out we had been upgraded. They had remembered we were travelling to Ninh Binh the next day and sorted out our train tickets for us. When we got into the room, they had left a ‘Welcome Home’ message on the bed! We loved it!
I had heard mixed things about Vietnam and it made me apprehensive about our visit. The one thing that worried me the most was haggling. I had no idea how to haggle or what to do and after my trip, I have no idea why I would bother! Before our holiday, I had my eye on a round rattan bag for a while. I found some beautiful ones in Singapore and Cambodia but they were around $50. When we arrived in Vietnam I found one and when I asked how much, the man said $10! How could I justify haggling down a price that was already $40 less than all the others I had seen? Why would I try to argue the price down of something when it is already considerably less than the price I would pay everywhere else? It was this man’s job and could be his livelihood and it is no skin off my nose if I paid a couple of dollars extra so he could earn more. As long no one is malicious or rude about it, we both win and at the end of the day…. I don’t have to buy it! Is it just me who thinks that?
Just like Cambodia, Hanoi completely surprised us. The people were always kind and considerate, from the amazing staff at our hotel, the young girl who gave us directions when we looked lost and the lovely women sitting outside her stall who gave me a thumbs up when I made it across the road unscathed!
Our trip was nearly at an end but not before a quick side trip to Tam Coc in Ninh Binh province before we headed home.
Next stop… Ninh Binh