Halong Bay and Hanoi
We arrived in Hanoi at 5:30am from the overnight train, feeling fresh and breezy! (minging!) We got a taxi to 3B hotel, where we will be staying for a couple of days. The taxi was too pricey and clearly ripped us off (£6 instead of £2). We found out later that you should only use green taxis in Hanoi, since all the other companies are unofficial and have faster meters.
We arrived and had time to kill until 8am when we would be picked up by our Indochina Junk Cruise to Halong Bay. We had breakfast and the minibus picked us up on time for the four hours journey to the harbour where the cruise starts. During breakfast we had a bit of a panic since they took our big bags by mistake together with a big group of people that were leaving. I luckily spotted that they were missing in the reception where I left them and asked where they were. We stopped the minivan just in time before it left with all of our belongings!
Along the way we stopped in a tourist trap workshop / shop with a lot of pricey goods made by disabled people, including a lot of huge statues for the garden. Just what we needed! Everything cost too much for us to buy anything! (plus we only buy very tiny things as need to carry them for rest of trip) But was in a good cause. We then stopped for lunch and saw a Water Puppet show which was weird but impressive!
We boarded the boat at 1pm, the weather was cold and drizzly but the scenery was so beautiful with all the limestone islands popping out in the mist and fog. There are two sides of Halong Bay, and we are visiting the less touristy part on the East side. There are in total over 1900 islands / limestone formations. Our boat called Dragon Pearl I was very beautiful, all made of wood in an old style and we were also very lucky with the cabin as we got one at the end of the boat, with a big window looking backwards which was very private and gave us great views at the same time.
At 3:30 we learnt from the chef how to make deep fried spring rolls and we really enjoyed particularly the eating part!
We then stopped at 4pm after cruising for a couple of hours, and went out kayaking from a beach in one of the islands. It was beautiful, and the sea was so calm and peaceful we felt in heaven! So relaxing and evocative. After an hour of paddling, we came back for a nice hot shower. The cabins are amazing, with real bathroom and everything. Accommodates a maximum of 20 guests, and we are 18 so it doesn’t feel crazy like the huge cruise boats that you sometimes see at sea.
At 7pm we took our tender boat (which we carry around next to the main boat) and got transferred to the island and had dinner in one of the most unusual locations… a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. It was so beautiful, with candles all around, and a big table where we got served a delicious 8 course meal.
It was such an unbelievable experience, we kept looking around us to make sure it was really happening! We feel blessed and so lucky to be able to experience such fantastic things as part of our trip. We got back to the boat at 9:30 and instantly fell asleep after not having much sleep the night before on the crazy train!
We woke up at 8:30 after a long sleep, and had a tasty traditional breakfast with noodles soup while cruising along the bay. Weather was still cloudy and coldish but you never get used to the amazing views around you. After breakfast we cruised until 10:30 and then went kayaking for two hours around the beautiful islands, we saw some amazing caves and some cool birds (sea eagles and hornbills), as well as some crazy vegetation, growing inexplicably on the limestone formations.
It was so beautiful and relaxing to paddle along the islands with such calm waters. The only shame is that the water can be very very dirty at times, with oil, rubbish, dead fish and a lot of jellyfish. We also saw a small floating village, which looked really interesting.
We came back and had another great lunch on board, and then needed a nap to recover from the huge amount of food!
After cruising for a bit longer we then got to another spot for kayaking at 4:30pm. This time there were less things to see, and our back was already suffering from the kayaking done in the morning, so we ended up coming back to the boat fairly quickly.
Dinner on the boat was again delicious, and the chef also performed some amazing food carving which was very impressive! At the end, to send us off on our last night the entire crew got introduced, a total of 9 people, and they sang us a traditional vietnamese love song which was very sweet.
We then tried some squid fishing, but I got bored really quickly also because it was getting pretty cold, and I left Bruce to it… of course he will claim he caught something but there will never be the proof, as Dave French knows!
(They use a light to attract fish at night, and we saw loads of small flying fish with their little wings swimming around it)
Wake up at 7 and breakfast at 7:30. Literally one ray of sun came out, but didn’t last very long. It was nice to read a book on the top deck though, as the temperature got warmer straight away. In the morning we went to visit a floating village where 150 people live, we saw their floating houses, strangely with pets, dogs and cats living on floating houses! We mentioned that we really miss our cat Mr Jenkins, tactfully our guide came up with an interesting comment: “Have you ever tried to eat a cat or a dog? Cats are pretty tasty”. I wonder which part of the “I miss my pet” he didn’t understand! Unbelievable! We also saw the fish farms, and the oyster farms near the village. You can’t eat oysters here, they only use them to produce pearls, that of course they tried to sell us but they were too expensive.($40 up to $3000) It was very strange seeing this glitzy jewellery shop on a small, rough and ready floating village!
On the boat in the past three days, we met a lot of interesting people: a lovely couple from Sydney, Ian and Rachel who gave us a lot of great tips for our trip to Australia and with whom we shared a lot of good travelling stories and books recommendations, as well as talking a lot about something all four of us love: FOOD of course! We also met a great couple from Chicago, Taylor and Vera who came to Vietnam for a friend’s wedding and they were telling us all about their experience in Saigon at the wedding, and amongst others we met a couple from South Africa Arthur and Cristine from Dourbon with whom we shared some stories about our trip to South Africa and fishing stories.
We left the boat after an early (but again very filling) lunch at 1pm, and got back to Hanoi in a bumpy and full of traffic road after 4:30hrs at about 6pm.
As we love our planning, we already had a dinner booked for the evening, meeting up again with Rich and Gwen and Lily that we met a few days ago in Phong Nha. They have been so kind to bring back my lost fleece all the way to Hanoi! We were going to meet them at a restaurant called Essence (very good food, but a bit on the pricey side) which we found on Trip Advisor, and as we drove back from Halong Bay with Ian and Rachel from Australia we found out that they were actually staying at the same hotel (Essence) where we had dinner booked. The coincidence was too fortunate not to take advantage of it, so we decided to meet up at 7pm for a cocktail with Ian and Rachel, before having dinner with Richard, Gwen and Lily.
We had such a lovely evening with our new friends, it made us really appreciate how travelling enriches you not only from what you see, but also and especially from the new friends that you make along the way.
Day 4 Hanoi
We ended up having a lie in after a few too many drinks last night. We got out at about 10:30, and conscious that one day in Hanoi will never be enough to see everything we accepted the inevitable and decided to walk around the Old Quarter and see what the day would bring us. Next to our hotel we found one of the main sites, the traditional Heritage House in Ma May street, very interesting to visit and to understand how a shopkeeper lived in this area from the end of the 19th century when the house was built.
We then walked towards and around the Hoan Kiem Lake, saw the busy red bridge, and kept walking south towards the women museum. The museum is very well kept and very interesting, divided in 3 floors, respectively 1) women in the family, 2) women in history and 3) women and fashion. Especially floor 2 is worth a visit to better understand the central and crucial role that women had in all the wars that Vietnam had to fight, against the Chinese, the French and the Americans.
After the women museum we kept walking towards the Hoa Lo Prison, a prison where a lot of people were kept during the French colonial period, but during the Vietnam war it was used to keep American pilots, which had much better conditions than other prisoners, and they referred to it as the “Hanoi Hilton”. It is the third prison we visited as part of this trip, and I must admit it is always very hard and scary. In this one some of the original equipment is conserved intact, like the guillotine used during the French period.
After the third museum we started to feel quite hungry and walked back north towards the old quarter to stop and have some of the street food that Hanoi is very famous for. We went to a great place called Bun Bo Nam Bo, on Hang Dieu street. For once it was quite easy ordering for Brucey since he didn’t have any choice – it’s only one dish available. Very good noodles with greens, stir fried beef and peanuts. Very tasty and filling, all for £2 each. I only found one small insect on mine, but I survived! Very good mixture of locals and visitors coming here, always busy! Bruce also tried some fried sweet donut type of cakes, and of course an ice cream. But luckily he decided not to have the fried eels or raw frogs that we came across on the road. We also came across what I would call a “wankerie”, a place where (interestingly only men) were playing videogames like crazy, while smoking lots of fags and drinking lots of tea.
ROB: “Sounds like Heaven”
In the afternoon we finished our walk towards the upper part of the old quarter, into the Dong Xuan market, and some of the back streets of which our favourites were the ones around the old city gates. The market’s hygiene standards were pretty interesting, with live frogs, and fishes heads being sold from the pavement. Another things that shocked us was a guy cycling around with a cage at the back with about 6 cats rammed in… Very sad and once again animals getting mistreated in South East Asia (see last photo below).
But Hanoi is amazing, it never ceases to surprise you. It is a real shock to the senses, the car horns, the smells, the noises, the constant buzz, the streetfood stalls everywhere, the little teeny stools all over the street where they sit and eat at any time of the day or night, the chickens walking around, little kids crossing the road amongst what feels like millions of motorbikes, the hugely overloaded bicycles, the colourful face masks that everyone is wearing. Wherever you look something is happening, I literally had to keep the camera in my hand for the whole day as if I did put it away I immediately had to take it out again two seconds later.
At the end of the day we went back to the art gallery road called Hang Be. In the morning we entered and saw a couple of paintings that we really liked but the cost was a bit too high ($250) including shipping. We decided to think about it and come back. In the end we entered a lot of other shops to compare the prices, and we found cheaper paintings everywhere else – but all the places we saw were selling series of paintings, all looking exactly the same, and much much worse than the one we liked. We decided to get back anyway and slowly but steadily we haggled hard and got it down to $200 (using the old walking out of the shop technique). We’ve never been good at savings, but we are very happy with our purchase and cannot wait to see it on the wall of our new home in Milano. It’s a busy Hanoi street, which will always remind us about this fantastic city and of our trip of a lifetime… hope you like it too – and you are all invited to come and see it from July onwards, in pretty Milano!
We went back for a shower and then out for dinner at a very good restaurant called New Day on the same road of our hotel. Convenient since we are destroyed after walking over 11km today. We wanted to go out after, but the tiredness and the rain gave us enough excuses to go to bed early.
Tomorrow early start, to catch our flight to Hong Kong. Already time to leave Vietnam, another amazing country that we loved learning more about – thanks to everyone that contributed to make our stay here so memorable and happy.