Hanoi and Halong Bay, what you should see and do

Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake

We arrived in Hanoi around lunch time after our 15 hour overnight train from Hoi An. We walked to the front of the station and there, as usual, was a taxi driver ready to put our bags in his car and take us to the hotel. We loaded the bags into the taxi and negotiated a price. The hotel was literally one kilometre from the station, but he wanted 200,000VND ($AU10). That was a bit steep in my mind, so we negotiated down to 150,000VND ($AU7.50). Wow, what a saving! Note to self, I must get better at negotiating. He argued that while the hotel was close, the one way streets made it a longer drive than you might otherwise think. Of course there wasn’t a one way street in sight and we were there in less than five minutes.

Our hotel, the Hanoi Blue Lotus was on a quiet little street about 100 metres from St Joseph’s Cathedral. It cost about $AU32 per night, right in the heart of the Old Quarter, and was the perfect starting point to explore the city. However, we had to wait a couple of hours to get out and about as Jack was tired and needed a sleep.

We left the hotel late in the afternoon and headed straight for the winding, narrow streets just north of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. There’s plenty of cheap shopping in this part of town, everything you can imagine such as brand name street shoes, clothes, replica football (soccer) shirts, sunglasses and handbags. It seemed the streets were divided up into specific sections, one stretch of road had shop after shop selling only sunglasses, another stretch sold only electric fans, another stretch sold only flowers, and so on. After a few hours it was soon dark and we grabbed a bite to eat at one of the hundreds of street vendors. We sat on our tiny seats that were perfectly built for Jack, at our tiny table and ate yet another rice based chicken and/or pork dish. Vietnamese food is delicious, there’s no denying that, but we need a hit of hamburger or pizza every week or two!

We stayed in Hanoi for five nights with a one night / two day trip to Halong Bay in between. For the whole time we were there we walked. We didn’t take a rickshaw ride around town for a number of reasons – it’s cheaper to walk, it’s healthier to walk, and you get a better feel and perspective of a city if you walk. We didn’t hire bikes, we didn’t use any other form of transport, we simply walked. And boy oh boy, did we do some walking. Given the state of Vietnam’s footpaths, I’m staggered our El Cheapo pram survived our adventures, but it did a great job and is worth every cent of the $AU35 we paid for it! Here are a few of the highlights from our walking tour around Hanoi:

This Hanoi street runs right past St Joseph's Cathedral

This Hanoi street runs right past St Joseph’s Cathedral

The Old Quarter

As I’ve already mentioned our first port of call were the winding streets north of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It’s a great place to explore and discover something new every time you turn a corner. There’s a night market with plenty of bargains to be had, and you can visit the much bigger Đồng Xuân Market at the northern tip of the Old Quarter. There’s also a plethora of great street food vendors and restaurants, including a couple of pizza, pasta and steak joints to satisfy any western food urge you may have. Our biggest surprise was stumbling across a street vendor that only served eel-based dishes. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were seated and starving so we took a chance. To our huge surprise the food was absolutely delicious, even Jack got stuck in.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

The Huc Bridge at Hoàn Kiếm Lake

The Huc Bridge at Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a beautiful spot in the middle of the Old Quarter and is the most popular tourist destination in the city. It’s also a hive of activity for locals too. In the middle of the lake the cute Turtle Tower stands proudly on a small island, while at the northern end is the Temple of Jade Mountain on Jade Islet, accessible by the red-wooded Huc Bridge. The bridge is a popular photo spot for tourists. It’s a 45-minute stroll around the lake and well worth it.

Ba Đình Square

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh Museum are all within a 2-3 minute walk of each other around Ba Đình Square, north-west of the Old Quarter. The area is a really nice place to escape the constant beeping of traffic and vendors offering you their wares. The Palace is, apparently, very beautiful, but you aren’t allowed inside and the guards outside won’t let you take any photos of the limited view of the building. It’s a real pity because it would have been great to see. The Mausoleum on the other hand stands proudly on it’s own for the whole world to see, while the Museum is a little ugly. It’s basically a Vietnamese Communist propaganda tool to gloss over or cover up vices, crimes or scandals by Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party through biased presentation of ‘facts’. But if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s worth a look.

Temple of Literature

The Constellation of Literature Pavilion inside the grounds of the Temple of Literature

The Constellation of Literature Pavilion inside the grounds of the Temple of Literature

We visited the Temple of Literature, a temple of Confucius, and surrounding grounds. This is another place you can escape the sounds of Hanoi. It’s an oasis of peace not too far south of Ba Đình Square. It only costs 20,000VND ($AU1) entry, and wandering around Literature Lake, Giam Park and the interior courtyards for an hour is a lovely way to break up the lengthy walks around the city.

Halong Bay

A couple of junks on Halong Bay

A couple of junks on Halong Bay

We took a one night / two day trip to Halong Bay, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. After researching tour companies and their prices online, we decided to book through our hotel. They were cheaper ($AU125 each) and claimed the tour we were going on was the ‘Executive’ option. The photos looked fantastic and the tour included bus transfers to and from the hotel, lunch (x2), dinner and breakfast, a visit to the Hang Dou cave, a swim on the beach of one of the islands, and some kayaking. Unfortunately looks can be deceiving. Don’t get me wrong, the junk (the name of the boat, not the state it was in) was fine, the room was adequate and the food was ok (although breakfast was a real shocker), but we thought we were getting an ‘Executive’ tour, and this didn’t quite measure up. We saw some amazing junks in the bay and I’m not too ashamed to admit I had junk-envy. The highlight was without doubt kayaking around Halong Bay. After exploring the caves with hundreds of other people, everyone funnelled through at snail’s pace making the experience quite unpleasant, and swimming with hundreds of others on a tiny beach (also not the most pleasant experience), kayaking around the bay with just Sarah, Jack and I for an hour or so was absolute heaven. It was so quite and calm, we were able to unwind and relax away from the hustle and bustle of both Hanoi and the tour itself. I really didn’t want to go back in, but dinner was about to be served and I’m a sucker for food! Another disappointing element of the trip was seeing so much rubbish in the bay around the inlets where people live on the water. I understand that people live there and sometimes it might be difficult to prevent rubbish from entering the water, but this is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and there was so much of it. Either the people living there, or the Vietnamese government, should take more pride in such a special place and keep it clean.

So that’s it, our six night stay in Hanoi and Halong Bay. Hanoi really is just like Ho Chi Minh City – busy, noisy, lots of horn beeping, great street food and you can’t walk 50 metres without being asked if you’d like to buy something or want a tour on a motor bike or in a rickshaw. The difference is Hanoi is far more attractive.

Check out our Hanoi and Halong Bay photogallery below to get an idea of what we got up to in pictures.

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