A Travellerspoint blog

Hanoi & Halong Bay

overcast 20 °C

It’s 7am and I’m sitting here in Hanoi airport waiting for our flight into Laos. I had meant to write and upload this entry last night but was absolutely brain dead when I got back from our trip. The last two days have probably been the highlight of my Asian experience so far. Our first day in Hanoi was relaxing enough. We visited several tour operators in order to get the best deal for Halong Bay and then spent the rest of the day chilling out in the hotel. It was a much needed break and rest after the hectic few days before it. Up until two days ago it was still very much New Years Eve (or ‘Tet’) mode in Vietnam – most shops are shut and it can even be a bit tricky to locate a restaurant. However the roads are far quieter and it makes for a nice change.

Sunday was spent sightseeing. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex which is described as he ‘holiest of holies for many Vietnamese’. This was obvious when we arrived – it couldn’t have been any busier. Mind you the time of the year and day of the week didn’t help. Ho Chi Minh has a city named after him so it’s fair to say he is pretty well remembered from the time when he led the country in the mid 20th century. The main event is getting to see Ho Chi’s embalmed corpse in the building pictured below. It was very strange walking through in complete silence with guards standing by his body. Still, it was hard to tell whether it was a wax model or not – our guidebook said that sceptics believe Madame Tussaud’s have the contract!

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Another highlight was the Temple of Literature. You get to see 12th century Vietnamese architecture through five different courtyards. This was absolutely packed with locals given the time of the year. One interesting part for me was seeing the Vietnamese pray to the various statues inside donating money. Another was watching them write invisible words or wishes/prayers on a block of wood using their finger. Of course, you had to pay more money in order to be allowed to do this…

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The main focal point for Hanoi appeared to be a rather large lake. It’s quite beautiful and there were at least four sets of couples having photographs taken for their wedding. There were plenty of decorations up too so I took time for some ‘arty pictures’.

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That night we headed to a Water Puppet Show. We had heard about this in advance and normally it’s very difficult to get tickets – we were quite lucky in the end to get two. I wasn’t expecting too much but it really was entertaining. It starts off with a small band playing traditional Vietnamese music and then you have segments with puppets appearing on the water performing various actions. There was no speaking, just live music throughout and occasionally some singing. Some parts were quite funny too. If you are in Hanoi make sure you go see it.

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Monday morning and we were up bright and early to be collected for our two day trip to Halong Bay. I had been looking forward to this since we left Ho Chi Minh City, our first stop in Vietnam. We spent three hours getting to the harbour by bus before being brought on board our boat. We had our own private twin room which made for a nice change from my sleeping conditions on the Whitsunday Islands trip in Australia last year. A couple of hours later we arrived in Halong Bay. That day Carly got chatted up by an older Asian man who insisted on donating his hat to her. We got a couple of pictures before Carly left it behind on the boat. She rightly described the sight of one of us wearing it as a ‘Westerner with far too much money’.

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To say this place is stunning is an understatement. The bay itself is home to more than 3,000 mini islands – all of which are unique. Our first activity was visiting one of its more well known caves. Some of the rock formations are pretty impressive although there were one or two dubious shapes…

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After our cave trip we returned to the boat and went kayaking around the area. It was only when you got up close to some of the vegetation-covered islands that you could truly appreciate what you were seeing. Words and photos just can’t do it justice. It would easily fit in with one of the seven natural wonders of the world and I believe they are bidding to get it included.

That night we had dinner and hung out with a couple of girls from Israel (for a second time, there’s plenty of them out here!). The crowd on our boat were mostly 40+ so unfortunately it wasn’t exactly party central. Although it was a sober evening, karaoke followed and as usual I couldn’t resist a song or two. I definitely sound better when I’m drunk!

The next day we had breakfast and checked out from the boat. That night we would be staying on one of the islands. Before that we went on a 10-12km cycle on Cat Ba island including a mini-trek through the national park in between. The sights and views were very picturesque. One other ‘interesting’ thing we were shown by our guide was a plastic jar which contained whiskey, a dead bird and a dead snake! It wasn’t pretty. We were told it gives you good health, strength and a longer life. I think I’ll pass.

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Later that day we arrived on our island which was tiny (but cosy). With just a handful of bungalows there was just enough room for the 11 of us that were staying over plus a couple of staff. The bungalows we were given were really nice even if the bed was as hard as a rock and the shower leaved a lot to be desired! We essentially had free time for the day so Carly and I went out for some further kayaking and exploration. That evening we ate and hung out with three sound lads from England. We had a few drinks and played some cards. Yesterday was a long day and we didn’t get back until after 4pm. I would really recommend this trip – we spent 85 dollars which included all transport, accommodation for two nights, all food and tour activities. You could easily pay five times more than that just for one night on a similar island if it was located in the Maldives or somewhere in that region.

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We’re about to board our flight in an hour. The bus route into Laos was considered but after some further research, the flight is our best option for sure. The bus takes anywhere from 24 to 36 hours and has been described online by one person as the ‘trip from hell’. Bear in mind you have to cross the Vietnam/Laos border which is apparently the worst one. We’ve had enough bus journeys to last us a lifetime so I think missing out on this one will be just fine. At this point it’s looking like six nights in Laos before heading back into Thailand for my final two weeks in Asia. I’m curious to see what Laos is all about as I’ve heard so many mixed reports. It’s meant to be one of the most laid back countries in the world. I was informed by the guidebook not to be upset if we’re on a bus journey with an ‘old man coughing frantically into a bag, caged chickens squawking from the back and an obligatory breakdown just for fun’. I think I’m going to need a lot of patience…

Posted by mattld 20:39 Archived in Vietnam

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Comments

Can't believe you only have 3 weeks left in Asia... time goes by so fast. Although it feels like I spend all my time at the office reading your blog and wishing I was there too. Loving some of them pics too. Have fun in Laos... I tried chatting a Laotian up once to no success - though I met a Vietnamese at the weekend ;)

by Dan Harrow

I know it started off real slow at first but now it's only 3 to go. It would be great if you were here too, I'd have another karaoke buddy :D

Vietnamese at the weekend eh? Dirty dog love esh haha!

by mattld

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