Most people staying in Hanoi are using it as a base point before going on a tour to Sapa (trekking) or Ha Long Bay. We were doing the latter.
We had been worried that spending one night in Hanoi, then one on the overnight Ha Long Bay Cruise, before a final night in Hanoi, would be too rushed, and deliberated whether to miss Ha Long Bay and spend 3 nights in Hanoi instead. I’m very glad we didn’t.
Where we stayed:
Maison D’Orient Hotel – $70USD for 2 nights
What we did:
Run around Sword Lake – free
Military History Museum – $1pp entry
Ha Long Bay cruise – see above
Where we ate:
Avalon Cafe Lounge – $3-5 for drinks at Sky Bar overlooking Sword Lake.
Lantern Lounge – $0.5 beers during happy hour (6 – 8pm)
La Place – $5 for main meals
To the untrained eye (me) Hanoi was very similar to Ho Chi Minh, other than the fact it was about 10 degrees colder and even more smoggy! We arrived in the afternoon after another internal flight from Hoi An – this one was on time.
We were booked into Maison D’Orient hotel, who sent a car to collect us from the airport. The drive into the city took about 45 minutes but as we crossed one of the main bridges into the city we could barely see the buildings due to the smog.
At Maison D’Orient each room was named after a spice. On the website they had: Lemongrass, Cinnamon, Ginger, Pepper and StarAnise. I’d assumed that it was a really small boutique place with only 5 rooms, however it turned out there were about 4 different Lemongrass rooms, one on each floor, meaning the hotel was bigger than originally thought….
For the price ($35USD a night) it was great. It was super clean, had the biggest bed in the world, a lovely bathroom and some really great touches around the room with vintage furniture and unique pottery:
Our ‘Lemongrass’ room on the first night smelt a touch damp. I think this is a result of all the buildings being so closely packed together, so no real space for big windows or much ventilation. Our 2nd Lemongrass room when we returned from the boat trip was a real improvement, no damp smell at all.
The location was perfect. It was down a small alley, meaning it was really quiet, but it was also right in the centre of everything, being about 5 minutes walk to Sword Lake and to the Old Town.
It was right next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which was a useful landmark for finding our way back to the hotel!
First thing Ben did when we got to Hanoi was to see what museums there were. He found the ‘Military Museum’ which was a 20 minute walk or so from our hotel.
It was about 4pm by the time we were checked in and sorted and so I suggested he check what time the museum shut, as I suspected it might be closing soon…
“Oh no, don’t worry, google says it’s open 24 hours”
Hmmmm…. now I didn’t want to instantly shoot this down, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a 24 hour museum! So I asked “Are you confident on that?”…”Yep, 24 hours, 7 days a week”.
So off we trotted to the museum. Arriving about 4.30pm. To be told be a severe looking guard that it was now shut (opening hours 8.30am – 4.30pm).
Lesson = don’t always trust google. Trust your instincts. Don’t be one of those people that follows the SatNav and drives into a lake…
Museum now off limits, we walked back to Sword Lake, via the old town, and walked across the Red Bridge to the temple on the lake.
The sun was setting (not that you’d know it through the mist and smog) but it was definitely getting darker. We could see a rooftop bar at the northern end of the lake so made our way up there for a drink as the lights came on in and around the lake:
We then walked through the Old Town, it was tiring constantly navigating around scooters parked on the pavement, chickens in cages, street food stalls, and various other hazards. Upon finding a bar which stood out due to the hundreds of lanterns, and also had a happy hour on, we were sold!
The next morning we set off on our Ha Long bay adventure. I’d spent so long deliberating about which cruise company we should go with (there are HUNDREDS, ranging from budget and probably dodgy boats, to 5* luxury vessels).
My friend Megan had been on one of the more luxury companies, Indochina Sails, and I almost stumped up to go with them, but then another friend Alex who recently moved to Aus had been to Vietnam en route here, and had gone with more of a mid-tier company – Majestic Cruises.
On Majestic’s website the 2 day 1 night tour is advertised at $169pp, but when I e-mailed them to enquire about availability, without even asking for a discount I was offered a ‘special price’ of $135pp including a bottle of wine and fruit basket on arrival (they know the way to my heart!)
Given our limited time in Hanoi, we’d been trying to work out whether there was any way to either go directly from Hoi An to Ha Long Bay, giving us two nights back in back in Hanoi after that. Or, spend 2 nights in Hanoi first and then after the cruise get back from Ha Long bay in enough time to fly down to Ho Chi Minh for our flight home.
The answer was: it is seemingly impossible. We looked into every option…staying on Cat Ba Island near Ha Long bay, flying into the little airport closer to Ha Long bay. Getting a private car from Hanoi airport to Ha Long bay.
The reason being that all of the cruise boats operate a virtually identical itinerary: all leaving the harbour on Dao Tuan Chau island around midday, and all returning around midday the next day.
It seemed like if you chose to do a 3 day 2 night cruise then you get shipped off on another little boat/kayak/to Cat Ba island on this middle day, whilst the big boat goes bay to the harbour, drops off the 1 nighters and collects the new guests.
We had contemplated doing 3 days 2 nights and again I’m glad we didn’t…1 night was fantastic but long enough.
We took a small boat out from the harbour to the main vessel, and then we were off into the maze of 1,969 islands that make up the Ha Long bay archipelago.
At first it was very busy, with all the other cruise boats setting off at the same time, and I worried we wouldn’t get any peace during the trip
But quickly everyone spread out, and our captain was obviously skilled at getting the boat through gaps that others didn’t want to attempt 🙂
And then it was peaceful and we could recline on loungers on the top deck, watching the islands pass by
It was beautiful, and the mist added a magical quality to it!
We were served lunch before our first stop at ‘Surprise Cave!’ apparently named so because it amazes you more and more as you progress through the three main chambers, which increase in size as you go.
Our guide’s name was Minh (or ‘Jonny’ if we wanted!) and he was with us from pick up in Hanoi, throughout the boat trip, and back to Hanoi. Now Minh gets 10/10 for enthusiasm and friendliness, but a lower score for being informative and concise. As we had our introduction to the caves, about 10 other groups seemed to come past, have theirs, and continue on to actually see the caves.
What he did tell us though, is that in Vietnamese culture there are 4 sacred animals: the dragon, the tortoise, the unicorn and the phoenix.
On hearing this Ben turned to me and said “I wonder how the tortoise made it into the list?”
To which I replied…”Oh well there’s obviously 2 mythical ones (unicorn and phoenix) and 2 real ones (tortoise and dragon)” …..
Doh. Maybe I was thinking Komodo…
I maintain that my mythical creature knowledge has been forever muddled since I went to Zippo’s circus in Oxford with my mum aged about 5 and had my photo taken with the unicorn. I treasured that photo for years until one day I looked at it and noticed the string attaching the horn to the pony’s head!
When we finally made it in to ‘surprise cave’ (Sung Sot Cave) it was pretty epic:
After walking around the cave we got back on the boat and sailed around to a pearl farm. I decided this would probably be a bit of a sales outing so I stayed on the roof of the boat and read, which was wonderful, whilst the others went to the pearl farm. Ben said it was quite interesting but I don’t have any pearls of wisdom to pass onto you I’m afraid 😉
That night we had a BBQ on the boat, and endless tasty food kept appearing. The boat was a full house, with 24 passengers on board (16 doing the 1 night, 8 doing 2) and we were on a table with the same 3 other people for all our meals:
Alan and Thomas, a French uncle and nephew duo – they were rather comical and took photos of EVERY dish that was put in front of us. We all had to wait a minute before we were allowed to touch it whilst they cried “photo, photooo”
Joseph, an older gentleman from North Carolina. Joseph had an accent, perhaps slightly Hispanic, he said he moved around the USA from the age of 19 but didn’t seem to want to talk about where he was before then. He was a very interesting character:
- His background was computer programming and he had worked for Lockheed Martin on one of the new US Airforce fighter planes, but he wouldn’t tell us any more detail;
- He claimed to have found a herbal cure for diabetes which had cured his own diabetes and was currently being prototyped for mass production;
- He grew tropical fruits on a large scale back in North Carolina and had grown some new special variety of cucumber…
A varied skill-set to say the least!
The following morning we did Tai Chi on the top deck of the boat, about 10 minutes in Ben realised that it was identical to the rugby warm up his Dad used to do when coaching them! “Roll the ankles, swing the arms…”
After Tai Chi we went on a kayaking trip around a floating fishing village. I imagine the villagers must get quite tired of hoards of tourists kayaking around their houses everyday!
We got back on the small boat to take us back to the big boat, and were just pushing away from the pontoon when Ben suddenly asked “Wait, where’s Joseph?“
We had left him behind!!!
Everyone else was travelling in pairs or larger groups and so had someone to count them. Joseph was travelling alone and had got chatting to some Vietnamese ladies on the pontoon, and nearly ended up stuck there. I dread to think what the ramifications could have been for the diabetics of the world if his cure never made it public due to him being stranded in Ha Long Bay 😉
With all 24 of us back on board we sailed back towards the main harbour, making some spring rolls en route which we’d eat for lunch before cramming onto the mini-bus for the 4 hour (!) drive back to Hanoi.
The traffic was equally hectic in the North as in the South and we saw accidents on both legs of the Hanoi – Ha Long journey, one involving a tour bus.
Despite the long drive for a relatively short time on the boat, I’d recommend taking a Ha Long bay cruise if you’re in Hanoi, it’s great to get out of the cities and see some more nature, although I really hope someone takes some action about all of the litter in the water!!
Back in Hanoi we went for dinner at an awesome place, called La Place where we sat on a balcony overlooking the St Joseph’s cathedral square. It had a Mediterranean feel to it. We tried to get a table at a Pizza restaurant called 4Ps, down the same alley as our hotel, but they were totally full for the evening! Suggests it might be worth a try if you’re in Hanoi and reached spring roll saturation point.
Our final morning in the country we trotted back to the Military Museum…this time at the proper opening hours. We were keen beans and got there as the doors opened, so we had about 30 minutes of peace and quiet before coach loads of Chinese tourists descended and began clambering over tanks and helicopters to get the perfect holiday snap.
Military museum seen, it was off to the airport for a final internal flight down to Ho Chi Minh City and then a change onto our flight back to Sydney.
We won the seat lottery and got a spare seat next to us, so there were only 2 of us in the row of 3, meaning we’d be able to take turns snoozing across. However, about 15 minutes after take off, as soon as the seatbelt sign was off, a man appeared and pointed at the empty seat and asked me: “Can I sit there?”… I didn’t really know how to say no politely, so I just said “No, we’re going to sleep there” which he looked really shocked by. I’m sorry but he must have had a seat of his own for take-off!
I then felt obliged to prove this point so had to lie across the two seats even though it was only about 9pm and we hadn’t yet been served dinner! haha. He didn’t come back though!
So that’s a wrap for Vietnam, a fantastic trip, and although brief we got a good view of the country. Cambodia and Myanmar are next on my hit list for Asia…
And the next adventure? I’m off to Auckland and the Bay of Island in NZ for ANZAC day next weekend 🙂