Following two quick days in Hong Kong, we then flew to Hanoi to start the Vietnam adventure. On arriving we plan to spend about five weeks here travelling from north to south by trains and buses, before crossing in to Cambodia overland from the south.
We checked in to quite a nice hotel in Hanoi, nothing too expensive, but we thought we would treat ourselves to a hotel with it being our anniversary while we were there. The staff were so friendly, and after a day of travelling and walking through the manic streets of the old quarter to get to the hotel, it was a welcome relief to see really friendly and happy faces.
We then had to start planning the itinerary for the whole of Vietnam, starting with Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. So we booked 3 nights in Hanoi, before going to Ha Long Bay on an overnight cruise for one night, then back to Hanoi before leaving on an overnight train travelling south.
Hanoi was a really nice place to be, the people were very friendly, the food was amazing, but the traffic was crazy, there are motorbikes and people everywhere, the paths are just used as motorbike parking so you have to walk in the street, which inevitably lead to me getting hit by a scooter as we were walking, I wasn’t hurt though.
We visited the Hoa Loa prison museum, this was a prison in central Hanoi used during the French Colonial time here to hold Vietnamese criminals in and then later used during the American / Vietnam War by the Vietnamese to hold captured Americans. It was definitely a shock to see, and the images depicted of how the Vietnamese were treated there are truly horrifying. It is stated in the museum, without irony, that during the war the Americans called the prison the Hanoi Hilton because of it being like a hotel and how well treated they were, read in to that what you will.
The food was fantastic in Hanoi, and we immediately found out how good and cheap everyday Vietnamese food like rice and noodles can be. Pho (pronounced like “fur”), the rice noodle soup is amazing, as is the majority of the food here. One thing everybody who has been to Vietnam talks about is the Bia Hoi, this is fresh beer, produced the day before and drunk on the street at tiny (child size) plastic tables and chairs throughout the major cities of Vietnam. Hanoi was a major hub for this, so our evenings were spent sat on a street corner drinking far too many fresh beers at 5000 Dong each (18 pence). The Love for Vietnamese coffee also began in Hanoi, served hot or with ice and normally with condensed milk to make it sweet and strong, it’s amazing!
After three days, which included our anniversary and eating at an amazing rooftop restaurant in Hanoi overlooking the lake, we headed off on a “2 day Ha Long Bay cruise”. This is two days, but only because the trip from Hanoi is over 4 hours on a bus each way, so you actually spend less than 24 hours on the boat.
Ha Long Bay was stunning, the scenery was amazing to see and cruise through. The cruise as a whole had positives and negatives, it was expensive, but all overnight cruises on Ha Long Bay are, and because we paid a little more than some of the other options, we were on a cruise that went to Bai Tu Long bay which is a quieter part of the area with fewer boats and tourists there, so definitely a positive.
The negative was that the entire cruise is so pre-planned with no flexibility, every minute of the 24-hours felt organised for us with no freedom to do as we’d have liked and the activities didn’t really suit such a large boat. There were 26 tourists on the boat in 12 cabins, we somehow managed to get the one right next to the generator which was noisy all night and occasionally smelled of diesel fumes. Also, the food was far too westernised for us (not authentic Vietnamese) but probably suited some people perfectly.
We went to a beach area to swim from, which was very pretty but a bit too rocky to swim really. We did some kayaking around the karsts which was amazing, apart from Stac being absolutely useless at kayaking so we spend the majority of the time going round in circles 🙂
We also went to a floating fishing village, which was probably my favourite part of the ‘activities’ and did some squid-fishing, but didn’t catch any squid so i’m not sure that’s really classed as fishing.
We did have a great night with a group of friends from all over the world, including Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Greece, Zimbabwe and more, we all had a few drinks, played cards and had a great time. Then at the end, the boat lights were all turned off so we could see the stars from the boat on a silent part of the bay. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for sure.
After Ha Long Bay it was back to Hanoi for one night, we had some more good food, the Bun Cha noodles with pork and fresh herbs being a highlight, and then left the following night on the overnight train south to Dong Hoi, where we would head to Phong Nha National Park…