Ha Noi is a city of lakes, completely crowded and attractive at the same time. The city has the best night market in Vietnam, umpteen cafes, great food and the beautiful old quarter area. And from here you can make a trip to one of the ‘7 wonders of nature’, the Ha Long Bay which has thousands of limestone island spread across the bay. Ha Long Bay is natures marvelously stupefying art of small irregular Islands thrown in on emerald-green water.
My long narrative (For important information, please scroll down)
Reached Hanoi at around 9 pm. One nice thing in Vietnam was that they always ensured to drop off or at least show us the directions. It was nice to know that we were not left off on our own. They were being good hosts. So we walked in the direction told and reached our hostel in 2 minutes.
The female dorm had 8 beds and 8 more stacked on top and oops another 8 on top of that. It was a triple bunker bed, I dreaded the state of sleep, imagining so many people getting in and out at night for the restroom outside. Thankfully most of it was not occupied. The hostel was called Hanoisy hostel. And true to its name, it was noisy all night because it stood on a main road in front of a pub playing music all night!
A sudden change in the cold weather from Sa Pa to the warm weather in Hanoi made us feel feverish. Not wanting to fall ill, we popped paracetamol. My first does of medicine, after traveling to 3 countries (Vietnam was the third). We did not want to fall ill, had dinner at the hostel and called it a day.
The next day our first task was to book a Ha Long Bay tour, which we did, after our usual routine check with several agents. We found that the Sinh tourist VN (suggested by travelers we had met earlier) was the cheapest. If booked online mid range cruises are at 100+$ per person. We got a deal for 78$ per person for a 1 night package, which was a steal for the quality of the cruise – Golden Sun cruise. After this we went to the post office and sent a few post cards to family and spent all day walking around old quarter.
We then headed to the Hoan Kiem lake, went over the red wooden bridge connecting to a temple called Ngoc Son temple on the Jade Island. At the center of the lake is a Pagoda, called the turtle tower. We spent majority of our time around the Hoan Kiem lake, watching locals and travelers passing by in huge numbers.
Every minute, there was a different person sitting next to me on the bench. They looked at me suspiciously and went on with their routine, while I stared at the water, the doggies, the runners and just about anybody who came into my view-frame. It was as though I had switched on live TV, who said I was prying on anyone’s privacy? I was deep into my own thoughts, of what they would be thinking, where they were from and where they were headed to. This was one of my favorite pass-times at crowded walkways and cafes. There were all kind of emotions and expressions that you get to see in different people, all in a little span of time.
By early evening, tons of cafes opened up into street pavements adding small chairs and little tables which looked like a 5 year old’s dining set. It wasn’t just the make shift roadside shops, even big pricey looking cafes as well extended their seating to the road with miniature sized tables and chairs. This was a unique mark of the cafes in Vietnam (and we later saw this in Myanmar too).
But instead of the Vietnamese hot coffee, we saw people sipping on long glasses of cold black tea while snacking on sunflower seeds. Every table in every cafe, had this combo. The streets in the Hoan Kiem district were filled with colorful tables and chairs all occupied by locals chattering away to happiness.
It’s a very chirpy and happy atmosphere to be in, like the entire Hanoi was celebrating tea time!
We strolled around until dusk and later had dinner at a local place which I had made a note of the previous day. It was filled with happy locals eating hot-pot, a common menu item in Vietnam which was a nice curry with meat or veggies served in a deep pan along with a small stove. The stove is kept on the table, and you cook it yourself, they also give rice noodles to eat it with. It serves 3 to 4 people, and we were just two. And our food habits did not match to be able to share a hot-pot. So we ordered individual items of our choice. We asked for salt and we got sauce. This had become a routine in all restaurants now in Vietnam too (we faced the same problem in Laos). We tried hard to explain salt by showing a shaker but they did not understand. A local who spoke good English, helped us out by translating it to the hotel lady. We got salt in a bowl after few minutes. Later on, the guy at our Hanoisy hostel told me that they do not have the concept of salt and they used some soup powders to prepare their food. For future help, I took screenshots of the translations on the phone, to show it when we need salt the next time.
Ha Long Bay
Next day, we checked out and were picked up at 7 am for the Ha Long Bay cruise. We had a bus ride for 3 hours followed by a wait time at the harbor for 1 hour. It was raining and too foggy, so there was no clearance for the boats to ply to Ha Long Bay. When our guide ‘Sun’ told this to the group, there were mixed reactions. Older ones got really upset and angry (with life) and the couples were sad, yet lost among themselves. Groups of friends were having fun and were still chirpy and happy. And I was wishing hard and calling all my angels to clear the fog so that we could cruise the Ha Long Bay. I knew only about the Ha Long Bay before I entered Vietnam, the two were synonymous.
After patiently waiting for an hour, we were told that we will go to our boat to have lunch and wait for the officials final call To go; No go. Well at least we will get to see the Bay (so I thought) while having lunch. We all happily climbed into a small boat to have lunch in the big boat. I was disappointed to see that there were just tons of big boats lined up and there was no view. It was just a huge canal and no view in front, just fog. The Bay was further inside. My friend left her heavy sling bag (with passport, money and cards) on the small boat. Luckily I was the last one to leave the small boat, and saw her big bag left alone there. And I picked it up and gave it to her with a look of ‘I saved a grenade from going off’ Duh! She tolerated my behavior, to avoid having to hear another lecture from me about being careful.
At the table we joined a solo traveler guy, as the rest of the tables had groups or couples. He was glad too, and we started with small talks. Sun, our guide came in and started making modifications to make couples sit together. He asked the Solo traveler to move over to another table, it wasn’t polite. But he was just trying to be nice to accommodate the couples who wanted to sit together, and such is the story of us Solo travelers (I know it since I have been there).
We got introductions out-of-the-way, then before we could make any small talk, the two couples (4 of them) had made a gang. Small talks about US and London, about the weather. After a while, when they spoke about Sa Pa I tried butting in couple of times showing off that we just came from Sa Pa. But no one seemed to hear, I felt like I was back at age 6, when I tried to be part of a conversation with older people.
And just like then, these guys did not even bother to acknowledge my presence. My friend was busy with her phone and not interested in ‘trying hard to be a part of the conversation’. Then to my favor, food started coming in one-by-one and I started clicking photos and awing the look, smell and then taste of each dish.
And I told each of them (in my head), that when there is food, I don’t need your company! Bon A petite!
Mid way through the nice scrumptious meal, we celebrated the news of ‘go decision’ to sail! We then checked into our rooms while the boat set its sail!
Within less than 30 minutes, we suddenly were sailing in a larger area on emerald-green water littered with tons of plastic (unfortunately). And slowly in the foggy scene ahead I could see limestone islands, one so many, and the boat attacking all of the beauty ahead, head on! I felt like I was in some James Bond movie (a new one probably in my own mind). My angels had answered my wishes, all though still foggy, I got to see the blurry vision of the magnificent Ha Long Bay.
Most of stayed on the deck enjoying the marvel of nature hidden behind a translucent fog and wished for clearer views by the next day.
The same evening we visited Hang Sung Sot caves which is also called the cave of surprises, filled with numerous rock formations. It was a huge place, and could have looked good if they did not light it up with colored lights (red, green, blue). The combination of natural formations, with unnatural lighting did not appeal me.
Back at the boat, I started chatting with a friendly lady (from the 3 friends gang from London) at length about her India travels in her 20’s and then about her daughters and life in general. I wondered if I did continue to travel like this and someday have stories to tell like she had. Soon her friends joined and then the Hungarian Solo traveler joined in too. We chatted for a while and in no time it was dinner time. And the meal was a lavish affair of numerous gourmet dishes again.
This time we sat with a different group because we liked to talk too. We sat with older folks, an Italian couple and an Australian couple. We had a hearty conversation with the couples, while sharing food like a family. Not to talk of how all of us non-vegetarians attacked the veggie food meant only for my friend!
And of course I continued to annoy people on this table too, by clicking photographs before they could place a finger on the food! The Men on our table wanted to try a hand at fishing, I wasn’t very interested initially. But later when I saw everyone with a fishing rod, I tried a hand at it. Waited patiently but I could not catch any fish! So then I went back on the upper deck and stared into the darkness imagining the limestone cliffs. Retired to bed at around 11 pm, so I could attend the Tai Chi early in the morning.
I happily slept through the Tai Chi class. Come on! this was a luxurious cruise day! We anyway had to wake up at 6:30 am, because we had an early start. Post breakfast we visited the view-point and then the beach at the Ti Top island. The climb to the view-point is steep but its worth the climb.
It gives a classic aerial view of the Ha Long Bay. The beach is also nice, but crowded. The ones who went to the viewpoint hardly got 5 minutes at the beach. We were scurried back to the boat, checked-out and piled up all our bags in the dining area, had early lunch even though we weren’t hungry. And tried a hand at making cold Vietnamese spring rolls!
After that we went up the deck and soaked in the views for less than 30 minutes. And our cruise was over, just like that! You should do a 2 day trip to Ha Long Bay, 1 day tour is too short for all that it has to offer. Nevertheless, this was my first experience of Ha long Bay and it is beyond what words can say.
We reached Hanoi at dusk. The bus dropped us off many streets away due to one-ways. We walked a long way back to our hotel escorted by our guide, ‘Sun’. After checking in to Hanoisy again, we headed out to the night market with our new friend Vanessa who was traveling by herself. She had gone on a 2 day cruise and it sounded like a better option for our next Ha Long Bay trip in future. She had met Indians on the cruise and had enjoyed her time dancing on Bhangra music on board. What fun! I said. We had dinner and then strolled around the market together, until she got bored with our window shopping and headed back to the hostel.
We continued to walk the length of the street, stopping at anything eye-catching until the markets closed. We reached back at 11 am and were amused to see a guy in the female dorm. Obviously, the hotel guys had checked him in there. It was amusing because we and even Vanessa had booked in a female dorm. Well it just turned into a mixed dorm, who cares! We were too sleepy and crashed for the day.
We checked out the next day and again roamed around the old quarter and visited the St. Joseph’s cathedral. Thankfully there was no entry fee. However since it was a Sunday there was some event going on and it was too crowded. Architecturally there is nothing special inside. The exteriors looked classy rustic and worth a visit. Had lunch and a coffee at a local cafe in old quarter.
We then headed to the Hoan Kiem lake.
After some time, we saw a lot of people having a green colored ice-cream.
We followed the ice-cream holders trail and successfully found the ice-cream shop. And over there we first observed what the majority bought. Clearly it was a green colored pack called Rulo lime Mint. We pointed at the Rulo flavor that others were buying using sign language.
Too bad neither our app nor our local presence has taught us Vietnamese yet! Since the ice-cream was so popular she understood quick and gave it to us without any trouble. It was 7000 VND, this was the cheapest food item I have had in Vietnam. We spent time around our favorite Hoan Kiem lake until evening.
And then we got onto a sleeper bus to Phong Nha, our next stop. We were picked up in a jeep and were clubbed with few other Bengaluru folks! How cool is that?! But like we treat strangers here, it was the same. We stopped at Hello greetings.
At the bus station, we were told that there were no seat numbers. Just get in. So we did the usual team work, one of us to keep both bags in the boot of the bus (luggage space is actually to the side) and the other one would go and reserve seats.
In our local language this uncouth behavior is called ‘Kerchief hakodu’ (placing a kerchief to call a seat yours’). Nevertheless did this through out the trip, on all bus journeys, and thanks to this execution, we did not have to sleep on the floor like others did (later on in other trips). We reached Phong Nha at 4 am in the morning.
1. Book the cruise with the The Golden Sun Cruise (At Sinh Tourist VN). It’s a mid range budget cruise, offering great service and food. There are tons of Sinh Tourist, so ensure to find the right office by checking their website. You will get better deals in person, than online. So go to Ha Noi and then book your tickets.
2. It’s a common practice in departmental or grocery stores to quote prices as per their wish. You cannot read the price on the items, because it’s not in English. At Ha Noi, there were times when I bought the exact same item from the same shop and was charged differently each time depending on the person selling it. So ensure to ask for a bill. The bill will not be readable either, but at least they may get discouraged to quote a higher price.
3. At Ha Noi, try Sinh to (The Vietnamese milkshake). Sinh To is more popular here during summer, than the coffee.
4. Try Rulo stick ice cream. I had it near Hoan kiem lake. If you are facing coffee club and the lake is on your left and tourist information center on your right. Walk along the lake and after 300 meters you will see a small ice-cream shop. It is always highly crowded, it appears to be a very popular one. I tried Rulo Mint and lime flavor, green color pack. See picture for identification. It costs 7000 VND.
5. If you want to spend some peaceful time at Hoan Kiem, then go early in the morning or in the afternoon around 1 pm or 2 pm. Post that the lake area is too crowded.
6. Bus ticket for a sleeper bus journey to Phong Nha from Hoi An costs 250000 VND. And takes less than 8 hours.
7. Bus ticket from Sa Pa to Ha Noi costs 230000 VND and takes around 5 to 6 hours with stops.
1. Language Gyan:
In Vietnamese Hai ba zo is for 1, 2, 3..cheers. Zo means cheers.
Thanks and Shut up are too close, so you need to be careful what you say. Cam on is Thanks, and Cam mom (pronounced
Cam om) means Shut up.
2. A Vietnamese Belief – If they eat a Dog or cat after 15th of a month, it is considered to bring good luck. If eaten at the beginning of a month it’s bad luck. This eating habit started in 1945 when the Japanese forced cotton growth and destroyed all the rice fields.
3. While nature has created the human marvel, it has stored immense beauty in itself as well. Being in its glory makes me realize how little we acknowledge her magnanimity and yet she will never cease to exist and amaze us with her eternal beauty.
4. People in groups don’t make other friends and couples do not like to talk to any non-couples!
5. From the interactions and behavior of other backpackers in Laos and Vietnam now, I have realized that racism exists among travelers too!!! We were not easily talked to, there were travelers who have lied about their names and itineraries and others who have plain ignored our presence. So, one thing is clear, they may have traveled the whole world, they may have found a lot of things but they still had not found humility for sure! I don’t want to generalize, and I hope to find unbiased travelers as my travel journey continues.
Itinerary: Ha Noi, Vietnam: 2 days and 2 nights.
Stayed at : Hanoisy hostel, Ha Noi.
Short review : Located in old quarter, its good for a budget traveler. There isn’t much of a common space which is the only issue. Food at the hotel was average, there are a lot of choices around the hostel.
Ha Long Bay: Cruised with Sunset cruise, stayed on the boat.
Short review: Clean rooms with a view from the room, and great, fresh food. The cruise focused more on eating than letting us enjoy the views in solitude! A 2 days cruise is recommended.
Travelers: Two female backpackers
Country Loop: North Thailand -> Laos -> Vietnam -> Cambodia -> Myanmar -> Malaysia -> Philippines -> South Thailand