Hanoi and Halong Bay

We returned to Vietnam, taking a flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi in the north of the country. At around 18degC it was noticibly cooler than Cambodia. The weather was overcast and there was a haze in the air which we’re not sure was due to the weather or pollution from the masses of scooters. That being said, Hanoi had a captivating vibe about it. We were staying in a small Airbnb apartment close to the french-colonial style opera house in a modern, affluent part of the city. We found most points of interest were within walking distance.

We arrived in Hanoi a few days before Christmas.  We came across a big event in the centre of the city packed with locals enjoying festive music, games, fake snow and numerous Santas . We were surprised at how much Christmas was being ‘celebrated’ in a predominantly Buddhist country. A few of the main streets around the centre were closed off to traffic which enabled us to walk around without worrying about crossing roads. On occasion, we did have to contend with the numerous electric powered kid cars being controlled remotely by parents!

We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and through to the old quarter – narrow streets buzzing with tourists, locals, cyclos (rickshaw) and scooters. The historic streets of the old quarter were originally named after the merchandise sold on that street. For example ‘P Hang Gai’ translates as ‘silk street’. We passed ‘shoe street’, ‘hat street’, ‘Christmas tat street’ and ‘pots n pans’ street – with every shop on the street selling different versions of the same product – it was like a department store on a huge scale! On ‘grocery’ street we saw a net full of frogs which were still very much alive and kicking (jumping!). You can’t argue about the freshness of the produce!

We stopped off at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim to try one of the many Hanoi speciality street foods. Bun Cha consists of barbecued miniature pork burgers and slices of fatty pork mixed with rice vermicelli in a tasty soup with sea-crab spring rolls served alongside.  It was delicious and, despite their initial objections, the kids loved it too!

The following day, we visited the mausoleum where the body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved, and walked around the gardens of his presidential palace, stilt house and government offices. Ho Chi Minh was a hero to the Vietnamese people and led them in their fight against occupation, first from the Japanese during the Second World War and then from the French in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into North and South. It was his attempt to reunify the country that led to the war with the American backed South Vietnamese. We had limited time in the Ho Chi Minh museum but it was a nicely presented story of his revolutionary life and how he spent it campaigning for the freedom of the Vietnamese people and their country. He died in 1969 before he could see the fulfilment of his dream with the reunification of Vietnam in 1976.

We booked a tour with Lily’s Travel Agency from Hanoi – an overnight cruise in Halong Bay and a night on Cat Ba Island. Halong Bay is around 3 hours from Hanoi and is a UNESCO world heritage site where over a thousand majestic limestone karsts protrude from the Gulf of Tonkin. The harbour was packed with boats of all shapes and sizes – they receive around 5000 tourists per day – but thankfully once we got out into open water it wasn’t quite so busy! The weather was overcast and a bit drizzly so we can only imagine how beautiful the bay would be on a sunny day. We didn’t let the weather stop us from enjoying the experience and, if anything, it gave the bay an eerie and mystical feel. On the first day we visited one island where we could walk around the huge Sung Sot ‘Surprise’ caves. In the evening, we went kayaking around some karsts while the sun began to set. In the dark, the girls attmepted squid fishing from the side of the boat but didn’t catch anything. We were staying on a very pleasant, smallish boat with just nine cabins. We were served a delicious dinner and spent the night in a lovely secluded bay.

The following morning, we stopped at the island Dao Titop and (along with hundreds of other tourists!) climbed the 300 steps to the highest peak in the bay. We were treated to beautiful views of the bay before cruising to Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the biggest and one of the only populated islands in Halong Bay with a population of 13000. We were taken to Cat Ba national park for a two hour hike to another viewpoint. On entering the park, however, we were greeted by three cages containing individual macaque monkeys. The guide explained that they had been rejected from their troops so had been ‘rescued’ by the park and were being held in these dirty cages waiting to be sold to science for experiments. It wasn’t a nice introduction to the park which also had grotty toilets, rubbish lying around and faded signage. We thought that they have a lot to learn about ecotourism in this part of the world. The steep hike through the jungle was scenic and quite challenging, and worth it when we reached the top to find a spectacular view over the tree-covered mountain peaks that wasn’t crowded with tourists.

Later that day we took a boat trip to Monkey Island for another hike, which actually turned out to be more of a climb up the jagged rocks, to another lovely view. Part of the fun was getting on and off the taxi boat where you had to time your ‘leap’ from boat to beach and vice versa between waves! On our return to Cat Ba we stopped at a floating village and got off to take a look around the fish farm. The floating villages are home to around 4000 people but are not as secluded as you may think as many still have televisions and wifi! The buildings are all connected by floating walkways, some of which looked more substantial than others! There were dogs and chickens wandering around the place and we saw a family doing the ‘grocery run’ in a small boat carrying supplies from the ‘general store’ back to their home. Such a different way of life from the one we’re used to.

After a hectic day and a well deserved nights sleep we cruised back to the harbour the next morning before the bus transfer back to Hanoi. We had time to enjoy another street food speciality, freshly made spring rolls at Banh Cuon Ba Hanh, before heading to the train station to catch a 13-hour sleeper train to our next destination Hue…

Click here to see more of our Hanoi/Halong Bay photos.

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