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Hanoi,  Vietnam - flag Vietnam -  Hà Nºi
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krisek's travel reports

On Water. Vietnam Trilogy - 3. Hanoi & Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay was one of the most stunning landscapes I had ever seen, and the night spent on the boat amongst the egg-shaped islets couldn’t compare with any other night of my life. Hanoi (Ha Noi) was just another city, although its Old Town was lovely.


Hanoi Citadel
Hanoi Citadel
I was not quite sure what to expect from Hanoi. What I knew was that it was supposed to be a lot nicer and more atmospheric than Saigon with nicer architecture and less people. At least it was supposed to have an old district.

It took me an hour to find myself in Hanoi. Since I was utterly mislead by the hotel (claiming their were someone else) I could not find on the map where I was. There was no sun, so I had no idea in which direction to go and the streets had no names there. Not all of them. I was going in circles trying to figure out how to get to the Old Town. I was so cross! I decided to pick up a location in the Old Town and then aim for it first, and only later try to find the agency with the trip to Ha Long Bay. I picked the Hoam Kiem Lake for my first destination point and started asking people in the streets for direction to the lake without realising that there are more than just one lake in Hanoi. Since I was actually closer to the Ho Tay Lake (West Lake) everyone was pointing me in that direction, which was exactly in the opposite the one I wanted to proceed. On my way to the so remote (I thought) Old Quarter, I managed to stumble across the Hanoi Citadel and a magnificent street with French villas – possibly embassies.

The Old Quarter, which I managed to find in the end, was really pleasant. There are many houses with interesting façades balconies, which make the quarter really atmospheric. It was not as nice as Hue, but it retained some of the colonial charm and compactness, which make it unnoticeable that this is indeed a large metropolis.

Regrettably, there are elements of Hanoi that remind everyone that it is a large and busy city. These are traffic and terrible overuse of horns on cars and motorbikes. It is beyond belief how severe noise this makes. It can actually make one sick or seriously ill. Losing hearing is also very likely! I am not exaggerating here, and trust me, I wish I was.

Favourite spots:
Hanoi Old Town
Hanoi Old Town
As I was traversing the streets of the city trying to find my way around and looking for places to go out, I realised that pavements were people's extensions of living and, in particular, dining rooms. The sidewalks were packed with families sitting on ridiculously small plastic chairs and having something to eat, regardless of the time of the day. I have not been in a local home, and struggled to imagine reasons why people wouldn’t eat at home but rather choose the street? This was very strange to me. I’d like to be sure that the hygienic conditions of a street were slightly worse than those at one’s home. Right? As often, as the pavements were used as dining tables, they were considered parking lots for motorbikes and scooters. That was so annoying as there was little room for the pedestrians to walk and too often they were forced to use the road risking their very lives, as traffic was chaotic! Actually, using this adjective I am committing a terrible insult to chaos. I loved it!

What's really great:
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
I took the direction down to the Hoam Kiem Lake to see the Ngoc Son Temple and the Thap Rua, the Tortoise Tower built on the water. I thought that there was time to take some photographs although weather was lousy. I wasn’t sure whether that was smog or winter mist. After a while, I couldn’t make up my mind what should be the priority – the wandering about the city or relaxing in a bar. I was staying in Hanoi for a few days. I had plenty of time.

I expected that the 2 day escapade to the Ha Long Bay (USD 25) would be one of the highlights of the entire holiday, and I wasn’t wrong. As I left Hanoi at 9 o’clock in the morning, it took until lunch time to arrive at the town of Ha Long. When I finally arrived at the Ha Long Bay, an inconceivable fog bound the whole gulf. It was so white and thick that the horizon simply disappeared. Nothing was visible from a distance. Only upon closer approach, the majestic islands of impossible shapes kept appearing as if from a child’s drawing.

Sights:
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
The fog was making the scene very dramatic, mystic and even romantic, like taken from Tolkien’s fairytale motion picture. The bay was truly gorgeous, an impressive place. It was infested with a large number of small pointy uninhabited islets. They looked like (attention now…) elements of partially submerged dragon. Yes! Long in Chinese means dragon! Ha Long!

The mini cruise around the bay included a visit on one of the larger islands, or more precisely – a visit to a cave on one of the islands. This was actually boring and the cave wasn’t at all extraordinary. It was desecrated with pointless graffiti by youths in the 1970s and 1980s. It looked quite awful and the efforts to commercialise the cave with colourful spotlights and guided tours made it even worse. Caves should be mysterious and visited by very small groups preferably with small torches or even candles.

So, the cave was a mistake but the most important and the key element of the trip was about to come with the nightfall.

Accommodations:
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
The boat that took me on this trip was in fact a family home of quite a nice size. The boat was wooden and had several cabins with twin or double beds and bathrooms en suite. Very comfortable, I have to admit, although the bathrooms required improvements.

As the day was coming to an end, the captain started to move the boat away from the main routes. It was time to have a sundowner and to get on the top deck and contemplate the scenery. The captain moved the vessel to a mini-bay encircled with egg-shaped islets. An excellent hideout! The landscape took my breath away, and I was again on this holiday on my knees. As a sipped my sundowner and then a first-star-comer, I began think that those islets, those semi-submerged mountains, were not egg-shaped but rather bra-shaped. There was absolutely no light pollution and the number of stars in the sky exceeded my expectations. And I am sure this had nothing to do with me drinking beer. I was sitting on the top deck and couldn’t get over it.

Nightlife:
Hanoi Tradeswomen
Hanoi Tradeswomen
Back from Ha Long, I obviously wanted to go out in Hanoi. If only a little bit – the year 2003 was coming to an end and it is a good excuse to celebrate the 2003 achievements. I was also in the capital city so that was another very good excuse to go out and party a little. I followed the notoriously unreliable Lonely Planet guidebook and my legs, felt right up in my ass, kept telling me it was a really bad idea to follow the guidebook. The top two places raved in it didn’t exist. Albeit I found the trace of them in the locals' memory that they might have existed in the past. One of them changed owners and, of course, its name. The other simply disappeared from the face of this planet. It wasn’t easy to find bars in Hanoi because during the day, they were closed. The proprietors dropped the iron doors down and the entrances looked like garages. At night, when they opened, it was harder to navigate through the narrow and dark streets of the Old Quarter. My favourite club was Red Mask.

Hangouts:
Hanoi Hoam Kiem Lake
Hanoi Hoam Kiem Lake
I stumbled across a Jazz Club, which was more like a Jazz Café or Jazz Bar, because it was a full menu eatery. It was located on of the Old Quarter main streets ending at the Hoam Kiem Lake. The venue played very interesting music, and sometimes it was even good. It was a live jazz band playing instrumentals with astonishing bravura. I was impressed with their abilities and I couldn’t get over the fact that they all were Vietnamese guys. The bartender, although rather bossy with the waiting staff, was very friendly and had a genuine firm handshake, so unusual among the Vietnamese.

The Hoam Kiem Lake was a popular place to hang out, and there were plenty of people sitting on the benches, and around the lake, walking and riding their bikes. A couple of cafes, a bar and even a gelateria located right at the lake’s banks were popular meeting points. This was also where I partied and welcomed the new year.

Other recommendations:
Hanoi traffic
Hanoi traffic
As I was discovering Hanoi’s Old District, I become ever more fluent in the local technique of crossing the street. Waiting for someone to stop before the pedestrian crossing was pointless. No-one ever stopped to let pedestrians cross, and crossing the street was a challenge. It wasn’t hard, it only required courage. What one had to do was simply to start walking regardless of the number of vehicles approaching, look at a single point at the other side of the street and, never ever stop until safely at the other side. The motor vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles always found their way to bypass the pedestrians. It always worked. If it helped, one could even close their eyes.

Hanoi is also a great place to buy a silk kimono. I wasn't planning to buy any, but for mere 7USD I should have bought at least three. I only got one. It was double sided (blue/yellow), excellent quality and beautifully embroidered with large dragon on the back.

Restaurants:
Hanoi Turtle Temple
Hanoi Turtle Temple
Little Hanoi, a restaurant in the heart of the Old Quarter made my day that day. I was extremely annoyed with many people (street sellers, motorbikes) that day. The food they gave me was for a lack of better word – superb. I had spicy crab soup, which was huge and had an entire crab in it, and noodles with grilled shrimp. I’m not sure what spices they used for the noodles, but I thought I was dreaming – finally! There was just too much reality that day for me. Well, the meal was unreal and I couldn’t believe the tiny bill either! The entire restaurant (well all six tables) paused for late lunch and all family sat down at the larger table and ate. They must have been the owner’s family. Apart from the grandmother, mother, father, one grownup man, two teenage guys, one teenage girl and three kids, the three waiters were also sitting with them and they all shared food. That was an interesting experience. Clearly, the mother was the boss there and she kept ordering and commanding everyone.

Published on Tuesday March 4th, 2008


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Fri, May 02 2008 - 02:25 AM rating by brucemoon

And, again, a great report.

cheers

Tue, Apr 01 2008 - 12:57 AM rating by eirekay

Krys, marvelous report and the photos are so well selected! Beautifully done!

Wed, Mar 19 2008 - 08:04 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Trilogy of five points for your three Vietnam reports

Fri, Mar 14 2008 - 05:27 PM rating by alfonsovasco

this is a report extraordinary

Thu, Mar 13 2008 - 07:03 AM rating by downundergal

Great info on Halong Bay - I have heard similar feedback on the (un)surprising cave and others there. Anyway great third installment.

Sun, Mar 09 2008 - 02:33 PM rating by pakamas

after reading your report, it reminded me back when i was there last years, nice places and scenary.

Sat, Mar 08 2008 - 09:05 AM rating by magsalex

Great pictures and a wealth of information.

Thu, Mar 06 2008 - 04:19 AM rating by rangutan

A great triology full of experiences!

Wed, Mar 05 2008 - 09:45 AM rating by ravinderkumarsi

very very useful information in the report and will surely help for the globos ppl who want to travel there ,keep it up and hope to see more such nice travel reports from you
ravi

Tue, Mar 04 2008 - 03:03 PM rating by mistybleu

Krzys another excellent report. I love the pictures of Ha long Bay and of course the Hanoi Tradeswomen.

Nicely done.
Amanda

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