Travel: Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam

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by Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter

Hanoi: pretty, charming, slightly communist, dusty, reminiscent, historical, bustling, small, growing. Thought I’d share a few thoughts and tips for anyone thinking of doing this trip.

When I went December 2013/January 2014

When to go I’m not sure if I would advise travelers to come to Northern Vietnam during winter season. Although what the Northern Vietnamese would call ‘winter’ is quite mild in comparison to other places (like, say, Beijing), the cold can be a inhibiting especially if you’re planning to do the Halong Bay and Sapa side trips.

Sa Pa

For the first time in 50 years, in fact, it snowed in Vietnam (northwest region), which stopped us from doing the Sapa tour. I read that it can be quite miserable in the area during winter – you will barely see anything because of the fog/mist, and heating is inadequate; luxury accommodations are supposedly unheard of, so you won’t have the comforts of a warm and cozy place. Well, that decided it for me. For us (my family and I), actually. No way were we venturing into snow flurries – I had left Hong Kong for Southeast Asia to escape the cold, and here I was…

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on our Halong Bay cruise

In Halong Bay, meanwhile, you won’t be able to swim, sunbathe, or whatnot at wintertime. I can imagine what it would be like during the summer (the full moon parties of Koh Phangan in Thailand come to mind) – but then again, we were on a family trip, so we were fine without. Also, the waters of Halong Bay were much too murky for me to even want to dip into anyway… (I’m from the Philippines, so I’m spoiled as hell when it comes to beaches and sea water)

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this was where I was a few days before flying to Hanoi. Home, in Camiguin Philippines

Trivia/Thoughts:

  • The Vietnamese are very small and petite but sturdy and agile people. You only have to scan their history to be amazed at how they’ve defended their country over the centuries and were able to keep out stronger enemies like China and America (no small feats!). After reading up on Vietnamese history for a trip back in 2010, I had named the country “land of the fierce.”
  • See how the Vietnamese managed to hog the whole eastern Indochina coast, leaving Cambodia and Laos landlocked, squished in between them and Thailand:

  • Their skinny frames are probably due to their diet, which seems to consist of 90% leaves, noodles, and soup. My sister saw a guy carrying around his snack for the day in a Tupperware – leaves, leaves, and more leaves! Seriously, no wonder Filipinos are so fat. We eat deep fried sh*t all the time… worst diet in Asia (although apparently Malaysians are the most obese in Southeast Asia)
  • The architecture in Hanoi is absolutely beautiful, thanks to the French influence. Although that’s the only good thing they brought to the country. I’m sorry, people, but read your history. The French colonists were abominable. And to think they were taking abuse from the Germans back home – only to be oppressors in their own evil way back in Asia.
  • Vietnam’s population is around 90 million, and they have a 2-child policy in place. I hear this is due to change soon, in tune with China’s probable amendments to its 1-child policy.
  • Hanoi feels very small and quaint. Although it is the capital of Vietnam and the country’s 2nd largest city (after Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City) with a population of around 9.1 million, there are apparently only around 3 million people in the city proper (urban districts), making it one of the smallest capitals in the world.
  • Ho Chi Minh City’s population, in contrast, is 7.5 million. It’s much busier than the northern capital, with more tourists going through it.
  • Ha Noi means within the river, while Ha Long means “bay of descending dragons”
  • “Northerners” are apparently considered by their Southern Vietnamese brothers to be colder and more uptight. Coming from Hong Kong, though, the Hanoi folk were absolutely lovely. They were angels from heaven.
  • Drivers in Hanoi are horn-happy. They beep/blow their horns every chance they get. Drove me CRAZY.

Hits & Misses:

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

  • Hit: Temple of Literature, a temple of Confucius and Vietnam’s first national university
  • Hit: The street markets (Dong Xuan Market area). Ferragamo shoe ripoffs – amazing. Bargain hard!
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The Ho Chi Minh Museum (behind)

  • Miss: The Ho Chi Minh Museum. I can appreciate a good museum, but I didn’t feel the information here was presented in such a way as to involve, interest, and educate me. I wish I had gone to another, better one.
  • Hit: The West Lake. It’s beautiful.
  • Hit: The best Halong Bay cruise – you usually book through hotels or travel agencies, but they’re all middle men for the same cruises, the best of which is V Spirit (they were fully booked when we did ours, so try and contact them in advance: www.vspiritcruises.com)
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, Hanoi

  • Hit/Miss: The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Depends on you, if you’re into shows or not. I found it alright. 
  • Hit: We checked out Press Club Hanoi across Hotel Metropole for nightlife. Expats and locals mingle in an open-air terrace; weird coupon drink policy; lively fun Filipino band.
  • Hit: Hoan Kiem Lake area, which has an Arthurianesque legend behind it (king returns sword to the turtle of the lake after he wins the battle/war…)
  • Hit: Restaurants in colonial buildings. We tried Au Lac House, but the food wasn’t great, and a lot of it seemed Cantonese cuisine-y (abalone, shark fin, etc.). So maybe try something else – Pots n’ Pans was good and contemporary. Most of the upscale places we went to were mostly empty, though. Doesn’t seem great for food freshness and ambiance.

Would appreciate feedback/input as I definitely wouldn’t mind doing another Hanoi trip, if just to do Sa Pa.

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9 thoughts on “Travel: Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam

  1. vicky says:

    Wow! Your pictures are stunning. I went to Hanoi a few months ago and it’s always a discovery to see pictures taken from a different perspective- especially Sapa that I didn’t have time to go. I thought I’d share with you a Vlog I just discovered on tips to Hanoi: http://youtu.be/pl44uxeriGw
    You’re both give great insights.
    Thanks!

    Like

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