If you are visiting Hanoi, make sure you allocate at least ONE FULL DAY to explore beautiful Ha Long Bay. Some people may opt to take a cruise and stay overnight aboard the Ha Long Bay cruises, but if time does not permit, just book a one-day tour to Ha Long bay. I booked my Ha Long bay package via Hanoi Street Food Tours also, for about USD35.
The trip by bus from Hanoi early in the morning to Ha Long Bay jetty takes about 3.5 to 4 hours, so give or take about 3-4 hours on the boat to Ha Long Bay, you should just about reach Hanoi again around 8.30pm to 9pm that same day.
At around 8.30am on Day 2, the tour bus came along quite punctually and picked me up from the designated pick-up point. I was apparently the last passenger of the day inside the bus filled with tourists of all sorts of nationalities – Japanese, Australian, French, etc.
The bus ride wasn’t entirely comfortable. The seats felt cramped and cannot be reclined. Anyway, I guess these are just some small, little things to suffer in anticipation of experiencing Ha Long Bay soon!!
…and finally we arrive at the wharf…
…and I got my TICKET!!!
After locating our boat, lunch was served as the boat quietly left the pier. Lunch was not at all fantastic, which was quite OK since it was going to be a boat ride. Even the prawns looked rather raw…
Everything served for lunch was included in the package, except for drinks, so some crew did go around selling marked-up prices of bia hoi and other drinks. Tip: Do bring your own water when you travel to Ha Long Bay!
The immediate thing that struck me as the boat ventured further and further away from the pier was how QUIET it suddenly became. I mean, I must have been growing too accustomed to the blaring of horns in Hanoi that the quietness was such a welcome ‘sound’!
After lunch, everyone raced to the upper deck to get a better view of the sea and also to get fresh sea breeze brushing against our faces…:-D
After about what seemed like half an hour, we entered the bay and docked at Thien Cung Caves (Heavenly Palace Caves) where we explored and marveled at the natural limestone formations all around the cave ….
Just a warning that as soon as you enter these caves, be prepared to listen to incredible and imaginative stories and images of what you can SEE from these limestones from your tour guide! In some ways, it was great to listen to these narratives too because there is just so much you can see when it comes to rocks and stones, right? 😛
Outside the caves, you will get quite a good view of the bay itself….
We were soon on our way back to the wharf…
…but along the way, this was the time where we were all treated to some magnificent sights of rocks around the bay. Many of these rocks have been given names like chicken head or dog or whatever, but I shall just leave it to your own imagination. 😛
Hmmm…I kept asking myself that this particular rock looks awfully familiar….and many hours later, I saw it again…
Halfway back to shore, an announcement came that since we had a little more time that day, the boat will make a short detour to a nearby ‘floating village’ where we would get the chance to go kayaking or take a bamboo boat ride to explore other areas of the bay.
When we got there, we didn’t see any kayaks in service at all. So some of us decided to go for a ride in a bamboo boat. Price was VND130K per person, which was quite reasonable, I felt, considering the tough life these villagers are living.
One of the highlights of the bamboo boat ride was going under these ‘mini caves’ to another part of the bay, which was simply breathtaking…
After the brief detour, we got back onto our boat and headed back towards the shore. Along the way back, we were treated again to more majestic views of rock structures and everything else we can imagine them to be! :-p
On the way back to Hanoi, the bus will most definitely make a brief stop at some souvenier shop. Ours made a stop at this place simply called ABC. Seriously!
From the number of buses stopping there, I guess it could be the only, or if not one of the more popular halfway stops to Ha Long Bay. Anyway, if you do happen to stop here, remember to check out a small section in the souvenier shop where there are some locals working on silk paintings. So far, I haven’t seen any of such paintings in Hanoi itself, so I thought this was pretty cool. 😀
By the time I reached Hanoi, it was already late, and I felt a bad pain on my back sitting upright during the entire journey. But considering the beauty of Ha Long Bay that I just experienced? It was all worth it! 😀
Picking up mid afternoon, I’d reckon you would have probably completed some shopping around the Old Quarters and is ready for more sight-seeing!
Apart from some of the places to see in Hanoi, one must also not forget to try out the bevy of delicacies of Hanoi street foods! Yes, I must admit that you could easily explore food by yourself, but I opted for an easier (and lazier too!) way out – sign up for a Street Food Tour. Besides, I thought eating in a group would be more fun too! There were quite a few options available, but I took up my package worth USD20 from Hanoi Street Food Tours, which was located very near from my hotel. For an additional USD5, the package also bundled in a ticket to the Thang Long Water Puppet Show.
The Food Tour was quite an interesting concept where a tour guide would take the group around the Old Quarters on foot, stopping at street restaurants, road-side stalls, and even casual cafes for a sampling of Vietnamese food. Here’s a series of pictures of my food trail taken during this 3-hour street food tour, which started form about 5pm.
1.Some Pork Noodles in Sweet Soup Sauce
2. Pho Bo (Beef Noodles – don’t leave Hanoi without trying it!)
4. Assortment of Spring Rolls – tastes something like popiah but brimming with porky goodness!
5. Sugar Cane Water
6. Grilled Pork on a Stick, or as I would rather call Pork Satay…
7. Fried Banana Cake – sorry….no hands to take a pic, but this was the Vietnamese version of Pisang Goreng. 😛
8. Vietnamese Egg Coffee @ Cafe Giang
9. Thang Long Water Puppet Show
After the Street Food Tour ended at about 8pm, we took a short stroll towards Hoan Kiem Lake, where not far off its north tip was the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre!
Overall, I thought the show was quite interesting – something really different seeing puppets moving about on the water. Perhaps it could be made more interesting if the storyline of the show was somehow translated into English; or some translation text flashed on the wall somewhere during the show. Great place to take small kids though. 😀
10. Den Ngoc Son Bridge (at night!)
As you exit the Theatre, just cross the road towards Hoan Kiem Lake and you can get a magnificent view of Den Ngoc Son at night…
11. Dong Xuan Night Market (only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 7-11pm)
From 9pm onwards, feel free to explore other parts of the Old Quarters. If you are travelling to Hanoi over on Fridays to Sundays, do check out their kilometre long night market – great place for buying more souvenirs before you go home! 😛
And whilst you are hungry, simply stop by any streetside stalls for more food! Here’s some other pics of foods I whacked in Hanoi…
…and THAT concludes Day ONE of sight-seeing and stomach feasting in Hanoi!
So what do you do now with ONE more day left in Hanoi? Easy, one does not come all the way to Hanoi and miss Ha Long Bay….
Stay tuned as we explore beautiful Ha Long Bay for the entire of Day 2!
If you had like one week to spend in Hanoi, you would most certainly have plenty of time to go super touristy and explore every inch of this beautiful city.
But what if you only had TWO DAYS?!! Would that be enough time to check out Hanoi?
TWO DAYS was roughly all the free time I had when I visited Hanoi last month. And I think I did pretty OK to cover some of the more exciting places and also Vietnamese food in that short period of time. So I thought I’d share some of what I went through which could perhaps be a suggested itinerary for some of you who might be also going to Hanoi with only two days to spend.
When I did some pre-travel research on day tours in Hanoi, I realised that many of them offered similar half day or full day city tours – which only covered about 4-6 places of attraction for about USD20 onwards. Two cheaper alternatives would be to (1) Secure a personal tour with a local guide for FREE – which you only pay for the transport and also their meals (check out hanoifreetourguides.com or hanoikids.org for example); or (2) Book a motorcyle taxi (Xe Om) to take you go sightseeing. I tried Option 1 with several sites but the local guides were not available on my preferred dates. So in the end I opted for Option 2.
Hiring a Xe Om is quite simple and are considerably cheaper than official sanctioned tour packages too! They are usually just hanging out casually on their motorcycles by any street corner. I managed to negotiate a Xe Om to to take me on a 4-hour tour from about 9am onwards for only VND300,000 (about USD 15). Of course I would spend the first hour hunting down my football ticket. So for just the remainder THREE hours, these are the places I managed to cover. Of course, do bear in mind that riding with a Xe Om is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Apart from getting a bonus roller-coaster death-defying ride for FREE, it also allowed me to see many places in a ‘touch and go’ manner, and I only stopped longer in places I have more interest in. Also, So here we go….from about 10am to 1pm, your tour on a Xe Om should include:
1. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
2. Chua Tran Quoc (next to West Lake)
3. Long Bien Bridge
Quite over-rated attraction. Probably looks better from afar. It’s basically only an old rusty steel bridge but if you were to cross it, you might want to stop somewhere in the middle to catch some good shots of the river running underneath.
4. Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural
This is actually found along the walls of the main road heading up into Long Bien Bridge. Quite a pretty sight that stretches for a couple of miles. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any good shots from my Xe Om.
6. Thap Rua (Turtle Tower) – In the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake
7. Hoa Lo Prison
This was one of two stops I made which I spent a slightly longer time than usual. Perhaps I have been watching too many prison break-type of movies but whatever it is, I was just compelled to explore this prison. Overall, I have to say that visiting Hoa Lo was very enlightening. It provided a very thorough glimpse of the history of war-rich Vietnam and the significance of its prisoners here during those times. Of course, I would not recommend this tourist spot for families to bring small kids. Many areas that have been reconstructed for tourism purposes still had that dark, eerie and grim feel to it. Here are some pics from Hoa Lo:
8. Vietnam Military History Museum
I also spent slightly longer at this next stop. If you’re a war buff, this has to be a ‘must-visit’ place in Hanoi. They have quite an impressive collection of war vehicles, planes, armoury, cannons, etc. either collected or reconstructed from the Vietnam wars. My tip for those wanting to visit here would be to come EARLY! Strangely, they close at about 12-12.30pm so it would be best that this be positioned as early as possible in your itinerary.
9. Cột cờ Hà Nội (Flag Tower of Hanoi)
Right inside the grounds of the War Museum is this prominently positioned tower with the Vietnam flag proudly waving at the end of it. It required some climbing up the steep steps to get closer to the flag but in the end the exercise was quite worthwhile. 😀
10. Lenin Monument
11. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
12. Old Quarters
After completing your morning tour on the Xe Om, spend the rest of the afternoon walking along the streets of the Old Quarters to buy some souvenirs or just plain shopping!
For lunch, pick any road side stall and get yourself some delicious street food accompanied by ultra cheap Bia Hoi…
With half the day gone, what else is there to do in Hanoi for the evening of Day 1? Stay tuned for my proposed itinerary in my next blog!
My recent trip to Hanoi really opened up my eyes to the cultures and lifestyle of this capital city of Vietnam. It was my first ever visit to this country, so I thought I would list down some of my observations and lessons learnt about Hanoi..
1. Get a Local SIM card when you are there.
Mobile SIMs are surprisingly very cheap over there. I bought a Viettel SIM with 600MB data for only VND150,000, which is about RM25. I even had some credits to make about 10 minutes of international call as well!
2. Traffic rules do not apply in Hanoi
Traffic lights, roundabouts, road signs, zebra crossings, etc. are absolutely meaningless here. It’s ALL-WAY traffic where motorists moves in whatever direction they want!
3. Motorcycle Helmets in Hanoi are also meaningless…
Although all motorcyclists and scooterists wear them, it is as good as wearing a toy helmet! The material used is so thin I doubt if it offered any protection to the wearer at all!
4. Getting 5 seconds of peace is like striking lottery!
The streets of Hanoi is constantly noisy with horns blaring and motor sounds. If you are a light sleeper, you’d best find a hotel with near-perfect sound proofing…:-p
5. You cannot survive the streets without your HORN!
With fellow motorists to your left, right, front and back almost all the time, it is essential to HONK-AS-YOU-DRIVE/RIDE. Horns is Hanoi are therefore SO essential here they should just engineer it to honk automatically every 3 seconds. Seriously.
6. Hanoi riders and drivers are possibly amongst the most skilful in the world!
Moving around these streets with these kind of chaotic traffic on an everyday basis is proof of their incredible road skills!
7. Rubbish is naturally thrown on the roadside or just about anywhere at all!
Dustbins are hardly seen in the streets of Hanoi. So it becomes quite natural for them to just throw rubbish on the floor. every 2-3 hours, some cleaners will come around with a push-cart garbage dump to clean the streets…
8. Be prepared to HAGGLE
When going shopping, always remember that the opening prices is always marked up. So, be prepare to haggle and get the best bargain possible. Most shops in the same area sells virtually the same stuff. So don’t feel bad by declining one shop and testing out the prices of other shops. My tip is to counter the opening price by 40-50% and work from there.
9. One needs proper strategy just to cross the road.
in Hanoi, forget about the universal Look left, look right, look left again…cross. Here, the proper strategy is to simply PRAY, CLOSE YOUR EYES and CROSS THE ROAD! Hanoi motorists will somehow do extremely well to avoid hitting you! Don’t worry, about a first few crossings filled with heart attacks, you should be able to get used to it.
Here’s a sample video clip of a junction you need to cross in the Old Quarters…
10. Beware of street peddlers
There are certain groups of people hanging out around the streets who are always on the look out to make a quick buck. One are men armed with some small tools who will always try to persuade you that your show needs to be fixed. I was approached by these people no less than 5 times during my visit. The other group are lady peddlers who are a carrying fruit baskets. They would offer you to take a photo with their baskets….for a price, of course.
11. Secret meaning of XE OM
One of the cheapest ways of getting around Hanoi is by motorcycle taxis, or better known as Xe Om. You can spot them at most street corners on their bikes and a spare helmet. They will usually promote or offer their services by calling out Xe Om! After trying out their services for my customised city tour, I believe Xe Om secretly stands for Xtreme Entertainment On Motorcycle! Thrilling, heart-stopping and cheap! Definitely a recommended ride – since I don’t think they have any entertainment parks in this city…
12. Vietnamese coffee if STRONG
Since I am not really a coffee lover, I cannot confirm if Vietnamese coffee is the best in the world. It does however, tastes stronger than most coffee I’ve tasted. And anything hot and strong is surely good stuff to have in the chilly, breezy weather of Hanoi. And if the coffee here is strong, they also have Vietnamese tea here which is also just as strong!
12. Best way to LEPAK in Hanoi
Find a restaurant along the streets that serves arguably the cheapest beer on the planet, Bia Hoi (usually on sale at VND5000 (about only RM1!!!), pull up a stool, sit on it next to a small table, order your Bia Hoi, some food, and watch life pass by on the streets….
13. Sandwiches are HUGE!!
Before coming here, I knew a bit about the Vietnamese sandwich or Ban Minh. Wehen I reached here, I noticed another similar dish that was just as popular was their KEBAB. And the size of it just blew me away!
14. Be amazed with their telecom lines
If your free, try turning your head upwards and admire the stretch and bundles of telecom lines running (not very high) around the city area. Although the Government has plans to put them all underground sometime in the future, the telecom lines is a sight that has to be seen and appreciated.
15. Almost Impossible to tell the Originals from the Fakes
There are just so many FAKE stuff (handbags, clothes, shirts, etc.) in Hanoi that it is quite impossible to tell the real apart from the fakes. so the best thing to do is just to NOT go there with intention to get original stuff. Your expectations might just be crushed. 😛
16. Best Pho in the world
Personally, it’s just noodle soup with beef/chicken/pork to me, but many people seem to go ga-ga over Pho. Having said that, any trip to Vietnam would not be complete without eating this dish.
17. Making new friends during tours
Through the Street Food Tour and the Ha Long bay tour which I took, I managed to make many new friends from all over the world, like Germany, Chile, Uruguay, USA, China, France, Australia, Singapore and Japan!
18. Ha Long Bay tour guides are very good story-tellers and have creative imagination!
This is especially significant during the tour to the Dong Thien Cung, where one could see beautiful rock formations inside the caves. Trust me, after coming out of the caves, you’ll never look at any other rock feature the same way again!
19. Lower your sails of expectation for Ha Long Bay cruises
If you are planning to go to Ha Long bay during your stay in Hanoi, I’d bet you would have this picture of the cruise boat in your mind…
Do lower your expectations because more likely than not, you will board a boat without any such sails. When I reached the jetty area, I surveyed all the boats docked there and I spotted NONE with sails. Of course, having said that, try not to let the missing sails spoil your Ha Long bay tour. It is still a MUST-SEE tour when you go to Hanoi!
20. Standard of English is fast improving with the younger generation
I observed that whilst the older folk in Hanoi spoke almost ZERO English, it was encouraging to see most of the younger generation ably speaking the language. Most of these younger population would either still be studying or currently working in the hotel industry. Many of the English-speaking tour guides in Hanoi are actually university students working part time to get some side income. Even the young taxi driver that took me to the airport on my final day was happily listening to some techno-rock mash-up with shocking repetitive lyrics like “m***** f****** b****” Yes, the passion to learn English amongst the younger generation here is indeed very strong!
21. Get your hotel to help you get a taxi
Before coming to Hanoi, I had read many disturbing stories about the rampant taxi scams in Hanoi. There were cases of taxi drivers taking the unsuspecting victims for a free tour around the city before eventually reaching the destination for a higher price, obviously. Then there are also stories of taxis with ‘faulty’ meters that starts at a higher rate. My solution was to get your hotel (or any other hotel nearby where you are) to call a taxi for you. Give them your destination and request for the hotel’s assistance to be the spokesperson to tell the driver where you need to go. The wonderful staff at Paradise Boutique Hotel where I stayed even went the extra mile to check the taxi meter before giving the OK for the driver to leave. In addition, more often than not all hotels would have their list of reliable taxis they can call for their guests.
22. So many TV channels!
I was quite surprised to find the hotel TV with more than 80 channels!! Of course, the bulk of these are Vietnamese dramas…:-p
23. Exotic foods are quite easy to find here.
If you’re adventurous enough, you can quite easily find some exotic foods like dog, cat, snail, crocodile, etc.
24. No worries if you run out of Vietnamese Dong!
Whilst most shops in Hanoi readily accept USD and VND, I found out that they are also quite open to accepting just about ANY OTHER currency from tourists! Of course, you’d have to follow their ‘daily’ conversion rate. So at the end of the day, you may not need to convert so much VND t bring to Hanoi…
25. The weather is quite cold, chilly and breezy around Year End
Check the weather forecast before heading to Hanoi. When I visited this month, I was welcomed with breezy, chilly winds everyday. The temperature went down to as low as 12 degrees Celsius and only as high as 18 degrees Celsius.
26. Prepare to eat like a KID again!
Most of the tables and chairs in the Old Quarters seem like they were specially made for kids. My personal theory is that the stall owners don’t want table hoggers…haha…
27. Bring your own water to Ha Long bay
Most (if not ALL) of the Ha Long Bay tours will cover just the food, but not the water. Water (and Bia Hoi, of course) is happily served at a cost when the boat had already left the jetty. If you bring your own water, you could easily save some money here.
28. What souvenirs to buy home from Hanoi?
The top 5 popular stuff tourist buy from Hanoi are (i) Silk stuff; (ii) Coffee; (iii) Lacquer stuff; (iv) Pirated DVDs – around USD0.75 per piece!; (v) North Face bags!