Trip to Hanoi and Halong bay
21.03.2013 - 24.03.2013
Ever since I saw a video of Halong Bay and its beautiful scenery and all the more being an UNESCO World Heritage side, it has always been on my wish list to visit Halong Bay. The trip certainly did not disappoint and I had a good time there.
However, the trip almost did not materialise as I was slow in planning. Initially I had wanted to travel to Halong Bay via China (killing 2 birds with one stone). However, as luck would have it, the tour tickets were sold out and I was unable to make it on the remaining available dates. Time for Plan B. I decided to skip China altogether and make my own way to Vietnam via a shortened free and easy trip.
Luckily my friend was able to make it thus I had a companion. Upon research from the Internet, I found that there are actually planned tours from Hanoi to Halong, hence one need not have to make his own way to Halong from Hanoi. The cruises also vary - from a single day cruise (not recommended since it is a jam packed schedule with little time to relax) to a 2-day 1-night tour (overnight on board) to even a 3-day 2 night tour on different shapes and sizes of ships. Cruise prices also vary, ranging from the cheap of USD $100 to as much as USD $200 or even $300 per pax, depending on the class of ship and itinerary on offer. I finally chose an overnight curise with a few stopovers which suited my taste. Halong here we come!
We landed in Hanoi on Thu 21/March/2013. I had previously been to Ho Chi Minh back in 2007 but not to Hanoi. However, both cities gave me the same impression - as chaotic as can be! There were certainly lots of bikes and it seems like everybody - from the old to the young, uses one. The motorcycle remains the primary mode of transport for most Vietnamese. In fact bike riding can turn out to be a interesting acrobatics show – I have seen a lady pillion rider sitting on one side of the bike, cross legged, without any support while making a phone call! This is also the only place where I can see 4 people squeezing onto a bike. This was certainly interesting but this cannot be the case when one is trying to navigate through the streets. In effect, crossing the roads is an art form in itself. We had a hard time moving around in Hanoi, having to pay extra attention to surrounding chaotic traffic and similar looking buildings throughout the streets. The constant blaring of horns certainly did not help matters. Many a time we lost track of which part of the French Old Quarter we were at and had to go back to the street map to keep ourselves on track.
As a shopping paradise, Hanoi will be last on my list (there are certainly other better places to shop for cheap stuff around the region). For one, Hanoi is not fully opened up for foreign businesses yet. It is one of few Asian cities where I finally cannot find both McDonalds and Starbucks! The stuff on sale does not really suit us tourists. There are also no bazaar and mega malls to walk around. So we spend our first day walking aimlessly around the Old Quarter, managed to get to Dong Xuan market (reminds me more of a wholesale market than one for tourists bargaining) Ngoc Son Temple en route to Hoan Kiem Lake and had some pho bho (noodle soup) for dinner.
The second day was finally the day of our highlight tour. After a hearty breakfast, we were packed into a mini bus. There were 11 of us split into 4 groups of nationalities - Singapore, Malaysia, Russia and Argentina. The bumpy road trip took about 3 hours and along the way we caught a glimpse of everyday Vietnamese life - from its farms (Vietnam is primary still an agriculture country) to its schools. We reached Halong around noon. Although we did not really had a chance to explore Halong city, I were certainly much impressed by its cleanliness and quiet nature - as least I feel that it is not as chaotic as Hanoi!
Onto the cruise. The junk we took was a smaller size one – 11 pax is about just nice. The cruise ride took us past some magnificent scenery. Words cannot describe how I feel. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words – one has to be there to see and feel it to understand how I feel. We are finally away from civilization, away from internet, away from hustle and bustle of city life. So just relax, forget about everything for the next day and just enjoy the scenery and the breeze. One the way we passed by several interesting landscapes like the Dinh Huong island, Duck Island, Dog Island, Sail island etc (frankly speaking I still do not know which is which!). Most of our journey was spent admiring at the magnificent view of Halong Bay while enjoying the breeze. That itself is very much worth the ticket price. The boat then made a few scheduled stops, namely at the pearl farm, Titop beach (highlight is a 15 minute trek to the top of the beach for a grand view of the area) and the Surprise Cave (visit of natural formations in the cave) on the second day. Due to time constrains, however, we did not get to do kayaking.
At night we had a nice dinner and prompted by one of our Russian travel mates, we began to engage in a singing session. The night ended with our Argentine friends performing a hot dance! It was really fascinating to see different cultures coming together in a small form of cultural exchange. The Bay was calm at night and one certainly did not feel that one was on board a ship. It was unfortunately cloudy so we skipped the sun rise portion.
All good things came to an end as we sadly bade farewell to Halong Bay and made our way back to chaotic Hanoi. It’s a pity we did not have a chance to explore Halong City – I think I would have loved it more than Hanoi.
At night, on returning to Hanoi, we were in luck to catch the weekend night market. There are a lot of items on sale including food. It is a shopper’s paradise for some bargain hunting. The market is usually jam packed and the good thing is vehicles are banned from the roads – although one or two still chose to defy the ban. The unfortunate thing is it only happens on weekends and opens for only 3-4 hours, closing at about 12 midnight.
On the last day of the tour we managed to squeeze in 2 museum visits. Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton”, a place where Vietnamese revolutionaries we locked up by the French as well as Americans POWs being locked up during the Vietnam War. There is a bit of propaganda in here so do go with an open mind. It is not as brutal as Tuol Slang museum in neighbouring Cambodia but it is still an interesting place. We next visited the Army museum, where the highlight was the display of military hardware, especially the tanks and the fighter planes captured during the war. Inside the museum, the Vietnamese proudly showcase their history of how they defeated both the French and the Americans as well as recent progress in Vietnamese social and economic development.
Finally time to leave. We met our Russian friends at the airport and bade farewell to them and our Vietnamese hosts. It was an interesting journey to another part of Asia, witnessing another aspect of day to day human life in another city.
My experience in Vietnam: Vietnamese are generally nice people. Most do not speak English well so communication could be a problem. Hardened by war, Vietnamese are usually tough people and hard negotiators. That is why for much of the trip, we have this feeling of being ripped off wherever we go. Traffic is chaotic and I think I would go crazy I had stayed longer. Preferred currency is still the Dong and not all shops accept USD especially non-tourists areas, unlike before. So do bring more Dong. If one needs help, do contact the hotel one is staying in for assistance. I’m sure they will be more than willing to help.
Unique situation: Crossing the road is an adventure. One has to be brave and bold. Initially one can just follow the locals to get a feel on how to do it. Forget about traffic lights, they either don’t exist or people don’t follow the signs. Once you are familiar, one can just literally close your eyes and walk – you will be surprised you can reach the other side of the road in one piece! Most motorcycles are slow riders and they will generally give way to pedestrians if they know your intentions – just don’t hesitate and cause confusion to the riders. It is difficult to guard 100% since traffic comes in all directions so it will be good if somebody can watch your back when crossing the road.
Beware: As there are lots of motorcycles, do be aware of snatch thieves, especially those people who like to carry sling bags. Although we feel safe in Vietnam it is always better to be safe than sorry. Also be aware of taxi cheats who take you for joy rides or whose metre jumps faster than your heartbeat. Should such incident occur, seek help from the police / hotel or just negotiate down the fee, pay off and walk away. After all you are in a foreign land and all they want is money so it is better to pay off and walk away rather than get into a fistfight and get hurt.