We were very excited to finally arrive in Hanoi. Mostly because of how difficult it had been to even get there in the first place. All the seasoned backpackers that we’d chatted to throughout our time in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos had raved about how amazing Vietnam is. They’d sing the praises of everything from the scenery, to the street-food to the friendliness of the local people.
After our not-so-successful time in Luang Prabang, we really felt like Hanoi would be a turning point. The place where things would start getting better again. I was on the mend from my illness and we’d been told that Vietnam was a lot cheaper than Laos. Over halfway through our travels and funds had started to noticeably deplete.
It could have gone either way. Either our hopes were shooting up so high that we’d be bitterly disappointed, or our eagerness for a brilliant experience would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thankfully, it went to the latter.
I’ve heard that people who visit Vietnam fall in love with either Hanoi in the North or Saigon in the South – but never both. Whether or not this is true I’m unsure, but I do know that both Tom and I really liked Hanoi.
We stayed in a small hostel down the narrowest of back-alleys in the Old Quarter. The hostel was a basic, low budget affair, but it was clean and the friendliness of the staff more than made up for whatever luxuries we were missing.
We spent the first evening exploring the Old Quarter. So-called because it’s been around since the imperial times, the Old Quarter used to be the main area for artisan trade and merchandise in Hanoi. Nowadays it’s one of the main “touristy” areas. Temples, markets and restaurants are dotted around the narrow and meandering streets. Places selling knock-off Adidas trainers and fake Rolex’s- and food-vendors serving everything from Pho to candyfloss.
It’s the sort of place where the later it gets, the busier it seems to be. They say that New York is the city that never sleeps but I think anyone who has been to South East Asia knows that both Vietnam and Thailand can beat the Big Apple hands down. Nothing seems to close- ever. We got some food at a restaurant that sold amazing fresh veggie spring rolls, and then walked around the Hoàn Kiêm Lake before calling it a night and heading home.
The following day was our one full day in the city. We didn’t worry too much about packing in absolutely everything. We didn’t want to be rushed and there’d just be no point. Instead, after our free hostel breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs, we walked to Ba Dinh Square and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. You pass a load of important looking buildings and museums on the walk, plus you just get to take in the sight of the crazy traffic and the smell of the street-food vendors on every corner. Ba Dinh square is green and spacious with flags on every corner; you really feel like you’re right in the middle of things. It’s also next door to the Ho Chi Minh museum, the One Pillar Pagoda and the Presidential Palace, so you can tick a lot off the list in a relatively short space of time.
The one place that I’d definitely recommend is the Hoa Lo Prison museum, which we visited after lunch. I have a weird fascination with historical prisons, and will always add it to my itinerary if there’s one nearby. So far, my record includes Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania and, of course, Alcatraz in San Francisco.
Hoa Lo was originally built by the French in 1896 to contain Vietnamese revolutionaries who fought for independence from France. It wasn’t exactly the most successful prison – seeing as you learn all about the various ways that inmates managed to escape, including tunnelling down through the sewers! Later, during the American War, it was ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American POW’s imprisoned there. It’s pretty grim and gruesome, although you do wonder whether the state of Southeast Asia’s prisons has really changed that much, given their ongoing reputation! The museum is small, but is packed full of information, relics and stories. Entrance costs all of £1, which definitely seems like a worthwhile price to learn a bit more about Vietnam’s history.
Hanoi is such an interesting city, with a fascinating past. There’s no end of things to see (if you have the time and a little bit of money). The energy of the city revived us and we were on top form for our tour to Ha Long Bay the following day.
Ha Long Bay
If you google Vietnam, the search will most likely come up with at least one photo of Ha Long Bay. It’s unsurprising, really. The emerald sea and imposing limestone formations shooting of out the water make it a pretty stunning and memorable landscape. The whole time that we were there I couldn’t help but be surprised that we were actually there. Cruising the waters that I’ve seen on Pinterest so many times.
We booked a tour to Ha Long from our Hostel in Hanoi. They kindly looked after our backpacks for us whilst we spend a night on a boat in the lagoon.
My review of the trip is mixed. One the one hand, wow. The setting is so incredible it feels like a film set, or even a different planet. Our tour included a trip to the limestone caves as well as the chance to go sea kayaking around the islands. Plus, we saw the most gorgeous sunset.
On the other hand, the tour company we were sent with were questionable, at best. I realise that we were on a budget, and you obviously get what you pay for, but manners shouldn’t cost anything and our tour guide wasn’t exactly polite. He had a whistle that he’d use to hurry us from one place to the next. Bearing in mind that there were less than 20 people on the tour and we could hear him speak quite clearly. I felt a bit like one of the Vonn Trapp children in The Sound of Music.
We were hurried on quickly at each stage. We spent less than 40 minutes on the one beach that we went to, and we were only given 20 minutes to kayak, which was supposed to be a highlight of the trip. The tour of the caves consisted of our guide pointing at different rock formations and saying what he thought they looked like: “chicken”, “dragon”, “unicorn”.
The boat we slept on was clean, if a little crowded, and I didn’t like the fact that we were handed drinks without being told that we’d have to pay for them at the end. Oh, and the food gave Tom food poisoning and made me feel more than a little bit nauseous.
Despite all this, I would still recommend going. Just do your research about different tour groups first, or plan to do the trip on your own. The scenery is what makes Ha Long Bay spectacular. If you don’t care about views and landscapes then maybe don’t bother.
We arrived back to Hanoi tired and queasy, promptly falling asleep in our hostel room for a good 12 hours.
It’s a good thing we got the rest, though. We needed our energy to begin our travels down south, on what would be the most adventurous part of our journey so far.