The first thing that will strike anybody coming to Hanoi for the first time is total and complete chaos!
Traffic is unreal – crossing the street is only a good idea if you have a secret wish to die in a hurry – streets are packed with vendors (but in a non-touristy way) and everything just seems sooo hectic. BUT thats also the charm of the city.
I was just on a short stay in Hanoi and had booked what turned out to be a fantastic gem of a place called Hanoi Tirant Hotel. I even got upgraded to a suite with a nice balcony so after a long journey from Amsterdam via Bangkok, I was a happy camper.
It was right in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Its full of life 24/7, shops and streetfood (delicious) everywhere, and a little odd perhaps, some streets are named after specific trades, for example there might be a “kitchen sink street” so if ever you need a kitchen sink, thats where to go and find dozens of shops, selling just kitchen sinks 🙂 (OK thats not entirely true, but there is in fact a “bamboo wares street” where all you can buy is some kind of bamboo product.
The best though were all the street food vendors, offering delicious food at very little money. Equally good was the fact that even though Hanoi has millions of foreign tourist per year, it doesnt feel like it at all. The whole place shows itself as being very much local, with little outside influence.
I only had 2 days before moving on to where I really wanted to go – Halong Bay.
I had found a company (Glory Legend Cruises) doing a number of different cruises around the bay, and had booked a 3 day/2 night cruise with them.
There are literally hundres of ships in the bay constantly so there is plenty to choose from. This one was a fairly low key ship (they say they are 4 star, but i certainly wold not agree on that).
It only has 20 or so cabins so even if fully booked, it will not feel crowded.
I got a package deal which included pick-up in Hanoi, 2 nights onboard, cruising around, a bunch of activities on board (mostly free) all meals and return transport to Hanoi.
I got picked up early in the morning and arrived at Halong about 3,5 hours later – so yes a day trip from Hanoi is possible in theory, but you wont get to see much of the bay and will spend at least 7 hours in a van so…..)
Some are offering the cruises on much larger ships, but the bay is not very deep at many places, so generally speaking, the bigger the ship, the more limited it will be in where it can go.
The cruise was fantastic, the bay really is as magnificent as I hoped it would be. It was not a luxury cruise, but the crew were all very nice, cabins were clean, food was simple but good and we (the passengers) could do pretty much what we wanted like borrow a dingy or a kayak and go ashore on a tiny island, or go snorkelling.
Other on offer was for example Tai Chi, Vietnamese cooking lessons, cave exploration, or squid fishing. As far as I remember, they only charged for spa massage – everything else was free.
Oh and a final word on Halong Bay – pretty much all of the cruise operators will tell you they have free wifi onboard, however in reality – shortly after leaving the starting point of your cruise, signal will be non-existant, or, if you are lucky, incredibly week. Signal comes from land based masts, so as soon as you depart, it will rapidly deterioate and it will not be long before its completely lost – for me – it was actually quite refreshing to be off line for a few days, but if you are desperate to stay connected, most likely you will be dissapointed.
After the cruise, a 3,5 hour drive back to Hanoi for a few more days.
In the city, I really wanted to see the water puppet theater in action, but for some reason it was closed, so missed out on that.
Instead I opted for a day trip to Ninh Binh. There are several options to get there, but my hotel had had a cancellation for an organized tour the following day, and offered a rock bottom privce, and, being slightly lazy, I went for that.
Ninh Binh provice is located approx. 100 km Hanoi and the drive will take about 2 hours or so. Its a stunningly beutiful area not to be missed.
Here is an example of what you can expect on a day tour. If you want to save a couple of $$ and dont mind a bit of hassle, you can also visit on your own by train or bus.
In particular, the slow (very slow!) journey down the river to visit Tam Coc was fantastic.
All my photos can be seen here