After my ‘f**k it’ moment in Chiang Mai, it dawned on me I had very little time to do research on what I would do and how I would fit it all into just two weeks. What route would I take? Should I just visit the north and then fly back out? What were my priority places? Would the buses and trains be reliable? Other than the latter question – which I could be certain was a no – I decided I could only answer these questions by giving it a go myself. However many blogs you read or friend’s advice you take, sometimes you just gotta get on the road and figure it out as you go. So if you’re interested in doing something similar, check out my central and south blog posts (…on the way…!) to find out what I did and my now more educated opinion on timings!
El whom I’d met in Singapore had expressed an interest in joining me for the weekend, so at a similarly quick click of a button he was on his way! We landed early evening and got in a taxi pre-booked via our hotel. Apparently scamming is very common and the airport is a good 45 minute drive from the city, so it’s worth arranging a taxi with your accommodation in advance. By backpackers standards, don’t expect it to be cheap. Kicking off our culinary tour, we walked to Madame Hien for dinner which has an extensive menu of traditional Vietnamese dishes. Set in the former Spanish Embassy, the restaurant provides an attractive example of French colonial architecture and a relaxed ambience, as well as exquisite food. The pork melted in the mouth and the green papaya salad – which is a favourite Asian dish of mine – was crunchy and refreshing. El tried not to feel emasculated and I tried not to laugh when the waiter mistakenly gave me his fruity cocktail whilst he seriously struggled to open my water bottle.
I learnt my ‘you should probably plan ahead’ lesson when trying to book a train in Penang, and with time very much against me, I made my Hanoi exit plan a priority. I could only assume the hotel was charging a whopping commission, so El and I wandered down to the train station to book it directly. Seat61.com had previously been a reliable source for me in Thailand, so I was surprised to find the train around 300,000 VND dearer than they had stated online. With the very cheapest board at 1,048,000 VND, I double checked and ensured I wasn’t being mugged off (as best you can in a foreign country…). Unfortunately for me, it seemed prices had simply risen.
I soon found out this was just the beginning of a long list of prices being higher than anticipated throughout Vietnam. Blogs and official travel publications written in the last year – some even as little as 6 months ago – were seemingly now out of date with their costings. And this went for the more ‘official’ things just as much as your average price of a banh mi on the street. The price increases are no doubt in response to the burgeoning tourism industry, yet it seems the infrastructure hasn’t had time to adapt or grow in accordance. I watched as my ticket – in the loosest sense of the word – was written up on Word. It resembled the crappy posters I would create on WordArt in year 4, and nothing like the official tickets I had received in Thailand (where I had also been paying a fraction of the price). It will be interesting to see how Vietnam changes over the few decades. I guess only time will tell!
El and I both agreed that our sweet tooths were aching and so set off on a pudding hunt. We stopped by a cafe for a game of Jenga so I could sample a red velvet flavoured steamed bun, which was well, as bizarre and unpleasant as it sounds. I’m now certain steamed buns should only be savoury. Sweet tooth still unsatisfied, El suggested we made our way to Wanna Waffle? on Hoan Kiem lake (but no, if you’re wondering, El is a true gent and at no point did he actually ask me if I wanted to waffle…). After my mind blowing banana and chocolate waffle in Chiang Mai (I don’t normally like waffles), I was going in with an open mind. Although it was more than edible and no doubt presented beautifully, I’m afraid it returned me to my disenchanted state with the boring and bland waffle. I also hate putting wood in my mouth – with one exception har har – so the hipster cutlery (if you can call a wooden spoon that) was only a hindrance for me.
Just like an Englishman discusses the weather, any traveller visiting Hanoi can’t help but comment on the traffic. Chaotic. Uncoordinated. Completely bonkers, and downright dangerous. But somehow, (and don’t ask me how, it’s still a total mystery) it works. Though they are present, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights are entirely redundant; in fact there’s a t-shirt sold in most shops that has ‘GO’ next to each colour. The sort of lame t-shirt that goes into the depths of your pyjama draw at home, never to be seen again. Ignoring the 2 million cars, in 2013 there were 37 million registered motorcycles in Vietnam. Every man and his dog owns one, and observing what they manage to carry on these small scooters (including literally EVERY man and his dog) is a never ending source of entertainment and surprise. The key to a successful crossing is absolutely no hesitation, and walking with purpose and confidence. Anything else and you’re in trouble. I’m an incredibly hesitant, indecisive and clumsy person so I felt much safer in the knowledge that El was by my side. Every time we crossed the road we played a game of dodge which almost always ended up in laughter and a few near misses. Even at 10.30pm the roads were heaving with people intent on reaching their destination in record time. Which lead El to ask one of life’s greatest unanswered questions: where are all the people in Hanoi going?!
Once El had decided to join me, we started researching trips to Ha Long Bay. You can do anything from a day trip for $55 to a 4 day trip for several hundred dollars. The advice I had been given and read was 1) you very much get what you pay for here and it’s worth paying a little extra 2) as beautiful as it is, 2 days and 1 night is sufficient time to enjoy yourself but not get bored. We ended up finding a deal on BestPriceVN.com which was $122 reduced from $180, and included free transfer to the port which is 4 hours away. Had I not been with El, it’s likely I would have booked myself onto the backpackers Castaway party boat which I believe is around $80 not including transfer. What you go for entirely depends on what you’re after and what you’re willing to spend. I heard great things about the party boat, but I have to admit it was very nice to have two days of pure luxury and indulgence!
We were welcomed at the pier with a glass of ice cold tea, and ventured out of the air con and into the blazing heat to try to spot our boat. We had intended to board ‘The Glory Legend’, but at the last minute got upgraded to her much larger sister ‘The Pelican’. We checked in, checked out our cabin and sat down for our first buffet banquet. Booking us onto a tour which described itself as ‘the perfect romantic getaway’, I was under no illusion that things could get awkward between myself and someone I had met for a total of about five drunken hours. I specified we wanted twin beds on the booking but alas, Cupid at this tour company had other ideas. Hey, at least we skipped the rose petals. After requesting to have this rectified (I told you, no waffling), we did discover matching silk gowns in our wardrobe which then provided some afternoon entertainment…
I absolutely love kayaking so was super looking forward to the opportunity to kayak around some of the bay. It was a lot of fun, but we did only get to head out for 20 minutes which was disappointing; El and I both felt a little hard done by and wished we could have gone out for hours, if not the whole day (though I would probably have to build some muscle first… El did much more work than the photos would suggest…).
After a lunch I most definitely didn’t need to eat, we took the boat to Ti Top island which is named after Russian astronaut German Titop who visited the island on his first visit to Halong Bay in 1962. About 15 minutes worth of relatively steep steps gets you to the top. I had imagined I might get a cracking new cover photo, but by the time I reached the top, my hair was saturated with 10% sea water 20% rain and 70% sweat. Not the best look. Ignoring some greenery, the 360 view is undoubtedly breath-taking. The visibility was poor, but in many ways that only added to the mysterious and magically eerie surroundings. At the bottom of the hill there is a little sand beach, and we went for a swim while the rain started to drizzle. As it got heavier, we boarded the boat and headed back to freshen up for dinner.
After cocktails and a short spring roll cookery class on the top deck, we were treated to a sumptuous seven course Vietnamese meal. Each course was fun, and we were both speechless from unbelievably good oysters. Yes, oysters are an aphrodisiac. No, we still did not waffle. Suddenly the lights dimmed, and as Whitney Houston ‘ I will always love you’ blasted out on the speakers, two men stood up to declare their love for the partners whilst tacky sparkler filled cocktails were placed in front of them. I almost died of cringe, and squirmed in my seat secretly praying El wouldn’t go all Ashton Kutcher on me and stitch me up with something similar. We followed dinner with countless cocktails and drunken but passionate rambles about politics and religion – you know the kind.
By 6am, everyone was on top-deck practising Tai Chi with a serious backdrop. I woke up with the best intentions, but it wasn’t long before I decided no, my body does not want to bend that way at this ungodly hour, and opted for a well needed cold shower instead. At 7am we had another grand buffet for breakfast and then boarded the boat to set off for Surprise Cave. The first thing you see upon entering the cave is a large rock shaped like an erect penis. SURPRISE! Although its magnitude was impressive (the cave, not the penis), I generally find my interest in caves tend to dwindle not too longer after that immediate ‘wow’ moment. And my unfathomable fatigue was certainly setting in. The rest of our time on the trip was spent attempting to crack Arrowords and enjoying the picturesque view from our cabin. Though there is not much more to see in Halong Bay than miles and miles of lone limestone karts, El and I both agreed that we could happily have stayed put for a good week, parking up with a good book and some good company.
Determined to bash out as many tourists attractions as possible, El and I got up early to spend the day doing our own walking tour of Hanoi. We started off at Hoa Loa Prison which cost 30,000 VND for entry. Used by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War, the prison was sarcastically nicknamed ‘The Hanoi Hilton’ and held famous Americans like Senator John McCain. This is the perfect bite-size bit of war history if you’re the kind of person that tends to switch off. Taking you around the cells, it’s also relatively interactive (Note: I’m comparing this to my experience of similar foreign museums – as far as I’m concerned, no one does museums like the Brits!). This was followed by the War Museum for 40,000 VND which was much less engaging inside, but had some pretty cool tanks and planes to view outside. We also visited the Temple of Literature for 30,000 VND (which we didn’t fully understand but appreciated the gardens and architecture) amongst other famous landmarks on the way like Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. In the evening we wandered around the markets and sampled some street side Pho (Vietnamese soup) as a starter before our evening entertainment.
If you’re taking a trip to Hanoi then a visit to Thang Long Theatre to see the water puppet show is not to be missed. Stick with me here, it’s a cultural must! The tradition originates in the village of the Red River Delta and dates back as far as the 11th Century. The puppets are made of wood and suspended on long bamboo rods which are submerged in a waist deep pool of water. It’s only 100,000 VND for a ticket, and there are several performances throughout the day – though try to book your ticket earlier in the day as we found the popular slots did sell out. El and I went there with very little expectation, but we were pleasantly surprised. It barely mattered that we didn’t understand the vocals; it was captivating, entertaining and actually pretty funny.
After the show, we headed out for a personal street barbeque dinner and then out for a drink. Or 20. I can’t be sure, I don’t entirelynremember. The next day was a travelling day for us both so we took it easy and wandered around the local streets and Hoan Kiem Lake, which is particularly spectacular at night.
Another big attraction to the North of Vietnam is a trip to Sa Pa – a popular trekking base in North West Vietnam that overlooks an expanse of terraced rice fields. From what I had read a trip to Sa Pa takes a couple of days or more – not least because it requires a night train there and back from Hanoi – and so it was really a case of picking to see Sa Pa or Halong Bay, but not both. This is by far my biggest regret in Vietnam, as a I later realised I would have been able to make it work, and so many people said it was their highlight of Vietnam. But that’s the way of the World, and I still consider myself very lucky that I have the chance to travel it! Just another reason to return I guess…oh, poor me…
Coming up… Central and South
Love, Lottie xx