Vietnam: Exploring the City of Hanoi

The last time we were in Vietnam was in January 2010, where we celebrated the New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South of Vietnam. I was excited when we decided to spend our 2013 Christmas holidays in the North of Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, and to experience winter season in South-east Asia.

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Hanoi is the dynamic capital city of Vietnam. It is entirely different from Ho Chi Minh City which is more tropical, liberal and modern. Hanoi offers contemporary comfort such as world-class cuisine, art and hotels. It is encased in Chinese heritage and French colonial vestiges. It is infused with conservative historic charm and character, strong village feel, great street food, friendly people, a mixture of seasonal and tropical climate, dodging scooters, beautiful garden, many varieties of places to see and visit, numerous museums, loads of preserved French colonial architectures, and a sense of hospitable tourism. I would say, Hanoi is where Paris meets Asia.

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We stayed in Hanoi Serendipity Hotel, located in the Old Quarter, the heart of the city. The hotel is beautiful and the staff is friendly, helpful, and they pay attention to every single small detail.

On our first day, we wandered around the Old Quarter area. I noticed that this area was very lively every day, both day and night. There were many cafes, eateries and small shops spilling into the streets and coffee/tea and baguettes were served on the roadside. The streets were busy with motorbikes, taxis and bicycles zoomed by and many people walked on the footpath. I noticed that the streets were humming and buzzing especially during the night time when families go out for dinner. I was also impressed with the abundance of bougainvillea flowers swaying out from the balconies in almost every house and I liked the old picturesque buildings around.

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In the morning, we had a refreshing pleasant walk while holding hands around the wonderful and scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, also called Lake of the Restored Sword. Many people were walking, exercising, relaxing and sitting down around the lake.

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From the lake, we visited the beautiful neo-Gothic St Joseph Cathedral. It looks like a smaller version of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was built in 1886 when French colonized Vietnam. I have learned that about 6 million of Vietnamese people are still practicing Catholicism.

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Then we headed to the Opera House in Hanoi. It is a lovely French colonial building. Since we couldn’t get in, we had a cup of coffee at Highland Coffee next to the Opera House. To me, it is one of the good places in Hanoi to sit, relax and watch people while drinking great coffee.

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After lunch we visited the Museum of History just down the street from the Opera House. The entrance fee was inexpensive. It contains some great exhibits from pre-historic period to the 20th century. To me, it was worth a visit as it was one way to get acquainted with the Vietnamese history for the last 100,000 years. The museum was very quiet and very easy to navigate. We were very pleased with what we saw inside the museum.

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After we spent about two hours in the museum, we continued walking back to our hotel and took a late afternoon nap. Then we went out again in evening and kept strolling around the Old Quarter on a chilly evening.

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We began our second day at the One Pillar Pagoda. It is a very busy cute Buddhist temple surrounded by a beautiful green setting. It was built in 1049 by Emperor Lý Thái Tông who at first had no child and dreamt that he would meet a woman who would give him a son while seated on a lotus flower. He got married to a peasant woman who bore a son for him. So then, a monk told the Emperor to build a temple similar to what he saw in his dream. Part of the temple was rebuilt after the French destroyed it in 1954. This temple served as one of the iconic symbols of Hanoi located nearby the Ba Dinh square, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace.

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Then we walked around the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. It is a large building which contained the embalmed body of President Ho Chi Minh, who remained an inspiration for Vietnamese people. He was a communist revolutionary leader who became prime minister and president of Vietnam. He led the Viet Minh independence movement and defeated the French Union in 1954.

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Not far from the Mausoleum is the Presidential Palace, the former Indochina’s General Governor Palace. President Ho Chi Minh lived and worked there for 15 years. The entire site was full of wind, light and fragrant flowers. Inside the palace compound we saw the Presidential Palace (only the outside part), the fishpond of Ho Chi Minh, the cars that were used by President Ho Chi Minh, the historic house-on-stilts of Ho Chi Minh, and many more.

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Then we continued walking around the place and decided to try water bicycling for an hour. We had fun like a pair of kids. Then we had a late lunch and went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.

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In the evening, we strolled around the night market, also known as Dong Xuan Night Market, even though it was very cold. It operates only on weekends from Friday to Sunday in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The market started setting up at around 6pm and opened at 7pm. We saw many locals and tourists mingle along the streets, but the majority of people at the night market were Vietnamese. I noticed that many stalls were selling the same things and most of the stuff being sold was geared towards the locals such as basic clothing, jackets, belts handbags, cell phone cases, shoes, kitchen wares, etc. I think it is worth visiting the Night Market to experience the lifestyle of the locals.

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On the third day, we spent the whole day shopping. We bought some silk products, souvenirs and many more from different boutique shops.

Even though the weather was bad since it was winter when we went there, we had a memorable stay there. I’m so impressed with the old town as it is charming and picturesque.

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Vietnam: Fabulous Christmas Cruise Around Ha Long Bay

Since our last holidays sometime in November, we had been working hard and non-stop so Alan and I thought that for our 2013 Christmas holidays, cruising around Ha Long Bay would be a perfect romantic and relaxing getaway for us. Image

Hence, we decided to leisurely sail around the beautiful Ha Long Bay for two nights and three days in order to experience those expansive and ethereal natural wonders. We stayed one night on a boat on Christmas Eve and another night at Nam Cat Resort in Cat Ba Island.

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The Bay

Ha Long Bay has been classified as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It is located in the Northern part of Vietnam and it was the main destination of our Vietnam itinerary. The bay is really a magical place. It was so nice, quiet and peaceful. We were enchanted by its picturesque majestic limestone cliffs towering above the water. We loved the tranquility, beauty and romance of the bay.

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The wonderful landscape of limestone cliffs enshrouded in mist cascading into gentle water, as well as the sheer extends of the place, make Ha Long Bay mysterious. The bay is mystifyingly huge as it has about 2,000 of mostly uninhabited limestone islands. I have learned that Vietnamese fishermen named the islands according to the shapes of the islands such as Kissing Chicken Rocks, Turtle Island, Human Head Island and many more.  Along the bay, there are also about 7 different floating small villages on which you can find a variety of homes, boats, shops, schools and, astonishingly enough, the occasional dog.

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Our Cruise

Our tour was with Imperial Junk, a traditional junk boat. A junk is a traditional Chinese seagoing ship with square sails and usually a flat bottom. So after we took a tender, an auxiliary ship set sails (as modern day would have it, engines, actually) to bring us to our junk from the harbor. It was even better than we expected. There was a sun-deck at the top level and plenty of space with lounge chairs and tables, sunbathing bed and potted plants. There were also lots of vantage points to take pictures of the majestic beauty of the bay and to get some amazing shots of the epic limestone rock formations throughout the cruise. The lounge or dining room was large. The activities were enjoyable with the crowds. There were only 20 guests on our boat, mostly couples, honeymooners and a family of seven. It was lovely and comfortable.

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We booked a double cabin on a boat. It was big enough, comfortable and beautifully decorated with a queen size bed. We had an adequate toilet and bathroom inside our cabin with hot and cold water. We also had an air conditioner/heater in our room, but at night our heater didn’t work. The windows were large overlooking the bay. We paid $145/person for the tour which covered two nights and three days (one night on the boat and one night in the bungalow on the island); meals (2breakfasts; 3 lunches; 2 dinners); all transportation costs; activities; English speaking guide. I would say, it was quite an amazing good value for money.

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The food was excellent, tasty and plentiful throughout the entire trip.  We were treated with delicious Vietnamese food prepared fresh on the boat in the kitchen below us: spring rolls, salad, seafood, chicken, fruits and pork. All the food was included as part of the tour, and we just had to pay for the beers, soft drinks and water we drank. The wine was unduly pricy though (for the connoisseur out there, a French minor table wine costing about $3 in France and charged at $40 in a restaurant is a sad joke), so we avoided it.

The service was very good and the staff was very helpful, hospitable and efficient. Upon boarding, the boat’s crew greeted us with their friendly smiles and helped us to carry our suitcases/stuff.

The First Day

We were picked up from our hotel (Serendipity Hotel) in Hanoi at 8.15 in the morning and we began the 4 hour journey to Ha Long City, where we would meet our traditional junk to begin sailing. Along the way, we got to know the other people we’d be sharing the trip with and observed many roadside places in the Vietnamese countryside. Then we stopped at a local shop for about 30 minutes to refresh ourselves.

When we arrived in Ha Long City, we joined many other travelers either eager to begin their sailing trip or just returning from their cruise filled with many beautiful stories. After we finished port formalities, we all clambered onto a small tender to transport us to our grand traditional junk which was anchored in the harbor.

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The cruise itinerary took us first to Hang Sung Sot Cave which is also known as the Surprising Cave. After we climbed up the stairs and descended into the depths of the cave, we were impressed by how huge and well-kept it was. The Hang Sung Sot Cave is huge as it has three chambers. Our guide pointed out the remarkable rock formations along the way.

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Then we floated away from Hang Sung Sot Cave to a floating village near the Surprise Cave. We went kayaking for about 40 minutes around the small inlets to observe local families in their floating homes and went around a small island to enjoy more the beauty of the bay.

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Back to the boat and it was time for dinner. After we had a sumptuous dinner, we went squid fishing. Unfortunately, none of us was lucky to catch one. Then after fishing, we had karaoke along with the crews, our guide and all the guests on the boat. It was fun and a unique way to celebrate our Christmas Eve.

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The Second Day

After I woke up early in the morning and stepped out of our cabin, I was immediately greeted with this incredibly beautiful view.

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Before breakfast we visited the Luon Cave which, according to our guide, is famously known as the James Bond Cave as some scenes of “Tomorrow Never Dies” was filmed there. We took a tender to go to the cave. Then we disembarked from the tender to a smaller boat which was powered only by a single local man who rowed towards a small opening at the bottom of an enormous cliff which was surrounded by cliffs covered by dense jungle.

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After we explored Luon Cave, we went back to the boat as it was time for breakfast. While we were enjoying our delicious meal, the boat headed off towards an Oyster and Pearl Farm. We spent an hour visiting the entire farm from the Oysters museum then to the Oysters operating room where a lady showed us how the pearl seeds are planted in oyster shells and lastly we were led to the shop where pearl jewelries were sold.

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From the Oysters and Pearl Farm, we went back to the boat and checked out because we were going to transfer to another boat that would take us to our bungalow in Nam Cat Resort in Cat Ba Island.  We then joined other tourists on the boat who were also going to spend a night in a bungalow on the island. Then we freely cruised for about 3 hours around Ha Long Bay all the way to the Nam Cat Resort. The majority of us spent this time on the top deck taking photos of literally everything.

We had lunch at the resort where we were stuffed by 8 different delicious Vietnamese dishes served all at once. In the afternoon, we relaxed on the beach, had a nap, read a book and we went kayaking for an hour in order to savour the marvelous beauty of the place. Some tourists played football and went sun bathing even though the wind was so chilly (12 degrees Celsius). We concluded our night with a yummy barbeque dinner prepared by the staff of the resort.

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The Third Day

The last day of our tour was spent gently cruising around the rest of Ha Long Bay all the way back to Ha Long City. Ha Long Bay is definitely one of those places you just want to keep taking photos of. It is really magnificent.

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However, before we all bid the crew adieu, we were treated to a Vietnamese spring roll cooking demonstration in the dining room. It was fun and I learned some techniques. I tried to make one spring roll and some tourists tried as well. Later, the kitchen took away our spring rolls and fried them up for us, and they became our starters for lunch shortly before we returned to the harbour.

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While we were approaching Ha Long City again, the towering limestone cliffs started to fade into the mist and became a memory. Before we knew it, we prepared for the journey back to Hanoi.

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Overall, I would say that experiencing Ha Long Bay by ourselves and taking the time to appreciate it was absolutely the highlight of our trip to Vietnam. It was indeed an amazing romantic sea scape of Islands and a very well organised two night cruise.