Hanoi to Halong Bay

When we landed in Hanoi it was cool and raining, but this was not indicative of the weather for the remainder of our stay in Northern Vietnam. We checked into our hostel, which was on a busy market street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. With the map provided we set off to explore the city, which was celebrating sixty one years of independence from French.

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Hanoi is a lively place with mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians buzzing around in all directions. Luckily the streets were laid out in a grid-like pattern and corresponded well to what was on the map, so as evening fell we made it down to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is ambiently lit in the evening and a pleasant place to stroll around.

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The following day we set off to explore the city. First stop was Hoa Lo Prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton). It wasn’t an active prison, but a museum built within the original prison structure. The narrative was of the prison housing a large group of political prisoners in the 1930s and 1940s who went on to take key roles in the Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh. The prison also housed US POWs during the Vietnam war. History is written by the winners, and in Vietnam that means communists.

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Next we headed off to the Literature Museum, which is actually more like a Confucian Temple.

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On the way in there was this beautifully complex tree root and trunk structure at full size,

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and another equally beautiful one in miniature.

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There was also a group of students in celebratory mood, we thought they must have passed something.

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Luckily, this young lad was on hand to practice his English, and explain to us what it was all about.

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The students were from his town, they had passed some exams, and his dad was in charge of education there. He was a very bright and confident boy. He also explained how kings in times gone past had used scholars to help them administer their kingdoms, and that these were honoured in the museum grounds. During our time in Hanoi, we were approached several times by local students who wanted to practice English, which always made for interesting conversations.

Here’s a quote from Confusius (it seemed to relate to the city traffic):

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

On the way home, we admired the plucky vendors balancing their stock bikes and scooters.

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Next day we walked in a different direction towards Truc Bach Lake (one of the many in Hanoi). On the way we met a fruit vendor who let us try her yoke and baskets on for size (and weight). Happily we took the photo opportunity, but it was quite heavy, and these ladies carry them round all day!

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She’s smiling because she overcharged me for a bag of fruit, but we thought she deserved a tip. We found out later at the Women’s Museum, that these ladies usually come from poorer rural communities, and are often working so that their children can go to school.

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On the edge of the lake is a Buddhist Pagoda, which was a very pretty and an active place of worship.

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We continued our walk past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, around the garden within which his very modest house was situated (fitting for a communist leader), and past the flag tower from where the Vietnamese flag flew.

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We walked straight past the sweet shop (well done Nikki),

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Over a train line which ran down a street,

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and back to our local restaurant, where we had befriended the waiter, Chien.

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The tables point out onto the street, because one of the best things to do in Hanoi is to watch the world go by. Then we saw someone walk passed, who looked like the couple we had enjoyed several cocktails with at Varkala Beach in India, and it was Chris and Gemma! (what are the chances?) So we had a few more drinks with them, and a very friendly Australian couple, though this time we stuck to the local Haleda beer, as we were all heading off to Halong Bay the following day, though on different tours (that would have been too much of a co-incidence)

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Halong Bay was as beautiful as we had hoped it would be.

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After settling into cruising pace of the boat we were taken to the Dau Go Cave. Tommy, our friendly guide, took time to show us round and point out dragon shapes coming out from the strange rock formations. We were seeing all sorts!

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After that we took a ride with an oarswomen from one of the floating fishing villages who serenaded us with some local folk ditty. She guided the traditionally formed boat into some wonderous spaces where our cruiser couldn’t go.

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Once back on the big boat we were taken to where the anchor would be dropped, and then set off in kayaks as the light was fading.

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We returned in the dark, but it wasn’t our boat, so we went on to the next one, which wasn’t either. Luckily the next one was. We boarded and settled in for the evening which involved dinner, and getting to know our fellow passengers over some complementary Bia Hoi (fresh beer). However, we were up early in the morning for the sunrise.

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Following breakfast, we were dropped off on Cat Ba Island. Eventually, we were picked up by the ricketiest bus we’ve ever been on for the thankfully short journey to the national park, which takes up most of the interior. The guide led us past this very impressive spider.

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After some fairly intense climbing we got to the viewing platform from where we could see the unusual geological structure of the island. We thought it worth the effort.

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On the way back there were butterflies (people who have read previous posts will know that we like butterflies).

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After more squeaking and rattling on the bus, we got to our hotel on the other side of the island. We settled in there, had lunch, and then were taken to Monkey Island, so called because there were some monkeys on it. Hilariously, the alpha male was stealing beer off the people on the beach. He clearly had a taste for it. Apart from that, the beach provided good swimming in the cooling waters of the bay. Relaxed, we headed back,

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past the rather impressive floating fishing village.

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That evening we were chatting outside the hotel with our tour buddies – Hannah from South London and her two Dutch friends (sorry can’t remember the names) – when we spotted this Vietnamese guy giving a street massage on a nearby table. He told us that he could give us a massage and only wanted a tip. He really knew what he was doing. We went on to have a very relaxed drink followed by a good night’s sleep.

It was Friday when we came back to Hanoi, which is family night in the Old Quarter. They close one of the streets off and have a band on – good band with a great harmonica player – lots of mums, dads and kids enjoying the music.

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