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A week in Hanoi, Vietnam
Some tips and notes holidaying in and around Hanoi, Northern Vietnam, during September 2012.
First things first, get your Visa’s sorted out at least a few weeks before your holiday. You can order them online from vietnam-visa.com. This saves your time and money, when going through customs. I'm not sure what the alternative method for getting a visa is, but when you get off that plane and are confronted by Military style customs officials, you don’t want any trouble.
We stayed at Hanoi Elite in the Old Quarter. They organised a hotel transfer for us, as apparently there have been a lot of taxi scams in the past. We opted for the transfer service as we were arriving quite late in the night and didn't need a scam to kick off the start of a holiday.
Depending on what time you arrive, there are motorbikes and mopeds literally everywhere. We arrived in the late evening, so it wasn't that busy, but our driver took us through some very narrow streets to get to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. On the way we passed very close to a lot of locals trying to enjoy their evening meals. Whilst I wanted to see as much as I could, I kind of felt like we were encroaching a bit, given the narrowness of the streets. It probably would have suited us to walk from the main road to the hotel, but it was hard to know where we were, or how long we had to go, so we just had to go along with it.
Staying, at Hanoi Elite I can honestly say I've never been treated so nicely before. Whilst the hotel is small and right in the middle of the older area of Hanoi, the staff and service treat everyone like royalty, to a point, that you feel guilty! I don’t normally tip, but given everything is so cheap there, I couldn't help myself.
Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a must, but if you don’t have your wits about you, or don’t like dodging mopeds and bikes, you might be better with the electric white buses. They depart from Hoan Kiem Lake in the city. We took the walking option and didn't come back with any injuries though. You want to have a good map, because a lot of the streets look the same. The free maps that the hotels give you aren't always very accurate, but there's always vendors on the streets that sell more detailed maps for literally a few cents. Here is a video I recorded of the peak hour traffic in the Hanoi CBD:
If you want to soak up the culture, I would definitely recommend staying in the Old Quarter. Avoid the big international franchise hotels in other areas of the city, as you won’t get to experience Hanoi for what it is. The other suggestion is, you probably only need a couple of days to explore the city. Check out a few of the sites, go to the Water Puppets, do a little shopping, and try a few of the Vietnamese restaurants (New Day, Green Tangerine were our favourites), but this can all be done in a few days. The real fun in Vietnam, starts when you venture out into the countryside.
Halong Bay, is a few hours drive and ferry from Hanoi. I wouldn't recommend trying to get there yourself unless you've got lots of time on your hands and know a little of the local lingo. We booked our tours to Halong via Handspan. Handspan are probably a little more expensive than some of the other tour companies, but the guides speak fluent English, and if the tour involves equipment like bikes or kayaks, they’re all pretty good quality, etc.
We went on the “Once Upon A Time In Halong And Lan Ha” 2 day tour, where you go to Halong Bay via sea, spend two days kayaking around the bays of limestone Karsts and stay overnight in a cabin on the beach. You kayak pretty far, but its not hard work at all. They take you past the clam farms explaining the industry, and depending on the tides take you into various inlets. If you’re lucky, they let you do a bit of swimming too.
We also went on a day tour to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu. They refer to it as "Halong Bay inland tour" but it’s not actually near Halong Bay. You go via vehicle to the old capital of Vietnam "Hoa Lu" and visit some of their temples. Our tour guide explained a bit of history before we went in, which was very helpful. After this, you explore the Mountainous areas by push bike. You get to cycle through some very pretty countryside listening to roosters and birds while observing the limestone Karsts like in Halong bay. After the cycle, we had lunch and then went on a row-boat along an unnamed stream and eventually through a cave. There was rain forecast for the day, and we got pretty wet during the ride, but the benefit to this was that there were no other tourists around except us. When the rain stopped everything became quiet, besides the wildlife and your tour guides of course. Here’s a video recorded of a part of the row boat:
There are lots of other places to see in northern Vietnam, like the Cuc Phuong National Park, Junk boats in Halong Bay, Heaven’s Gate, but most of these are 2-3 day tours, so plan accordingly. If I get a chance to get back there, Ill definitely want to see Heavens Gate.
Overall, Vietnam is a pretty special place. The people are great, the food is delicious, and the sites, history and experience is amazing. You arrive a tourist and leave feeling like a local. Give yourself enough time and don't cram too much in. Happy Holidays!