Vietnam Travel Diaries – 5 Days in Hanoi and Halong Bay
It seems like a lifetime has passed since our Vietnam holiday, yet the memories we created travelling through this amazing country will remain etched in my mind forever. I expected Vietnam to be good, yet despite this it still surpassed every expectation. Staggeringly beautiful, exotic, vibrant and chaotic; Vietnam swept me off my feet with its flavoursome cuisine, rich culture and warm welcome.
The following are the travel diaries I wrote home to my parents (and now a growing number of other subscribers) at the end of each day. I hope you enjoy them and that they inspire you to one day also enjoy everything Vietnam has to give.
Day 1 – Welcome to Vietnam
Hanoi! Chaotic yet orderly, noisy yet peaceful, it was everything I was expecting and more. Sweltering hot at 37 degrees and 84% humidity we were glad laundry only cost 50 pence a kilo!
Within an hour of reaching Vietnam we were taught why it is important not to judge. Following a pleasant flight, a stress free Visa applications and customs and a quick transfer we arrived at our hotel. Located on a narrow street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi it was nothing more than a garage. When we arrived they lifted the roller shutters and welcomed us to sit on the sofa surrounded by scooters whilst they checked us in. I started to fill with dread. “What have I booked? TripAdvisor has failed me! Maybe £40 a night was too cheap! We are going to have to cancel all our hotels and upgrade! How are we going to afford it!”
I should not have worried. The hotel (Little Hanoi Deluxe Hotel ), and every subsequent hotel we stayed at, were perfect. Local, friendly, clean and luxurious in their own individual way. What we learnt however is that at night, hotels, restaurants and homes all become a garage. Motorbikes and bicycles are brought in off the street and housed on the ground floor, the same floor that during the day is a sparkling clean reception, restaurant dining room or a family’s lounge.
£40 per night in Vietnam gets you a lot. In fact, only a couple of rooms ever maxed out our budget, most of the time we weren’t spending any more than £20-£25 per night and yet that level of hospitality, quality of air con, size of bed and attention to detail never wavered. Vietnam truly is a country focused on offering the best customer service, their livelihoods relying heavily on 5 star TripAdvisor reviews. This is in itself is a whole new subject!
Learning to cross the road.
The heart of Hanoi is in the Old Quarter where old and new fuse together. 36 streets interlinked with narrow alleys, lined with hundreds of parked scooters, fruit and wears vendors spilling on to the already narrow streets and little pop up stalls with their child size seats serving family recipes and local delicacies. A labyrinth begging to be explored. And what better way to take in the sounds, sights and smells of the city than by aimlessly wondering around, people watching and bike watching.
In fact, our entire Vietnam holiday become a game of who could spot the craziest load on a bike. Nothing is too long, too tall, too bulky or too heavy to put on a bike. It might mean they only have one hand to steer as the other is holding the precariously balanced box on top of a box on top of a box but that seems to be no problem. It’s incredible really when you see the traffic. The only way I can describe it is like a school of fish, when something crosses its way they simply avoid it rather than stop. It doesn’t matter how busy a junction is, how many bikes, cars and pedestrians there is, or how many different directions the junction goes in: nobody stops, they just weave their way through. Incredible!
This different approach to driving however does make crossing the road rather interesting. As a pedestrian you have to step out into this flow of traffic and slowly make your way across the road with blind faith that the “school of fish” will move. If you go too fast or if you stop you will cause an accident as they simply won’t anticipate it! Instead, you need to hold your never, make eye contact as steadily work your way across the junction. Once you get used to it it’s easy and it means you can cross anywhere. If it’s a large crossroad simply go diagonally across it, the mopeds will weave around you. If there is a bus however then PLEASE do stop! They are a law on to their own!
Our cultural site for the day was Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known as Hanoi Hilton. Only a 5th of the prison remains which has now been turned into a museum that tells the story of the epic torture inflicted by the French on the Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters in the late XIV century and the great hospitality the Vietnamese showed the American POW during the Vietnam War. This was one of the most challenging things about Vietnam: getting the truth! Museums and guides produced communist propaganda to explain history, giving a very biased view of reality. We did meet a couple of characters along the way that were brave enough to speak more truthfully however many didn’t.
The below description of Hoa Lo Prison is the communist propaganda as gleamed from the information in the museum. I’ll let you decide how much of it you believe!
The prison was built in 1896 by the
French to hold thousands of Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters.
Hoa Lo Prison was the biggest and most solid prison in Indochina and from what
we saw pretty brutal too. Each room was designed to house 500 prisoners, with
wooden planks set up from the floor. Each prisoner was shackled to these wooden
planks and given 50cm of personal space. Because of overcrowding however, there
was often 800 people in each room, many having to sleep on the piss and faeces
covered floor. The especially troublesome prisoners were placed in
downwards slanted cells, feet up head down. Shackled so they could not move,
forcing any bodily fluids to run down them! Suddenly Auschwitz starts “not too
On the contrary, when the prison fell into Vietnamese hands and was used to house American POW it became a “luxurious” establishment (hence the nickname Hanoi Hilton). They were given medicine, food, clothes and gifts. They played games of football and cards and were even provided the means to cook Christmas meals. A whole room was dedicated to nice photos of smiley Vietnamese guards and prisoners. Somehow, I don’t quite believe it!
It has now become customary for us to book a food tour on the first day of any trip. We find cuisine to be one of the best ways to get to know a countries culture. You learn the dos and don’ts, the habits and traditions, you learn about history and neighbourhoods and you also get to try delicious (and sometimes weird) food that sets you up for the rest of the trip. If this isn’t something you already do can I recommend you definitely do it!
As we were in the city of motorbikes it only seemed right to do the food tour on two wheels and we found the perfect tour company to do this: Hanoi Backstreet Tours. Highly recommend them! On the back of old Russian Minks Bikes we explored the majority of the city through the exhilarating rush hour traffic. Leo, my driver, was lovely but somewhat fearless and a big fan of playing chicken! He was never the one to move out the way, even if that meant other motorbike wheels coming to rest on ours! Maybe that is what happened to the previous guest?
Life revolves on a bike in Vietnam. Families of 4, even 5 travel on a single scooter. Dogs sit on their owners laps, families carry their groceries and mum’s cradle their newborn babies. Everything we do in a car, they do on a scooter! Simply incredible!
The tour took us all over Hanoi. First stop Cau Long Bien Bridge, the oldest bridge in Vietnam, designed by Gustav Eiffel (who designed the Eiffel Tower). It was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war so can no longer sustain heavy loads. As such it now only carries the train and hundreds of thousands of scooters every day! A pretty incredible sight to watch hundreds of scooters fly by.
From here we dropped under the bridge and followed the narrow paths through the fertile lands around the river. Villagers who travel to Hanoi for a better life, who then find they can’t make it, settle in this area illegally. They live off the soil by growing bananas which they then sell to passers by on the bridge or which they take into the local markets and bustling streets.
You pay for housing by the square footage of your ground floor. Because they are illegally located here they can’t settle on land so they have created a life on the river, living in floating huts that fall and raise with the changing water levels. None of the kids in these settlements have access to schools but the tour we were with use some of their income to fund a teacher for them. I felt a little uncomfortable at the thought of Westerners being taken to essentially the slums to ogle at those with nothing as if they were some kind of spectacle. I suppose at least they get a benefit from it in the form of education but I’m sure there are better ways to help.
Leaving the farmland behind we headed back into the city and weaved our way through narrow alleyways to start the food-athon.
We got to try a number of local delicacies from a variety of establishments. Bahn Mi Chao sitting on kindergarten chairs; Wedding Cake (Sticky rice and coconut encased in green bean jelly, very weird!) picked up from someones front room; freshly brewed beer whilst sitting under a tarpaulin on the corner of a busy street; rice bread pancakes filled with pork, veg and coriander; Nom hoa chuoi (beef and lemongrass salad, my favourite); fried rice bread parcels with beef broth; and a few other things I have probably forgotten! To finish off we had the famous Vietnamese Egg Coffee. It’s made by beating the egg yolk with condensed milk for about 10 minutes until it becomes creamy and fluffy. This is then poured over an espresso, iced coffee or iced chocolate. Delicious! Might need to recreate this at home!
Blurry eyed but too fall to go to bed we decided to waddle to the night market so that Doug could commence his haggling challenge (and what would throughout the holiday become a shopping addiction!). We mistakenly went to the “pub street”, not dissimilar to Koh San Road in Bangkok and packed with “gap yar” types, music blaring, beers flowing, shots in abundance. Not our scene! We did eventually find the actual night market with a very different type of bustle, a scene that will be a re-occurring feature throughout the Vietnam blogs!
Day 2 and 3 – Halong Bay
Beautiful Halong Bay. Famous for its emerald waters and the thousands of limestone towering islands topped with rainforest. The name Halong Bay conjures up images of peace and quiet, tranquillity and nature. You really can’t come to Vietnam and not see Halong Bay! We certainly weren’t the only ones to have that thought though! We left the harbour amongst a 250 boat race, all fighting to get their patrons to the best sports first. I expected it to be busy but not THAT busy! I was a little disappointed on day 1 as the sheer volume of tourists took away the magic I was hoping to find (and I was pulled into so many family photos I lost count!!). Luckily on the second day of our 3 day cruise we were able to leave the herds behind and see a side of the bay less frequented by large cruise ships.
I would imagine most of the cruises offer a similar set of activities. Caves, Thai Chi, kayaking, visiting a pearl farm (aka a rip off shop), squid fishing at night and endless amount of food! Every meal was an 8 course meal of delicious local cuisine: seafood soup, beef spring rolls (not the deep fried version we are used to but nice soft rice paper version instead), crab, lots of squid, catfish and prawns. Those are just a few of the dishes we got through! On some occasions the chef even joined us in the dining room to give us a demonstration of “how to”. The most impressive was when he poured vodka into a pan creating a large flame of fire before pouring a jug of water which created a massive puff of steam. Voila, 30 seconds later beautifully cooked prawns!
Aside from Thai Chi in the morning amongst the large karst protrusions, the most memorable part of the cruise for me was the fishing village we visited on the second day. Imagine a scene from the movie Water World – small homes floating on polystyrene and plastic drums, tied in rows creating “water streets”. We kayaked through the village peeking into life on the water. Tiny single room homes housing families of 4-6 (plus the dog). The front “yard” made of nets housing an easy super, and as for the toilet, well, there was no toilet, just go overboard! No freshwater other than what was bought by the gallon in exchange for part of their catch.
Visiting the fishing village really put into perspective just how hard life is for many, and yet how normal it seems to them. How lucky they feel to have a “home” and not have to live in their tiny fishing boat. My trip through Vietnam was as much about learning as it was about making me realise just how grateful I should be for my situation.
Apparently the government has re-homed 90% of the inhabitants to the mainland giving the kids the opportunity to go to school and improve their life choices. The parents still return to the village to fish (and to model for the tourists getting the fishing village experience!).
If you are interested in visiting Halong Bay then I’d recommend you consider Bikudo Travel who’s focus is on avoiding the crowds!
Day 4 – Hanoi Train Street
Back in Hanoi following another morning of cruising we were transferred back to Hanoi in what I can only describe as the most scary driving I have ever witnessed (overtaking with oncoming traffic and then forcing cars off the road)!! To calm our nerves following that experience we decided to stand in front of a train.
Yes, you read that right! The train tracks form part of the daily lives for many Hanoi locals. Homes line the train lines, front doors an arm reach from passing trains. The tracks in essence become an extension of their homes, something like a front garden really. In between trains they set out their washing, cook their meals and chill in the chairs. Kids play ball and the chickens range free. Even bars and restaurants have popped up along the tracks to cater for the many tourists that arrive to see the spectacle that is “Train Street”.
After finding “the” spot we soaked in the electric atmosphere as more and more people gathered to wait for the imminent train. Chanting and laughter escalated until the moment the train hurtled down towards us. As it got closer I pressed my back against the wall before realising just how close it was. I held my breath as if to make myself smaller as the carriages sped past. What an experience! What a buzz!!
To finish off our day we wandered the streets until we found a packed corner street restaurant, heaving with seasoned travellers and locals alike. We chose our meat, fish and veg from a refrigerated counter at the front before it was taken away to be grilled over an open fire. I have no idea what we ate (hopefully not dog) but it was delicious (well, apart from the gristle, that was horrible!). I did have a dodgy tummy throughout our entire trip however I wouldn’t swap the street food, not only was it delicious but you get to be part of the atmosphere and that is special.
Day 5 – Hanoi – Photography Tour
Bleary eyed at 5 am we set off on our photography tour. Accustomed to the surge of scooters and constant din of horns it felt surreal to cruise through the sleeping city. The peace didn’t last long though; our destination Long Biên Bridge which overlooks the Long Biên Market. The market is the largest wet market in South East Asia, starting at midnight and closing its doors at sun rise, this is where all wholesale goods are purchased ahead of a busy trading day in the city. It was quite a spectacular sight and I’m so glad we made the effort to join the locals to watch them and photograph them going about their daily business.
One of the beauties of photography tours is that you go to places you otherwise wouldn’t go, but you also get to capture moments you might otherwise never capture guaranteeing they will remain in your memory thanks to the ever lasting printed visual that will remain. We did our tour with Vietnam in Focus and I can’t recommend them more highly. Our Russian tour guide Boris was both a great photography instructor and an informative guide. He was fun and he was knowledgeable and I feel I learnt as much about the culture of the city as I did about photography.
The market is certainly somewhere we wouldn’t have ventured to alone however it was really eye opening. Despite winding down by the time we got there it was still buzzing, merchants desperately trying to clear their stand allowing buyers to haggle down low to ensure they went home with an empty van. Sweepers cleaning up, signalling the day was coming to a close.
As with many things, the market also has a dark side, something we learnt later on that day when visiting the Women’s Museum. Many Vietnamese are forced to leave their family behind at the local village in order to come and earn money in the big city. Most end up working as porters in the market (men) or as street sellers (women). The pay is unsurprisingly very low, the hours are long and the work backbreaking. Their living conditions are poor, often 10 to a room and very vulnerable to abuse. When I learn these kind of facts it always make me think. What action can I take to help as a tourist? The problem is, I don’t know what the answer is.
After an hour at the market we headed on to the train tracks to capture some photos of passing trains. Doug even managed to blag himself into the engine room of one! We meandered through the streets, taking shots of anything that looked interesting until ending up once again on train street. With no imminent train on the horizon there was more going on and we were able to interact with the locals a little more.
Once the tour was over we headed across town to the site of a fallen B-52. It fell in the lake of a residential area and has been there ever since (minus a few stolen parts). It’s the only fallen plane from the Vietnamese War that is left in situ. More about the Vietnamese War in future blogs.
Our final stop before saying goodbye to Hanoi was a return visit to Bahn Mi 25, the equivalent of a baguette shop only much nicer! Because of the French influence the Vietnamese certainly know how to make good baguettes. Then add to that the fact they include pate, meat, veg and chili sauce and you are on to a winner. And all for less than £1 for a meal deal!
It was sad to say goodbye to Hanoi. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent there and in fact it is most likely my favourite city in Vietnam. Vibrant, exotic, welcoming and cheap. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. What I would give right now to be wandering lost through the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter, every step and every corner a new adventure.
The next stop on our adventure was Phong Nah where we explored the countryside and went caving, and without a doubt my favourite part of our Vietnamese trip. Another popular activity to do from Hanoi is a visit to Sapa, which we unfortunately didn’t have time for. It does however look great!
You can also find out what we got up to in Cambodia!