asia · vietnam

Loving Northern Vietnam – Hanoi, Halong Bay & Ninh Binh

If Hanoi isn’t one of the best places we visit on this trip, then this whole adventure is going to turn out even better than I expected.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is chaotic as it is charming, exciting as it is enchanting, and wild as it is wonderful. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced – endearing alleys backed onto streets of mayhem, yet the longer we spent there, the chaos diminished into a strange order of disarray. It was a paradox of all the senses, and I loved every bit of it.

hanoi, vietnam, bikes, scooters

Getting to Vietnam is its own adventure – you need a visa and a letter of authority. We used Vietnam Visa Corp to get our letter for the visa.

Our first evening was great fun, and it really was only the start. We made solid friends immediately, and more over the past week. Two South African girls from our room who we’ve gone out for drinks with almost every evening. A fellow Brit who has left to go south on his scooter. A crazy German guy. An even crazier Romanian girl. We even met someone from LEWES, a few miles away from where we lived in England.

We’ve shared hundreds of stories, and this is what travel is all about. Who wants to stay in a hotel anyway?

Train street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tackling the traffic – and more embassy disasters

Our first day in Hanoi was spent mostly wandering around and enjoying / being terrified of the chaotic atmosphere of honking scooters.

Okay – not so much the atmosphere because we were loving that straight off the bat, but the most terrifying thing about Hanoi is, by far, crossing the roads!! Best tip? You can’t wait for a gap in the traffic – because there often isn’t one – so you just have to start crossing… and the scooters will magically ride around you, as if you’re walking through water. It’s one of the most bizarre things, and feels like a suicide mission every time you step out into the wave of scooters.

Know where else is just as crazy for scooters? Ho Chi Minh City! Read my post on the city here.

We made it to the Thai embassy to find it was closed, so we decided to have lunch and walk to some museums, not realising almost all of those are shut on Mondays too. Still – it was a fun wander to get our bearings in the city, soak up the Vietnamese culture and gorge ourselves on banh mi, and we managed to not be hit by any scooters!

(Banh mi, by the way? Absolutely delicious! Between that and the pastries, the French influence on Hanoi is undeniable and dare I say glorious?)

scooters, bikes hanoi, vietnam, communist flags
Hanoi, Vietnam
Train track street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Day two was going to be a little more productive as we set off for the Thai embassy again, all our documents held inside my coat out of the rain (instead of in a bag like most normal people), only to be accosted by some ladies selling pastries which caused me to somehow drop our passport photos. We made it to the embassy before realising that we’d made yet another wasted trip – it was beginning to feel like Hong Kong all over again, with constant disasters visiting embassies.

Fed up and dejected, we headed to the military history museum.

war museum, hanoi, vietnam, planes

Vietnam Military History Museum

The military history museum was FANTASTIC. I’ve never seen so many war planes, tanks, wreckages, chinooks and missiles, and the exhibitions inside were interesting and engaging. Totally worth the whopping £1 entry fee.

The museum is nowhere near as hard-hitting as the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City, but it gives interesting accounts on the wars and there is much more of an outdoor exhibit – unfortunately it was raining while we were there, so although the indoor bits provided a shelter, I didn’t get great photos outside!

A tank at the military history museum, Hanoi, Vietnam

After a cup of tea overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, we wandered back to the hostel for our new tradition of more drinks. One of the South African girls & I tried something called arrowroot juice, which was bizarre – fruity but very chalky. We also had sake forced on us, which I have decided I am most definitely not a fan of!

And anyway, we didn’t want too much of a heavy night, as we were off on an adventure in the morning.

ninh binh, vietnam, rowing boat

A day trip to Ninh Binh

Wednesday was AMAZING. We took a day trip down to Ninh Binh (“Halong Bay on land”), and even though it was raining AGAIN, it was so worth the trip.

We stopped at some temples and our guide told us all about the kings they were built for. He told us that where there are three doorways at a temple, the left represents past, the middle present, and the right future, and that you should walk through the right hand side so that you are greeting the future and accepting your past.

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

We took a break from the rain with lunch in Tam Coc, and just as I got up to get my buffet lunch, the generator beside us (thankfully with a window between) literally blew up. Lights were out for the rest of lunch, and apart from the possibility of death by explosion, we were glad to be sat by the window.

An American next to us looked around and went, ‘am I the only one actually worried about this? I’m going to go sit over there!!’ And so he ate his lunch in the dark!

Then it was time for one of the Vietnam highlights: taking a converted fishing row boat along the river through the huge, towering limestone stacks. Our guide even rowed with his feet, which was great!

Even in the rain, it felt like we were in Jurassic Park, serenely flowing through the scenery and even through caves.

Our tour guide rowing down the river using his feet in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Absolutely stunning! 🙂

Read more: Central Vietnam: Historic, Beautiful… And Very Touristy

Prison Museum – and an embassy success!

We finally got to the embassy successfully on Thursday – with our forms, with our passport pictures intact, with travel confirmations, everything! We had to drop it all off with the money ($40USD each for a 60-day Thailand visa) and hope for the best, being told to come back at 4pm the following day.

We had a delicious lunch in a cute café, headed to the train station to book our overnight train to Hué in central Vietnam, then wandered on to the fascinating Prison Museum.

Prison museum, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Prison Museum was another fantastic and interesting visit, and was only about £1.20 entry. I couldn’t believe how cheap Vietnam was.

The actual name of the prison is Hỏa Lò, which is translated as “fiery furnace” or “Hell’s Hole”; a pertinent name for when it was used by the French to torture the Vietnamese. Everything turned around in the prison later on when it was used to capture US soldiers – it was then called the Hanoi Hilton because of how well they treated the US prisoners!

It’s testament to the hospitality and friendliness of the Vietnamese today.

Hoa Lo prison museum, Hanoi, Vietnam
Back when the prison wasn’t so nice

By 3pm, we were back in the hostel chilling for the rest of the day, but it still turned out to be one of the most productive days we’ve had! We had decided to book our train for Monday night, which would give us the weekend to visit Halong Bay.

Temple Of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

Temple Of Literature & Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

And so Friday was our last full day in Hanoi, and it was another busy one!

Our plan was to walk around around the lake to the Temple Of Literature, which felt similar to the Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong, then up to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Of course, it was raining AGAIN, so I didn’t get many photos at the temple unfortunately.

The Temple Of Literature is dedicated to Confucius, and was used as a national university from 1076. It was actually kind of hard to imagine the history that this place had seen, from the Lý dynasty all the way through to today.

The mausoleum houses – unsurprisingly – the body of Ho Chi Minh, which you can actually go into and see if you get there before 10.30am. Naturally, it’s closed on Mondays and Fridays so we couldn’t go in and see a dead body even if we had got there in time – but the monument was impressive to look at from the outside.

ho chi minh mausoleum, hanoi, vietnam

A few hot chocolates later as we hid from the rain, it was finally 4pm, and we anxiously headed back down to the Thai embassy.

WE FINALLY GOT OUR VISAS! We are officially allowed to spend 60 days in Thailand! Instead of enduring more embassy mayhem, we could have left Thailand on day 30 and stamped back in for another 30 days (a border run). The problem is, we had no idea where we’d be on day 30 and I suspected it would be nowhere near a border, so it seemed easier just to pay for 60 days and have the freedom to be where we wanted to be. So finally, we had an embassy success story on this trip!

The evening was spent celebrating drinking at more bia hoi corners, trying to take a huge keg of water (now fondly known as the water baby) from Hanoi Rocks and saying sad goodbyes to our favourite South Africans as they’d be going on an overnight trip once we were back from Halong Bay.

wine, halong bay, vietnam

Halong Bay

It was time for an early start to visit one of my most anticipated stops of the entire Asia trip – Halong Bay!!

We were up at 7am, packed and ready to check out of room 406, and sat excitedly in the lobby with two Canadian ladies who had decided to book to come with us. A tour guide walked in, called out their names, and they left as confused as us. Five minutes later, we were out on the bus – without our Canadian friends. We had been put on different tours!

It was a four hour bumpy bus ride to Halong City (crazy considering it’s less than 100 miles away from Hanoi), and when we arrived it was foggy. But as we got closer in our little boat, the limestone stacks became clearer and even though it was a dull day, we probably couldn’t have asked for a better view considering the weather! Even the distant ones shrouded in mist looked magical.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Our venture into the bay started off with a quick stop by a cave, Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave, which was lit up with all different colours and the ceiling looked like marble. It was stunning, and I’m glad we made the stop as I hadn’t been expecting anything like it.

Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave, Halong Bay, Vietnam

After that, it was a one-way ticket to party town, by which I mean we spent much of the afternoon laid across sun beds on the top deck just gazing at the view. And drinking wine. And eating scrumptious food which came out one dish at a time.

And, more memorably, kayaking.

Kayaking was a disaster.

We were not good at kayaking. The current consistently pushed us the wrong way and we struggled to make it turn back in the right direction for longer than a couple of minutes, I panicked in case we could never get back to the boat, someone capsized, I panicked even more in case the same thing happened to us. I am not good with water. I’ll put that out there right now.

Still, there are worse places to be lost, and I suppose it would have been a great adventure having to be rescued from a limestone cave in the middle of one of the most scenic parts of the world.

halong bay, best scenery ever, vietnam

Anyway, we made it back to the boat – but when it came to jumping off the boat afterwards, I didn’t do it! However, Ash did:

After some time for showers and getting ready, it was dinner time – and then the party started.

Except it didn’t really. I’m not sure what happened, but I think the lesson learned is that with 20 people, it is almost impossible to play Kings Cup. No one knew whose turn it was, people had different rules for different cards, arguments ensued and I think the game died about half way around the table. Then they tried to get us to play a different game, with similar results.

So people got up and danced instead. We went upstairs to find a few people playing a foosball tournament – clearly they’d given up on the drinking games before everyone else! Despite the lacklustre party games, it was a good night; we chatted to a lot of people, and you know what? I wasn’t bothered about it being a party cruise anyway. That’s not why I wanted to come to Halong Bay.

Me on the boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam
highlights of asia, halong bay, vietnam

The following morning, we had a “cooking class” after breakfast where we made a couple of spring rolls each, which would be part of our lunch. It was pretty basic but actually a cool experience, and they were yummy!

Sadly, though, it was time to leave this incredible place and head back to the chaos of Hanoi.

bia hoi, hanoi, vietnam

Bia hoi

As soon as we got back and checked in, it was time for free beers at the hostel, so we headed up – and saw our South African friends, who were supposed to be in Ninh Binh. Unfortunately, the unexpected reunion turned into an unexpected tour of Hanoi police stations, as one of their phones had been nicked. The staff in the hostel were amazing – the phone hadn’t been stolen in the hostel, but one of the receptionists came to the station with us to make sure it was reported in the correct way to the correct person (we all know how corrupt some police officers can be with tourists around Southeast Asia, and this is rife in Vietnam).

After that palaver was over with, we wandered down the night market and enjoyed our last round of bia hoi!

bia hoi, street corner beer, hanoi, vietnam

So wait, what is bia hoi, I hear you ask? I mean I keep mentioning it in this post. First of all, I’d like you to guess how much each of those glasses cost.

£1? Don’t be silly. 50p? Ha. Nope, 15p of glorious* beer. That’s 25 cents for the Americans. You drink it on street corners, bunched up on tiny seats (Ash’s knees were somewhere around his ears usually), and the lady serving you will remember how many drinks you’ve had and charge you for all of them at the end. Some nights there were 50 people sat at one place. She remembered them all.

*it’s not glorious, it’s homemade brew and I don’t even like beer, but for 15p? I’ll drink it all.

And on Monday – we did virtually nothing (nothing to do with the bia hoi). Apart from some aimless wandering, we had a rest day until our train at 7pm, on which we shared a comfortable compartment with a Vietnamese man and his adorable daughter.

And now here we are in Hué, a quaint little town which has also thrown us from 20-25 degrees with fog and showers, to 35+ degrees with sun and not even a breeze. We are sweaty, tired and content.

We miss you already, Hanoi! You and your crazy non-stop honking.

Want to read more about our 3-month Asia adventure?

Central Vietnam: Historic, Beautiful… And Very Touristy
Buses, Boats and Bikes in Saigon
An Incredible Week in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat and Meditating With a Monk
Songkran in Bangkok: One of the Craziest Festivals in the World
One Of The Best Weeks Of Our Lives Volunteering At Elephant Nature Park
A Surprising Paradise on Koh Phangan and How Not to Survive the Full Moon Party
Koh Tao: Our Favourite Thai Island
And Then We Fell In Love With Koh Lanta
Krabi, Railay and the Most Beautiful Beach in the World, and Climbing 1200 Steps to a Temple

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