Arrived fairly early by air from Hue and were positively surprised to find it very easy to find transport to the centre of town by a shared taxi, provided by Vietnam Airlines, and it’s quite cheap as well. We head straight for Especen Hotel – it’s a hotel we found on Tripadvisor, and incidentally mentioned in our guide as well – very conveniently it’s only five minutes walk from where we get dropped off in the minivan taxi.
Especen Hotel is very nice, and we get a deluxe room for a much cheaper rate due to it being quiet times at the end of the Lunar New Year‘s holidays. The breakfast is also included in our room price, but unfortunately we don’t get a chance to test it out as we’re on the move too early on both mornings. As we arrive fairly early in the morning we can’t access our room yet – it’s still being cleaned – so we just drop the bags off there and go out to explore the town. Hanoi is a little bit like a ghost town in places as only a handful of businesses have opened up after the holidays. Finding a place to have some breakfast is much more difficult than we’d ever imagine, and due to the very early start from Hue we’re getting pretty desperate as we’re nearing mid-day.
We decide to book a one day sightseeing tour to Ha Long Bay through our Hotel. It would have been nice with a two day trip to be able to spend more time on the boat around the islands but time is running out for us in Vietnam and we’ll have to fly out early on the following day, leaving us only a day and a half in total in Hanoi. We spend a lot of the day walking about. The area just north of the Hoan Kiem Lake seems to be a bit busier – probably due to the density of hotels in the area, hence lots of tourists walking about. It’s particularly busy around the Ngoc Son Temple which sits on a small island on the lake so we decide to have a look at what the commotion is about. The main attraction seems to be a bronze statue of a huge turtle. From here we walk down to the Lenin Park – it’s teeming with life – it’s got some funfair-rides and seems very popular with families. After a quick look-around we head back towards our hotel for a rest. En route to our hotel we happen upon the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum, also known as the Hanoi Hilton it was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, hence its nickname Hanoi Hilton.
In the evening we head up to a strip of bars and restaurants along Dinh Liet and Ta Hien road and have a really nice dinner at a street-kitchen with baby-sized plastic chairs and a few nice drinks in various bars along the road. This strip of bars and restaurants is surprisingly busy bearing in mind all of the rest of the city seems to be dead quiet – I wonder how it is like normally…
Following morning it’s time for our day-trip to Ha Long Bay, it’s not as early as some of our previous tours but still too early to be able to get some breakfast – it’s two hungry souls that get into the taxi to take us to our tour-bus. Luckily the bus very conveniently stops at an “art and craft shop” half way towards Ha Long Bay and they serve food – it’s not the cheapest place to eat of course, but it’s much better than imploding. A bit more satisfied we get back onto the bus and head towards our destination.
As we’re arriving at the port the weather is very grey and foggy unfortunately, we’re hopeful for the weather to improve, but this is unfortunately not the case. At the port we also get presented with our boat for the day – it’s fairly basic, but then that’s the cheaper package that we ordered. All the boats look more or less the same though, so it’s not like we’re particularly lucky or unlucky with our choice. Our guide is good and he speaks English very well and that’s more important than the boat looking like a floating palace. Most of the boats are setting out on the same route it seems – we keep seeing the same boats around us all during the day. On the boat we get served an excellent lunch consisting of fish and seafood of various description and on our table we’re seated together with some Korean tourists which pulls out some sachets of Kimchi which complements the dishes very well. Our first stop is a huge cave called Thien Cung Grotto where there are numerous stalactites resembling anything from dragons to people. After this we get to see a floating fishing village, and next to it we get put into a canoe and sent off on a little half an hour adventure through some arches in the mountains – we manage not to capsize, but we still become a bit wet from the paddles splashing over us when they come out of the water – by the time we’re back onto the boat we look like we didn’t reach the toilet in time and had an accident… No reason to feel self-conscious though – it looks like everyone is in the same boat, so to speak.
After our little watery adventure the boat takes us around in the bay, and we are able to enjoy the view, however restricted it is because of the fog. It still looks impressive, and the fog gives it a mystical feel. Due to our wet pants it’s slightly chilly though. After some circling we head back to port and onto our bus back to Hanoi.
We have an early start the next day for our flight to Singapore so decide to take it easy, just a quick dinner at a restaurant around the corner – a bit unlucky we pick a bit more “stylish” one where the food is expensive and rather plain. Very little choice though as it seems everything else is closed – could be something to do with it being a Sunday, and the last day of their Lunar New Year’s holidays.
Next morning we’re bound towards Singapore and are in luck to find a little street kitchen next to the office of Vietnam Airways where the shared taxies leave from. It was again too early for the breakfast at our hotel, so we quickly have some nice tomato omelette in a baguette before getting into the taxi.