19th March 2011
After a nail biting taxi ride, we arrived at the airport early to catch our 8.20am flight to Hanoi, still poetically referred to as The Rising Dragon. After checking in we headed upstairs to grab a coffee, only to find that the shop hadn't opened, so we just took a seat and waited in the empty lounge. Slowly but surely the lounge began to fill up as more and more passengers arrived. Finally, someone turned up and opened the small coffee kiosk and Stew was first in line. An announcement informed us our flight had been delayed an hour so we entertained ourselves as best we could until our plane arrived and we were able to board. We finally touched down in Hanoi at around 10:30am and were hoping our pre-arranged pick up would still be there waiting for us. Thankfully it was and we piled our luggage into the large 7 seater and set off towards the Phoenix Hotel in the centre of Hanoi. After changing cars on the way (on the side of a busy motorway – due to us being given the wrong car!!) we arrived at our hotel and were immediately disappointed. We were not given the room we had booked and, when it was eventually deemed to be ready for us, it was a dump! The first thing we did was go and look for a new hotel, which we found on the other side of the road with a lovely room and we managed to persuade the proprietors to give us the same rate as we were paying at the other hotel. We booked a room for the following night and then returned to our old hotel to look at some of the tours to Halong Bay that they had available. After looking at several with varying price ranges we opted for a medium priced 2 day trip and booked it for 2 days time. After getting a map from reception we set off to explore a little of the city and headed down to the lake, a very popular place with the locals. It was a really lovely walk and we went in and out of many shops on the way down. The tree-lined lake itself was reasonably large and was a mecca for fitness fans of all ages with joggers, cyclists, walkers and the more elderly contingent performing some very strange stretches and exercises – including an elderly Chinese man speed walking – backwards! At one end of the lake stood a beautiful, small pagoda on a small island connected to the bank by a lovely red stone bridge. We walked to one end of the lake and then onto the main road to look at some of the shops, and then started back. By the time we had got back to the area near our hotel we were quite hungry and found a nice looking restaurant overlooking the street from a balcony upstairs. After a nice meal we walked back to our dingy little room for an early night as we were so tired.
20th March 2011
After an uninspiring breakfast we checked out of the Phoenix and headed over the road to the new Pearl Hotel, after our host asked us why we were moving hotels! We politely told him that, had he given us a room that looked remotely like the one we had seen online we would have been happy to stay. Our new room was so much better – very comfortable and stylish, the hotel only having opened in February this year. It even had a computer in the room! As we only had today to go and see the sights we grabbed our cameras and hit the streets of Hanoi, heading towards the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. The skies were grey and heavy but the air was warm as we walked through the back streets of Hanoi and towards the main road, using our free map from the hotel to guide us. Crossing the road and entering the busy main street, we turned the corner – and walked through the quite surreal scene of an outside Barber shop!
The open air Barber shop in Hanoi!
Staring into a mirror perched on a wall a man sat still while a barber trimmed his hair in the middle of the pavement while another customer sat on a chair leaning against another wall, reading a newspaper! There was human hair everywhere so he obviously did a good trade! We couldn’t resist taking a photo before we moved on, stopping at a little temple on the way. We had to pay a small entrance fee before we could go for a look around. In a small tunnel next to the temple there are a few scratched names in the stones, written by French soldiers in the late 1800s when Vietnam was under French rule. The temple itself was a small and striking double storey pagoda with a colourful but diminutive altar and it housed a beautiful old iron bell and a huge red and gold ceremonial drum. The outside walls were a plain cement colour with both roofs in bright red tiles. It didn’t take us very long to look around and, when done, walked back out to the main street.
The small temple with drum and iron bell
One thing we noticed about the houses in the area were just how incredibly narrow they were! The majority of them were three or four storeys but they were so narrow they looked as though they would topple over if they were not adjoining other, similar buildings!
Their houses are so narrow!
After a long while we finally reached the area containing the mausoleum but first came upon the Presidential Palace – a huge, magnificent yellow palace completed in 1906 to house the French Indochina governor. Set in some beautiful grounds, the Palace itself is not open to the public but the gardens can be viewed for a small entrance fee. Unfortunately for us they were not open at that particular time so we just had to be content with viewing them through the bars of the huge ornate gates that kept us out!
The magnificent Presidential Palace in Hanoi
Moving on after taking a few photographs we arrived at the mausoleum of the revered Ho Chi Minh – a huge, grey, columned building containing the mortal remains of Vietnam’s beloved ‘Uncle Ho’ - something very difficult to understand. Ho Chi Minh’s last wish was to be cremated and yet, after everything he did for his country, they repaid their debt by doing the exact opposite of his last wish and had his body embalmed and placed in a glass coffin for all his adoring public to see – reducing this amazing man’s memory to something akin to a circus sideshow! The area surrounding the mausoleum was cut off from traffic and the peace was in total contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city’s roads, only a couple of hundred yards away. Either side of the the huge, bright red doors of the massive sepulchre, two rifle-wielding, immaculately garbed sentries dressed in pure white uniforms with red piping stood guard.
Uncle Ho's resting place
Our day wasn’t going too well – the mausoleum only opens on a Monday morning up to 11am ... we really should check opening times of the places we are going to visit! Undeterred we carried on our stroll around the area and found ourselves at the beautiful Vietnam War Memorial, a curious structure built in 1993 to commemorate the Vietnamese heroes who gave their lives for their country. Although basically a simple square block structure, the openings in each side of the block are negative images of a pagoda and finished in gold colour, a really striking feature. The memorial is surrounded by a small moat, is cordoned off from the public and has an armed guard permanently patrolling the area.
The unusual Vietnam War Memorial
After a number of snaps taken in the grey and murky light we walked back towards the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and turned left past it and to the Ho Chi Minh museum – only to find that closed as well! It had closed for lunch and was due to reopen in a couple of hours’ time. Not really knowing what else was around the area we went for a walk along a busy street, hoping to find a cafe or coffee shop. What we actually found was a small square lined with a host of different coloured, multi-storeyed narrow houses with a large, square pond in its centre. It just looked so strange but was actually quaint! We turned round and walked back along the street and noticed a sign pointing to, of all things, a botanical garden! It required a small entrance fee which we duly paid and went for a walk around. Built in 1890 by French architects, it was remodelled and opened to the general public in 1954, after the French were defeated and retreated from the country. It was a petite place, and was more akin to a park than a botanical garden, although there are species of trees in the park of scientific interest to botanists. In the centre of the garden was a large cage containing a family of monkeys! They didn’t look very happy, which was a shame, and we felt they and the park would be better off if they were not there! It was a busy place and was obviously a popular venue for the keep-fit fraternity with badminton players, roller-skaters and the ubiquitous joggers among others strutting their exhausting stuff among the greenery and multi-coloured flora. On the east side of the park was a number of sculptures by Vietnamese artists which made it a popular site for just sitting and contemplating, reading a book or just people watching! We spent a while sculpture-watching, monkey-watching and people-watching before starting a slow stroll back to the Ho Chi Minh museum in the hope it had reopened. Thankfully it had and we walked around the unusually laid out but interesting museum full of facts, artifacts and pictures of the great man, tracing his history from birth to death. After a couple of hours, we both needed food so we called it a day in the museum and marched the long march home! Stew was in pain with a backache so we returned to our hotel and rested for a little while before going in search of sustenance. We revisited our usual restaurant and had another nice meal on the balcony overlooking the busy street. To burn off the calories we went for a walk around the nearby shops before deciding we were too tired to carry on and returned to our lovely room to sort out all the things we would need for tomorrow’s trip to Ha Long Bay. We had arranged earlier in the day for both our backpacks to be stored in the hotel’s storage room so that we didn’t need to take the huge things on the boat with us. We made do with our smaller rucksacks, chose our clothes, packed them and got everything ready for the morning.
21st March 2011
Our pickup for the drive to Ha Long Bay was at 7:45 this morning so we were up very early at 6:30am and eating a nice (but strange!) breakfast of a toasted cheese, tomato and cucumber sandwich together with a fried egg, a piece of toast, coffee and fruit! After putting our backpacks in storage in the hotel and booking another night for when we returned from our trip, we crossed the road back to the Phoenix and waited for our bus. We didn’t have to wait long at all and were soon on our way to pick up the remaining passengers. Our guide, Dian, was a really nice guy and he told us a lot about life in Hanoi, the history of Ha Long Bay (which literally means Descending Dragon Bay!) and about the almost impossible task of buying a house in Hanoi as we sped past the wonderful scenery outside. After an hour and a half we stopped off to buy some nibbles for the boat (just in case we didn’t enjoy the food on board!) and to look around a craft market. Another two hours driving and we were at the port and looking over the fence at the myriad of cruise ships while waiting for Dian to return with our captain so we could board ours. Passengers queued here, there and everywhere and were shown to their vessels once their crew had joined them. The area was bustling with excited groups of people chit-chatting and laughing, all looking forward to their trips on the sea. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. The port rid itself of people and we were getting more and more concerned (as well as a little annoyed!) as we only had the daylight to sail in as vessels are not allowed to sail at night. After more than an hour of waiting our ‘captain’ turned up, citing new rules for the lengthy delay! He took us through the quay gates and we stepped aboard a large dinghy, our taxi to our waiting cruise ship. We didn’t know what to expect as we had opted for a ‘medium priced’ cruise but were relieved to find it was quite a lovely boat. Painted dark green and black, with tinges of gold here and there, she looked lovely. Our cabin was at the very back and was really nice. Decorated in wood with black and gold lacquer panels it looked quite stylish and comfortable. As we had been asked to do we dropped our stuff in the cabin and rejoined Dian and the other 3 guests in the dining room for a briefing. We made the mistake of asking Dian why it took so long for the captain to show up at the port as we had lost over an hour of our cruise and were only here for a couple of days. His reply quite shocked us. Apparently, on 17th February this year, a cruise ship actually sank at around 5am while everyone was asleep, resulting in the deaths of 12 tourists. Rules, regulations and security had changed and become much more strict and stringent. It was these changes our captain had cited for the delay. The mood became a little more sombre for a while until we heard the chugging engine increase in volume and felt our little cruiser begin to move. Unfortunately the cloud was heavy and grey and a light sprinkling of rain started as we swung around and moved out into the open water. We stepped outside and walked up the stairs to the top deck to watch the view. We just couldn’t believe the number of boats still anchored in the bay. Although slightly raining and leaden skied the air was still warm and we marvelled at the sight of so many limestone karsts sticking out of the water seemingly being born from the water itself. After an hour or so of sailing we arrived at our first stop – a huge series of caves that was obviously a popular stop judging by the many sailboats anchored a little way from the small dock. The caves were huge inside and had different coloured lights installed, giving them an eerie luminescence. The caves were used by the French as storage when they ruled the lands and there is still some French graffiti on the walls. It took around half an hour to complete the tour as they were so enormous inside and we corralled into our little group, got back on the little dinghy and headed for our next little treat – an hour in a kayak! Nobody in our group fancied that so we asked Dian if we could, instead, climb up a nearby karst that had a tower perched on the top. He agreed and we were dropped off at the small pier and started climbing the many steps to the top, stopping now and then to get our breath back and to take some photos of the amazing views. It was such a strenuous climb that we passed an elderly lady who had decided, to cool off, to remove her top and complete the climb in her bra... Once at the top the views were incredible and we looked out over the seascape dominated by the amazing karsts nearby and in the distance. Close by we could see a sinkhole in the centre of a nearby group of karsts with the strange phenomenon of the emerald green water level in the sinkhole being much higher than sea level! After taking many photos (and resting our aching legs!) we started back down the many steps, eventually reaching the bottom and rejoining Dian in our boat and were ferried back to the cruiser where we were greeted with glasses of red wine and some pineapple! We took a quick shower and changed before dinner, but, prior to our meals being served, we were given a lesson by Dian on how to make the perfect spring roll! After a few demonstrations he invited us all to have a go, which we did, and Dian explained that we would be eating these as part of our meal as soon as we had finished making them! We all did pretty well considering it was our first ever time and they were quite delicious once they’d been cooked and served up to us. The food just kept coming and, although plentiful, it wasn’t the best meal we’d ever eaten to be honest. We were all a little disappointed. The spring rolls were good though... After dinner we had an attempt at squid fishing but to no avail. The five of us all came up empty handed after around half an hour or so of trying. We did see a number of squid but they just weren’t interesting in being a meal! As it was a little on the chilly side we opted to disappear back inside and order some drinks. The girls grabbed the cocktail menu and made their choices and ordered them with the ‘bar tender’. A few minutes later the drinks arrived – all the same and none of what was ordered! It turned out the bar tender could only make a margarita – it didn’t matter what was ordered it came back as a margarita!! Stew was quite safe with his beer though... To go with our drinks we started watching a DVD but it wasn’t too long before the long day, the long climb and the long drinks took their toll and we had to take our leave and retire to our cabin for the night!
Our lovely little Ha Long Bay cruiser!
Inside the huge colourful caves in Ha Long Bay
What a load of old junks!!
Yes - we climbed up this!
It was an exhausting climb - but what a view!
The sinkhole is to the right
22nd March 2011
Probably due to the news we’d been given regarding what happened back in February, we didn’t have a particularly great sleep last night! Looking forward to breakfast though, we showered and were outside in the dining room by 8:15am as requested (our rooms needed to be cleaned en route back to the harbour in readiness for the next batch of passengers) and waited for our food. Eggs, bacon, sausages and stale toast were put in front of us, along with some incredibly strong coffee! We all sent everything back to be warmed up but it didn’t make too much difference to the taste! We were already underway and the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind really got up and the waves got higher and higher. Our landing boat, used to get us to and from the ship, was tied up alongside us and was being thrown around quite badly, taking on a lot of water. It became so serious, in fact, that the captain ordered a crew member to untie her and pilot her away from us until he found calmer water. He did so quite quickly, steering us into a ‘forest’ of karsts which had the effect of cutting down the wind and therefore smoothing the waters. The landing boat was tied up to us once more, but behind us this time with a bigger distance between us. Not long after this we were told we needed to stop and wait for a couple of people who had stayed on Cat Ba Island overnight and would be needing a lift back to the harbour. We waited there for ages for them but, in the meantime, the skies cleared to a beautiful blue, the sun came out and it was suddenly a beautiful, warm day! We hit the sunbeds on the upper deck and enjoyed the warmth and the rest. The couple turned up after around forty minutes and we resumed our journey. Although the sun was out and the temperatures had risen, when we hit the open water once more the waves increased in size and power with the wind and Dian told us that, due to the wind speed, choppy sea and the nervousness that still remained from the tragedy in February, he didn’t think there would be any cruises setting off from the harbour today. We could tell that meant trouble in store! The sun remained shining on us for the remainder of our trip back, showing the limestone rock formations near and far in all their glory and we were soon stepping from the landing craft and on to dry land where a coach was waiting to take us to a nearby hotel for lunch.
The amazing scenery of Ha Long Bay
A floating village in Ha Long Bay
We all sat around a table tucking in to various Vietnamese dishes whilst listening to the moans and complaints of dissatisfied tourists around us who had indeed been informed that their cruises had been cancelled for the time being due to the ‘bad weather’! An excited Dian joined us a little way into our meals and told us that a group of passengers had asked to be taken back to Hanoi as their boat trip had been postponed and they were not willing to wait a day in case the weather was the same tomorrow. Dian basically told us we had to get down to the bus to secure our seats! Down we went and we all sat on the bus waiting to go - but an argument ensued between some cruise representatives and the group of passengers who’s trips had been postponed. Some wanted to go and some to stay but they were told it was either all go or all stay! In the end they all decided to stay and got off the bus. We were finally able to leave and got back to Hanoi over an hour and a half later than we should have! We paid for the trip, headed across the road to our hotel, got our backpacks out of storage and repacked everything. We were tired and hungry – the hunger pangs won the battle – so we headed out to our favourite restaurant and ate heartily before going for a final walk around the market, finally finding an electric hair trimmer so that Jen could cut Stew’s hair! We were exhausted and trudged back to our room and flopped on our bed, knowing full well that yet another early start was required for the morning as we had a 5:30am pick up outside a travel agent’s office for the trip to the airport to catch our flight to Laos. Our fantastic Vietnamese adventure had come to an end – next up Laos!