Streets of crumbling French architecture, high ceilings and painted window shutters. It’s romantic and chaotic at the same time. Sip a vietnamese coffee from a cafe balcony and try your luck crossing the street, fighting against scooters zooming about. Wherever you look, you see something intriguing. Hard working vendors, beautiful faces that will smile and wave “hello.” The most fascinating thing to do is just crouch down on a stool and watch Hanoi come alive in the streets.
As for crossing the street. We were told to “walk slowly, don’t stop and the scooters will go around you.” It requires a lot of faith. Sometimes I would just close my eyes and start walking forward, praying I don’t get plowed down.
The streets were getting ready for Tet festival, the new year, which is the biggest festival, countrywide, around end of January to early February. Many streets were full of flowers, colorful decorations, lights and lanterns. On our first day we headed straight to the nearest Pho restaurant, which happened to be an old, famous one according to locals. Delicious.
One day we took in the water puppet show which was very charming, went to a local spa to take a rest, and generally wandered the interesting streets and markets watching whole families on scooters, people coming by to sell you anything you need, and people moving their whole business or house on their scooter! It’s quite incredible how they seem to tie things up to their scooters. It’s a local art form.
We visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum which has many exhibits of local Communist ideology. Experiencing a taste of the local bohemian cafe culture, we visited the very hip “Hanoi Social Club,” 3 floors of cool cafe and a small craft market. They have local musicians play too. It was an eclectic scene of international tourists and local artists. But it’s the most fun to just eat on the sidewalk, good, cheap food too.
We met a great group of artists, designers and poets at a cafe near the fine arts museum and shared each others art projects over conversation and coffee. They were doing progressive mixtures of poetry, film and fashion as well as painting. The Fine Arts museum was a nice respite from the streets.
A very memorable night was the wonderful Ca Tru music performance by local musicians trying to keep this traditional music alive. It took place in what looked like an old temple, a beautiful space with beautiful music. They have a tradition of giving the audience bamboo sticks to throw into a metal bowl during the performance if they feel moved by the song or even a part of the song. Some exciting and unique audience participation. Highly recommend this authentic experience.
We stayed at the Hanoi Moment Hotel 2 in the old quarter and can’t say enough about the staff. They helped us plan a trip to Halong Bay, helped us with local maps, taxis, tickets to shows, and helped organize transfers. They made our stay pretty effortless.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO heritage site and a major tourist attraction. We went in January and the weather was cool and overcast although a few brave souls swam in the water including Lam. It seems that most people book a cruise to see the bay on a small boat with about 20 people or so. You can also book a private boat. These cruises can be expensive but include transfers, a private room, all meals, excursions and guides. So it’s worth the money. We booked a midrange tour on the Stellar. Rooms were modern and nice. Food was great. We stayed 3 days and 2 nights which we felt was perfect as the 3.5 hour drive to Hanoi can feel very long.
I was concerned about feeling a little seasick as I’ve never slept on a boat, but the waters of Halong Bay are very calm and gentle. The boat barely rocks and moves very slowly. The scenery is dramatic and the tour is also slowly paced and relaxing.
The cruise ship sails around Halong Bay’s karst island formations and docks at various places. Most excursions require getting on a smaller boat that they arrange so you get to leave the big ship often to explore the bay. They took us on a tour of a floating village where fishermen and their families live on small houses on floating barges. It’s interesting to see although a little awkward to get so close to their front door rowing by on a small bamboo boat.
One day they took us to a pearl farm where you can see how they create cultured pearls from oysters. Then out for a kayak expedition through some of the caves and lagoons around the bay which were quite beautiful.
At night we tried fishing for squid from the back of the boat. The guide helped us catch two small ones which we returned back into the sea. It was fun to see them up close and watch them turn colors. On the last day they took us to the “Maze” cave. A short walk and hike around the caverns and lagoon before returning to Hanoi.
Back to the madness of the city after driving through rice paddies, farmland and small towns in between on the long drive back.