Hanoi and Ha Long Bay
We arrived in Hanoi early in the morning after taking an overnight train from Hue. Hanoi is Megan’s favorite city in Vietnam and after Ha Long Bay we gave ourselves 3 more days to stay there before venturing further north.
While the first overnight train we had in Vietnam was lovely, this one was a disaster. The AC was cranked so far up that we actually had a reason to use our down jackets (haven’t needed them since Peru). However, sometime in the middle of the night the AC blew out and we were left in a sweltering hot cabin with no air–it was awful.
We spent this first day in Hanoi mainly relaxing and the next following morning we headed out for our Ha Long Bay trip. We chose to book an overnight tour through our hotel mainly for the convenience of including the transportation cost (it’s 4 hours away). At 130 USD this was a bit of a splurge for us, but we were happy with the tour. When we first arrived, Megan was flabbergasted to see the volume of tourism at the dock. Megan first visited Ha Long Bay after the first wave of tourism when the numbers reached approximately 2 million people a year, it’s now at 5.5 million and compared to her first visit we came on a summer weekend. Regardless. The overnight boat we boarded was gorgeous–better accomodation then we typically have. We visited one of the main caves and while beautiful, it could be frustrating at times to enjoy because of the volume of people. It rained for a good duration of the trip, but we visited a beach anyway and it stopped long enough to enjoy a swim. The next morning it was pouring rain but, we again were lucky enough that it stopped just as we went kayaking in a lagoon. The main draw for tourism to Ha Long Bay is the many limestone islands covered in lush vegetation. It feels like something out of another world. We had read many reviews comparing it to El Nido, Phillipines. Having now experienced both within a short time frame the comparison is justifed. El Nido is cleaner with a larger variety of stunning beaches to choose from. However, the limestone islands in Ha Long Bay felt much more impressive and it Ha Long Bay is much larger.
The french-colonial architecture of the old quarter can make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. One could spend hours walking though it and taking a few breaks to sit in one of the numerous coffee houses and watch life pass you by. While the old quarter of course draws in the backpackers and tourists, it still manages to retain a very lively local vibe. Right next to a street that has hotels and few western style restaurants you can also find street food and small markets selling meat and fresh vegetables, everything flows effortlessly.
We visited the Hoa Lo Prison, or as many Americans know it, the Hanoi Hilton. This was the prison that first held political prisoners under the French and was later used to house American POW’s during the Vietnamese (American) War. The museum naturally focuses on the Vietnamese political prisoners, but also has a small section devoted to how “well” they treated the Americans, including a statement that it was nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton” because of the great treatment they received–sarcasm was clearly lost in translation. We attempted to then visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but the line was over 2 hours long and Markus could not be convinced to brave the heat or the crowds.
One of the best things about Hanoi is eating and drinking. Everywhere you look people are sitting outside on tiny plastic chairs eating at tiny plastic tables–it’s marvelous. We enjoyed eating Bun Cha, which is a noodle soup with essentially BBQ with cucumbers and carrots and garlic. One of the highlights for Megan was egg coffee–creamy, sweet, and bitter. We found a lovely coffee shop tucked in the back of an alley that has the best egg coffee, it was also relieving to see that while it did draw in some tourists, there were many more locals taking a timeout from the day there. In the evening a favorite drinking spot for both young Vietnamese and tourists is beer alley. On the weekends the streets get closed down for the night market in the old quarter and beer alley begins to fill with tiny plastic chairs streaming from the alley into the intersection.