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The first days in Hanoi
In every country I have visited I have experienced an emotional journey from the initial nervousness of leaving a place I have become familiar and comfortable in, to the anticipation of arriving in new and different city with no expectations and often, sadly, little preceding knowledge.
It was no different on September 17th 2019 when I left Hong Kong, a city fighting for its survival and independence that had also been so welcoming, to fly to Vietnam.
It is unfortunate that my knowledge of Vietnam before this trip was shockingly lacking, a combination of war films from Hollywood and the Top Gear special. Visions of motorbikes and air strikes.
I landed in Hanoi and, on the advice of my hotel, had arranged for a driver to meet me. Apparently it is common for taxi drivers to try and convince you to use them and they then take you to a completely different hotel leaving you lost, confused and down a few dollars. So it was I sought out my driver and confirmed our agreed code word ensuring I would get to the right place. A reassuring first step in a new country!
The hotel itself was incredible. At prices competing with some basic motels in America I was treated like a VIP rather than the dishevelled backpacker I was. Whilst being checked in I was given a free welcome dish of fresh fruits and fruit juice. Once all the admin was done the receptionist then spent nearly half an hour explaining the best places to go in Hanoi, drawing a custom map of things to see and answering any questions I had. She even taught me my first words in Vietnamese – cảm ơn (thank you).
Over the course of my time in Hanoi the staff at the New Vision Palace Hotel worked ridiculously hard to make my stay enjoyable, I am very grateful in particular to Annie & Tony.
Within less than 2 hours of being in the country I had already started to love the friendliness and desire to help of the Vietnamese people and feel back in my comfort zone.
That first evening I didn’t venture far, but I did find the unusually named Train Street. I learnt over the next few days that many streets in Hanoi are named after their prevailing trade, for example one street may deal only in metal works whilst another focuses on coffins and memorials; similar to the way car dealerships tend to congregate in England it seems businesses of every kind like to find each other in Hanoi.
Train Street is slightly different in that it does not sell trains, rather it is a narrow street with no real access to motor vehicles (although as my guide to Road Rules in Vietnam shows nothing is off limits if you really want to!) due to a single pair of train tracks running down the middle.
What would normally be an area off limits in Western countries has been turned into a bustling tourist attraction with restaurants and bars set up parallel to the railway line, chairs and tables stacked up against the steel tracks. Whenever a train comes through patrons and owners quickly gather their loose articles and breathe in to allow it past before resuming their drinking.
The layout of the street with chairs and tables on each side of the track looking onto the line itself does create the rather odd situation of having staring contests with the complete strangers sitting opposite you. A distance too wide for anyone to consider splitting their own party over, but narrow enough that you can easily over hear everything being said and make repeated eye contact each time you look up.
Sadly it seemed I had missed the evening train and after an uneventful dinner and beer in my new home for the week I returned to the hotel.
The next day I explored Hoa Lo Prison, a colonial French prison from the 1800s used to house political prisoners before being converted into a POW Prison during the American/Vietnam War. It was unexpectedly hard hitting learning about the abusive regime the French implemented and the uncensored photos pre and post guillotine executions were particularly impactive.
I also went to the National Museum of History however I feel I was spoilt by the larger budgets of Japan and South Korea for their museums and left knowing little more than when I arrived.
The following day I got more than I was expecting whilst at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. After discovering that most museums close for lunch between 12 and 2, by discovering I mean getting kicked out, I found myself talking to a Slovenian man who I never actually got the name of. That didn’t stop him from following me across 9 miles of Hanoi as I continued to explore. He was friendly and polite, if a little clingy, and I could find no kind way to explain I was quite happy exploring on my own!
Eventually I managed to say goodbye when he went to the loo and I was able to escape back to my hotel to prepare for my trip to Halong Bay tomorrow.
Visiting Halong Bay from Hanoi – A Secret Halong Cruise review
One thing I had known I wanted to do in Vietnam was visit Halong Bay. I spent the second night of my stay spending a few hours reading numerous guides and reviews online.
The general advise was to do at least a 2 day/1 night tour to get enough time to see the main attractions.
I had seen many stories from people who had booked trips with tour operators only to find they were actually on a different boat and joined with other groups, or their boat was the bare minimum required to count as a tour with less than adequate food.
I eventually settled on Secret Halong Cruise and I am so happy that I did, this soon became one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
Right on time I was picked up from my hotel around 7:30 in the morning and, despite having checked out, the hotel kindly agreed to hold my bags for 2 days until I returned.
Any worries I had about the tour I had booked disappeared when I boarded the bus. The 7 seater mini-bus was better equipped than business class with British Airways! Surrounded by marble effect coverings each individual leather seat had its own arm rests and the bus came with built in WiFi. The driver passed out free water and the journey to the bay began.
Unfortunately it appears unavoidable to stop at one or two tourist traps along the way. They do provide a good loo break on the 4-5 hour drive and I couldn’t find a single tour that didn’t do this. In hindsight I can see even if they didn’t stop you’d just arrive too early at the port and sit around waiting for the boat to come back with the previous guests anyway. At least this way you get to see some interesting souvenirs, just have the will power not to buy any!
On the ride to the bay our small gathering began chatting and I was fortunate enough to have an all English speaking group. Over the next 24ish hours we became friends and even met up after the tour back in Hanoi as well as making plans to see each other again at a later date. It is amazing how quickly you can form a bond with someone on a small tour like this.
At the port we met our Vietnamese guide, Chuyen. This happy man worked so hard over the next two days to ensure everyone had a brilliant time. Wasting no time in making me happy he told me that I had been upgraded to a bigger cabin, an excellent way to start my stay onboard.
The Secret Halong Cruise, I imagine like other Halong Bay boats, is a well oiled machine with minute to minute plans which, whilst never making you feel rushed, ensure you see as much as possible in the limited time available.
Whilst we had lunch, which was restaurant quality, we were introduced the boat and crew and given a timeline of the tour. That afternoon we would visit a limestone cave in one of the many pillars in the bay, before enjoying a leisurely kayak trip on the bay, followed by dinner and, for those that wanted, a go at night squid fishing.
The caving was certainly interesting, I don’t think nature had planned for a 6 foot plus man to be trying to crawl into various nooks and crannies which had taken hundreds and thousands of years to form, yet somehow I was able to not get stuck and enjoy the stalagmites and stalactites that had taken eons to grow.
The thing that won me over about Secret Halong Cruise was that it did not stick to the normal tourist route. There is a cave which most other tours do where artificial lighting and hoards of people have removed some of the sense of wonder. Secret Halong, however, try to avoid the areas that other boats go and so we were left on our own in this cave system which had remained almost entirely as nature had created it.
After transferring back on the boat from the caves we headed to a kayak station and I was paired up with Chuyen, something I would very much come to appreciate!
We began paddling around the bay with the mammoth limestone monoliths climbing high into the air around us and beautiful clear blue water alongside. Once again it had been timed so that as we arrived the other groups were leaving and we had the kayak area to ourselves.
Lost in the rhythm of paddling and distracted by the gorgeous surroundings it took me a moment to realise when my kayak buddy said “UH OH”. Before I could figure out what was happening more hurried and excited “UH OH’s” began filling the air. Turning around I realised the kayak which had started a good few centimetres clear of the water was now only a few millimetres away from being completely underwater!
Deciding that now was not the time to go down with my ship, not least due to having a relatively expensive phone on me to take lovely photos of the adventure, I hastily began paddling towards a tiny outcropping of land beneath one of the limestone formations.
Beaching the kayak onto the only suitable landing place nearby and being thankful that we had made it I jumped out to pull the kayak in further and discovered several repair jobs to the bottom of the hull, one of which was now happily bubbling away as the last of the air escaped.
Fortunately my companions had not gone far away and after realising we weren’t just resting they arrived to see if we needed assistance. After explaining the predicament they left towing our beleaguered craft and I considered how I could make camp and start a fire on a 2×2 metre outcropping made entirely of pebbles.
Eventually our rescue party returned with a new and airtight kayak and we continued our patrol of the bay without further incident.
Back on the main boat another fantastic meal was served before we were able to try our hand at squid fishing. After being given a piece of bamboo with line and hook attached we were directed to bob it in the water near a strong light that would, theoretically, attract the squid.
I’m not sure how long we spent bobbing the lines in the water but I can tell you that the squid showed bugger all interest in biting! I am not entirely convinced this wasn’t a clever ruse to keep us out of trouble for an hour or two whilst they cleaned up after dinner.
Nevertheless it was good fun and after a couple more drinks and game of cards it was finally time to call it a night, after all it would be an early start the next morning.
Day 2 on Secret Halong Cruise
The sound of my alarm going off at 4 something in the morning is something I had thought I was going away from when I escaped from custody to begin this adventure, and yet it was my phone was chirping away whilst the sky and everyone under it maintained the belief it was night time.
Putting aside my desire to chuck the squawking phone overboard I managed to eventually get myself up and showered before making my way to the top deck.
And there I was treated to one of the best sunrises of my life as it came up over the bay in brilliant glows of pink and red.
Over time the rest of my travelling companions joined me and at 6:30 in the morning we began a Tai Chi class with the most incredible view. It had not occurred to me how much my arms and shoulders were broken after the kayaking the evening before until the various stretches and exercises of this peaceful waking up ritual.
It was then a quick breakfast before we once again left the boat, this time to climb 400-odd steps to the top of a mountain and then running back down to jump in the sea.
After a refreshing dip in the wonderful blue waters it was time to rejoin the main boat and begin the trip back to port. Lunch was served on the way back and we all made plans to see each other again.
Too soon we were back on the bus and heading towards Hanoi. On getting back to the wonderful New Vision Palace Hotel I was greeted like an old friend and they even provided a free upgrade to thank me for coming back!
I spent the next few days meeting back up with the friends I made on the tour and seeing more sights in Hanoi. I could easily have got away with not staying any more days in Hanoi after returning, after all I had seen most of the attractions, but the warm embrace of the comfort zone has a powerful effect.
I also found the time to get an incredible haircut that was more an experience than a normal trip to the barbers.
Eventually I was able to convince myself it was time to move on and I had already booked a motorbike to take me on the next part of my Vietnam adventure, but that is a story for another post on another day.