Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam

13 - 16th January 2019

The problem with international, long-haul jet-setting is that when you reach your destination you are rarely at your best due to a combination of jet lag and disorientation in an unfamiliar environment. After a taxi ride and checking into our hotel, we found ourselves attempting to cross the street to reach an ATM and obtain some of the local Dong currency.

Normally, crossing the street is not an unsurmountable challenge, but Hanoi's traffic, with millions of scooters and bicycles weaving around each other in a surreal game of 'Whacky Races', combined with the numbness of our brains, meant we were taking our lives in our hands, or rather placing our lives in the hands of the local riders.

An elderly lady took us under her wing and ensured we survived our first road crossing in Vietnam. We immediately began to pick up from her the local technique of simply stepping out into the road, holding up a hand to oncoming traffic, and walking with purpose at a constant speed to the other side, while scooters just slalomed by. The traffic was chaotic, yet somehow the system, such as it was, seemed to work. The only accident we witnessed during our two week visit was between two lorries on a motorway exit road. The traffic would remain a source of fascination throughout our visit to Vietnam's cities and the skill of the Vietnamese at loading up their bicycles and scooters with any number of passengers and seemingly impossible loads was legendary. Our hotel room in Hanoi looked out over a busy intersection, which allowed enjoyable traffic-watching from the safety of our window. From the great height, the continuous, frenzied movement was reminiscent of watching a million ants hard at work.

Safely across the road, our second challenge was to deal with the local currency. There were approximately thirty thousand Dong to one pound. It took us some minutes, at the head of an impatient line of locals, to determine how many zeros we needed to add to the three for the necessary withdrawal. The maths wasn't difficult but the blurry brains and eyes from our long journey and recent dice with death made it seem overwhelming. The difference between requesting ten pounds' worth of Dong or a thousand lay in just a slight slip of the finger.

We made it safely back to our hotel in time to meet the rest of our tour group and our charming and knowledgeable guide for the two weeks, Binh, who added so much to our experience of the country with his local knowledge. He immediately whisked us away to a traditional restaurant in a flotilla of three taxis, which required more currency maths, to a restaurant where we were advised to order a sample platter of delicious local dishes to attune our taste buds to the glorious Vietnamese cuisine. We were glad these did not include the dog meat we'd seen displayed in the butcher's shop across from our hotel.

Introduction to Vietnamese lanterns

Heavy Goods Vehicle

Normal street traffic

Early the next morning - Binh liked early, which meant we got many famous landmarks to ourselves - we set off on a city tour to visit the main landmarks. The first stop was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in time to witness the impressive changing of the guard. We passed on joining the queue to go inside and pay our respects to his embalmed corpse.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

We then visited the Presidential Palace, which apparently "Uncle Ho" found far too grand for his taste. Even a less fancy house in the grounds was felt too ostentatious. 'Uncle Ho' had a simple, traditional, teak, stilt-home built in the gardens for his personal accommodation.

Roof carving at the Temple of Literature

The final stop on our busy morning tour was at the 'Temple of Literature', Hanoi's most revered temple and the historical centre of learning in the nation. We walked through its five beautiful courtyards and viewed the ancient results of examinations displayed on stone stele mounted on tortoise sculptures.

Local Musician at the Presidential Palace

Tortoise bearing a stone Stele with exam results, who looks like he's enjoying something recreational!

Binh walked us through the Old Quarter in the afternoon, to take in some of the 36 streets named after the trades or crafts traditionally carried out there: e.g. Paper Street, Basket Street.

The buildings, known as tube shops, appeared tiny but stretched back a long way, mostly due to the historic tax on street frontages.

Traditional Old Quarter Home

Our tour continued down a maze of narrow backstreets near the hotel, which gave us a taste of the true local lifestyle. Here we learned that the Vietnamese way to repair a pot-hole in the road surface was to fill it up with empty rice sacks.

Hanoi Back Streets

Pet Birds taking in the sights

Hanoi Wiring

Our day ended with a visit to the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, to watch a traditional puppet show performed entirely in water, accompanied by a band of Vietnamese classical musicians.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

Free time the next morning found us returning to a particular street we had visited with Binh.

We timed our visit to witness the spectacle of the main line express train thundering through the centre of the narrow street, which only minutes earlier had been filled with tourists enjoying refreshments on tables placed in the centre of the tracks.

Moments before the train was due, the local cafe owners rushed to usher tourists into the safety of their buildings and clear away the tables.

Watching tourists waiting for the train

Tea-Shop Street

Here it comes!


From Hanoi we took an overnight excursion to Halong Bay, farther north up the coast, stopping for an interesting visit to an Pearl farm on the way where we witnessed oysters being 'seeded' to produce pearls.

At Halong Bay the next morning, a boat tour took us around the stark and surreal seascape of limestone peaks jutting up from below the waves. We stopped to "see a cave", as our guide put it. He spoke about it in such understated terms that we were stunned to enter the massive cavern within a limestone tower and view the amazing rock formations hidden within.

Start of boat tour of Halong Bay

Sights of Halong Bay

We disembarked from our boat and headed back to Hanoi, where we had time to freshen up and grab dinner before our overnight trip to Hué.

In the interests of simplicity, we headed to a street cafe across from our hotel and ate dinner at a bargain price, while perching precariously on seats of the type normally used at primary school for small bottoms.

This was followed by a bar stop where we enjoyed the local brew for pennies and were entertained by a local man loading up his four tiny dogs in their allocated positions to ride home on his scooter.

Sampling street food in Hanoi

One man and his dogs in Hanoi.

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