Hanoi and Halong Bay in a nutshell

I’ve mentioned here how I was taken for a ride in Hanoi, but also mentioned that there was a lot to see and do in the city. So in a passive aggressive mode, I thought I would share with you the highlights of the city since I already shared the lows.

Hoan Kiem Lake

When walking around the city, there is no way you will miss this sight. It’s very large, located centrally in the heart of the city, and is used as pretty much a round-a-bout by the sea of motorcycles. If you’re a runner, I would recommend bringing your shoes and having a nice morning jog around here. It’s not too big ~1.5-2.0 km and will come with the usual morning activities in Asia. Older people exercising slowly, younger one’s maybe running around the lake, and random one’s shaking their bum at trees as a form of exercise (trust me they do exist).

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If not, walk along its circumference and stop by ice cream stores, rooftop café’s or streetside bars and watch the motorcycles whiz by.

Water Puppet Theatre

I am (almost) embarrassed to say that I really really really wanted to see this from the point that I was planning the trip. Something about the whole concept of watching a theatre show that is presented in the water, controlled by long sticks horizontally laid that fascinated me. Be prepared for camp, kitsch and the works. But that being said, I still enjoyed it quite thoroughly =) The show pretty much centers around local Vietnamese life and will regale you with its presentation of water buffaloes, people and even peacocks! In water.

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The theatre can be found facing Hoan Kiem Lake, and usually has daily shows. Entry is about VND 60,000-100,000 (~$3-5). Further details can be found on their website here.

Ha Long Bay

This famous UNESCO landmark is completely worth the trip and especially so if you are not sick to your stomach. From the city, it’s easiest to take a tour package that would pick you up from Hanoi and bring you all the way to Cat Ba Island. It’s about 170km from the city which would take you about 3-4 hours depending on traffic. Once you get there, you will be transported onto one of those beautiful old style ‘junk’ boats (depending on the tour operator you choose) and they will set slow sail into Ha Long Bay.

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Ha Long means ‘Descending Dragon’ and you can definitely imagine this when you see the amazing limestone islands peppered all across the water. If you have chosen an overnight boat, you would most likely be brought to Hang Dau cave on one of the islands for a short hike. From the top looking around, imagine a long snake-like dragon with parts of its body bobbing up and down the bay. That’s what Ha Long looks like.

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Along the way, you would most likely see floating water villages and have people paddle all the way up to your boat to sell their wares. And by that I mean yes you can even have oreos, and coke and chips! brought all the way up to your boat. Also be aware that some of these boats have late night karaoke. In a bay. Surrounded by boats. Either you’re the poor soul stuck on one while drunken people sing away or your boat is the one moored next to it.

Be aware that in February 2011 a tourist boat sank in Ha Long Bay, killing 12 people. As such I would say be very careful and mindful of the companies you are choosing. Do your research. Ask about the captain’s experience. See how old the company is and if it passes the required regulations. If all else fails and you still are not at ease, the recommendation would be to do a day trip around the bay. The waters are actually very calm and not too cold. Of course there have also been reports of boats colliding and causing accidents due to the high traffic in the area. It is a beautiful spot and sadly there hasn’t been much done to manage it properly. Just be very careful of your choices and mindful of things that could happen.

More news on all the major accidents can be found here

Ha Long bay can also get quite cold, so be sure to bring a light jacket, especially if you’re staying overnight.

Vietnam Military History Museum

Stop by if you wanted an interesting take on the Vietnamese war (or known as the American War) in Vietnam. There are some pretty visual/ graphic images so be aware of that. Don’t expect too much in the way of museums in the West. These will be very basic exhibitions with maybe a plaque depicting the date and the name of the exhibit and not much else.

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That being said, walk outside and check out the (very) real plane, tankers and missile launchers (yes you heard me) exhibits that they have.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

A trip to Hanoi couldn’t really be a trip without a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It is located in a large memorial square open only to pedestrians. Expect to see a lot of guards that will be very very strict with you. Joking about HCM would probably cause more dire results than joking about terrorism in a US airport. Just don’t do it. Paying utmost respect to the leader is to be expected. You will be ordered to take off your hat, keep a steady pace, no pictures allowed and to walk with your hands to your side and not smile when walking through the mausoleum. Inside there will be 8 guards guarding Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. I’m pretty sure they would have no qualms about shooting you if you don’t follow the rules.

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Outside you can take pictures with the Mausoleum behind you. But do not squat with your back facing Uncle Ho. Trust me on this, a guard will come and yell at you for being disrespectful. Do not be put off by the insanely long queue you will inadvertently see once you get there. The line moves pretty fast and even with a queue that extends all the way outside and around the mausoleum, you can expect to be inside within ~20 minutes (perhaps at most).

Some restaurants we ate at (and didn’t get sick!)

Kangaroo Café: Recall what I mentioned about copycat café’s. Persevere and look for the real one here. It would be worth it. The food is good, and the owner is very friendly. They also do tours if you wanted to go with someone trustworthy. Website is here

Maison Des Artes: Its located near the Temple of Literature and would provide some much needed relief after all that walking. You can enjoy the art on show or head all the way up to the rooftop terrace for a nice cup of Vietnamese Drip Coffee with a view over the roofs. Website is here

Koto Café: Also located near the Temple of Literature is KOTO (Know one Teach one) café. They help former children of the street by teaching them skills including cooking, and customer service. Their restaurant is an amazing four storey building with a beautiful rooftop terrace as well. The food here has been very very good, and good for your soul. Website can be found here

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Sofitel Metropole: How could you go to Hanoi and not see this beautiful piece of architecture in the French district? Located close to the Opera House, the Sofitel Metropole is a gorgeous restoration of French architecture. It would cost you an arm and a leg to stay here, so instead, you could opt for the sumptuous Sunday buffet brunch. There’s also quite a range of French cafes and restaurant in this area if you would rather something more friendly to your wallet.

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