Ever since we saw beautiful photos of Halong Bay, we knew it was a place we really wanted to go. Halong Bay is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and we are kinda suckers for that kind of trip. We had missed at least 2 chances to visit Vietnam and Halong Bay, once with my parents and once with Jonathan’s but due to various circumstances we chose not to go.
Earlier this year, we did our typical yearly planning of vacations and trips based on public holidays. Travelling is in our blood and we make it a point to travel somewhere different at least once a year, but always taking care of our responsibilities towards our family and work first.
So this year we decided to go somewhere short and not too expensive in May, having just returned from an expensive and long trip to the West Coast of USA. South-east Asia was a natural choice and Vietnam immediately came to mind as we have never been there before.
TripAdvisor and all the various travel websites like Expedia came into play and Halong Bay popped up in our radar again. It was decided! Using TripAdvisor again (indispensable), we searched for the best travel planners and cruises to the UNESCO site. We also looked at tours provided by the local agencies but all do not offer an overnight stay on the cruise and cost twice as much. We finally went with Handspan due to the high number of positive reviews. I will probably go in-depth regarding my process of planning for a trip anywhere in another post but I digress.
So back to Halong Bay, everything was planned and we packed our tiny bags and left on May 26, taking the train.
Hanoi/Halong Bay Itinerary
Day 1 – Getting to Hanoi and overnight at a hotel in the Old Quarter
Day 2 – Set off for Halong Bay, overnight on Indochina Sails.
Day 3 – Half more day at Halong and back to the hotel in Hanoi by late afternoon, and we can do some Hanoi shopping.
Day 4 – Hanoi sightseeing for half a day before flight back home in the late afternoon.
Day 1: Singapore to Hanoi
Arrival in Hanoi was in the evening, around 7pm. We were lucky and met another couple at the airport who were going to the same hotel (Hanoi Pearl Hotel) and booked an airport taxi together, splitting the total cost of 550,000 dong.
The Hanoi Old Quarter was about 30 mins away and immediately rude introduction when we saw (and heard) the traffic. Cars and motorcycles were moving at what seems in all physical possible directions and somehow avoiding total car-nage. The honking was incessant, as if it was a form of communication between drivers and riders. I’m pretty sure the accident rate is very high but I was spared any horrors in the four days I was there.
Our hotel was the Hanoi Pearl Hotel and I highly recommend it. It was super clean, comfortable and the service was fantastic. Breakfast was a wonderful spread of local and western food and I look forward to it the two days I was there.
We were so excited to be going to Halong Bay early tomorrow that we just wanted an early night.
Day 2-3: Halong Bay
The day was finally here! We had an amazing breakfast at the hotel.
This was the most delicious and simplest bowl of noodle soup you can get.
After a long 5 hour ride to Halong that felt like forever, we were finally on the cruise.
Traveller Tip: On the way to the Bay, there will be a short toilet stop. Do not buy anything there or you will regret it.
The room was very cozy and comfortable.
Shortly after boarding, we had a delicious fine dining sort of lunch with itty bitty food, as we passed amazing limestone structures.
Despite appearances, we were absolutely stuffed by the end of the lunch.
After lunch there was a short break before the cave expedition. I didn’t feel like going on the cave trip for numerous reasons: 1. It wasn’t nicely preserved and I have been to much better caves. 2. There were too many people and I really wanted some time away from other people! 3. It was a 2-hour hike up a few hundred steps and I was just lazy and the effort didn’t feel like it was going to be worth it.
So I stayed on the cruise ship and took some pictures of the Bay instead and I didn’t feel a shred of regret.
After lazing about, we enjoyed a fantastic sunset.
Shortly after, we had a cooking demonstration and dinner.
At night, we tried squid fishing. We came up empty-handed but fishing is really relaxing anyway so we didn’t feel bad we got nothing.
Day 3 – Halong and back to Hanoi
It was worth it to wake up at 5:30am to catch the gorgeous sunrise. In fact, I was so excited I woke up at 5am!
As you can see, it was totally worth it!
After the sunrise, we did Tai Chi on the deck and then had breakfast.
The morning’s activity was going to a place called Titoy Island. It was crowded, hot and I admit I complained a lot about going but I finally got off the boat and onto the island.
The great thing about climbing up the hill is the view at the top.
After the strenuous climb, you can relax for a really short while at the beach.
Back at Hanoi
Hanoi Old Quarter is a hustle and bustle of activity. Our hotel is conveniently located at the center and we walked and walked as far as our feet can take us because it was our last night here.
We settled at this roadside stall for dinner. They had roast birds and beef. We didn’t really ask what kind of “bird” but it tasted like really sweet chicken.
Since we woke up so early that day, we were absolutely tired by 7pm and had a massage and slept by 9.
On the next day we continued on our shopping!
We had more Bun (pronounced as Boon, for rice noodles) for lunch. This was good but not as great as the hotel’s.
Everywhere boasts that they have the best Vietnamese but at Cong Cafe, you can also try coffee with coconut milk. The flavour is kinda crazy and it puzzles your palate and yet it just works. Madness!
How do you know it was a good shopping trip? We bought a kilo of rice home. Yep.
Finally, for shopping, I recommend buying loads of lacquerware to bring home for yourself and for your friends and family. Yes they are bulky and rather heavy but you should have thought of that and packed an extra bag! Vietnamese Lacquerware is beautiful and affordable and quite unique. It sure beats all the clichè souvenirs!
We bought most of ours from a shop called Red Lotus as we noticed they sell more unique pieces. Sorry, Vietnamese road names are still a challenge so I can’t provide you with the address. Basically, shop around and you will notice some designs keep turning up over and over again, those are mass produced cheap stuff (but still great), but smaller designer shops do hold more special treasures.
So, final thoughts about by Hanoi/Halong trip?
Generally, the amazing experiences overcomes the not-so-enjoyable ones. For example, the cruise ship’s room was gorgeous and comfortable, but the onboard entertainment left us with nothing much to do except with watching horribly bad DVDs. We also didn’t want to join the cave tour, which sounds hectic and tiring and quite the opposite of a relaxing trip. We really regretted going to Titoy Island which was crowded with tourists.
Halong is almost perfect. At times (sunrise and sunset) it was so breathtakingly beautiful that it seems all worth it, but the realistic touristy side is quite unbearable. Hanoi is really eclectic and fun, but more expensive than I though. I will probably visit other parts of Vietnam in the future.
Before and after.
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