Vietnam Finale: Hanoi and Ha Long bay

Blurb

This is it. The ending to my masterpiece. I mean, I will be going to another country in the future but I am happy I managed to do this. Out of all my life goals, this was definitely in the top 5. I had travelled the world before the age of 30, even though there are still some blanks to fill in, I was satisfied that I managed to do it and to do it within 6.5 months, I thought was an achievement in itself.

A lot of people may spend a few months in each continent at a time but I was afraid if I did that, that I would not be able to pursue my professional career if I kept taking breaks. However some people like that lifestyle of working and travelling, which I can’t argue with!

However, I will say this. If you want to travel for months on end or splurge on something that you’ve spent months saving up then do it. Everyone works hard to make a living and you should reward yourself, whether its a holiday, clothes or jewelry. One person may spend their money on holidays whereas another person will spend it on buying a house, everyone has their preference to what they want.

Anyways, after that life lesson. This will be my final blog destination for my world tour but I do want to reflect on what I learnt about travelling and some tips for when you do your own tour.

Sites

After visiting Hue, we went to Hoi An and stopped off at Danang. I met a man and his mother in a egg coffee shop in Bui Vien district (Saigon) and he recommended I spend more time in Hoi An than Danang. He was right, Danang didn’t have much to see. It was mainly a city with little site seeing and the only site we stopped off at was the Marble mountains. The other thing I remembered about Danang was the dragon bridge which was a pretty site and the insane motorcycle traffic. I managed to navigate on the scooter but the key thing is, to just not stop. The other scooters are very good at being aware of their surroundings so it is unlikely you will crash.

The marble mountains itself was quite an interesting site but I felt like there should have been more information about the site. The caves were quite cool but after walking around for a minute, I soon got bored. My advice to you would be to stay in Danang for one night and just take it as a city break while you are travelling upwards. However one thing that I did enjoy about Danang was the banh xeo, which is a crispy pancake which you fill with veges and meat! We went to one which was located next to Banh Xeo ba duong (as this restaurant was closed).

Hoi An

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Me and Bev in a coconut ring

I’ll admit there was a lot of social media influence on this. A lot of sites were advertising how great Hoi An was and what sold me on it was the coconut ring boats. I had never seen anything else like it, Vietnamese vendors taking you out on bamboo ring shaped boats and spinning you around when you least suspect it! We decided to ride there on the scooter via the Hai Van pass, which gave some really amazing views of Vietnam and I would highly recommend it. If you are not a fan of riding yourself out there then there are a lot of motorcycle tours where someone will take you on the back of their motorcycle.If you are riding a scooter just take it easy, its not a race and enjoy the ride. There are plenty of hairpin loops and corners but I wouldn’t try and emulate Valentino Rossi.

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Along the Hai Van pass 

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When we reached Hoi An, it was nice and quiet along the outskirts of the main town but we were spotted by a lady on a scooter as being tourists even though we both look Asian. She asked if we were looking for the coconut ring boats, it was spooky! She said to follow her and we can ride her boat, we asked for the price and she said it was £20 each. I thought it was quite expensive. At the site, we asked if there were any cheaper prices but the lady and her friend said it was a fixed price as they had to pay for entrance into the villages they enter. We wanted to think about it but they were extremely persistent, which put us off. Eventually we rode off and turned to another sign and the lady offered us the boat ride for £4 each (Coconut ring tours). The boat ride consisted of a one hour ride, craft making and entertainment in the form of Korean tourists dancing to Gangnam style. It was worth the ride as it was very different even though quite touristy. We found out the boat ride we got was the most basic one and there are more expensive tours which give you more on the itinerary but I would do some research before hand.

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Prawn banana leaf ring!

Hoi An centre was really interesting, you can go on a boat ride down the canal or just wander about. It is extremely touristy but there are an endless row of shops. I would recommend going but I’m warning you now, there are a lot of Korean tourists!

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Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

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We spent just under a week in Hanoi as a lot of friends said there was more to do in the North capital. We were excited to go see Ha Long bay and visit Sapa, where you can walk along the rice terraces. Unfortunately we didn’t go to Sapa as it didn’t fit into our schedule.

Sapa is a very popular area where you can visit the beautiful rice terraces there, if I am honest though. I don’t think anything will match the Banaue rice fields. If you do want to go then save three days for the trek.

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Of course, Ha Long Bay or “descending dragon bay” is probably the most famous site in Vietnam. It is definitely worth a visit and you have a few options when visiting. A lot of people will opt for a one day tour which costs around £27 but you can get it cheaper. We went for a smaller tour group and we were told that it was nicer but if i’m honest – it is probably the same if you went with a larger tour group and cheaper!

If you want to visit Cat Ba then you will have to stay overnight and opt for the two or three day tour. You can expect transport, food and a tour guide included in your trip. The views within and outside the Heavenly palace cave are pretty amazing and was a highlight of our visit to Ha Long bay. I would think carefully about which season you are going to visit in as some of my friends didn’t get the chance to go because of heavy storms during typhoon season and thus their tour got cancelled, twice!

However, when we went. It rained. We kayaked around Ha Long Bay in the pouring rain and this is probably because we were at the tail end of typhoon season. This shouldn’t put you off as it is a lot cooler and not as busy but if are expecting sun all day long then just go during a dry season.

Old Town and St Josephs Cathedral

There are a lot of hostels, hotels and food places in the old town. The overall atmosphere of the old town feels very “old”. It does feel like a step back into the past and we really enjoyed it, all the good places to eat were in found in old town.

I would highly recommend staying in old town because you wont have to walk far to really enjoy most of the sites like hoan kiem lake, dong xuan market, beer street, Ho chi minhs mausoleum etc.

St Josephs cathedral also sits in the heart of the Old town and was an original structure built by the French in colonial times. The external and inside are beautiful and makes for a great photo!

Hoan Kiem Lake and Egg Coffee

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Bev and our tour guides

The lake of the redeeming sword has a really interesting story. The story is that King Le Loi came across a shiny object and decided to mould it into a sword. The king realised that the object was a gift from heaven and used the sword against enemies and was victorious. He went to a lake one day and saw a tortoise come up to the surface and told the king to throw the sword into the lake so that the king could return it to the dragon king.

The story is pretty cool and there are actual tortoises which live in the lake. Another thing you should know is that Vietnam has egg coffee. I mention this as there is a famous egg coffee shop which overlooks Hoan Kiem lake and it is an invention which originated from Hanoi. The tale goes that during the Vietnam war that people could not get milk to drink with their coffee due to poverty or that it spoiled too quickly. Instead they whipped up egg yolks with sugar/condensed milk and then served that on top of the coffee. The creation itself, is delicious and interesting. Like a cup of custard.

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There are two recommended spots to go to, both of which are owned by siblings of the original creator of the egg coffee. One spot is called Giang café and another is Dinh café.

Maison Centrale Prison

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This was a French prison built to house Vietnamese prisoners and reminded me of Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. It was built for torture and was truly a horrendous place, the prisoners were starved, beaten, forced in sleep in solitary confinement and is yet another example of the brutality of the human race. Some of the Vietnamese soldiers managed to escape via the sewage tunnel system, which was incredibly narrow.

Later on, the prison became a POW camp for American soldiers. However the American prisoners were treated considerably better than how many POWs were. There were a lot of articles about how the Americans were allowed to have Christmas dinners and even read books during their time there, but a lot of officers were still tortured in order to gain information. The exhibits themselves are well detailed and there is a lot of information in English.

Dong Xuan Market

This large indoor market is the place to buy souvenirs and put your haggling skills to use. You want clothes, they have bags of it, fake watches, there are boxes of them and if you want Vietnamese handmade craft then look no further. However I could probably only spend a day there as you the shops tend to repeat on themselves.

If you can wait until the weekend then there is usually a night market that runs, we went and there are a lot of bargains. I picked up a pair of sunglasses for £3! If you walk along the market you will end up at Bia street which is pretty much a street full of bars and restaurants. On a Friday night, this will be rammed and is an incredibly entertaining sight. Just be careful not to be dragged into one of the bars by a hostess!

Railway

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The train runs from North to South but it is extremely slow. The cost of using the train is cheap but the time to cost ratio isn’t worth it. It’s best to take buses as they are a lot more reliable and quicker. However one upside of the railway is that you can watch the train roll through the city and there are also some good photo opportunities here.

Tam Coc – Nin Binh province

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This is located further North and it is supposedly the ancient capital of Vietnam. Our tour guide said it was the Ha Long bay of the land because there are limestone cliffs surrounding the area and you get to ride in a long boat down a canal and under the caves which have formed under the cliffs.

We stopped off at Hoa Lu which was an ancient citadel and has structures dedicated to the first emperor of Vietnam. There is a complex backstory to the successors to the throne and I have to be honest I couldn’t take it all in because it was quite dense information. However the architecture and preservation of the ancient capital is amazing and does feel like a step back in time until you walk past another tour group! It is the most popular tour in this province.

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After this, we rode around the town while being surrounded by the giant lime stone cliffs, it was a very relaxing ride and the scenery is breathtaking. However there are a lot of photographers about who will take your photo at different points of the cycling ride and will then sell you the photos when you return. I have to admit the idea is good as they are taking DSLR photos whilst you ride and get it ready for you at the end if you want them. The cost is quite cheap and you can bargain abit if you fancy.

After the cycle ride, we got onto a boat which took us down through Tam coc. Our tour guide warned us that the boat vendors can ask for tips but it wasn’t necessary to give a tip, as the boat vendors got paid well but irregularly as the boat tour is overprescribed. So it was a first come first serve payment service via the tour company and if you miss out, you don’t get paid.

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The boat ride lasted around 40 minutes and the views were really beautiful and the scenery was very peaceful. The boat vendor even rowed with his feet!At the end of the ride, we appreciated how tough it must be to row down the river and make a living. We were going to give a generous tip but we changed our mind because the boat vendor demanded a tip at the end which made us feel uncomfortable. We ended up giving him a few pounds tip and he was angry he didn’t receive more! Just be careful!

That’s all folks!

So that’s it. I flew home and settled back into normal life and went back to work. It felt like a lifetime ago and I have no regrets about it. I spent roughly 15-16K on the trip and a large portion of the money was spent on flights to each continent and New Zealand/Australia was definitely the most expensive. One piece of advice I will give is not to spend all your money, I still had my savings just in case anything went wrong and as an emergency fund when you’re back home looking for work.

The food in Vietnam was immense and I’ll post another blog dedicated to it. Just don’t be reading it when you’re hungry!

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