After over 10 days on the beach across South Thailand islands and the Coromandel, we wanted to mix things up and Hanoi, Vietnam was definitely that! The term attack on the senses gets used frequently for SE Asia cities and Hanoi is very similar to that, although I wouldn't use the term 'attack', as it sounds negative.
The streets in Hanoi are alive with street sellers, traffic, bars, restaurants, locals, tourists and dropped in, some old French colonial buildings. We spent a day walking round ourselves and taking the walking tour offered by our hostel, Buffalo Hostel (which we recommend). Covering 30,000 steps! We visited the 'tourist' spots including the large Hoan Kiem Lake which centres Hanoi and it's adjacent Ly Thai To Garden. This area is really alive, night and day.
The tour took us to St. Joseph's Cathedral (the Vietnamese Notre Dame) and Ly Trieu Quoc Su Pagoda, which was built for 16 year old monk. It was 'Tet' (Chinese New Year) when we visited, so it gave a different edge to Hanoi. Firstly and surprisingly, it was much quieter than usual, which made crossing the street easier (just 'Youtube' crossing the street and you will understand). It did mean we got to see some of the colourful celebrations at the beautiful Temple of Literature on our way round. We also took ourselves around the impressive Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader during the 'American War'. The glory of this building really highlights the importance of this man in modern Vietnamese culture.
We also paid a visit to the Presidential Palace and Imperial Citadel, which are great relics from Vietnam's colourful past. On the way back we crossed the infamous 'Train Street', where coffee shops and restaurants have to move their outside seating to allow the train to pass.
After a really hectic day, we took some small chairs that wouldn't look out of place in Sarah's Reception class and settled down to some traditional Vietnamese food, including Beef with Morning Glory and getting in some great people watching along Ta Hien aka Beer Street!!
Some things we definitely recommend when you're in Hanoi. Try Banh Mi 14, which can be found in the Old Cultural Quarter. Banh Mi is like a Vietnamese subway and this place do the best ones. For £1 a roll, they were so good Stu had 2!! Another must is one of the many sky bars around the lake. We checked out the Twilight Sky Bar at 'happy hour' for sunset. Very difficult to get perspective in Hanoi's tight streets but being 15 floors up and a beer in hand gives you a great view of this bustling city.
After all this excitement, we pondered over our couple of days in Hanoi with an egg coffee and coconut coffee - 2 unique and delicious drinks from the area, getting ready for our next adventure - a trip to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay
Instead of going on the hostel party trip to Ha Long Bay, we decided to go with to go with a 2 day and 1 night cruise, which takes you to more areas and activities around the bay.
The legend of the bay is that it was created by a dragon which rose from the sea and after incinerating Vietnam's sea invaders, it spat out emerald and jade which when they hit the water formed a thousand islands creating an impenetrable fortress for future naval enemies. It takes quite a fantastical story to explain this beautiful geological phenomenon but we feel it does fit the bill. Our cruise took us around this incredible scenery, which you really have to do to appreciate it.
Some of the stops included a visit to the largest cave in the area, the Sung Sot cave (aka Surprising Cave), a visit to Ti Top island and a climb to the top to give a panoramic view of the area, as well as kayaking through a cave to Monkey Island in Cat Ba, to a lagoon surrounded by very curious monkeys looking for their fruit!
This was a great excursion and for $90 each all food (which included alot of excellent seafood), activities, transfers and accommodation, represented pretty good value. We ended the trip with a cooking class, learning to make the traditional Vietnamese spring rolls. Seriously recommend doing the trip this way. We met others who did the more 'party' tours, which didn't offer the trip to Ti Top mountain or cave visit, which really enjoyed, so just check what you are booking. That rounds off our time in this area. We have a short trip to Sa Pa tomorrow, before heading south to the warmer city of Hue.
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