Donnie booked our fall break trip back in the summer time, and I have to say it was one of the cheapest vacations we’d planned. The roundtrip tickets from Hong Kong to Hanoi were just $140 apiece, of course you have to bump that up to $200 a piece when you factor in the cost of getting a visa to get in. (Getting a visa to Vietnam is actually really easy, just pricey!)
As I’ve mentioned in the previous posts this year, we haven’t had a whole lot of free time to do research about our upcoming trips, and this one was no different. We did secure a cute apartment outside the city for about $250 for the whole week, and other than that, we did no pre-planning. (Actually this sounds like what we usually do….) So we left at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon to travel to the airport (via HK central, then Airport Express), and arrived with plenty of time to check in and have our usual Pizza Express dinner. We jumped on our 2 hour flight, and we arrived in Hanoi around 10pm local time. It took about an hour to unload the plane and clear customs because they process your visa on site. So after that, we met up with the owner of the apartment, and a driver. After a longish drive to the apartment, we settled in and fell fast asleep around 1am.
Around 5am I woke up to a sound that sounded like power being shut off and sure enough the air con had stopped working. I was too tired to think any more of it and assumed that it would pop back on in a few minutes and fell back asleep. By 6am I was uncomfortably awake and very sweaty. We had no idea what had happened, it appeared that the entire apartment had no power. After messing with the fuse switches and becoming increasingly agitated we decided to go find some wifi and write the owner (wifi was out because the power was out).
We walked out of the apartment and it became very clear that power was out in the whole building and surrounding buildings. Rather than face our hot apartment, we jumped on the next bus to the city to find some breakfast and maybe find some answers from the land lord. On the crowded bus to Hanoi, we spoke to someone and they filled us in on the situation. Work was being done on the building and the power wouldn’t be back on until 3pm. 3pm! Eeek.
Luckily, the bus drops you right by the lake in downtown Hanoi, and as we were walking towards a touristy looking district, we ran into a man selling knock-off books. We decided it would be a good investment, and after checking the exchange rate in the book, we paid about $10 for it (something like 250,000 Dong in Vietnamese currency). With book in hand, we were tourist-trapped into a restaurant with a great view and a cool breeze. We settled in for a delicious breakfast of really strong Vietnamese coffee, pho, spring rolls and some toast for Paul and tried to plan out an acceptable day (at least until 3). The Lonely Planet book we’d just acquired had a walking tour that looked promising through the old quarter, so we decided to go for it.
So we started our walking tour at a temple, which was actually out on the lake we arrived near. It was cool, I guess there is a legend about a turtle and so there was a ton of turtle stuff, including a very large petrified one. From there, we walked up some shopping streets in the old quarter, stopping in shops along the way to buy a few things. It was neat to see all the different wares, but the traffic is mostly made of motor bikes, and they don’t seem to stop for anything. It was a little harrowing at times. We wandered for about an hour or two, stopping at an old gate and a temple that was closed because it was Monday. We did have a better sense of the city, but we were hot and Paul was definitely ready for another break.
Luckily, the only research Donnie had done about Hanoi was for a Czech beer hall called Hoa Vien. Apparently, the Vietnamese and Czechs were friendly because of their socialist governments, and the Pilsner Urquell company came over and taught them how to brew really yummy pilsners. We jumped into a cab and showed him the address, and about 10 minutes later, we were walking up to a gorgeous beer hall. It wasn’t air conditioned, but they set a fan at our table, and wifi was free! We settled in for an extended lunch and it was a blast. I think our bill after sitting there for 3 hours was only $36. Unreal.
By then it was close to 2pm, and we caught a cab to our bus, and got back to the apartment complex around 3pm. Pretty perfect for a day we hadn’t planned. We stocked up at the local grocery and headed home to cool down and make dinner. 🙂
Our second full day in Vietnam (Tuesday) was the complete opposite of the previous day, we lounged around our place watching House Hunters International and ventured out for an hour to the pool. It was a really nice recovery day.
On Wednesday, we decided we wanted to see some more sights in Hanoi, specifically the Hanoi Hilton (a political prison). So we slept in late, grabbed a bus into the city around 11, and navigated the streets to the prison. It was really interesting to tour the prison. It was a prison controlled by the French for most of the early 1900’s, then switched control during the Vietnam war. During that time it housed political prisoners of war mostly from the US. It was a clear demonstration of propaganda. The way the French were portrayed was horrific (and I do believe they were during that time). But in the displays about the American prisoners, all of the pictures show them playing soccer and celebrating Christmas. It seemed a little unbalanced. I thought it was super cool, Paul, not so much. So we finished up and searched our book for a good place to eat, we were all a little hangry.
I directed us to an area of food streets, and we dropped in on one called The Place. It seemed like a generic name, but the place was pretty cool. We munched on a few snacks and decided what to do for the rest of the day. We agreed that we should go on a food tour of the city, at least try this one famous street food called bun cha. After our snacks we set out to a place that Lonely Planet claims serves the best bun cha. Our walk took us through more shopping streets, so we stopped and smelled coffee, searched for a cool Vietnamese bike helmet for Donnie and admired the textiles. Eventually we lucked upon our destination, but I wasn’t brave enough to try more than a bite or two. We opted to head home then, the heat and motorbikes were getting to us all. But not before we enjoyed some delicious coconut ice cream. 🙂
We were pretty tired when we arrived back at our apartment, so we settled in early for a good sleep. Thursday we woke up and decided to reward Paul with a kid’s day. We’d spent most of our trip dragging him to sites that are not terribly interesting to a 4 year old, and he was a trooper. So Donnie had read about a huge underground mall with an ice rink, movie theater, water park and arcade. We jumped in a cab and about a half hour later we were walking into a Vegas-like mall. The mall was mostly empty since we were there at 12pm on a weekday. We started with a yummy lunch of pho, spring rolls, and french fries, and from there headed to the movie theater. Hotel Transylvania 2 had just been released, and the 3D showing was just about to start, so we grabbed some sweet treats, our glasses and settled into the mostly empty theater. It was a really good movie! Afterwards, we sought out the water park. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was a huge place, which was mostly empty as well. The water park was actually cheaper than the movie, and we went in and changed into our swimsuits, then proceeded to run around water playgrounds and slides for a few hours. Paul was tireless! We played at a playground with 4 water slides, then went to another area with a wave pool, then did a diving pool. He wanted to do the big slides, but he was just a little too small to do them on his own. (This was a relief for me.) After a while, Donnie and I were a little queasy from all the water slides and although Paul could have stayed there for hours, we gathered him up. From there we did some quick grocery shopping at the store at the mall, then headed home. It was a kid’s dream day, and we had a lot of fun too.
Friday was set to be an adventure. Earlier in the week, we had decided to book a day out on Halong Bay. I had originally wanted to spend a few nights out there, but since we got a ridiculous deal on the apartment, we decided to do a day trip. The best thing about it was the price, the whole day including meals and transportation would be $270. We arranged for a car to pick us up at 7:30am at our apartment, and it was a long, harrowing 100km drive to the bay. We arrived at 11:30am, and were escorted to our very own houseboat for our 6 hour cruise. You can book overnight stays with all kinds of cruise companies, private cruises, shared cruises, big boats, small boats, nice boats, shabby boats. It’s a crap shoot sometimes, since you really don’t know what you’re getting until you arrive. We definitely came out ahead on this particular trip. The boat was amazing. It’s upper deck had a dining area, and a place to lay out on the deck in lounge chairs. Downstairs was a suite like any hotel room we’ve stayed in. It had a working tv with dvd player, a couch, bed, and full bathroom. It had an air conditioner as well, but we couldn’t get it to work for more than 5 min. Needless to say, we were pretty happy with the way it turned out.
For the next 6 hours we cruised around with our tour guides. The served us a delicious fresh seafood lunch (which Donnie ate most of), and then we disembarked at a huge cave in one of the karsts. The cave was amazing. It was the largest underground cave I’ve ever seen, in person or in pictures. It was a popular place to visit on these cruises on the bay, so it was crowded and a bit sticky, but we enjoyed exploring. By the way, if you want to see more cave pics, let me know. I took way to many.
After leaving the cave, we went straight to a small beach on one of the other karsts. It was another popular stop for the cruises, so it was kind of crowded with tourists. We carved our spot out on the beach and settled in for some sand play. The water was too warm to cool us off, but Donnie and Paul had fun playing, I stayed on the beach and sweated it out. 😉
From there, we were taken to an oyster/pearl farm. It was cool to see it happening, but the prices were a little outrageous. By that time, the sun was setting and it was time for some snacks and to cruise home. I have to say it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Peacefully cruising through the karsts with my family, watching the sun slowly set. I took way too many pics. 😉
We arrived back after dark, and started the long journey back to the apartment. We got home around 10pm. Long day, but one that will be remembered forever. We went straight to bed with no real plan for our last full day in Hanoi.
We decided to make one last trek into downtown to get our last fix of Vietnamese food. So we researched the best places for pho, and Donnie’s favorite spring rolls. We made it into the city and sought out Pho Thin. It was a hole in the wall place that only serves one thing. You walk in, tell them how many bowls you want and they bring you a steaming bowl of beef pho. On the table, you’ll find limes, chili, and other condiments, and you can order some fried bread sticks, but other than that, it’s cafeteria style. Donnie and I ate our fill for around $10, including beer and bread sticks. After that, we wandered over to Hoa Vien for a few more cold brews. It is one of my favorite places in Hanoi, I think. From there we wanted to find a place for happy hour, but it was too hard to find, and after wandering in dangerous traffic for 45 min, we gave up and headed back towards the bus stop. We stopped in for a final snack at a restauran a floor away from our first breakfast restaurant in downtown. The food was only ok, but by then I was tired and ready to be home, so we opted to head home on the next bus.
Our final day in Vietnam was mellow. We cleaned the apartment, packed up and headed to the airport for our evening flight. It was easy travel, except for the fact that there was a hurricane set to hit Hong Kong when we were supposed to arrive. Two other flights to HK were cancelled, but ours stayed the same departure, although we left about an hour late. It was one of the scariest landings I’ve been in, bumpy and seemed to last forever. You couldn’t see any of the lights of HK until right before we touched down. Paul and Donnie were sleeping peacefully, so I took my job as chief worrier very seriously. We landed and it was a pretty harmless border crossing. We were back in bed by 12am, which considering we landed at 10, is pretty awesome.
Vietnam is a food lover’s paradise. There is plenty to see and do, and we only stayed in one city! We didn’t even travel south, which is supposed to have gorgeous beaches. I am not sure if we’ll ever get back there, but Vietnam is a very cool place to travel to. It’s so close to Hong Kong, that it seems silly not to go again. 😉
Love to all. I’ll try to post again this week. I want to do some normal everyday updates, not just vacations, I’m just having a hard time with time/internet/computer issues. Until next time. 🙂