Hanoi & Halong Bay – Vietnam

Arriving into Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi it was quite thrilling to be able to withdraw 3 million Dong (around £100) and feel like a baller with a meaty purse. Whilst at the airport we bought SIM cards for £10 with 4Gb daily allowances – challenge accepted.

We decided it best to avoid the easy route of getting a taxi to our hostel, conscious not to get into the habit of it, so made our way to a collection of buses and jumped aboard the oldest looking one labelled for our destination. The conductor came to collect our payment – 9000 Dong each, or 30p, for an hour long journey. Bargain!

I like to pride myself on doing my research into things, always wanting to get the best deal, and was so thrilled when we arrived at our hostel in the Old Quarter (Babylon Garden Inn) and the bar area wouldn’t have looked out of place in London. Creative decor, cool hang out areas, a pool (albeit temporarily out of use), cinema room and a rooftop bar, not to mention gorgeous dorms. Our room was a dorm of 10 with huge bunk beds with clever storage solutions, massive lockers to fit our big bags, a really nice bathroom, a balcony and (hooray!) a hair dryer, all for only £4 each a night.

We dropped our stuff and went straight to the roof for our first ‘fresh beer’ (draught basically) costing only 30p and to be honest, it tasted ok! Whilst in the bar, the surrounding skies darkened and, relieved that we dodged it, we witnessed our first Vietnamese thunderstorm and downpour. Waiting as long as we could for the rain to subside, we went out in search of food and opted for vegetable noodles at a basic street food stall. As we’ve started to realise on our travels, the cheapest and most basic of meals tend to be the tastiest – and this was no exception. Noodles, pak choi and tomatoes… job done.

We made use of the free breakfast the next morning and went off to explore, first visiting a huge food market with lots of live creatures and dried seafood. The smells weren’t great so we sped through pretty quickly. Next we walked round a big lake until we got to the Ho Chi Minh Museum where we wandered around the presidential buildings and parks but were rushed through by grumpy soldiers with guns. Leaving there we picked up some banh mi (Vietnamese baguettes) and ate them by the Temple of Literature. Next up was the Vietnam Military History Museum where we learnt all about the Vietnam wars and the guerrilla warfare tactics, as well as seeing a range of American and Soviet planes, tanks and helicopters.

One of my favourite things to do on any trip or holiday is to just wander the streets with no plan and I often find that’s when you discover the most interesting things. This is exactly what happened when we stumbled upon the famous ‘Hanoi Train Street’ where the train tracks run directly down a tight residential street and residents have to ensure their belongings (and children) are well out of the way as trains pass through twice a day. The novelty of being able to walk straight down the tracks, even balancing on the rails, was pretty exciting, though we were definitely checking each way pretty regularly.

From here we walked to Hoan Kiem lake, a scenic spot in the centre of the city, buzzing with people exercising, socialising and generally relaxing. We stopped to watch a group of older men playing hacky sack and they invited us to have a go… not a sport I’ll be taking up any time soon, but the Vietnamese are mad for it.

Now feeling tired and melted, we returned to the hostel to freshen up before having my first bowl of traditional Pho Bo, or beef noodle soup. Much tastier than the one I tried in the UK as a practice run before coming away – or maybe I was just more accustomed to the flavours now. We wandered the famous night markets of the Old Quarter before deciding we’d done enough waking for one day and called it a night.

Having booked a Halong Bay tour the previous day via Booking.com after deciding the party boat tour being advertised in the hostel probably wasn’t for us, we sat in reception at 9am waiting to be collected. We joined 16 others on a minibus and our guide, Vin, gave us a little ‘tour chat’ on the 3 hour journey to Halong Bay.

Boarding the Rosa Boutique Cruise around midday (and making sure they knew we couldn’t eat shellfish) we were served an impressive lunch and got to know two other couples – one from New Zealand and another from Britain. Setting off, it was incredible taking in the gorgeous scenery of Halong Bay, sailing past towering limestone pillars topped with lush forests – definitely one ticked off the bucket list. We could even enjoy the views from our room through huge windows by the bed, looking out to sea.

Jumping straight into the itinerary, our first stop was to a nearby oyster farm to see how they made cultured pearls. A quick change into swimming gear and then we were off kayaking around a small area of the bay, dodging gigantic jelly fish (and quite a lot of plastic). We then sailed to another bay where the water was supposedly cleaner and with less jellyfish and were ably to jump into the water from the boat. Now, I absolutely hate salt water to the point that if I even get it on my lips it makes me heave, probably brought on by my Dad’s hilarious pranks of dunking me in the sea as a kid, but I sucked it up and jumped. With water up my nose and in my mouth I wretched a few times and then was fine, enjoying the waters and having a good swim around the boat… until the massive jellyfish reappeared and I was outta there.

Back on deck, we enjoyed a fruit platter whilst watching the sunset, then showered and had dinner, chatting more with our little group, before trying our hands at squid fishing off the back of the boat. I caught naff all but Tom managed to get two and it was fascinating watching their skin glisten and pulsate with different colours.

That night, a huge thunderstorm rolled in and I sat up for a while watching the flashes illuminate the limestone islets and surrounding waters. Waking early to more rain, we thanked our lucky stars that the weather had been nice for us the day before. We had breakfast aboard the boat and then headed to a large cave complex to explore by foot. Huge stalagmite and stalactites adorned the cave but, feeling a little claustrophobic it bubbled up my anxiety and I didn’t enjoy it fully. Back on the main boat, we had a short Vietnamese cookery class and had a go at making traditional spring rolls which we then ate for lunch (not bad if I do say so myself).

Returning back to Hanoi in the evening, we checked back in to Babylon Garden Inn (though the room wasn’t as nice this time, *huff*) and went to Cafe New Day for dinner after a recommendation from one of the couples on our tour. I had lemongrass chicken with spinach and garlic and it was super yummy. Back at the hostel, having researched a few options, we booked a two night trip to the highlands of Sapa for the following day.

Halong Bay was definitely one of the main things I was looking forward to experiencing whilst travelling, and it didn’t disappoint – I had to keep reminding myself I was actually there. Although our tour felt a little pricey on a backpacker’s budget (£100 each for technically one full day and night) I would do it again in a heartbeat.

See ya later, Sophie x

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