For photos, click here.
It was possibly a mistake to fly directly from laid-back, friendly Myanmar to the noise and bustle of Hanoi. It took a few days for me to adjust, and at first Hanoi reminded me more of India with never-ending motorbikes honking and zooming everywhere, especially in pedestrian zones. The Vietnamese have a reputation for kindness, but it was nowhere to be seen outside of the hotel staff as they offered tours, or restaurant touts, trying to lure us in. After Myanmar, where everyone was smiling and curious, Hanoi was noisy, dirty, and rude. Everyone seemed to be on the take. I regretted our decision and was tempted to just turn around and spend another month in Myanmar, among those truly kind people in a clean, quiet place.
On our third night, we walked to Hoan Kiem, or turtle lake. It was a Friday, and the roads were closed to traffic (even motorscooters were blocked — a miracle). Instead, crowds of people of all ages walked in groups: families, friends, couples, and Western tourists. Music played everywhere, there were buskers and street performers. Cafes and bars were full of animated patrons. Bright lights blazed everywhere and reflected off the water. As we walked through the endless rows of shops and cafes, I realized the city was starting to grow on me.
Hanoi is a curious mix of old and new. Despite the official line on the French “colonialists” invading the country, Hanoi owes a good deal of its infrastructure and style to those days. The long blocks of colonial buildings, now mostly luxurious government offices, are interspersed with traditional temples and relics of an older past. The former imperial palace complex, for example, is worth a short visit, as is the Temple of Literature (both 30K/US$1.30 entry). Either read up or hire a guide, in order to appreciate the structure and the history of this 1000 year-old university. We decided against visiting the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. I just have this aversion to seeing dead people, even (or especially) if they are well-preserved. Uncle Ho travels annually to Russia for touch ups, so if you are morbidly curious or a faithful Commie, make sure he’s still there before you head over.
We visited the most controversial of sites, the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, called the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans interned there during the Vietnam War (known here as the American War). To the government, it is a national symbol of resistance to French/foreign colonialists where police officers and Vietnamese patriotic youth groups come to pledge “never again.” The Vietnamese use of the prison to intern and torture American POWs in overcrowded cells is downplayed, and the propaganda films playing throughout show Americans playing ping pong and basketball, making Christmas decorations and receiving medicine and letters from home [the day they were released]. The film has the temerity to suggest that the term “Hanoi Hilton” was a sign of how nice the place was. But then, maybe the Vietnamese treated the Americans the way the French treated the Vietnamese. See the photos and judge for yourself.
We stayed at a hotel in the central district of Hoan Kiem, which is the recommended area for a first trip to Hanoi. The proximity to most everything we wanted or needed was helpful. We were walking distance or a very short taxi ride to everything. The drawback is the noise level of this area, which is bustling until past midnight most days. Most hotels do have quieter rooms in the back, and a few of the apartments we looked at were located in quiet alleys, so be sure to check.
Speaking of noise, be sure to visit Train Street. This is a narrow, unnamed, unpaved street. Locals live on either side of the active train track that runs through here. I take it as a sign of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Hanoians who have turned this street from an undesirable place to live — who wants a train running in front of your house 6 times a day? — to a leading tourist destination. The alley is lined with cafes and souvenir shops where Westerners come to watch the spectacle of people living their daily lives, moving everything inside for the scheduled trains passing through. Like moths to a flame (or maybe it’s the large train headlight), tourists come to sit and have a drink with their feet touching the tracks. A minute before the train comes through, the cafe owners and shopkeepers push everything back — tables, chairs, tourists, bird cages, coolie hats — and in a deafening rumble, the train comes through, literally close enough to touch from either side of the road. And these are not small trains — these are regular cross-country trains rolling through. Check with cafe owners for the train schedule and get there early if you want a seat. In the evening, it really fills up. And please, hold your phone tight and respect the train. In a game of chicken, it will win 10 times out of 10.
Lili’s favorite part of town was the French quarter, with its avenues of colonial architecture, including the Opera House, the “real” Hanoi Hilton, blocks of upscale shops, and the luxurious Metropole Hotel, which is a must-visit, even if you can’t afford to stay. The Bamboo Bar by the underwhelming hotel pool is a perfect spot to revel in true colonial style, and you can get an idea of why the locals disliked the French. There is a recently-discovered bomb shelter behind the bar. It’s not really open to the public outside of a daily tour, but if you miss the tour you may be able to sweet talk your way in for a generous tip –generous being 100,000 dong, less than US$5. But you didn’t hear it from me.
One more word about money: everyone visiting Vietnam has been robbed or knows someone who has. Although the people are very kind, they have a mysterious sense of justice. Must be all the Communist propaganda they’re fed, but be aware. Do not trust the hotel room safe. Take valuables with you, or leave them with the front desk. Also, buy tours or services from the hotel. It’s the same price as you’ll find elsewhere, and anecdotally speaking, those that bought from the hotel were not victims of theft, while those who did not buy from the hotel were robbed. Could be coincidence.
You could stay in Hanoi, soaking up the coffee and beer culture here for weeks, but there are some must-see destinations relatively close that deserve your attention.
First, there is Sapa, or Sa Pa. This is a town in the mountains, famous for the picturesque, stepped rice fields and colorful village clothing. Sapa is a 6 hour bus ride from Hanoi in comfortable coaches on mostly very good roads. There is also a train, which costs more but which has better views. Sapa is a European-looking town with a small lake in the center and a restaurant and hotel every other door. Apparently it has been built up quite a bit, but it still retains a small-town air. We were pleasantly surprised to see that most of the visitors were Vietnamese, although there were a good number of foreigners. You can tell the difference because the Vietnamese will walk as far as Cat Cat village, but will not trek the 10km to the next town — only villagers returning from the city or Westerners do something that punishing. We also witnessed a curious custom on the way to Cat Cat village, there are shops renting traditional clothing. The Vietnamese (especially the women) all dashed to dress in these outfits and take selfies in the village. This will either strike you as endearing or it will remind you of Marie Antoinette and her ladies dressing up as peasants in Versailles.
On weekend nights, there is a night market and thousands of people congregate in the plazas and in the multiple cafes along the streets. The food in the restaurants around the lake and the main plaza were all surprisingly tasty, even if the prices reflected their tourist-oriented nature.
We bought our tickets to Sapa through our Hanoi hotel, after some haggling. The ticket covered transportation, lodging, most meals, a tour guide for our hikes, and entrance to the villages. When I priced it out for myself, I came to the same price as the package, so as mentioned above, it’s worth buying the package from your hotel.
Pickup was from our hotel door — well, sort of. Buses can’t drive down Food Street, so a guy on a motorbike came to get us. We had to jog after him as he swerved in and out of obstacles, down to the main street and around a corner, where we came to a 7-passenger van that had been converted to a 14-passenger van. We joined a few other confused travelers as the van stopped at a few other hotels, filling up. Finally, with 12 spaces filled, the driver took us to the bus, which was on the side of the main road, nowhere near a bus station.
Lili insists that I mention the “seating” arrangements because there were 3 rows of double-deck recumbent seats. Well, it was more comfortable than airplane-style seats. Also, we were required to remove our shoes to board the bus. At the stops, a box of slippers was supplied so you didn’t have to put your own shoes back on. Asian sizes only, however. Once we arrived in Sapa, we were met by the hotel staff and tour guide (the tour group was just our family) who walked us the 100 meters to our hotel. Taxis were available for those with a longer commute.
If you are unhappy with your lodgings in Sapa, do not even consider staying. With the number of hotels in town, competition is fierce, and prices are low. We found a family room in a new 3-star hotel with large, comfy beds and a modern bathroom (with AC) for $20/night.
Before we leave Sapa, let me show you the shoes that have lasted 10 months of hard trekking and are still looking smart. I’m a picky shoe guy and I will definitely be buying these again.
HA LONG BAY – CAT BA ISLAND
Ha Long Bay is the most famous sight in Vietnam and you’ve seen the photos — vegetation-covered limestone islands called karsts rising precipitously out of the water, with junks or fishing boats floating by. I can assure you that it is every bit as impressive in real life.
The downside of visiting a UNESCO-recognized area is the touristy nature of the place and the blatant commercialism and exploitation that comes with it. There are several options to visiting Ha Long Bay, including a day trip from Hanoi, an overnight cruise, or overnighting in the area (Haiphong, Ha Long, or Cat Ba Island).
Our Hanoi hotel manager thought the day trip was enough — a 3 hour bus, a 4 hour cruise, including lunch, and another bus back to Hanoi — and honestly, they’re right. There are only so many karsts you can see before you are tempted to pick up a book. What scared us away, though, was the bus – boat – bus routine. We prefer a more leisurely pace, so we decided to stay on Cat Ba island, which is a large island in the bay. We purchased bus/speedboat/bus tickets through the hotel, again for the same price we would have paid had we been able to find those for ourselves but without the hassle. I have read nothing good about the bus station in Hanoi.
Cat Ba town is a small town consisting of hotels and restaurants along 1 or 2 main roads. There are a few things to do on the island, including 3 beaches (free entry), a national park and a vista point called Cannon Fort. Both of those cost less than US$5 per person. But the real attraction here, of course, is the boat tours of the bay. Every hotel, restaurant, massage parlor, convenience store, and street vendor will try to sell you tickets. Again, buying from your local hotel will guarantee that your valuables remain yours, and that’s what we did.
There were 2 options for the day-long cruise: bargain and better. The drawback of the bargain tour is that you are out with hundreds of other boats, all filled with people just like you, looking for a perfect photo op. Also, the kayaking portion of the cruise tends to be crowded and you will wait to get a kayak and oar after things have been picked over. The food served on the bargain cruise is … well, let’s say you get what you pay for. The better cruise was US$10 more per person. Those boats leave later, so you don’t see the crowds. The food is freshly cooked, and you have your choice of equipment for kayaking. Also, the tour ends with drinks on the house at a bar where the bus drops everyone off (pickup was at the hotel door).
As the Hanoi hotel staff told us, 4 hours is more than enough time in the bay and I’m glad we didn’t book the overnight cruise. After a few hours, Lili and I were both looking around for something to do. A group of Brits and Aussies were playing cards on deck. Others took a nap. There were diversions, such as 2 swimming expeditions, kayaking, lunch on board, and a hike on Monkey Island (monkeys are mean creatures, by the way – heed the warnings, hide your valuables) but after a while, even the stunning scenery here begins to look monotonous.
The main road in Cat Ba is the place to be: all the big restaurants, bars, and hotels are here, with a few expensive (or cheaper) exceptions. Our hotel was at the edge of town and up a hill, which was tough: the bus wouldn’t take us because it was too far off their route and taxi drivers refused because it wasn’t far enough. For US$10 a night I can’t really complain too much. Another thing we found in Cat Ba is that credit cards are accepted almost everywhere! This came as a real surprise, and a good one because there is only 1 ATM in town (centrally located near the Cat Ba Island arch).
For the young or the young at heart, there is plenty of nightlife here in Cat Ba in the form of bars, a small night market, and of course, karaoke. Happy hour offerings vary from 1/2 hour of free draft beer to 8 hours of BOGO, to 2 hours of half-off cocktails. Some of the hotels have pools that give onto the restaurant and bar area, which makes them lively all evening but noisy at bedtime.
Naturally, seafood is the specialty here, and you will pass tank after tank of live seafood, waiting to be cooked: fish, crabs, shrimp, baby octopuses, horseshoe crabs and even seahorses. There are also several floating restaurants off the shore. Their bright lights make them look like a party. Prices are high, but it’s a unique experience. A few have floating bridges, but most are reached by boat (no extra charge). You will be approached by touts asking you if you would like dinner there.
As I mentioned, there are 3 main beaches here, known creatively as Cat Ba Beach 1, Cat Ba Beach 2, and Cat Ba Beach 3. Beach 3 was recommended the most, so we chose that one. If you can stand the heat, it’s a 20 minute walk from the center of town, or a 50K dong (US$2) taxi ride. There are also quasi-municipal electric trams going back and forth for 10K per person.
If you like beaches, this one won’t appeal to you. It is a small strip of sand bounded by a new luxury high rise resort to one side, a bar and resort to the rear, and limestone cliffs to the other side. The water is brown and of questionable cleanliness although that doesn’t prevent the locals from going in wearing their clothes. Although food or drink are not permitted, the bar is open. The beach fills up with people and almost disappears at high tide. There are showers and a WC but you need to pay for those. Don’t go in the water if you have any open sores or cuts and do shower if you go in the water.
Transportation back to Hanoi or to points south is plentiful, but again it’s best to book through your hotel. Some buses will take a vehicle ferry, so you don’t need to load and unload your luggage from bus to boat to bus. If that’s of interest, be sure to ask. Also remember the different types of bus: sleeper, minibus, or coach. The seats on the minibus were rather small for Western bottoms.
A few hours south of Hanoi is Ninh Binh, known as Ha Long Bay on land. It has the same limestone karsts that rise out of Ha Long Bay, but here they rise out of the rice paddies and meandering rivers make their way along the cliffs and through caves. Ninh Binh is divided into 3 main areas: Ninh Binh proper, which is a small city, Tam Coc, a small, quiet (tourist) village, and Trang An, another UNESCO village. Tam Coc is the one in most of the photos: you see boats plying the river from high above. That photo is taken from Mua Cave viewpoint, which is accessible (for a 100K/US$4.50 fee) through the Mua Cave Eco Lodge. Most people skip the nondescript cave and go straight for the 500-step climb to the viewpoint. Come early, and bring plenty of water — you won’t be disappointed!
The other thing to do in Tam Coc is to take the boats that you spotted from the viewpoint. Boat tours (you don’t row yourself) leave from the central lake in Tam Coc. Although the ride is a must-do while here, there are a few warnings: first, it’s not cheap. You need to pay per boat (150K VND) and per person (120K VND). The posted sign says max 2 foreigners per boat (or 6 locals) although we saw a few boats with 3 Western riders. At the current exchange rate, that puts you out roughly US$35 per family of 4 for the 1.5 hour ride. Secondly, the rowers are all very kind until the turnaround point, where they try to pressure you into buying overpriced refreshments or souvenirs. At the end of the ride, regardless of whether you bought something, they will ask you for a tip — something small, they insist with a smile — 100,000 dong or $5. Note that Vietnamese culture does not include tipping. This is something they only ask from Westerners, which I find disingenuous. If you feel compelled, remember that $1 buys 4 beers and if you tip more than that, they will be too drunk to row anymore.
There are a few other things to do here, most of which entail visiting temples, visiting a nature reserve, or riding a boat past gorgeous scenery and into caves. You can do the ride in the Thung Nham wildlife reserve or the Trang An Scenic Area (which is also UNESCO). We were very happy that we skipped the 3-hour ride in Trang An: after the first hour in Tam Coc, we were done. The boat in Trang An costs more than the one in Tam Coc due to the additional hour.
Transportation around Tam Coc is scarce, so if you can arrange a driver for the day or rent motor scooters, you will be better off than trying to find Grab or negotiate with taxi drivers, who routinely overcharge. Hotels offer rides at roughly twice the going rate but at least you will have a reliable ride. Scooters seem to be the best mode of transport but Lili was too afraid to ride one here, despite the light traffic and flat terrain. Bikes are a decent option, but remember, it can get hot here and pushing pedals in hot, sticky weather may detract from the fun. Depends on you and on the weather.
As for getting in and getting out, there is bus and train service from Hanoi and to points south. The AC soft seats are decently-priced and a nice way to travel, with frequent snack service and reasonably clean bathrooms. There is a little more room than on the bus. However, the trains run late, as opposed to buses which are generally on time.
As you travel south through Vietnam, the landscape and mentality change. From the bustle of Hanoi, the landscape becomes more lush. Hills and mountains run along the coastal towns and beaches. The number of countryside churches grows.
Midway between Hanoi and Saigon, there are three cities within a few hours of each other that are all worth a visit. Hué, the former imperial capital with its enormous imperial citadel, Danang, former R&R beach for American soldiers, and Hoi An, an ancient trading city known for its intact old town and lanterns.
We were hoping to take a train from Ninh Binh to Hué but there were 2 problems: first, it was a big holiday weekend (April 30 is Unification Day, the day the US definitively left Vietnam and May 1 is Labor Day, a major holiday on the Socialist calendar) and second, the train takes over 12 hours — if it’s on time. We don’t mind a long ride, but 12+ hours sounded too long for comfort so we opted to overnight in Dong Hoi, which should have been 7 hours but ended up being a little over 8. The next day we rode another 5 hours to arrive in Hué.
After the Tet Offensive in 1968, the Americans — ahem, the South Vietnamese — fought the Viet Cong building by building through the city. The VC took refuge in the imperial citadel, hoping that the Americans would not dare to bomb a historical monument. Surprise! The South retook the city, albeit with serious damage.
Today the city is rebuilt and aside from the tourist-trap DMZ Bar, there are no signs of the conflict. Of course, there are several structures missing from the imperial citadel, but what remains is impressive and the extensive gardens — 36 square km — are sublime.
Hué has a few central areas that are all walkable, although numerous cyclo-drivers will hassle you for a ride. The tourist area consists of multiple hotels and open-front bars that spill onto the streets every night. The beer is cheap and plenty of locals come here, too. From here it is a short walk to the riverfront park where dragon boats await. You can ride a boat from here to the Thien Mu pagoda, or farther downriver to the royal tombs and back. Every hotel and tour office sells these tours, but you can just walk down to the boats and bargain directly for a much better price, and you won’t miss anything except perhaps a tuk-tuk from your hotel.
We took the boat as far as the Thien Mu pagoda, which was far enough for our slightly-ADD, templed-out kids. The pilot gave us enough time to get out, walk around, snap some photos, smell the flowers, and come back to the boat. The pagoda is best known for the tiered tower in front, but the gardens behind the temple are really worth visiting. The spiritual serenity that reigns here, despite the gawking tourists, make it well worth the trip. We then motored back to the imperial citadel. On the boat, the — I don’t know, captain? Host? Owner? Owner’s wife? — opened her “shop” consisting of lame souvenirs. She even has a card that says, I know you may have already bought souvenirs but please consider buying something to support me and my family. How can you say no to that? We bargained a bit and ended up spending what she originally wanted to charge for the boat ride. Once we had made our purchases, they brought the boat up to a muddy hill where they told us to get out and walk to the citadel. Shoulda held out a little longer.
We walked the trail from the Perfume River to the fortified citadel where we ended up meeting a blogger couple and spending 5 hours wandering the grounds. As I mentioned previously, some buildings are no longer here, and the ruins can be seen. But what remains was peaceful and harmonious. Lili and I could have spent way more than a day here. We even stopped for lunch at an open cafe on the grounds, which was surprisingly affordable although we still don’t understand why people eat hot soup in hot weather.
There is a workshop here, where you can watch artisans make traditional lanterns and kites. You can even make them yourself, if you want to buy the finished product. There is a gift shop (of course) with a large variety of items at the lowest prices we found anywhere in the city.
The family insisted on a taxi back to the hotel, so we did not stop at the famous Dong Ba market, although we did get there the next night. The market is hundreds of stands, mostly catering to locals with food, textiles and household goods but there are some t-shirt and souvenir stands interspersed. Overall it was a tiring experience, what with the noise, the smells, and the crowds. The Vietnamese are like the Chinese in the way they push you out of their way. It’s not personal, but it sure seems rude. It’s also tiring to be hassled by every shopkeeper. If you pass by, they begin a pitch and if you express any amount of interest, they won’t give up. They pull everything of the shelf — what color you like? What size? This one? How much you want to pay? After a while, it overwhelms you. Lili left exhausted and I needed a drink. We walked across the bridge, enjoying the lights that change color every few seconds.
We decompressed at the small night market along the Perfume River near the Hotel Saigon. It is much more low key and sells higher quality merchandise than Dong Ba. Plus the view is far superior.
Food in the tourist area of Hué is pricey. We opted to walk a little farther to a more local area where we found pho at a street stand for about $1.50 per large bowl. Delicious even though I’m still puzzled about the hot soup in hot weather phenomenon.
DMZ Tours: a few companies offer tours of Vietnam war sites including the DMZ at the 17th parallel, which divided north and south Vietnam in 1954. The tours include Khe Sanh, Vinh Moc tunnels, the Hien Luong Bridge and maybe a few more. Check reviews and bargain before choosing a tour, as prices and quality vary wildly.
I doubt that anyone who visited Danang before the year 2000 would recognize it today. It looked more like Miami Beach or some major resort town than the unspoiled beach it used to be. There are still miles and miles of beach, generally just a thin strip of sand, dotted with palm trees. Most of the beaches are private and you pay to sit under the palapas and drink overpriced drinks. The beaches that are public are farther away and you’ll need a taxi or your own two wheels to get there. All the big names — Sheraton, Hyatt, Sofitel and more — are present here, and more resorts are being constructed along the waterfront.
The crowds and the noise are a little too much for any real relaxation, but they do appeal to some, like the Chinese for whom this must be paradise. At least resort-hopping is fun.
Transportation: Danang is a major destination. It has an international airport as well as bus and train stations. Danang is 2 hours south of Hué and less than an hour north of Hoi An. It’s still a 16-hour train ride or 20-hour bus ride to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) and about the same to Hanoi. It looked so close on the map!
If you have to pick just one destination in Vietnam, make it Hoi An. This is a charming town along the Thu Bon River known for its quaint old houses arranged on a grid. These old houses are now shops selling souvenirs, custom-tailored clothing, and leather goods. Hoi An tailors are famed for being the fastest in Vietnam and they offer to make your outfit in 24 hours. The prices are fairly reasonable, although you will need to shop around and be prepared to bargain. It also helps to be familiar with the different fabrics and cuts so you’ll know a good deal when you see it. Lili and our daughter spent hours going from shop to shop, checking patterns and cuts before finding something they liked.
There are literally hundreds of hotels and guesthouses in Hoi An, so you can afford to be picky. However, I recommend that you stay very close to the “ancient town” to avoid a long commute. Our hotel was about a mile away, which was a good 25 minutes by bike or 15 minutes by taxi due to very slow traffic.
By night, the river comes to life with colored lanterns on dozens of boats and in every shop along the waterfront. The walk along the river is crowded with pedestrians. The bridges are all lit up, as are the bars along the island. For a small fee, an old woman will sell you a paper takeout box with a candle in it that she will lower onto the river while you make a wish. We felt badly for these women, who also posed for photos (for a tip). We also felt badly about the pollution this added to the river since those boxes and candles aren’t organic.
There is also a beach a few kilometers from Hoi An. We meant to get there, but never did. We did hear that they are getting pricey and are far from world-class beaches. On the way, however, you can see local agriculture, if that’s your thing. At least they don’t charge to watch them.
Extra Charges: like many villages in Vietnam, Hoi An charges visitors to come into the town. It’s the most annoying part of the visit (besides being pushed out of the way in the market). While they don’t check, you are required to pay 120K VND per person to walk around the old town. The money is supposed to go to maintain the old town, but the country is ruled by the Communist party, so all the money goes directly there from where it is distributed according to the party’s judgment. From what we saw in Hanoi, the money goes first to maintaining posh government housing and offices in former French palaces.
An hour by bus from Hoi An is an old Champa temple site called My Son, which means beautiful mountain. The site, discovered by the French in 1898, is similar to Angkor Wat in its age and architecture, but don’t think you can see this instead. My Son consists of a few temples, mostly in ruins. A lot of the decay is due to age, earthquakes and climate. Some of the damage, however, is due to an American bombing campaign in 1968: as in the imperial citadel in Hue, the Communist army figured they could safely hang out here because Americans would not bomb cultural landmarks. It’s like putting your army in a hospital and blaming the other side for attacking a hospital. I’m not apologizing for American bombings, I’m just pointing out that both sides were doing the wrong thing and blaming the other. The end result is a lot of ruins among a few stunning examples of 1500 year-old Hindu temples.
The temples are on a loop and a visit should take an hour or 2. The restaurant at the beginning/end of the loop has blessedly low prices. It gets hot along the trail and there is limited shade so bring water and possibly a parasol of not a large hat.
Our guide was quick to point out that the French had removed a few of the statues from the site in the 19th century. On the other hand, the Vietnamese didn’t even know the site was there. Again, the guide did not tell both sides of the story. As we learned in Hanoi, the victor of the war gets to write the history.
For photos, click here.