* People are nice. Like the very definition of the word ‘Nice’. They are genuine, wonderful to be around, a delight to speak to!* Feel free to use Taxis. Everyone goes by the meter* Bargain at the shops in the Old quarter. They expect you to and accordingly quote the rate. The USD 50 paintings that I bought, the rate quoted was USD 85.* Get Hanoi-kids to be your city tour guides. Trust me! Follow this link: http://hanoikids.org/how-to-book-a-tour/* Get accommodation at the old quarter. Totally affordable hotels, and convenient location.
* MUST DOs : Kayaking at Halong Bay, Ice Cream Spring Rolls at Fanny’s
Day One – Hanoi CityTaking a morning flight from Bangkok we reached the capital city, Hanoi around 10am. Went to our hotel in Westlake and left for the city tour accompanied by two wonderful locals from Hanoi kids. Hanoi kids offers free city tours (100% customised) to any and all. The idea is that while Hanoi kids are offering you the tour, you return the favour in making them fluent in English by conversing in English.They took us to a quaint little cafe in French Quarter called Beto – Bistro & Tea Lounge for brunch worth 7.3 lacs (in VND, obviously!).
The decor, the food, the service and the company were all wonderful. Post brunch, we took a walk through the French Quarter to see the Opera House and the Hoan Kiem Lake or the Lake of the Returned Sword, with the Turtle Tower.
Walking around the lake we reached the very click worthy ‘red’ bridge – The Huc Bridge. And since it was particularly a very hot and humid day, we took a 15 mins AC break. Next, we headed to Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum – a massive imposing structure. Five minutes away from the mausoleum is the presidential palace - a very regal and French pale yellow structure with mango trees growing all around.
Also saw the One Pillar Padoga, built by the Emperor Ly Thai Tong to express his gratitude for being blesses by a son.We came back to the Old Quarter late afternoon where we saw what has to be the most wonderful and exquisite painting technique I’ve ever seen. Lawrence Block said “Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” THIS was it. Not only did I end up buying 4 paintings (after much negotiation for 50$), I also made friends with a very lively and talented painter.
Next we went on to see the Thang Long Water Puppet show. Puppetry as an art is displayed in all its glory sprinkled with some very gimmicky flair. While we enjoyed the theatrics of the show, especially the bit with the fire spewing dragons, since it was entirely played out in Vietnamese, we couldn’t understand anything at all.Headed back to the hotel around 7pm and slept after a tiring day!Woke up to go have dinner at a very tiny road side cafe.
Day 2: Ha Long BayAfter a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel in Hanoi, we left for Ha Long Bay in a taxi. The journey took about 3 hours and we were just in time for our cruise that was to leave at 12 noon. During a very delicious lunch, we were told, in very detail, the plan for the 2 day trip we has just started. I didn’t hear half of it, because I was too mesmerised by the UNESCO World Heritage site’s view from the cruise. Serene and peaceful and quiet (minus the crickets) with the bright blue sky and the lush green limestone pillar islands !
After resting for a bit, we left for Sung Sot Caves – known to be one of the seven natural wonders in the world. Steps and well lit walkways connect three chambers with unique and beautiful limestone formations. It’s a pretty easy hike and gives you a spectacular view of the bay from the top. The cool breeze inside the cave was a relief. Just have to be careful while walking since the walkway can be slippery.Post the caves, we went for Kayaking - in the bluish green water. It was my first rowing experience and boy was it awesome! Once back to the cruise, we bought ‘fake’ Oreo from the floating market boat, then went to the sun deck and saw the sun set while we munched on appetizers and sipped some wine.Just before dinner, we went fishing on the lower level of the cruise and managed to get only one over enthusiastic crab (who just kept coming back to the fishing rod – I think our tour guys planted the crab so we all don’t feel utterly hopeless).After a very ‘exhausting but totally worth it’ day, I slept like a baby waking up to the sun rise at 6 am. After breakfast, we left for the Pearl Farms where we saw endless rows of oyster baskets, and the implantation and also how to finally the pearl is removed from the oyster. The pearl jewellery shop at the farm was elaborate but expensive. Once we came back, we freshened up and headed to the sun deck for our cooking class. (See how well planned the tour was!). Our tour guide demonstrated how to make rice paper spring rolls using the basic ingredients. Needless to say we gobbled them all up WHILE we were making them!Halong Bay is full of wonder – such breathtakingly vivid place. I couldn’t get enough of the view while I was there – clicking more than 350 pictures, none of which do justice to what I saw – and now that I’m back, I can’t stop talking about it !
Post lunch we returned to the bay and left for Hanoi.While our first night in Hanoi, we had decided to splurge and stay at a nice (read 'expensive') property, our last night we stayed in a hotel in the heart of the city, the old quarter. We took a physical map (No Google help at all) and explored the city. We went to Fanny’s and had the ice cream spring roll