Having relaxed and tanned ourselves sufficiently (enough to not stand out as ‘those Brits’ anymore, it was time to move on to the final leg of our trip. We arrived in Hanoi at the newly built Lotte Hotel which stands an impressive 65 stories high. Whilst that might have been the first thing to strike us, as soon as we walked into the lobby and were greeted, it was clear that service was going to be what was going to make this hotel really special.
We found the hotel on the web as it wasn’t listed in any of the tour books due to it only having been completed a couple of months ago – but what a find it was. The hotel was already almost at full capacity but you would never have been able to tell by the level of service that we experienced throughout. As for the breakfast… do not get me started on the breakfast. Every. Single. Food. Type. You. Could. Imagine…. and all delicious at that. Excess baggage was definitely being booked for the way home!
After experiencing the beauty of Hoi An, arriving in Hanoi during the day was somewhat of a culture shock… this was probably not helped by the fact that we spent a good hour tracking down a restaurant that had been recommended by Lonely Planet – only to discover the food wasn’t the great. One tip that I learned from this, having passed dozens of awesome street vendors along the way is to use the guide books to do just that – guide. Don’t let them dominate your experience, if you see something that looks good or busy with locals, go for it!
That said, when you decide to go off of the beaten track, discovering back alleys and hidden treasures, Hanoi really comes into its own. The city becomes much prettier at night, illuminated by hundreds of little shops, restaurants and dimly lit street vendors.
We’d been told that we couldn’t visit Hanoi without seeing the legendary Water Puppets…. so of course we did. The show went on for an hour (you only really needed 10 minutes to say that you’d seen it and had got the gist) but it was fun and we’d taken beers in from the bar downstairs, which certainly made things more entertaining.
Having spent 6 months trying to persuade the boy to get a selfie stick, he caved immediately through fear of missing out as soon as he saw how many of the Asians were carrying them. We decided to take a tuck tuck through the city to put it to the test, ending up in the French Quarter where you’re greeted by the likes of Gucci and Chanel. This seemed like such a stark contrast, sitting alongside the tiniest of local street vendors only a couple of streets away. We decided to stop for a cocktail at the gorgeous Sofitel Metropole Hotel (one of the nicer hotels in the city). We headed through the hotel to the beautiful Bamboo Bar which has a colonial feel, making you forget that you’re in the middle of bustling Hanoi. We didn’t have the best of experiences here, the staff were less than friendly and so although it was lovely, I’m not sure that I’d go back again. Worth visiting once, however.
Following an early night, we had a super early start as we started our trip to Halong Bay the next day. This was the point at which we learned 2 valuable lessons: 1) you never know what time the traffic in Hanoi is going to come to a standstill – rush hour seems to happen all day long and 2) don’t use a local tour operator – for the money that you’ll save, it’s not worth the stress factor.
As soon as we found ourselves stuck in traffic, we called ahead to the tour operator who told us that they would wait at the point of collection for us. We arrived 10 minutes late to find out that they’d actually left. After many discussions between our taxi driver and their bus driver (and much Google Translate in between) we found ourselves on a wild goose chase for over 3 hours, trying to catch up with the bus. Then we discovered that the taxi driver didn’t actually know where he was going and we’d ended up back in Hanoi. It was an expensive and annoying morning to say the least. However, as soon as the staff at the Lotte recognised us, they went out of their way to do all that they could to turn the situation around. Within 20 minutes, we had a new trip planned for the next day on an even better boat (only a one night cruise rather than 2 due to our time constraints), a private transfer and an assistant to boot. We quickly headed to the bar.
Things turned out perfectly the next day. We arrived at the junk and set off on our adventure, the boy acting as James Bond throughout, naturally. It turned out that the junk that we went on (the Dragon Legend) took a different route from many of the other junks, which meant taking in breathtaking scenery uninterrupted rather than a sea of junks, which can often be the case. As soon as the junk anchored, we set off on our kayak to discover the beautiful surroundings. We were blessed with sunshine and still waters… a memory I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
Having reached a small island, our tour guide took us in to explore, queue my turn to act out being Lara Croft. Yep, I’m so cool. I wish that we’d been there for an extra night as you have the opportunity to have dinner inside of the cave. That said, I’m not sure how well I’d deal with the bats. You see, still a way further to go until transition to Lara is complete.
The junk was well equipped and comfortable and I can definitely recommend it if you’re looking to do a cruise around Halong Bay. Of course, there will always be some people on the boat that you wouldn’t normally choose to hang out with (we were probably those people), but that’s going to be the same on any junk that you choose.
Back on dry land the next day, we were keen to check out the Military Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Sadly the Mausoleum was closed for maintenance and the museum was only open on certain days of the week (somebody certainly wasn’t looking out for us that day). We busied ourselves by visiting the Temple of Literature which was packed with students getting their graduation photos (the Vietnamese love a good photo). We decided to pay a visit to the Rooftop Bar after reading good reviews about it in some of the guide books. I personally wasn’t a fan, it reminded me of one of those nasty tourist bars around Leicester Square, everything was a little bit dated and cheesy. I much preferred the newly opened rooftop bar at the top of the Lotte Hotel which is now the highest bar in the city. Plus it’s chic, which is always nice.
Our last night was well spent, soaking in the atmosphere (and locally produced beer) at Bia Hoy Junction. Here you can expect a pint (that actually tastes good) for 15p. You’ll mix with lots of locals and tourists, excitedly chatting about their expeditions so far. This was one of my favourite nights of our trip. Don’t expect glamorous bathroom facilities, it’s definitely back to basics, but so much fun that you won’t care.
We stopped at Madame Hien (15 Chan Cam) following a recommendation from one of the guides at the hotel and were pleasantly surprised to find it located in a 19th century villa. It’s street food with a modern high end twist – definitely worth a visit and one of the best meals that I’ve ever had. Fully filled with beer and good food (you won’t hear me say that often) we decided to check out Hanoi’s only jazz bar (I know, you don’t naturally think of the Vietnamese and jazz!). The music was absolutely incredible, the venue a little undiscovered gem and the cocktails the best that I’d had during my time in Vietnam.
And then… it was time to say goodbye. Never have I spent such a good amount of time in a country and still not wanted to leave. Vietnam really did steal my heart – it’s people, culture and food are something that are unparalleled and I can’t help but fear that no country I’ll visit from now on will compare. I can’t recommend Vietnam highly enough – my only word of advice, if you’re planning to visit, go soon. It won’t be long before this beautiful gem is discovered and it becomes yesterday’s Thailand. I love you Vietnam.