How to do Hanoi and Halong Bay

29 Apr 2014

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Tracy from Kennedy & Turner shares some secrets about Vietnam.

This was a holiday where time was of the essence: 20 yrs to celebrate and just 7 days available. That was our challenge and we chose Northern Vietnam.  History, culture and food experiences were our priorities and Hanoi and Halong Bay ticked all the boxes.

Hanoi

On first impressions Hanoi appears to be a jumble of buildings poorly constructed and in a state of half completion. Mopeds and motorbikes rule and crossing the road is not for the faint hearted! Street after street of shop vendors spill their wares over the pavement including the food merchants whose meat is sitting uncooked and unrefrigerated on makeshift benches and tables. You have never seen so many plastic stackable chairs until you visit the Old Quarter of Hanoi where everyone is welcome to come and sit and savour what is on offer.

Despite the apparent lack of city planning, the Old Quarter becomes easy to navigate once you understand that traditionally each street is named after the merchandise sold there. P Hang Gai translates as Silk Street and the place to go if silk is on your shopping list.

A tour on a cyclo is an exciting way to orientate yourself to this amazing city but it is when you are walking through these streets that you really get to experience all the city has to offer. Many of the shop fronts are quite non descript but surprises abound when you explore a little further.  Long narrow alleyways can lead you to the backs of buildings from where steep and winding staircases take you 4 floors up to rooftop cafes and restaurants far removed from the frantic hectic pace of the pavements with views overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake – the city's heart and soul.

The Sofitel Metropole is the Premier hotel in Hanoi. Established in 1901 this Grand Dame of South East Asia has an impressive history and an equally impressive guest list. Make sure you partake in the hotel tour (offered twice daily) and discover a little of the history of this great city and of course the hotels very own war bunker!

Le Beaulieu, The Spices Garden and Angelina are some of the finest restaurants in Hanoi and you don’t even have to leave the Hotel to enjoy them!  Make sure you do though because there are so many more options to choose from. The French influence combined with the Vietnamese style results in mouthwatering eating experiences for any lover of food and all for excellent value.

Halong Bay

Hauntingly beautiful and well worth the drive but a two-night stay is strongly recommended. The distance from Hanoi is only 130kms but the traffic and the state of the roads is horrendous.  An overnight stay is the most popular but if you can afford the time the extra night allows you to see and do so much more.

Halong

Over 500 companies offer cruises around Halong Bay so there are some areas that are ridiculously overcrowded. The 2 night /3 day option allows you to travel further out into the bay where you visit the floating village of Cua Van, cycle your way around Cat Ba Island and kayak around several of the two thousand limestone karsts that rise from the ocean bed. This is in addition to exploring the 3 chambers of Sit Song Cave deep within one of these limestone islands and scrambling up the 400 steps of Ti Top Island to survey the beauty and mystery of this World Heritage site.

The extra night also allows some further indulgences aboard Paradise Peak. The boat has only 8 cabins so guests enjoy rooms double the size of many other operators in the Halong Bay area. The cabins are luxuriously appointed with floor to ceiling windows and a private terrace offering unobstructed views of Halong Bay. The food was exquisite and served A La Carte in the dining room or as room service if that is your preference. Our private Butler attended to our every need both on board and when we ventured out on day trips, which added to our experience.

There is so much to uncover when travelling to Vietnam. 7 days was never going to be enough time to see it all so the idea of limiting our destinations and really immersing ourselves in Hanoi and Halong Bay gave us some wonderful memories and a definite taste to re-visit.  Possibly further South next time I think...