Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay

Trip Start Jun 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 25, 2008

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Houhai Junk Boat

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008


We are now riding from Halong Bay back to Hanoi on the nice shuttle bus provided by the boat company. We did our wonderful Halong Bay boat cruise the past two days! We are now on a 3.5 hour ride back to our hotel in Hanoi. It feels very long.

Let's catch up! It seems like a LOT of time has gone by since we wrote last, even though we left Hue just 3 days ago. We did visit the Imperial Enclosure (the citadel-within-citadel) early on Saturday morning 19 July, arriving there by about 8:30a. It was already pretty hot! We were quite glad we came early. They have done pretty extensive re-building / restoration work there on about 4 of the 10 building complexes. The ones they have rebuilt look pretty excellent and they've done a nice job. The others are literally still just bombed-out shells with only the foundations showing. It was a pretty fun visit and pretty interesting. All in all, the Lonely Planet guidebook does a disservice to Hue, in my opinion. They only talk about the Citadel, not the rest of the very charming town, and when they talk about the Citadel they describe it as basically bombed to nothing. Hue is actually a very interesting and fun small city with a great vibe and a decent amount of stuff to do, including the interesting Imperial enclosure. The area around the enclosure, still within the outer Citadel walls, is also very pleasant and interesting.

After walking around the Imperial enclosure, we had a quick (and free) breakfast at our hotel (Thanh Noi) and got in the airport car that we had pre-arranged with the hotel for the 45-minute ride to the Hue airport. Our plane was another very modern Airbus A320 and we had a quick 55-min flight to Hanoi. We found an airport taxi ($14 US) to our hotel in the center of the old quarter of Hanoi, the Hanoi Elegance I. Another great hotel! Extremely friendly front-desk staff, including one guy who keeps joking around with us all the time. Very comfy and large room with private bath, excellent hot-water shower. And get this, a free computer in the room with us, unlimited Internet access! Price - $50 US / night.

Just a quick mention here that one of my favorite restaurants in Vietnam is Fanny's. It's a VERY yummy ice cream shop that's like an old-time soda fountain back home. They have them in both Saigon and Hanoi and we go there everyday! Mmmmmmm.

One interesting thing we did in Hanoi was to visit the Temple of Literature. It's a 1000-year-old complex started by one of the Kings of Vietnam as a university. The main thing people studied at the time was the philosophy of Confucius, the ancient Chinese writer who advocated ethical living for people, advised government officials, and wrote prodigiously. Students would take 3-7 years of classes and would have to pass 4 smaller exams annually, plus one big exam, which apparently was VERY difficult. To honor those few students who were able to complete the full course of study, the old kings would erect stelae, which are big stones carved with the graduates' names. The stelae sit atop carved turtle statues, the turtle being a symbol of luck and long life. The Temple of Literature is very well-maintained and still carries a very strong contemplative and studious feeling from 1000 years of students.

We did one of my favorite things in Vietnam - went to the Water Puppet Theatre. Hanoi is famous for its water puppets. It's in a large theater that always sells out. The musicians sit on an elevated platform to the left of the actual stage. They play music for the performance. The stage itself is a large, square pool of water with a screen that separates the puppeteers from the puppets so you can't see them making the puppets move. The puppets are very elaborate and can do all kinds of things like swim through the water and fish from a boat, etc ... The show itself is a series of short skits set to music. For example, one is called Catching Frogs. There are frog puppets hopping through the water and then human puppets trying to catch them. Very cute and funny. In one skit, a fisherman is trying to catch a fish puppet, but the fish pulls him out of the boat and into the water. Anyway, it's difficult to explain without seeing it, but it's very fun and professionally done. We got our own really cool dragon puppet afterward for only $7!

Hanoi has a very different feel than the other Vietnamese cities and towns we have visited. In the old quarter where we are staying, it feels extremely crowded, almost to the point of claustrophobia. This is partly because the old streets are very narrow, just barely wide enough for two small cars to pass. And there are really LOTS of people, cars, moborbikes, etc there! It's honestly a bit much. On the plus side, there is a lake right next to our hotel called Hoan Kiem, it's quite pretty and a nice respite from the hustle and bustle. There is a legend that an ancient Vietnamese king used a famous sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam (they were apparently always invading...) and that he gave the sword to a magical turtle who carried it down into the depths of Hoan Kiem lake, where it has always remained. "Hoan Kiem" translates to "restored sword." There is also a wonderful little alleyway market with lots of cheap fruit, literally steps from our hotel. (Also live squid, live fish, live shellfish, recently-live chickens, no refrigeration, etc etc.) Very interesting and fun!

In Hanoi, there are also lots of scammers. These are people who ask for WAY more than the price that should be charged for things, hoping that foreign tourists will not know enough to argue. For example, a bunch of bananas in Hoi An was costing me about 10,000 Vietnamese Dong, which is 60 cents (US). I tried to buy a similar bunch from a girl on the street in Hanoi and she asked 50,000 Dong. She insisted it was a good deal. (I bought them that time but next day I went to the market near our hotel and paid 15,000.) Our hotel called a reliable taxi for us to go down to the Temple of Literature (about 20 min ride) and the taxi meter read 34,000 Dong at the end of the ride. Coming back to the hotel, we found our own taxi on the street and we did not pick a good one! The meter in the taxi was rigged and it was going up SO FAST while we were driving! We said to each other "This is going to be interesting." The meter said 300,000 Dong by the time we got to our hotel, TEN TIMES what the price should be! That's about $20 US for a 20-min ride, which is crazy by Vietnamese standards. We handed the driver 40,000 Dong and he started complaining so bad about how it should be 300,000! We said no, no, no, no, your meter is complete BS. We finally settled on 120,000 Dong and all parties ended up unhappy with the deal.

We did learn some important stuff though! We asked our hotel front desk for the names of reputable taxi companies with legit meters, and we learned to NOT ask how much things cost on the street, find out ahead of time how much it should be and hand the person that much money!

Let's talk about two principles of travel that Keli and I have been discussing throughout our trip - these are "Pleasant" and "Interesting." There are some places that are very pleasant, but not that interesting. For example, going to a beach resort will be very pleasant but you may not find all that much interesting culture and may not meet many local people. Then other places may be very interesting, but not real pleasant. In fact some of the most un-pleasant places are VERY interesting! Just because they're very different from our lives back home. The best places are BOTH pleasant AND interesting! Tokyo was definitely VERY pleasant and VERY interesting for both Keli and me. I would have to say that Hanoi is in the less-pleasant category, though it is still quite interesting to see how people live there.

After two nights at our lovely hotel in Hanoi, we were picked up at our hotel at 8am by the boat company that was to take us around Halong Bay. On the drive to Halong, one of the tour guides rode in the van with us and we all chatted along very happily. She was about 25 I think and she spoke very good English. Like many tour guides in Vietnam, she has had formal schooling in Tourism, including learning English. Her specialty in school, however, was Russian language, as there are still close ties between Vietnam and Russia. She told us lots of fun facts about our upcoming tour - the boat company has 30 deluxe boats and 15 standard boats, Halong Bay has been recognized by UNESCO as a natural heritage site, there are 1,960 separate islands in Halong bay, of which 900 have names, etc etc.

Of course, I started peppering her with questions about life, Vietnam, family, etc. She is one of four daughters who all grew up in a small town in the country outside Hanoi where her parents still live. Like many Vietnamese, she came to the city to find work and enjoys being a tour guide. She lives with her grandparents and three sisters in Hanoi, it's very common for multiple generations to share the same home here. I asked her when she would get married and she said maybe in the next five years, whenever she found a good boyfriend. And I asked if she thought men or women were better workers, she said they are both good but that men have better opportunities. When I asked if she though men or women were smarter, she laughed and said women! She made the ride much more fun and interesting!

We rode on and on in the van past mile after mile or rice paddies, all of which are planted, tended, and harvested by hand, still by workers wearing the traditional conical hats you see in paintings. It's all wet rice farming here, which means the fields are divided up into little sections and there is an aqueduct system used to flood and drain each section at the right time for the rice crop. In those sections where they are tilling the fields for a future crop, we saw about half mechanical tillers and half animal-drawn tillers. The animal in question is a water buffalo. Rice paddies are incredibly green which makes the ride quite pretty.

We achieved our fastest Vietnamese land speed yet on this section of road - 90 km/hour! (almost 56 mph!) That is the fastest we have gone yet on any road in Vietnam.

Finally, we arrived at the dock in Halong City where we would board our boat. It's quite a scene! LOTS of vans arriving with tourists and at least 50 boats tied up at the dock. The boats are designed to look like Chinese Junks - all wood, two or three decks, and two diamond-shaped sails on top (which are for looks only.) Our boat was a fairly large one, with I think 6 cabins, a large dining area, and a top sundeck. It was probably 50 feet long or so.

Going into this Halong Bay tour, I was nervous because I get seasick just looking at a boat. But, the tour was fantastic, one of my favorite things we did in Vietnam, and the water was very smooth! The boat takes you along the bay where there are 1,960 islands, which are everything from a normal-sized island to large rocks. Mostly the bay is peppered with enormous rocks, like cliffs or mountains, which makes for beautiful scenery and keeps any waves from making the water choppy. It's difficult to explain. I've never seen anything like it in the U.S., but take a look at the photos to see more what I mean.

Anyway, after sailing for an hour or two, they took us to an enormous cave a lot like The Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs. Really interesting to see, though our guide's English was a bit hard to understand, so us and a Spanish couple we met kept trying to guess at the words he was saying!

After that, Dave and I went kayaking in a two-person kayak where you sit inside and use a paddle with a blade on both ends. Very fun. We felt bad for our guide, though, who had never done it before (he was new) and really struggled. He actually fell out of the kayak and got stung by a jellyfish! It was no big deal and he was a sport about it, but we felt bad for him.

That night, we had dinner (they tried to accommodate us with vegetarian food, but most every course was a different way to cook tofu ...) and then went up on the top of the deck to look at the stars. There were about 5 or 6 other boats in the bay where we docked. Really beautiful to see the lights from the boats all around us and to see the stars from the top of the ship.

After that, we chatted with our friends from the Catalonia region of Spain. Dave practiced up on his Spanish, but I was too rusty, so I spoke English, which they knew pretty well. We had fun talking with them during the whole tour. Their names are Dani and Olga and they were very nice and very fun! They were just starting their 2-week vacation in Vietnam and we had fun talking with them about that and about the other places they have been before (Africa and India), plus we also climbed a mountain with them and went swimming with them! There was another couple there from Madrid, too, so, there was a lot of Spanish being spoken all around us! Didn't think we'd be using our Spanish in Asia, but ...

Anyway, after that, we slept in our tiny (but cute) little room on the boat. It had two twin beds and not much room for much else. The bathroom was very nice, except when you take a shower, you just use a showerhead that's right on the wall of the bathroom along with the toilet and sink and then there's a drain in the floor to drain the water. Kind of strange, but it works ...

The next day, we did kayaking again, only this time we went through a hole in one of the large rocks where the water goes through into a lagoon behind it. Again, hard to explain, but really cool. All around us was a wall of these enormous cliff-like rocks and in the water were all these tiny jumping fish only a couple inches long that jump through the water in schools. So strange! And also, we saw a monkey climbing through the trees on the island/rocks all around us. And our poor guide did better this time around!

After our kayaking this morning, there was a little time for us all to go swimming around the boat, and to jump off the top deck of the boat into the ocean! It was about a 15-foot drop. So fun! Six people from our boat all did it at the same time, on the count of three. But then we all saw a big jellyfish in the water and didn't want to jump off much more... Olga, our new friend from Catalonia, told us that yesterday she saw a huge jellyfish the size of a basketball right next to us when we started out kayaking, but she didn't say anything to us about it at the time so as not to scare us!

Then, we had lunch and headed back to the dock where a van took us back - 3-1/2 hours - to our hotel in Hanoi. That was a VERY long drive at the end of a big tour like that, but the tour itself was great!
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