Hanoi travel notes and last thoughts on Vietnam

Just a couple of recommendations on Hanoi before I wrap up.

We stayed at the Hanoi Serenity Hotel. The rooms were good enough, the staff was very friendly and happy to help out in any way they could. The building doesn’t have an elevator, so you’ll get some extra exercise if you’re staying on one of the higher floors. What was great about the place was the location, with the old quarter opening up on the hotel’s doorstep.

We didn’t find any place amazing to eat in Hanoi although we tried recommendations from both Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.

One epicurean pleasure was eating at Mediterraneo. It’s an Italian restaurant in the old quarter. The food is quite decent and I really liked the wine (although I am not too hard to please on this front).

What made it wonderful for me though was sitting on the restaurant’s balcony as the sun began to set. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is just at the end of the street, and if you go for an earlier dinner, you’ll be there during the mass. Sitting in the warm, golden, evening air, sipping red wine and listening to the deep peal of the church’s bells (one of my favorite sounds in the world), I could almost imagine I was back in Europe. It was amazing to watch the great number of people who were attending mass; so many that they spilled out into the courtyard in front of the church’s entrance.

I also managed to find another up-scale hotel not too far from the Serenity where I could pay to use their simple gym. Working out so helps my head space – I’m intent on doing this as often as possible.

Grains of salt

Looking back over our time in (and my posts on) Vietnam, I recognize that this was clearly the most challenging country for us (on our travels so far at least!). I’ve mentioned it before but I want to make sure I’m clear about it once more for anyone who might be considering traveling to Vietnam.

I believe that travel is a very subjective, luck (or fate?) based thing. Like life, it’s a mystery but fundamentally I do believe that we attract the experiences we need to have, even if we can’t understand or see clearly why we may need them at the time of their occurrence.

So I don’t (yet?) know why we had hard luck and a tougher time in Vietnam, but I do know that just because that was our experience of the place doesn’t mean that it should be written off. We’ve run into people who were turned off by India, the country that took our hearts by such storm that we are still, nearly a year later, entirely under her spell.

So if you’re feeling drawn to Vietnam, I totally encourage you to go check it out and see what kind of experience YOU have there. I’m sure it will be different from mine, and I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

Itinerary

Here’s the run down of where we went:

July 22 Saigon Lac Vien Hotel
July 31 Dalat Hotel Chau Au – Europa
August 2 Hoi An Hai Au Hotel
August 5 Hue Hue Holiday Hotel and Huenino
August 10 Cu Nam Phong Nha Farm Stay
August 14 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
August 18 Halong Bay A Class Cruise
Aug 19 – 22 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
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Notes on Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most iconic scenes. Before reading up on it, I was familiar with images of beautiful classic “junk” ships set against the dramatic waterscape, but I hadn’t realized this was Vietnam. The lovely Louise and Patrick highly recommended visiting – noting that even though you basically have no choice but to see it as part of a tourist-package, the gorgeous nature is well worth the risks associated with such tours.

(Risks like: Are you really going to get what they are selling you? Will the weather cooperate? Will the people you’ll be stuck on the boat with nice or nasty? We’d read plenty of horror stories about dingy, rat-infested boats, no refunds when the weather turns bad, etc. The bottom line is, yes, Halong Bay is definitely worth seeing, but make sure the person/business you’re buying the tickets from is trustworthy (we found some pretty dodgy websites and endorsements on-line!) and it is worth spending a bit more money to get on a decent boat – don’t go for something that is rock-bottom budget.)

We booked (through our hotel) an overnight trip with “A Class Cruise” and got reasonably good service/accommodations for a reasonable price. We had bad luck with the weather – it was cool and cloudy the first day and pouring cats and dogs the next – and good luck with the guests who were all friendly and good company. I’d rather have it that way than the other way around, so I was happy. 🙂

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View of our room from the door (small but fine)

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View of our room from the bed

We knew what we were getting into so we weren’t disappointed. The tour company picked us up in a mini-van; the drive to Halong Bay included a refreshment stop at a massive tourist store full of tacky sculpture and mass-produced paintings. Arriving at the Bay, we joined the hundreds of other tourists being herded like sheep to the slaughter by the tour group handlers. It honestly was exactly like queuing in line for a ride at Disneyland on a busy holiday.

The boat was perfectly nice; the food they served was decent and plentiful. The hours on the boat were sliced up into activities – make your own spring rolls, taste some (dull) Vietnamese wine, go visit a “floating village” (nothing compared to the amazing river-villages at Kampong Chhnang), now its time for swimming and/or relaxation before dinner is served, etc…

The nice thing was that even with this and the grey weather, Halong Bay still is very, very beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it. I wonder though if it was glad to see us – with so very many tour boats cruising through the bay with military efficiency (our boat picked up guests from the two-night tour on the way back and our room was ready to receive the next round of fresh meat before we even docked), one can’t help but wonder about (and feel a bit guilty about contributing to) the impact on the environment…

Panorama view of the bay as we (and all the other boats) dropped anchor for the night – click for a closer look

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We get taken for a boat ride around the karsts and village

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Floating snack shop rows from boat to boat selling over-priced beer, chips, etc. It must be a hard living – she was rowing around long after dark and I’m not sure how much she actually sold…

DSC 0432Beautiful scenery!

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One of the things I really loved was watching the eagles (or hawks? or other?) wheeling through the sky above the karsts. So gorgeous!

Some more Hanoi pics and a quick update

Current (coffee) events

It’s Thursday afternoon, which means that we’ve completed four days’ worth of Chinese lessons here in Yangshuo.

Chinese is not easy (especially the pronunciation and comprehension – those tones are subtle and tough to get right!), but it’s also not as cryptic as I had expected. I’d braced myself to deal with bouts of frustration and impatience (I usually can’t stand it when I’m first learning something and am not automatically great at it. 🙂 ) but it’s been really fun so far and I’m actually amazed that I’ve managed to learn as much as I have in these few, packed days. I’ll give most of the credit to Becky, our teacher here at Omeida, who teaches with a great combination of enthusiasm, energy and humor while remaining laid back. 🙂

At the moment I’m a very happy girl because after lots of trial (and lots of error), we’ve FINALLY found a café in town that serves decent coffee. So far our experiences would indicate that the Chinese just don’t do coffee. We’ve tried a new café every day we’ve been here (there are plenty to choose from in the touristy part of town) and the brew at each one has been a total disappointment. So I’m here now, contentedly caffeinated as Leonard Cohen plays in the background, trying to get my mind back to Hanoi. 🙂

Pooped!

By the time we made it to Vietnam’s capital, we were basically done. Travel is of course not meant to be all roses, and the negative experiences we had in Vietnam really weren’t even that bad (one phone stolen, getting ripped off a couple of times, getting sick, getting food poisoning – these are little things and par for the course when you’re travelling for as long as we are I’d say!).

But when we’d had unpleasant things happen to us in other countries, they were quickly counter-balanced by other experiences.

A positive interaction or visiting someplace really beautiful or fascinating or inspirational, a pleasant or relaxed vibe or an awesome meal. These are the things that mentally and emotionally nourish a person when they’re on the road.

In Vietnam, the interactions we had with folks were neutral on the balance, places we visited were pretty, but not moving, intellectually interesting but not emotionally stirring. Walking the streets was hectic, aside from the local eats in Hoi An, we never found any food to get excited about.

Taking it easy in Hanoi

I’m not writing this to complain, but to explain that when we got to Hanoi, we didn’t have tons of energy or enthusiasm for further exploration. (It’s also important to note that travel is SUCH an individual thing – for what ever reason these were our experiences in Vietnam and this doesn’t mean that country isn’t worth visiting if you are contemplating it!) There were a number of touristy things we were considering – visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or the Hanoi Hilton in the city, or doing a trip to the hills at and around Sapa to experience some minority culture.

But as we started to thaw from the exhaustion of the stink-bus experience, we realized, we simply didn’t want to do these things. The energy and motivation just weren’t there.

So we shortened our list, took things a bit easier, started making our plans for how to get into China. Our hotel was in a good spot, so we had plenty of easy access to the interesting, busy old quarter with its thematic streets. We spent a lot of time drinking coffee and researching at Highland, Vietnam’s answer to Starbucks.

I didn’t take many pictures (believe it or not! 😉 ). So while we visited Ngoc Son Temple and took many a leisurely turn around the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake with its excellent people watching, I have no photos of either.

We visited the Hanoi branch of Fanny’s and I can now report that even durian ice cream stinks. Not only that, but the funky flavor (part gasoline, part sweetened cheese fondue, part sweaty armpit) l i n g e r e d for far too long! I’ve recovered now but would still need to work up my nerve to try the actual fruit.

We did other touristy things – saw the kind of kitsch, kind of cool water puppet show, visited the lovely Temple of Literature, home to Vietnam’s first university. We also made the hotel staff very happy and agreed to book an overnight trip to Halong Bay with them. I’ll do a separate post about Halong Bay. In the mean time though, here are some photos from the Temple of Literature.

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