Tag Archives: Hanoi

Northern Vietnam

In the space of a week we have explored the chaos of Hanoi’s old quarter, visited the rural town of Nihn Bihn, done the whole Halong Bay thing, been back to Hanoi to catch a bus to Sapa to trek and have ended up back in Hanoi waiting for another bus. Thank goodness for organised and determined friends.

HANOI

The capital of Vietnam is a twisting mass of narrow roads, cluttered sidewalks, tiny plastic chairs, bicycle merchants, rubbish and midnight curfews.

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There is no visible logic to the streets of Hanoi!

Some cool things to do are explore the different streets in the old quarter. They are all trade or merchandise specific! Go for an early run around the Hoan Kiem Lake and take in the morning tai chi classes. Eat Pho at a impromptu side walk restaurant- remember Pho is a breakfast food, so look for the mobile restaurants in the mornings. Drink thick, sweet Vietnamese coffee. At any time of the day.

A view of Hoan Kiem Lake

A view of Hoan Kiem Lake

NIHN BIHN

The town of Nihn Bihn is small and rural and has not yet been over-run with tourists. The 2 hour trip turned into a 3 hour one along bumpy roads with the driver making full use of his hooter. These are all things we are slowly getting used to, traveling through Vietnam!

But getting to Nihn Bihn was worth it. We spent our first afternoon there on tiny little canoes, rowed by leathery men and woman well into their old age, on the Ngo-Dong river. This is one of the most popular things to do while visiting Nihn Bihn and there were indeed other tourists around. The river winds through towering limestone karsts and apple-green rice paddies and ploughs its way through 3 main cave systems. The there-and-back-again trip takes around 2 hours.

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Tour boats on the Ngo Dong river with towering krasts in the background.

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One rickety canoe. One strong rower. One Determined saleswoman. Two oblivious tourists!

The following morning we took a taxi out to the Bai Dinh temple complex, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. The temple complex is built up on a hill. The outer walls are lined with hundreds of stone Buddhas all sporting worn out knees from the hands of the pilgrims that flock here. Inside the temple complex you will see gigantic gold statues, a soaring pagoda, an enormous bronze bell, a pond and many pilgrims. It is a peaceful place. if you are thinking of visiting Bai Dinh you should allow at least 40 minutes to get there from Nihn Bihn and at least 90 minutes to look around.

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The worn out knees of the statues on the way up to the top of the Bai Dinh temple complex.

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Pilgrims making their way up to the Buddha at the top most end of the Bai Dinh temple.

HALONG BAY

Halong Bay was the complete opposite to where we had just come from. Full of tourists, touts and options for where we wanted to spend the night. Because we were on such a tight schedule we decided that we wouldn’t do the whole 3 days/ 2 nights out on the bay and rather just do a day trip. If I ever get the chance to go back to Halong Bay I would do the overnight tour. The Bay was beautiful and we only just scratched the surface.

Fishing boats with the islands of Halong Bay in the background.

Fishing boats with the islands of Halong Bay in the background.

SAPA

Our last stop on the tour of the North was Sapa. My favourite stop! We were here to do a trek into the hills with some of the locals. Sapa is a mountain town that is home to a number of minority tribes, most of whom offer treks up into the mountains and their villages. The way that these treks are offered is comical. Women flock around arriving buses, most of which are overnight from Hanoi, and hound you until you agree to trek with them. And then they hound you all day, with smiles and giggles and ‘Remember me?’ “Buy from me!’ They are relentless but amusing.

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The group of young H’Mong women who followed us around, relentlessly, all day.

The trek we decided to go on was with a woman form the Black H’Mong tribe. It is the biggest tribe in the area and the woman are easily identifiable by their indigo outfits and colourful head scarves. We were doing a 2 day trek which involved hiking up to the village, and by village I mean 2 houses, spending the afternoon at the village looking around, hanging out and eating and drinking with the family, sleeping on a wooden platform about the kitchen fire and hiking out of the mountains the following day. It was an amazing experience to talk to our guide, who has learnt English only from talking with tourists, and seeing how the H’Mong live in the hills in a wooden hut with a mud floor, a couple of horses, pigs and chickens and a few terraces of rice paddies. I would highly recommend the experience if you ever find yourself in Sapa.

Green tea fields up in the mountains around Sapa.

Green tea fields up in the mountains around Sapa.

Northern Vietnam was cold and grey and chaotic and a whirlwind.

Our humble lodgings for the night , high in the mountains around Sapa.

Our humble lodgings for the night , high in the mountains around Sapa.

And with that our whirlwind tour of Northern Vietnam came to an end.

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Hanoi Reunions

I had an early flight out of Bangkok, I was up at 4am to get to the airport on time. But it was so worth it because I was going to be reunited with my wonderful friends in Hanoi, Vietnam. Double whammy!

Thailand had made travel so easy. It was a good place to start in. Hanoi on the other hand is a different story. There was nobody at the airport rushing up to me with a colour-coded sticker, ushering me to a bus, predicting my desired move. Hanoi hit me with some realities of travel.

This person looked at me with hungry eyes, ‘jump in my taxi’ they said. That person, much more official looking, looked at me with weary eyes, ‘my taxi is more expensive, but I’m much more reliable’ they said. ‘Where is the bus?’ I asked. They warned, ‘don’t take that bus, it’s very slow.’ Then they were all around me at once. I was the deer in the headlights. The clueless tourist. That was my own fault. I hadn’t checked my options, I hadn’t planned my moves, I hadn’t written down the address of the hostel where I wanted to go. The taxi driver assured me that he knew where ‘Hanoi Hostel’ was. I believed him. I jumped in. The other eyes followed me. I was on my way into Hanoi.

It was an interesting drive. Vietnam seemed a world apart from Thailand in terms of development. It also didn’t help that the sky was hanging low and grey, cold. Bicycles, scooters, cars, buses and pedestrians swarmed the highway in certain areas. I blinked my eyes shut as we squeezed past them. Houses stood like tightly packed matchboxes, their contents overflowing, bursting out of the front windows.

Every inch of space is used in Hanoi.

Every inch of space is used in Hanoi.

As we sped into downtown Hanoi my mouth couldn’t help turning into a smile. It is just like in the pictures, just the way people describe it. Narrow, chaotic, full, colourful and dirty. I loved it. And then the taxi driver started his funny business. He all of a sudden didn’t know where the hostel was. He could only deposit me at the doorstep of a different place, where he would obviously then get a cut. All of a sudden the 4am start, the chaos, the hustle and the confusion of Hanoi didn’t seem so good. I am terrible at finding my way. I was not looking forward to shouldering my backpack and wondering the curving streets of Hanoi trying to find a matchbox shaped building in among all of the other identical matchboxes.

Trying to navigate the streets of Hanoi.

Trying to navigate the streets of Hanoi.

But I did it! And I was reunited with two very special friends, who are, thankfully, way better at following maps and getting their bearings than I am. They are generally also way more prepared and have a plan for our 3 weeks in Vietnam. Luckily they had also figured out how to cross the streets of Hanoi, which is no easy feat for a first timer- it pretty much involves a slow and steady pace, and no fear. Just go. Join in the hustle.

Freinds, Hanoi, mini plastic tables, beer and street food!

Freinds, Hanoi, mini plastic tables, beer and street food!