Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Just a short 4 hour coach journey from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, lays a different kind of scene all together. Now a world heritage spot, Halong Bay is for sure one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. With each individual island coated in its own luscious green plant life that continues down to the waters below, any movie fan would be hard pressed not to relate this tropical paradise to any one of the Jurassic Park franchises. Among the huge rocky mountains an abundance of caves rest steadily waiting patiently to be explored, and it doesn’t take long to see why this place draws such a crowd. 

 View from our boat!
This was on the top of my ‘things to see’ list whilst staying in Hanoi but unfortunately due to the weather, all trips going in and out of Halong Bay were cancelled for my first 5 days there. Flooding caused huge problems that even culminated in people becoming stranded and sadly a number of fatalities too. However on the Thursday, the sun popped his head out as the clouds moved aside making it possible for us to take a trip to this wondrous land. There are many trips on offer from the centre of Hanoi, so many in fact that it can be hard to know who to go with. I would suggest booking your trip once you arrive in Vietnam though, as bizarrely internet bookings tend to be a lot more expensive. Also do shop around and perhaps don’t go for the cheapest, unless (that is) you want to end up on a rowing boat with an umbrella for shade.

Me and a friend booked with a lovely little man called Tony from the Maison D’ Hanoi Hotel (where I was staying). He sat us both down and explained everything in full from pick up to drop off and any extras that were included. It sounded like a great deal and at only $50 (£25) for the day, we certainly could not refuse. Ideally I would have liked to have spent longer there and perhaps stayed on a boat overnight, but I just simply ran out of time due to the weather. However if time isn’t an issue for you, I would definitely suggest staying there longer as it is truly something to be admired.

 Another boat...so many boats!
 The beautiful Halong bay
The next morning we set off at approximately 7:30am. A taxi picked us up from the hotel and took us to a big old coach that had both air conditioning and hilarious commentary from the tour guides on board. I was the only British person, as my friend was the only American which was really great as we got to meet a lot of new people from all over the world. We boarded the boat at around 12pm, sat down and enjoyed a nice lunch as we sailed off towards the bay. We were told a bit about the history of Halong and also some rather interesting facts surrounding the total number of islands. Locals will say that there are precisely 1,969 islands, as this was the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death. When in fact the bay consists of over 3,000 limestone islands all spectacularly rising up from the ocean below. Wow, Ho Chi Minh would be turning in his grave if he had one...true story.

 Even more boats!
We soon reached a gorgeous little cluster of islands which was perfect for our first activity of the day, Kayaking. It was fantastic to experience delving in and out of the different coves and exploring what each one of them had to offer, and this is something that I would definitely recommend doing. In certain areas all you could hear was the sound of the paddle brushing up against the water as we passed through, which at times was quite moving. If you’re thinking of paying a visit then definitely make sure you do some Kayaking - it was by far the best part of the trip for me. We then jumped back on the boat and sailed on to the next island to explore the many caves of Halong Bay. A lot of the islands here are hollow and over time have created these enormous caverns that have huge icicle-shaped formations, that hang down from the ceilings. It really was quite beautiful.

 Jurassic Park much?
  Kayaking in Halong Bay
 Icicle-shaped formations called Stalactites
 Local people apparently call this section -'The stairway to Heaven'
After this we had a lazy boat ride back to the port and finished our day trip with a cheeky little beer on the top deck. Bliss. We were incredibly lucky with the weather although I do believe that this place would be just as wonderful if it was absolutely pooring it down with rain too. So, if you’re ever in Vietnam be sure to check out this little treasure. I’m telling you now, you won’t regret it!

 A most awesome time in the most awesome Vietnam!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Hanoi, Vietnam...

As soon as I step off the plane I’m faced with approximately 1 million people all waving scruffy pieces of A4 paper at me with different peoples names on them. As I scan through each and everyone of them quickly but carefully, I fail to notice my own. Oh no! (I think) there is no one here to pick me up! Taxi for one it is then...RUBBISH! Just as I started to make my way outside I heard a group of Vietnamese people shouting something at me that I didn’t quite understand. Suddenly a short man popped up as if from nowhere and asked ‘Is this you?’...

Pheeew...I‘d recognise that misspelt surname anywhere! And so off we drove down the highway and through the endless torrential rain to the soundtrack of 80’s love songs FEATURING ‘Unchained Melody’. Classic. Once I arrived at the hostel and checked in, first thing was first...where’s the beer?! At only 5,000D (which is about 20p) you can get a pint of Bia Hoi, which is a home brewed beer that was actually pretty outstanding. Sooo outstanding in fact that I had to have a couple more.

I was staying at a place called The Backpackers Hostel in the Old Quarter for the duration of the week. As hostels go, this one was actually pretty good. It was clean, tidy and had an okay kind of breakfast. The staff were quite helpful and most of the people staying there were around the 18 - 25 age group (so just slightly younger than myself - awkward). The downstairs bar basically turned into a club at around 9pm, and although the noise didn’t bother me, not being able to turn the lights on or blow dry my hair at ANY point did start to wear me down. So on day 3 I decided to check myself into a lovely little Hotel up the road instead. The Hotel was called the Maison D’Hanoi and I can not recommend it highly enough. The staff were excellent and I even ended up booking my Ha Long Bay trip with them too. On my second night here they also upgraded me, which was a nice little bonus. Usually when I travel alone I do like to stay in hostels so I have the chance to meet people relatively easily, and I think in the future I will continue to do this but perhaps only for the first night, as apparently I can’t handle it anymore. There is definitely something to be said for comfort, a bit of class and a room with a view.

From This...

To this...


One of the many things I wanted to do whilst I was in Hanoi was to check out Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum. In 1969 when Ho Chi Minh (the former president of Vietnam) passed away, it was decided that despite his own wishes to be cremated, they would instead preserve his body as a mark of ‘respect’ for future generations, and so since 1975 his preserved body has been seen by people from all over the world. Bizarre right? Right! The Mausoleum is only open on Tuesday - Thursday and Saturday and Sundays from 8am - 10:30am, so you’ll have to get up nice and early if you don’t want to miss it. Shoulders must be covered and hands must be kept out of pockets at all times. The room itself felt like walking into a giant freezer but with armed guards for company instead of frozen peas surrounding the main ‘’attraction’’. It was a strange experience to see the body of a man who’s face is basically everywhere in Vietnam, and it was almost a little sad, but well worth a visit as its such a big part of the culture and history of this fascinating country.

Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum

Next on the list was The Military History Museum and Hoa Lo Prison, both of which gave extraordinary accounts of some of the tragic tales that occurred during the Vietnam War. The museum has a wealth of information and is the best place to go to learn about the history of the event itself. It is 30,000D (about £1) entrance fee and there is a great little outside area displaying various tanks, planes and military equipment. The prison is a really interesting place to visit too, as it was here that a lot of the famous political prisoners including John McCain (US Navy pilot and 2008 presidential nominee) were held and tortured during the war. On the way to the museum we stumbled across a railway line that ran through the incredibly narrow streets of Hanoi’s old town district. Apparently trains come through here twice a day and regularly brush past pedestrians and children playing in the streets. It was so interesting and slightly crazy to see just how close the tracks were to the houses, and how people were just casually strolling along the lines like it was totally normal. I’m sure you’d be arrested for that in England, but this is Hanoi after all, where rules and order don’t really apply. True story.

 Hoa Lo Prison
 Cell block tango?!
 The Military History Museum
 ...hundreds of grenades!
Trains actually run through here...crazy!

Other notable touristy spots that I visited were the One Pillar Pagoda, The Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minhs House on Stilts, Ho Chi Minhs Museum and the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. I also went to the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, and saw the show that the guide books rave about. It was pretty interesting and something that (as a fan of the performing arts) I very much enjoyed. All of these places are worth checking out if you have the time, but probably my favourite part of Hanoi was just wandering around the streets. It is mad, hectic and there is crap everywhere but it is extremely interesting and definitely tests your reactions. Crossing the road here is a challenge (mentally) to say the least. There are no traffic lights, no rules and in most places no pavements or particular side of the road that people stick to. You basically have to step out into oncoming traffic, going against everything you have ever learnt, and just slowly cross as cars and motorcycles drive around you. I have never felt so stressed whilst crossing the street before, but I must admit that after a couple of days it is something you do get use to.

 Ho Chi Minhs Museum
 One Pillar Pagoda
 Hoan Kiem Lake
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
The food was incredible in Hanoi and I pretty much had one of the best sandwiches of my life there. I can’t even describe it, but just know that I was only there a week and I ate 4 of them (2 of which were on the same day)...it was THAT good. I had some lovely Pho aswell and some great coffee...but also some TERRIBLE coffee. It was pretty hit and miss with the coffee.

Good coffee!

Amazing Barbq...
 ...messy restaurant

 Coffee and a bit of pho pho!
 Best Sandwich EVER!
 EGG coffee!
Best Pho!

So overall I would totally recommend a visit to the Capital city of Vietnam, but perhaps not if you’re looking for a relaxing holiday. It’s go go go, a bit grubby around the sides but an absolutely fascinating city packed full with history, culture and not forgetting the greatest sandwiches known to man. EPIC!

Next stop, the beautiful Halong Bay. To be continued...

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