Hanoi for us will always be remembered as our "City of requirement" a bit like in Harry Potter's room of requirement - everything we needed was there.
We arrived in Hanoi at "Silly 'O' Clock", weary from another overnight train journey. Although it was really early in the morning we decided to go to our hotel and just sit in the lobby and wait for our room to be ready, or at least dump our bags while we go to find some breakfast. We had chosen a cheap 2* hotel and had to wake the sleeping night porter from his slumber on the reception couch. Fortunately, he didn't mind, fed us some tea and the wifi code and we were happy. Change of shift and the nice lady at reception informed us "So sorry there is something wrong with your room, we will have to move you to our sister hotel" Oh dear, well alright then as long as it's at the same cost. We were taxied across town at the hotel's expense to the Hotel Marvellous, and oh marvellous it was! We are talking 4* beautiful hotel in perfect downtown location - yes there is a God! (that’s a bit strong, missus! Let's just say thanks to St. Julian https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_the_Hospitaller who looks like a bit of a shirt lifter in this Wikipedia entry!) The hotel had only been open a few weeks and reading between the lines they were moving people here from the cheaper hotel to fill up the new place and get reviews and a presence online. We are more than happy to oblige with a glowing review, even if we do look like the scruffy guests who they have dragged off the street!
So 4star hotel for 2star price - we are very happy bunnies.
We didn't really want to leave the room, quite happy to luxuriate in the lovely comfy bed but felt we should at least look at Hanoi. Another vibrant Vietmenese city, but we are a bit travelled out, after being on the road for 8months and all we really want are a few home comforts - Hence a trip to Toni and Guy for haircuts, (yes they have T&G in Vietnam!) get our nails painted and a massage, even hardy overlanders need a bit of pampering now and then. (Oh how I can hear the really hardy overlanders scoff at this lol!) Yes, true we aren't very hardy! Finally, and something which makes John very happy, a trip to the Cinema to see the new Star Wars film - ahh feeling much better now, Thank you Hanoi - you provided us with everything we needed. We will be back and do some sight-seeing soon, honest!
We even got to meet a Star-Trooper (note the haircut!)
It's Christmas! (I can hear the distinct vocals of Roy Wood bellowing out Wizards hit Christmas song!)
Suitably scrubbed up with our new haircuts and painted nails we head off to Halong Bay for our Christmas treat. We have decided to indulge ourselves with a Cruise around Halong bay for the 24th and 25th. These cruises can be picked up very cheaply in Hanoi but we had been warned by other travellers not to go for the cheapest as you could end up in a rat infested boat, with dubious safety. (actually, if its rat infested it should at least indicate that the boat isn't about to sink!) We booked online a two-night trip with Halong Paloma Crusie, It is inclusive of food and drink (not alcohol) and a number of excursions. We had high expectations due to the cost, however, after the delights of the aptly named "Marvellous Hotel" the boat was a bit of a letdown, everything a little bit tired and in need of some TLC - never mind it's Christmas and everyone is in a festive mood, so let the party begin!
Halong bay really is tourist central! There were literally hundreds of boats going out for the night, and they all run a very tight ship following their set schedule, it feels like you are on a conveyer belt with instructions being given to you from all directions - “Get on boat!” , “Go to room!”, “Come to deck!”, “Get off boat!”, “Go on excursion!” “Chop, Chop!” Too exhausting for us and we miss the first excursion to some caves - how could they be better than Phong Nah anyway!
Most people only seem to do the one night cruise, which really only gives you a fleeting glimpse of the amazing seascape. Halong bay is a world heritage UNESCO site, famed for the thousands of limestone karsts rising out of the blue, blue water and creating a surreal backdrop, you definitely feel you are in a movie set here! It is stunning, and probably one of the most beautiful places we have ever been BUT BEWARE - it is known for its party boats, which of course is fine if that is what you want, but if it's not your scene then, not so much fun. All boats congregate in one spot for the first night, also on a one night cruise, you don't get the opportunity to get away from the main tourist area, the water closer to the bay is dirty and has various objects of suspicious content floating around, and you will always be in sight of another (or several) other cruise ships
Beautiful Halong Bay
The two-night option allows you to get away from the party boats, the dirty water and to see so much more of the bay, away from all the crowds. On the second day (Christmas day for us) we were taken off by tender to a much more remote part of Halong bay where we didn't see any other ships or people - we Kayaked around the huge limestone Karsts, through caves and even went for a refreshing dip after dinner, the weather wasn't so kind to us and it rained a bit, but this didn't take away any of the fun of the day, and it is December after all!
Christmas Day, Halong Bay style!
Just a little more about the boat, there were probably around 50 guests onboard the food was mediocre but not bad and alcohol expensive, happy hour meant half price cocktails and a very persuasive barman who was the life and soul of the party and wanted you to try all of his concoctions! We woke up on the first morning to find our cabin roof leaking and a big puddle at the end of the bed! We were going off on the tender to the other end of the bay, and the staff said we should pack all of our things and they could move us to another cabin, we didn't really want to pack up and move, we only had one more night so we said it would be fine if they just cleaned up and we would manage. Everything was spick and span when we got back at the end of the day so we didn't think any more about it until we came to fill in the evaluation form at the end of the trip. Question - would you recommend Paloma Halong Cruises to a friend? Answer - No. After our farewell lunch, we were summoned by Mr Head Steward as he wanted to "speak with us" feeling a bit nervous, had we done something wrong? But no, they wanted to wipe our bar tab clean, to apologise for the leaky roof, anyone who knows me, knows that wasn't a cheap option for them! So well done Paloma Cruise for doing the right thing :)
Cheers Paloma Cruises! I seem to have two drinks, but look at the lovely nails!
We had a couple more days back in Hanoi before returning to Laos, where we half-heartedly did some sight-seeing, we wanted to go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but we missed our chance as it was closed the day we had earmarked for it (closed Monday's and Friday's) We had also heard that Mr Minh wasn't in residence anyway as he had gone back to Russia for his annual - re-embalmment spa - lucky escape for us I think!
So that's what we didn't do! We did visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, where you watch a traditional water puppet show - These originate from when the paddy fields were flooded and villagers would stand waist deep in water and entertain with their wooden puppets. These guy's exhibited a real skill in moving the puppets around their watery stage - yes it is touristy but well worth an hour of anyone's time.
Downtown Hanoi - as the street bar gets busier the road gets smaller as more and more chairs come out!
A stroll around the lake at night
We walked around the lake, visited the old quarter, ate lots of delicious street food, and generally took in the atmosphere - yes we probably should have done more temples and tours but there are only so many temples a person can take before they all merge into one!
Kids playing badminton outside of St Joseph's Cathedral - who needs a net when you have bikes!
Vietnamese Drip Coffee - John loved it, strong and served with condensed milk!
No need for expensive restaurants in Vietnam - Street food is the tastiest
I got a pair of prescription aviator sunglasses made in less that 24 hours for the equivalent of £15 and a pair of ”North Face” walking trousers for £12 so retail therapy was cheap here too!
Goodbye Vietnam, you have supplied adventure, culture, history and some amazing food - I think we will be back some day. Definitely. It’s a wonderful place with so much to discover and a people you have to admire for their friendliness and resilience.