Appreciating the Awesome Splendour of Halong Bay
My wife and I went on a four nights and five days tour of Hanoi and also Halong Bay recently. It turned out to be an eye opener of sorts because of the very interesting sights. The cacophony of traffic sounds in Hanoi, however can drive one to utter distraction.
The privilege of owning a car for the average Vietnamese is an almost impossible dream. This is because of the high tax on motor cars. The next best option is to own a motorcycle or a scooter. The average starting pay for a fresh university graduate in the private sector is about US $ 200.00 per month. There is an adjustment to the pay by about US $ 30 after about six months.
With a population of about seven million in the city and three million on the outskirts of the old city, Hanoi is practically bursting at the seams. Millions of motorcycles are all over the place … both in the Old Quarter as well as in the other parts of the city.
Millions of Motorcycles on the Move
We were informed that we could walk about the area especially to places of interest in the Old Quarter where our hotel La Dolce Vita ( The Good Life in Italian ) is situated. It is rather strange that the hotel has chosen an Italian name because the country was a former French colony. I think it is all about a lingering resentment for the past occupation.
Casually walking about the area is possible for the Vietnamese people but for tourists it is certainly a risky and unwise proposition. Only the foolhardy would attempt this walking tour.
Method in the Traffic Madness
Why is this so?
Because of the millions of motorbike riders, young and old, men and women who swarm about the place, even in no entry streets! There is an almost continuous procession of motorbikes crisscrossing the area in an impatient manner.
In my past working visits to the Vietnamese capital, my local colleague had to hold my hand and help me cross the street safely. I had to trust her judgement without question! Only the Vietnamese seem to be able to read the minds of the motorcyclists with some degree of assurance.
Pavements Have Been Taken Over
On the main roads of Hanoi there are pavements for one to use with a degree of confidence. This is not the case for the back streets of the Old Quarter nor the side lanes which are all packed with tiny shops selling all manner of goods and boutique hotels.
What is even more curious is that the pavements have been taken over for other than the intended use! Many pavements serve as parking bays for the numerous motorbikes!
Some pavements serve as extensions for small restaurants and here one finds some plastic chairs ( meant for children ) but used by adults. They sit at equally small tables as they enjoy their noodles almost as if they are squatting!
Other pavements serve to store goods for the shops. So if you wish to walk in the area, your only option is to dice with death or injury and walk on the street while having eyes at the back of your head too!
Courteous, Kind and Helpful People
The people of Hanoi, from the hotel staff, tour company staff, restaurant workers and shop assistants are unfailingly kind, considerate and helpful.
Many of these people can speak English but some struggled with the language. Everyone, of course, understood sign language when all else failed.
The Attractions of Hanoi
Hanoi, like any other major city in the world, has its fair share of attractions. Some of these are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. There is an impressive and huge Ba Dinh Square, Uncle Ho’s Stilt House ( a modest two room building ) where he lived for most of the time, a lovely Botanical Gardens and an imposing, stately and sturdy Presidential Palace.
The palace was the former residence of the Governor of Indochina. After 1954 it was renamed and became the office for the president of Vietnam. This is also where foreign dignitaries are welcomed and subsequent meetings with VIPs are held. I consider this building a gem.
West Lake of Hanoi
In addition, the serene West Lake of Hanoi is a true wonder of nature. It is the largest lake in the capital of Vietnam and has a shore length of 17 km and 500 hectare in area.
This lake and the other lakes of Hanoi are visited frequently by the residents of the city, including seniors and young children. It is also well landscaped and provides a refreshing oasis in an otherwise bustling city.
Ninh Binh, Tam Coc and Bich Dong Cave
There are a number of interesting sites to marvel at in Ninh Binh province. The province is a good two hour drive from Hanoi in a Hyundai Coaster. It is gaining a growing reputation and some believe that over time it may even surpass Halong Bay in popularity because of its outstanding natural beauty and impressive limestone caves. But that is debatable.
Here at Hoa Lu, the ancient citadel of Vietnam we visited the temples of two dynasties. One temple was dedicated to a king and the other lesser temple was dedicated to a general who was subsequently appointed a king! The citadel was built in the 10th century.
Scenic and Enjoyable Boat Ride
Next, we went on a scenic and slow boat ( simple metal sampan ) ride with most boats carrying two or more passengers. It was a pretty uncomfortable ride but it was nevertheless a spectacular ride as the boatman rowed the boat using his two feet. There are also boatwomen and I even noticed a young boy of say twelve years of age rowing a boat with passengers.
During the ninety minute boat ride, the boat drifted down the lake among the villages, lush padi fields and impressive limestone mountains. We also had the unique pleasure, ‘ drama ‘ and thrill of passing slowly through three caves in almost total darkness. The limestone caves all gray with age were a sight to behold. No wonder Hollywood chose this place for some scenes in the movie blockbuster King Kong.
Awesome Splendour of Halong Bay
This was the highlight of our brief holiday in Vietnam. Halong Bay which incidentally enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status is regarded as the 2nd most popular site among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
We spent a night aboard a small ship which had about 16 cabins on board and which could accommodate about 32 individuals in all. The ship also had a crew of 12 including chefs.
As we cruised around the massive bay which has a 120 km coastline and is 1550 km in size with about 2000 islets, we could understand and better appreciate its incredible splendour and majesty. We also had a chance to view a beautiful sunset from the top deck of the ship. One unforgettable sight was to notice and marvel at the karsts landscape.
Three Important Considerations
There are three important points to note.
Type of Ships
You can choose to stay on a 3, 4 or 5 star ship and pay accordingly. So do remember this point when you speak to your travel agent and make your booking.
Best Time to Visit Hanoi
The other point is to choose the best time to visit Hanoi. The best time is from December to February when the weather is much more agreeable. In the evening, the temperature will hover between 12 to 14 degrees and you will probably need a sweater to keep you comfortable.
Uncomfortable Tour Buses
The tour buses we had were really uncomfortable and had poor air conditioning systems. We had three different tour buses during the time we spent in Hanoi and Halong Bay. All three were Hyundai Coasters which could seat about 20 or so passengers.
If these buses are used for short trips within the city, then that is fine. However, to use such tour buses for the two hour journey to Ninh Binh province or for the four hour trip to Halong Bay is most unsuitable.
The reasons: the seats had a very thin padding and were much too tight for two normal sized Asian adults; the air conditioning systems in all three buses were poor and we felt very uncomfortable.
In addition, on our return journey from Halong Bay and to make matters worse, the air conditioning system broke down twice early on. We continued the rest of the journey with the driver keeping the automatic door as well as the driver’s window open during the drive back. A most unpleasant experience!
Some other photos from the trip.