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Things to do and where to stay in Vietnam (part 1)

Phoebe in Hanoi

Phoebe in Hanoi

As you might expect, a big part of getting married is having a honeymoon. For some  reason this is the part of the planning process which proved to be most difficult for Matt and I. We spent weeks trying to decide where to go and just couldn’t find a honeymoon destination that met our criteria: close to Australia with great food and budget friendly.

Then one night we found ourselves slurping down Pho at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant in West End, Quan Thanh. I believe the conversation went something like this: “Holy shizhen, I love Vietnamese food. It’s just so good,” I said. “I know, it’s amazing. I could eat this every day, all day,” said Matt. It was about this point we both looked up and locked eyes across a steamy bowl of broth, noodles and fresh mint. Vietnam. Why hadn’t it occurred to us sooner?!

Hanoi 

Part of me had thought I may not be welcome in Vietnam, that maybe the people wouldn’t want to be inundated by Western tourists. I’m happy to say I was very wrong! For a short while I thought I’d become a ghost, a kind of (very white) ghost that walks among the people. There was no hassling, touching, yelling or approaches from anyone and if you’ve ever been to Bali or Thailand you’ll appreciate this more than most. I asked a Hanoi local if the Vietnamese like tourists and she explained they did, they are just such a peaceful people that they don’t want to be rude and interrupt someone on their holiday.

The buzzing streets of Hanoi

The buzzing streets of Hanoi

Hanoi is a buzzing city. If you think you’ve been in heavy or crazy traffic, you’re wrong, you’re not even in the same postal code as the mad-house that is Hanoi traffic. When you first arrive and venture out of your hotel, you may wish to pack some spare undies because your first street-crossing experience is going to rattle your cage. The key is confidence, just start walking in a calm, set pace and don’t stop. You’ll be fine.

To be honest I didn’t find many sights that captured me, I found Hanoi was more about a vibe to immerse yourself in. We walked through the streets, dodged scooters and motorbikes and sought refuge behind friendly locals and their shops. The best way to soak it in is to find a cafe, restaurant or bar up high, settle in and watch the madness on the streets from a distance.

My stomach took charge of the situation and refused to let me anywhere near street food, but the local Vietnamese food served in restaurants was exceptional and so affordable. We ate like Kings ordering entrees, mains, desserts and drinks galore and barely ever went above $20us for a meal for two people. I had no issues with tummy trouble from the food and found everyone to be really accommodating of my vegetarian-ism, even offering to make local delights for me without meat so I could try them.

A local woman prepares Bun Ca

A local woman prepares Bun Ca

Choosing a restaurant can be a bit hit and miss, I think some of them may have studied one too many pirated copies of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and tried too hard to create a big western menu and a restaurant with crazy décor. The more simple the restaurant and the more traditional the menu, the better the food was. Don’t be afraid to get in there and try some new food you’ve never heard of before, I took a few risks and the paid off (for the most part).

I heard a few stories of crazy Vietnamese scooter pirates zipping around and cutting the backpacks and cameras off unsuspecting tourists. This actually happened to a friend of mine! But, I never saw any of this and it definitely didn’t happen to Matt and I. The whole city felt very safe except for one local who showed up in our room at the day spa and tried to scam us into coming to her house, presumably to harvest our organs or turn Matt into her gimp.

I enjoyed visiting Hanoi and experiencing a cramped, dense little city like no other I’ve been to. I was glad to move on after two days though as I felt like I’d seen everything I wanted to see and was starting to really choke a bit on the thick pollution from all the scooters and motorbikes. I’d recommend no more than 2 days in Hanoi, just to experience it, then head East to soak up the beautiful coastline.

Stay

Hanoi Elegance Ruby – a simple but classy little hotel, exceptional value for money and provides the best customer service I have received.

Eat

Gourmet Corner – perched on top of the Hanoi Elegance Diamond with beautiful views of Hanoi, delicious food and excellent service.

Quan An Ngon – an absolute hive of activity, this busy little place serves up more food than you can imagine and it is all tasty, cheap and traditional.

Halong Bay  

The Paloma, our junk ship (rat free!)

The Paloma, our junk ship (rat free!)

Booking a Halong Bay cruise is ridiculously stressful, I heard and read so many horror stories especially to do with theft and rats. I assume those incidents are separate and the local rats aren’t sharpening toothpicks into shivs, Shawshank style. So, I finally booked a cruise based on a recommendation from a close friend, The Paloma Cruise.

The drive out to Halong Bay from Hanoi isn’t fun, the roads are terrible, the traffic is crazy and the weather is hot and humid. I did see a local man with an unconscious (but live) water buffalo strapped to the back of his motorbike, which really made up for the painful drive. Picking a reputable cruise company also ensures a more comfortable and air-conditioned transfer out to Halong Bay, which is something you definitely want.

I recommend a 2 night, 3 day cruise as opposed to a 1 night, 2 day cruise. Once you arrive you will have forgotten all about the drive and will want to soak up as much of Halong Bay as possible as there is so much to enjoy. I also recommend splashing out the extra cash to get a room with your own balcony to sit and enjoy the sunset and sunrise.

Local boats steered by women from the floating village

Local boats steered by women from the floating village

Halong Bay is beautiful, the water wasn’t always enticing but the views as we sailed through it were breathtaking. I found the local food absolutely delicious and wasn’t bothered by the number of boats around us at all, it was really pretty seeing them lit up and night and watching them float past during the day.

We visited a few local floating villages and were amazed at how the people live on a maze of boats and floating houses they’ve built. Children, dogs, grandparents, aunties and uncles all live together in the same little place. Of course my first question was how you go about dating as a Vietnamese teenager growing up with your entire family 1 metre away. Our guide explained they have developed their own type of ‘parking’ where young couples take a small boat to a secluded area behind one of the rock formations and enjoy ‘date night’.

The Sung Sot Cave (Surprising Cave) wasn’t highly recommend in the research I did while planning the trip, however I really enjoyed it. Of course there are lots of tourists there, you’re in Halong Bay and, other then some pretty awesome gigantic rock formations, there’s not much else to look at, so  everyone wants to see the cave. I didn’t find it too crazy or overwhelming and think it’s well worth the visit.

A local woman from the floating village

A local woman from the floating village

As part of our 2 night cruise we were able to do some kayaking around a beautiful little secluded spot, I couldn’t even tell you where it was it was that hidden. We spent a day on a smaller boat just swimming, eating, kayaking, napping and jumping from the boat. As far as holidays go, moments like that are what really make it for me.

My tips for booking a Halong Bay cruise are to ask around and listen to recommendations from friends and family. You will always get what you pay for and it is a once in a lifetime experience so spend as much as you can afford on your cruise and your room.

Stay

Paloma Cruise - the Paloma boat was a great size and really well maintained. The room we had, with a private balcony, was more than big enough with a great bathroom comfy bed and much needed air conditioning. The food was really delicious and we always had more than we could eat. Most importantly, the staff were incredibly friendly and accommodating.

Have you visited Hanoi or Halong Bay and have any recommendations or stories? I would love to hear them and so would other readers so please share them in the comments below.

I’ll be posting ‘Part Two’ of the ‘littlegreybox guide to: Vietnam’ next week, so check back to read all about how we got caught in Typhoon Nari and our time in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh.

Phoebe.

littlegreybox

18 Comments on Things to do and where to stay in Vietnam (part 1)

  1. Thanks for the tips re: Ha Long Bay Phoebe! Currently trying to find a good cruise and will check out Paloma and Indochina as recommended above :-) AVC29.

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  2. Sannie Daniels // July 4, 2014 at 10:28 pm // Reply

    we did 3 days with Indochina Junk in May and loved it. Highlight of our 2 weeks in Vietnam. Started with a limo that included wifi!! And the rooms were airconditioned with ensuites and large windows with amazing views. Loved the kayaking, and the food was great, international and plenty of it, plus they catered for the vegetarians too,.

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  3. Thanks so much Phoebe for your advice….will contact Paloma on this matter and check with them. I’m sure that if they can look after you so well, they’ll be equally helpful with us! Best Regards. Joyce

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