We arrived in Hanoi after a short flight from Danang. Unlike our short flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, which saved us a lot of travelling time, it ended up taking us hours to get to our destination. Our flight was delayed, then the taxi from the airport which should have taken 40-50 minutes took two and a half hours, as we got stuck in horrendous traffic, which seems to be pretty constant in Hanoi. Hanoi itself was one of the crappiest places we've visited on our travels, which I'll come back to later in this post. We had headed here mainly to travel on to Halong Bay. The Lonely Planet guide book describes Halong Town as an unfortunate gateway to Halong Bay, but I believe this extends to Hanoi being an unfortunate gateway to many nice destinations in the north of Vietnam!
We booked a three-day, two-night cruise via our guest house, which cost 250 USD / 150 GBP for the both of us in total. The cruise company was called Fantasea. We thought this price seemed pretty reasonable and we had been warned to avoid lower cost options, which can be very disorganised and sometimes you can end up with rats as shipmates! We were picked up early in the morning from our guest house and driven the three and a half hour distance on a coach to Halong City. After a short wait, we were taken in a small boat a short distance to board a larger boat, which was anchored in the port. You may have seen the Fanta-Sea image doing the rounds online in the past, if so, you will be as amused as we were at the name of the cruise company!
The boat travelled slowly from the port and around Halong Bay, while we had lunch and got to know the other travellers onboard. We were really lucky with the group we were travelling with, which included lovely and interesting people from all over the world, including Ireland, Switzerland, Canada and Australia. The buffet lunch was very tasty and it was great to have such a variety of different Vietnamese food to feast on. The Halong Bay views were stunning, with giant limestone islands [1,969 in total] towering over us, as we sailed around them. No photos can do justice to how beautiful the area is.
Our first stop of the day was to some caves, which we walked through. These are very touristy caves, much like Wookey Hole in the UK. I used to regularly go caving in Somerset in caves you'd have to crawl through with a head torch, so I didn't find them as entertaining as other people may. It was nice to visit though and we were highly entertained by our guide pointing out that various rocks looked like different animals, that is, if you squint and tilt your head at a certain angle! The guide also joyfully pointed out that the well-illuminated rock in the picture below did of course look like a pointed finger. We found our guide Peter very entertaining throughout the three-day trip, but unfortunately for him, mostly at his expense. He had lots of very funny mannerisms and had a habit of repeating each sentence three times to ensure we all understood his poor English.
Our next stop was to a small floating jetty, where we were given two-person kayaks to paddle around in. We were also able to paddle through a cave into a small lagoon, surrounding by rocks, which had monkeys climbing around in it! Emily and I were really worried about getting into our kayak, as it seemed to have sunk and was stuck under the jetty. Several people had to drag it out of the water and empty it out. Thankfully it kept out the water whilst we used it!
After kayaking we reboarded the boat, which remained in the same position near the monkey cave for the night. There are hundreds of other cruise boats dotted around all over Halong Bay, entertaining thousands of tourists. As night fell, the only thing you could see in the darkness was the lights from other boats anchored nearby. We ate a delicious dinner on the boat, followed by beers and drinking games with our new friends.
View from the Monkey Island viewpoint
Breakfast was at 7am the following morning, which was painfully early after getting up early the morning before to travel to Halong Bay, along with a busy day and a few beers the night before! We travelled a short distance to Monkey Island, where we were the first boat to arrive and had the place pretty much to ourselves. We were greeted by monkeys as we stepped off the boat, which are surprisingly menacing creatures when you get too close to them! We walked up lots of stairs [the most exercise we have had in ages!] and enjoyed the beautiful view you can see in the photo above from a viewpoint. We were also given the opportunity to swim on the beach on the island, but Emily and I gave it a miss as the water didn't look particularly clean [probably due to the tourist boats!]
After another gentle cruise further around the bay, we got off the boat at Cat Ba island and said goodbye to a couple of guys who were doing a shorter trip than us. The rest of us got on a small coach that was waiting for us, which drove us to the Cat Ba National Park to do a trek. Emily and I were a bit reluctant about trekking, as we were feeling tired and lazy - and because we only had flip flops to wear on our feet! We ended up doing the whole two-hour trek anyway, which involves climbing up steep rocks to a viewpoint at the top ...and then back down again. It was pretty dangerous anyway, but the flips flops and the rain that started as we started descending really didn't help. Despite this, we made it back alive and enjoyed the experience, despite being exhausted and covered in mud and sweat!
Cat Ba National Park trek
Viewpoint in Cat Ba National Park
After another short drive, we were dropped off at the Cat Ba Palace Hotel [nice enough hotel, but not as grand as it sounds!] where we had lunch. We had the rest of the afternoon free to wander down to the beach. The beach closest to the hotel was in a nice little bay, which reminded me of a beach we went to in the English Riviera in the summer just gone [which you can read about here]. We met up with everyone back at the hotel for another buffet dinner in the evening, before heading out for drinks and card games. It was Halloween that night, which was celebrated by the bar we went to, for the benefit of tourists. The owner was pretty funny and gave us some free drinks and he seemed to be quite drunk himself! We taught our Canadian and Swiss friends to play 'Shithead' and they taught us a simple and fun game called 'President and Asshole'!
The next morning we got back on the boat and gently cruised back to Halong City, to make our way back to Hanoi. It was very relaxing and lovely to see the beautiful scenery one last time, before going back to noisy and chaotic Hanoi. We arrived back at our hotel in Hanoi late afternoon, where we were frustrated to discover that the room we had booked when we left them was not available. This was particularly frustrating as we had already stayed with them when we left AND booked the tour through them. The guest house was called Lucky Guest House 1 and they also own Lucky Guest House 2. Be sure to avoid them. They said their friend had a guest house nearby that could offer us a room at the same price. We were walked quite a way to a rather less pleasant looking guest house, where it turns out they didn't have a room for us after all! We ended up finding another room elsewhere, which was a bit more pricey, but a really nice hotel for chilling out after our awesome trip.
As I mentioned previously, we thought Hanoi was one of the crappiest places we have been to on our travels, to put it simply. We found that there were limited options of things to do and see and no one we met on our trip seemed to have discovered anything that great either. The traffic is relentless and walking anywhere is a nightmare due to the non-stop flow of scooters and taxis. The food options were pretty crap too, so we ended up having to walk a long way to find somewhere appealing to eat, which is unusual in Vietnam.
We visited the Ngoc Son temple on the Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, which was nice enough, but it was quite a small and brief place to visit. I was pretty delighted to discover a Lego Shop, which I have to say was probably the highlight of my visit to Hanoi, which probably just about sums up the whole experience!
Despite not enjoying Hanoi, we didn't have particularly long to stay there before the next leg of our adventure. It was worth being there as a means to visit Halong Bay, which really was an incredible and great value trip, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone! Another popular place to head to from Hanoi is Sapa, which has beautiful rice plantations and scenery, with some treks you can do in this scenic area. We would have liked to have gone, but we were a bit short of time to move on and make our way towards Malaysia. The photos and write up of Sapa also look reasonably similar to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, which we are already planning to visit during our 9 days in Malaysia, which I'll write about soon.
Thanks for reading!