Hanoi and Ha Long Bay
Hanoi was the last stop on our year abroad in Southeast Asia. I will admit that we were a little tired by this point, but at the same time, I wish that we had a few more weeks to explore Vietnam. There are so many interesting parts to the country and obviously a lot of intense and interesting history. Next time I would love to get up to the mountains of Sapa, and down to Hoi An, which was just voted one of the best places to visit in the world. But we did what we could with the time we had...
On our first night in Hanoi, we went to a little spring roll restaurant: Viet Spring Rolls. The food was delicious, but what we loved the most was the celebrity-like attention we got by the wait staff. They were bending over backward to make sure everything was perfect ... and this was just a little hole in the wall establishment. Before we left, the cashier wrote us a list of things we should see and do while in town and she had some great suggestions like Note Cafe and Train Street.
Since Vietnam is so rich in history, we thought it would be smart to have a tour on our first day. But in an effort to keep things fresh and fun, I hired Ahn from Backstreet Tours for a truly off-the-beaten path tour of Hanoi. We traveled around town in a topless vintage Soviet Jeep and our first stop was the black market chop shop street. Well, alrighty authentically unique tour. We were fed platters of incredible food from stalls in the local market and a mom and pop restaurant. We ate little cakes made by a family in the sweatiest side alley shop and we passed on beer at 9am. We drove right on by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum... well he was not in town anyways. We watched trains rumbling down Train Street and looked edgy getting photos on Long Bien Bridge. Ahn did a masterful job transplanting some history along with the fun and it felt like the closest thing to seeing a day in the life of real Hanoi without having local hosts. Our final stop was, The Hidden Gem, for some famous egg coffee. The thought of egg coffee was unappealing to me, and truth be told, I don't even eat eggs so I let my kids get egg cocoa and I tried it. First I had to pry it out of their hands.. it really was that good! I highly recommend both egg coffee and Backstreet Tours- you can even upgrade your experience to motorcycles if you're really feeling adventurous.
Other Things That We Loved in Hanoi:
Lotus Water Puppet Show. The theater in located next to the lovely Hoàn Kiếm Lake. They have multiple shows daily, so it's the perfect place to rest for an hour when you're out exploring and need a break from the heat or the rain. It is an absolutely bizarre story of ancient times of Hanoi with musical accompaniment.
Metropole Hotel. While we didn't stay here, we spent several afternoons here enjoying afternoon tea and playing cards. The architecture. sublime food and hospitality, and the rich history of this hotel is well worth a visit. If these walls could talk...
Tailor Bros. There are incredible artisans around Hanoi, especially the makers of fine garments and embroidery. We enjoyed exploring the various shops along Hang Gai, but really thought it would be fun to leave with something custom. My son was the beneficiary of some beautiful new trousers made by the cool guys at Tailor Bros. They have all the fabric in shop and were able to turn around his pants in a few days. I would recommend starting the process as soon as you get to Hanoi in case you need time to make alterations before leaving.
Hoa Lo Prison. This was probably the most interesting and educational experience of our time in Hanoi. The kids have not yet studied the Vietnam War in school, so it was incredibly enlightening for them. It was also sort of amazing to see the prison and the history of the war through the lens of the Vietnamese.
One Pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature. Well, we made it here, but couldn't enjoy it at all with the summer downpour that joined us and would not relent. We really tried to push on, but the depth of water separating us from the sights was just too great. Now you know why we spent many an afternoon in the Metropole.
Food We Loved:
Bahn Mi 25. This was the best bahn mi - super fresh bread- and I appreciated that they had a vegan option.
Bun Cha Huong Lien. We ate here like Obama and Anthony Bourdain.
Note Cafe. You absolutely must get a coconut coffee while in Hanoi and there is no better place than this cute cafe. There are post-it notes all over the tables and walls and you can leave your own words of wisdom after you finish your iced coffee.
Where We Stayed:
The Oriental Jade. We chose this brand new hotel, which was in the heart of Hanoi. There were some growing pains since the hotel just opened, but nothing that the receptive and accommodating staff weren't willing and able to address.
You need a Visa to visit Vietnam and you need to show proof before leaving your departure airport. We saw several people scrambling at the airport an hour before the flight trying to get their papers in order via the eVisa website. We opted for the hand-held service, which cost a significant amount of money, but eliminated all the hassles upon departure and arrival.
Ha Long Bay
Let me start by saying, I don't think I am a cruise ship person. In fact, a cruise is my idea of hell on earth... well, water. But I really felt like Ha Long Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage Sight known for its beautiful emerald waters dotted with limestone islands, couldn't be missed. I chose a boat that was relatively small and offered a path through the water that was less popular. There are hundreds of tourist boats on the water every day and they often stop at the same tourist attractions, so I was eager to avoid clusters of people on bikes or kayaks and I didn't want views of the islands peppered with partying frat boats on big clunky boats. Thankfully, this was achieved on our Serenity Cruise. The boat was new and beautiful and the route was as described. We were able to bike around Cat Ba Island on a beautiful, quiet morning and swim in the waters off the boat at sunset.
But I still think the cruise ship life isn't for me. The food was pretty abominable- all buffets of course- and the itinerary was planned within an inch of it's life. Swim for 30 minutes. Quick- back in the boat. Kayak here- ok done. Loud speakers announcing tai chi and breakfast. Still, it was a gorgeous place to visit and thankfully the boating was less than 24 hours.