The name Hanoi means “Inside [the] river”. It was given this name in 1831 having previously been known as ‘Dragon Belly’, ‘Big Net’ and ‘Eastern Metropolis’, among others. It is apparently sometimes referred to as the Paris of the east, due to its large boulevards and French colonial architecture. Like Paris it is divided in several districts and we were staying in the most touristic one, Old Quarter. I found it quite pleasant, although it is devoid of large Parisian streets, instead permeated by narrow alleys and roads clogged with street vendors and the ever-present motorbikes. There are 7 million people in Hanoi and 5 million motorcycles. The pavements are reserved for parking motorbikes which means that the roads are shared by the aforementioned street vendors and bikers, cars, busses and pedestrians. Somehow nobody gets hurt – in fact a tour guide told us that Vietnam has only 7,000 road traffic fatalities per year and most of these are on the highways, not in the city. Still, it does mean that you can’t go anywhere fast in the city centre.
The train tracks into and out of the main station are just as hemmed in. Because of the relative infrequency of trains these tracks are actually used as alleyways most of the day. Yes, alleyways, they are far too narrow to qualify as streets. Seen from the train it is just a blur of alarmingly close windows and shop fronts, but if you walk down them they are very charming. One cafe even had a couple of chairs and a table set out in between the rails on the tracks. They advertise the next train time, as a way of telling you when you have to move but also so you know when the next show will begin. We timed it all wrong and saw a train exit the alley meaning that we’d have to wait several hours if we wanted to watch the next one from close quarters.
Instead we walked to the near by Ho Chi Minh museum. It’s a memorable experience, one of the more unique museums I’ve been to. After entering the imposing concrete structure on the ground floor you take a couple of flights of stairs and then enter a large atrium centered on a 3m tall statue of the man himself. This room is air-conditioned so we sat there for a while and watched people mirroring his pose in multiple photographs. The rest of the museum is part art piece, part autobiographical life story, told through the letters he sent before he became leader. The letters are positioned around floor to ceiling, creative representations of the Vietnamese struggle for independence, the decadence of capitalism and the volcanic explosion of the proletariat throwing off the shackles of the bourgeoisie. It wasn’t what I expected going in, and it was very short (we were in and out in 20 minutes), but I’d never advise against a unique experience.
As a tourist it’s an easy city, the major sights are clustered around the old town and the surrounding districts, and uber (and a local equivalent called ‘grab’) has taken the
fun hassle out of arranging a trip to somewhere further afield. In the evenings people come out and line the streets eating cheap barbecue and even cheaper beer. If you like people watching then this is the nightlife for you, pull up a comically undersized plastic chair, order some snacks and beer and then sit back and watch the ‘merry’ tourists navigating around the busy locals whilst trying to avoid the street sellers and beer girls pushing their brand of lager. My favourite was Halida Beer, although Saigon Beer was also pretty good. We only went to one craft beer place in Vietnam and it was in Hanoi, a place called C-Craft Beer, and it was offensively expensive. 50% higher than the price of a beer in a fancy Sheffied bar. Yes we do have them. They aren’t that popular.
Hoa Lu and Tam Coc
Ever since we’d arrived in Vietnam we’d been hearing about Ha Long Bay. It’s an almost mythical place in how essential it is to visit. The photos do look stunning, huge karst rocks tower above the crystal blue waters of the bay, with picturesque fishing boats milling around their bases. There are even supposed to be floating villages in the bay populated by people who never go on dry land. If you’ve seen the Top Gear Vietnam special this is their finish line. It’s close-ish to Hanoi and most people do a one or two-day tour from Hanoi as part of the Vietnam experience. However because it has become completely integral to most people’s itinerary that means that prices are high. Day tours start at around $30 and an overnight tour is closer to $80 and is really the only option seeing as the bay is a four-hour coach ride from Hanoi – a pretty tough ask for a day trip. It’s not too bad for a holiday maker on a two-week break but for cash strapped travellers it’s a bit much. Instead we opted for a place for called Tam Coc (literally ‘three caves’) which features the same karst rocks but has rivers and fields around their bases rather than azure seas. It is supposedly what Ha Long Bay looked like before the sea level rose. Our tour was $16 each from Bamboo Tours, I really like bamboo the plant so why not give the tour a go too?
The fist stop on the tour was Hoa Lu, which was the capital for most of the 10th and 11th centuries before Hanoi. There we visited two temples for the great rulers of the time, King Le and his successor who was one of his greatest generals. Interestingly King Le’s wife was instrumental in ensuring that his power was passed on to the general after his death, at which time she married the general and resumed her queenship. Her statue still stands in the generals temple, but faces where the kings temple is, to remind her of her first love. They even move her statue into the kings temple for one day a year. So sentimental!
After that we took the coach to Tam Coc. Our tour guide ushered us on to small, flat-bottomed, metal boats, two at a time. Each boat had a local villager providing the propulsion, at first rowing with their hands for the precise navigation away from the crowded quayside before switching to their feet for the rest of the trip. The journey was breathtaking – the cliffs loomed above us, their regimented striations giving the landscape and almost constructed appearance. There were small caves high up on the rockfaces and the occasional tree clung to a tiny crevice it had found, or created. It was an almost hypnotic experience, the steady splashing of the oars, the sun on your face and the occasional hail from one rower to another as they passed, all the while watched over by these incredible formations. Six times this waking dream was interrupted by the dark of the titular caves, their roofs low and broad, coated with stalactites.
We passed through all three and then, before turning back for the return leg a boat pulled alongside trying to sell us drinks. I politely declined, at which point they asked if I wanted to buy a drink for our rower. Again I declined, we’d been told to tip at the end of the journey as it was much more useful to the locals than a can of fizzy drink. Then just before we entered the caves our own oarswoman pulled out a sack full of souvenir items and tried to sell them to me. After declining that too we re-entered the cave, it may have been my imagination but I had to duck several times to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling, a manuever that had not been required on the outward trip. Maybe the complex right of way system these boats use meant that the journey back had less headroom, maybe I should have bought a t-shirt, who knows.
Full photos from our trip to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc can be seen here:
And from Hanoi, here: