When we arrived in Hanoi at 6.00am we said goodbye to Annette and Marco and took a taxi to the new Hanoi Hilton hotel. The night had been a rather unsteady one and none of us had slept particularly well. We had a quick wash in the hotel lobby bathroom before an international buffet breakfast in the restaurant. The car to take us to our next destination, Ha Long Bay, arrived at 9.00a.m. for our three-hour drive.
On the way our driver stopped at a local disabled persons cooperative workshop where we were invited to look around. Inside were tight rows of young people making beautiful embroidered pictures. Many were deaf, dumb or disabled in some other way or unable to do any other work. The workshop was well-placed mid-way on the busy road between Hanoi and Ha Long so tourists would likely stop. We looked around the large workshop and bought a placemat-sized embroidery of peasants working in the rice paddies. It was clear that most visitors buy something and this was a very impressive Communist/capitalist way for these disabled folks to contribute to society. After more than 45 minutes at the workshop we resumed our journey and eventually arrived at the busy harbour where were to board our junk.
We were shown to a beautiful wooden boat, carved with dragons and complete with the famous red sails. Of the junk’s ten cabins we had two, each with en suite bathroom and air conditioning! We were served lunch almost as soon as we had set sail and were brought course after course of freshly cooked local seafood. Leah does not like seafood and Paula was coping with a rumbley tum so Ian ate most of the food. With Leah cracking the crab legs and Paula peeling his prawns he was perfectly happy! After lunch there was time to just relax and enjoy the stunning scenery of Halong Bay, which kept us interested for hours. The weather was beautiful and Leah and Paula sat reading and resting as we passed the beautiful rock formations. In mid afternoon we moored at a jetty to visit the Hang Dau Go caves including beautifully-lit cathedral sized chambers containing stalagmites, stalactites and other rock formations. After exploring the caves we climbed into a small boat that took us back to our junk, waiting for us in the harbour with its sails set for a romantic sunset photograph. We set sail, as the sun was setting and casting our shadow over the water. Whilst Ian downloaded the day’s photographs we sat on deck and watched the beautiful scenery slowly pass by, the sun set and daylight turn to dusk. Dinner was more seafood and Vietnamese vegetables. Again very tired, we all went to bed early after we had moored in a beautiful calm enclosed bay, surrounded by Ha Long’s rocky karsts.
The next morning we showered, dressed and joined Ian at breakfast served on deck, fresh fruit, toast and eggs. Afterwards we boarded the junk’s small rowboat, which took us through a short cave leading to a hidden enclosed lagoon. Normally we were told, monkeys are seen playing on the shores but today there were none. No-one spoke above a whisper for fear of destroying the peace and tranquility.
After another seafood lunch we docked and were met by our driver who drove us back to Hanoi where we checked into our hotel and quickly out and about again to explore the city. What a place! This is real Asia. Walking around, one would not realise that Vietnam is a Communist country but the government is gently turning to a market economy. Street traffic was rather unique with thousands of small-engined, quiet motorbikes crowding the roads and the pavements full of parked motorbikes. Traffic ‘rules’ are quite relaxed in Hanoi. We determined a rather vague tendency to keep right although that didn’t stop anyone driving anywhere they liked quite normally. Road junctions without traffic lights are the norm and good entertainment for on-lookers as too many road users jostle for limited road space. Crossing the road was interesting and Paula still hadn’t come to terms with just stepping out into the motorcycle melee and walking gently but confidently to the other side, trusting that the motorcycles and bicycles would weave around you as you walk. We crossed many roads largely unscathed and it was such fun that I think Ken should seriously consider it for central London.
The old town was amazing and as dusk settled again we bought some beautiful lacquerware and had a wonderful dinner at a recommended French restaurant (duck a la orange for under 6 USD!) before taking a taxi back to our hotel.
Before we left on Saturday morning we fitted in a ‘cyclo’ tour around the lake to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and his very tasteful small house and pretty garden, together with many hundreds of other visitors.
We had a fantastic trip and will never forget our visit to beautiful northern Vietnam.
Ha Long Bay & Ha Noi, Vietnam