Complete Guide to HANOI and the HA LONG BAY

(Updated October 2018)

From the first moment I set foot in the street in Hanoi, I knew I would like it here, and I did. The old part is absolutely mesmerizing – what a hustle and bustle: everybody is rushing somewhere, carrying something in their arms, on their heads, on their bikes. Everywhere you step, you seem to be in somebody’s way. What an energy!

Good morning, Hanoi!

The old town located North of Hoan Kiem lake is so cute and bustling that it’s even not important to know exactly why this one cute house is more important than the even cuter one next to it – everything is so pretty and cliché Asian. Just walking around ist enthralling.

I wasn’t the only one having a great time in Viet Nam’s northern capital.

A mobile flower vendor coming through the old city gate Ô Trừng Thanh 

Hàng Vải is the famous bamboo street.

Then there are a couple of interesting museums East of Hoan Kiem lake. Coming from the old town, there is another super-challenging crossing: just stick to my street crossing rules that I wrote down in the Ho Chi Minh City part – just walk slowly and steady although hundreds of bikes and cars are coming towards you on Pho Le Thai on the Northern bank of the lake.

There is space for everybody on Vietnamese streets – at the same time.

Then you can walk along the Eastern promenade and turn left at the South bank into Trang Tien.

Balloon vendor on Đinh Tiên Hoàng. I wonder whether the people speeding by do notice him at all. 

Now it’s about four blocks to get to the Vietnam National Museum of History. Here not only the exhibits are nice, but I also liked the big yellow colonial building from 1910. Don’t miss the serene sculpture yard.

Museum of History Hanoi
The very peaceful backyard of the distinctive museum’s building.

Viet Nam National Museum of History 
1, Trang Tien – 25, Tong Dan
Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Phone: : +84 -4 – 38 25 28 53
Email: banbientap@baotanglichsu.vn

Museum of Revolution Ho Chi MInh Hanoi
Me and Ho Chi Minh at the Museum of Revolution;
usually I’m not so much into selfies with celebrities –
but in this case….

Just around the corner on 25, Tong Dan, is The Museum of Revolution. An auxiliary part of the Museum of History, this part of the exhibition deals with the resistance against the French, the fight for independence and of course the Viet Nam war.

Prime location: This barber simply uses the Revolution Museum’s fence to follow his trade.

Going North West of the old town you’ll get to the Tay lake with the quite impressive Chua Tran Quoc pagoda – especially impressive since people burn so many offerings that you can hardly breathe.

They sure like to fire up a lot of offerings – here at Chua Trang Quoc, but it doesn’t make a big difference where you get fume poisoning.

Before you walk South the intimidating Hung Vuong to the Ba Dinh Square with Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the B52 bomber and all the other memorabilia, make sure to drop in at the Den Quan Thanh temple, another very smoky, yet beautiful place.

It’s amazing: Since you burn everything your ancestors might need…over there, there are Chanel purses and Louis Vuitton bags, iPhones – and just money bills made of paper.
Actually, I find such an artistic tower of Dollar-bills would make a nice living room decoration, too; what do you think, IKEA?

I haven’t been to the Ho Chi Minh Museum because it was closed. But I’m sure they had a lot of good things to say about him.

There are two pagodas right next to it: The one pillar pagoda and Chua Dien Huu.

Before you continue to the Temple of Literature, I strongly recommend to get a cup – or two – of the excellent coffee at Café de Nam on Doi Can about half way between the B 52 site and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It’s a very cozy setting, too, and the coffee makes a great souvenir.

Far from being cozy: The Ba Dinh square is clearly designated to host a larger crowd. In the backdrop Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum where I got in trouble because to get a good look, I crossed the yellow line. I’m not really made for places were you simply have to obey; I’m rather the ‘on-a-par’ type of person.

The Temple of Literature is accessible only from Quốc Tử Giám. I’m not mentioning this because I have nothing more interesting to write, but because I was a little tired walking the whole day so I was quite disappointed when I reached the site at the opposite side and had to walk aaaall the way down to Quốc Tử Giám. And now that we’re on it: The complex – a Confucian imperial academy – was Viet Nam’s first university and covers an area of about 54.000 qm/ more than 580,000 square feet.

Firing up the university.

Walking around is quite impressive because it shows how important and cherished knowledge and studies were – and probably still are. Also interesting for us Westerners how knowledge and spirituality were intertwined.

Shush – they are shooting a film on the Temple’s premises.

Going back East towards the old town, crossing the tracks at Ga Ha Noi station – and don’t tell me that “Ga” is not the Vietnamese way of interpreting the French word “gare”!?

Something to sing….
….and something to drink.
It’s quite hilarious – or a bit disturbing –
 that she is selling beer to the drivers on Thanh Niên road 

Just like sing gum derives from Chewing gum and bia from beer; I enjoy these linguistic capers very much! But now back to our walk:  crossing the tracks at Ga Ha Noi station you get to see two more precious temples – Chua Thien Phuc on 94, Hai Ba Trung and Chua Quan Su on 73, Quan Su. There are far more temples and pagodas in Hanoi – because it was not as conquered by the Catholic church as the South.

And since we are back to this dark chapter – just around the corner is the Hoa Lo prison tracing history from the uprising against the French colonialist to the release of American prisoners of war.

I’m not sure if  American pilots really needed any more souvenirs than they had already in their minds as they were released from Hoa Lo.

It is absolutely worth it visiting this sinister place, but get your information (also) elsewhere, some facts were a bit rearranged. You’ll find the building – that’s also known as ‘Hanoi Hilton’ – on 1, Hoa Lo.

What I skipped in Hanoi was the Women’s Museum since I had already seen the one in HCMC; but I’m pretty sure they were very heroic just the same.

Halong Bay

As important as visiting the city of Hanoi is taking an overnight trip to the famous Halong Bay. And it’s not just the myth, it is at least as beautiful as you’d expect it – no matter how many other tourist boats are cruising there with you.

Halong Bay
Still one of the most enchanting places I’ve visited.

Here again – if you’re not willing to pay whatever price, you need to walk around a bit and compare offers. Most importantly: Do not book on the internet; you will always pay much more than on the spot.

Then, I’d recommend you don’t take the very cheapest offer if you want to enjoy your stay on board and during the additional activities. You won’t do this too often in your life, so don’t cut corners when not absolutely necessary. Do yourself a favor and book yourself at least on a middle-class ship. I paid about 60 or 70$ for an all-inclusive two-day-trip and had a lovely time on an ok ship, a very friendly, competent guide and a nice program.

They take you to Hon Gai port by bus, there you get lunch and eventually there are some activities like visiting the Thien Canh Son cave – which would be nice if they didn’t feel the urge to illuminate it in terrible colors, kayaking, climbing on an outlook on top of the limestone rock and eventually relaxing and swimming on the quite secluded Ban Chan beach on the program.

kayaking Halong Bay
Kayaking… 

Overlooking Halong Bay
…and overlooking – a tourist’s treat.

After dinner, we did hang out on the deck enjoying the breathtaking views of the bay. There was the option of Karaoke, but…nope, we agreed on not doing it. Especially if you book a two day tour, big part of the ‘quality’ depends on your guide and the other people you’re with. Considering that, it might even be better to take a less expensive cruise since people on the more sophisticated ships might be more difficult to satisfy and complain more. I was with some backpackers travelling South East Asia after their work and travel year in Australia respectively their exchange studies in Singapore and they were all extremely easy going.

on the ship on halong bay
Captain’s dinner Halong style.

The next morning we visited a pearl farm and the adjacent gift shop (this is the equivalent to the carpet factories in Turkey…) and learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls.

This is the program everybody offers, the difference between the tours is the state of the ship and other equipment and the quality of the food offered.

At the – literally – end of the day you’ll be enchanted no matter how much you paid for your trip to this mystic bay.

The “Lemon Cruise” was average and absolutely fine, although it does not tally either with the description online or the price: the facilities and the service were more basic, but I also paid much less.
Travelling by myself, I had to share a room with another woman, otherwise, I had to pay much more.

Sadly, Hanoi had been my last stop. I missed Sapa, but if I go back to Viet Nam, I’ll rather stay in the North so that I can still visit that region.

From Hanoi, I flew back to Ho Chi Minh City which cost me about 100 $ – it was a very pleasant flight – very recommendable if you don’t have much time to travel down South by bus.

Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Viet Nam? 
Then go to the main post and take your pick!


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