A year ago, I took my mom to Hanoi for a quick three-day trip. She had been to Ho Chi Minh a few years ago, but it was both our first time to the capital city of Vietnam. Known also as the country’s cultural capital, Hanoi exudes an old world charm even as the city straddles between its rich history and traditions, and the pull of modernity and western influence.
We chose to stay in the Old Quarter, an intoxicating maze of narrow streets and alleys lined with all kinds of shops, cafes, bars, low rise hotels and apartments in French architecture. The streets are incessantly packed with scooters, pedestrians, walking vendors, and tourists. We stayed in Quoc Hoa Hotel – an eight-storey boutique hotel in the middle of the Old Quarter.
Its wooden floors and wooden furnitures gave out a homey feel. The breakfast buffet which was served on the top floor overlooking the city had a delightful Vietnamese spread. Having authentic pho for breakfast was a welcome treat!
The charm of staying in a small boutique hotel lies in the warm, homey feeling you get, like when the server recognizes you during breakfast, or perhaps other guests nodding at you when you pass their tables. There are times when I travel and enjoy the anonymity of being in a foreign place, but in Hanoi, it felt good to be around familiar, smiling faces.
After a bowl of steaming hot pho and generous slices of watermelons, we headed to Halong, 165km northeast of the city. As our van drove over 3 hours away from the city, the narrow apartment buildings, slowly gave way to modest houses by the roadside, some houses in the middle of rice fields, all familiar scenes from home. Towards the end of the drive, our van navigated a winding road, and on each turn, we caught glimpses of limestone islands jutting out from the ocean. Halong Bay, covers an area of 43,400 hectares with over 1600 islands and islets that are mostly uninhabited. The hundreds of limestone islands and pillars rising from the sea paint a stunning seascape of nature and tranquility.
By noon we boarded our boat- a 20-cabin, 4-deck junk boat, along with maybe 15 other guests and a 10-man crew. Compared to a regular cruise ship, this felt like a boutique hotel vs a high rise chain hotel. We later learned that one of the cruise leaders was a Filipino, but had gone to the mainland for a weekend break. Overseeing our activities was a bubbly Vietnamese, who briefed us during lunch. There was an interesting mix of tourists onboard–a Japanese-American couple, Australian siblings in their 70s, engineers from Australia, British ladies from Hong Kong, an American gay couple, and Chinese honeymooners. Over the next 24 hours, we ate buffet meals together, shared tables and cocktails, learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and watched the perfect sunset!
We visited the Cua Van floating village where about 150 families live on fishing as their primary livelihood, and in recent years, are supplemented by tourism activities. We spent the rest of the afternoon kayaking and swimming.
From the topmost deck, as the sun was just setting, we watched in awe as the sky turned to a magnificent pink and orange, over the silhouette of the towering limestone islands. Soon as the chef showed us how to roll and cook Vietnamese spring rolls, everyone had their chance to make one, and eventually enjoy it too with a cocktail. Happy hour on the sundeck could not have been any more scenic than this, as our boat cruised through the silky flat waters of Halong Bay, into the fiery sunset.
By dinnertime, almost everyone dressed up, sporting rosy cheeks, from the day’s swimming, or perhaps the sunset drinks. Everyone was certainly in high spirits. Later a couple of us made our way down to the boat’s lowest deck and rear end, where the squid fishing was just about to start. We each grabbed a fishing line, and tried our luck. One of the engineers handed me a beer, as we exchanged stories of home and recent travels. On an almost full moon night, no one got lucky with the squids. A little after midnight, back in our cabins, we were all awakened by a series of ear-splitting thunder. I sat up on my bed right next to the window, and for the next half hour, watched the incredible show of lightning and thunder that felt and sounded so close. The next morning, there was hardly any trace of the rainstorm from last night, save for the soaking wet sundeck. The sea was again flat as far as you could see. The cruise leader informed us that a thunderstorm was forecasted to hit later that day so all boats had to be back to the mainland before noon, cutting our trip by about an hour or two.
We had one more stop before heading back to the port–the Dau Go Cave, an extensive cave system sitting on an area of about 5000 square meters at 27 meters above sea level. There were 90 steps to scale to reach the entrance to the first of three chambers. With the natural light falling on the rock formations in the ceiling and bottom, one could make all kinds of animals and scenes. A narrow passageway leads to the second chamber where mood lighting created a dramatic display of shapes and shadows on the stalactites and stalagmites. At the end of the innermost chamber is a well of clear water.
As we disembarked from our junk boat, it felt like we had gone on a longer cruise, having done so many things in what seemed a leisurely pace. If I get a chance to go back, I would take a two-night cruise and discover more remote beaches, kayak off the tourist trail, and marvel at another beautiful sunset.
Back in Hanoi City, we wasted no time and wandered around the Old Quarter, the sidestreet cafes, markets, park, and even caught a water puppet show! How all the scooters and pedestrians snaked their way without crashing into each other is beyond me.
Street vendors filled the sidewalks, spilling into the already crowded streets, selling vegetables, herbs, fruits, spices, bread, flowers. While riding an electric car that looked like an oversized golf cart, we asked our driver, a young Vietnamese woman, to park briefly as we called out a lady in traditional Vietnamese dress, carrying a long stick on her shoulder with baskets on both ends. Each basket was filled with pastries, that smelled too good to resist. We tried some of the sugarcoated balls and headed to a small, nondescript restaurant, across the Hoan Kiem Lake. Inside, the girl behind the counter looked up, a bit surprised, while a young guy, the only other customer with his head bowed over his plate, paid no attention to us. We looked at the menu, and excitedly pointed at the pho bo, asking for two bowls and some fresh spring rolls. It was only four in the afternoon, but we were hungry! Our driver-guide laughed when we invited her to eat, saying it was too early for dinner. The waitress came back with two huge bowls of steaming pho, with generous servings of fresh bean sprouts,cilantro, and some chili, with lemon slices. For the next several minutes, my mom and I ate with so much gusto, and hardly a word between us. By the time we finished our bowls, we were sweating and beaming at how good it was, and how lucky we were to chance upon this local eatery. I suppose pho everywhere in Hanoi was this good!
The next morning we met our local tour operator, Phuc, a jolly man, who walked us to a tiny coffee shop right across our hotel. It turned out this roadside cafe was popular among locals as the place was easily filled up by mid morning. There were some guys in business suits, an old man smoking a pipe with his coffee with another man, two fashionably dressed women in the tables near us. I had the regular coffee with milk, strong and sweet. We drank our coffee, as motorbikes and scooters whizzed by.
We spent the afternoon going around the West Lake, passing through the upscale residences, restaurants and pagodas by the lake, and seeing a different side of Hanoi. I made a note to explore the area on a bike next time.
It had been a lovely, though brief, visit. My mom was moved by how different her experience was in Ho Chi Minh from this trip to Hanoi, and understood why. I had much to learn, and most certainly will not hesitate in going back to Vietnam. Soon.