By the time we got to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, it was almost 6pm and we were very ready to get out and start exploring the city. We had read about the local beer, Bia Hoi, which Lonely Planet calls possibly the cheapest beer on the planet. Finding that was the first thing on our agenda.
Within a few blocks of our hotel, we found a very local drinking spot, with a sign advertising Bia Hoi. This place had tons of plastic tables and very low stools set up outside, where everyone was sitting and drinking. The Bai Hoi came from a keg, which a little Vietnamese woman was in charge of.
We sat down and were immediately befriended by an older Vietnamese man, who quickly explained to us (through the use of hand-gestures) that he was deaf. That didn’t stop him from gesturing away and making friends with us and everyone else in the bar.
At 25 cents a pop, we had no qualms about downing 3 or 4 beers each. That, combined with the fact that everyone was accompanying their beer with peanuts (aka our favorite combo ever) and our new friend was keeping us very entertained, turned our quick drink into a much longer stop than we had anticipated. But, we didn’t mind a bit.
This place we found was pretty amazing. Not only was it filled with all local people, I was actually the only woman there (it’s kind of a funny sight to see men sitting on these tiny little stools that they sit on all throughout the city). By our second beer, our new friend pulled out (we’re not exactly sure from where) a huge pipe (it looked more like a bong), filled it with tobacco (we think) and took a hit of it. Then, he passed it on to Dave, filled it with more of his own stuff and urged him to try it. Dave took one hit of it, and could immediately feel the effects. I asked for a try, but our friend gestured that it would be too much for me (he did this by holding his neck and coughing uncontrollably – I got the picture). Maybe that’s why no other woman come to this place, because they won’t let them partake in all of the activities. But, it didn’t bother me 🙂
Finally, we said our goodbyes to our friend and headed off to find dinner. We had such a nice time hanging out with the locals and making new friends. Just like in Thailand, everyone seemed so happy here and they all just want to enjoy life and have fun. It almost seems as though the less money people have, the happier they are and the more they enjoy life. Imagine that!
We spent an hour or so walking around and exploring the bustling city, trying our best not to get hit by one of the what seemed like millions of motorbikes driving every which way. The streets were filled with markets, food vendors, restaurants, and bars, but not a single 7-11!
Finally, we came to a corner that was packed with the same small plastic tables and stools we’d been seeing all over the city, pouring onto the street and filled with people drinking our new favorite beer and eating snacks. Even though we’d been looking for some traditional Vietnamese dishes to try for dinner, all of that went out the window when we saw how fun this area looked. There was no way we could leave and go somewhere else to eat.
So, we sat down at the restaurant/bar with the best menu and immediately ordered a couple more beers while we decided what to eat. We had meat dumplings, fried tofu (Dau Hu Chien), sausage, and a couple of other dishes. It wasn’t the best meal we’ve had, but the atmosphere of this area made up for it.
After dinner and several more drinks, we started to make our way home, and quickly realized that we were lost in the very confusing streets of Hanoi. It is literally like a maze getting through the city. After a few minutes of trying to figure out how to make our way home, we decided to cut our losses and find a motor taxi. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an actual motor taxi who ended up taking us home, but instead a random guy on a motorbike looking to make a quick buck (literally, our ride cost 20,000 Dong or $1). Either way, we made it back safe and sound after a great first night in Hanoi.
Our tentative plan for the following day (our one full day to explore Hanoi) was to see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh museum, and then spend the rest of the day exploring the Old Quarter. We wanted to see one of the famous Hanoi water puppet shows in the evening, and after reading that you need to get tickets in advance, we decided ask our hotel to get these for us first thing. We ended up paying a pretty hefty surcharge for this (the tickets were $6 instead of $3), but we figured it was worth it to ensure we caught the show.
For some reason, the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) mausoleum closes at 10:15am and the museum closes at 11am. Both were about 2km from where we were staying, so to make sure we got there in time, we grabbed a taxi. Well, the taxi should have been about $3, but we’re pretty sure we got scammed. Our 5 minute ride ended up costing us $8 (the meter went up SO fast). We were so angry that we got ripped off, but at least we made it in time to get in. We changed into our long pants and short sleeve shirts (you can’t wear tanks or shorts in the mausoleum), and followed the huge line in to see HCM.
I was expecting to see HCM’s coffin, but when we walked into the mausoleum, there he was, laying in a glass case for all to see. I’ve never seen a dead person before and have no idea how you can possibly preserve a body for that long, but I was literally amazed. I didn’t feel like I was seeing HCM’s grave, I felt like I was meeting him in the flesh. You could only view him for about 30 seconds as there were Vietnamese guards in full military uniform ushering you around the glass case where his body was preserved. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen, though I think Dave was a little less impressed (mainly because he’s seen a dead person before).
After the mausoleum, we went to see the Presidential Palace and the house where HCM lived (including a garage with some of his old cars). The last stop on the HCM tour was the museum. The museum was very nice, but it didn’t really explain very much about who HCM was. Instead, it was just a large collection of artifacts that didn’t make much sense to Dave or me, not knowing that much about HCM. We had hoped to learn more about him at the museum, but instead, we had to fill in the gaps using our Lonely Planet and Wikipedia.
We were finished with the Hanoi HCM tour by around 11:30am and then decided to walk back to the Old Quarter. We made our way through the maze of streets back to our hotel to drop off our extra clothes and for Dave to take his 2nd shower (of 4) of the day. Then, we set out again to find lunch and explore our area.
For lunch, we wanted to try the pork (Bun Cha) and Pho Bo (beef pho). We quickly realized that most of the local eateries only specialize and sell one dish. They all list the name of the dish they’re serving on a huge sign outside of their place. We found a great-looking pork (Bun Cha) place and sat down. The BBQ pork comes served in a soup broth and comes with a huge plate of noodles and lettuce on the side. It was amazing!
After lunch, we continued walking to (LAKE), stopping along the way to shop, take photos, and look at one of our three maps to make sure we were going the right direction. Shortly after leaving lunch, Dave was stopped by a man telling him that his shoes were falling apart and that he could help fix them. Dave politely declined. A few minutes later, he was stopped again, and this time, he gave in and had the man fix his favorite sandals. For $5, they were like new! We’ve never seen anything like this traveling shoe maker and we loved the idea of it!
We made it to the famous lake and walked around it, stopping at the (TEMPLE) along the way. Unfortunately, we didn’t run into the 200 kg turtle that’s said to inhabit the lake, but we did see his bronzed brother in the temple.
We made our way back to our hotel to relax for a couple hours before heading back out for our puppet show. We went back to our favorite corner on the way to stop for a quick beer and (RICE PAPER THING) then headed back to the lake area.
The tradition of the water puppet show started years ago during the rainy season. Kids would stand in the flood water and perform puppet shows for their families. Now, it’s become a famous and very traditional form of entertainment, and the theater in Hanoi that we saw the show at is one of the oldest and most famous. The show was very cute and a great experience, our only problem was that the whole thing was in Vietnamese, so we couldn’t understand what the puppets were saying. Considering the entire audience is pretty much foreign, we’re not sure why there wasn’t some form of translator (maybe audio headsets?) but luckily, it was more about the music and puppets than the dialogue, so we still enjoyed it.
We wanted to find a Pho Bo (noodle soup with beef) place for dinner, but quickly realized that this isn’t a dish that they serve at night. Typically, it’s eaten for breakfast (since it’s too hot to eat soup during the day), so we’d have to save it for another day. Instead, we went back once again to our favorite corner and tried a different restaurant than the night before. This one was awesome. We had BBQ ribs, fried soft-shell crab, spring rolls, and peanuts, all of which were delicious. As we were finishing up and paying our bill ($10 for all we could eat and drink), our waitress suddenly lifted up our table, told us to get up, and started moving everyone around. We had no idea what was going on until we saw a truck filled with police driving down the street. Apparently, restaurants can’t have tables set up in the street so they all had to readjust when they saw the cops coming. Before the police car was even out of sight though, she started moving everyone back into the road. It was a pretty funny sight!
Then, we headed home and called it an early night. We were being picked up first thing in the morning for our overnight trip to Halong Bay.
We had an 8am pickup from our tour company for our trip to Halong Bay and then a 4 hour bus ride to Halong City, where we’d start our overnight boat trip. When originally booking our boat, we had found a company that looked good and emailed them to inquire, but they told us that the boat we wanted was no longer in service. They did, however, have a newer (and nicer/more expensive) boat available, which they said they’d give to us at the same price as the boat we wanted. It was a little more than we read an average boat should cost for one of these trips, but we figured that since a) we were going to be spending a full 24-hours on the boat, and b) it was for Dave’s birthday, we would splurge a little.
Our boat had a capacity for 24 people, but there only ended up being 6 of us. So, we pretty much had a private boat and tour. One couple, from Italy, but living in Australia, was at the end of a 3 week trip through Vietnam (1 of which they spent motorcycling up the coast). The second was an older couple, the man from Scotland and the woman from Vietnam. They were also living in Australia, but back in Vietnam visiting her family. Everyone in the group was very nice and fun.
As soon as we got aboard our boat (The Majestic), we checked into our rooms and in ours, we found a bottle of wine and a red rose waiting for us for Dave’s birthday. I’m sure he was especially thrilled about the rose. I had emailed with the company several weeks before to set up something for his birthday.
After a 2-hour boat trip into Halong Bay and an amazing lunch of way more food than we could ever possibly eat (a cucumber and tomato salad, crab cakes, squid stir fry, rice, veggies, and fruit – we love these tours because they always feed you so well), we arrived in the beautiful World Heritage site (and also one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World), Halong Bay.
Halong Bay consists of 2,000 islands (of the 3,000 islands in Vietnam) and really is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Our first activity of the day was the largest cave in Halong Bay, which turned out to be pretty impressive and probably the biggest cave we’ve ever been in. We walked up 150 stairs into a huge open cavern. It was very cool, but I never love walking through a cave that has paths and lights built into it. After swimming through a cave in Belize a few years ago, the paved caves don’t really do it for us anymore. It was about a 40 minute walk through the cave and then we got back on our boat to go to one of the only beaches in the bay (most of the “islands” don’t actually have any inhabitable land on them, they just look like huge rock-climbing rocks jutting out of the water – there are only 40 of them that people actually live on).
The beach was very nice and not very crowded. There were steps leading all the way up to the top of the island and to a view point, so we decided to check that out. 450 steps later, and we were looking down on the entire bay, with hundreds of islands in sight. This view probably ties, or beats, Koh Phi Phi as the second most beautiful things we’ve ever seen (Machu Picchu still being the 1st).
We headed back to the boat and parked in the bay for the night. It was “Happy Hour” when we got back, so we all sat on the top deck of the boat, watched the sunset, chatted, and drank (Dave and I opened his birthday wine:). This was definitely one of the highlights of the day.
Before we knew it, it was dinner time. One of the only things we didn’t love about the tour (or any tour for that matter) is that there’s a set dinner time, and it’s usually very early. Dave and I typically like to eat dinner on the later side, and we definitely don’t like to be told that we have to eat at a certain time, but once the huge feast came out, we forgot that we’d been annoyed about that and dug in. It was another awesome meal of more cucumber/tomato salad, BBQ chicken, squid, and pork, more veggies, rice, noodles, and more. Then, to top it all off, they brought out a big birthday cake for Dave with candles, a firecracker, and his full name written out (“Happy Birthday David Rosenfield”).
After dinner, we hung out for a while longer on the deck, Dave and I watched a movie in our room, and then we called it a night just before midnight (we tried to stay up until midnight, but we couldn’t quite make it!).
Our alarm went off at 5:45 in the morning and we went back up to the deck to watch the sunrise and take a Tai Chi class . It was a little cloudly so we didn’t see that much of a sunrise and the Thai Chi class was more of a little demonstration, but either way, we were happy to get up early and really make the most out of Dave’s birthday. And the views from the boat were still amazing.
Breakfast was served at 7am (another feast of eggs over easy, toast, bacon and fruit), and then we kayaked through a floating village. This was the highlight of the trip for me and also one of the coolest/most interesting things that I’ve seen.
The village consisted of probably 100 houses set up right on the water. We’ve seen some floating villages before, but they’ve all been on the water right next to a town or city. Never have we seen one so in the middle of nowhere. These people make their livings by filling up boats with everything from snacks to drinks to cigarettes, and pretty much anything else you can think of and selling their goods to tourists on the huge boats touring Halong Bay, like ours. Right after breakfast, a little girl in a rowboat came up to our boat and was trying to sell us seashells. We told her that we wanted a big bottle of water, and when she didn’t have that in her boat, she rowed back to her village to find one for us. She tried to charge us 200,000 Dong for this ($10), and though I know it took a lot of work for her to get that water, we settled at 50,000 Dong ($2.50), which is still 5 times what we’ve been paying for water. But, we figured we’d reward her for her hard work.
Anyway, we kayaked all around the village and were just amazed at the fact that these people were living on the water, so far from any civilization. We couldn’t figure out how they kept themselves occupied all the time and wondered if they had ever even been as far as Halong City, where we’d left from the day before. Seeing this village was truly an amazing and unforgettable experience.
Once we were back on the boat, everyone showered and got ready to check out and then we had a little mini cooking class where we all learned how to make spring rolls (and by make spring rolls, I just mean roll them as the filling was already made for us). It was still fun though and we even got to eat our finished product at lunch (along with our last feast of the trip – salad, chicken stir fry, rice, veggies, croquettes, and squid cakes).
Halong Bay was really gorgeous and we thought that it was a perfect way to spend Dave’s birthday. We had a great time on the trip, really enjoyed the boat we stayed on, the meals we ate, and the people we were with. As I mentioned, we don’t really love organized tours like this usually, but this is the best (and only) way to see Halong Bay, which in my opinion is definitely a must-see if visiting Vietnam.
We had another long trip back to Hanoi, but after resting/catching up on emails for a couple hours, we had a very special meal planned for Dave’s birthday. We had read about a local delicacy that they eat in Vietnam, and we were determined to try it. We asked our hotel for recommendations for the best place in the Old Quarter to try Thit Cho, dog.
Now I know what you’re thinking… Outrageous! Disgusting! Wrong! Sad! How could they! Dave and I love dogs just as much as the next guy (though since our travels began and especially since moving to Thailand my love for dogs has diminished because there are so many strays roaming the streets and causing trouble, often attacking us or chasing us down the street), but while we’re traveling it’s our goal to do as the locals do – When in Rome. So, if the locals are eating dog, then so are we. Some might thing that’s wrong, and that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when you’re chowing down on a burger do you think about the fact that cows are holy in India? Probably not. Do Indian people feel offended or outraged about people all over the world eating their precious beef? Maybe, but my guess is likely not.
So, we went to a very local restaurant near our hotel to try this dish and suffice to say, the owner was surprised to see us there. But, he helped us through the process, showing us how to mix the salt/lime/chili sauce, how to wrap up the meat in lettuce and other herbs to eat it. This man described Thit Cho as a very special meal, and I couldn’t agree more. The meat was delicious, probably some of the best I’ve had, and it was definitely an unforgettable experience.
We had only ordered one dish thinking that it would be more of an appetizer and then after dinner we’d go have some drinks and more snacks somewhere else, but the meat was pretty heavy (think beef stew) so we were full after just one plate.
Instead of going to eat, we went to a Shisha bar after dinner to smoke and have some drinks. We stayed there for a while just watching the local scene, which even after being in Hanoi for a few days, continued to amaze me. On a Friday night, the streets were packed with people sitting and eating/drinking on the little plastic stools and what seemed like thousands of motorbikes heading to their Friday night plans. I’ve never seen a city quite as hectic and chaotic as Hanoi. While it is a bit overwhelming, it’s also very exciting. It’s definitely one of the coolest and most interesting cities that I’ve visited.
We headed home to get some sleep before our 8am flight the next morning, but not before grabbing a quick Banh My snack on the way home. We had a great few days in hectic Hanoi, and now we’re off to enjoy some nature and caving in a much more remote location, Phong Nha National Park.