TF Flashback: The Northern Delights of Vietnam – Hanoi, Sapa & Halong Bay (2013)

Vietnam is a deceptively big country – over one and a half thousand kilometres from north to south, although only around 50 km wide at its narrowest point. With these long distances in mind, I could only ever get round the southern part on my first trip there in 2006.

However, a decade ago my girlfriend (now wife!) and I spent some time in the north starting off in the capital city Hanoi which was buzzing with atmosphere, particularly in the Old Quarter where motorcycles zip around the streets day and night in a place where traffic lights are few to non-existent. These thousands of motorcycles provide a constant soundtrack of angry insect swarms and beeping horns!

The city throngs with foreign visitors but is somehow not touristy as it seems that it doesn’t bend to their whims who instead have to adapt to the Hanoi way. Overall the place is fascinating and a little overwhelming but it’s never uninteresting and made quite an impression on us. It’s just a little difficult to really portray the place with just words and pictures when it really needs to be seen to be believed.

Whilst Hanoi does have a fair few interesting sights grouped quite close together they are not the memories that most people leave with as it is the aforementioned street noise and ubiquitous food stalls which provide the highlight for many. Pho (noodle soup) is naturally the most common dish and we didn’t waste too much time in eating that on arrival.

I love these simple kind of street food restaurants and this one in particular had some amazing deep fried pastries filled with the likes of pork, vermicelli and mushrooms. Very tasty and so, so cheap!

The Old Quarter seems at times to consist of nothing but scores of vendors taking over the streets with smoking charcoal burners, tiny plastic stools and tables, and hordes of locals and tourists alike throwing themselves into the chaotic neighbourhood eateries.

Hanoi is a small place that’s easy to navigate on foot with a good map. The lines were super-long for Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but they did move fairly swiftly and though no visible reaction could be seen from the locals when we saw Ho Chi Minh’s body lying there, it did make the heart of our Vietnamese accomplice beat fast and was really moving for him.

The Presidential Palace and the house where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 to 1958 was in the vicinity.

Due to its strange opening hours we didn’t have time to see the Ho Chi Minh Museum so walked on a few blocks to the Temple of Literature which was a pleasant place.


Dark tourism next with a couple of places relating to Vietnam’s history. First up was the Vietnam Military History Museum which displays hundreds of objects, photos and most impressively a vast collection of weaponry including tanks, jet fighters and other such military vehicles.


After that was what remains of the Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton”) which was built by the French in the late 19th century and houses some rather gruesome exhibits and photographs.


The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre was the setting for some entertainment one evening as we saw a 45 minute water puppet performance. This show was novel and fun and featured about ten acts depicting pastoral scenes and legends. The final scene was particularly interesting as we got to see the people quite literally pulling the strings come out to give the audience an idea of how exactly this ancient art form works. The band playing the accompanying music also added a nice bit of ethnic authenticity to the occasion.

A nine hour night train between Hanoi and Lao Cai followed by a very winding one hour bus ride was needed to get to Sapa; a small colourful town where tourists and local black mong tribe people mix freely among each other. This old French hill station is something of a premier destination in the north-west thanks to the great views (on clear days!) and an amazing array of minority hill tribe people and colourful markets.

We booked onto a tour which started with a trail through a market where just about every part of an animals body was on sale, and then we trekked on into the countryside visiting Cat Cat and Sin Chai villages. Views of rice terraces in the foreground of mountains could be seen and were a very common sight over the two days.


We could see a completely different way of life and fascinating it was too. There were very young kids selling bracelets everywhere and we entered a local home which really was quite gruesome and so basic as they cook inside the hut and then sleep there with almost no daylight coming in which means that they sadly, often have a low life expectancy.

More trekking through a couple of villages amidst soaring heat followed the next day. We walked across a bridge with no railings or barrier at the side to stop you falling off which wasn’t helped by vehicles passing by meaning you had to stand very close to the edge to let them pass. Nervy moments indeed!

We had lunch in the Black Mong village before continuing on through a Red Dzao one but not before the hassle involved in the local kids and black mong people (who had followed us from Sapa) trying to sell us some local handicrafts. It was a relief that Sapa provided us with an intriguing and unique experience blending a mix of ethnic diversities with some beautiful green scenery.


No trip to Hanoi would be complete without a trip to Halong Bay which has become one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations and is one of the new seven wonders of the world. The bay features over two thousand limestone karsts dramatically jutting out of the emerald sea waters.

This part of the country gets a lot of cloud and rain. Clear weather seems to not be so often but even in the overcast conditions the beauty of the area is undeniable……once you get past the bottleneck of coach tour groups at the main port! First on the menu was a bamboo boat trip round the floating villages, caves and lagoons. Back on the boat later we had the chance to make Vietnamese spring rolls which I was fairly rubbish at but not the worst!

There was a chance to do some squid fishing after dinner which I tried but my lack of patience meant I soon got bored and left empty handed. After a very long day (having only returned on overnight train from Sapa in the early hours) it was to be a very early night. It didn’t really feel like we were even sleeping on a boat to be honest as there was no swaying among the waves.

The rain was a lot heavier on the second day as we were taken first to a lookout view on Dao Titop which was followed by some very interesting caves going by the name of Hang Sung Sot which translates as Surprise Caves with the surprise being a phallic symbol which has been christened cock rock.

Halong Bay is indeed spectacular scenery but I’m afraid to say that it almost bypassed me and I took it a bit for granted. In terms of activity there was actually very little over the two days as it was all about being at sea and cruising around an area in a style that is miles apart from our normal daily city life.

Click here to read ‘On Screen #1 – Vietnam’

Click here to read ‘Vietnam 2006 – Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh City’

Click here to read ‘Vietnam 2007 – On The Buses In The South’

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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