Field Notes from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

After a sequence of frequent travels and explorations through South East Asia, Ha Noi and Halong Bay spontaneously charmed us and became one of our favorite spots. 

To develop part of our latest collection Ikiko family spent a week in Ha Noi – destination that is becoming a hotbed for contemporary art. During our time in Ha Noi we fell in love with its gallery-lined streets, art deco interiors, and cultural vibrancy that is quite unique and will not remind you of any other. 

Shall we mention one of the most tasty cuisines in the World? Or best ice coffees (ice kopi) you will have on every corner of the city. And the best part, anything you do/eat/drink is rather affordable even cheap by western standards! So what’s not to love? Or, make a short trip with traditional bus to catch an over-night boat ride through UNESCO World Heritage Site - Halong Bay. BELIEVE US, one of the best sceneries you may have. Halong Bay is also considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The next time you need an inspirational getaway, do yourself a favor and make the trip. 

We rounded up for you a few of our family’s favorite spots/tips from our time in this bustling city, full of culture and history, with so much to see and do.

GENERAL TIPS:

  • Craziest scooter traffic ever! Had a lot of fun and challenge to cross the street, especially with a stroller! But, you get used to it and learn that you can't wait for scooters to stop. Otherwise, you'll never get to the other side! You need to take one step forward and they will definitely avoid hitting you (either by stopping or by passing you around) - we took locals' advice and it worked! 

  • Make sure to check visa requirements and if you are eligible apply for the visa online, it is convenient and less costly (online Visa is not applicable for Turkish citizens).
  • In terms of organising the trip (hotel, visas, out-of-the-city tours, airport transfers) we would highly recommend working with an agency. We had great experience with Halong Tours Booking. They were flexible and willing to customize arrangements according to our preferences (e.g. they arranged hotel we chose but at better price deals than booking.com). For tours within the city, you may check innovative concept by a student-run NGO www.hanoikids.org
  • When to visit Ha Noi? We had a pleasant stay at the end of April - beginning of May, and it was a special experience to be there for the 1st of May celebrations. Yet it had been more crowded than usual, so depending on your crowd preferences, you may want to avoid national holidays.
  • Plan to stay minimum 5-6 nights; out of which you would spend 3-4 nights in Ha Noi and 1-2 in close by locations. Being Asia lovers, we fell in love with Ha Noi at the very first sight but it is good to have in mind that for the first time visitors it may take a day to get used to the city's motorbikes packed roads, occasional dirt on the streets, possibility to encounter strange food smells, or shopkeepers determined to drag you into buying their products. Nonetheless, Ha Noi is one of those places that draws you in and we are sure that you will love it too, at the end even want to come back. 

TO DO & SEE:

  • We just walked countless kilometers around historic Old Quarters, exploring and wandering. So first advice: wander the streets of Old Quarters on foot for unique experience of gallery-lined streets, art deco interiors, cultural vibrancy on every corner, various fashion stores and souvenir stalls. Here you can indulge in artistic, traditional and creative side of Vietnam where centuries-old traditions are still alive.
  • If you are sightseeing Old Quarters during the day, then it can be a good idea to take a stroll around Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) as an afternoon chill-out from Old Quarters' crowd. Our hotel was located close to the Lake so walking and chilling was our routine before returning to the room. Right on the tiny island in the middle of the lake you will notice Buddhist temple (Ngoc Son Temple dating back from 18th century) that can be reached via the bright red bridge.
  • We also enjoyed taking a ride in electric carts for ultimate “green” city tour. Not to mention how delighted our kid was at this ride.
  • Walking around Mã Mây & Hàng Buồm, center for restaurants, bars, pubs in Ha Noi is not to miss either. Enjoy traditional way of having beer - sitting on a tiny plastic seat that feels like its about to buckle. At least once - it's a must have experience!
  • Water Puppet Theatre! Not only we enjoyed it, our two and a half boy never had a more enjoyable time than watching this tradition rooted performance!

  • Try out the night market in the Old Quarter (Fridays through Sundays from 7 p.m. on) but expect more strolling around aimlessly than shopping :))

TO EAT:

  • We perceive Vietnamese cuisine as one of the best (if not the best) in the world and it's definitely our family's favorite South Asian cuisine. Gosh, we just enjoy chilly Asian flavors! Our choice of must tries: bun cha (BBQ pork and noodles), pho xao (stir fried noodles with beef), bun nem (spring rolls), banh mi (Vietnam’s version of a sandwich), and of course, everyone’s favorite – pho (beef noodle soup). We had an unforgettable experience at Bun Cha Huong Lien where our meal tasted out of this world at a very inexpensive price. It was such a cool experience eating on a tiny plastic table, shaky plastic chairs, choosing from a menu in Vietnamese we literally didn't have a clue what we had chosen. Delightfully we felt as true local family and it was quite relaxing and enjoyable.

  • For an amazing night view we advise to stop by Avalon Cafe Lounge or Avalon BBQ Garden. Besides the view we liked the food too.

 

  • For an authentic coffee experience definitely try Cafe Pho Co. It was so much fun to feel ourselves as weird trespassers entering Cafe through a souvenir shop, then passing through someone's vintage house, and going up narrow staircases only to reach a simple cafe overlooking scooter traffic and Hoan Kiem Lake.
  • For an authentic rooftop bar try Cafe Nola. Here we enjoyed great cocktails, delicious food and cutest collection of umbrellas dangling above us

Unfortunately, I cannot recall other places we had dined in, most of them being just random choices. But we literally didn't have even a single bad meal in this city! To be honest, we did not have any "food safety issues". Nonetheless, we were avoiding tap water, uncooked things and anything that looked like it’s been sitting out for awhile.

TO STAY:

We were considering The Palmy Hotel & Spa (stayed), Hanoi Pearl Hotel and MK Premier Hotel, all in Old Quarter. They are all quite budget hotels with cute design and real good service. Our hotel had great location (close to the night bustle, but at the same time in quiet spot), spacious rooms, polite staff. Next time we visit Ha Noi we would definitely stay there again. If you are looking for a luxurious stay, check out Sofitel.

HA LONG BAY

Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site, breathtakingly beautiful landscape with almost 2000 limestone cliffs emerging from water, is one of the best sceneries we've ever had.

So, in the middle of our stay in Ha Noi, we had a 2 days - 1 night Ha Long Bay cruise trip (all organized by the agency I mentioned earlier). We got picked up from hotel by bus for an approximately four hour trip to Ha Long Bay in order to get on a Cruise boat for an over-night stay. We chose Galaxy Premium Cruise and Deluxe Double Room. Our trip was fun and adventurous from the very beginning. In the bus, we met amazing Dutch family traveling with a kid too, almost the same age as ours! As we love meeting people and making friendships wherever we go, we felt so lucky to have a great company both for us and our kid.

Not so crowded Cruise, yet international environment, clean, spacious room, and good food onboard made for not just a pleasant stay but unforgettable one too. Most importantly, what you get from the Cruise experience is once in a lifetime sort of scenery you simply won't want to miss. Deep into the evening it was an amazing feeling drinking wine and chatting with newly made friends (after putting kids to sleep) while floating among thousands of islands.

  

 

THIEN CUNG CAVE

During the 2-day cruise trip, we had 2 stops. One for a beach: despite extreme crowd there, it is worth going out of the boat and visiting beach as you can climb up the hill for the ultimate, breathtaking view over Ha Long Bay. Just don't miss it!

 

Second stop was for the stunning cave - Thien Cung - natural beauty with many unique and strange shapes of stalactites. We were fascinated by a story according to which the cave holds secrets of a love story between a normal girl and a Dragon Prince. The girl named May fell in love with the handsome dragon prince at the first sight and their wedding lasted seven days and seven nights in the centre of this cave. Besides the interesting legend, cave is famous for its four huge pillars with many patterns of animals and human beings. Also, in the last part of the cave you can find a small stream with pure and cool water said to be running all seasons of the year. 

Cave impressed us and we loved walking/climbing and discovering it in details. But keep in mind that it is huge and requires a lot of walking and climbing up the stairs. So, thanks God I was in a good shape and able to carry our kiddo when he was getting tired :)) 

HOW TO REACH:

Depending from where you are traveling, but flights from Singapore or Hong Kong to Hanoi are very convenient. Make sure you check out budget airlines like AirAsia or Scoot.

MORE TO DISCOVER:

Have you traveled to Ha Noi or other parts of Vietnam and would like to share your experience? Please feel free to leave your tips/suggestions in the comment section below.

Overall, our stay in Ha Noi was safe, and, mostly it was about indulging local culture, food and meeting inspiring people along the way. As we hope to make it back to Vietnam sooner rather than later, here is the list of places we plan to visit on our next trip:

Hoi An, city on the central coast of Vietnam, authentic place with an ancient town that is cut through with canals. Can't wait to explore it's architecture that is a mix of eras and styles from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples to colorful French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda.

Da Nang, famous for sandy beaches, and it lies in close proximity to Hoi An. 

Mai Chau (four hours’ drive west of Hanoi), rural area with rice fields growing at the base of mountains, dirt roads, and people living in beautiful stilt houses made of bamboo and timber.

Ninh Binh, so called “Halong Bay in land”, another amazing work of nature with massive limestone cliffs scattered in between the rice fields, ancient pagodas and endless caves

Phu Qock, the island we were so close to visiting few months ago, unfortunately canceled last minute. Best part, you can travel visa-free to this paradise island!!! We were considering treating our family and staying in one of the two resorts: La Veranda or Salinda. There are also many nicely designed inexpensive boutique hotels.

Ho Chi Minh  - guess no need for any description here ;)

   

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