Narrow tree lined streets, crazy motor scooter traffic, tons of people, lots of great food, frenetic and energetic… that’s Ha Noi, especially in the old quarter, and we loved it! Every street specialized in something different; silk, hardware, Pho, sandwiches, etc. We didn’t do much else in Ha Noi but walk around exploring and getting (almost) lost in the old quarter. Our hotel was a few blocks from the lake Hoan Kiem so we often would walk by the lake first then into the old quarter. As usual the food was great; Pho and Vietnamese Ice Coffee. 🙂 As well as very fresh and delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches!
Our map of Ha Noi called out a spot on the lake called “Electric Trains”. We of course had to take Tai there! But once there, the electric trains turned out to be 8 seater electric golf carts offering 30 or 60 minute tours of Ha Noi. We decided to take the 30 minute tour. It went street by street through the old quarter then all the way around the lake. There was a pre recorded tour guide in English explaining the history and key sights. It was pretty worth it.
The next morning we caught a free walking tour that started off at St. Joseph Cathedral near our hotel then to the lake and old quarter offered by the Hostel across the street from our hotel. That was a good informative 1 1/2 hour walk as well ending in a hard to find roof top cafe with great views of the lake.
Of course while in Ha Noi we had to book a tour of Ha Long Bay. There are two ways to see Ha Long Bay, the DIY way or the easy way. On the way up to Ha Noi we researched the DIY way which would be to book a bus – boat – bus trip to Cat Ba Town on Cat Ba island, a 5 hour trip for $12/person. Book a hotel in Cat Ba. Then book a one day or two day cruise of one or two or all of the 3 bays, Ha Long, Bai Tu Long, or Lan Ha. Book another night in Cat Ba then a return bus – boat – bus trip to Ha Noi. We priced that out for all of us for a 1 day cruise. Once in Ha Noi we went to a tour operator next to our hotel to see what they had to offer. For about the same amount we could do a 2 day cruise of Ha Long and Bai Tu Long including transport from Ha Noi to Halong City and back after the cruise. It would be on a small boat holding no more than 24 people, include all meals, and a good itinerary of hiking caves, kayaking, visiting a floating village and generally just cruising around the bay. We decided on the easy way and we were not disappointed!
As much as Angkor was jaw dropping in terms of man made wonders, Ha Long Bay was jaw dropping in natural wonders. It was beautiful and peaceful and surprisingly not as crowded as we had expected it to be. They appear to control the number of boats allowed to visit the area at one time very well. The first stop was an island with a very large cave with 3 chambers we could hike through. That was the only place we felt crowded; many 1/2 day or 1 day trips go only to there it would appear.
The second stop was a kayak trip for 45 minutes around some of the islands. When we were kayaking, there were only 2 other kayakers out there with us. It was amazing to be that close to the limestone mountains and even to kayak through one of them. Kim kayaked with our tour guide, Kim. Tia was with me. And Tai was with mommy. Two other couples joined us from the boat as well. Of course I had the GoPro with us in the kayak and you can watch some of the video here.
The next morning after breakfast we visited a floating village via small boats as well as a local Pearl farm. It was very interesting to see floating houses in the middle of the bay nestled between islands and the locals out in their boats.
Tour operators in Ha Noi are a dime a dozen. What made this trip with Legacy Cruises great was that the tour operator near our hotel was very nice, friendly, honest, and spoke English very well. And the tour guide, Kim, was also very nice, friendly, funny, insightful, and also spoke English very well. He was also with us the whole time from pickup in Ha Noi to drop off in Ha Noi. It was worth paying a bit extra for a good cruise around H Long and Bai Tu Long. There were plenty of others selling trips for less than 1/2 the price but they didn’t speak English well, didn’t know about the boat, didn’t know about the itinerary, etc. If you go, pay a bit more for a much better experience.
Back in Ha Noi, we awoke to Tia’s birthday! Today was her day. After sleeping in then packing, we went to B&R for some ice cream, then lunch near our hotel for fried rice and sautéed water spinach and passion fruit juice per Tia’s request. After lunch mommy treated the girls to a mani-pedi. After that we headed to the Vietnamese Water Puppet theater for a performance. Tia wasn’t very excited about that at first, but in the end, she enjoyed it. After some fresh Vietnamese sandwiches (again per Tia’s request) we boarded a bus for Da Lat.
See you there!