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Hanoi, Vietnam
Saturday, March 16, 2013


The Nottingham Panthers have been crowned the Elite League Champions! 1956 - 2013 is a long time but it has finally happened. In Hanoi we are staying a stone's throw away from the Cathedral in the Old Quarter and the bells ring out for a few seconds every 15 minutes, except annoyingly at 5am when they ring out for around 2 minutes, nobody seems to know why, we have asked the hotel a few times and they just find it amusing. Every morning we have been rudely awoken by the bells but this morning it was rather fitting as the news broke on Twitter just before the bells started ringing. For the first time since leaving the UK we both wish we were back home if only briefly to soak up the atmosphere. Come on Panthers you just need to finish the season in style and beat the Steelers in the Challenge Cup Final and win the Play Off's.

Day 1

It was only a short distance from Nanning to Hanoi but so much has changed. Overnight we lost our identity we are not celebrities any more :-( nobody stops, stares or points... we are just tourists again and we don't expect to be asked for a photo again in our big adventure. In the space of one afternoon we saw more western people than we saw in a whole month in China! Also overnight the language barrier disappeared too and we don't just have to rely on pictures as English is written and spoken everywhere.

After arriving at 5:30am the first thing that we wanted to do when we got to the room, was crawl into bed for a few hours but we decided it would be better to have a strong cup of tea and get on with some stuff. Just a few short hours later we had organised two tours, bought our train tickets for all of Vietnam, applied for e-visas for Cambodia and booked accommodation right through to Bangkok. All of this before lunch time!

Day 2 - Walking Tour

We had planned to do a walking tour of the city, mainly the Old Quarter as suggested by Lonely Planet. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and made our way to the first point on the tour which was the Ngoc Son Temple and Pagoda. It was smaller than the ones we had seen in China but just as beautiful.

However after this the walking tour became a little bit odd and most of the so called "sights" were just shops or very old buildings. So we ended up just strolling through the streets and soaking in the atmosphere. Food is definitely a massive aspect of Vietnamese people's daily lives and they have cafes and restaurant everywhere you look. Most of the locals eat at cafés with small tables and even smaller plastic chairs to sit on just laughing and joking amongst themselves. There's a chilled out carefree atmosphere and it's hard not to like it.

AAfter much walking we found ourselves at a massive market. The market is not the same as any market in the UK. They use every single square inch of the place and stalls are completely cram packed next to each other with the smallest space for you to walk between the stalls, in places we had to walk sideways to fit through!

In the afternoon we decided to take a walk up to Tay Ho West Lake and stop at a few places along the way. We went to Ba Dinh Square and then onto Ho Chi Minh museum. From what we had both read we were under the impression that it was about Ho Chi Minh telling you all about the good and bad things that he did for Vietnam.

We were wrong, it was by far the weirdest museum we have stepped foot in so far on the trip. There was a smattering of photos and articles telling you about him and then it turned all abstract and you had for example his headquarters illustrated in the form of a brain! It was like his life displayed by the Tate Modern. It got worse the further you went in and we were quite glad when we saw the exit sign and worked out the entry fee was only 80p. :-)

So after a day of walking we were heading back to the hotel when Ross spotted a window sign advertising a foot massage. We took one look at each other, grinned and the decision was made.

Now for those of you who haven't ever had a foot massage you might think that an hour of having your feet rubbed would be too much..... that is where you would be wrong as the name is seriously misleading. You get massaged from head to toe! They start on your arms and shoulders and then work on your feet and calves, but then you get a head and back massage too! Total heaven :-) We were so relaxed after this it would have been rude to not go and have a beer at the first place we could find.

It was the perfect end to a day of sightseeing and trying our level best to stay alive with the crazy roads! The driving skills are not any worse than China but they park the motorbikes on the pavement so you have no choice but to walk on the main road. People just ignore the red lights and yet again the pedestrian crossings seem to be painted on the road for decoration and to copy the West.

Day 3 - Hoa Lu

So today we had an early start as we went on our first tour to Hoa Lu. Our first stop was the customary shopping experience that sold handmade crafts and beautiful embroidered pictures (which of course Sonya wanted straight away) All of the artists were disabled in some way either directly or indirectly caused by the Vietnam war. This was a nice stop off and we would have spent more time looking at some of the embroidered pictures had they not hassled us endlessly. In the end we escaped back to the bus!

Next stop were two temples built in the 11th Century where the original capital of Vietnam was before relocating to where Hanoi now stands. Both temples were slightly different to each other the first one being much bigger than the second. Vietnamese people believe that certain animals are protectors and will help you live a long and healthy life. The four animals that are believed to hold this power are the snake, turtle, unicorn and a phoenix.

The larger of the two Temples was more elaborate and was built for the King. He had the four protecting animals carved into stone slabs, displayed on the roof and placed throughout the grounds. Unfortunately they didn't protect the King and his son as they were murdered in their beds when Vietnam was invaded by China. When the King and his son were murdered the highest ranking officer became King and the second Temple was built for him, just on a smaller scale and without the animal protectors.

In the afternoon we took a rowing boat with our own personal rower. This was really beautiful with karst mountains and rivers and reminded us of Yangshuo in China. After this we jumped straight out of the boats and onto mountain bikes for a tour around the local rice paddy fields.

Day 4 - Halong Bay

Although neither of us had preconceptions of what to see or expect on our big adventure, if you asked Ross where he would like to see before leaving the UK, Halong Bay would be high up on his list.

As the must see tourist attraction in the North of the country every hotel, hostel and tour agency offers a wide range of different tours for different prices. Although we are on a budget, after the 2nd class tour we had in Mongolia we agreed if possible we would pay a bit extra to see the main sights on our trip, also it is not viable to get to Halong Bay by public transport.

After a bit of haggling with the hotel and looking through many brochures we settled on a middle of the range tour. We got the price down to US$129 per person, a fair price although everything is negotiable and we could have probably got it cheaper elsewhere, after talking to others they were quoted twice that. Although the standard of boats do differ all the tours are very similar, include food etc. so shopping around for the best price is recommended.

After a 4 hour bus trip with the customary shopping stop we arrived at Halong Bay. We boarded the boat and then enjoyed a great seafood buffet.

After lunch we arrived at the first stop the Halong Bay caves. The caves were gigantic in comparison to the ones we visited in China which was good as they were so busy but still the tourists were crammed in to every nook and cranny. As in all the other caves we visited our guide insisted on pointing out shapes and animals most of which were indistinguishable from the other stalagmites and stalactites, although one or two were easily identifiable.

Next activity was kayaking around a floating sea village where people permanently live at sea. Although located in a beautiful bay at the foot of the karst mountains it is hard to believe or even begin to understand why people would live at sea. Apparently some never go to dry land and spend their entire life at sea. Living moored to your neighbours must be like an episode of Eastenders your neighbours will literally know you're every move as they walk across their pontoon to get from A to B.

Once back on the boat we 'enjoyed' a rice wine party, if you haven't tried rice wine you are not missing anything it tastes nothing like wine and you drink it in shots! The only good thing about it, is it certainly got the night going.

Day 5 - Halong Bay

We were woken early to see James Bond cave. Named after 'Tomorrow Never Dies' which was filmed here. The cave was more of a tunnel which led to a lake surrounded by karst mountains. Impressive but don't expect to see a cave as there isn't really one to see.

During breakfast on route to the final activity the inevitable happened. With so many boats in the bay it was destined to happen at some point but of course it happened to ours. With a boat crossing in front of us, ours ploughed on regardless, we missed the main boat but the day boat tied to the back wasn't so lucky. With a massive crunch and jolt we hit the tiny boat with some force. There was one guy merrily eating his breakfast on the day boat and seemed unfazed by the whole event, he didn't even spill his noodles! But then like ants appearing from a disturbed nest, loads of little Vietnamese men appeared and started crawling all over the boat looking for damage. As our crew tried to convince us it was nothing to worry about and it happens all the time the captain had a different view and he wasn't going to wait around to see if the boat sunk and we made a hasty exit!

Finally the tour finished at the beach. We took a quick hike to the top of the nearby karst mountain which had amazing views over Halong Bay and Ross took a quick dip before boarding the boat to head back to terra firma.

An amazing couple of days and well worth the trip, however the masses of tourists and commercialisation did detract from the beauty of the surroundings. We have been lucky enough to visit Angthong National Marine Park off Koh Samui in Thailand which in our opinion is underrated and has parallel beauty. With vastly less tourists and being much cheaper, easier to visit and more predictable weather it rivals Halong Bay.

Catch out the scammers

Not really a scam but don't get caught out by the 'surcharges' We were going to buy our train tickets from the train station but at the last minute we were talked into letting the hotel buy them on our behalf as they convinced us they would not charge for the service. Just like in Thailand they never lie but fail to tell you the whole truth. They did buy the tickets for us but through an agency which add the surcharge not the hotel, as they say in Thailand 'same same but different'

We weren't overly bothered by the surcharge as it was small and they did get us exactly what we wanted, an upper and lower bunk where available but when the tickets didn't turn up as promised we did cause a bit of a scene. The only reason they didn't want to give us the tickets until departure was because they have the face value printed on them and we obviously couldn't argue the point as we were boarding the train. After telling the hotel we knew they had overcharged us, the tickets promptly arrived and then freebies just started coming as 'compensation' we stayed in the Honeymoon suite for the whole time, we didn't get charged for checking in early, we got a discount on our Halong Bay trip, free taxi to station and free drinks. Make sure you get value for money!


Before reading this bit we recommend you are not eating anything with rice. Before coming to Vietnam we just thought rice was rice and when shopping one pack was similar to the next but since being here our opinion has changed. Generations after generations of people work in the family's small paddy fields growing rice for the family's needs, and to sell at market. Nothing wrong with that.

When a family member passes away they believe that if they are buried near the family their spirit will never die and they will live with the family for eternity. Again nothing wrong with that.

BUT put the two together and you get a big fat wrong. Yes they bury the deceased in the paddy fields and then continue to grow rice on and around the graves. Admittedly some fields have concentrated areas just for the graves away from the growing areas but we did see many graves right in the middle of paddy fields. Thai rice has a reputation for being one of the world's best as long as we don't see or hear similar things when we get to rural Thailand, Thai rice it is from now on. We just have to eat noodles or not think about Vietnam rice for a few weeks!

Hotel Review

We stayed at the Splendid Star Grand hotel situated in the Old Quarter. The first hotel since Europe and with a New Year promotion we only paid US$15 a night. We got a free upgrade to the Honeymoon suite and although not as grand as some Honeymoon suites certainly a step up from our recent accommodation. The room was well equipped and even had a jacuzzi. The staff were extremely helpful, too helpful and at times they bordered on pestering us. As with all places (ref note on beat the scammers) the hotel tried to sell us numerous tours, take your time to review prices outside of the hotel before buying anything. Ask for a room at the back of the property anything ending in a 2, not such great views but the Cathedral bells won't be as loud! With a free all you can eat breakfast, great room, nice staff and great location all for US$15 this place is hard to beat. A great stay in Hanoi.


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