From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

Writing another entry on this blog after more than a year seems… surreal…

(and difficult. WordPress has completely overhauled the format WTF)

All those months of mostly being stuck at home and not being able to travel made updating a travel blog seem kinda pointless… especially since I include travel tips in each entry. Anything I’d write would probably be irrelevant… lots of countries have closed their borders. Within each country, the usual public transport routes may no longer be available. Lots of hotels and hostels have closed. So many things have changed. COVID-19 has upended everything we know about traveling. But with the news that countries are slowly opening their borders again, I am filled with cautious optimism. So here I am.

Before the start of the pandemic I still had one trip that I hadn’t written about. Yeah I know, all of my blog entries are several months late because I only start writing em once I get home. But this is the first time I’m writing one almost two years later. lol.

I spent the first couple of days of 2020 in Hanoi. Back then, COVID-19 was far from everyone’s minds. News of some virus in China has been making headlines, but everyone thought it wouldn’t spread worldwide. But the Chinese government begged to differ. Oh no. They surely proved everyone wrong. Thanks to their predilection to keep everything under wraps and their policy of absolute deniability until things can no longer be denied, here we are. I could go on and on about how angry and frustrated I am with their government, not just because of this pandemic, but also with the way they stifle freedom, abuse their own people, bully neighboring nations etc. etc. etc… but this blog entry is not about China. It’s about Vietnam. But rambling about China made me remember something. One thing I really love about Vietnam? It’s the way practically everyone there hates China. Say out loud how you hate China, you’re bound to make lots of new friends haha.

But enough about China.

So a couple of my friends decided to welcome the new year in Vietnam. 2020 was full of promises. Who would have thought it would turn out to be an absolute sh*t year. They went ahead, and I just flew in a couple of days later. Hanoi welcomes a lot of tourists. Because of this, they’ve had years to tweak the infrastructure for tourism. Many tourists would choose to stay at the Old Quarter, and heading there from the airport is a breeze. The cheapest way is via local bus. The airport is part of the normal bus route, so taking the local bus would most probably still be an option once the country opens its borders again. A one way ticket only costs 9,000 Vietnamese Dongs (VND). that’s roughly 40 US cents! The bus stop is at the right of the terminal 1 exit. Just wait for bus number 17. That’s the one that’s headed to Long Bien Bus Station, which is the stop that’s closest to the Old Quarter. One drawback? These public buses are almost always full. And there’s barely space for luggage.

I’d recommend taking the express bus 86 instead. It has air-conditioning, Wifi, and there’s enough space for luggage. A ticket only costs 35,000 VND. That’s only about a dollar and 50 cents! The price difference is negligible for most tourists. This bus passes through both Terminals 1 and 2, so you don’t need to go to terminal 1 if you’re arriving at terminal 2. The bus stop is to the left of the terminal exit. I’ve been told there are fake express bus 86s, but I didn’t encounter any of those buses. Look for a post with the number “86”, the right express bus stops directly in front. This bus also brings you to the Long Bien Bus Station. The bus drivers don’t speak much English, but if you say “Old Quarter“, they’ll know where to drop you off. From here, you can practically walk to anywhere in the Old Quarter. If you brought a lot of stuff, there are many cheap public transport options from the Long Bien bus Station. Heading back to the airport is just as easy. Just wait for the bus at the same station.

I stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel since it was recommended by a number of my travel friends. A lot of great hostels aren’t operating anymore though (*Yay Covid!*), and I’m not sure if they’re still open. But I had fun there, it’s your typical party hostel, and it’s located where all the action is. Everything is really cheap in Vietnam, so it’s not hard to find a cheap place to stay. What’s even more surprising? All the hostels serve free beer during happy hour, even though their rates are ridiculously cheap to begin with lol.

There are lots to see in the Old Quarter itself. It’s one huge attraction, bursting with local color. One day might not even be enough. If this is your first time in Southeast Asia, you might be in for a culture shock, especially if you’re not used to crowds. You’ve heard of people saying there are more sheep than people in New Zealand? In Hanoi, there’s probably more motorcycles than people. Well not really, but probably just as much. If you get tired of walking, it’s easy to book a motorcycle ride via the “Grab” app. Rates are dirt cheap too. I joined a walking tour one day, then we explored on our own the next day. Aside from the Old Quarter, the following attractions should not be missed: The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is a huge complex where various museums and monuments can be found. Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a good place to relax after sightseeing. The Imperial Citadel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And if you’re interested in the Vietnam War, the Military History Museum is worth checking out. Those train tracks that were all the rage on Instagram a few years back? Sad to say, if you’re a budding “influencer” (ugh), the tracks have been closed to the general public because they’ve been deemed a public hazard. A lot of people have been taking pictures (for the gram) even if trains were already dangerously close. So no, at the start of the year 2020 drinking coffee or tea along the train tracks wasn’t possible anymore. But who knows how things will be once Hanoi is open again for tourism.

Hanoi is also famous for being a gateway to one of Vietnam’s best attractions: Ha Long Bay. If you’re just looking for a day trip, lots of tours can be arranged from Hanoi, there’s really no need to book in advance online. Even the ones that you can book through hotels and hostels have a huge mark up. Just walk through the streets of the Old Quarter, you’d get offered lots of tours to Ha Long Bay. Play coy, and you’ll surely get a discount. Ha Long Bay is about 3 hours away from Hanoi so these tours leave early in the morning and last for 10-12 hours. A day trip costs about 30 USD. Since you’d only be spending about 3-4 hours in Ha Long Bay, you won’t be seeing much of it. You’d probably get to spend more time at the bay itself if these tours would remove the stops at several shops (like a garment store, and another store selling statues and figurines), but since these tours get commission from the owners of these stops, that likely won’t be happening. Unless you’re willing to rent your own private transport and drive to Ha Long Bay, these day tours are the way to go. You can choose to take a public bus, but since these buses have lots of stops, I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re just planning a day trip.

To be honest, these day trips aren’t the best way to see Ha Long Bay. The best parts of the bay are those far from the Ferry Terminals. Since you’ll only have 3-4 hours, you won’t be able to go far. Honestly if you’ve travelled a lot you’d end up a little disappointed. Especially since you’re going to see lots of trash in the water. Still, for people who don’t have the luxury of time, a day trip is still a good option.

Now if you plan to spend at least one night on the bay, it gets tricky. The price varies so much, it depends on how many nights you’d spend, and how luxurious the accommodations are. If you just want to see the bay, you could book a 3 days/2 nights cruise for about 50 bucks. Food and sleeping arrangements on the ferry would be very basic though. At this price range you shouldn’t expect much. If you’re not taking a day trip, it might be best to check reviews first. There are so many variations, and I’ve heard of a number of travelers getting scammed, wherein they’ve been victims of false advertising. If no reviews are available online, it might be a good idea to ask the hotel/ hostel staff. I’d recommend at least an overnight trip so you’d see how truly beautiful this bay is.

Hanoi also has a kickass nightlife. Technically, bars and clubs in the Old Quarter are only allowed to operate until 12 midnight (2 AM on Fridays and Saturdays). After midnight, these establishments pretend to be closed, with all the doors and windows shut, and the music turned down. This often turns into a sort of cat and mouse game with the police. Someone who works at these bars would always be on the lookout, and when they see that the police are about to pass by, everyone has to shut up. This is something that should be experienced at least once in Hanoi lol. If you wanna party until dawn, there are places open in the outskirts. One place I’ve heard of is “Birdcage“. I’ve been told it’s in the middle of nowhere, probably the reason why the police don’t even bother to check if anyone’s still partying after midnight haha.

One week is more than enough to explore both Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. A person can immerse oneself in local culture and see a lot of beautiful sights in a short amount of time, making this an ideal trip for those who want to see more of the world, but don’t have a lot of time to spare. Everything in Vietnam is incredibly cheap too. Your money will go a looooong long way.

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