Hanoi and Halong Bay

The busy Old Quarter in Hanoi is a shock to your senses. It’s loud, hectic and full of energy. It’s a city trying to be modern, but still has an old feel with narrow lanes and fruit sellers on bicycles wearing woven, conical hats. There’s a unique charm to this large city.

Old Quarter is where you’ll find most of the action. The narrow streets are bustling with people and the air is filled with scents from street vendors and restaurants making Pho and the northern specialty Bum Bo Nam Bo. This dish translates to ‘noodle beef from southern Vietnam’. It was fresh and light with sweet and sour aspects, even the vegetarian version is incredible. When we were in southern Vietnam though we couldn’t find this ‘southern’ dish. There they said its only available in the north!

We thought walking across the street in India was difficult, but in Hanoi, there’s never a break in traffic. The city of 7 million people has 5 million motorcycles. At least they’re not cars… yet. Just be careful crossing the street and remember the rule: make eye contact with the driver, slowly walk across at a consistent, slow pace and the motorcycles will swerve around you.

In the middle of this crazy city is the calm Hoam Kiem Lake with the picturesque Turtle Tower in the middle. Legend says that a magical sword originated from this lake and was used to defeat Chinese invaders in the 1400s. After the battle, a turtle returned the sword to the bottom of the lake. The tower was built to honour that turtle. There’s a lovey sidewalk around that lake that is great for a calming walk. On one side of the lake are a few restaurants with patios. It’s a great place to sit and enjoy the view.

On the other side of the lake is Ngoc Son Temple on a small island. Inside, it is colourfully decorated with a red alter and red and gold porcelain decorations such as horses and phoenixes. Vietnamese religions are a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and the worship of ancestors. Ngoc Son Temple is dedicated to all of those except Buddhism. There are statues of the various ancestors around the altar making it look much different than other temples we’ve seen.

Built in the 9th century, Bach Ma Temple is the oldest temple in Hanoi. Bach Ma means ́white horse ́ which relates to its legend. There are a few different versions of the story. They all explain how a white horse determined the location of the new citadel, which is now Hanoi. Bach Ma Temple was built to worship the white horse. Inside it is also decorated in red and gold with phoenix statues and of course a statue of a white horse. In the 1800s a shrine to Confucius was added. The temple is located in Old Quarter as are many other temples that are worth visiting. Walking through Old Quarter, we also saw many small shrines on trees or in small spaces between buildings.

The Temple of Literature is a gorgeous complex of traditional, well-preserved Vietnamese buildings. They have typical low roofs, tiled with terracotta and have turned up decorated corners. There are 5 courtyards with ponds and manicured gardens in the complex. Built in the 11th century, it was dedicated to Confucius but was built as a place of study of Confucianism rather than for worship. It’s said to be Vietnam’s first university. When we were there the courtyards were filled with hundreds of students and their families, posing for grad pictures, so we couldn’t explore much of the grounds.

Halong Bay is a must-see site in Northern Vietnam. This UNESCO World Heritage site has a unique landscape, filled with thousands of karst islands and islets standing like tall pillars in the blue ocean. We booked a 4-day 3-night cruise through our hotel and it was one of the best decisions we made. Our junk boat cruised between the tall, jungle covered pinnacles making us feel small in comparison. The scenery is spectacular. We kayaked a few times between these giants allowing a different perspective. Some of the islands have naturally formed tunnels that not only make great pictures, but some were large enough that we were able to kayak through.

Although it’s a very touristy area, it still has a remote feel. There are many local fishermen with old, wooden fishing boats. Some of them have very basic houseboats where they live and fish each day. Other fishermen live in stilt homes forming small villages in quiet bays. We passed a few temples and shrines that the villagers built on the islets. We were only 165 km from Hanoi, but worlds away from modern conveniences.

Some of the villagers work on one of the many pearl farms in the bay. We stopped at one and saw how they grow, cultivate and polish the pearls. Of course there was a jewelry store with hundreds of choices of necklaces, earrings and bracelets strung with the cultured pearls. At least the store didn’t have an aggressive sales staff and they let us just browse.

We were able to get off our junk boat to explore one of the islands. There was a cave on the island that is open to tourists. It was fairly small, but had many narrow passages and alcoves. The cave was full of large stalagmites and stalactites giving it a mysterious feel. It was a small cave, but still interesting to actually be inside one of the islands. At the end of the cave was a walkway that led to a secret lake with amazing views of the surrounding island peaks. It was a beautiful, calm end to our cruise.

Coming up Next: Trekking on the Dong Van Plateau

For more pictures from this trip, click here. For pictures from our other trips go to Gallery at Monkey’s Tale.

For more stories from our other adventures, go to Destinations.

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