Staff Member: Dan Crandall
Travel Dates: September-October 2014
Destinations Visited: Vietnam including Hanoi, Mai Chau, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An
Day 1 / September 26: Arrived in Hanoi
My flight had been delayed out of Phnom Penh, so I arrived late at night. Getting through the immigration formalities was surprisingly easy. As an American, I needed to provide an official letter for entry provided by the tour operator (we provide this service to our clients for a nominal service fee) along with my passport, an up-to-date passport photo, and the US$45 visa fee. The Vietnamese airport officials were very professional and courteous. I collected my bag and met my driver who had patiently waited for me despite the delayed take-off from Cambodia.
Our travelers would be greeted by an English-speaking arrivals manager but I just needed a driver and he turned out to be a treat to ride with, smiling away as we sped along an impressive series of broad, modern highway spans to my central hotel tonight, the Larosa. Most central Hanoi hotels are located roughly 1 hour driving from the Hanoi’s Noi Bai international airport (HAN). The Larosa is a nice 3-star hotel with a helpful, friendly staff that is an outstanding choice for travelers taking the train, since it’s across the street from Hanoi’s main train station. It’s also within walking distance to the exquisite Temple of Literature and Hanoi’s best traditional restaurant, the Quan an Nogn, which often just goes by ‘Nogn’ (pronounced ‘non’).
My tour was roughly similar to our 8-day Vietnam Discovery trip, with the major change being a substitution of urban Saigon for rural Mai Chau. All of our Southeast Asia trips are customized to fit what our travelers want, and I wanted to see more of the north-central countryside.
Day 2 / September 27: Mai Chau
This morning we drove about 3.5 hours up and over scenic Thung Khe mountain pass to reach the phenomenally beautiful valley of Mai Chau. High karst mountains ring the lush green rice fields dotting the valley floor. A unique minority community of Thai ancestral people live here; these people are known for weaving and rice farming.
We rode bikes this afternoon through several villages, past water buffalo grazing in the idyllic fields, and were invited into a massive and festive wedding party to help them celebrate with several lethal rounds of local rice wine (Vietnamese fire water).
This evening, the hotel – the lovely 3-star Mai Chau Lodge – hosted traditional dancing on their grounds just after dinner. The comfortable Mai Chau Lodge is set on a rise overlooking rice fields with panoramic views of the mountains all around. The property has a refreshing pool to enjoy after your cycling trips and a great restaurant onsite.
Another of our tours, the 13-day North Vietnam Adventure, goes to another northern Vietnamese region renowned for its waterfalls, terraced rice fields, mountains, and hill tribes, and is highly recommended for travelers with more time.
Day 3 / September 28: Ninh Binh (“Dry Halong Bay), a cooking lesson and boating through caves
We drove several hours stopping en-route at an incredibly scenic local market (selling dogs for dinner, among other animals) to the region known as the “dry Halong Bay” for the karst mountains that line every horizon. I met a local cook and together we made classic fried spring rolls in a short and simple cooking class. Lunch was a panoply of local dishes like baked fish, grilled beef, and fried pork along wth the spring rolls. I joined the local Muong boat handler (the boat being a sampan, a traditional flat-bottomed boat) who poled us down a river sandwiched between green mountains and rice fields. We met the gate keeper for the Thein Ha Cave, who opened the door for our descent to a unique little underground boat landing. Here we hopped on tiny john boats and the local farmer poled my guide and I along a strange, shallow, clear subterranean river, past countless stalactites and other rock formations. On exiting, we got on another boat to cruise a different underground river, to visit the separate but nearby Buddha Cave, ending in Bird Valley (Thung Chim), which in the early evenings and mornings must be astounding for birding. The valley is essentially a mountain ringed bowl of forest, wetland and water.
We returned to Hanoi passing through fantastic mountain-riddled countryside in about 3 hours. I checked into my hotel for tonight, the 3-star Hotel Golden Lotus. This 12-story hotel has a neat deck on the top floor with a small pool and gorgeous views of Hanoi. Be sure to check it out if you stay here. Even better, it’s situated perfectly in the Old Quarter, within easy walking distance of the buzzing life of this central historic area including Hoam Kiem Lake, which features a marvelous park-like pedestrian path circling around this unlikely body of water complete with a pagoda in it. Tonight for dinner I made the easy walk to the elegant (and delicious, if pricey) Madame Hein restaurant, romantically set in a fine 19th century villa.
Day 4 / September 29: Halong Bay
Early start today with a pick up at 7:45 am to begin the drive to justifiably famous Halong Bay, about a 4-hour drive away. Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site with over 1600 limestone islets and islands rising from the sea like massive dinosaur teeth. It may be heavily touristy at this point, but it remains a must-see on any Vietnam tour.
My 2-day/1-night cruise was on-board the Emeraude, a luxury small cruiser with impeccable cabins, food, and service – highly recommended. The cabins had the strongest (and most welcomed) air-conditioning I encountered on the trip, along with a comfy bed, lots of open-air deck space and delicious buffet meals.
Following our welcome cocktail, we visited the impressive Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises), a large cavern within one of the islands, full of formations. Later, I went sea kayaking in a secluded bay near Hang Trong, checking out the eroded shoreline before venturing over to an active oyster farm. I returned to the boat to use it as a platform for jumping into the South China Sea. Once the ship, the Emeraude, weighed anchor, I went to the wide open and empty top deck for 360 degree views of the passing islets.
Day 5 / September 30: Halong Bay sunrise, Hanoi Old Quarter walk, and a classic water puppet show
Be sure to time your travel alarm clock or cell phone for the sunrise, it’s special on Halong Bay. I was surprised that I seemed to be the only person awake to watch it. There was a whole fleet of boats in a staggered line across a huge open part of the bay for positioning on the spectacular sunset. After sunrise, the ship’s main guide led a fun tai chi class that about 6 of us lumbered through in the main outdoor lounge area. The rest of the morning we slowly cruised back to the port, passing innumerable islets along the way, sipping fantastic coffee, taking in the views. The cruise ended at around 9:30 am, and we started the drive back to Hanoi.
In Hanoi, I checked into my hotel, the 3-star Conifer Hotel on the edge of the old quarter. My Hanoi guide met me, and we went for a 2 hour afternoon walk through the fascinating Old Quarter, where, despite being the obvious tourist attraction, it remains a true daily-life area for many Vietnamese, who see the quarter as extremely choice real estate. (I understand that the real estate there costs more than in much of Manhattan). To afford living in the Old Quarter, 3 generations of families will live in one rectangular section of a building, like a rectangular, mostly window-less tube, narrower than a typical trailer home, with 2 or 3 of the these homes abreast and then more stacked upward, with whole buildings sharing just one toilet. With all that mass of humanity so concentrated, the people watching here is amazing.
Later, at 6 pm, I went to a 1 hour long wonderful water puppet show (there are two good theaters near the city center doing shows every night). The puppets and their stories were absolutely entertaining but the live music that accompanies the show is even better. The show features approximately 2 to 3 foot tall puppets that perform brief 5-10 minute plays, spiced with humor, reflecting myths, life and history. In the evening, I wandered the night market, ate some street-side pho, and then had a drink at the City View Cafe near the lake for sweeping views of the downtown. If you go, be prepared to climb many flights of stairs.
The 34-room, 3-star Conifer Hotel is a great choice for travelers looking for smart, contemporary accommodations that are within walking distance to much of the Old Quarter and city center. The hotel is just a few blocks away from the Binn Minh Jazz Club, a great place to enjoy a night cap while supporting live jazz in Vietnam.
Day 6 / October 1: Hanoi sight-seeing / Flight to Hue
My morning flight to Hue on Vietnam Airlines was cancelled so I took the new free time to visit a number of Hanoi’s major sites, including the Vietnam Military Museum, the highly eccentric Ho Chi Minh Museum, the monolith of the Ho Chi Ming Mausoleum, and the fantastic Temple of Literature, an 11th century temple complex with lovely gardens. The highlight of the military museum’s collection are probably the various US military aircraft wrecks on display with propaganda descriptions of the heroism involved to bring them down. Getting from one place to another was fun, hailing taxis and walking through leafy parks and wide French-colonial boulevards.
Upon reaching Hue by air from Hanoi (about 1 hour flying south), I visited the Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO Heritage Site. The Imperial Citadel, situated on the banks of the Huong or Perfume River (it actually smells like any other river), was built in the early 1800’s by Emperor Gia Long for his and his family’s exclusive use. This palace-fortress was heavily damaged during the American War and is gradually being restored to its previous opulent splendor and is well worth a walk-through. After the visit, I checked into my hotel, the 15-floor 4-star Moonlight Hotel, which offers a marvelous view of the Perfume River and central Hue from its top floor. The hotel is also well-situated to walk around the town center to sample the many restaurants and bars in the area.
One tip for travelers in Hanoi is to make a point to visit some of the larger parks and public squares early in the morning, around 5:30-6 am, to see the locals practicing tai-chai, dancing, and socializing in the cool of the morning.
Day 7 / October 2: Hue – Hoi An
The morning began with an uneventful boat trip on the peaceful Perfume River to visit the serene Perfume Pagoda. I started late – if you start early in the morning, around sunrise, you’ll see more of the daily life of fisherman, etc. on the river – then met our driver and we departed by car for Hoi An. En-route, we stopped at the royal tombs of Kings Tu Duc & Khai Dinh. The more interesting of the royal tombs was the quiet, leafy Khai Dinh, though both host a small Forbidden City-esque complement of warrior statues guarding the grounds.
Afterwards, lunch at a local restaurant, immersed in gardens, a common feature of many fine dining establishments in the region. Back on the road, we traveled over the the spectacular Hai Van Pass along a picturesque road that reminded me of California’s Highway 1 at times with its gorgeous cliffs and ocean views. On the pass, you’ll find a number of American bunkers from the war, which are open to scramble around on and in.
On the way to ancient Hoi An, we passed through Danang, a rapidly modernizing city that may be among the wealthiest in Vietnam judging from the gleaming new buildings and broad pedestrian coastal path along the city’s main beach area.
A little after sunset, we reached coastal Hoi An, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1999. My hotel tonight was the 4-star Hoi An Ancient House Village Resort and Spa. Surrounded by green rice fields, this attractive property is only 2 kms from the old quarter and 3 kms to Cua Dai Beach. The hotel offers free bicycle rentals and a complimentary shuttle service to and from the old quarter, plus excellent service.
Day 8 / October 3: Touring around Hoi An
This morning, my guide and I went on a 2 hour walking tour of the pretty little old quarter in Hoi An, a touristy area for sure, but one which still holds loads of charm, as evident in the historic merchant and community houses, places of worship, the intriguing narrow streets and alleys, and the famous Japanese covered bridge. Hoi An has a mixed Chinese-Vietnamese atmosphere with low, tiled-roof houses and narrow streets, with houses constructed of rare timbers and decorated with lacquer panels engraved with Chinese characters and pillars carved with ornamental designs. It may be commercialized but it has retained a rare elegance. We visited the Hoi An Silk Village where you can learn how the locals raise silkworms and produce silk for Hoi An’s historic textile industry. The village has a nice shop for a variety of high quality silk products made in Quang Nam province and a wonderful open-air restaurant.
In the afternoon, I biked to the lovely Cua Dai beach, about a 15-20 minute ride away. The beach has quite a few beach-side restaurants with pitched umbrellas and lounge chairs available in exchange for buying food and drinks. The beach was clean and broad, with the water clear and warm. An Bang Beach is another km or so down from Cua Dai and is slightly less touristed but it still has restaurants to enjoy. For divers and snorkelers, the best time to visit the area is May-August when clarity can improve to up to 20 meters. The typhoon (rainy) season runs from approximately September to January but on my visit it was mostly sunny.
Tonight I returned to the old quarter for dinner. An iconic image of Hoi An are the brightly lit colorful lanterns strung throughout the quarter, while Hoi An’s Hoai River is studded with the lights of flower lanterns set afloat by pilgrims and tourists who come to make a wish. The downtown is full of fine places to drink and eat, and the public spaces play host to numerous street performances, with Vietnamese games, live music and plays on display.
Day 9 / October 4: Hoi An Beach / Departure
I woke early to visit the beach before sunrise and found hundreds of men warming up on Cua Dai beach, preparing for their work day with an amusing, motley sort of calisthenics that was fun to watch. The sunrise was slightly spoiled by clouds on the horizon early on but soon they were burned off and the sky was brilliant. By about 7:15 am, the beach was totally empty. It was a treat to have the entire coastline to myself. Sometime around 8:30 am, the first tourists arrived and a steady build up began as I slurped up the traditional noodle soup for breakfast. Eventually I said goodbye to the alluring soft yellow-white sands and rode my bike back to the hotel, where I met my guide and driver for the transfer to Danang and flight to Hanoi, where I was bound for my return flight to the U.S.