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Trip Report 1 week in North and Central Vietnam in February

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Having just completed a whirlwind trip to Vietnam, I shall now write a detailed (as far as possible) trip report for others with the same predicament as ours - too much to see, not enough time :)

Just a warning: ours was not a relaxed holiday. But, being early 20 something, runners and Indian (used to the madness, chaos, traffic and trains), we had the energy to try and cover almost all we wanted to do and see. The result - a jampacked, thrilling, diverse and food-filled holiday to be remembered :)

Areas covered - Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Hue

Highlights - The food in Hanoi, the lanterns in Hoi An, a 30 km hike in Sapa and ofcourse, Halong Bay

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    A little bit about us:
    Me: Very very active, never get tired, don't think much about discomfort, get easily stressed out about small problems but never want to miss out on anything. This leads to hectic, jampacked holidays - the kind you need a holiday to recover from afterwards.

    The boyfriend: Very laid back and calm - takes the kind of holidays I would want AFTER my hectic one.

    Our Itinerary:
    15th Feb: Hanoi (landed at noon)
    16: Hanoi, overnight to Sapa
    17: Sapa, overnight to Hanoi
    18: Halong Bay
    19: Halong Bay, overnight to Hoi An
    20: Hoi An
    21: Hue, overnight to Hanoi
    22: Hanoi
    23: Hanoi (flight back at noon)

    Train Travel in Vietnam:
    We found the overnight trains (we took 4 of them) to be fairly comfortable, running (almost) on time, but slightly expensive. Booking them was an adventure in itself, as we booked them ourselves at the train station.

    This link was extremely useful in booking tickets: http://www.seat61.com/vietnam.htm#hanoi - hue - danang - saigon

    We wrote down our exact requirements (dates, to-from, train number, seat preference) and handed them to the teller,who then proceeded to book everything almost exactly like we wanted. Smooth, and and much cheaper than paying an agent (who charge around $10 for each ticket, which would add up to $80 for 2 people for 4 trains)

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    Our budget for the entire trip

    Flights to/from Vietnam: $1000
    Trains in Vietnam: $300
    Hotels: $150
    Halong Bay Tour: $220
    Rest: $330 (includes food, museum entries, bike rentals, transport, souvenirs)
    Total: $2000 for two people

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    Day 1: 15th Feb

    Landing and getting our Visa:
    We landed at Hanoi at noon, and proceeded to the "Visa on Arrival" counter. The name is slightly misleading: Vietnam's visa on arrival is actually a pre-approved visa. You need to contact an agency (you will easily find one on a google search, we used secure.hotels-in-vietnam.com).
    You have to provide your dates, passport number and some other basic details, and pay a fee (~$15-20). After a few days (2-4), you receive an "approval letter". Print out a copy of this, and provide it to the "Visa on Arrival" counter at the Hanoi airport (this process is only applicable to those entering Vietnam by air), and pay a visa stamping fee ($45) to get your Visa. The process should not take long, but a queue at the airport is inevitable - we took about 1 hour to get ours.

    From the airport to the City:
    We chose the Vietnam airlines minibus (costs abour $2-3 per person), which you can catch from right outside the airport (pay on the bus). It takes about 45 minutes, and drops you close to the south of Hoan Kiem lake.


    We walked from where the bus dropped us (after repeatedly refusing hotels and taxis) towards the lake, with the aim to exchange some $ to Dongs, and to grab a bite before checking into our hotel. We found a money exchange machine opposite the lake (on the west side), and got an excellent exchange rate. We then headed towards the Old Quarter, and had lunch at Xoi Yen. This place serves the best sticky rice with toppings of your choice (our favourites were braised pork and chinese sausage). Food for two including beer each (Bia Hanoi) was just 78000 dong - about $4!

    Beware of Tour Touts!
    While walking to our hotel, we stopped at a few tour operators (names we to find out about in the lonely planet or tripadvisor) for 2 Day/1 Night tours to Halong Bay. We found an Ocean Tours (with great reviews on the net), which gave us the best price at $65 per person, and most others at around $100. The price seemed to good to be true... and it was. After accessing some wifi and checking up on the tours, we found that this office was at the wrong address and had the wrong phone number. It was a fake "ocean tours", and after we called the real one, they quoted a price of $130! Beware of fake tour operators with names similar to more credible companies you might have read about. Same goes for hotels and restaurants.

    We finally checked into our hotel - the Hanoi Elegance Ruby, at the edge of the Old Quarter. As expected, they had excellent service, with their receptionist sitting with them and going through my entire itinerary, and allowing us to use their services even on days we were not checked into their hotel. However, at $58 a night, it was significantly more expensive than other hotels. The rooms were nice (if not a bit small), and even had a laptop inside.

    We then went to the train station (a 30 minute walk), and booked our tickets for the entire trip (details in the posts above). After this, we walked towards the Hoan Kiem lake, which is beautifully lit up in the evenings.
    Dinner was at Bun bo nam bo, delicious and cheap, at 110,000 dong only. You don't have to order, just sit down and wait for your food :)

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    Day 2: Exploring HCM Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, HanoiKids Tour, Delicious Egg Coffee with great city views

    Our day began early, as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is only open in the mornings. Breakfast at the hotel had a lot of variety, but we stuck with eggs and bacon. We then walked to the Mausoleum (about 30 minutes).

    Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum:
    The mausoleum houses HCM's embalmed body, and is a place of pilgrimage for many vietnamese. The building itself looks a bit boring, but it surrounded by beautiful bonsai. As expected, there was a long queue (100-200m), but it moved very quickly (15 minutes to get in). Since this is a place of respect, you are not allowed to wear caps inside, no photographs, and no stopping. The results - a surreal experience, with guards every 5 steps away (who do not shy away from grabbing you by the arm to move you if you are slowing down) as you walk around HCM's body. The body itself looks eerie, with skin that glows - you expect him to wake up any minute. All in all, an interesting experience which, considering it is free, should not be missed.

    Ho Chi Minh Palace and Stilt House:
    The entrance fee is 50,000D - a bit over priced considering what is on show inside. The palace looks so-so (you can not go inside), you can see HCM's used cars (with a 100 tourists around you), and a stilt house where he used to live (demonstrating his simplicity). All in all, a missable experience.
    We then walked to the Temple of Literature (20 minute walking)

    Temple of Literature:
    This esteemed university is a fine exmaple of vietnamese architecture, with multiple courtyards, each serving its own purpose. We spent about 45 minutes inside and found the english descriptions quite helpful.

    After this, we for some coffee at Ca Phe Pho Co - this place is called "Hanoi's best kept secret" by many guide books - which we thought was a self-defeating prophecy, but were pleasantly surprised to find true. You have to walk down a narrow alley-way, behing a clothes store, and you reach what looks like a courtyard of somebody's home. You order you coffee here - this place is own for its egg coffee, where an egg is beaten into the froth (you cant taste it at all, but the froth becomes deliciously silky). I ordered the egg coffee, and the boyfriend ordered iced yoghurt coffee. We then climbed a small spiral staircase up a few flights, and reached the roof of the house - with beautiful views over Hoan Kiem lake! Both our coffees (40,000D each) were excellent, and we spent this time admiring the views around us :)
    We then took a short walk to the Old Quarter, to book our 2D/1N tour with Vega Travels (more details in following posts).
    Lunch was at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, famous for its (you guessed it) Bun Cha. The Bun Cha was good, but we got confused into also ordering some crab spring rolls, which were not that great frankly. The meal, at 190,000D was our most expensive yet (and no beer!).
    We then walked back to our hotel, and waited for volunteers from HanoiKids to come pick us up for an afternoon tour. HanoiKids is a non-profit that allows Vietnamese students to practice their english while taking you our for tours. We had heard great reviews, and asked for a timeslot with them. Due to our delay in asking (I emailed on 14th Feb), we only got a half day with our two guide: Thu and Bobby.

    Hao Lo Museum:
    Thu and Bobby took us to the prison where vietnamese were held during the French rule - the conditions they were held in were brutal, with men shackled the whole day, and both men and women tortured on a regular basis. Coming from a country which has seen its fair share of torture at the hand of european rule, this prison hit very close to home. The same prison was also used by the vietnamese later during the american war, but in considerably better circumstances - that's what was depicted anyway. This made for a very thought-provoking afternoon. Interestingly, I did some reading on the supposed good condition of American soldiers, and seems like the Vietnamese have exaggerated their positive treatment a fair bit. But this is not the place for a debate on that, so Ill not get into it...

    The four of us then walked over to another coffee shop, this one is supposed to be the place which invented egg coffee, and it was even more delicious than Pho Co (maybe because we asked for it with chocolate :) ), and we discovered the vietnamese tradition of eating sunflower seeds (and throwing the seed-shells on the floor). Thu and Bobby also spent time telling us about the importance of tone in the vietnamese language, and funny mistakes people can make (Pho for example, can mean street, noodle soup, or prostitute, depending on your tone :) )

    Vietnamese street food in a fancy restaurant: Quan An Ngon Restaurant
    Bobby recommended we go here for dinner as it is close to the train station, and is a great place for trying different vietnamese food. The restauarant is huge, decorated with twinkly lights, and jam-packed with more than a 100 people, local and tourist. It felt a bit like a factory, but the food variety was great, and you could see it getting cooked! We had a papaya and beef salad (good), fresh rice paper spring rolls (so-so), and pork with rice (good). I also tried a dessert - cold soup with coconut milk and tapioca (very cool!). Including one beer, the bill came to 180,000D. Slightly high for the food quality, but a good experience.

    Trains in Vietnam:
    We walked over to the station with enough time to spare, having read that north-bound trains from Hanoi leave from platforms 6-10, and came be tricky to reach. This turned out to be true, since the overbridge only goes up to platform 5, and you have to walk across the tracks to reach the other platforms! You have been warned :) But its not a very big deal, and the area is quite well lit up, so nothing to worry about.
    We had booked a soft sleeper, and had two lower berths. The beds were made with clean linen, and there were plug points also. The train left at 9 pm, and we fell asleep soon after,since it was scheduled to arrive at 6 am. :)

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    Day 3: 30km of walking to and from Ta Van, with some getting lost in between, and our best coffee yet!

    We arrived at Lao Cai at 6 in the morning, with an uneventful night. As I had read in the guide books, there were minibuses waiting to take people to Sapa at 50,000D each. We arrived at 7 in the morning, just as the sun had finished rising. Finding every place shut, included the tourist information centre as well as any restaurants I had read about, we proceed to the only one open - Lizard cafe. The set breakfast (a rather dull omelette, coffee and baguette) was at $3 each. We also used the loo to clean up, brush, change and layer up.

    By then, the information centre had opened up. We bought a map for 20,000D, and asked the person there for suggestions of hikes we can do without a tour guide. He suggested the village Ta Van, approximately 8-10 km away. He showed us where it was on the map, pointed in one direction and sent us along our way.

    The walk to Ta Van was downhill, and pretty. We stopped along the way to ask people directions, since the map turned out to not be very helpful - all "trail" routes seemed to be proper roads(maybe we couldnt figure out how to read it?). We were accosted by minority women on the way who (sometimes jokingly, but sometimes seriously) "threatened" to follow us in return for us buying something from them! It was quite annoying, but we managed to set a brisk walking pace which usually helped us get rid of them. Other tourists, especially close to the village and those who got off tour buses, were not so lucky. We saw many middle-aged white men, with handicraft bags they had been forced to buy, surrounded by 5 women half their size :)

    The village was really small, with almost as many shops as houses. We spent quite a long time going through the village, and even doubled back to a neighbouring village about 5 km away a few times (adding another 10k to our trip). We stopped for coffee at a small handicraft shop, and had the most delicious, chocolatey and strong coffee :) bought a small stone carving, which after some hard bargaining cost 270,000D (quite expensive, but lower than the pitched 350,000D)

    Instead of taking a xe om back (motorcycle taxi), we decided to walk back to Sapa. the uphill was quite steep at points, but the view was perfect, as the clouds chose to separate and give us a great view of the rice terraces.

    We arrived back at around 4 pm - exhausted and with blistered feet. Late lunch was at Gerbera restauarant. The duck in honey was great, and the bbq pork so-so (both with sticky rice). I tried a "wine" which returned out to be an extremely strong, almost whisky like, liquer. Whole thing cost about 200,000D.

    Since our train back was at 8:30 pm, we thought we would spend some time in the Sapa square. What we did not know was that minibuses stop running after 5 pm. So we had to end up taking a taxi, but managed to haggle for $15 (lower than $20 guide book estimates).

    The train back was not as nice as the one we came in. The loo was dirty, as was the floor, and the place smelt not-so-nice. We kept having our door opened by random strangers through the night, so sleep was not great either. But our whirl-wind Sapa trip was a huge success, and I am glad we did it instead of skipping it as suggested by so many people.

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    Day 4: Bai Tu Long Bay, Bad Weather and 2 Upgrades

    Our train arrived at Long Bien - Hanoi's other train station. Contrary to what people might be fooled into thinking, it is actually even closer to the Old quarter, and our hotel was just a 20 minute walk. We had enough time to take a shower, and leave for Vega travels.

    The trip withVega had significant positives: only 13 people on the boat (vs. 20 for other tours), and a trip through both Bai Tu Long bay and Halong bay. We arrived Halong city at 12:30 and were on the boat pretty soon after (breakfast was on a rest stop in the middle). The boat was excellent, clean and spacious with a great deck. As a plus point, we were upgraded to a "deluxe" room, with a private deck and view to the bay. The trip was off to a great start .... or so we thought.
    At 3 o'clock, we were informed that bad weather meant we would have to return to shore instead of staying on the boat at night. However, we had already had a chance to see Bai Tu Long bay, so the day was not a complete waste. The food on the ship was also excellent!
    We were hosted at a hotel with views of Halong bay, and upgraded to a suite! The room was excellent, though the food was quite mediocre. However, one can not fault Vega on how they handled the situation.
    After some wine and interacting with our new friends on the cruise, we retired for the night.

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    Thank you for your responses everyone! Keeps me inspired to keep typing (sometimes I get so lazy about that.... )

    Sartoric: I just finished a half marathon a few weeks back, and the two of us were joking that the trianing was for Sapa, not the race itself :)

    Day 5: Halong bay, the "surprising" cave and experiencing vietnamese driving

    We woke up early, eager to get back on the boat and see the rest of Halong bay. The weather was a lot clearer than the previous day (though still COLD). After a moderately ok breakfast, we left for the boat. This time, we were on a one-day boat (no rooms) but really nice with a great deck, and our group was slightly smaller, since some of your group members headed to Cat Ba Island.

    We left shore at around 9 am, and headed towards the "surprising" cave. We saw the fighting cock island on the way - it was much smaller than expected, and it took turns looking like a fish, fighting cocks, and kissing hens :)

    The cave itself was huge (10,000 sq metre we were told), lit up well (not as tacky as other caves we had heard about), and really quite jaw dropping.

    After this, we headed to titop island, where you climb up a hill to get a good view of the whole bay. This island (with a man made beach), is the most touristy waste of time (except for the view). Our whole trip so far had been devoid of large tour groups, and the weather allowed to be one of the few cruises on the bay. However, this island was jam-packed with chinese tour groups, and the climb up was a test of patience more than physical fitness. The view was nice, but there were too many people to get a good photograph, and we raced back down in annoyance.

    4 of the members in our group (including the two of us) had a train to catch at 7 pm from Hanoi. This meant that we would need to arrive at Hanoi by 6 pm, and hence leave Halong by 2:30 pm. We had made this amply clear to Dem (our tour guide), who seemed to comprehend it. We left Halong on time at 2:30, feeling confident that we would reach on time. However, the driver was going at a leisurely pace, and we stopped at the mid-way pitstop for half an hour - after agreeing to cut it short to 10 minutes!

    After the pitstop, Dem calmly announced that we would reach Hanoi by 7 pm. He did not seemed to be bothered at all by this fact, which led to a lot of frustrated yelling from everybody, He had to be reminded for the 10th time about our train, and then asked the driver to hurry up. What came next was good old crazy driving, the kinds Indians are used to, but made for quite an experience with the other people on the bus :)

    We reached Hanoi at 6 pm, rushed to exchange money (we had run out of Dong), and find some food. We found a supermarket next to the money exchange, and I stocked up on bread, apples, jam, milk and fruit cake. This would have to serve us for both dinner and breakfast, since our train left Hanoi at 7pm, and reached Danang at 12 noon.

    We speedwalked/ran to the station, arriving at 6:45 pm, and got onto the train. This time, we had a hard sleeper (soft was not available), with one bottom seat, and one top. This was quite uncomfortable, since the guy with the middle seat was already asleep, and we could not sit upright on the lower berth! This is very bad design compared to India, where trains with 3 berths have strict timings on when the middle berth can be put up so that noone is inconvenienced (9pm to 7am only). Also, the middle berth in India is completely collapsable, whereas in Vietnam, the berth can at best be raised a bit higher to make a bit of space to sit up in the lower berth. Quite annoying for us, as we were tired but did not want to have to lie down at 7 pm.

    We asked the guy in the middle to exchange for the upper berth, which he was happy to do (since there is more headspace). We then pushed up the middle berth to make some space and were moderately comfortable. The whole train seemed to full of a giant vietnamese group of people, who all seemed to know each other, and had a lot of (hyperactive) chlidren. Not the funnest experience, but they were friendly and shared some of their fruit with us :)

    We watched a movie, had our "dinner" and slept around 9 pm.

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    Day 6: A beautiful train ride, Hoi AN's lanterns, the best food yet and beer @15000D a glass!

    We woke up around 7 am, and did nothing for the next few hours. We were keeping an eye out for when the train reached Hue, since we had heard that the train ride from Hue onwards to Danang is beautiful. It did not disappoint, with the train track on the edge of a mountain, with a view of the sea on one side and hills and greenery on the other. :)

    We reached Danang, and were immediately thronged by taxis offering to take us to Hoi An. Some sounded very dodgy, offering it to us at $5 -that's cheaper than the bus! We decided to stick to the safe option, and started walking to the bus stop.

    One tip here: Bus from Da Nang to Hoi An - we could not find a single book that pin pointed where to catch local buses to Hoi An from.Turns out, there is no fixed stop, the bus stops along its route for anyone. The best strategy is to walk down Le Duan and then Tran Phu. The buses are yellow in color and say Da-nang and Hoi An on then. Though they are supposed to charge 18000D, they charge 50,000D and you can't really complain about it.

    We reached Hoi An in an hour (the bus drove at 30 kmph, very frustrating on an empty wide road...) and the bus stopped at the North bus stand. From here, you can take a Xe Om to the city, or just walk. Unsurprisingly, we chose the latter, and arrived in about 20 minutes. Our hotel was a further 15 minute walk East of the main town. We stayed at the Hotel Vaia, which is on the road to the beach Cau Dai. We found the hotel easily, the rooms were clean, the shower was lovely :) Feeling fresh and energised, we borrowed the free bicycles from the hotel to go have lunch and start exploring the city.

    Lunch: Bale Well's DIY bbq pork spring rolls and beer
    This place is right at the edge of the old town, and serves one dish - bbq prok spring rolls. They teach you how to make one (paper thing wrapping, veggies, herbs, meat, and a spicy sauce), and then you continue yourself. Halfway through, they also bring in some egg and shrimp crepes to wrap in to your roll. The meal ends with some dessert (ok-ish) and fresh fruit. The meal was one of the best we had had so far, and the quantity was phenomenal! At 110,000D each, it was a bit expensive, but understandably so.

    We then bought tickets for Hoi An's sights. The ticket allows you to see any 5 of Hoi An's sights. We parked our cycles next to the river, and started walking around. Our first stop was Tan Ky House, which has been carefully conserved for 200 years, despite annual floods (one would think they would just move to a better spot....). The house was grand, but the parts open to public were quite small, and the "tour" felt very cursory IMHO. We left feeling a bit "meh", and walked over to the Tran Family Chapel. The garden is beautiful, and the chapel is sweet. Its a bit odd that the tour includes a detailed tour of the souvenir shop though.

    We walked to the Fujian assembly hall, which was definitely the highlight for us. The architecture is grand and well preserved, and makes for pretty photos also :) We saw the chinese assembly hall (free entry), and then cycled to see the Japanese bridge (its cool only because its picture is on the 20,000D currency note!). After crossing the bridge, we also went inside another old house (I forget the name, apologies, but it is 100m after the bridge on the right side). This one was a bit bigger, as we could see the upper floor as well, but the work inside was not as impressive as Tan Ky.

    It had started to get a bit chilly (the day was 20 degrees, so we were in cotton shirts), so we decided to head back to the hotel to pick up something warmer. We stopped at another temple on the way (i forget the name again), but it was nothing to write home about really. We arrived at our hotel, changed, and had a free cocktail (our hotel offered free cocktails between 5-7pm!)

    We then cycled back, this time with the aim to do nothing but walk around. We parked our bicycles, and looked for a place to grab a drink, and found a small whole in the wall with fresh beer at 5000/glass! That's the cheapest beer I have ever had in my life, and was not the worst thing in the world either. We went across the river to the beautiful lantern shops, and bought a small one for my sister. We also bought an oil painting for our place back home. Hard bargaining got the shop owner down to $15 from $25 for a fairly large painting :)

    Dinner was at Morning Glory restaurant, where we had the shrimp mousse spring rolls (very good), Beef Pho (very average) and Prok Belly (the most delicious dish ever). All in all, a very good meal, but expensive compared to others at 300,000D (still quite good value). Tired and sleepy, we headed back to our hotel. Hoi An was a good decision after all!

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    I'm really enjoying your report. My boyfriend and I leave in less than a month for Vietnam. We have a very similar itinerary to yours. So keep those details coming!

    How did you get the oil painting home? I'm assuming you had it shipped - was that easy to do?

    Thanks,
    Karen

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    HI althom, the shops there are very good with packing up the paintings, are were able to roll the painting up.

    Sorry about the delay, work has been very busy! Ill finish up now :)

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    Day 7: Cycling in Hue

    Getting from Hoi An to Hue: There are buses which go directly from Hoi An to Hue, and we booked them through our hotel ($7 per person - which we thought was not too bad). Our hotel said they would leave at 7:30 and reach by 11:30, which sounded perfect. By now we should have learnt that road transport in Vietnam is never on schedule. By the time we left Hoi An, it was 8:30 am, and we reached Hue at 12:30. The bus ride itself was very good - the scenery was fantastic (slightly different from the train, since we were were driving along the beach, not on the mountain) and I personally think one should do both - a train ride on way, and a bus ride the other. It was a semi sleeper bus, which meant there were two levels of seats (upper and lower), and the seats were recliners. It felt odd at first, but turned out to be comfortable enough (take the upper if possible, as less people bother you)

    Lunch:
    After arriving at Hue, we immediately headed for lunch. I had done my research in the bus ride, and found a place that serves up a good lunch and also doubles as a tour agency - Mandarin Cafe. It was a very short walk from the bus stand.

    Lunch was some pho (Excellent), cajun chicken (not very vietnamese but my boyfriend insisted, but good), and banh khoai (a sort of crepe stuffed with pork - very very yummy). Along with a milkshake (I needed some comfort food), the whole bill was about 200,000D (though Im not completely sure).

    We asked the host if we could leave our backpacks with them, and then rented some bicycles. Our whole plan has been banking on the backpacks issue (they are heavy!), and thankfully they were ok with it. We took our bikes and headed to the Citadel

    Afternoon in the Citadel
    We arrived at the Citadel shortly, and were surprised to find that the ticket was quite expensive : 110,000D each! Thats a bit too much in my opinion, but there was nothing we could do really. We paid up and started exploring. I had the guide book open to help us navigate the palace, and we saw pretty much everything (get our money's worth!). Most impressive were the palace itself (dont miss the AV inside which talks about the history and the pre-war structure), and my personal favourite were the beautiful entrance gates to the compounds on the western side of Hue.

    Cycling around Hue:
    We then took our bicyles to go see the Thien Mu Pagoda, the supposed symbol of Hue. It is a 7km cycle rid, along the perfume river, and is beautiful. The Pagoda itself was so-so, so it was a bit of a let down in my opinion. We then cycled all the way to the city, and towards the royal tombs. We had selected the Tu Duc tomb - since it was closest and also supposed to be very impressive. The biycle ride was long, 7k to the city, and then another 10k to the tomb from there. The 10k stretch was not very scenic, since it was inside the town itself. We arrive at 4 pm, which was perfect, as it gave us an hour before the premises closed. The area that these tombs cover is impressive, and the architecture was quite good too. Reading the stories about the 5'2'' king with a 1000 concubines and no children, and with statues of his officials made purposely much shorter than him, was amusing :)

    We then cycled back to Mandarin Cafe, reached at about 5:40, picked up our bags and some sandwiches and headed to the train station. Our train for Hanoi was to leave at 6:45 pm.

    The seats we had were soft sleeper, and this was our best train yet. Super clean (not the bathrooms...) and well lit up. It had been a long day, and we were really quite exhausted. We ate our sandwiches, and retired pretty early.

    One word of caution for Hue: Beware of cycle parking touts
    Everywhere we went in Hue, people insisted we pay them for parking, ranging from 2k at a legitimate parking spot near the Citadel, to 5k each near the Pagoda, and an old lady near Tu Duc's tomb insisting for 5k - we finally just parked under a tree elsewhere, but were pretty frustrated by the whole affair.

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    Day 8: Ninh Binh vs. Hanoi, deep fried ribs and water puppets

    We had booked a train to Hanoi, but one that stopped at Ninh Binh at 8 in the morning, in case we wanted to check it out. Unfortunately, the weather in Ninh Binh was horrible (raining and misty) and we were, lets admit it, exhausted. So we skipped getting off at Ninh Binh, and continued on the train till Hanoi. It broke my heart, but it had to be done.

    Once at Hanoi, we headed to our trusty hotel, who were relieved to see us still in one piece. We checked in, showered and just relaxed for a little bit, before heading for lunch. We wanted a good Hanoi Beer experience, and found a place called Bia Hoi Ha Noi, which serves up great fresh beer, and the best deep fried pork ribs in town. The ribs were a bit expensive (120,000D for a half rack), but the beer was cheap and good. We had a couple of beers, and one plate of ribs, and thought we would then fill up on dessert elsewhere.

    Dessert was at a place called Che nearby, where we had the che. It was good, but not the best dessert I have had.

    We then went to get tickets for the water puppet theatre (everyone we had met in Halong bay had insisted we go check it out), and found that there were no tickets available except for the 2:00 show (it was 2:10 at this time). Frankly, the show was very so-so. Maybe its because indians are used to puppet shows, but this one was nothing fantastic, there was no story and the audience was either sleeping or taking too many pictures. The element of water added a certain novelty to the whole thing, and there were a few good moments, but all in all, we could have missed this and it would have been ok.

    We walked around Hanoi, looking for things to buy (I had my eye on the brightly colored oil paintings that are ubiquitous in Hanoi). We finally bought a painting for $10, but nothing else.

    Dinner was at Xoi Yen - the first restaurant we had ever been to, and which was still our favourite. We ran into our friends from Halong there, and stayed for quite a long time. After that, it was back to our hotel and time for bed.

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    Day 9: Crab meat soup and a flight back

    Knowing that this would be our last meal, I had picked Bun Rieu Cua for some breakfast mad eof crab meat soup. The guide book said it opens at 7 am and has a long queue, so we turned up at 7. However, the place was still opening up and completely empty, and we only got our food at around 7:30. The soup itself was delicious, the tomato puree added another element to it, and it really was a great way to end our food journey.

    We got back to our hotel, packed up and left at 9:00 am. We walked to the Vietnam airlines office, and caught the next bus at 9:45 (they are supposed to come every hour, so had buffered some time in). After some airport shopping (I bought some coffee), we were on our way home, tired but satisfied. :)

    Any questions, please ask and I will be sure to respond asap. I hope this trip report is helpful to some!!

    Final suggestions for those who cant read the whole thing:

    Hanoi:
    Eat at Xoi Yen, Bun Rieu Cua, Bun bo nam bo.
    See the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature and Ho Lao Prison

    Sapa:
    Walk!

    Halong Bay: Go with Vega Travels

    Hoi An:
    Eat at Morning Glory and Bale Well
    See the Fujian assembly hall

    Hue:
    Eat at Mandarin Cafe
    See the Citadel and Tu Duc's Tomb

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