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Trip Report HANOI ROCKS -- Our Spring Break Visit to Vietnam

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Following a 35-hour return voyage, we are back home again in Illinois after our week-long stay in Hanoi (including a long layover in Seoul). And what a week it’s been! As we sort through our trove of photos and refresh our memories of our stay, I thought I’d start posting this trip report in chunks at a time.

We spent most of our time exploring the Old Quarter and French Quarter of Hanoi, plus we took memorable side-trips to Ha Long Bay and The Perfume Pagoda.

Using a standard, orderly, chronologically sequential trip report format to describe the experience of being in Hanoi… would just be wrong. Instead, this report will offer a mix of big-picture overviews, small-picture glimpses and random observations that (one hopes) will allow some sense of the place to emerge when taken together as a whole.

My daughter really wanted to name this report “We Didn’t Die Crossing the Street”. I thought about calling it “WWTBD? (What Would Tony Bourdain Do?)”.

For those who don’t know us… my lovely wife and I are regular Fodorites, and we travel with our teenage daughter, Allie. Ms_go and I are in our 40s. This is the first time any of us has been to Vietnam. Japan is the only Asian nation that all three of us have visited; ms_go and I also spent a week in Bangkok a couple of years ago. We are typically 3-star travelers, value-oriented, love to go exploring on foot, and not really foodies (but we love to eat well!).

So, why Hanoi? Well, why not? We’d read good things. We were looking for an interesting destination that would offer a “different” experience from recent trips, which have included Scandinavia, London, Turkey and the Italian Dolomites. While Cambodia was perhaps higher on our list, we also considered the weather at this time of year and felt that perhaps northern Vietnam would be a bit more tolerable.

You’re probably asking yourself, why’d these crazy people go half way around the world for just a week? (Note, we’ve done worse… two years ago, we went to Bangkok for five days) Primarily, we were constrained by Allie’s spring break, and she’s at a point in school where she simply can’t miss any days. And we’ve learned that if we wait for that perfect time when we have weeks to enjoy the perfect itinerary… well, it may never happen.

Sure, there was the temptation to cram in as many things as we could into our short time there. We thought about Sapa. We thought about a side trip further south. In the end, we felt we’d get much more out of the trip, and appreciate the destination more, by taking the time to get to know one city a little better. And we were right.

There’s an awful lot going on at street level, all day long. Every 20 yards, the sidewalk is blocked by someone who has set up an impromptu kitchen or beer joint with a handful of tiny plastic tables and stools. Or a “parking lot” for motorbikes. Street vendors are hawking all manner of fresh produce, baked goods, books, fake zippo lighters, etc. And everywhere you look, dozens of people (age 10 thru 90) are zipping past you on motorbikes—often carrying large loads of produce, boxes of beer, or occasionally entire families (including small babies)..

Despite this being an ostensibly “communist” country, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city with more pure, unadulterated entrepreneurial capitalism happening everywhere.

Hanoi has been there for 1000 years. That’s a lot of history. Not many people there today remember the American War, and the ones who do simply don’t care about it anymore. Seriously.

The first few times you try, you are certain that you are going to be maimed or killed. The next few times, you feel like you’re getting the hang of it (it’s not entirely dissimilar to the old “Frogger” video game, actually). After that, you just step off the curb and trust that things will turn out OK. And they do!

The Hanoi Elegance Ruby is a boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter, on a relatively small (and quiet, considering the chaos of central Hanoi) alley/street just a few blocks from Hoan Kiem lake. We can’t say enough good things about this place, and about the courteous and helpful staff. We booked a Family Suite which was amply spacious for the three of us and very well appointed. Breakfast was sensational, and included in the price, as was a complimentary bowl of fresh fruit left daily in the room and an in-room laptop with wi-fi for our use throughout the stay. The manager went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure our stay was worry-free, providing excellent advice and helping us arrange our daytrip to the Perfume Pagoda as well as our overnight excursion to HaLong Bay. He even had my sunglasses fixed after I dropped and broke them, free of charge. Honestly, I have only experienced this high a level of service once before, and that was at the 5-star Peninsula in Bangkok.

Here’s the kicker: we only paid $110 per night. Which brings us to our next random topic…

You want a splendidly delicious meal, including appetizers, mains, drinks and tax, for a family of three at a sit-down restaurant for about $15? Hanoi is your town. Everywhere we looked, bargains were falling from the skies. A funky-cool necklace with interesting ceramic pendant for Allie: $1.25 (she went back to the night market to find the same vendor and buy about 10 more for her friends). A beautiful scarf for ms_go: $5 or $6. An icy cold bottle of decent local beer: 50 cents. A 50-minute ride to the airport in a comfortable private car with door-to-door service: $16. And if you run out of local currency, almost everyone takes US$ as well (but you won’t run out, since ATMs are plentiful).

The conversion rate while we were there was just over 20,000 dong to the dollar. It’s actually more confusing to do the math in your head, on the fly, than one might imagine.

Thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation from a gregarious Irishman expat we met at the Museum of Ethnology (more on this later), we decided to book a daytrip with a private guide to Chùa Hương (the Perfume Pagoda). It’s a venerable Buddhist temple complex, including a shrine in a huge cave, a couple of hours drive (and another hour boat ride) outside of Hanoi. The cave shrine itself is interesting enough, but the real attraction is the journey to get there on a peaceful river through the heart of a splendid mountain valley. You hire a boat, and a strong young woman rows your party the entire way there. We had a private craft, but we saw other boats loaded down with as many as 30 pilgrims at a time. After you land, there is a steep journey up the side of a mountain which, fortunately for us, now has a step-saving gondola ride if you’re not inclined to hike up.

Here’s the strange part. We shared the river ride and the pagoda cave with hundreds of other people, and a significant portion of them were gawking at, pointing to and whispering about us. And by “us,” I really mean Allie. As a pale, blond, teenage girl in semi-fashionable clothes, Allie was nothing short of a rock star to some of these folks. All three of us encountered people reaching out to touch our skin and hair, apparently just to see what it felt like. Others tickled themselves by calling out the only English words they knew: “hello” and “thank you”. And when we responded with a hearty “xin chào!” it pretty much made their day. Our guide explained that many of these people had come to this site from far away in the deep countryside, and they’d most likely not seen people like us before. Not in person, anyway. Ironically, among the very few westerners we saw that day was a French couple who’d been on our Ha Long Bay cruise two days earlier (more on that later, too).

After visiting the shrine we walked down the path, past a few hundred vendor stalls, all the way back down the mountain and enjoyed a hearty lunch with our guide. And after lunch we took the same boat back to where we started.

There are quite a few negative reviews of this day trip on Tripadvisor, but in all, we found it to be a wonderful and scenic experience, and a very worthwhile daytrip. Reading those reviews in hindsight, I think that people who see this as all about the destination (the cave) might be disappointed; the advice we received to experience it as a journey, not a destination, indeed was good advice. Finally, I would highly recommend doing it the same way we did, with a private guide and driver and not in a larger tour group. I am positive that the extra expense (approximately double the cost, or $60 per person) was worth it.

Some preliminary pix from our Perfume Pagoda excursion can be seen here:

More to come…

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