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Sharon's trip report - 3rd installment - Hanoi/Halong Bay

Sharon's trip report - 3rd installment - Hanoi/Halong Bay

Old Apr 17th, 2006, 09:05 AM
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Sharon's trip report - 3rd installment - Hanoi/Halong Bay

Sorry this third installment has taken a week - holiday obligations got in the way of any spare time, but better late than never. We flew from BKK to Hanoi early morning, March 11 - Thai Air, which was just fine. We had originally tried to reserve a room at the Guoman Hotel on recommendation of a friend. After contacting the web agent, asiahotels.com, they were lovely and sent us a message that they would be happy to book the Guoman for us, but there was new construction going on across the street from the hotel and the work would continue through the nights - what did we want to do? Well, we didnít want to risk being disturbed by all-night construction, so I asked for recommendations from you blessed fodorites, and, thank you Kathie, we booked the de Syloia. The hotel van picked us up at the airport, and I was surprised how long it took to drive from the airport to the city - donít know why I thought it would be closer, but it was about an hour drive. It did, however, give us a great opportunity to see our first glimpse of northern Viet Nam. Iíd never seen a rice field before, so this was really amazing to me. There were miles of rice fields with lots of people bent over working in them. And then, there were the water buffalo, and the fields of other types of produce. In the midst of the fields, which were connected to the towns we passed, were mounds of burial plots. I guess itís good to have oneís ancestors looking over the fields.

Arriving at the hotel, we were told that we were too early to have our room, but for the time being, we would be given a room in which to rest and freshen up, which I thought was really very nice. We were booked for one night - then we were going to be away for one night - and then back for three more nights. For the first night, we were upgraded to an executive suite, a very large room with sitting alcove and jacuzzi bathtub on a higher floor. When we arrived back the third day in Hanoi, we had what we booked, a junior suite which was a similar room, but just no jacuzzi. The rooms were huge and well appointed. The deSyloia is an older boutique hotel that has a flavor to it that newer places cannot produce. Itís hard to describe, but thereís an elegance to it - had a European flavor to it, as well as Asian. We were very happy there, and since we did a lot of walking during the day, we enjoyed dinner there at their restaurant more than once. The food in their restaurant was quite good, and as much as we like to experiment, it was very nice to come back after a whole day of touring, shower, rest, and just walk downstairs for dinner.

So - we loved Hanoi! Iím not sure what it was about this city, but we fell in love with it. The mixture of asian and french, both in food and architecture, perhaps. There was a lot of new construction going on and renovation - especially around the perimeter of the old city, but most of the inner city felt as if time had not done a lot to change it - and that was a good thing, for us anyway. Also, it was blessedly cool - in fact, March in Hanoi can be downright chilly because there is a mist that covers the city often, so we read. We actually saw very little sun while in Viet Nam, but it also never rained, so it was really no problem. More than anything, the energy of the city resonated with us.

The first day we left our baggage, really didnít stop to rest at the hotel, and decided to walk to the Hoan Kiem Lake district, which was about a fifteen-twenty minute walk from the deSyloia. I was very proud of us. The traffic is thick and wild, but we have had great training living in Manhattan, so with that mind set, we didnít have problems walking across the streets of Hanoi - you just have to be cautiously confident in crossing the street. The lake was just beautiful - an oasis in the middle of the bustle of the city. We walked over a bridge to the ďTurtleĒ pagoda in the middle of the lake - just fascinating. The iconography is far different than in Thailand, of course - more of a sense of honoring ancestors than gods. (Iím not a historian by any stretch of the imagination, so if Iím wrong, please forgive - just my own feelings). In fact, most of the pagodas we visited while in VN were a similar combination of gods, warriors, and statues of real people, all of whom were being revered. We sat in the park around the lake for a while, explored just the perimeter of the artisans area, and walked back to the hotel. We had dinner at the hotel (Cay Cau restaurant) - it was delicious. They have fabulous spring rolls! We had both the regular kind and their seafood spring rolls and both were just delicious. I had grilled squid for dinner, and David had a preparation of duck that was served in a covered pot - we love duck and this was quite good. We added sauteed mustard greens that we shared. They didnít have crepes for dessert that evening, even though they were on the menu, so we had ice cream, which was really very good - the coconut was delish.

The next morning, our second in VN, we stored most of our bags with the hotel and were picked up by Buffalo tours, with whom we had booked a 2 day/one night tour of Halong Bay on a luxury junk - Jewel of the Bay. We took a small bag each, and Iím glad we did that - the rooms on the boat were very nice, but not a lot of room to spare. There were nine of us in all - David and I, two couples from Australia traveling together our age, a young woman from San Francisco, and another young couple who had met via internet (he was Belgian, she Vietnamese), and were planning to marry. They had just met a couple of weeks before, and we didnít spend a lot of time with them, but we did with the others. It was a great mix of people, and we got along very well. The first day, after a really comfortable and interesting ride to Halong Bay, we were transferred to a small boat that took us out to the junk. We were shown our staterooms and served lunch immediately - the food was good but heavy on fried foods (this was true for most of the meals) - not my favorite, but it was fine for a day or so. The dining area, however, was elegant as was the presentation of food. As we ate, we traveled out into the bay - itís a breathtaking place - the limestone mountains jutting out of the water are beautiful. Our first destination was a large cave, high in one of the mountains. We docked and climbed up a long, long flight of stone steps to the opening of the cave, and the cave was huge and wonderful to explore. Our guide, the manager onboard the boat, spoke wonderful English and shared the history of the discovery and use of this and other caves around the bay area.

We returned to the Jewel and the next activity was to be kayaking. There were going to be two kayaking opportunities - one that day, one the next. Five opted to go, four of us decided to enjoy the scenery and stay onboard while lounging on the top deck of the boat. It was fun getting to know the other travelers. The bay is absolutely still, there are no waves at all. We glided along past pearl oyster farms, small fishing villages - the houses erected in the bay on stilts, and unfortunately, a lot of debris. Again, I was really sad to see the amount of ďstuffĒ thatís thrown into the water. From far away it looks so pristine, but up close the water is not clear. David was one of the group who had gone kayaking, and when they returned, despite the condition of the water, it had become warm enough for us to wear shorts and for David to want to jump into the water to swim, being the fish he is. As he dove off the boat, after having removed hat and shirt, we realized he had his glasses on - he couldnít hear us shouting to him mid-dive. There is now a lovely pair of progressive glasses at the bottom of Halong Bay. Thank God, his prescription is a mild one. I would have been blind, had it been me. Early evening, we gathered on the top deck and shared stories and a fair amount of Australian wine - some opted for Tiger beer, and we were brought some nibbles to have with our cocktails. The weather had cleared enough for there to be a sunset, and it was lovely sailing along the bay to the docking place for the night while being served a lovely candlelight dinner.

There was a fierce thunderstorm during the night, and we awoke to rain. After breakfast, the kayaking expedition morphed into a group boating excursion to a lagoon on a flatboat (because of the rain), with one of the crew members using poles and oars to get us there. We arrived back at the Jewel in order to finish packing, have lunch, and travel back to Halong City. Upon docking, we were picked up by Buffalo tours and driven back to Hanoi. We had a wonderful time and Iíd recommend the experience highly, but I donít think Iíd have wanted to spend more time than two days one night.

We re-checked into the de Syloia, being greeted warmly like old familiar friends late in the afternoon of our third day in Hanoi. We were tired, but we had an errand to run - finding David new glasses. The hotel staff pointed us to Trang Tien Street, where there were a number of stores dealing with eyewear. They suggested one place in particular, and within a couple of hours of returning from Halong Bay, David had been checked by an optician, and a new pair of progressive glasses, with really beautiful frames were being made for him at a fraction of the cost we pay in the US. We were told to come back in an hour to pick them up, so we did the thing we loved best - found a café and sat and watched people. By the way, one of the big surprises to us throughout the trip was how good the coffee was. We are avid coffee drinkers of the strong dark-tasting variety, and we enjoyed coffee pretty much wherever we went throughout SEA. This café was just south of Hoan Kiem Lake, and it was fun to just watch the world pass by. I am amazed by the number of motor scooters, motorcycles and bikes that cohabit on the busy streets with cars and trucks. It really is controlled chaos, but we loved it. That evening, we went to the Emperor Restaurant for dinner. It had come highly recommended and rightly so. It is a beautiful, elegant restaurant with an inner courtyard where there was entertainment. We chose to sit away from the entertainment - just wanted a quiet place to sit. The service was attentive and the food delicious, however, as much of a foodie and cook as I am, I canít tell you what we ate - memory is failing me (sorry), but I recommend the restaurant highly.

We spent the next day walking up and around the old quarter. The old quarterís 36 streets are divided by crafts and the wares being sold on each street - a street for textiles, silks, lacquer, shoes, etc., and even a street for memorial headstones. Throughout the area are wonderful art galleries, and the never ending food possibilities. The street food looked great, but we did not partake. Actually, it had less to do with worry about the food itself, and more that David, at 6'2" would have found it almost impossible to fold himself onto the small plastic stools that are part of the street food experience. We walked and walked and walked, and ended up at a café again. Very small café - maybe four tables, but well situated for people watching in the old quarter. This time, the coffee with cream was served with a sweetened evaporated milk that you could not get me to drink at home nohow, but there, it was delicious. We then walked back to the hotel.

For dinner, we returned to the old quarter by taxi - taxis are really inexpensive in Hanoi - to an Indian restaurant, Tandoor. The food was good, plentiful, and itís a pleasant place to have dinner - dining room is on the second floor, bar on the first. Price was also relatively inexpensive - they have combination dinners at a reduced rate. We didnít order from that part of the menu, but we watched the food come out on large plates for those who did, and it looked good. I have had better Indian food in my lifetime, but this was really good and we wanted to eat something other than Vietnamese or Thai by that time. We strolled around that part of the Old Quarter after dinner and headed back by taxi. Iím not sure why, but our hotel had told us to make sure we used a particular taxi company and gave us their phone number - the restaurant was happy to make the call for us once we were ready to return to the hotel.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had arranged to have a driver to take us out of Hanoi to visit two of the pagodas that were listed as daytrips from Hanoi in the Fodorís guide to Vietnam. We would have loved to see the perfumed pagoda, but we were there exactly at the time the rest of the world would have been there (March is an especially sacred month for travel to the Perfumed Pagoda), and we werenít particularly thrilled with the idea of an all day excursion just to end up fighting throngs of worshippers to get to the site. So, we chose to explore closer to Hanoi and drove to the Thay and Tay Phuong Pagodas. What wonderful richness of history, beauty and iconography. It was well worth the trip, although the steep and many steps up to one of them would be difficult for someone with physical problems (again my memory is failing me - donít remember which of the two pagodas, by name, it was). Arriving back, after exploring, walking, climbing, etc., we decided that since the restaurant in our hotel was really good, it deserved another visit, especially since it meant that we could shower and relax and go downstairs for dinner, instead of moving about again. It did not disappoint.

We had an early evening flight to Siem Reap, so the next day, we had the morning to continue to explore the city. We took a taxi to the Temple of Literature, just a fascinating and beautiful gem in the middle of the city. From there, we walked to HoTay Lake, a very large lake in the northern part of Hanoi. In order to get there, we walked past the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, a number of government buildings, through a very chic part of town where the streets were wider and the mansions very grand. HoTay Lake is huge, compared to Hoan Kiem Lake, and one can rent a paddle boat to float out on the lake, or take a ride on an excursion boat. There were also some very interesting waterfront restaurants, but we were full from breakfast, so we just admired them but didnít stop. We did sit and enjoy the view of the lake and people watched, yet again. When weíd had enough, we returned to our hotel by taxi. It was easy to pick up one pretty much anywhere, and Iím not sure why our hotel had warned us about certain taxis - perhaps there are some that fleece tourists, but we didnít have a problem. We arrived back at the hotel and had a late lunch there before checking out and being driven to the airport to continue on to Siem Reap. I hope this isnít too long....I know Iím missing some details, but if there are any questions, Iím happy to answer them. However, there are others on the message board far more experienced than I. I hope to share the next installment sooner than later. Cheers, Sharon
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Old Apr 17th, 2006, 09:45 AM
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simply a great report...the detail is just right don't change a thing....
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Old Apr 17th, 2006, 10:05 AM
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I'm so glad you had a good experience at the DeSyloia! I loved Hanoi, too. The food, the pagodas, the shopping... I can't say that I loved the chaotic traffic, but I did learn how to cross the street!

Great report!
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Old Apr 17th, 2006, 11:22 AM
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Thanks for the great report !!

This is the type of report we find most useful.
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Old Apr 17th, 2006, 01:45 PM
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Thank you. It means a lot that you actually read these reports. And it's given me an opportunity to re-live a lot of our trip.
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Old Apr 18th, 2006, 10:52 AM
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Thanks Sharon

Looking forward to the rest...
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