Bordering the South China Sea is a Country of lush natural beauty and a distinctive heritage – Vietnam.
This is a country that has reserved a place on my bucket list for some years, so I was eagerly anticipating my first chance to explore and immerse myself in the diverse culture.
Transit was pleasantly pain free with a flight direct from the Gold Coast to KL, then straight onto a short flight from KL to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.
We chose to begin our journey with some bliss time at the opulent Vin Pearl Resort in Halong Bay. From Hanoi’s Noi Bai international airport, the transfer to Vin Pearl was a pleasant 3 hour drive through changeable landscapes of rice fields, villages and small towns.
As we rounded the last bend into Halong Bay, my first thought was ‘where are all the hotels?’ Having read that this ‘Bay of the descending dragon’ was listed as a World heritage site in 1994 and a popular tourist destination; I had expected to be confronted by hundreds of hotels, restaurants and shopping precincts but this was not the case. As I let go of my initial expectations, my second thought was ‘perfect. This is exactly what I need right now.’ There really was no hustle and bustle in the Bay and this was fine with me. Some hotels, local restaurants, stunning bay… and then there was Vin Pearl. Like an ethereal mirage on the water, you could quickly concur that this was absolutely the place to stay.
After checking in at the impressively large reception building on the shore side, we were shown outside to the dock and minutes later were being whisked across the water to the most majestic hotel that I have honestly ever seen. This resort lived up to my highest expectations in every way – from the impeccable grounds, the grand suites, the inviting pools and pool bar and that view! You would have to feel disappointed staying at any other hotel looking out on this exclusive private island.
5 nights at VinPearl was the perfect way to unwind. We did spend quite a lot of our time at the resort because, well.. who wouldn’t? Despite some negative reviews on price we felt that prices were quite reasonable for a location of this standard. Venturing out after dark we visited the Ha Long night market for some cheap, local souvenirs and then stumbled across a fantastic roof top bar at the Royal Lotus Hotel for a few (more) cocktails from our hanging egg chairs overlooking the bay. Sunworld was also worth a visit and the cable car to the sunwheel is a must do, guaranteed to be more daunting than you think!
Then there was the sunset cruise. This is where I found all of those tourists that seemed to be lacking around Ha Long. One of the natural wonders of the world, the junket boat cruises out to the jaw dropping views of the limestone cliffs definitely draw the crowds and I can understand why. There is nothing more serene than cruising along the water at sunset amidst such unique natural beauty. We opted for the inclusion of a ride in a bamboo boat and had the experience of a local guide row us through limestone caves that opened out into sheltered bays – worth all of our $7 add on.
The downfall for me was the apparent lack of waste management and it was disappointing to see many locals dispersing their rubbish straight into the water. This, on top of such a vast amount of tourist boats adding to the pollution created an environment that was sadly not safe to swim in. I had also read about night squid fishing and snorkelling but unfortunately we were told that these activities are seasonal and early May was not the right time.
Cat Ba island is the largest island in Halong Bay and was a recommended day trip. Worth a visit to explore the local towns and experience a taste of what it was like during the war with a walk through the famous hospital cave and old bunkers at cannon fort. The highlight here for me was kayaking through the floating fishing villages nestled amongst the caves and cliffs. Such a remote way to live and yet we were surprised to see satellite dishes on some of the floating shacks and full access to wifi all over Cat Ba island..
After our stay in Ha Long, it was time to head back to central Hanoi for our city escape. The transfer to Pan Pacific hotel, Hanoi was stylish in a modern limousine van and I was thankful for our large and sturdy vehicle when we had our first taste of the chaotic city traffic. In all my travels, I have never been subjected to such a hectic traffic scene. Nevertheless we made it to our hotel which was stylish and elegant and boasted fabulous views over the West lake and city scape. The roof top bar a welcome addition to soak up the city views.
Hanoi was established over 1000 years ago and it’s ‘old quarter’ is the pivotal point for visitors. Picture a maze of ancient streets, bustling with traders, motorbikes and pedal cars. Power lines entangled overhead, locals taking residence on plastic stools lining the pavement and fish fillets drying on racks in the sun. Be prepared to step around food carts, motorbikes parked on the pavement and the occasional stray dog. If you can embrace the hustle and bustle and brave the art of crossing the street, you will discover so much to love in this city bursting with energy.
Shopping in ‘Hang Dua Street’ (translation shoe street) was bliss for me. Bartering is expected however I didn’t find the vendors to be as pushy as I have experienced in other countries which was a nice change. Dong Xuan market is Hanoi’s biggest market place full of tiny aisles and local wholesale shoppers and was another place I frequented. After all the shopping, the famous ‘Legend Beer Hanoi’ was the perfect place to unwind and watch the traffic below.
A highlight would without a doubt be the ‘Bia Hoi Junction’ which is widely regarded as the best nightlife spot in Hanoi. It is a hive of activity where you will see hundreds of patrons spilling out of bars into the streets that are closed off from traffic. One drink in each bar was the way to go in order to make it to the other end…
We ended our trip with a lavish final feast at the ‘Ngon Villa restaurant’. A beautiful Parisian inspired Vietnamese restaurant tucked away down a side street and serving delicious morsels from each region of Vietnam. The ‘all you can order’ menu was a great way to taste many traditional dishes whilst enjoying the live pianist and the friendly hospitality of the staff.
All in all, a fabulous holiday rich in culture and recommended to anyone who likes to absorb the eccentricities of a foreign country.
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