Hanoi: Day Three

[I suddenly realized that I really should try and finish one trip’s worth of travel blog entries (Vietnam) before going on the next (Kuching for my second RWMF, next Thursday). Of course, I still only have 5 days blogged out of last August’s 17 day trip to London, Norway and Germany but Vietnam makes more sense as far as the art of the possible is concerned.]

Ha Long Bay panorama

For this day and the next, we’re on a tour to Ha Long Bay with Handspan Tours. After an early start, I drowse happily in the minibus, waking up intermittently to enjoy the bucolic countryside views and to steal Alec’s book every time he falls asleep (because for some reason I didn’t feel like reading my own). Of course, I soon fall asleep clutching it, wake up to find he’s stolen it back, and the whole cycle begins again.

The jetty is packed with pleasure boats parked at least five deep, and according to no discernable order or plan. We board one that will take us out to our eventual boat, the Dragon’s Pearl. Manoeuvring the boat out of the “berth” through all the others involves the sort of comedy hijinks that you thought only existed in the days of vaudeville or The Simple Life: Interns. The boats crash into each other gently but frequently, with crew members often using pure muscle power to push the boats out of a clinch. Tiny boats dart fearlessly in and out of the chaos, hoping to score a quick fruit sale to idle passengers. Our boat is in great shape, which is a relief after all the bangers we passed on the way, including more than a few names that I recognise from the other tour companies’ websites I surfed while trying to decide which tour to book.

Arched karst formation

We check into our clean wood-panelled room and report for lunch, which introduces us to the only disappointment of the tour: the food. It’s the sort of utterly bland, only nominally Oriental stuff that I haven’t tasted since we stopped for takeaway while driving through the English Midlands several years ago and I ordered Singapore Fried Rice for kicks. I assume it’s intended to cater to Western tastebuds, but it does both the country and Western tastebuds a huge disservice by doing so. I distract myself from the growing suspicion that I’m eating corrugated cardboard by running out frequently onto the deck to take pictures.

After lunch we make our first stop, at the Sung Sot “Amazing Cave”. Which, to be fair, is pretty amazing.

Cave interior

It’s quite dramatically lighted and has smoothened paths for people to walk along, but even if this detracts from the sort of raw “naturalness” that some people may want from a cave, it really still is spectacular.

Cave interior (detail)

Alec remarked that this picture makes him think of a mushroom cloud. Note the rather small people on the right for an idea of the scale of the place.

Cave interior column
Floating village

On the way out of the bay, we pass our first floating village. The next stop is Titop Island, which I think is the highest island in Ha Long Bay. You can climb to the top for a view of the karsts, which is okay but still inferior to drifting among them. The climb is straightforward but sweaty. Sodden with sweat halfway up, I suddenly remember doing a similar climb to my castle hostel in Bacharach, Germany – except with a backpack, and in the rain, and alone – and from then on it’s easy peasy.

Floating village against the mountains

There’s a swimming stop after this, but my eczema’s bad as it always is during any holiday where I spend a protracted amount of time in outdoor heat, and I’m wary of immersing raw skin where I don’t know how clean the water is. Later on, dinner features more mediocre food. Although our dinner companions are perfectly amiable, Alec’s beginning to feel the effects of yesterday’s street food on his digestive system and is a little under the weather, which affects my mood. (I become a ridiculous miserable wreck when anyone I love is ill and uncomfortable.)

After dinner, we sit on the empty top deck of the boat, which is anchored in the middle of Ha Long Bay for the night. As far as the eye can see, there are only the shadowy karsts, other boats in the distance with their lights reflected in the still water, and a clear sky full of stars.

Hanoi: Day Two

After a lazy morning and a little errand running for the next day’s trip to Ha Long Bay, we go to buy tickets for the water puppet show. The girl in the box office stares impassively at us as we stand about two feet away from her dull plastic window, trying to decide which show time to buy for. Having reached a decision, I step forward and open my mouth to ask for the tickets only to have said window abruptly shut in my face. A sign indicates the box office closes between noon and 12.45, and I guess the girl’s a real stickler for punctuality. If I were an uptight person this behaviour would annoy me but hell, I’m on holiday. We’ll go explore Hoan Kiem Lake and come back in 45.

Behind the counter

Truth be told, Ngoc Son Temple and the red “Sunbeam” bridge that leads to it are better appreciated from a distance. They look very picturesque when enveloped in the mist over the water, but once you actually get closer the temple’s fairly standard issue (except for the huge preserved tortoise carcass, that is) and won’t hold your attention long unless you’ve never seen a temple before. At the entrance to the bridge, I photograph a souvenir stall through its back door, and like the slightly different perspective it gives from the storefronts beautifully laid out for us tourists.


Is our children learning?

The banks of Hoan Kiem Lake seem as well-maintained as any park in Singapore. We stroll past a small series of modern art sculptures, a long line of propaganda posters, and scattered instances of furtive hand-holding and UST (for those of you who weren’t geeky enough to be active in the online X-Files communities of the 90s, that stands for Unresolved Sexual Tension) among young Vietnamese couples who should perhaps have been in school instead.


Eye of the tiger.

My usual penchant for bizarre statuary is amply sustained by this delightful white tiger on an ornamental wall near the entrance to Ngoc Son Temple. I want whatever mascara he’s got. Alec wants his ‘tache.


Proletariat and palm trees.

While we’re on the topic of statues, check out some Soviet Realism in the tropics!


Inspired by the spirit of revolution, our stomachs remind us it’s lunch time. And thanks to wuyuetian, I know just the place. Eating here probably breaks a couple of the food rules in the travel guide – all the raw vegetables look like they’ve been rinsed in tap water – but if you have to get food poisoning somewhere, you might as well get it from a meal as magnificent as this. (My stomach was fine, Alec’s was…rather more affected. Thank God for growing up in Southeast Asia, I guess.) Although I wasn’t too keen on the big stuffed spring rolls, the bun cha (grilled pork patties with rice noodles, to which you add herbs by the handful and ladle over delicious gravy that’s about 2 parts MSG and 1 part stock) is probably the best street food I’ve ever eaten. Our total bill, for huge unfinishable servings of pork patties, spring rolls, noodles, herbs, a Coke and a San Miguel, is 65,000D (S$6.50/a little over 2 pounds) – less than the price of a solitary San Miguel in most bars in Singapore. Thanks again, wuyuetian! I wouldn’t have had a clue about this place without your tip!

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre show (photo at the top) is quite charming, although water puppetry doesn’t seem to focus as much on the subtleties of an individual puppet’s movement (please note I know nothing about puppetry and my only basis of comparison is what I saw at the start of Being John Malkovich) as on getting the puppets to do synchronised dances and formations together. There are also light-hearted skits about villagers chasing fish around by thwacking themselves into the water, villagers chasing cats around by thwacking themselves into the water, and villagers chasing each other around by thwacking themselves into the water. And, of course, they do the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake. All good fun.

Light burden

After the show we walk around the cathedral area and do a little shopping on Nha Tho. This is most definitely an expat zone, with Spanish restaurants and suchlike, and cool shops full of cool things that I can’t bring myself to afford. I buy a weird little buffalo lantern thingy at a poky little place at the end of the road where the prices are less scary. My family thinks it’s hilariously ugly.


Since we’ve had local street food for lunch, the natural contrast in a trip to Vietnam is fancy French food for dinner. The outside courtyard of Green Tangerine is beautiful, and so romantic that I almost forgive Alec for forgetting to bring our travel guide. Almost.

This is what we have for dinner, and yes, I’m such a sad person that I actually copied all of this from the menu:


  • Crab remoulade with orange zests on a layer of fresh asparagus, served with scallops marinated in orange flower essence separated by a sesame lace (Alec)
  • Scallops marinated in lavender flower presented on a bruschetta pancake (Me)


  • Beef cheek braised in red wine perfumed with raspberry vinegar, with small diced potatos and apples enhanced by dates (Alec)
  • Pork fillet rolled in blackcurrant and “ngo” herb served with stuffed bamboo shoots and small vegetables crusted with sesame (Me)


  • A sort of taster dish, with chocolate truffle, creme brulee, a grape stuffed with sorbet, kiwi paste in a pastry shell and probably something else we couldn’t identify (Alec)
  • Creme brulee in Calvados, served in an apple baked in red wine (Me)

Total bill: 53 USD. We leave a 100,000D tip because the service has been lovely, despite being fully aware that that alone is more than our entire lunch cost.

Perhaps you’re wondering why we don’t seem to have explored the Old Quarter much. We did, but it’s just so difficult to capture its incredible appeal in words and pictures. Hanoi feels like its constant influx of tourists have little effect on its real life and the Old Quarter epitomizes this.

Everything to everybody

Yes, souvenir shops and hotels and tourist eateries spring up everywhere, but Hang Dau is still thronged every night we walk through it with happy Vietnamese women, a street full of shoes reflected in their eyes, and their men patiently waiting on motorbikes parked four deep. Yes, I do often have to politely decline the “Salut! Photo?” offers of the ubiquitious girls carrying baskets of fruit at either end of their yoke, but for every one of those girls there’s a wizened old lady in a conical hat carrying anything from plasticware to prawns at the ends of her yoke, and we mean nothing to her.


On the same street where I decide against buying a conical hat because I think the price is too high and I’m not in the mood to bargain, other shops feel it’s still worth their while to continue in the trades they have spent their lives in. I sincerely hope they never let us change that.

Hanoi: Day One

The Budget Terminal is the spitting image of most modern European airports and quite unlike Changi terminals 1 or 2 in look and feel. I haven’t a clue why other budget airlines wouldn’t want to use it – they’ve said to the media that their passengers won’t want to walk on the tarmac in the open to the plane, but this smacks of extreme muppetry.

Upon arrival we take the Vietnam Airlines minibus to central Hanoi (32,000D each). During the journey, we promptly fall in love with Hanoi’s vitality and charm even on our very first glimpses of it. The traffic is chaotic by Singaporean standards of course, but with none of the hair’s breadth brinksmanship I remember about Istanbul. Dust-bathed fruit sellers stand hopefully on the highway shoulder; a passing truck zooms past, then pulls over and reverses 20 metres along the shoulder for some bananas. Later that night, as we walk in the Old Quarter, kids playing badminton at the side of the road dart into multi-directional traffic to retrieve stray shuttlecocks without a moment’s hesitation.

It’s already dark when we reach central Hanoi. (Our plane landed at 1820.) As expected we’re mobbed by motorcycle/taxi/cyclo drivers the minute we step out of the minibus, but fend them off and walk some distance down the road to get our bearings. It only takes about half an hour to walk from there to our hotel in the Old Quarter, and if we were more familiar with the route and weren’t dragging luggage it would have been even faster. It’s a lovely first meeting with Hanoi – all along the length of Hoan Kiem lake, and then into the Old Quarter to Hang Bac, where we check into the awesome Queen Hotel¹.

It’s late when we set out for dinner, so unfortunately Cha Ca La Vong isn’t taking any more new diners. We eat at the only other place still open along the same road (Golden something or other). It looks like a tourist trap, but surprises us with perfectly cooked crispy squid in dill sauce and tender, flavourful beef grilled in honey. Bottles of Hanoi bia wash everything down well. Bill: about 140,000D. Singapore feels a million miles away.

¹ Review: Queen Hotel
We could have gone for cheaper places than this, but we haven’t been on a proper holiday together in ages and had decided we deserved something just a tiny bit better than usual. For US$35 per night in this place, we got a room with attached bathroom, aircon, small balcony, TV with most cable channels, DVD player, free Internet (note that this doesn’t even mean you have to bring your laptop – they have a freaking computer in the room with unlimited Internet access for you to use!), buffet breakfast brought to your room every day, and silk covers on the bed. Great service and attention to detail in beautifying even the common areas suggest this is a well-managed place across the board. If there’s a better room deal in Hanoi, I’d love to hear about it.

Me Not Ready Love You Long Time Just Yet

An update on wonderful Vietnam is on the way, faster than a speeding bullet speeding motorcycle clapped-out but valiantly struggling made-in-China death trap of a moped with no side mirrors!

(Thanks for being so patient, everybody. But um, yeah, I still need a little more time.)

Hanoi Ahoy

Regular readers of this site may be aware that I keep a fruitless and ultimately masochistic vigil over what’s happening in London. Normally, finding out that I could watch Calexico and Iron & Wine at the Forum if I were in London on 23 April would be a KNNBCCB moment.

But tonight I’m actually able to take it philosophically, because on 23 April I shall be returning from a trip to Hanoi with Alec, the only travel beyond Bintan and KL we’ll have done together since he moved here.¹ Needless to say I’m very much looking forward to it, and if you’ve got any Hanoi travel tips, do share!


¹ This isn’t at all from want of trying or interest, it’s just that circumstances have conspired in the worst of ways in the past year to prevent us travelling for any decent length of time together. First I was doing my pupillage, which you can’t take leave from. Then I finished my pupillage but he’d just started a new job, so I went travelling in Europe alone. Then he was finally able to take leave but I’d just started my new job, so he went travelling in Europe alone. But from April onwards we should finally be able to start escaping Singapore on a regular basis, and thank God for that.