We started our Vietnam trip from visiting the magical place in the north of Vietnam – the Ha Long Bay
Day 1 – Saturday 29/03/2014
To make sure that we will sit next to each other and ideally near the window, me and my husband Tomek were on the London Gatwick airport 2.5 hours before the flight. Unfortunately we were informed that most places are already occupied and, yes, we can sit together, but not near the window. Theoretically on the ticket it says that you need to be on the airport at least 2 hours before departure. We were there 2.5 hours before, so if most of the places were already booked what time did other people come? Fortunately we could sit together – I cannot imagine 13 hours flight sitting alone. I was very positively surprised by the very good comfort of the flight. In Europe we always used the cheapest airlines so the comfort wasn’t very good. Here it was enough space to sit or lay and relax.
Arrival at Hanoi Airport (6:05am)
Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam. I was surprised because the airport was very small. Just as I expected it was very warm and humid, but after a few minutes we got used to this weather. After leaving the plane we had to go to visa office with a pre-filled visa form (done online), 1 photo and passport. Then you wait about 20-30 minut (queues) and when is your turn, they call you (your photo is displayed on the screen on the wall). Next step is to pay visa fee, go through passport control and then can go for your luggage (ours was the last one).
Buying trips to: Ha Long Bay, Trang An (temples in Hoa Lu, Tam Coc caves) and Hanoi
Over 1 hour after landing (when we’ve received our luggage) we went to “information point” to find out the best way to get to the Ha Long bay. As we discovered later all “Information points” at the airports are “fake”. All of them are travel office points (or private companies) so of course they will give you advise where is the best place to visit but they will not give you any public transport options to save money. When you ask them about local bus or local transport they will always say “There is no local connections, you need to use our service”. Walk 50-100m in front of the airport and …. surprise: local bus stop.
Anyway very nice and polite gentleman from “information point” immediately offered us a 3-day trip in Ha Long Bay (on a very luxurious ship) with transport there and back to the airport for a “bargain price”. In the meantime he looked into our notes (written in polish) and when he saw the dates and words: “Hanoi” & “Hoa Lu & Tam Coc” he presented us a new “package”: 3 days trip to the Bay of Ha Long with meals without drinks (we were told that on the boat You can buy it very cheap – but it wasn’t true), two nights in Hanoi (with breakfasts), one-day trip to the temples in Hoa Lu & Tam Coc caves, and return transport to the airport for only $ 350 per person (7 372 599 VND). We had no idea whether it is expensive or not and after long discussion we asked for something cheaper. After another long negotiations price fell down to $ 278 per person (5 850 000 VND) with accommodation in the better room on the boat. We decided to go for it: our time in Vietnam was very limited so with this package we could save a lot of time searching all trips separately. Also later after conversations with any other tourists we discovered that we paid normal price for everybody.
ALWAYS remember to negotiate the price.
Trip to Ha Long Bay
Half an hour later when we paid for the Ha Long “package” on Hanoi airport, someone took us to black, new car and after 45 minutes drive the driver stopped the car somwhere on the road. Shortly after that a minibus has stopped as well and we were transferred to that minibus. Travel took 3 hours (148km) to destination (by the way: if you use private transport in Vietnam, or in a plane you will always get a small bottle of mineral water). First impressions from traveling on local roads were unforgettable: everybody is driving how they want and the main rule is: almost never stop and if you want to pass somebody on the road or you want to go first always use horn. Chaos for us but it has to be some sense in this because we didn’t see any serious accident during our holiday (maybe some scratches on the cars).
The view outside the window was very variable: from the green rice fields with cows grazing and old tombstones in the middle of fields, to towns with mostly obscure houses (sometimes completely destroyed – looking like after war). And the garbage – it was everywhe. That’s how it looks almost in whole Vietnam. Well, maybe with the exception of private beaches, temples and some really very few tourist towns.
During the journey there was one stop in some large shopping center, somewhere near the road, where most of the products was expensive. Next to the shops there was a bar in which we tried the famous ‘snake’ vodka (the rice wine in a bottle with a small cobra and scorpion inside, the Cobra kept a scorpion’s tail in its mouth). The taste was very good: strong with a very pleasant herbal flavour. We bought a bottle for 400 000 VND. Unfortunately when we open the bottle later – the vodka wasn’t as strong as the one in the bar but still had a nice taste.
Ha Long Bay
We have arrived to our destination around 12AM. The port was full of tourists, people selling tours and travel agencies. The weather was good: it was partly cloudy but warm (about 25-27 degrees) and from time to time you could see the sun looking from behind the clouds. We were taken to main wooden boat by small motor boat, where they gave us the keys to the cabin and told us to meet in an hour at the top of the boat in the restaurant for greeting and introduction. The boat outside didn’t look very good: the paint was peeling out from the boat almost everywhere (all boats looked like that). I am guessing that every day humidity is too high for the paint to stay long on the boats. The cabins were very nice and clean with a private bathroom. On the walls were hangers to hang the clothes (who needs a wardrobe for 2-3 days tour :-)). We were told that our cabin will be better than others but we’ve noticed that all the cabins were exactly the same (we looked into other cabins with open doors).
Half an hour after departure when we got toward the small islands the weather has changed very quickly – suddenly the fog appeared out of nowhere and the visibility was very poor (the temperature stayed the same). Next day our guide told us that the foggy weather is always in March-April. We didn’t know about it. Anyway after few shots of “snake” vodka in our cabin and the welcome glass of wine in the restaurant we were taken to visit one of the small sandy island. The water was so dirty that I didn’t even touch it. We climbed to the top of the island but the fog was so intensive that we couldn’t see much: only the top of the other islands. I must say I liked this mistical atmoshpere: I felt like I was in some different magic world and I was waiting for some dragons flying from behind the fog any moment.
We came back to boat an hour before supper. When we were waiting in our room somebody knock to … our window. It was old lady in her boat who was selling alcohol, food and any others stuff. We bought some local wine and few cans of beer (alcohol on the boat wasn’t so cheap like we were told on the airport).
On the supper we were seating at the table with 2 ladies form Cananda. The food was very nice: a few fresh different dishes (chicken / fish / shrimp) to share on table, however I was expecting a little more variety of flavors. The food in Vietnam is cooked very “naturally”. It is very fresh food with almost no spices. In the evening we thought to go to the top on the boat but the fog was still very strong and there was drizzle so we stayed in our cabin. Because we didn’t sleep over 30hours so we went sleep very quickly (around 21:30).
Day 2 – Sunday 30/03/2014
At 6:30AM we went on the upper deck for 30min Tai Chi exercises. It was very relaxing. Fog wasn’t so strong like previous day so we were surrounded by very beautiful views: light fog surrounded other ships and islands and when from time to time the sun comes out from the clouds the water starts to change colours from grey to turquoise.
At 7:00 we went for a breakfast, which was a big surprise for us: we got …. a soup. It tastes completely different than in restaurant (very nice). Everywhere in Vietnam on the breakfast you can get soup, eggs with bacon or jam with fresh roll. After the breakfast all guests were split between 2 groups: because we bought 3 days trip, they have created different plan of trip for us. They moved us to some smaller boat with another pair of turists (from Germany) for a day trip between the islands. The fog was still around us but the drizzle wasn’t so strong. The first “stop” was on the pearls farm. We were shown how the pearls are grown and all process how to get the pearls off the shell.
In the end they took us to the shop with pearls. The prices were horribly high (from dozens to thousands of dollars). I don’t know much about prices of pearls but I suspect that for someone who has a lot of money, they were cheap. Later we discovered that the similar jewellery made of “not perfect” pearls you can get much cheaper on different islands or from from small boats.
The next stage of our trip was one of the local islands with free running monkeys. Of course they were not afraid of tourists and you could buy on the island some fruits to feed them.
Also on this island we climbed to the top of the mountain where we admired some foggy views :-). Shortly before returning to the boat Tomek went for a moment into this dirty water for a swim, but he came out very quickly with words “never again – the water is too dirty”. After returning to our boat we had very good dinner (again quite broad selection of different foods), and later we were taken for canoeing between small islands. Fog almost disappeared so we really enjoyed the beutiful views: a lot of green nature, silence and from time to time over our heads we could see flying wild birds (eagles?). It was really worth to go on this trip.
We came back to our boat around 17:00. Before we left the small boat we paid for all drinks had during our trip (only the food was “free”). I really loved the trip. After the supper we went on the upper deck to drink local wine (bought from the old lady on the boat the previous day) and we enjoyed the beautiful night views (fog gone completely).
Day 3 – Monday 31/03/2014
In the morning, 10 minutes before Tai Chi, we were surprised by quiet knocking to our window. When we looked out the window we saw 3 small boats with some Vietnamese women. The boats were filled with pearl products. I read somewhere in the guide that the first buyer always sets more or less the price of goods which are sold to other buyers on that day. So we started the negotiantions. It started from $200 for beautiful large shell (with innate pearls), long necklace of natural pearls (slightly pink) and earrings, and we finished on $50. Later we discovered that we overpaid because one of other guests said that she paid $25 for necklace and earrings. After morning Tai Chi exercises and breakfast along with other tourists we were taken by motorboat on one of the islands to explore caves. The fog almost disappeared and from time to time the sun came out. The sapphire water and green islands looked very beautiful.
When we were on the boat between the islands we passed a group of houses built on water on wood piles connecetd each other. It was really a village on water. You could see the people living there with dogs and cats. All the rubbish they throw away to the water (that explains why the water is so dirty in Ha Long). The tour guide told us that the government has plans to resettle people from this “water village” to land and change the villages into tourists’ attractions but they still didn’t set up the dates. I can’t agree with this idea – without this people it will be only dead villiage without “the soul”. Well… we will see.
Anyway: the caves are really worth seeing: large and full of delighting shapes. One of the largest and most beautiful caves I’ve ever seen.
Outside the caves you could buy necklaces and earrings for a similar price as from the women on the boat. We returned to our boat around 12 and after 2 hours cooking lessons (nothing interesting – we were shown how to do stuffing for pancakes ) and dinner (we ate what we did on cooking lesson) we came back to land.
From the boat trip in Ha Long Bay we came back to the land around 15:00 and the minibus took us to Hanoi.
Summarizing 3 -day trip: I really liked it: the beautiful views, even in the fog, Tai Chi lessons in the morning, simple food, all tours to the islands, but the water was full of garbage: I’ve never ever seen so dirty water, you’ll find there everything, it is a pity because it can really spoil you the pleasure of admiring the views.
Continue reading about our trip to Vietnam here: Vietnam – Hanoi
Basic Travel Information and Our Travel Plan you will find here: Vietnam – Basic Travel Information and Our Travel Plan