Travel Tip 101: Descending Dragon Bay + Uncle Hồ’s Vietnam {tips} + my POV

To this day my brain can’t get around Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand geographically; i.e. I can’t stack them against one another or simply put I have no idea who’s to the east or west of who and who’s sandwiched in between! And this brain-paralysis still exist after I’ve visited all of them pre– and (later, again) post-the dreadful blood sucking red airlines existence that made traveling to those countries extremely affordable.
Possibly the one and only reason why I never confused Vietnam with the rest is: Vietnam looks like the letter “S”, thus neatly dividing the country into 3 main parts. The North is where Hanoi is, the pinched center part is where historical Hue is, and to the south lies administrative Ho Chi Minh (HCMC) formerly – and possibly still more popularly – known as Saigon. 
… or maybe its because Vietnam has a West End musical production:  
Miss Saigon, which incidentally also extends to my limited knowledge of the Vietnam war
other than reading Wikipedia recently; an impetus that came after being insulted for my non-existence knowledge of ex-Việt Cộng settlements by a very insulting person by nature – there’s not a day goes by when he’s not insulting or sarcastic … but still? I should know a bit more beyond Miss Saigon and Rambo, right?

Anyways, back to the serious stuff – ha! if only that’s possible. Serious that is. 
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Visa Wait-a-minute. Did I need one? I doubt it but I do recall having the rather cool communist-socialist looking red stars piece of sticker with fancy intricate watermark background pattern stuck on my old passport. Given that my recollection is so vague, surely it was a by-the-by hassle free process that somehow slipped itself in the entire airport flow, with I suspect the exchange of either some Vietnamese Dong or US Dollars. Point is: I don’t know. Am too lazy to look it up. Besides, why bother? Information such as this is readily available and it varies from country to country of origin.

Taxi Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport is about a 45-minute drive outside the city. An airport taxi costs around USD 10, but if there’s too many bumps to fit into a taxi, or in the case of my family – too many empty suitcases, take the Vietnam Airlines minivan into town which costs approximately USD 3. If you haven’t been to Asia or learn a thing or two about it, an extra buck can get you places; and aptly literally to drop you at your hotel if its along the way. Alternatively, there’s an airport shuttle that makes regular departures from the Vietnam Airlines office. So, all in, the one and only thing you need to remember is: Vietnam Airlines office is your landmark! Your savior upon arriving in Vietnam.

Orientation I swear the Vietnamese have Roman blood flowing through their veins(!) which is fantastic news for my structured mind. Again, Hanoi is easily divided into 4 main sectors: Hoan Kiem, Ba Dinh, Hai Ba Trung and Dong Da. Forget trying to remember these tongue twister names, rather focus on what attractions lies where …

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Day 1
Hoan Kiem District 

A must for all foreign visitors to Hanoi, this is the heart of Vietnam’s ancient capital. Herein lies the most popular strolling spot in town with shops and restaurants chocking and enclosing around the busy central Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword and the Long Bien Bridge), and spills over to the Old Quarter
Look, Hanoi would not be Hanoi without Old Quarter – a maze of streets that dates back to the 13th century. Chaotic and exhausting best describes the Old Quarter, where you’ll be jostled by motorbikes, cyclos, hawkers with burdens of local produce balancing on shoulder-poles, and pedestrians that seems to reproduce themselves in split seconds judging by the stream of them that heads for your direction! But don’t let this be a put-off as this pretty much sums up Hanoi which grows on you the more you experience it (and when you are lost in the Old Quarter maze of of streets too {smirk}).

Although the Old Quarter evolved from workshop villages organized by trades, or guilds, remnants of this still lingering on with majority of the streets still dedicated to a product or trade. As a guide, streets are named after a trade as follows: 

 Hang Bac — silver | Hang Be — rattan rafts | Hang Bo — baskets | Hang Bong — cotton | Hang Buom — sails | Hang Ca — fish | Hang Can — scales | Hang Cot — bamboo mats | Hang Da — leather | Hang Dao — silk | Hang Dau — beans | Hang Dieu — bongs and pipes | Hang Dong — brass | Hang Duong — sugar | Hang Ga — chicken | Hang Gai — hemp and rope | Hang Giay — paper | Hang Hom — coffins | Hang Khoai — sweet potatoes | Hang Luoc — combs | Hang Ma — paper replicas/toys | Hang Mam — fish | Hang Manh — bamboo shades | Hang Muoi — salt | Hang Non — conical hats | Hang Quat — fans | Hang Than — charcoal | Hang Thiec — tin | Hang Thung — barrels | Hang Tre — bamboo | Hang Trong — drums | Hang Vai — cloth

… but the above does not necessarily hold true in all instances. For example, Hang Vai (Cloth Street) is now home to the bamboo trade, and with the influx of tourist, foreigners (through foreign direct investments in the late 1990s – hence my first trip for a project paper) and modernisation, many old streets now supports new trades.

However, the good news is, most of the prewar colonial buildings in this area are still intact, even if they are being crowded out by newer concrete construction. Ignoring the hostel, internet cafe, backpackers joints and every Ha Long Bay, Hue tour companies, you’d find that Hanoians are pretty good at ‘marrying’ hip-globalisation and cultural heritage in their architectural preservation, be it a restaurant or a tour attraction for the public.
Do look out for the classic tube house in the Old Quarter. The best and most accessible example (if still exist – I was last there close to a decade ago) is directly north of the lake. Tube houses are called such due to the fact that they are … well, tubes: i.e. a long, narrow (tube of a space) that is subdivided into sections that serves the occupants needs. The interesting fact is Vietnamese still build very narrow and high building today since properties were taxed on the basis of street frontage. Though this may not hold true today (which again, I am way too lazy to verify), real estate remains expensive in Old Quarter and prices in Hanoi is purported to rival some of the western cities.

The best way to explore and uncover the gems among the clutter in the Old Quarter is by foot. It’s worth your while to check out the local Walking Tour that covers The Old Quarter (or Lonely Planet / Frommers) that guides and points out interesting facts, and hidden treasures such as community halls and Chinese temples being tucked behind ancient willow trees or down quiet alleys you’d normally not venture to. 

Although you are bound to pass or be shown the direction to Hanoi’s largest market – Dong Xuan, skip it for the following day and instead press on and head towards the French Quarter – at the southern edge of Hoan Kiem District. If this proves to be too exhausting, take a cyclo … do not attempt to hire a motorcycle (even if you are an experienced rider with international license coz nothing will prepare you for Vietnam’s motorised ‘mosquitoes’ – annoyingly buzzing around).

Streets in the French Quarter are well, heavily influenced by the French during its rule. The buildings are more elaborate; usually two-story structures, with architectural flourishes like overhanging bay windows and a high sloping roof, some of the mansard variety. Well maintained, they now typically house embassies or offices. Within the French Quarter, you’ll find the old Opera House and a number of museums – the National Museum of Vietnamese History and the Revolutionary Museum – both of which are just down the street from the Opera House. 

Also be sure to stop for some real filtered coffee with Baguette under a canopy in the French Quarter and relive the colonial days.

Whilst you are unveiling treasure after treasure, do not forget to stop and book yourself:
  1. Water Puppet Show – book early for the best seats – be prepared to get a few splashes if you take the front row.
  2. Ha Long Bay Chinese junk tickets / overnight tour.

My memory escapes me if you are actually fed before the Water Puppet Show. Highly likely not judging by the ticket prices. It’s an interesting performance that has its origins from the paddy fields that recounts the story of the lake (yup, the body of water in front of the puppet theater you’d be going to); a cunning, deceitful, lying giant sized turtle; a sword, and a lady … or maybe the lady was part of King Arthur! {smirk} Like I said, my memory escapes me… but it IS the story of the Lake of the Restored Sword. 

Back in those days I was treated to sitting on hard wooden long benches (the type you find in government sponsored primary school canteens) ventilated by self-hand-powered paper fans in a dimly lit hall that smells slightly funny and dam. Sound effects and music came crackling out of bad (possibly Russian made) speakers and puppets through telephoto lenses (that is hopeless for night photography – given that my single aperture affordability was out of the question then) was screaming for a fresh coat of paint.
Even then, it was good fun and an experience worth every dime … if not, it gets every Hanoian off your back!

Photograph from SinhCafe, Vietnam

Day 2 – Night 2 – Day 3
Ha Long Bay 
(descending dragon)


This picturesque bay needs no introduction; being the set for some notable blockbuster movies to date and made famous by its UNESCO World Heritage status.

With emerald green water, and the 3,000 islands of towering limestone in the Gulf of Tonkin,  a visit to Ha Long Bay (about 4 hours drive from Hanoi) can be done in a (very long) day. Best done through an tour agent (easily found in the Old Quarter or arranged by your hotel), the trip would include land transfers to the wharf, and in some instances hotel pick-up and a simple packed breakfast (what else but baguette with cheese / butter?)

It’s advisable to book an overnight stay tour where you’ll cruise on a junk for 4 to 6 hours along the bay, with a couple of stops to the grottoes and limestone caves that have been well lit and finished with handrails for tourist of any age and fitness. This option would allow you more time to enjoy Ha Long Bay’s environs and fishing villages along the way.

The overnight trips cost from USD 20 upwards (with luxury options available), but why not try the ‘exotic’ stripe-down classical junk option where you spend the night on the junk, purchased  fresh seafood from local fishermen who ‘sails’ alongside your junk and have it prepared by a cook on board with a kerosene stove?


Day 3
Ba Dinh District

Attractions : 3-Hun Tiep Lake and the Downed B-52 | 4-Ho Chi Minh Museum | 5- One Pillar Pagoda | 6-Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum | 7-Ho Chi Ming Residence | 55- Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts | 56- Temple of Literature and National University

Upon arriving from Ha Long Bay, make your way to Ba Dinh District. Unlike Hoan Kiem District that ‘houses’ the Old Quarter, Ba Dinh District lies at the extreme end of bustling, erratic chaos of Vietnam, with abundance of greenery and wide open parks that surrounds Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum as well as his house and an adjoining museum. 

Nearby, is the famous One-Pillar Pagoda and the Army Museum and Fine Art Museum. Vietnamese fine art is not something my eye and brain has been trained to appreciate. Apologies to all Vietnamese, but fine art is none other than the four mutant ninja turtles for me. So, I did the FAM in probably 15 minutes before calling it quits.

This pretty much sums up ‘the MUST dos’ of Hanoi… take the night Hanoi-Saigon southbound train to Hue.

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p/s: this is for ‘puffer fish’ … enjoy.
I visited Vietnam in the pre-digital days – am too lazy to ‘fish’ out and scan the films. So, all the Vietnam blog entries will probably have very little photos or none … unless some time in between now and the next post I change my mind. Highly likely.
Check this out:  
gastronomical !!! WARNING !!!
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Snakes stuffed in bottles of liquor {featured in BBC NEWS Day in Pictures HERE}

8 thoughts on “Travel Tip 101: Descending Dragon Bay + Uncle Hồ’s Vietnam {tips} + my POV

  1. keat kor kor!!!finally!!! finally!!!{see how much I have missed you?!?}14 days? Game.We can have all the energy from liquour-snakes, snakes blood, bear gall blader, roasted dog, cow testicles … ahhhhhhhh… the joys and wonder of Asia.:)The train trip is quite good … not the sleeper equivalent class lah.

  2. Jealous of a puffer fish? Get real man!!! lolHa Long … well, it was so-so from the awe perspective. I'm not much of a scenery person. So when I am faced with the same green water and limestones for 6 hours yeah, it's a bore. Not a fan of caves either, but these caves were dry and had high chambers without guano. So they were fine from that angle, but what's with the purple, blue and green lighting??? So Ah Lian, Ah Beng, Ah Tu, ah Kow lei…Other than the junk ride that was fun – simply because: my mom couldn't get over Bas' tongue piercing (very clean-shaven nice boy type German backpacker who's a social worker)Bas couldn't get over grandpa's ability to start drinking at 10amBas couldn't get over grandpa's ability to hold a drink better than himBas couldn't get over grandpa's ability to drink better than most GermansBas couldn't get over grandpa is not GermanI was smitten with Bas' noble social worker lifeI was shaken over Bas' ambition to be a sleazy tour operatorSo yeah… what fun we had on the junk ride and the blardee boring island … so thank god grandpa 'adopted' Bas for 2 days 1 nite.

  3. lol lol lol. u alrite ker babe? suddenly, so many of these itineraries sahaja? i thought u only do itineraries on me and my only request sahaja, now, u also write for puffer fish…sigh, saham jatuh viet is one place i dont mind going over and over again but the ultimate will b a north to south(or vice versa) road trip…..sigh. 14 days. game? lol.

  4. I think you do need to visit Old Quarter a number of times to get the hang of it. Similar to Jak Ju Jat Market. It's a maze as you correctly put it.Didn't think you'd recommend Ha Long Bay. Had the impression you didn't enjoy it as much.Thanks for another great and comprehensive write-up.

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