TRAVEL NOTES ON VIETNAM
Old Quarter - Hanoi
| Perfume Pagoda |
Hoa Lu and Tam Coc |
Ha Long Bay |
Hanoi Graceful Hotel | Visa Information
Duty Free Liquids | Getting Around Hanoi
| Dragonfly Travel |
Sightseeing in Hanoi | Food
| Video Part 1 | Video Part 2
The Old Quarter is composed of small streets full of
people, traffic, shops, hotels and restaurants. Many streets are organised
(and named in Vietnamese) by the products sold there. You will find things like shoe
street, tin street, button street, toy street etc.
Large buses vie for space with cyclos, cars, electric tourist buggies and
what seems like several million motorbikes.
Colourful shop goods on display
There is no in-between with this section of Hanoi, you
will either love it or hate it. In order to get about on foot you have to
learn to cross the road while vehicles of every description pass inches from
you without stopping.
Hawkers and touts will pester you from time to time but it certainly isn't
as bad as we have experienced in Bali.
You may find hidden gems like the almost famous egg coffee and you may find
a corner cafe that serves beer for less than a dollar a glass and serves
really great fried rice.
Egg coffee - Hanoi
There are all sorts of things for sale, some at fixed prices from places
like Shop and Go and many more that you can haggle for.
The Old Quarter is noisy, polluted with vehicle exhausts and very dirty but
it is an amazing experience. Tucked away in quieter streets you may find a
great little hotel (we stayed at Hanoi Graceful) where you can book a cheap
room but get 5 star service.
You will mostly walk in the street as motorbikes clutter the foot paths, you
might find roast pork, suckling pig, roast duck and Doner kebabs sold just
Street Food in Hanoi
From Friday to Sunday you can walk down a long street market or during the
day you can suffer the heat and humidity of the Dong Xuan wholesale market.
Whatever you find and whatever you experience, I guarantee the Old Quarter
in Hanoi will be something you will; never forget.
Excellent fried rice and cheap beer - Hanoi
Another early start as the pick-up for the Tam Coc tour was at 8am. This
tour was with Galaxy Cruises but from what we have been told, all the tours
here are pretty much the same as far as itinerary goes.
A two and a half hour drive was broken by a rest stop about half way.
Unfortunately it was the same rest stop that is used for the Perfume Pagoda
tour so there was nothing new for us to see or buy.
The first stop was a temple but it really wasn't a very impressive one. It
has more historical value than anything else as the complex dates from
A short drive took us to Tam Coc where we had a buffet style lunch. Nothing
to rave about but the quality was ok and there was plenty to eat.
The next item was to prove the highlight of the day, if not the entire trip.
We knew we were going to be taken in a sampan for a 90 minute trip up a
river through some rice fields. Visions of the sampans at the
swam before me but I was very relieved to find that these boats were far
Stunning Tam Coc
These small craft are powered by a rower who sits at the back. They have a
fascinating way of rowing with their feet that has to be seen to be
The first part of the boat trip didn't appear to be anything that
spectacular but once we passed under the last bridge we were treated to a
'vision splendid' that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
People call this the inland Ha long Bay but it is really so much more than
that. Tam Coc is truly amazing.
We were advised to bring hats and umbrellas and the hats were a real
necessity. The day wasn't too hot but if it had been, an umbrella to keep
the sun off would also be required.
There is more than ample time for taking pictures and video and as you reach
the turn around point there is an opportunity to thank your rower by
purchasing them a drink. While you don't HAVE to do this, it is a nice way
to thank your rower for all their effort and as there are some rather low
hanging bits of rock in the caves on the way back, personally I would rather
have a happy rower behind me....
Tourists buying souvenirs
On the way back your rower will pull over and give you
the opportunity to thank them more by purchasing something from the box of
souvenirs. This is an opportunity to bargain for something if you are
interested, or if you don't want to purchase anything you might like to give
a straight out tip.
In general we are not in favour of tipping but these rowers do a lot of hard
work and are paid very small wages. They depend on tips to make a reasonable
living so in a case like this, we chose to give a tip that may be small by
our standards but quite meaningful in Vietnam.
During this trip there will also be a host of photographers trying to get a
picture of you. It is almost impossible to avoid having your picture taken
so you might as well pose properly and get a good shot. This costs between
50c to $1 a photo but if they start to take lots of shots just be firm and
only pay for the one(s) you want.
The trip along the river here rates at least as well as our overnight trip
to Ha Long Bay. In our opinion it is a MUST DO trip if you are staying in
When the rowing section of the trip comes to an end you can opt to take a 40
minute bike ride around the village. This costs a few dollars more and is
only for the fit and healthy (this does not include us.)
We chose to return to the restaurant after a brief walk around the market
and sit in the shade to await the return of the younger and more fit members
of our party.
Soon after 4pm we were on our way back to Hanoi. The drive back took almost
3 hours due to traffic congestion and by the time we got back to our hotel
we were tired but happy.
One note regarding the road conditions. A lot of people complain about the
road to Ha long Bay but we found that much better than the one to Tam Coc.
This was really quite a bumpy ride and if anyone has a bad back (like me) it
would be a good idea to take some lumbar support and maybe some pain
This trip rates 10/10 from us for everything except perhaps the food. That
we would only give 7/10.
The Hanoi Graceful is located in one of the more quiet streets in the
quarter. It is a fairly small hotel but the service and amenities are
excellent. From the moment you walk into the reception area it is obvious
that attention to detail and quality are two important aspects of this
Hanoi Graceful Hotel
Although our room was fairly small it was equipped with everything we needed.
The bed was king size and on first inspection I thought the mattress was
going to be a problem. I have a very bad back and I am used to a mattress
with a bit of 'give' in it. The mattress here is VERY firm BUT even with my
back problems I had no difficulty sleeping. After talking to other
travellers it is apparent that Vietnam is well known for firm beds.
Cupboard space was a little limited but we still managed ok. The room decor
was pleasant and the bathroom was especially nice. Everything was spotlessly
clean and rooms are serviced every day.
One small addition I would like to see in the room is a
proper chair rather than just the stool that is currently available. This
would make life a bit more comfortable when for using the computer.
The hotel provides free Wi-Fi internet access and although the speed is not
lightning fast it is good enough.
Another inclusion is a buffet breakfast that includes things like fried
rice, noodles, bacon, egg, sausage, fruit juice, toast, jam, coffee fruit
The TV was a large flat screen model and a number of English language
channels are available such as movies, CNN, sports, children’s channels,
Animal Planet, Nat Geo and a few others.
Other facilities in the room are coffee and tea making facilities and
bottled water is supplied every day. If you need to plug in electronic
devices then an adaptor is available from reception but remember Vietnam
runs on 220v so anyone with 110v appliances has to have their own
transformer as well.
Being located in the old quarter is great as there are all sorts of things
to see and do within walking distance.
We really can't find any faults with the hotel and Mr. Lee and his staff are
One word of warning about tours. We were told in Australia that we should
book tours like Ha Long Bay with an Australian travel agent before we
arrived in Vietnam because they are so popular. This turned out to be
nonsense. We booked through the hotel and we got a competitive price. When
we were on the tour we even met people who had booked only 2 days in advance
and had no problem getting on to the tour.
We would rate the Hanoi Graceful 10/10 for service and value and 8/10
overall. This is a great little hotel that is destined to become very
popular as more people get to know about it.
When we booked the trip to Vietnam we were unaware that
this is one country that charges for tourist visas. Initially we heard the
cost was $25 AU but then read online that it was $65 AU. When we applied to
the Vietnamese Embassy in Canberra we were told that it was now $85 AU per
One thing to be careful of are the online scammers
pretending to be official Vietnamese websites. We checked first with the
Australian Government and found that the correct place to apply can be found
We WERE NOT TOLD by Singapore Airlines when we checked in
at Hanoi airport that any duty free liquids (alcohol, perfumes etc.) would
be confiscated in Singapore before we could board our connecting flight to
Perth. This STUPID rule means we could happily carry our duty free to
Singapore but no further. I have no idea which idiot is responsible for this
rule but SIA should have warned us NOT TO PURCHASE duty free in Hanoi.
If we had a direct flight to Perth then apparently there
would be no problem but as we had a connecting flight this idiotic rule came
into play and we lost the lot. We hold SIA responsible for this complete
stuff up and we know they were aware of the rule because as we flew into
Perth airport they made an announcement about not taking duty free onto
connecting flights. It was far too late to be of any help to us.
Why valid duty free items in properly sealed bags
purchased in a secure location can be taken onto one flight but not on to a
connecting flight from a transit area (also a secure location) is
These sorts of rules are bloody minded stupidity and the
fact that we had no indication that they existed either from SIA or the duty
free shop means we had no way of knowing that the last part of our trip was
going to be ruined.
UPDATE: We contacted both SIA and the Hanoi Airport duty
free shop about this issue and with all credit to the duty free shop
they refunded the money we had spent with them. SIA have simply ignored
If you stay in the Old Quarter then you can still get
around using the old cyclos where the driver sits behind you pedalling while
you sit in front exposed to all the traffic racing past you. Agree a price
BEFORE you get on board.
Walking is one of the best ways to see the streets in
your immediate vicinity but if you want to range further afield then you
can hire a motorbike (if you have a death wish), hire someone to take you
around on their motorbike, hire a car and driver for a fixed amount, ride on
one of the electric tourist buggies ($7.50 Au for 30 minutes for sightseeing
or about $12.50 Au for a full hour and you can stop where you like) or get a
The best taxi company we found was Mai Linh (green or
green and white) or Hanoi Tourist. Riding around the nearby attractions can
cost as little as 75c Au up to $6 Au but rarely more.
Picked up from our hotel just before 8am for our day trip
to the Perfume Pagoda. Only 4 others on the trip with us today so there was
plenty of room in the van. The van was comfortable and had good
air-conditioning. Our guide for the day was called Tim and he was very
knowledgeable and helpful.
Tour buses are air-conditioned and comfortable
We were given a bottle of water (and boy did we need it later) which seems
to be a standard inclusion in all these trips, and settled in for the drive
It was about a 2 hour drive out to the river where we were to board a sampan
and there was a comfort stop half way where toilets, drinks and souvenirs
were available. We found some nice things to take home so spent a bit of
money. The prices here were much more reasonable that the stop we had during
the Ha long Bay trip BUT if you are looking for
even better bargains it is worth checking out the souvenir shops in temples
like the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.
On arrival at the river I found my romantic notions of what a sampan was
like were not quite correct. The vessel that was to take us an hour's
journey to the temple was a metal construction, very shallow and with very
small, very hard seats. To be fair I had been warned in advance about these
seats but in the end I decided against bringing any extra cushioning. As it
turned out I got used to the narrow seat and it didn't cause me any
Sampan ride on the Perfume River
It was a hot day so we were very glad we brought our hats
and umbrellas (as the adverts suggest) others in the group had ignored this
advice and some had to buy hats before hopping on to the small craft. The
'engine' for our boat was a rather diminutive Vietnamese lady with a couple
Paddling along the river watching the other boats glide past and being able
to view the stunning scenery was very pleasant. It would have been a little
more comfortable on a day without so much sunshine but we were ok under our
umbrellas and there was a little breeze on the river from time to time that
helped as well.
There are two options available to visitors, walk to the temple or catch a
cable car. Our option was to catch the cable car as I can't walk too far
these days but in all honesty I would highly recommend this option for
everyone, at least for the trip up to the temple. It only adds a few dollars
to the cost and it is really worth while.
Cable car ride to the Perfume Pagoda cave
Before going up to the cave temple we first had a look at a temple on the
lower slopes. Very pretty and a great place to take some photos. This whole
temple complex is spread out and very large. Apparently it would take 2-3
days to see all of it.
The climb up to the first temple wasn't too bad but there is a climb, it
isn't located on the river flats so it was good to be prepared and have some
decent shoes on. Some of the pathway is a little rough and people (like me)
with dodgy knees and backs have to take it easy and watch our step on the
rougher sections of path.
Next came lunch and this turned out to be a bit of a surprise as it was some
of the best food we have had so far in Vietnam. Lots of it and all very
tasty. Tofu, fish, pork, rice, vegetables and even a plate of chips (always
a favourite with me no matter where I am) plus an egg omelette that was
about the best I have ever eaten.
Once lunch was over it was time to head up, yes up and up
a bit more, to the cable car station. After a short wait we were off up the
mountain passing through one mid-way station and up to the terminus at the
top. The cable cars keep moving, even if it is slowly, so it is important to
remember to collect all your things BEFORE you get to the top and be ready
to get out - unlike me when I left my camera on the floor and had to go
after the car to retrieve it before it vanished back down the hill.
Another walk down, then up, then DOWN, DOWN into the cave. It is supposed to
be 120 steps down to the cave but for my wobbly legs it felt like many many
more. The cave was interesting but has to be navigated with great care as
the floor, mostly slippery rock, is made more slippery by strange people
hosing it down with water and making it even more slippery. I'm not sure if
this was a local game of betting on which tourist would fall over first but
it made walking through the cave a bit more challenging that it otherwise
might have been.
Perfume Pagoda cave temple
Then it was time to go back UP ALL THOSE 120 STEPS AGAIN!
Oh my aching bones. Thankfully I had prepared in advance by taking a
naprosyn pill so my joints didn't cause me any real pain for a change).
The rest of the trip back down the mountain was much more enjoyable. To my
great amazement my knees and back held up all the way down. When we finally
arrived back at the river for the long 1 hour row back to the bus we were
offered the option of taking a motorised boat back for the mere sum of $5. I
was all for it but the others in the group didn't want to fork out any more
money. It was already starting to get a bit late and I could see a
thunderstorm gathering in the distance. I knew if we were rowed back it was
likely to be a very wet and possibly dangerous trip if the thunderstorm
reached us. (I never want to be out on the water with lightning about).
I offered to pay the whole lot, what is $5 after all? but then the lady who
had rowed us up started to complain loudly after being given some money. As
she was doing this in Vietnamese I had no idea what was wrong. Three of the
people in our tour group were Vietnamese and a couple of them joined in what
looked like a pretty heated discussion.
In the end it turned out the lady who had done all the
hard work rowing us to the temple thought she was being hard done by with
the motorised boat pinching her customers before she had got a satisfactory
tip. In the end it all got sorted out and she even got towed back with us so
everyone was happy.
Just as we got back to the bus the first big spots of rain started to fall.
I was very glad I had paid for the ride back as sitting for an hour in the
pouring rain at the end of such a long day would not have been a great way
to end things.
It was almost 2 hours before we were back at our hotel, exhausted but very
happy we had done the trip.
Up early for pick-up at 8am. A VERY LONG 4 hour+ drive
out to Ha Long and then a transfer to the V-Spirit boat. The drive out
wasn't as bad as we have been led to believe in various online reviews. The
V-Spirit bus was comfortable and the air-conditioning was very welcome. They
provide a bottle of water each and there is a rest stop (obligatory over
priced souvenirs optional) about half way to Ha Long.
Half way to Ha Long Bay rest stop
The scenery on the trip varied from inner city to small towns and rural rice
We were given a nice cabin and were soon under-way out into the bay. This is
a very picturesque area with limestone peaks jutting up out of the sea.
The boat is well equipped and fairly comfortable. There is a lower deck
comprising mainly of cabins, a middle deck where the main restaurant and a
few other cabins are located and an upper deck with wooden lounges and an
undercover area with seats and tables.
V Sipirt Halong Bay tour
Lunch was served as we motored along and it was difficult to concentrate on
eating with such dramatic scenery passing by outside. There was a strong
urge to abandon the food and rush outside with a camera.
The food was plentiful and good but what I would term 'tourist safe' there
were no really strong Asian flavours or hot spices. I suppose these sort of
tours have to play safe when it comes to food.
After lunch the boat anchored up and some kayaks materialised. We then
paddled out from the boat and through a tunnel into a secluded bay. Very
impressive rock formations and almost mythical scenery here.
Once we were back on the main boat, we motored off to a small sandy beach
where those fit enough (not us) climbed to the top of a peak for the view
and others swam in the sea.
Ha Long Bay - Vietnam
Back on board and it was time for a quick shower before dinner was served.
again the food was good, far more than could be eaten and again it was safe
flavours. We were sharing a table with a couple of nurses from Tasmania and
we enjoyed their company. In the end it was about 10pm before we had a look
at the bow of the boat where you could fish for squid.
The squid were minuscule and the squid jigs a bit odd but one determined
soul did actually catch one. We then went to the top deck to just sit and
watch the lights of the other boats around us. A beautiful end to a somewhat
When we finally crawled off to bed we found the mattress nice and
comfortable. The air-conditioning was good (although it is shut off at 5am
so that the hot water heaters can be turned on) and the shower was nice and
We woke fairly early the next day and the air was nice a clear. It was
perfect for taking a few more photos of the boats around us and the scenery.
A few of the boats had put up their sails which made a very attractive
Those with the inclination can join a Tai Chi class to start the morning off
with a bit of exercise.
After breakfast it was time to visit a cave. The walk up to the cave proved
too much for my bad knees and I had to come back down instead of continuing.
Belle went on and saw the whole thing but it is a long walk up some pretty
steep steps so is only really recommended for fairly fit people.
Once back on the boat we had time to relax a bit and remove personal items
from the cabin at 9:30am before a morning cooking class taught how to make
spring rolls and you get to eat what you make.
Transfer to shore from the V Spirit boat
Another rest on the top deck just soaking up the atmosphere before lunch and
finally transfer back to the port where the bus waited to take us on the
long trip back to Hanoi.
We had a different bus on the way back to Hanoi and I think this one didn't
have such good suspension and my back started to complain. Looks like
tomorrow will have to be a rest day or the next excursion would be at risk.
Most people wouldn't have a problem but my back is already bad and the bumpy
road caused quite a few sharp intakes of breath on the way back.
This was a great trip even if it was a bit tiring. In general terms I would
rate it 8/10 overall and 10/10 as value for money.
We arrived back at our hotel in Hanoi about 5pm so it was a very full 2 day
The crew on the boat were all very helpful and pleasant and we have only got
nice things to say about the whole experience.
If you want to book one or more tours in Vietnam we
highly recommend you speak to Thu (pronounced Too) Trinh at Dragonfly
Thu operates her own travel advisory service and can put
you on to some of the best tours at very good prices.
Dragonfly Travel's website has a heap of information
about travelling in Vietnam and you can book online.
Thu provides a personalised service and can help you
design a tour to suit your needs. If you need airport to hotel transfers,
Thu can organise those for you as well, at prices better then you will get
from a hotel or taxi company.
There are many attractions around Hanoi city and we only
managed to see a few while we were there. Most of the more official tourist
sites that seem to be government operated only charge a very small fee for
entrance. Some places will also charge a little extra to allow you to take
photographs but usually entry comes to about $1.50 Au per head.
Hoan Kiem Lake is a popular place for locals and tourists
alike and across a short wooden bridge you will find the Ngoc Son Temple.
This is only a small temple but as it is located on a small island it is an
oasis of calm in a sea of traffic chaos.
A little south east of Hoan Kiem Lake is what is known as
the French Quarter. Here there are a host of old colonial buildings like the
Opera House, History Museum and Women's Museum.
We spent a little time in the History Museum, which is
the sort of place that is ideal to visit on a rainy day. The building itself
is probably more impressive than the collection it houses but entry is cheap
and if you are interested in the history of Vietnam then it is a good place
to spend a couple of hours.
The History Museum is in fact two separate buildings and
you have to pay separate entry to each one.
South west of Hoan Kiem Lake is Hoa Lo Prison. This was
built in colonial times by the French and was used to imprison Vietnamese
revolutionaries. During the Vietnam War the prison was used to hold captured
American servicemen, mostly pilots who christened the place the 'Hanoi
Apparently what remains of the prison is only a small
portion as most was destroyed during the war. It is still an interesting
place to wander through and although it is only a shadow of its former self,
you can get some small appreciation of how bad the conditions inside must
have been for those imprisoned there.
The Vietnamese people are justifiably proud of their
hard-won independence and many of the museums in Hanoi focus a great deal on
that struggle. I suspect the warming relationship between the USA and
Vietnam has seen a great toning down of anti-American rhetoric that was once
present. Although the Vietnam war was the most recent conflict and was far
more damaging to the Vietnamese people than the anti-colonial struggle with
the French, it is the Vietnamese-French conflict that seems to be given more
attention these days.
Going further west from Hoa Lo will bring you to the
Temple of Literature. This was the first university in Hanoi and dates back
to the 9th century AD.
The temple is quite large and is very impressive. The
tranquil (well almost tranquil if you ignore the traffic noise outside)
gardens are a place of peace and reflection in the madness that is Hanoi.
While we were visiting we were lucky enough to be there
on a day where some sort of graduation was taking place and there were
students dressed in traditional Vietnamese costume all over the place having
their photographs taken.
There are some good souvenir shops in this temple and the
prices are generally lower than you will find in other more commercial
The last major tourist attraction we visited in Hanoi was
the Army Museum. This was (from a purely male perspective) the most
interesting place of all.
The museum has a collection of military vehicles
including armoured personnel carriers, tanks, anti-aircraft platforms,
aeroplanes and a couple of American helicopters including the massive
Chinook dual rotor chopper.
Next to the museum is the much older flag tower which
just happens to be a good vantage point to take pictures of the aircraft,
buildings and vehicles of the museum.
There are a host of other places to see in Hanoi. Some of
the ones we missed out on include the Water Puppet Theatre, Women's Museum,
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
Ngoc Son Temple
Maison Centrale, Hoa Lo or Hanoi Hilton
Temple of Literature
Up-market food - Dim sum at the Fortuna Hotel
Dim Sum buffet for Sunday Lunch
Plenty to choose from
Ok so I have to be honest, I really didn't find the food
in Vietnam to be anything special. Some was good, some was average but I
didn't really come across anything that was so fantastic that I will always
I am a great fan of Thai, Indian, Chinese and Malay food
but somehow I found Vietnamese food to be a bit insipid.
We tried quite a few different types of food from
up-market dim-sum at the Fortuna Hotel (about $23 Au a head) to small
restaurants with clean fresh surroundings right down to quite grubby places
and even some street food.
No we didn't try Pho that everyone carries on about as we
are not 'soup people'.
We did finally find a place that serves the supposedly
famous egg coffee. It can't be that famous because not too many locals seem
to have heard of it. It was ok but really it is nothing but frothy egg white
and sugar spooned on top of some strong coffee. It was actually more fun
finding the place that makes it, than it was actually drinking it.
The dim sum we had was good quality, more or less the
same as we are used to getting in Perth. It was far cheaper than we can buy
in Australia but a very expensive meal for anyone living in Vietnam.
One of the best spots we found was a little corner bar
just down the road from our hotel. It is located on the corner of Hang
Phen and Hang Ga streets. It is not the place with the red lanterns, it is
the one n the other side of the road with a few tables and chairs right by
the edge of the road.
This place is popular with tourists and if you are into
hygiene you had better NOT go inside and look around. Even so it serves some
of the best fried rice (we had the beef) we have had anywhere and most of
the other dishes we tried here were great too. The only thing we would not
recommend are the spring rolls. The draught beer tastes good and is less
than $1 Au a glass.
It is not a place to sit and relax as the traffic rushes
past sometimes just a foot or two from your table. This is the sort of place
you go to experience the real Hanoi; grubby, noisy, stressful but always
interesting. Passing hawkers will pester you to buy things, the shoe shine
boy will clean your shoes for just a dollar and you can watch the newcomers
to Hanoi trying vainly to cross the road at the crosswalk just in front of
We tried the Doner kebabs from little carts on Hang Chieu
Street. These were especially nice although hardly authentic Vietnamese
cuisine. At about $1.25 Au each they were amazing value too.
The night market food on Hang Duong Street was a bit
disappointing as there rally wasn't much variety. The pork satay was ok but
not as good as in Malaysia. The fried bready things were interesting but
over priced and other meat filled bread styled items were ok but that's all.
Sadly before we got to try any of the desserts available,
a huge rainstorm came in and the market experience evaporated as everyone
ran for cover or got soaked though.
We didn't get round to trying the fried eel and there was
no way we were going looking for any of the more exotic (or disgusting)
foods available in Hanoi. Maybe we were just unlucky and didn't go to the
right places or maybe we have been spoiled by eating too well at home, but
for us the food in Vietnam was good but not brilliant.
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