Vietnam Travel Series: Hoa Lu - Tam Coc, Halong Bay, Exploring Hanoi
Part 1 // Arriving at Hanoi + Hoa Lu - Tam Coc
Everything in Vietnam is very honest.
From the curiosity of the driver who picked us up at the airport (“Where are you from? How long will you be here? Are you a family?”), to the gum-showing smile of the hotel receptionist, the exposed wiring of electricity lines and the admittance that "we don't speak good English" – Hanoi charms with its friendly people, and nonchalant display of its culture. “Vietnam is decades behind China, America,” our tour guide says, and the city delivers with old brick buildings, streets pebbled with occasional fluorescent shops, and polished boutique hotels. “But we are trying hard to catch up.”
Our tour guide, much like his various countrymen that we’ve met, deliver tidbits of information in the guise of questions. “Do you know how many motorcycles we have?” he asks as the bus navigated through a throng of motorcycles. “More than one per person! And do you know how many people live in Hanoi?”
There are three travel agencies alone on the street of our hotel, adorned with posters of Sapa, Hoa Lu - Tam Coc and Halong Bay tours. Most of the hotels here also provide tour arrangement services; ours helped arrange an itinerary that looked something like this:
Day 1: Hoa Lu – Tam Coc
Day 2: An overnight cruise at Halong Bay
Day 3: Return from Halong Bay + Puppet Show
Day 4: Free time to explore
Where we stayed: Emerald Waters Boutique Hotel.
One of the boutique hotels in the Old Quarter, Emerald Waters Boutique Hotel is in an extremely convenient location. A close walk away from the Hoan Kiem lake, Water Puppet Theatre, Shopping Street and Night Market, there’s plenty to see around the area.
The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. We were given cooling mango juice upon arrival, and quickly checked in and whisked up to our room. Our room looked like this:
Two standard double beds, a relatively quiet environment, enough space to lay out a few suitcases.
The hotel breakfast bar on the second floor has an array of western and local styled foods, and a ‘hot menu’ where you can order additional eggs, beef brisket noodles, pancakes and hot drinks. The dinner area is roped off in the mornings, located on the same floor as the breakfast bar. There’s also a spa & massage service located at the back of the lobby on the first floor.
Our 1st Full Day
I’d love to say I slept in every morning of our holiday, but reality saw me awake even earlier than my usual 7:30. Holidays ≠ more sleep because it’s time to E.X.P.L.O.R.E.
Before I could even process breakfast, I was on the tour bus toting us around for the day. We were among the last groups to be picked up for our trip out to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc. As we were driving around to the different hotels, all based in the Old Quarters, I had my first proper look at Hanoi. The strong sun illuminated the kick of dust and car exhaust, where roots of trees have eaten into brick and mortar buildings, clustered clumps of individual worn and torn, lined up against pops of color of newer structures. Cracked shop signs, their lettering still black and bold. The loud honking cars amid a sea of motorcycles was a chaotic but smooth mess – this is their everyday.
The journey out took hours, so a midway break was factored in. The rest stop was clearly pandered towards tourists because it didn’t only hold bathrooms and a concessionary area, but also an expansive gift shop that sold local food stuff, clothes (casual and traditional), therapeutic oils, other trinkets and – the most eye catching – paintings. Not just oil paintings though! These are thread woven, varying in sizes and colours, all depicting Vietnam in some way.
There are even workers threading the paintings in front of us, lined up in tables in rows of neat work spaces. An obvious tourist lure maybe, but undeniably attention holding.
Attraction: HOA LU – TAM COC
If you’re a lover of ancient history and architecture, you’ll love the first stop. Destination? The old capitol of Vietnam, home to the first and second kings.
We got off the bus to swallowing heat, and a wide open expanse of valley. The short bridge, large gateway and lingering space on the way to the temples built an extremely tranquil and isolated atmosphere.
Be sure to go with a tour guide or a knowledgeable local! The two temples are indistinguishable from other 'ordinary temples - because they're understated (beautiful, but still, far from ostentatious), you wouldn't have pictured them as a king's dwelling place. Mini history lessons by a tour guide helps give them a historical significance.
Next stop was a rather lackluster, buffet-style lunch. What comes after is a lot more exciting! Well, exciting probably isn't the right adjective...
The sampan river cruising was relaxing. If you ever need to just not think, this hour and something sampan ride removes you from city noise and your hustling life. Sure, it was hot. But when I focus on the heat on my back, and the cooling breeze (when any comes) on my sticky skin, I filter out everything but what's right in front of me. The rock formations, the low hanging tunnels, the winding water and rice patties, the slow glide of paddles.
I paired with a guy from the Netherlands whose son was working in Hanoi. Good company is also essential for a comfortable ride!
The only not so fun part of the sampan experience is the sellers at the mid-point of the trip; when you reach the turn around point, there are sampans loaded with snacks and drinks. Granted, everyone has to make a living and it’s not exactly expensive, but the pushiness reaaaaally puts you off. The rowers too, demand more tips than you’re ready to give, and in fact, start asking 5 minutes off from shore. (<-- That was the case for me, at least. Maybe you'll be luckier!)
We were then taken for a short bike ride past these glorious yellow wheat fields. Wheat kernels are scattered on the road sides to dry, taking up huge swaths of pavement. Our tour guide brought us into a small village, the meandering path rocky and narrow. The bikes really weren't made for everyone... you'll probably end up with a sore butt. It's worth the glimpse of the people's everyday lives though, so take it if the choice is given to you!
Ending the day
in an exhausted heap of happy! We immediately sat down for dinner once we got to the hotel.
Sorry, there aren't photos of the starter because I was way too hungry to wait! I really enjoyed this vegetable wrap (stuffed with grilled meat and peanuts) that was part of the starter, and the teriyaki chicken of the main dish was very tender (the skin was just so mhmmmmm after absorbing all the marinade!).
We then went out to look for phone cards (assuming there’d be no wifi on the cruise boat for the next leg of our trip) and after bargaining for a pair of sandals for dad, I retired back to the hotel first to shower off the day’s sweat and grime, while parents dearest stayed out a little longer.
It's been a long day after all!