Travelling Vietnam – Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

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The MacInnes family – apart from brother Campbell – take on Cambodia and Vietnam for a family holiday that will sure to bring a lot of laughs, a lot of arguments and a lot of drinking.


Hot tip, try to get a mid-morning or afternoon flight for international. It was a 4am start for a 6:50am flight from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh, although we did see the sunrise after seeing it set the night before. When we arrived at the airport, it wasn’t even open.


Another small plane and in a short time we arrived in Ho Chi Minh to get another flight to Hanoi to start our Intrepid South Bound tour.

Vietnam - Visa

On arrival to Ho Chi Minh, for Australian’s, you will need to get your visas sorted. Before we left we paid to get what we thought was our visas, however, it was just our approval letter. So we still needed to pay $25USD each for our visa approval, click above.


Anyway, it wasn’t far until Hanoi and the time goes fast when you have an emergency exit seat. They legit look at the size of us and Dad and then ask if the emergency is okay, yes of course it is!

First impressions of Hanoi? From the airport, clean and more of a city culture. Upon investigation, busy, very busy my god and not as clean! So Hanoi is where we started our Intrepid South Bound Tour, the hotel Hong Ngoc Cochinchine Hotel was fairly central, clean but the streets are very loud at night.


One hiccup along the way? Dad who pressed 2 on the safe in the room, then locked it again until we had to get assistance from staff to come and reset the safe, good work Wayno. Our first day in Hanoi was definitely a family test.


So before starting the tour, it makes sense to explore. I read about a restaurant called Bun Cha Ta known for amazing food, so off on a goose chase towards the Old Quarter.

Shops, motorbikes and people everywhere, it is actually nuts, but I surprisingly like it! The Hoan Kiem Lake is just stunning, right in the heart of what I assume is the busiest parts of Hanoi.


Okay so a few wrong streets and Mum slipping on water and hitting the deck (not funny but funny) and we finally found the place! It was small, a lot of the restaurants were small, you either eat upstairs or low to the ground.


The food at Bun Cha Ta was incredible. I had the grilled pork with rice noodles and shared fried spring rolls with Mum, we sat under the table which was at ground level and the waitress would literally scream your order downstairs, love it!


After exploring a few back streets and a look around the lake and it was time to head back, through the horrendous crossings and to our hotel. When you want to cross the road, put your hand out and cross. Bikes will dodge you, cars will stop, buses might not so just wait for those!


The streets of Hanoi are filled with shops so close together and the streets are so narrow most of them are just built for motorbikes. Meeting our tour at the hotel we did introductions and all that jazz, but it was good to see a mixture of nationalities and age groups. These type of tours are great because we had a local guide, Nhi our leader was fantastic!


Meeting everyone when on tours it is also good to opt for the group activities (at the start anyway), especially to get to know everyone and the local culture. After our first meeting, it was an optional trip to a local restaurant, great food I highly recommend if you want to start with a small taste of Vietnam.


A few of us went for the shared meal at Yin & Yang and it was fantastic! We had spring rolls, papaya salad with prawns, pork in betel leaves, make your own fish springs rolls, just to name a few.


Ha Long Bay was our second official destination with our Intrepid group. A four-hour bus trip with a stop two hours in. To make it go a little quicker, our leader, Nhi taught us a lot about Hanoi, Vietnam and Ha Long Bay.


Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam within the city is seven million motorbikes! Can you actually imagine how busy that city is with seven million motorbikes? Let alone cars and everything else!


Buying land in Hanoi is expensive so that is why everyone had skinny houses but they built up to make it big enough to host the whole family, grandparents included. Usually, the eldest son looks after his mother and father once he starts his own family in the Vietnamese culture. Campbell, that means you too.


Towards the Yung Province and heading closer to Ha Long Bay is where the towns become less developed as we stopped at the ceramic warehouse to look at how they make ceramic items from pots to houseware. It takes around 10 minutes for the workers to paint on a medium sized pot and then they are dipped into white paint to bring out the colours while they cook at over 1000 degrees in the kiln.


Some fun facts about Vietnam we learnt along the way, 96 million people live there! Asking how old someone is isn’t offensive and in 20 years there will be way more boys than girls so marriage will be harder for the boys and the girls will have loads of options, go gals!


One thing we did notice along our journey, lots and lots of karaoke bars. So if you want to make a stop, have a go. It is one of their favourite leisure activities in Vietnam.

Vietnam - Visa

Finally we arrive at Ha Long Bay, now popular from the movie Skull Island, but still so beautiful it brings tourists in no matter what. At one given time they are only allowed 200 boats to spend the night.


The legend of Ha Long Bay means descending dragon, dragon means power and the story told is that dragons were sent from the Gods to help defend the land from the enemy so dragons came down and dropped the rocks, which now form the limestone islands, nearly 2,000 of them. But really they were formed from shifts in the earth plates.


The boat we stayed on for the night was called Bien Ngoc, one of the traditional Vietnamese junk boats. Bedrooms downstairs, some upstairs with the dining room and an open roof up top. It was beautiful and the rooms so comfortable, even with a bathroom included in each. One pretty fancy boat!


As part of our stay lunch and dinner was included on the first day and breakfast before we got off. The chef was very creative and produced a lot of dishes with food art. The food was good and that view from the boat of Ha Long Bay is breathtaking.



It takes two hours to get to our stop to anchor for the night and in this time you eat, relax and take in that scenery, although we had quite a foggy day it was still beautiful.



A little rain didn’t ruin our parade so we set off to Ti-Top islands for a swim and a walk to the gorgeous lookout that gave 360-degree views of the many islands that is Ha Long Bay. Many tourists swarm this island but you will know why it’s so popular. Apparently, I was also popular with many Chinese tourists asking to take photos with me, next time I’ll be charging money.


An optional extra was the ability to go kayaking and definitely one I opted in for. So off we went before sunset. My kayak partner, a Canadian girl named Caroline, and I had it down pat. Through the cave into an open area surround by islands was where we headed.


Chinese tourists filled this area on bigger rowboats as we kayaked through trying not to run into them. The monkeys on the islands were hanging out for food, which we were given before we took off.


Once the bigger boats cleared it was so peaceful. We attempted to throw carrots to monkeys higher on the islands but failed to throw that far, definitely didn’t have a good aim. The monkey wasn’t happy.


As we continued to kayak we realised we were the only ones in the area and everyone had gone back through the cave to our transport boat, oops!

The evening in the boat was spent freshening up, eating a beautiful dinner including more food art and enjoying a cocktail for 10 or for Dad a beer or 50 – well $150 worth to be exact and the drinks were cheap. The bar staff even laughed every time he went back for another beer.


Sleeping on the bay, what a peaceful and beautiful night.


Waking up on the water is truly amazing. Before breakfast, it was a visit to Hang Sung Sot or ‘surprise caves’. These caves are more than 20 million years old and over time have risen from the ocean. Such a beautiful walk through the caves where you go deep inside to see all the stalagmites and stalactites which grow 0.3cm each year, now they are massive showing how old these caves really are!


At the top of the caves are stunning views and another angle of the bay. Next activity, breakfast time before we head back to the marina, so it was time to relax. It is in these moments you really do understand how it is one of the amazing wonders of the world.


Heading back to Hanoi we stopped for lunch the Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre. The centre gives work to those with disabilities, especially those impacted by the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam War. They make hand sewn pictures which look amazing, you can even buy massive marble gardens ornaments to be shipped back home, wherever you are in the world.


It was a long bus ride before we finally reached Hanoi with four hours to spare before heading on the overnight train to Hue. We opted for the street food walking tour hosted by a local Intrepid/Urban Adventures guide. I highly highly recommend this one. All up we stopped at five different street food vendors but we also learnt so much about the city and saw more than we would have on our own in a short time.


Like did you know the street names in the Old Quarter of Hanoi are named after what they would sell in the street? Like one street meant paper where they would sell paper items. Especially when someone dies, they would buy an item they wish for them to have in heaven in paper form and burnt it on their birthday or death anniversary, for instance, nice clothes in paper form or a nice car. Amazing how they celebrate those who passed away and how they honour them.


As part of the tour, we got banh mi from Hoa near the Dong Xuan market, such a fresh baguette and just amazing. We saw the markets and all the weird and wonderful things they sell. Then it was onto banh cuon at 12-14 Hang Ga – Hoan Kiem (this is the address), or otherwise known as rice pancakes, also delicious.


Walking around the city we walked along the train tracks to get to our next food location. People no joke live one metre away from the tracks! As we were walking a train came. A lady let us go upstairs of her cafe to see it drive past.



Next stop main course, bun cha at Dac Kim. Very similar to the one we had day one but the pork had some different flavours, very nice I love that dish, my favourite for the night. Also, the sister restaurant to the one Barack Obama went to.


Walking around the streets we ended up at the cathedral where we had our next dish. The guide got it from an alleyway food vendor and it was fermented pork sausage. Such a bizarre texture, it was very sticky but had a lot of flavours. Probably wouldn’t eat it again.



Last two courses, dessert. Vietnamese have a lot of fruit for dessert so we had a fruit salad from Hoa Beo, we sat on those tiny chairs which were impossible to get up off but the fruit was yum with condensed milk and coconut cream, except the papaya, not a fan. Have a laugh at the thought of Dad getting down that low, or see it below.



The Old Quarter was mostly closed to traffic because of the weekend market but the streets were filled with people. Our final stop was egg coffee in this cafe hidden at the back of a shop called Cafe Pho Co.


We headed up many flights of stairs to an amazing view of the lake and the city, in the distance there was a place called Twilight Skybar which looked good too! But the egg coffee, yum I’m hooked! It was amazing, you need to try this in Hanoi!


When the French took over Vietnam they had coffee (grown in Vietnam) but no milk, because the Vietnamese don’t do a lot of dairy. So they got an egg and inside it put a sweetener like honey and a bit of alcohol like vodka and shook it up to whip the egg, then poured it into the coffee, delicious it’s a must try! Our guide did say Melbourne is the only other place apart from Vietnam he has heard have it. I’ll be hunting that down and will keep you posted on that.

Then it was on our bikes, not literally, but on our feet back to our hotel. The market was crazy, so much food and products to buy, I would have liked to check that out but we had a train to catch.

Back to the hotel and off to the train for our overnight stay.


Okay, thoughts on Hanoi? Busy! Like really busy! How long would I stay? Probably maximum two nights with one full day to explore with a little extra time either side. It is a big and busy city but I think you can really get time to try some food and look around the Old Quarter in one full day. The streets are incredible how small and busy they are. But that egg coffee is a must try oh and bun cha!


Ha Long Bay? One of the most amazing places you will ever visit. Don’t do a day tour, do the overnight stay on the boat for the best experience you can get. I loved every single minute of it.




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Read more:

Travelling Vietnam – Hue and the overnight train

Vietnam - Visa


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