Vietnam is charming, beautiful and enchanting with a unique blend of western and eastern cultures. My brother’s family of four and I spent Christmas in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. We had a fabulous time.
Vietnam has a long continuous history dating as far back as around half a million years ago and a cultural history of over 20,000 years. It has been governed by a series of foreign powers in North Vietnam including China for over 1,000 years. Several Indianized civilisations particularly the Funanese and the Chams, flourished in the central and southern Vietnam.
Ngo Quyen (King of Vietnam) (939-944) restored sovereign power in the country. In the next millennium, a series of imperial dynasties rose and fell. Vietnam was ravaged and divided by civil wars and repeated attacked by the Chinese, Dutch, French and the Americans. The conquest by France began in 1858 and was completed in 1884 when it became part of French Indochina in 1887.
Nationalism began to emerge in early 20th century. Vietnamese communists under Ho Chi Minh organised a coalition of anti-colonial groups when the country was under Japanese occupation during WWII. Ho announced the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 1945.
France was unwilling to leave and a guerrilla war between the communist-led Viet Minh on one side and the French and their anti-communist nationalist allies on the other lasted for eight years. Following a defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, France and other parties entered peace talks with the communist government. Under the Geneva Accords of 1954, Vietnam was divided into the Communist North and anti-Communist South along the 17th parallel. The agreement also called for an election to be held by July 1956 to bring the two provisional zones under a unified government. On October 26, 1955 South Vietnam declared itself the Republic of Vietnam. The guerrillas in the south began an armed campaign against officials and villagers who refused to support the communist reunification cause.
With US economic and military aid, South Vietnam grew through the 1960s. Guerrilla warfare raged on resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. In early 1975 North Vietnamese forces began a major offensive in the south taking Saigon on April 30. On July 2, 1976, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (north) absorbed the former Republic of Vietnam (south) to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
There was however no peace after reunification. Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in 1978 and a border war with China broke out in 1979. Vietnam’s tensions with its neighbours and its stagnant economy, forced collectivization and re-education policies and fear of persecution resulted in a massive exodus of refugees as well as economic migrants. It is estimated that as many as 1.5million ‘Vietnamese boat people’ fled. The communist government gradually eased its agrarian and commercial policies and has adopted a more market-oriented economy in the last two decades.
Vietnam with a population of some 90 million has a land area of 310,070 square kilometres and a water area of 21,140 square kilometres. It also has a long coastline of over 33,000km. Its nominal GDP was US$120.8 billion (2011 est.). But the GDP (PPP) and GDP per capita (PPP) was estimated to be US$300 billion and US$3400 respectively.
December 23, Sunday: Hong Kong – Guangzhou, China (GMT+8) – Hanoi, Vietnam (GMT +7)
We decided to go to Hanoi in November. As package tours were too expensive and the dates did not suit us, we decided to fly from the Baiyan Airport in Guangzhou, booked hotels in Hanoi and a 3-day trip to Ha Long Bay. It worked out well.
Lawrence and his family (Sally, and two children, Wai Leuk and Lili) and I left home at 3:30pm. We joined a huge crowd to cross the border at Lowu and took a fast train to Guangzhou at 5:27pm. The ticket is 80Yuan and we arrived in Guangzhou at 6:45pm. After a light dinner, we took the mass transit train to the Baiyun Airport. The journey took another 45minutes. I find the new airport modern, better designed and more use-friendly than the airport in Pudong, Shanghai and Beijing.
We arrived in Hanoi at 11:30pm. The immigration service at the airport was far from satisfactory. It took us about half an hour to go through the immigration. We jumped into a taxi but the taxi driver did not really know the way in the Old Quarter.
Lawrence booked two hotels near the Hoan Kiem Lake. He and Sally stayed at Hanoi Imperial Hotel while Wai Leuk, Lili and I stayed at Hanoi Old Hotel nearby. Though our hotel is small and basic, it is neat and comfortable with old-fashioned furniture. We also had a view of the lake. By the time I went to bed, it was almost 3am!
December 24, Monday (Christmas Eve): Hanoi
We were tired and did not get up till 10:30am and had a brunch. We went to the bank and got about 20,000 dong (VND) for one US dollar.
I was on an organized tour to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in 2008. Though I had spent two nights in Hanoi, I still have a long list of things to do. Unfortunately, most of the museums including the Ho Chi Minh House and Mausoleum were closed.
For me, the best thing to do is to wander aimlessly and get lost in the Old Quarter. In the past, there were “36 Old Streets” each of which was known for a special craft i.e. Hang Bac (Silver Street), Hang Bong (Cotton Street), Hang Ma (Paper Offering Street) etc. This area is a precious legacy of Hanoi’s ancient past. This is the most vibrant and busy area in Hanoi filled with small hotels and hostels and eateries. Pedestrians, motor-bikes and cars riders all have to fight their way through.
The area is still filled with beautiful but run-down buildings of the colonial era. Some of the buildings have been renovated and turned into hotels, restaurants and shops. But many remain the same as I first saw them in 2008. The street scene is always lively. I am glad many Vietnamese are still living and leading their normal life there. But I hate noises from cars and motorbikes which are deafening and most irritating.
Sally found some beautiful cards and we spent half an hour bargaining and choosing cards. Then we reached the Quan Chuong Gate (East Gate) and found a decent noodle place. After lunch, we arrived at the Dong Xuan Market, the largest market in Hanoi. Lawrence was tired and went back to the hotel to take a rest. Sally went to the bank to exchange more money while I and the two youngsters continued with our stroll. We visited the Ba Da Pagoda and St Joseph Cathedral before returning to the hotel at 5pm.
All hotels were hosting Christmas reception for their guests. We first went to the party hosted by our hotel at 6:30pm and had spring rolls, cold noodles, sausages, salad etc. Then at 7:30pm we went to the Imperial Hotel to have our second Christmas party with more food and wine.
After taking a rest, I took Wai Leuk and Lili out at 11:30pm to the St Joseph Cathedral. It was dark and we almost got lost. Fortunately, we got there just in time and heard the bells ringing at midnight. The mass was held outdoor and there must be thousands of people. The crowd was in a joyful and happy mood: some people were sitting on small stools having beer and food while others were praying and watching the mass. But litters were everywhere.
December 25, Tuesday (Christmas): Hanoi – Ha Long Bay
We got up before 7am and waited for our guide by 8am. Duan did not arrive till 8:30am. We had a smooth journey and arrived at the pier at Ha Long Bay at midday.
Ha Long Bay is the most iconic and touristy spot in Vietnam. Situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, it has some 1600 islands and islets forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars (known as a drowned karst landscape with fengcong (clusters of conical peaks) and fenglin (isolated tower features) karst features). The smaller islands are fenglin towers, many with vertical walls on all or most sides of 50m to 100m high. Most of the islands are uninhabited. Ha Long Bay also possesses a tremendous diversity of caves.
Our bus dropped us off at a modern marina planked by luxurious houses and penthouses. While we were waiting for a tender to take us to our boat Ha Long Phoenix Cruiser, a boat crushed into another boat at the pier! It was fortunate that no passenger was hurt.
Ha Long Phoenix Cruiser has 14 comfortable rooms with facilities. It is similar to the one I stayed in 2008. But this time, the bay was crowded with hundreds of boats of all sizes. The weather was disappointing too: it was grey, windy and cold.
We had a good lunch on the way to Sung Sot (Surprising Cave). I was amazed to find hundreds of visitors lining up outside the small entrance. But I must give credit to the management for keeping the cave tidy, clean and safe for millions of visitors to the cave.
The next stop was the Ti Top Island. Lawrence had hurt his back and decided to skip a hike to the peak. I took Sally and the children to the top for an eye-bird view of the bay before joining Lawrence for a cold dip. I was surprised that Lili who had poor health as a baby has grown into a healthy teenager. She was brave and swam with us!
We had Christmas dinner on the boat with plenty of seafood. Unfortunately my room was just above the engine room and I could not stand the noise. Lili and I had to move to Wai Leuk’s room next door and arranged him to sleep on a mattress on the floor. (I mentioned the problem to the guide the next day and told him that his company should not arrange guests to stay in that room. We did not get any refund).
December 26, Wednesday (Boxing Day): Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Island
The second day of our 3-day trip to Ha Long Bay was fantastic. We got up early and set off with six other passengers in a smaller boat at 8:30am. After an hour’s journey, we arrived in a beautiful area without any boat around! We kayaked for two hours! Wai Leuk took another dip – good for him!
Wai Leuk took another dip – good for him! We had a sumptuous and the best meal of the whole trip with prawns, clams, squids, fish and spring rolls. John, a Belgian, is very generous and brought three bottles of Vietnamese red wine for all of us including the crew. We had a great time.
At midday, we had a sumptuous and the best meal of the whole trip with prawns, clams, squids, fish and spring rolls. John, a Belgian, is very generous and brought three bottles of Vietnamese red wine for all of us including the crew. We had a great time.
Five of us and three Canadian ladies (Chris, Jill and Tara) took another boat and set off for Cat Ba Island, the second largest island in Vietnam.
Our boat took 45 minutes to arrive in Cat Ba port passing through a most scenic mariculture area. A minibus took us to an eco-lodge close to the Cat Ba National Park. We had three comfortable rooms. I went to bed before 11pm and had a wonderful sleep!
December 27, Thursday: Cat Ba Island – Hai Phong City – Hanoi
We and set off for a 2-hour hike in the Cat Ba National Park in the morning. The 1.3-km trail to a hill top is relatively easy.
After a shower and a good lunch, we left the Eco-lodge for the Cai Vieng Pier. We took a fast ferry at 2pm and arrived at 2:45pm in Hai Phong, the third largest city in Vietnam. A minibus took us back to Hanoi and we arrived in a hotel in the Old Quarter before 6pm.
On the recommendation of Duan, we went to a local eatery nearby famous for its beef noodle soup. I was hungry and had two bowls! Lawrence loves seafood and we went to another street eatery and spent over 1 million VND on two fresh crabs, a lobster and two bowls of seafood congee (i.e. about US$50).
We saw a water-puppet show at 9:15pm. The theatre was full but I find the show disappointing. The one I saw in Ho Chi Minh City in 2008 was fabulous in a nicer and more traditional setting.
December 28, Friday: Hanoi, Vietnam – Guangzhou, China – Hong Kong
We got up before 6am and took a taxi for US$19 to the airport. Our flight left on time at 8:35am and we arrived in Guangzhou before 11am.
I noticed a bus would be leaving for Futian, Shenzhen at 11:30am. Hence we rushed to catch the bus and arrived in Futian around 2pm. We had a good lunch, took a local bus to Lowu (as we could not find a taxi), crossed the border and took the MTR. I arrived home at 5:30pm.
It was my second visit to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I had a surprisingly good time.
Second, we had four full but relaxing days. We enjoyed kayaking and hiking in the Cat Ba National Park. The Eco-lodge is quiet and comfortable.
Third, Hanoi remains charming and relaxing. We enjoy strolling in the Old Quarter and people-watching. Locals are busy though the ladies still look relaxed and graceful when preparing or carrying food on their shoulder or serving their customers. Street eateries are full of people sitting on stools, drinking beers, eating noodles, all sorts of snacks and seafood.
Fourth, we all find the beef noodles delicious!
Vietnam is still a destination of great value for tourists of all budgets. We stayed in 3- star hotels which are clean and comfortable and provide free wifi. The staff is friendly and helpful.
I notice that more infrastructural developments, factories and houses have been built since my last visit in 2008. People in Hanoi seem more affluent and the houses look smarter. But the city is facing the usual problems associated with urbanization and economic development. Air pollution is a problem: the city was covered with smog during my stay. Traffic and the sound pollution which ruin the tranquility of the city are other pressing problems. It is important for the Hanoi local government to strike a balance between development/redevelopment and conservation and preservation of the Old Quarter.
The same is true for Ha Long Bay which is overflowing with boats and visitors particularly in a few locations. I wonder whether the authorities have an overall management plan with an optimal number of boats and visitors to be allowed in the area a day. This is important to preserve its tranquility and beauty as well as its eco-system. I am glad that we had picked the right cruise which took us away from the crowd the second day. Once our boat left the main tourist route, I find the seascape enchanting and unearthly beautiful. The tourism authority should work out a sustainable management plan in order not to destroy this unique World Heritage Site.