Hanoi and North Vietnam

After a happy year based in Ghana, we decided it was time to do more travelling.  (As the song says, there’s such a lot of world to see.)  Vietnam and Cambodia had been high on our list of ‘must see’ places for some time, so we decided to undertake a two-month tour of SE Asia.

On 24th October we flew to Hanoi via Singapore. We flew to Singapore in an A380, which gave us a taste of Claire’s working environment. On our way from Hanoi airport to the city, we noticed a characteristic feature of Vietnamese architecture: houses and other buildings tend to be very tall and thin.  While based in Hanoi we did a number of separate trips – to Ha Long Bay, the Sa Pa area, and the Perfume Pagoda.

Skinny Vietnamese buildings


Hanoi is a beautiful city, with picturesque lakes, old streets and interesting temples and pagodas. The main problem is the traffic, especially the 4 million motorbikes which rush everywhere regardless of pedestrians and make crossing the road a near-death experience. Walking on the pavements is impossible, because of all the parked motor bikes and the goods on sale, spilling out from the shops. We noticed that, unlike in Ghana where people carry loads on their heads, in Vietnam they tend to carry them in two large baskets suspended from a long pole on their shoulder.

New and old in Hanoi

We did a couple of long walks through the city, seeing the central lake (Hoan Kiem) and a number of temples and pagodas, as well as Ho Chi Minh’s home and a big new museum dedicated to him. We also saw an incredibly long wall of mosaics (longest in the world, apparently) and took out a pedalo on the large WestLake.

Entrance gates to temple on Hoan Kiem Lake

Big gong at the Temple of Literature

There’s miles of mosaics like these!

Swan boats and a dragon boat on West Lake

Pagoda on West Lake

We went to a couple of performances, including the water puppet show – unique to Vietnam – where the operators stand in water behind a screen. The other was a recital of Ca Tru music in a restored historic house – it was interesting, but the music itself is unlikely to appeal strongly to western ears.

The Water Puppet Theatre

Ca Tru music recital

Ha Long Bay

One of the excursions we took from Hanoi was to the famous scenery of Ha Long Bay. It was supposed to be a 2-day trip, staying overnight on a boat, but was cut down to one day due to an approaching typhoon. The weather was quite grey, which slightly reduced the impact of the amazing rock formations standing out of the water, but they were still well worth seeing. We also visited a cave on one of the islands, which was well lit with coloured lights but fairly crowded.

Ha Long Bay

Inside ‘Heaven’ cave in Ha Long Bay

Sa Pa trekking

We went by overnight train to SaPa, north-west of Hanoi and close to the border with China. This has impressive mountain scenery, and is visited by many tourists to hike through the hills and local villages. We did a one-day hike, followed by a two-day excursion, staying overnight in a village ‘homestay’ (a fairly basic hostel with a communal sleeping area upstairs). We were with a good multinational group on this trek, and we got on well together.

Looking towards Cat Cat village near Sa Pa

For our kiwi friends – getting your ducks in a row

Rice fields and mountains

Our group of intrepid trekkers

We had a few problems. One day the ‘footpath’ was virtually non-existent, and we had to scramble down some extremely steep and muddy slopes, with a constant fear of slipping. For much of the time our group was dogged by a bunch of local women who were trying to sell us stuff, and they were constantly watching us or getting in the way. But on the whole we thoroughly enjoyed the trekking experience. The scenery was magnificent, with tall hills and terraces of rice fields – quite unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Local women hot on our heels

View of the hills from Sa Pa in the evening

Perfume Pagoda

Another day trip from Hanoi involved a minibus ride and then one hour being rowed in a sampan up a river fringed by pink water lilies between towering limestone hills. This was extremely picturesque, and a unique experience. At the end we took a cablecar up a hill to visit a cave filled with Buddhist altars, which was supposed to represent Hell. We walked back down the hill, past a large number of closed-up gift stalls (the main pilgrim season is apparently spring) to reach another temple complex representing Heaven. From there we had another idyllic river cruise back to the bus.

Setting off on the river trip

Water lilies lining the banks

On the river

View from the top, close to the entrance to Hell

Heaven temple

Having seen the highlights of Hanoi, we will travel south by bus through Vietnam.

Moonrise over the temple in the lake at Hanoi – last night


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