Vietnam: Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hue
by Nina Farrimond | 24 August 2017
Vietnam is a country that's exploded in popularity for UK travellers recently but now really is the time to go as its government are allowing UK passport holders to stay visa-free for up to 15 days until June 2018.
My tour with Intrepid Travel went from North to South, taking in all the key points of interest. Explore Vietnam was great value for money, although there are very few excursions and meals are included so travellers have to factor in some extra cash. On a positive note, it means the money is being spent in the country with local people.
The tour began in the capital Hanoi. The city is very busy and mopeds line the pavements forcing pedestrians to dodge the moving traffic in the streets. I stayed in the Hoan Kiem District (known locally as the Old District) which is central for everything the city has to offer tourists, including the Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi dating back to the 6th Century, and Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French in the 18th Century to hold Vietnamese prisoners during the war. The latter is known locally as the Hanoi Hilton and is a must-see. The tour only included one night in Hanoi but this it can be extended to allow more time to explore.
Halong Bay is just a three to four hour bus ride away from Hanoi. Most tours, including mine, offer a night on a boat which takes you out to the so-called floating Islands. The onboard accommodation was very comfortable and the food served was delicious and included local seafood. Rooms have their own en suites with hot water showers and there’s a dining space and a viewing deck on top.
One of Seven Wonders of Nature, Halong Bay has almost 2,000 islands. Local legend has it that a mother dragon and her children came to Vietnam to support the local people. When they arrived they dropped fire pearls from their mouths which became islands. Invaders that attempted to attack the country by boat then crashed into the islands. The mother dragon and her children didn’t return to heaven and remain in the bay - In Vietnam the dragon is a symbol of luck, power and wisdom.
Due to the area now being one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature, there is a restriction in place as to where boats can sail and drop anchor overnight. The down side to this is that it feels a little congested at times - we were surrounded by around 15 boats when we dropped anchor for our overnight stay.
I was advised that other companies that are more expensive can provide a more personal experience in quieter locations. But no matter who you sail with, one thing you should recommend to your clients is a kayaking trip around the islands. An early morning paddle got me away from the hustle and bustle of the larger boats to enjoy a more peaceful setting.
Once back in Hanoi bags are collected from the hotel and it’s straight onto the train station to catch an overnight sleeper train to Hue. This city was the capital from 1802-1945, when Ho Chi Minh became president. The royal family that resided at the Imperial Citadel in Hue were the last royal family of the country and the then King was asked to become an advisor to the government.
The Imperial Citadel is a must see in Hue, as is the Thien Mu Pagoda, founded in 1601 making it the oldest in Hue. This was the temple of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who set himself on fire in Saigon on June 11 1963 to protest the excesses of president Diem’s Regime. The car he drove to Saigon is on show at the pagoda. It is said the only part of him that didn’t burn was his heart, and this is now in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. It is regarded as a symbol of compassion.
Other things to do in Hue include visiting the Royal Tombs, especially Tu Duc's. He ruled Vietnam from 1847-1883 and was a renowned romantic poet. Legand has it he ate 50 course meals and had 104 wives, but was unable to father any children. The tomb of Tu Duc is one of the architectural masterpieces of the Nguyen Dynasty and rightly a recognised World Cultural Heritage Site.
In the evening there was a chance to visit a local family's house for dinner and this is definitely something I’d recommend. Not only are you supporting local families financially, but you are experiencing real home-cooked Vietnamese food and having an authentic cultural experience with local people.
Check out the blog next week to hear about the rest of Nina's journey down to southern Vietnam.
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