After spending four nights in Hoi An (read about it here) we left our Hoi An hotel at 8am for a 10:05 flight to Hanoi. The new terminal in Danang is really very nice (though not sure what the old one was like). About 15 minutes before we should start boarding the plane there was an announcement over the loud speaker, “Vietnam Airlines regrets to inform you that flight 1508 to Hanoi…….will depart 10 minutes late.” We were all holding our breath, sure that such an important sounding announcement meant that they were going to be canceling the flight – to hear that it would be ten minutes late we almost broke out laughing – most airlines do not even let you know their leaving 10 minutes late!!!
We arrived in Hanoi and had the hotel van come pick us up. Much longer drive from the airport to the city center than I had been led to believe. We were staying at Hanoi Elegance Ruby (#4).
The Ruby is located down a narrow side street. The lobby is not large and very unassuming. So unassuming that I have to admit I wanted to be sure we were in the right location, so while we were waiting I googled Hanoi Ruby on my phone to look at the lobby pics!! Soon, however, they brought us delicious mango smoothies and the kind concierge showed us to our rooms, and I began to see why the Elegance chain gets such rave reviews. By far some of the best service anywhere!! Stephen and I had a junior suite and the kids had the family room/triple. The rooms were very large, nicely decorated and had fresh fruit delivered daily, plus we were given a bottle of wine to enjoy. Our room also had a couch, coffee table and a computer, and great wifi in the room. The entire staff spoke excellent English, and were extremely helpful and friendly.
At breakfast we were given a menu with all kind of western options along with pho. We could order anything and everything we wanted and it was included in our room price. Everything was made to order. The croissants and baguettes were particularly good!
After we settled in it was lunchtime so we looked through our list and talked to the concierge. We wanted something not too far away from the hotel so we chose Green Mango (18 Hang Quat St.). We had to admit that we thought it was an odd menu with Italian/western and Vietnamese items. However, we all ordered different things and the food was quite good.
We just walked around the city getting a feel for things and doing a bit of shopping.
We did stop at Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple. Definitely a calming place to get away from the crowds even in the middle of the day.
For dinner we went to Newday (72 Ma May). As we were walking there I decided I liked Hanoi better at night when things were not so crowded and crazy. Newday is a local Vietnamese restaurant with great food. Our young waiter was charming and enjoyed practicing his English on us. He was talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Then he said, “John McCain came here. He was in Vietnam in 1968 and stayed for four years”. We all kind of looked at each other and said, “yea that’s right……”
We were originally going to spend part of this day with a friend of a friend who was teaching English here, but about six weeks before the trip she decided to head home for Christmas. I contacted Hanoi Kids about four weeks before our arrival to book them, but they were already booked up!! So, today was our day to see a lot of the sites but we were going to do it on our own. We all agreed the night before that sleeping in was a priority rather than getting up early to wait in a long line to see HoChiMinh’s body, but we did want to at least see the mausoleum. We probably got there around 10am and when we did there was absolutely no line, so we figured what the heck and followed the way to go in and see Uncle Ho. I am glad we did (I was the only one who was willing to wake up early, because I wanted to do this anyway, but glad it worked out this way). The whole experience with the guards (you can not wear sunglasses going in or have your hands in your pockets), his body, the mausoleum was all fascinating.
After coming out, this is where we could have used a guide or at least someone to tell us what to see first in the HoChiMinh Complex – we ended up doing everything backwards than the way you should. We first went to the One Pillar Pagoda and then had to backtrack a bit to get over to the Presidential Palace.
The complex was about to close and I really wanted to see the stilt house, so we headed there first – It is right next to the Presidential Palace, but after you come out you can not head back to the Presidential Palace area, which of course I did not realize until after we came out. By the way, you do not have to pay to see the mausoleum but you do have to buy a ticket to the Presidential Palace. So, if going on your own, after you come out of mausoleum turn right to Presidential Palace area. Go first to Presidential Palace then to stilt house and then walk to One Pillar Pagoda. From there you will be close to where you entered the complex. Next up we walked to the Temple of Literature.
Interesting things were left at the altar.
There were lots of teenage girls in colorful ao dai with their dates – it almost looked like a pre-homecoming event.
We walked across the street to Craftlink, a nice handicraft store that is a non-profit organization which helps the people making the items. From everything I had read about it I thought it would be a much bigger store than it was. But it was very nice and had some lovely items. Also, I collect nativities and try to buy a nativity from every country we visit (not always easy to find) but this store had a sweet little nativity so I was very happy!!
From here we hailed a cab to take us to Ag Quon Nong (restaurant). As we were driving I could see the meter just spinning up the numbers really fast, and I thought – this guy is going to try and rip us off! When he got us to the restaurant he said it was 600,000 dong – about $30. Well, we obviously knew that was wrong, but he kept on insisting. Finally Stephen just gave him 100,000 dong – about $5.00 and walked away. That was probably still more than it should have been but it was easy to grab, throw and go!!
We had a great lunch of won ton soups, fresh rolls, Vietnamese pancakes, noodle dishes and other delicacies. Next up was Hoa Loi prison. Despite the fact that much of it is gone, we still found it very interesting as signs were all in English and we thought the museum well done with good exhibits. However, the propaganda about how well the American GIs were treated was a little over the top – memories of the pictures in Terezin outside of Prague.
Back to the room to rest, but I needed to head to a Vietnam Airlines office to change our tickets from Hanoi back to Saigon. I had originally planned to stay until the afternoon on our last day in Hanoi before flying back to Saigon, but I could tell that overall we were not wowed by Hanoi. We had discussed that we would rather spend most of our last day in Saigon where it was warmer, and we had a nice pool to relax in. Plus there was some last minute shopping we wanted to do there, so I wanted to change our flight from leaving at 4pm to leaving in the morning. I asked the concierge where I could go to get the ticket changed and he gave me very good directions to the Vietnam Airlines office and also details on what I needed to do when I got there (pick a number and then the number shows up on a screen when they are ready for you). This was my first trip out on the streets on my own. I found it easily and was able to take care of the change with no charge. Did some shopping on my way back.
Just want to stop here and reflect on the comment I made about Hanoi not “wowing” us. I do think Hanoi suffered a bit from what I call the “Florence Syndrome”. Our first trip to Italy we did Rome, Venice, Florence in that order, and honestly Florence did not “wow” us either, but to be fair I think sometimes at the end of the trip everyone is just a bit tired. Unless there is something particularly unique or you have an incredible experience, I think the last location can just suffer a bit from fatigue. So, I think that was partly why we did not love Hanoi or Florence.
Tonight we had dinner at the Hanoi Social Club (6 Hoi Vue). At first I did not really want to go here because it said it was mostly vegetarian, but then in reviews I read, people were also raving about their hamburger so we decided to give it a try. It was a fabulous meal and turned out to be one of our favorites. We started out with the leafy salad and the pumpkin salad. Not sure if it was because I had not had a salad in awhile or not but the leafy salad was excellent. The pumpkin salad was very good but very large and filling – definitely something to share or make it your entrée. Two of us had the burger, one the veggie burger, one the mango curry and one a cherry tomato pasta. For dessert we shared the chocolate cake with hazelnuts. Everything was delicious. The restaurant itself is on several levels with each level decorated a little differently. We were able to sit on the rooftop with our jackets – basically sat on a couch with chairs and food was on a coffee table. We had a fabulous evening and dinner.
8am pickup for our trip to Halong Bay. We booked directly through the Hotel for the Indochina Junk Red Dragon boat. We drove about 1.5 hrs before a stop at a major tourist spot where disabled people were making things. Yes, a tourist trap but they did have a lot of very clean bathrooms, and a huge store where you could buy almost anything including having clothes made by a tailor! I guess your clothes are ready on your way back from Halong Bay. They had a big snack area where you could buy western snacks – candy bars, cookies and chips – expensive but sometimes that is just what you are craving on a long drive. But what do you think this is?
We arrived at the dock at Halong Bay about 12:15, waited a few minutes before meeting our guide, “Popeye”, and were taken to a smaller skiff that took us to the Red Dragon II. We immediately loved the boat and all the fatigue from the trip and long drive was wiped away as everyone was super excited about this next adventure.
This is the Red Dragon II that we were on.
This is the Dragon Pearl. A bigger boat but also part of Indochina Junk’s fleet.
The boat is beautiful – just as the pictures show on the website. Our rooms were very nice – everything made of beautiful wood. The bathroom was actually a pretty good size considering you were on a boat.
The kids had a triple room that was quite large and ran the full width of the boat with a window on either side.
The Red Dragon has five rooms, we had two rooms and another family had the other three. It was actually a Vietnamese family, all adults, celebrating someone’s birthday. According to Popeye, it was very unusual to have a Vietnamese family on the trip, and they were truly honored.
We chose to sit outside for lunch. A bit chilly, but just wore our coats.
They handed us menus, we thought we were supposed to choose a dish, but it turned out we actually got all of them to share!! We had hot and sour soup, chicken salad, clams, squid, prawns, sea bass, vegetables and rice. We were all surprised the food was quite good.
About 3pm we anchored and took the skiff to an island where we walked around and visited a cave.
Then we went to the beach where you could relax or go kayaking. Unfortunately, the weather was just not warm enough to enjoy sunbathing on the beach. Holly and Michael tried their hand at kayaking, but just too cold to get too wet so they came back rather quickly.
The island appeared to be only for Indochina Junk boats so not too crowded.
We went back to the boat and rested in our rooms or on the deck.
Dinner was at 7pm. We ate inside because it just was not warm enough outside.
Another big meal with great food including mantis prawns, which were as big as lobster. A challenge to separate from its shell – but worth the trouble!! They were also always carving up fruit into beautiful displays.
After dinner the chef came out and played his guitar and sang for us. They tried to get us to sing too, but the VonTrapp or Jackson family we are not.
Breakfast was at 7:15. We ate outside and had Pho Gao (chicken noodle soup) and fried egg and toast. Then we went to the fishing village. There were young women waiting to take us through the village on a bamboo boat.
A nice visit through the islands and houses with a short stop at the school.
At the end was a stop to show us how they cultivate pearls as there was an oyster farm in the village. We did not buy anything there, but the Vietnamese family did – perhaps they knew something we did not about this being a good place to buy pearls.
Back to the Red Dragon, the sun was coming out and it was warm enough to layout on the lounge chairs reading. Lunch was about 11am. This time we were given a choice of two dishes out of four that we could have. Choices were scallops, prawns, beef or chicken.
Back to the dock around 11:45am. We all loved this trip despite the gray weather, and all agreed we need to come back when the weather is better and do the 2night/3 day trip. Our driver was a little late, did not arrive for about 40 minutes. Drove back to the hotel with a stop at ANOTHER large tourist stop – at least the bathrooms were clean!!
We arrived back in Hanoi about 4pm. We could not stay at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby again because they were booked up for that night so we were going to the Hanoi Elegance Sapphire. We had just brought an overnight bag on the Halong Bay trip and left our luggage at the Ruby, which they transferred over to the Sapphire for us. The Sapphire was just as great as the Ruby. Not too far from each other, still well located in the Old Quarter. I did think that the lobby was bigger at the Sapphire and definitely the elevator and the hallways were much larger. The breakfast was a buffet plus made to order eggs, omelettes, French toast and Pho. Our room had a nice glass covered terrace and our bathroom was also much larger, though I did not care for the style of plumbing features.
After we arrived back in Hanoi we did some last minute shopping before our dinner at La Badiane (10 Nam Ngu), a great French restaurant. Our dinner there was excellent. For appetizers we had eggplant, carpaccio and foie gras. Lauren had the tuna for her entrée and the rest of us ordered the steak (best one on the trip) – everything was excellent including the warm chocolate cake and mango apple crumble for dessert. I have to say, even though we did not love Hanoi, the food we had there was great!!
We left at 8am for our 10am Vietnam Airlines flight back to Saigon. Hanoi airport is much more crowded and with longer lines than either Danang or HCMC. Got through security and went straight to boarding the plane.
Arrived in Saigon at lunchtime, and we were all anxious to go to L’Usine again for lunch for the great sandwiches and yummy cupcakes.
A last minute stop at a store on Dong Khoi street for something that I had not purchased before and back to the hotel to rest by the pool and get massages. Michael and Holly went to do some last minute bargaining at Ben Thanh market.
For dinner we went to Pizza 4Ps (8/15 Le Thanh Ton) – weird name I know, but very good pizza there. We all enjoyed our meal. By the way, we took a taxi here and it was a good thing, because it would have been very hard to find, as the entrance is down an alley.
Back to the hotel to finish packing for our 6am flight home the next morning.
This was a great trip!! We already know we want to go back to Vietnam – this time we will do Hue, Sapa and the two night Halong Bay trip along with time in Hoi An and Saigon!