3 days in Hanoi and Halong Bay

Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam. Most people combine Hanoi with Halong Bay as Hanoi airport is the nearest airport to this UNESCO heritage site. In addition, Hanoi is enroute Halong Bay.

We reached Hanoi airport in the morning and boarded a bus from the airport, which dropped us at Kim Ma bus station in Hanoi. We stayed in Hanoi for a day to see Hanoi and get some rest as travel time to Halong Bay is around 4 hours and can be exhausting in a cramped minivan provided by the tour operators. If you are traveling in a group, hiring a taxi would be completely worth it as the route to Halong Bay is beautiful and gives many photo opportunities. You will come across mountains with lush green fields on both sides of the road. Farmers wearing the traditional hats make for a wonderful portrait.

Coming back to Hanoi, we hired a cab from Kim Ma bus station to our accommodation. On the way, we saw a huge lake called the Hoan Kiem lake or the Sword lake in the middle of the city and people crowding around it. It looked like people of Hanoi loved this lake and found peace and fulfillment sitting around it. There were many street vendors around the lake selling street food, balloons, greeting cards, hats and what not! We decided to dump our luggage in the hotel and come back to have breakfast and explore the city. We had breakfast and coffee in the famous Trung Nguyen Legend cafe. The staff at the cafe were extremely sweet and guided us with directions every time we asked them. We returned here quite a few times to have coffee and use the wi-fi.

We then explored the market around the cafe. On priority, we booked our tickets for Halong Bay cruise from Amazing Travels. Most tour operators provide the following  packages:

  • 2 days 1 night in Halong Bay (55-120 USD. Stick to 55 while negotiating for 1 night at Halong Bay)
  • 3 days 2 night in Halong Bay and Cat Ba island

Note: Food is included in the price. Water and drinks are charged separately on the cruise.

Due to the paucity of time, we decided to skip Cat Ba island and selected the first package. However, while on our cruise in Halong Bay we met some tourists who had been to Cat Ba island and they had loved the experience. So if you have time, go for it!

Hanoi has few tourist places, which we saw from our cab ride and decided to skip spending more time there. We were probably more interested in the shopping part! Hanoi is a shoppers paradise with amazing stuff on sale. Vietnam is known for its silk, embroidery ‘paintings’ and silver artifacts. We bought the embroidered ‘paintings’, decorated bowls made of coconut shells and key chains as souvenirs. Having the whole afternoon to ourselves and nothing much to do, we decided to try our hand at street photography. I managed to click the following pictures.

Check out my Instagram feed https://www.instagram.com/ataleofmillioncities/ to see more pictures.

We had lunch in one of the Indian restaurants Khazaana as we were craving for Indian food. My friends liked the food but I would give it an average rating. However, the staff is very welcoming and if you are missing India while on your trip, this is the place. The music, the ambiance, the food, everything will take you back to India. By the time we finished lunch, it was 4 PM. We headed towards the lake to see the Temple of the Jade Mountain in the center of the Hoan Kiem lake. We spent around 30 minutes and returned to the benches around the lake to see the sunset.

We purchased few souvenirs from the street vendors and went back to the market area to have coffee and then scout for a nice place to have dinner. We had dinner in Khazaana again as we were unsure if we would get good food at sea.

The next day, the travel agency picked us up from our hotel at 8 AM for Halong Bay. The travel time to Halong Bay was approximately 3 hours. When we reached Halong Bay, we were mesmerized by what we saw and could not stop taking pictures. I could not imagine what one night in the sea would offer! As instructed by our driver, we waited in the waiting area for a boat to pick us up and drop us to our cruise. We were taken by a speedboat along with other tourists. There were some tourists from Israel who greeted us in Hindi and started singing Hindi Bollywood songs to our amazement. We spoke for sometime sharing our trip plans until we reached our cruise. It was time to say goodbye to our fellow tourists as the ride was a short one.

We boarded the cruise and were directed to our room, which was beautiful. It had two windows which opened up to the sea with mountains all around. The bathroom also gave the same view and it felt like you were bathing in the sea. We dumped our luggage and rushed to the deck to explore. It had a kitchen on top with two dining tables. The deck had another long dining table with chairs and resting chairs. Once all the tourists were in, the cruise started and it seemed like an endless journey into the sea. We kept taking pictures and the guide said, “This must be beautiful to you. But I get bored. Every day I see the same thing!”. The guide was a young guy who was both cute and funny.

We opted for vegetarian lunch, which was not so great. We ended up eating plain rice and salad. The guide promised to compensate our next meal.

We stayed up on the deck until we got bored of the mountains and the sea. Finally, the cruise stopped at some location and we were asked if we wanted to go for kayaking. Having done kayaking before in Phuket, I was game. Little did I know that there would be no professional with us in the kayak and we would be rowing on our own. Nevertheless, we decided to venture into the sea without any knowledge of rowing or swimming. Everyone started rowing like they have been doing it all their life after some initial hiccups. However, we took a long time and were separated from our group right at the beginning. We tried to catch up as fast as we could and were glad to see some of our friends getting stuck between the rocks. So slow and steady does win the race ;).

Being late, we figured, which routes were not clear and thus maneuvered along the sea which had no rocks. I must say kayaking that day was the best decision I made. It gave me a sense of freedom and joy I cannot explain. We kept rowing and reached a point where we were inside the four walls of the mountain. We were spellbound by the beauty of the place. The guide told us a little story but no one seemed to listen to him. After some sulking and we cajoling him, he finally relented and told us the story, which none of us could understand. But we all laughed when he laughed and sighed when it seemed like a tragic part. It is amazing how coming from different parts of the world, we could all understand each other at that point. Other tourists were from parts of Europe, US, and Canada.

We then took an about turn and headed to wherever we wanted to go leaving behind the guide. The guide was slow to catch up with us this time and took us back to the cruise lest we got lost in the caves. What an amazing experience it was. How I miss being in the sea!

We freshened up and went back to the deck with our cameras to capture the sunset. It was a bit cloudy by evening and thus we could not see a clear sunset. However, the sky looked beautiful. I was able to capture the moon with this color of the sky. It was getting cold by night and we got our warm clothing and sat on the chair singing some Bollywood songs and discussing work and life. Meanwhile, we instructed the chef to make vegetable rice and gave our recipe. As promised by the guide, the dinner was much better than the lunch.

After dinner, we stayed up on the deck until we were sleepy and then returned to our rooms to sleep. My friend found a rat in the room and was awake almost the whole night while I was sound asleep oblivious to the wild rodents running helter-skelter in the room.

The next day it was time for us to bid adieu to this vast expanse of sea and mountains and return to the land. We woke up and freshened up and went up to have our breakfast. The breakfast was decent.

We went back again to our room to pack our bags as a speedboat would pick us up at 12 to drop us at the waiting area where our bus would take us back to Hanoi. While waiting on the deck, we took a group picture with the other passengers who were our constant companion for 2 days. We spoke to some of them who were sitting close to us. A lady had traveled all the way from Europe leaving her small business. She was on a trip to south-east Asia for a month and had other places on her travel list. Two young college girls, who were travel buddies came all the way from Canada to visit places in Asia. A couple visibly madly in love had also set out on a similar journey. An Indian-Vietnamese couple landed on our cruise along with the Israeli tourists we had met in the speedboat. The latter was quick to recognize us and we exchanged pleasantries. Looking at their huge suitcases, it looked like that they had a long bucket list of places to check.

The speedboat arrived at around 12 and picked few people at a time. We were the last ones to go. We finally reached the waiting area and waited for our bus to arrive. It was a small bus, which had a good mix of people from all over the world. The driver played some music, which did not go too well with one passenger who kept shouting at the driver to change the music or lower the sound. Neither the driver nor the passenger budged. To our amusement, there was a massive showdown. Finally, at the request of other passengers, the driver started the bus. Everybody was absolutely quiet after a few minutes of travel. It was probably the heat or the beautiful landscapes.

The bus halted after approximately an hour so that we could freshen up and have lunch. We bought pizza, which was half-baked and stocked up on a lot of snacks to compensate for the lack of good food at sea. We reached Hanoi around 4 PM.

We left our luggage at our travel agents office and went around the city to shop and then have an early dinner. We had our favorite Vietnamese coffee and sat near the lake in the center of the city to see the sunset. We then explored the area and found an amazing cafe where the food was also equally amazing. How we wished we had come here before. We then rushed back to the travel agency and asked the agent for advice to buy coffee powder. He directed us to the store, which was very close to the Amazing Travels office.

The store was a swanky one with many varieties of coffee powders. I bought two packets for home. We then left to hire a cab and head to the airport to catch our flight.

If you do not want to take the cruise, though it is recommended, you can stay one night in a hotel in Halong Bay and explore the area around it. That is exactly what we did on our next trip. Stay tuned for my next post!

Expense Chart

Given below is an expense chart, which I thought may help you estimate the cost of the trip and plan accordingly.

ItemPrice (VND)
Lake temple ticket30000 per person
Coffee at Nguyen Legend cafe67000 per person
Dinner at Khazaana200000 per person
Breakfast50000 per person
Smoothies 30000 per person