After Hoi An, Hanoi was my next destination. I didn’t really believe my boyfriend’s advice that it would be cold so I was surprised as soon as I stepped out of the plane. It was around 19 degrees. A local told me that they had 4 seasons which were hot, very hot, cold and very cold. I went in early December and supposedly it was during the ‘very cold’ season. At night it will get colder though so dress warmly!
I stayed at Light Hostel for only a night as we had an early pickup the next day to go to Ha Long Bay. The hostel is a bit hidden in an alley, so you wouldn’t find it directly by the side of the street. We had trouble finding the hostel and I don’t recommend walking late at night to get here. Wifi was weak and sporadic but other facilities were good and the owner of the hostel made us a good breakfast in the morning. Fried eggs, bread and bananas. Yum!
Ha Long Bay
Soon after breakfast, we started our journey to Ha Long Bay and met other backpackers from UK, US, France, Spain and Germany. The journey was around 2 hours and a half with a 15mins break in between. It’s horrible for me because I can’t sleep on moving vehicle so it felt longer. When we arrived at the pier, we were taken on a small boat which took us to our big boat the Vega Cruise.
We were quickly assigned our rooms then we were given some time to freshen up then it was kayaking time! I’ve never done kayaking before but luckily Andy knew how to kayak. Tip: the person who knows how to kayak and who’s the muscle should be at the back. The one who’s in front will steer.
It was confusing at first, if you want to go left,you had to paddle right, and the other way around. We started off at the beginning and ended up as one of the last. But in the end, we enjoyed it although I felt he kayaked more than I did. A few strokes of the paddle and it seems we were propelled 500m forward. Muscles are important, people.
After a whole afternoon of kayaking, that night our tour guide taught us how to make the famous Vietnamese spring rolls using paper rice. We could choose to fill it with carrots, cucumbers, green vegetables, strips of omelette and a bit of meat. I made a few, although I don’t really enjoy the taste of paper rice, it almost feels like I’m eating plastic. The dinner was very nice though, they made special dishes for me as I didn’t eat pork.
The next day, we started off our day quite early to beat the crowds of tourists. We went to a few caves. It’s amazing to see such big caves, I’ve never been inside many caves but I was quite impressed.
To see the best view of Ha Long Bay, we had to climb 400 steps up a steep hill. I haven’t exercised for months and from starting from the very first of the crowd, I became one of the last. My body could not take it! I was so close to fainting. Luckily Andy stayed with me and helped to pull me up and wouldn’t leave me. And there was this British girl who was at the last of the group with me, who encouraged me to finish it, and we did it! And the view was amazing!! I really liked the view. Fun fact again: Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage site recognized by UNESCO.
Once we were back at the boat, things moved quite quickly. We had to quickly check out and the people who were still continuing their days in Ha Long Bay were shifted to another boat while our boat sailed home. It was quite a pleasant ride, there were only 5 of us left from the original group so we sat on the upper deck, played charades and enjoyed the view.
The captain saw me peeking through their door and offered me to drive the boat. Such a cool experience!! Same rule of kayak, if you want to go left, turn right on the steering wheel, and vice versa.
As soon as we got off the boat, we were ushered into our van and drove back to Hanoi. We were dropped at our new hotel, Icon 36 Hotel. The receptionist was super friendly and gave us welcome drinks. The staff gave us tips on where to go and provided us with a map too! The breakfast is really good here and on the last day that we left for Phu Quoc (more on that later), we had a super early flight, they prepared breakfast for us to take away.
You simply can’t miss Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s in the middle of town, and at night you’ll see newlyweds taking their wedding pictures overlooking the plaza opposite the lake. Legends say that there was a turtle who took a sword from a prince and kept the sword hidden in the lake. Well, the myth is questionable but there is a real life giant turtle living in the lake! But a few weeks ago, they found the turtle dead in the lake. RIP turtle. 😦
This church, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, was designed during the French colonization around the 1880s. The style looks gothic, with the pointed arches and weathered stone walls. Compared to the Notre Dame Church in Ho Chi Minh, this church has a darker feel. A must visit! To get here, you can simply walk from the lake, it’s not far.
Next on the list was the Temple of Fine Literature. There was a fee to enter the park and since we were on a tight budget, we didn’t go in but admired the park from the outside (The walls surrounding the temple were not very high). We visited a park opposite where the Hanoians were fishing and jogging around another mini lake.
We also bought bananas from a local street vendor and the owner let everyone try out carrying her baskets of fruits!
Next, we walked to Ho Chi Minh Memorial. Again, we just admired the lot from the outside. I didn’t fancy seeing a dead person embalmed so we just watched the impressive building outside.
By the time we walked back to the city center, it was getting dark again. We saw some of the streets were closed for the big open market on weekends. A miscalculation on our part was that we thought that it would open the next day. I think it would have been an amazing experience, so guys don’t miss the open market on weekends!
We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and went over the red bridge. There was another mini temple and garden after the red bridge but since it was already dark, we could not get in so we just admired the bridge and the view.
As for food, I had a lot of bread during this trip, I got addicted to the Banh Mi bread and kept asking the stalls to give me the fresh ones without any fillings. The bread is so good, ideal for snacking. I also had the Trung Nguyen coffee, which is something like Vietnamese Starbucks. The coffee is pretty decent although quite expensive.
Overall, Hanoi is a less crowded city compared to Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps, the cold weather slowed down the people a bit, but I felt the city was more peaceful. The streets were still as crazy although after almost a week in Vietnam, I had a useful tip from a local. “Don’t run, it’s more dangerous. Just walk, the motorists will find their way around you.” Which I find to be true, so even if you’re scared to death, just walk as calmly and slowly as possible.
The difference between the people of south and north Vietnam? The same local told me that the north Vietnamese are more stubborn than the south and the south Vietnamese are friendlier. Although I can’t really vouch for stubbornness, but I felt everyone in Vietnam was polite and super friendly.
We left for Phu Quoc quite early and after seeing the advertisements promising sandy white beaches and crystal clear waters, I was quite to excited to see the island. It’s off the coast of Cambodia though, closer to places like Sihanoukville.
Phu Quoc has its own international airport but the nearest town is about 20 mins drive away. We stayed at Duong Dong. It’s small but most of the shops and restaurants are here. The beaches and the town is quite far from each other, so best option is to rent a motorbike. Taxis will rip you off for sure, especially the Phu Quoc’s own taxi company. We didn’t do much on the first day except walk around the small town. They have a small local market under the bridge everyday, it’s worth a look.
The next day, we set off on our own motorbike and decided to drive up north the newly constructed road and hoping to visit multiple beaches as we ride down the coast of Phu Quoc. It turned out to be the biggest disappointment. We drove until afternoon on the motorbike and passed through small towns. At one point, we reached one of the beaches, and we were completely disappointed by the view.
The beaches were dirty, there was trash in the sea that was visible from the beach and the locals wanted to charge us for parking our motorbike for less than 3mins just to look at this view!
Expectations versus reality picture up above. We drove to 3 of the top rated beaches in Trip Advisor and not one of them lived up to the expectations. There was not much to do, not many people either to meet. Nightlife is pretty much non existent and the tours too expensive. We had such a bad experience from the beaches, we weren’t excited for anything else. There was a deserted prison which was unsupervised, you could basically walk in there on your own to see it (I didn’t go). There are also pepper farms and pearl farms but again, it feels like we would potentially get ripped off so we didn’t go. There’s also a theme park, but quite overpriced.
The whole island seemed to be under construction as there were constructions sites nearly everywhere. But who are they building it for? The island maybe had some potential a few months ago but conservation of beaches and doing something eco friendly will go a long way to secure tourists. The whole place just seems unorganized. There’s no fierce competition for anything, which is a shame since the prices here are generally expensive. The value is just isn’t there. The tendency for the locals to rip you off is higher too. If you’re Asian, you’re lucky, you get ripped off less but still, it’s shocking to see the difference!
One of the good points of Phu Quoc is the food! Of course! We had one meal at a super fancy place (which if you have money to spare, you should! Really good view at sunset). Mango Bay restaurant is amazing.
The food is delicious, I was craving for some Cambodian Amok ever since and they did not disappoint. We had the view of the sunset too, and it was quite a romantic dinner.
The second place is in town, Phuc An Fast Food. They had the best local food and their matcha smoothie is to die for! I really loved how the Vietnamese food is cooked, the owner has some really good cooking skills. She is really nice. The prices are really fair. We found out about the shop on our last day, but I’m sure if we had found it earlier, we would have gone everyday.
I enjoyed my Vietnam trip, but Phu Quoc was a total letdown. It is just sad that such a beautiful island is not taken care of properly. If they are planning for Phu Quoc to be a tourist attraction like Phuket, I implore the Vietnamese tourism board to do something about the beaches. I’m afraid Thailand, despite the crazy crowd of tourists, has a lot more to offer.
I just googled Phu Quoc and for those who’ve been to Thailand, especially to Koh Nang Yuan might recognize this iconic view. What a total scam. Thailand could sue for this. Proof of how Phu Quoc will scam you even before you arrive.
Ok, enough about scams and disappointment. Vietnam is still a place worth visiting though. What I loved most about my trip here was easily Hoi An. Hanoi, not so much but I liked Ha Long Bay. The coffee is fantastic and their history is interesting. And shopping in Ho Chi Minh.
Next places I want to go in Vietnam: Sapa and Nim Binh. Google it up, the pictures are breathtaking. Let’s hope it’s not photoshopped or anything like Phu Quoc. Although I met some backpackers and they were raving about this place. 😀
Disclaimer: Photo credit goes to my amazing boyfriend but some are taken by me :p