Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Perfume Pagoda 2011

It is not often that we can go on a family vacation. Trying to fit everyone’s conflicting schedules and preferences together and agreeing on a place to visit can be a major headache. My extended family finally went on a holiday to Hanoi in 2011 during the December school holidays. Due to everyone’s tight schedules, we managed to squeeze in 5 days of vacation time between Christmas and New Year. But this meant that we could only go somewhere nearby and doesn’t take up too much time. Since we all had not been to Hanoi, this was an ideal place to visit given our short time requirements.

I liaised with a Hanoi based tour guide who agreed to pick us from the airport and bring us around Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and the Perfume Pagoda. Our guide met us at Hanoi International Airport with his mini-van. We booked a service apartment at Somerset Grand since it was more economical compared to booking several hotel rooms for the 7 of us.

Hanoi

Being the capital city of Vietnam, I would have expected the city to be bustling and busy with commerce. But I found that compared to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, the people of Hanoi were quite laid back and the city moves at a leisurely pace. Personally, I prefer Hanoi to HCMC. The cool weather in winter also made walking around a pleasant experience.

The Old Quarter is the main attraction of Hanoi and is a maze of narrow streets dating back from 1,000 years ago. Originally a village for craftsmen and traders, some of the streets are still divided by the types of trade done there.

A street vendor walking down one of the roads in the Old Quarter.
A street vendor walking down one of the roads in the Old Quarter.
Pedi-cabs for carrying tourists. Bargaining is essential.
Pedi-cabs for carrying tourists. Bargaining is essential.
One of the narrow alleys between houses.
One of the narrow alleys between houses.
It's a wonder how anyone can guess which wire goes where.
It’s a wonder how anyone can guess which wire goes where.
Eating on stools and by the roadside is a daily affair.
Eating on stools and by the roadside is a daily affair.
Shopping for hats and helmets.
Shopping for hats and helmets.
Souvenirs at a tourist shop in the Old Quarter.
Souvenirs at a tourist shop in the Old Quarter.
Shop owners relaxing in the cool winter air.
Shop owners relaxing in the cool winter air.
An old woman selling roasted chestnuts.
An old woman selling roasted chestnuts.
We visited the Notre Dame in the morning but it was closed to tourists. So we had to settle for a photo outside.
We visited the Notre Dame in the morning but it was closed to tourists. So we had to settle for a photo outside.

Located next to the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake. There are many legends regarding this lake, and it is regarded as the center of Hanoi. Walking around this small lake is a relaxing experience as you can get to see the Vietnamese doing all kinds of daily activities throughout the whole day here. In the mornings you can see people jogging or practicing tai chi , and in the evenings the lovers are out strolling.

Hoan Kiem Lake lighted up for Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Hoan Kiem Lake lighted up for Christmas and New Year celebrations.
A balloon seller along the streets beside Hoan Kiem Lake.
A balloon seller along the streets beside Hoan Kiem Lake.
A temple on the island in Hoan Kiem Lake.
A temple on the island in Hoan Kiem Lake.
Getting these flower floats ready for Christmas celebrations.
Getting these flower floats ready for Christmas celebrations.
Having our French dinner at Green Tangerine.
Having our French dinner at Green Tangerine.
Bon appetite!
Bon appetite!
On another night we had some local Vietnamese food. How about some fried sparrows?
On another night we had some local Vietnamese food. How about some fried sparrows?

One of the cultural attractions in Hanoi is watching the water puppet show. We went to the Thang Long water puppet theatre to catch a performance. This show is immensely popular and you need to buy your tickets in advance.

The performance is accompanied by a live orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments.
The performance is accompanied by a live orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments.
The show is completely in Vietnamese so we couldn't understand the stories.
The show is completely in Vietnamese so we couldn’t understand the stories.
Although everything is traditional, there are now modern touches of coloured lighting and fire.
Although everything is traditional, there are now modern touches of coloured lighting and fire.
After the end of the show, we get to see the puppeteers. It's quite tough to soak in the water for several performances a day.
After the end of the show, we get to see the puppeteers. It’s quite tough to soak in the water for several performances a day.

Ha Long Bay

One of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features thousands of limestone islands. Some of the islands are hollow with huge caves in them.

Setting off on our boat trip to Ha Long Bay.
Setting off on our boat trip to Ha Long Bay.
We got the whole boat to ourselves.
We got the whole boat to ourselves.
We pass by strange rock formations with various names.
We pass by strange rock formations with various names.
This looks like a scene from some movie.
This looks like a scene from some movie.
The boat stopped at a floating fish farm. We didn't buy anything. There are also stories of tourists being charged outrageous prices for buying at these farms.
The boat stopped at a floating fish farm. We didn’t buy anything. There are also stories of tourists being charged outrageous prices for buying at these farms.
We stopped at one of the larger islands with a cave for some land exploration.
We stopped at one of the larger islands with a cave for some land exploration.
Entering the cave required us to climb up the side of the limestone hill.
Entering the cave required us to climb up the side of the limestone hill.
The cave is really immense.
The cave is really immense.
We got to see beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. These were lighted up with coloured lights to give a fairyland appearance.
We got to see beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. These were lighted up with coloured lights to give a fairyland appearance.
Finally, we are going out of the cave. We had to climb out to the side of the hill.
Finally, we are going out of the cave. We had to climb out to the side of the hill.
Looking back into the cave.
Looking back into the cave.
You also get a good view of the bay.
You also get a good view of the bay.
After climbing down from the hill, we made our way back to the boat.
After climbing down from the hill, we made our way back to the boat.
A zoomed view of the cave's exit where you could see the bay.
A zoomed view of the cave’s exit where you could see the bay.

Besides, exploring caves, you could also do water activities like swimming and kayaking. But as the weather and water was quite cold during this time of year we didn’t do any of these.

We got on our way to the next stop.
We got on our way to the next stop.
We passed by more luxurious boats. You can actually stay overnight on the boats but we decided to stay in a hotel on shore.
We passed by more luxurious boats. You can actually stay overnight on the boats but we decided to stay in a hotel on shore.
Our next stop was this island with a lookout point.
Our next stop was this island with a lookout point.
We didn't climb all the way to the look out point but the view from the halfway point was good enough.
We didn’t climb all the way to the look out point but the view from the halfway point was good enough.

As we headed back to the mainland and to our hotel, we got to see a most spectacular sunset.

The sun setting over Ha Long Bay.
The sun setting over Ha Long Bay.
Just like a Chinese painting.
Just like a Chinese painting.

The Perfume Pagoda

This is actually a vast complex of Buddhist temples and shrines scattered across the Huong Tich mountains. It gets really crowded here from February to March when many Vietnamese make their annual pilgrimage here to pray. Getting to the Perfume Pagoda requires a 2 hours drive from Hanoi, followed by a 45 minutes boat ride. You can visit the Perfume Pagoda in a day trip.

Now, about the boat…

That's our boat. 6 adults + 1 child + 1 guide + 1 boat woman are going to fit in there.
That’s our boat. 6 adults + 1 child + 1 guide + 1 boat woman are going to fit in there.
And off we go in a little row boat...
And off we go in a little row boat…
I am amazed at how he can balance himself while standing on that small boat of his.
I am amazed at how he can balance himself while standing on that small boat of his.
It's a serene trip down the river.
It’s a serene trip down the river.
I guess there is a faster way if you don't want to row the boat.
I guess there is a faster way if you don’t want to row the boat.

After about 45 minutes of rowing, we reached a small village by the river side. We all got off and the guide told us that we needed to come back later to the same boat.  I also noticed that all the boats are being rowed by women.

We finally arrived at the temple and disembarked.
We finally arrived at the temple and disembarked.
The gate to the temple.
The gate to the temple.
Flags at the temple hall's entrance.
Flags at the temple hall’s entrance.
A really ancient looking tree in the temple grounds.
A really ancient looking tree in the temple grounds.
The temple is surrounded by mountains.
The temple is surrounded by mountains.

After visiting the temple we sat down for a simple lunch at a small restaurant. I could see that the other tourists also had to eat at the restaurant. There wasn’t any choice since this was the only decent looking restaurant in the small village.

If you didn't want to eat at the restaurant, you had to settle for simple village food sold by the wayside.
If you didn’t want to eat at the restaurant, you had to settle for simple village food sold by the wayside.
These are medicinal herbs harvested from the mountains. They look like rocks.
These are medicinal herbs harvested from the mountains. They look like rocks.
Some of the workers from the village. I see that most of them are women.
Some of the workers from the village. I see that most of them are women.

After lunch we visited Huong Tich cave which is the final destination for pilgrims coming here to pray. The cave is located on top of a mountain and we could either climb up by foot or take the cable car.

We took the cable car up to the shrine. Pilgrims would usually walk all the way up the mountain. You can see the path in the photo. Its covered and lined with souvenir shops all the way. I heard that it's quite a tough climb.
We took the cable car up to the shrine. Pilgrims would usually walk all the way up the mountain. You can see the path in the photo. Its covered and lined with souvenir shops all the way. I heard that it’s quite a tough climb.
Even after taking the cable car to the top, we still had to do some climbing. This is the entrance to the cave with all the tired and sore tourists sitting around.
Even after taking the cable car to the top, we still had to do some climbing. This is the entrance to the cave with all the tired and sore tourists sitting around.
The stairs leading down to Huong Tich cave. The cave entrance is said to resemble the mouth of a dragon.
The stairs leading down to Huong Tich cave. The cave entrance is said to resemble the mouth of a dragon.
At the entrance of the cave is a large shrine.
At the entrance of the cave is a large shrine.
Behind the shrine is a cave which serves as the temple. There are several altars dedicated to different deities.
Behind the shrine is a cave which serves as the temple. There are several altars dedicated to different deities.
So we made our way back to the cable car for the trip down the mountain.
So we made our way back to the cable car for the trip down the mountain.
Followed by another 45 minutes ride back to the town where we started from. See how small the boat is, and with all us on it.
Followed by another 45 minutes ride back to the town where we started from. See how small the boat is, and with all us on it.
We safely reached the small town where we took the boat from. Dusk was already falling and I could see a lot of construction going on, and probably by now the small town has gotten a lot more busier.
We safely reached the small town where we took the boat from. Dusk was already falling and I could see a lot of construction going on, and probably by now the small town has gotten a lot more busier.
A map of the whole area.
A map of the whole area.

Getting there: Flying to Hanoi is pretty easy from Singapore. You have a wide range of airlines to choose from, ranging from full service to budget airlines. The taxi fare from the airport to Hanoi city is around VND400,000 depending on your hotel location. Always take the legal taxis which run by meter. There are unscrupulous taxis which tamper with the meter so that it runs faster and you end up paying a higher fare. You can check the internet forums for which are the trustworthy taxi companies and how to identify their taxis. The taxis are differentiated by their colors.

Hotels: Again you have a wide range to choose from. There are 5 star international chain hotels to backpacker inns to choose from. Most people prefer to stay in or around the Old Quarter since this is the most interesting area.

Ha Long Bay: This requires a 2-3 day trip and you can choose to sleep on the boat at night instead of a hotel on shore. For our case, we chose to stay on shore due to a couple of accidents before where the boats sank in the middle of the night due to poor condition of the boat. Several tourists drowned because they were trapped in the boats. Look for more reputable boat companies if you want to be safe.

Perfume Pagoda: This can be done in a day trip from Hanoi. Personally, I liked this visit because of the boat ride and nice scenery. Sometimes the journey is more interesting than the destination. If you read the reviews on Tripadvisor, this is a hit or miss affair for visitors. Some people love it, and some people hate it totally. If you are interested in local customs and culture, this would be a good place to visit. But if you are just looking for a grand attraction to cross off your bucket list then it’s better to give it a miss.

Weather: Having been in Hanoi a couple of times at different times of the year, I would say winter is cooling and pleasant ranging from 15° to 10°C at night. In the summer it is hot and humid just like in Singapore.

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