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