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North Vietnam - A Photo Essay

Updated on January 10, 2015
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I'm a lawyer and mother of two from New Zealand. I have a passion for the written word and am interested in lots of topics (esp. Travel)!

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Hanoi Charming Hotel, 15 Yen Thai

A marker15 Yen Thai -
15 Yên Thái, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
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Hanoi Charming Hotel

Hanoi - old French colonial city of contrasts

Many people (myself included) begin their trip to Vietnam in the North of the country, in the capital (and second largest city) -Hanoi. Alternatively, you can begin in the South in the Mekong Delta or Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city, and travel North. Either way, Vietnam's a long, skinny country, and you'll want to see it all!

Hanoi is a charming, chaotic city of many contrasts - old and new, rich and poor, clean, and filthy. The Old Quarter is filled with fascinating relics from a grander French colonial area, such as the Hotel Mercure (see photo below) and the Hotel Metropole.

Everywhere you look people zoom past on scooters, often piled two or three high or with animals strapped on, and even crossing the road means taking your life into your hands. This is known to locals as the 'Hanoi Symphony' (but perhaps cacophany might be a more accurate description)!

The street food (most notably Pho Bo -beef broth, and Pho Ga, chicken/vegetable broth) are delicious, and available on any street corner.

In Hanoi I stayed at the wonderful 'Hanoi Charming Hotel' in the Old Quarter, and true to its name, there I encountered some of the most charming and helpful staff I've ever met in my life. I'll never forget their warmth and hospitality.

Here's a fun fact about Hanoi: Senator John McCain was imprisoned here (in the Hoa Lo Prison -nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton'), for 5 1/2 years as an American POW during the Vietnam War. During that time he was subjected to beatings and rope bindings. He writes about his ordeal in his book "Faith of my Fathers".

Before you read on, take my fun quiz to see how much you know about Vietnam (no cheating)!

French colonial relics

Must Do's in Hanoi

* Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

* Hoan Kiem Lake and Pagoda

* Water Puppet Show

* Temple of Literature

* Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology

* Walking or cyclo around the Old Quarter

* Ha Long Bay

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Ngoc Son Temple
Ngoc Son Temple
Ngoc Son Temple

Temples, and Hoan Kiem Lake

To many travelers, Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake. It's the centrepiece that dominates the Old Quarter, with its circular shaped quay that the ubiquitous scooters can zoom around, and hawkers can find a perch to flog their wares -ranging from sunglasses, to postcards, to garish art work. It's here that you can pick up a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw). These are going a little out of fashion now in the age of the 'moto' (motorised rickshaw), but the sight of these strong, wiry old men pedalling fat tourists for miles around the old city in these contraptions is truly unforgettable, and such a quintessential Vietnamese sight.

Hoan Kiem Lake literally means 'Lake of the Returned Sword'. As legend has it, emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God (KIm Qui) surfaced and asked for his magic sword. Li concluded that Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King had given Loi some time earlier, during his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Loi renamed the lake to commemorate this event.

On Jade Island at the northern end of the lake (accessible by the quaint red wooden 'Huc' bridge), is the 18th century Ngoc Son Temple, which I explored (see photos). There is always incense burning outside the temple. The temple was built in honour of a 13th c Vietnamese military leader.

Things to make sure you take on your trip to North Vietnam

What to wear
Things to bring
Lots of singlets or t-shirts (it's hot all year round)!
Mobile phone or tablet -WIFI is everywhere and speeds are fast
Long shorts or light cotton pants or skirt (dress modestly)
American dollars - you can trade them on the black market for a good rate
A sunhat
Your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to Vietnam
A raincoat -weather can be unpredictable
A good camera -you'll want to snap pictures everywhere you go!
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Temple of Literature -Hanoi

Another highlight of my days in Hanoi was a visit to the Temple of Literature (see photos below). a large, 13th century temple complex originally dedicated to Confucian scholarship. The temple's an absolutely stunning example of well preserved Vietnamese architecture.

It took me nearly an hour of walking through busy Hanoi streets (close to rush hour, which begins around 3.30pm!) to get to this temple, but it was absolutely worth the bother, and probably the highlight of my Hanoi experience so far. The temple is an oasis of tranquillity and serenity in the hustle and bustle of the city, and honours Vietnam’s finest royal scholars; who came here from all over the country to study the principles of Confucianism, literature and poetry. There are formal gardens, ponds, inscribed stone plaques, and a temple at the back dedicated to Confucius, with incense and offerings.

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Museum of Ethnology

This amazing museum was one of the highlights of my three days in Hanoi. It's very modern and impressive, but it's across the other side of town from the Old Quarter where most tourists stay. To get there you have to jump in a taxi for a half hour trip to the Nghia Do District in the outer suburbs (see map below). It's quite an interesting drive -taking you past increasingly modern, high rise office buildings and apartments -a contrast from the Old Quarter.

Once there, the museum offers a dazzling display of the 54 different ethnicities present in modern Vietnam, from the majority Viet group (87%), to the Han Chinese, and the minority and hill tribes of the Central and Northern highlands. There's a wonderful outside area where different types of huts and dwellings are displayed, and you can go inside most of these.

Things that bemused me about Hanoi

As I left Hanoi, there were a few things I still felt utterly befuddled about:

* How does ANYONE safely cross the road when the traffic NEVER stops?!

* Why is every street named 'Nguyen' something, and what does it mean?

* How come I never learnt to sit gracefully on a small, plastic child's table and chairs to eat street food?

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Statue in Sapa town squareChalets en route to Cat Cat VillageViews on the day hike to Cat Cat VillageWater buffalo
Statue in Sapa town square
Statue in Sapa town square
Chalets en route to Cat Cat Village
Chalets en route to Cat Cat Village
Views on the day hike to Cat Cat Village
Views on the day hike to Cat Cat Village
Water buffalo
Water buffalo

The Misty Hill Station of Sapa

Having visited the Ethnology Museum near the end of my 3 day visit to Hanoi, and seen the houses, costumes and art of the many different ethnicities inhabiting Vietnam, it seemed logical for me to then head up by overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to the hill village of Sapa, near the border between Vietnam and China. I took the 'Livitrans Express' (individual carriages are operated privately, although the service itself is run by Vietnam National Railways).

Expecting to get a sound 8 hr sleep on this “sleeper” journey proved to be a tall order. Trundling slowly from station to station in darkness, over what felt like large boulders, but was probably just a total lack of suspension over the train wheels. Curled on the hard bed under a thin blanket, I was jolted awake about every hour during the night as we pulled into a station and the train guards started yelling. At around 5am all occupants of our cabin burst into laughter, as one of the guards yelled “10 minutes”, in that inimitable Viet-English accent that sounds like small rubber balls bouncing together, and then loud Vietnamese pop music started blaring through the train. In case anyone had escaped the wake up call, this would deal to them!

To book the overnight sleeper train to Sapa, you need to visit the Vietnamese Railways official site and purchase tickets a few days in advance. You can choose which of the carriages you want (they vary somewhat in price), and how many bunks in the sleeper you want. Once they confirm the booking, you must print out your confirmation slip, and then an hour or so before boarding, you go to the ticket station at Hanoi to swap your slip for tickets. My hotel offered to send a bellboy in the taxi to do this for me, as the ticket people don't speak good English, and the platform and ticket booth are crowded and confusing. Bring a Vietnamese speaking person along with you if you can when getting on the train to Sapa.

Must-do's in Sapa

* Hike to Cat Cat Village

* Do a day or overnight trek to H'mong villages with local H'mong female guides

* Spend a morning or afternoon exploring the lake area in the town and stop for a Vietnamese coffee

* Hire a moped and bike along some of the hilly roads

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View of the river gorge while trekkingWater buffalos on trekking routeOur trekking group warding off the rainRain soaked paddy fieldsVillage of Lau ChaiPumpkins growing on the roof of a village hutA H'mong girl who walked with me all the way to the entrance to Cat Cat Village
View of the river gorge while trekking
View of the river gorge while trekking
Water buffalos on trekking route
Water buffalos on trekking route
Our trekking group warding off the rain
Our trekking group warding off the rain
Rain soaked paddy fields
Rain soaked paddy fields
Village of Lau Chai
Village of Lau Chai
Pumpkins growing on the roof of a village hut
Pumpkins growing on the roof of a village hut
A H'mong girl who walked with me all the way to the entrance to Cat Cat Village
A H'mong girl who walked with me all the way to the entrance to Cat Cat Village

Trekking to H'mong Villages

The H'mong hill tribe are one of the main reasons people come to Sapa -to experience a different and unique minority culture within Vietnam. The H'mong women wear colourful black embroidered dresses, and headscarves, and they speak pretty good English -they'll happily guide you to the local villages such as Lau Chai, and you can ask questions as you go.

They do try to sell trinkets to tourists though, and in some cases this way of earning income has replaced the traditional handicrafts, so you need to be aware of this, and be prepared to be very firm if they become overly persistent. The trinkets sold in Sapa (I discovered) are often brought in bulk over the border from China, and aren't even local (e.g colourful woven bracelets). Tourists in these areas are often seen as 'walking ATMs', but you can avoid this by saying 'no' firmly, and repeatedly.

I did a day trek to local villages, and it was raining for a portion of the day, making for very muddy trails! At lunchtime you'll stop in a H'mong village, and sample local food. You may get a chance to visit a H'mong home, although I didn't have this opportunity.

Sapa Friendship Bracelets for sale

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Chalets by the Sapa Lake
Chalets by the Sapa Lake
Chalets by the Sapa Lake

Crazy Day on a Scooter/Moped

One of the best things to do in Sapa, I believe, is to hire a scooter (moped) from one of the local hire places, and spend the day zooming up and down the hill roads -taking in the breathtaking scenery. Ideally you should be a confident rider (stupidly, I'd actually never ridden one before, but that didn't stop me)! The hire place might ask to see your International Licence, but more likely than not they'll just take your money and let you hop on the bike! I hired a 125cc scooter, and ended up having to fill it up on the way out of town -an interesting experience to say the least, as I had no idea where the fuel cap was!!

Here are some photos taken from my ride on the country roads, and then around town.

Survival tips for Sapa

(1) Make sure you get plenty of sleep the night before you take the overnight train to Sapa

(2) Learn to say "no" and to run quickly when being pestered by the H'mong women to buy trinkets, while still smiling and keeping your cool

(3) Don't buy anything from children -it's not fair trade

(4) If you hire a moped and you've never ridden one before, practise somewhere safe before hitting the winding back roads!

(5) Pack a raincoat as you'll probably need it

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Halong Bay - an earthly paradise

A cruise by junk or launch amongst the beautiful, mysterious limestone karst islands of Halong Bay must surely be the highlight of any North Vietnamese vacation.

Halong Bay (meaning the 'Bay of descending dragons'), was designated a world heritage site in 1994, and attracts thousands of visitors every year, for good reason. You can choose a basic/budget cruise, a mid-range cruise, or a luxury, all bells and whistles cruise. They all offer a similar experience, but the quality of the food and entertainment varies a lot depending what you're prepared to pay. Don't prebook your cruise from home -it's best to wait till you're in Hanoi, and if you do it through your hotel they may be able to get you a good price.

It's hard to put into words the beauty of this place, so I'm just going to let the photos speak for themselves. To get to Halong Bay, it's a 4 hr drive by minivan from Hanoi, so most people opt for at least a 1 night cruise (and I did that). Cruises offer dinner and breakfast, evening entertainment (such as Karaoke), and the following day, fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, and usually a visit to a limestone cave that you can walk up to, and go inside.

Must Do's in Ha Long Bay

* Take an overnight or 2 night cruise on a traditional junk

* Visit the Sung Sot limestone cave, and walk through it

* Stay on Cat Ba island and walk round the national park

* Go swimming and kayaking

* Go night fishing off your boat

Thanks for reading, please comment!

Thanks for reading and looking at my original photos. All photos are (c) S. Minot 2015.

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    • mio cid profile image

      mio cid 2 years ago from Uruguay

      Of all the countries in the region VietNam seems the safest to travel to.

    • bonmotsminot profile image
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      Sue Minot 2 years ago from Wellington, New Zealand

      mio cid: it's becoming a little overtouristed now, to be honest (and has a population of 93 million or so, so if you add tourists to that, you can imagine how crowded it is)! That said, I never felt unsafe the whole time I traveled there, which was on my own, as a middle aged female. The people are just lovely. Thanks for your comment.

    • mio cid profile image

      mio cid 2 years ago from Uruguay

      what I mean is that many parts of the world are just not safe to visit in this day and age but Vietnam seems to be a viable tourist destination.

    • profile image

      Ekko 18 months ago

      Hi.I noticed you seemed to have missed something .. To my knowledge most famous Vietnam with Halong Bay I'm thinking about a journey to the dark there and found a site quite appropriate : https://www.halong-bay-cruise.com/. Please give me advice

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