Our second day on the ship was another early morning wake up at 3:30am. This was not of our choosing but just continues to happen, as our clocks slowly adjust to the new time zone. It does however give us loads of time in the morning to prepare for the day.
After having fresh, made to order omelettes from Windows Café, we proceeded to the front desk to request our passports to disembark in Halong Bay. The ship retains each passenger’s passport since several of the locations we were visiting required VISAs and the ship handles the process as a courtesy to their guests. Since we were taking an overnight excursion, we needed to have our passport to check into the hotel in Hanoi. The purser was doing her very best to have our passports released from the Vietnamese immigration officials but they were holding us up as they wanted additional information for an overnight VISA. Fortunately, we had brought along a second set of passport photos that we supplied and they eventually issued us a different type of VISA. After promising to be back with plenty of time before the ship was departing the next morning, we finally caught our quick tender into Halong Bay more than 1 hour late to meet our guide.
Our guide was a young man from Hanoi who was very understanding of the delay and promised to do his utmost to cover all that was originally planned for the day. We started off by travelling to the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. We were surprised to see the incredible development happening all around this area. There was a huge ferris wheel, cable car ride and massive developments of tourist centres along with hotels and sports complexes. Everywhere you turned there was something new being built. Our guide told us that in a few years the face of Halong Bay will be unrecognizable. We are happy we visited prior to the explosion of growth and tourism in this beautiful area.
We boarded our private boat – the Hai Long Dream - and headed out to see the incredible rock formations. These majestic rocks rise from the water and produce such a beautiful sight. We spent more than two hours gazing at these natural wonders that have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our guide told us tales about many of the formations and shared with us those that had special names based on legend and folklore from the Vietnamese people.
Our captain guided us to a stunning grotto where the Thien Cung Caves were located. These caves are known as the Heavenly Palace and stretch over 10,000 square metres. The caves were discovered in 1993 however they date back 2 million years. The stalactites and stalagmites are very impressive as they hang from various levels of the ceiling and protrude in a towering manner from most of the floor surface. The numerous unique shapes are lit with different coloured lights giving the area an eerie but fascinating feeling. Our guide asked us to use our imaginations as we looked at the varying shapes and he described what the Halong people have determined many of the shapes to represent. It was a truly magical place.
After re-boarding our boat, we were served a huge meal that was far more than we could have ever eaten. We couldn’t believe how much food kept coming to us – shrimp, crab cakes, french fries, rice, noodles, a whole fish, spring rolls, squid with vegetables and a cabbage dish. It was overwhelming but we did our best to sample each dish that was served. This was accompanied by Vietnamese beer and wine
As we dined we were shown several Vietnamese crafts and handiwork products for sale by the crew on board. We purchased a simple Halong Bay pearl bracelet and a pashmina that was made in Vietnam.
After waving good bye to our hosts, we climbed into the car with our waiting driver and started the long drive to Hanoi. While the distance wasn’t that far – only 175 kms – the two-lane road is quite deteriorated and there are many small towns in between where the congestion can be difficult. As a result, it takes approximately 3 ½ hours to make the trip. It was quite a sight to see as our driver shared the road with bicycles, walkers, motorcycles, scooters, vans, cars, tankers and even cows. It was amazing to see the vast array of items that people carried on their scooters – everything from front doors to chickens to multiple family members. We were certainly glad we weren’t driving!
Our first stop in Hanoi was the Temple of Literature. This is a serene and beautiful location that housed Vietnam’s first national University. Dating back to 1070, the temples, courtyards, pillars and gardens make for a lovely space to wander and learn about the scholars that first studied here and dedicated their lives to literary accomplishments. Inside are several alters dedicated to Confucius and his disciples. The entire spot is gorgeous and we were told it is an excellent example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.
Our driver then took us to the area of Ba Dinh Square where many historical events have taken place. This is the location from where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence and announced the country’s unity in 1945. It is a large, well maintained grassy space where many people come to pay their respects to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where their revered leader’s body lies in a glass case. We didn’t go inside, only wandered past the massive and imposing building.
Just behind the Mausoleum area there is the One Pillar Pagoda. The temple is built of wood and stands on one stone pillar. It is designed to resemble a lotus flower – the Buddhist symbol of purity. The legend states that the Emperor had a dream that he met the Buddha who handed him a son while he was sitting on a lotus flower. Afterwards, the Emperor married a peasant girl with whom he had a son. He had the temple constructed as a show of gratitude in 1049. Unfortunately, the original pagoda was destroyed by the French in 1954 but it was rebuilt afterwards. It is considered one of the most iconic temples in Vietnam.
We then had a quick drive to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword). This beautiful lake is in the middle of Hanoi. According to the legend, the Emperor in 1428 was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for his magical sword. He took this to mean that he was to return the sword that was used during his revolt of Ming China. He eventually did give the sword to the turtle and the turtle took it to the bottom of the lake in case Vietnam might once again have to defend its freedom. There is a tower named Turtle Tower on an island in the middle of the lake that is also linked to the legend. We were told that for many years people could see large soft shelled turtles in the water. It is said that there was one turtle that was over 1000 years old but he died in the 1960’s. It was preserved and put on display in the temple.
The temple of the Jade Mountain is reached by crossing over the Cau The Huc (Morning Sunlight Bridge). This is a lovely red bridge that we saw at sunset rather than in the morning. The island includes many sacred temples all of which have significant symbolic meaning. It was a truly beautiful place to visit as the sun was setting.
Our driver then took us to the MK Boutique Hotel where we would stay the night. We dropped our bags, cleaned up and changed and were back out to meet the guide for our evening food tour.
One thing that took a bit of adjustment was walking in the streets of Hanoi. At first we were quite hesitant to cross the heavily congested streets with all methods of transportation zooming by in different directions. Our guide taught us to walk slowly but confidently and to never stop in the road. Once you start across, you continue moving and do not stop. It was actually amazing once we did it a few times. Somehow the traffic maneuvers around you and you arrive at the other side. At night, you cannot walk on the sidewalks as the 1000’s of scooters are parked on the sides, forcing the pedestrians to walk in the street.
In the Old Quarter, we visited several food shops that are each known for one unique dish. This is very common in Vietnam. You go from place to place having one dish at a time. We tried rice rolls made with pork, chicken and eggs, beef noodle soup and fish rolls that we made with very fresh, tasty ingredients. We also visited a beer garden and sat perched on small plastic chairs watching the chaos in the streets pass us by. Each place was very busy since they are known for their specific dishes. Everything we tasted was excellent.
We then hopped in a cab and were whisked away to see a traditional Water Puppet performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The show was fascinating with traditional Vietnamese music and elaborate puppets that were controlled by people behind the curtain and under the water. It was a series of vignettes and even though we couldn’t understand the language, they were colourful and entertaining to watch.
Our guide met us after the performance and offered to show us nightlife in Hanoi but at this point we were so tired we decided to go back to the hotel and try to sleep since we had an early morning departure to make it back to the ship on time. It had been a memorable day exploring Halong Bay and Hanoi.
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 1 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 2 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 3 & Onboard Azamara Day 1 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 2 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 4 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 5 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 6 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 7 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 8 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 9 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 10 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 11 - click here
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.