If you haven’t been to Hanoi, put it on your list if you make it to Vietnam. The city is bustling, but far less chaotic than Ho Chi Minh City. It also has a great central area where you can find any kind of food or drink you’re after. We stayed in two separate hotels while here, but both with the same chain, Splendid. The hotels were AWESOME. They were smaller boutique hotels with nice and comfortable rooms, fast wi-fi and free breakfast where you can order anything and eat as much of anything as you want. If I wanted pancakes, a crepe, an omelet and a smoothie, I could get it all fresh made. It was pretty impressive especially considering it was $40 a night!
The highlight of our time in Hanoi was the food tour we did with our German friends, Michael and Marina. The tour took us to a bunch of local establishments and we tried a ton of really good food. The bonus is many of the places were hole in the wall types you probably wouldn’t think to go to yourselves. But many of the spots were so good that Katie and I went back to them in the days following to eat the dishes again. The tour was very different than the fear factor style ones. This just gave fan favorite Vietnamese dishes which meant people were pretty pleased by the end.
We originally planned to go to Halong Bay after a few days in Hanoi, but everyone we talked to who had been in recent weeks said it was a giant tourist trap. I remember lot of tourists when I went eight years ago, so I can only imagine it now with all of the Chinese tourists who have been flooding into SE Asia cities.
Cue us deciding to forgo it and instead staying a few more days in Hanoi and doing a day excursion to the “Halong Bay on land,” Hoa Lu and Tam Coc. You bus there and take a small, two person boat up a river which runs through massive limestone cliffs and rice fields. Also has some caves. The whole day was pretty good as the rides weren’t too long and once there we got to bike around for an hour or on the boat ride through the beautiful surroundings. Crazy thing about the boats is they are all rowed by women who use their legs/feet to row. It is wild to watch as they are straight up relaxing but somehow their legs and feet are rowing normal oars. Blew our minds.
Our biggest accomplishment while in Hanoi was getting our Chinese visas at the local embassy, which was a pain point for months. Getting a visa requires you to surrender your passport as part of the application and turn in tons of paperwork such as bank statements, booked reservations for all travel in the country, plane tickets, proof of travel insurance, etc. It usually takes 4+ business days to process. We first tried in London in Oct. since we were there for a week, but the embassy wouldn’t accept our application because our travel was too far off. Then we were about to rearrange our Laos plans to be in Luang Prabang during the week, but realized it was right after Chinese New Year so the entire week was deemed a holiday and the embassy would be closed. So Hanoi it was, otherwise we decided mainland China just wasn’t meant to be.
So after not having passport for a few days we went to the embassy during the appropriate two-hour block of time the were open to first ensure our visas were granted. They were (YEAH!), so our next order of business was to get an Uber and go to a specific Chinese bank where you have to pay for the visas and get a receipt in order to collect them. Katie waited in the car while I ran in but turns out they don’t accept the local currency of Vietnamese dong, all they will accept is USD (which makes no sense). We usually keep $150-$200 USD for emergencies but it wasn’t enough to cover the $320 in visas costs. An employee at the bank in limited English directed me to a nearby “jewelry store” to get USD (which also made no sense) but after walking in the direction he pointed, found nothing. So at this point we had to let the Uber driver go which was devastating as Katie’s phone didn’t have service in Vietnam and taxis were often scams and we were cutting our two our window extremely short. So we’re left in a random area of the city with no idea of where to get money exchanged and the clock was ticking. Luckily we just picked a direction and ended up finding the jewelry store or at least a jewelry store. They exchanged our money (for no fee which made again no sense) and we were off sprinting back to the bank with the clock ticking. After getting our receipt we then went outside and hailed a local motorcycle taxi and both hopped on the back and directed him by pointing and using the iPhone back to the embassy. We made it just in time before they closed to get the passports and the victory! Basically we felt like we won the show Amazing Race.