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Vietnam fast facts

Vietnamese flag

  • AU$1 is about 13,700 Dong, the local currency.
  • You cannot exchange Vietnamese Dong outside of Vietnam.
  • Hanoi has about 3 1/2 million people.
  • Visas have to be arranged in advance, although big businesses can organise landing visas provided 24 hours notice is given.
  • The electricity supply is a bit unreliable, with most major hotels switching to generators from 6pm - 10pm.
  • Hanoi is very safe, except for a little bit of pick-pocketing.
  • 14,000 people die in road accidents every year.
  • The flagfall for a taxi is 8,500 Dong.
  • A Cyclo costs between 30,000 and 50,000 per hour, depending upon your bargaining skills.
  • A meal for two cost us anywhere from 30,000 to 150,000 Dong.

Mesh networking

Hanoi wiring

Wiring. The wiring in Hanoi was atrocious. There were places where you could reach out over your head and grab onto the overhead cabling. At street corners or outside houses there were these poles that contained a quagmire of cables going in every direction imaginable. None of the locals seemed to mind, that was just the way things were. I'm sure that if they sorted this mess out then some of the problems with the local electricity supply would sort themselves out too.

A kangaroo with bite!

Kangaroo Cafe

This sign gave us one of the biggest laughs of our trip. Just a few doors down from our Bao Khanh hotel in Hanoi was the Kangaroo Cafe. Clearly this was one cafe not to get confused with other Kangaroo Cafe's in Hanoi!

On Tuesday we had another early start to catch our return flight to Hong Kong. At the local hotel's buffet breakfast (which is really very simple) there were ants crawling on the cream jug but everything else seemed fine. If you've got a problem with that then go and stay at one of the 5-star hotels elsewhere and enjoy your 'comfort zone'. We really enjoyed living right in the centre of town for a couple of days.


Whilst the level of English in Vietnam was far superior to that of China, particularly when it came to correct spelling and grammar, we still spotted a couple of Engrish things that tickled our funny bones. One was this barrier at the entrance to a car park, named 'barrie'. Did someone just miss the last letter or is it the name of the company that makes them? Who knows.

At the advice of the hotel we left for the airport with 2 1/2 hours before our flight. This turned out to be a good move because it took an hour to get there and a further 1/2 an hour just to check in. Hanoi airport is clean and tidy but it's not all that big and sometimes the efficiency seems to leave a bit to be desired.

The 2-hour flight back to Hong Kong was rough. At one point both Gail and I saw a bright flash outside which we thought was lighting hitting our plane. As we got closer to Hong Kong the turbulence grew worse, bad enough for me to be physically sick. We touched down in Hong Kong just as a thunderstorm was clearing. I recovered as quickly as I had become ill and we took the A43 bus, KCR, Luo Hu & Metro combination of transport to make it home mid afternoon, tired but happy at our little Vietnamese adventure.

Yet another motorbike on Hanoi streets Lake pagoda

The highlights were the ride in the Cyclo, the scooter rides and Halong Bay. And the food on the junk. And wandering the streets in Hanoi at night. And the experience of such a different culture. And… we loved it!

Andrew on bridge

So long Halong

View from the cave

Monday morning after a yummy breakfast we moved into another bay where we visited Sung Sot Grotto. This cave had 3 large chambers and there are all kinds of myths and legends as to how it was formed and various formations within it. The smell and feel were reminiscent of the Naracoorte caves, for those that have been there, although this was just one three-chambered cave. The exit point is high on the cliff face and we had a great view of the bay.

Sung Sot Grotto 3 Sung Sot Grotto 1 Sung Sot Grotto 2

Sung Sot Grotto 4 Rock feet

At the cave exit there was this curious formation of rock, looking like someone's feet dangling from above. There were other curious formations throughout the caves too, like a line of rock in the roof that looked like a dragon, two people in each other's arms, a wolf, a finger pointing skyward and a turtle that is said to bring good luck if you put your hand on it's head. It looked well-patted. 

At this point I'd just like to make an aside and say that the bathroom on the boat wasn't great, primarily because it's essentially a large shower that happens to have the toilet and basin inside it. This made it difficult to keep things dry. Still, it was a small inconvenience for the wonders on offer.

Halong bay 4 Halong bay 5 Halong bay 6

As we motored back to the wharf at Halong bay we wound our way through more islands further around the bay. Along the way we were served lunch. This consisted of potato and carrot soup, Vietnamese spring rolls, prawns in tomato, ginger beef with spring onions, rice, winter melon, banana, etc. Get the picture yet? We ate like kings!

Halong bay 7 Halong bay 8 Halong bay 9

Upon arrival at the wharf we climbed our way across 5 other boats to actually reach the jetty. We grabbed another water and waited for our transfer. When the van arrived we were greeted by another Australian family, who proceeded to talk almost non-stop the whole 3 hours back to Hanoi. Lots of words, not a lot of information. We were both actually ashamed that this family, who did lots of international travel, but were leaving bad impressions in people's minds about the character of Australians. Still, every country has people it's not proud of. The 20 minutes or so that we had whilst visiting another workshop for supposedly disabled people provided a little relief.

Back at the hotel we showered, again in the 'room that is the shower' bathroom of the local hotel, and flaked out for a while. The high humidity levels really do take their toll. You just have to accept that you can't pack as much into a day as you would otherwise be able to. 

After a rest we did a little local shopping at the supermarket and had an early tea. We spent the rest of the night wandering the markets and streets of the old Hanoi area. We haggled for a few things but it was much nicer doing it here than Shenzhen. The local shop keepers respected the words we used and didn't cling onto our arms to try and drag us back into the shops (except perhaps for the odd little old lady carrying a yoke, but they were so lovely it was inoffensive). We're not big shoppers so we just enjoyed taking in some of the French-inspired architecture and soaked up the atmosphere.

Speaking of atmosphere, let me ask a question. How does one cross the road when there's an unimpeded flow of people on motorbikes, scooters and cyclos? The rules are simple - step off the kerb and walk at a slow but consistent pace and just trust that the bikes will turn, duck and weave to avoid you. It takes courage to do it the first few times (Gail could be found closing her eyes at times while crossing) but after a while it doesn't seem so scary. The video from the Hanoi happenings entry shows the proper technique. After a few days I could start to read some of the traffic and anticipate what it would do.

Hanoi bikes Markets Hanoi at night

Sitting on the shore of the Hoan Kiem lake in the centre of the city Gail & I reflected, whilst munching on some pineapple we bought from a street vendor. Hanoi seems very safe and the people all seem happy. There's a real mix of western influences but it doesn't seem forced or artificial. Things are the way they are and the locals have made that work for them. If something foreign doesn't work for them then it is rejected. There are, of course, the extremes of rich and poor here, yet we almost never saw a beggar. If I could use a word to describe Hanoi, it would probably be 'harmonious'.

The two of us

The beauty of the bay

Halong bay sunset 1

Sunday morning dawned and we eagerly readied our things and ate brekky, ready for our pick-up. The 3 hour trip to get to Halong Bay from Hanoi was a great opportunity to see lots of the countryside, including the red river which was desperately in need of a drink.

Couple on a bike The red river

The car ride was a bit scary at times. For example, there's lots of overtaking. The roads are wide enough for a car and a bike at the same time. If someone coming the other way wants to overtake and they see that there's no bikes next to you then they simply overtake and expect you to move over to let them through. You either move or get clobbered, it's that simple.

Some of the locals really do live very simple lives. Things like rubbish were left on the roadside and people didn't seem to have much. People were driving a few cows along the roadside or working with simple machinery or welders. Did I mention rice paddies? There were rice paddies as far as the eye could see at times. There's some very rudimentary existence going on for some of the people here.

Half way to the bay we stopped off at a tourist spot where local disabled people make embroidery, paintings, enamel-ware, wood carvings, etc. It's expected to buy something here, so we bought a couple of small needle works. The prices were massively inflated and it seemed that every tourist bus going any where near Halong Bay stopped here.

Our Junk A Junk just like ours

After completing our journey and making it through the chaos of the waterfront car park we made our way out the jetty to our junk, the Jewel Of The Bay. It was just one among probably 100 or more boats. A junk is basically a diesel-powered launch that has a couple of traditional looking sails poking out the top of it. Some of the boats did a better job than others of making their sails look legitimate but the reality was that all the boats rely solely on their internal diesel engines.

Gail chilling out Andrew chilling out

Today was our lucky day. Despite being able to sleep 10 people and having a crew of 7, we were the only people on our junk for this overnight cruise. Ahh, the serenity ) .

Looking out to the islands

We motored out across the open area of the bay to where the limestone islands in Halong Bay begin. The bay is made up of 1,969 islands of various sizes, 989 of which have been given names. On the way we were served the most amazing lunch. I'm not normally a seafood fan but this meal was amazing. There were massive prawns, ornately cut vegetables, baked blue swimmer crab, fries, baked mackerel, dragon fruit, a calamari and octopus stir fry and that's only what I can remember. Mouth watering, every single bite of it. It seems that the cook used to work at one of the 5-star hotels in Hanoi.

Limestone Island 3 Limestone Island 2

After lunch had settled and the junk dropped anchor in a bay we set out with our tour leader, who could speak reasonable English, for an afternoon of kayaking. At the base of this rock face there was a cave (see the bottom photo). The tide was low yet the roof of the cave was probably only 3m above the water. As we paddled our way through it emerged into a lagoon. Here the water was clean and clear. We could see some fish swimming around and it was just delightful. After this we paddled our way out of the lagoon, out of the bay, past a few other rock formations and over to a beach. On the way we could see these huge white jellyfish, which we could have almost picked up out of the water on our paddles. It's jellyfish season apparently.

Limestone Island 6 Limestone Island 5 Limestone Island 4

At the beach we climbed our way up the trail to a pagoda-ish styled lookout (middle photo). From here we could see in every direction and everywhere we looked we saw more and more of these huge rock formations, thrusting themselves skyward out of the ocean. It was a breathtaking sight. It simply seems amazing to have these massive stone islands towering around you, ascending almost vertically in places.

It was also at about this point that it dawned on us how many foreigners we've been seeing in Vietnam. People from all over the world seem to come to Vietnam for holidays, particularly the Europeans. We saw or heard tourists from practically every corner of the globe, either here or back in Hanoi city proper.

 Fishing boat Fishing boat 2 Fishing boat meeting a junk

Halong Bay is home to many fisherman. People build these floating houses and spend their entire lives living and working here. At one point there were even a few larger floating houses that seemed to represent a school. Apparently these people cause some trouble for the government because they don't appear on any records as citizens of the country, they spend their entire lives on the water in the bay.

Gigantic prawns Watermelon Ornate vegetables

After Gail had a swim at the beach we made our way back out to the junk, which had re-anchored nearby, for tea. Again it featured these gigantic prawns which nearly filled the dinner plate, an upside down crab shell filled with crab meat, deep fried squid, green veggies, baked fish, cucumber covered in garlic and sweet chilli, rice, ornamentally-styled apples for desert… the list goes on. Needless to say, we didn't go hungry. It was a wonderful and relaxing day.

Limestone Island 1

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