After 10 rescheduled attempts and 2.5 years since our original scheduled departure date, my goodness me, it was good to exclaim that as we landed in Hanoi mid morning of Wednesday. We’d had a long travel day, departing from London on Tuesday morning and travelling via Singapore to Hanoi, but Singapore Airlines made the flight comfortable and despite being in the air 16 hours, we arrived feeling fairly fresh.
Which was a good job, because no sooner than we’d sat on the coach, met our local guide, tour manager and travelling companions for the next 2.5 weeks and caught our breath, were we loading ourselves into individual cyclos for an escorted journey to the hotel through Hanoi’s historical centre. It reminded us of Delhi, but not quite so frantic- the mopeds though, they were a different entity entirely. There were mopeds everywhere!
After a very quick change at the hotel – top tip- always take your own luggage up if you’re desperate for a shower and change of clothes- the porters can take time, and we didn’t have a lot of time on this occasion! – we met Tien again, our local guide and he took us around the sights of Hanoi. He did a marvellous job, I think we were a challenging audience as many of us were starting to fade, but we enjoyed seeing the One pillar pagoda, and of course Ho Chi Min’s memorial.
That evening, we took a walk down to the lake and enjoyed a beer with the locals on the street. We sat on tiny plastic stools and somehow ordered beers and had a chat with locals ( with the help of Google translate). It was a terrific introduction to Vietnam- we’d have loved more time in Hanoi, but it wasn’t to be this time.
On Thursday we departed from Hanoi fairly early and made our way to our first UNESCO site of the trip, Ha Long Bay. I think we were all surprised to see our home for the next night- a 90+ berth luxury ship- for all 26 of us! We had one staff member per customer! It was fabulous.
Our welcome lunch blew us away, with pan fried scallops and sea bass to name just two of the dishes served. We were being treated like royalty, and it was a reminder to us how badly lack of tourism due to COVID has hit this place, and how happy stye are to begin welcoming tourists back again.
After lunch we got our room keys – and we were beyond staggered to see our fantastic room. I think we would have been happy to have had 2.5 weeks in here to be honest!
Our boat stopped and we took the tender boats to the island of Cat Ba where we enjoyed an afternoon of cycling and exploring the village of Viet Hai- which felt like we were in the jungle.
It was fascinating to observe the local community going about their daily life and see the exotic fruits growing wild. Trying local rice wine was a highlight too.
Despite the island being in the middle of Ha Long bay, it didn’t feel touristy at all. We felt very privileged to be there and see the beautiful area.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed sun downers with our group, along with a spring roll making lesson and after another cracking meal – the food on the boat really was as good as any fine dining experiences we’ve ever had- we enjoyed more drinks and the serenity of overnighting in such a beautiful place. We even managed some squid fishing, We didn’t seem to have the knack though- our tipsiness probably scared the squid away- but it was fun nonetheless and another new experience. Ha Long Bay really was quite spectacular- surpassing any expectations.
On Friday morning we took part in Tai Chi on deck as our boat did a full circle and took us deeper into the bay. We had a light breakfast and then went kayaking, and into a cave walk through to a hidden beach. All of this before 9am!
Back on the boat it was time to pack our bags and enjoy one last banquet, this time a brunch, which felt quite subdued as we were all sad to be leaving our 24 hours of bliss. Scenery, great food and a bit of luxury. What’s not to love.
From here we made our way back to the city of Hanoi – in time for traditional Egg coffee- Tien took us to his favourite place and we all loved it. It tasted like a cross between pavlova and coffee, weird but wonderful. We then enjoyed a performance at the water puppet theatre, which was right up our street- folk songs performed on traditional Vietnamese instruments accompanied historical puppets in the water, operated by operators behind a screen.
Following the water puppet show, we went to a local supermarket which was an experience to stock up on train picnic items! Naturally, with the next 14+hours on an overnight sleeper train, which we’d been pre warned was basic…most of our group gravitated to the alcohol aisle. Our corkscrew was promised to various people and we all emerged with a sense of adventure at the forthcoming hours.
On board the overnight sleeper to Hue was an adventure. The cabins were 4 berth comprising of 2 sets of bunk beds, but we had a whole cabin to each couple (or of you were a solo traveler you had 4 beds to yourself!) so no sharing with strangers for us thankfully. The doors locked from the inside and although they were basic, they were definitely more spacious than the equivalent on the USA Amtrak sleeper trains. Each carriage had a loo and wash basin at each end – which became rank by the morning and each carriage also had a hot water boiler for cups of tea or coffee should you wish. Our carriage comprised solely of people from our group and we all were in great spirits! In fact, fuelled by our spirit of adventure, and a drop of alcohol- Keith and I tried the Vietnamese red wine which at £3 a bottle wasn’t bad at all, we enjoyed some sociable corridor drinks with our travelling companions.
All was well until Ian,our GRJ tour manager, and Tien, our local guide appeared baring bad news. It turned out that our destination was about to be hit by a typhoon and our hotel was already under water- we were in danger and the schedule for the next couple of days was unachievable. We were told that at this point all they knew was that we’d have to leave the train earlier than planned- at 5am- and by then we’d hopefully have a new plan. Corridor party was officially halted as we all retreated to our cabins, slightly worried about what happens next. I don’t think anyone managed much sleep that night!
The next morning arrived and bleary eyed and fretting, we emerged into a monsoon as we exited the train in a very small town somewhere about 100 miles north of Hue. A coach was waiting for us – a welcome shelter with its air conditioning- Asian trails on behalf of GRJ did a good job getting that arranged for us in the small hours of the night and we were informed that there still wasn’t an exact plan, it was being worked on but for now we would try and find somewhere for coffee. The town was very small – it was Dong Hui-and a pit of anxiety was in my tummy- I was sure we were being sent home. They found us somewhere to go for coffee – an achievement considering it was still only about 5.30am and this wasn’t a tourist town, and after this we were told there was good news- we would be making our way to a resort down the road- they had rooms available for us and we could hunker down there until more plans were finalised. The resort- a 5* lake side resort appeared actually to be closed prior to us lot turning up, and the staff basically opened up for us. How this was arranged in such short notice we’ll never know, but it will live on in our memory as to why we will always use GRJ. They have the best ground agents going and appear to be able to get resorts to open their doors out of season, out the blue and give us better than ok shelter that ended up being a highlight of our trip!
Once we’d all showered and refreshed, most of us re boarded our coach. The rain hadn’t stopped but we were going on an adventure to nearby UNESCO caves. The hotel manager Sarah, became our local guide under the watch eye of Tien and Ian, and she led us on a terrific days exploring at the Paradise caves. They were simply phenomenal. We trekked high into the jungle and then deep into miles upon miles of caves into the mountain. The cave formations were just so impressive- our coach load of tired and emotional Brits loved every single second.
Behind the scenes, the team were planning how to get us over the typhoon and flooded area safely, and later, over dinner, we would learn that whilst sadly we couldn’t fulfil the Hue and Hoi Ann sections of our programme, we could however continue with our tour and would be flown over central Vietnam to Ho chi min city (formerly Saigon) the next day. Whilst we were sad to be missing some historical and wonderful sites, including some UNESCO sites, plus a large chuck of travelling one railway down the coast, we were beyond relieved that we weren’t being de toured to London aka home!
That afternoon, after a lovely late lunch and a good rest in the beautiful lakeside villas at Phong Nha Lake house resort – our entire group gathered as happy hour arrived and we enjoyed a great evening of food, drinks and laughter – Sarah and the staff at the resort served us so well- it ended up being quite a day, but one we will remember!
On Monday morning we were up early and waving bye to our hosts as we went off to Dong Hui airport for our flight to Saigon. What fun we’d had in Northern Vietnam. As sad as we were to be leaving without seeing Hoi Ann and Hue, we just know we will return. And include SaPa too.
Our journey for now we set to continue South though. Until next time