Hạ Long, Vietnam

Sunday, June 9, 2024

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Halong Bay's one of those places where you'd go in with expectations. It's just tough not to. After all, it's built up a pretty solid reputation as a must-visit destination both for its history and breathtaking views, and one would expect it to look postcard-perfect, to marvel at its emerald-clear waters, and to catch a glimpse of what life in the past was like. 

And from a picturesque point of view, it definitely lived up to the expectations. The beauty of Halong Bay is undeniable, but the palpable air of heavy tourism muted the overall experience. No actual statistics to back me up here, but I'd hazard a guess that travel-related spending contributes the most to the income for locals in the area, especially coupled by the dwindling of the fishing villages. 

Attempting to immerse and "live like a local" was not going to happen here, and the sooner you embrace the role of a tourist in the overall ecosystem, the more fun you'll probably have. 

Day 3 | 8 December

As a continuation of our Vietnam trip, we booked a tour bus that would pick us up from our hotel in Hanoi in the early morning and get us to Halong Bay. In between, we had stopovers for snacks, bio breaks, and even a mini excursion to a pearl farm. 

We then boarded our little ferry, where we could explore the deck and soak in the views. Lunch was also served onboard, where we got to dine family-style with strangers. We were sitting with a couple of Singaporeans, and made friends with a lovely family and two girls around our age traveling together. Singapore is tiny, and of course we had mutual friends with the son of the family; and even ended up keeping in contact and spending some time together back in Hanoi the following day. 

After a good amount spent at sea, everyone disembarked and explored the Sung Sot cave by foot, the biggest limestone cave in Halong Bay. It was breathtaking to be within a natural structure like this, but the way we were all marching along the tiny man-made walkway single-file in our tourist clusters was amusing. Akin to ants scurrying around within their organized network of tunnels, except what we were doing was a lot less productive in comparison.  

It was then time for one of the highlights of the day's itinerary–kayaking in Halong Bay, particularly through the Luon Cave. As someone not into water sports, this activity was surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable. 

Monkey see, monkey do, a phrase perhaps more aptly coined for humans. 

There were tons of us. 

Afterwards, we docked at Ti Top Island where we were given time to explore the coastal area and take an easy hike up to the peak to get the best view of the bay. Yes, that's where the cover/ first photo for this post was taken. There wasn't anything else to do though, and we spent time chatting with the Singaporeans we were acquainted with. 

It was also at this point that JX and I realised we were one of the only few that were staying overnight at Hạ Long, specifically in a hotel in Bai Chay. Everyone else only booked the day trip and were heading back to Hanoi.

Bai Chay, despite being described as a "lively resort area", turned out to be an absolute ghost town while we were there. It was actually confusing, like we were in some sort of glitch in the matrix. The hotel was arranged by the tour operator, and they provided a home-cooked dinner as there weren't any restaurants open/ available in the vicinity. Lovely in theory, but not when one's a bit of a fussy eater. 

JX and I decided to take a stroll along the empty Bai Chay beach at night, where we found an an open beach bar called the Chill Beach Bar Ha Long. And real chill it was–we were the only customers, and I'm not sure if the bartenders were even expecting anybody. No complains here though, as I had a decent ramos gin fizz, and it was quite a lovely atmosphere with mood music under the fairy lights.  

Day 4 | 9 December

We woke up early trying to make the best out of our time in Hạ Long city, half-expecting to see more life in the morning. Yet for some reason, we were still the only ones out and about, which was honestly unnerving. Sure, having an entire beach to ourselves is a luxury some can only dream of, but not when you least expect it. 

The empty beach did make for a good backdrop for my bookstagram, which I appreciated anyway.

As we continued walking into the city, we were greeted by rows and rows of closed shops. Several of the buildings felt like mere shells, with no life within. We even passed a few night clubs, but it didn't look like any of them were hosts to wild parties the previous night. 

At this point I was just looking forward to head back to Hanoi. And perhaps I was too excited to return, as I'd carelessly left one of my Pixel earbuds in the Bai Chay hotel room and only realised when I wanted to listen to some tunes on the bus back to the capital. 

JX immediately contacted our tour guide from the previous day, who then got in touch with the hotel. There was a fair bit of back and forth as the hotel staff initially couldn't locate it, though it was later found under the bed. Despite the language barrier and scheduling complications, our guide made the trip to the hotel to fetch the tiny item, and returned with it the following night in Hanoi, even meeting us personally to hand it back. 

It may seem like a small gesture, but it was this experience that anchored exactly what had been missing from the overall Hạ Long trip–the incredible warmth of people, especially locals, which is exactly what makes traveling so special. Even as an introvert, it felt so strange and surreal when we didn't get to interact with anyone during our night there, but I'm glad the unexpected detour of my earbud's journey allowed me to encounter the allure of Vietnamese hospitality and its people. 

Definitely not the beauty I was expecting from visiting Halong Bay, but it's heartening to know that the trip afforded us both the outward appearance and inner charms of Vietnam. 
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Hanoi, Vietnam (Part I)

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Southeast Asia is undoubtedly my favourite region in the world–yes, no bias there at all, it's truly the perfect balance of tradition and modernity when it comes to food, attractions, and sights, and Vietnam in recent years has been gaining popularity as a holiday destination. In December 2022 (I'm very aware this post is way overdue), I hopped on the bandwagon to Hanoi and can confirm the hype. 

Full transparency though, it definitely isn't my top SEA city, due in part to its relentless traffic which put me in a constant state of anxiety. Crazy traffic isn't new to me, but what I experienced in Hanoi was on another level, I just couldn't relax at any point whenever I was walking along the streets of the Old Quarter, even if I wasn't actively trying to cross a busy road. 

But when you do get to where you need to get to, it's worth it. 

JX and I decided to explore Vietnam's capital at a pretty slow pace, much unlike the bustle of the city, but it allowed us to soak in everything it had to offer and he managed to capture some amazing shots that I'm reproducing with permission in this and my subsequent posts. 

Day 1 | 6 December 

We arrived in Hanoi in the afternoon and decided to take it chill, checking into our hotel, getting a quick pho fix at a spot nearby, and walking around the Old Quarter without much of a plan. 

In the evening we headed to Blackbird Coffee Chan Cam, which was this quaint double-storey cafe which reminded me very much of spots in South Korea. The subtle Christmas touch added a lovely, homey vibe and we had the best time people watching from our cosy nook on the second floor. 




Caffeine at night is acceptable on a trip, as is a warm almond croissant. 

Post our evening coffee run, we headed for another type of energy fix at The Terminal Cocktail Bar, a speakeasy that took some sleuthing around to get to–according to maps we were standing at the right spot but couldn't find the bar till a random lady walked up to us on the dimly lit street and asked if we were looking for something. Turns out she works for the bar, and led us to it via a back alley. 

Unfortunately, locating the bar was the highlight of the night. Yes, there were decent drinks but nothing to shout about. Writing this post almost 1.5 years on, it seems like the bar has shut its doors for good. 

Day 2 | 7 December 

We started the day with a quick hotel breakfast at Hotel De Luc, which had a good-sized spread for the affordable price we paid for accommodation, before making our way to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake to start our historical tour day.

Thê Húc Bridge.

Within the walls of the Ngọc Sơn Temple, or the Temple of the Jade Mountain. 

For some strange reason, everyone we had asked for Hanoi/ Vietnam recommendations raved about Pizza 4P's and while skeptical that a restaurant clearly specializing in a dish of Italian origin ranked so highly in a country with no lack of their own tasty, hearty cuisine, we had to try it ourselves. And though I didn't think this chain was the brainchild of a bunch of Italians, two Japanese entrepreneurs was still unexpected. 

I'd say we had the best seats in the house. 

Pizzas were prepared and baked on-demand, which explains how fresh each dish tasted. 

Toppings were incredibly generous. 

For what it's worth, JX absolutely loves pizza and we did end up eating here twice throughout the duration of our trip. I'm not proud of it and it wasn't my idea, but I didn't protest the decision. 

Bellies filled (and somewhere protruding as can be seen in the above photo), we headed to the Temple of Literature next, which should be more accurately translated as the Temple of Confucius. It used the be the grounds of Vietnam's first national university. 

Historical structures are quite the marvel, but it was difficult to fully appreciate the beauty of it all without a guide/ good understanding of the significance of the area. That's on me for the lack of research, especially knowing that exploring more under-developed attractions don't come with curated audio guides.  A stunning photo subject nonetheless. 

We'd also probably be praying at this spot if we were still in school with exams to sit for. 

I also loved that the attractions were not overladen with tourists, which is obviously hypocritical coming from a tourist myself, but it was nice walking around in peace, reflecting the tranquility of the location. Certain spots are just best kept a little secret. 

We then stopped by Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and witnessed the changing of the guards. While we didn't enter to see the tomb–it's only open for visitors on a couple days of the week in the morning–it was a grand structure fitting for the influential leader, and the surrounding area being closed off to traffic better allowed me to take it all in.  

All the historical sites were within a comfortable, walkable distance from each other and getting to each one by foot allowed us to take in the sights (and sounds and smells) of the streets. I must admit that it was quite the sensory experience. 

The final stop of our journey was the Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple of the city. I'm not religious, but I resonate with many teachings of Buddhism, and the overwhelming sense of calm I got within the intricate walls of the temple, was welcome. 

Lotus flower, symbol of purity of the mind, body and speech. 

These cute Vietnamese ladies were having a photoshoot at the entrance of the pagoda.

All the historical sites were within a comfortable, walkable distance from each other and getting to each one by foot allowed us to take in the sights (and sounds and smells) of the streets. I must admit that it was quite the sensory experience. 

After a day of walking, we treated ourselves to a dinner of champs. Perhaps the one dish that I was looking forward to the most in Hanoi was Bun Cha (Vietnamese meatballs), but not any Bun Cha. It's the one from Bún Chả Hương Liên, a stall made famous by the visit by the late Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama back in 2016. 

If it's good enough for a US President, it's surely more than good enough for me. Apart from a sealed up glass display of the exact table and stools that the duo sat in when they visited the restaurant and a meal combo aptly named 'Combo Obama', the restaurant has retained its humble, old-school charm. No frills, just good caramelized grilled pork meaballs in a savoury broth, paired with rice noodles and herbs.  

Yes, we did get the combo, and it didn't disappoint at all. I'm not a beer drinker by any means, but even the choice of Bia Ha Noi, went amazingly well with the rich, umami flavours of the main star of the dish. That said, I'd probably give more credit to Anthony Bourdain for the food and drink pairing. 

A gentle stroll by the lake in the evening. 

It didn't feel right to end the night after our walk, mainly because my sweet tooth hasn't been satisfied throughout the day, so we took a little detour to a cute cafe, Artemis Pastry, for some treats. 

And the stunning mousse-based desserts were exactly what we needed to end off the productive yet not overwhelmingly packed day of exploration and sight-seeing. 

I loved how we were able to alternate the visiting of modern shopfronts and those still up-keeping tradition, which is perhaps a recurring theme made even more obvious as I recount the rest of my Vietnam trip in subsequent posts. I do hope this fine, precarious balance can somehow still be retained for many years to come, though this is an issue plaguing so many cities in the face of what we call "progress". 

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