Hanoi: Day trip to Ha Long Bay

We decided to splurge and go on a day tour of Ha Long Bay, one of UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage sites. We booked a tour through our hotel for $50 USD each. After the chaos of Hanoi the day before, we were looking forward to being herded around by a tour guide.

Ha Long bay literally means ‘descending dragon’. As Vietnamese legend has it, the Vietnamese were under attack, and the Mother Dragon and her children descended to earth to help the Vietnamese defend themselves. When the enemies’ ships approached, the dragons spewed emeralds to form a wall and stop the ships. Those emeralds are now the islands that you see in Ha Long bay.

The trip to Ha Long Bay takes about 3 hours from Hanoi. It is about 170km, but it takes a long time because of the chaotic traffic and poor roading. Once there, all thirty of us were shepherded onto a small boat for lunch while pulling out from the dock.

Ha Long Bay is beautiful. We had heard that it was polluted and too busy, but the water looked clear, and we found the number of boats to be enough to add to the charm without feeling over-populated.

First, we stopped at a floating dock for a short bamboo boat ride. There was an option for kayaking, but Matt and I are still a bit disabled from our bike crashes a month ago. The bamboo boat was pleasant, though.

Then, we visited the Heaven Palace cave. It was phenomenal – we’ve never seen anything like it before. The photos don’t do it justice.

We were then herded back onto the boat for the long trip back to Hanoi. We enjoyed the day and it was good to have a short break from Hanoi. We had one day left for sightseeing before flying to Hue on Wednesday 12 December.

Hanoi: Overwhelming

We arrived at Hanoi Airport in the evening of Saturday 8 December. Our flight and visa immigration went smoothly.

We chose to catch the airport shuttle, run by Jetstar, assuming that it would be more ‘legitimate’ than other taxis – apparently there are a number of scams that operate from the airport. We should have negotiated the price but didn’t and ended up paying about five times what we should have. The driver told us we would leave in two minutes, turned on the vehicle, took our money, and then walked back to the terminal. We ended up waiting more than half an hour while he touted for more business. We’re not so worried about paying too much – the money is worth a lot more to him than it is to us. But we were upset that he took advantage of our naivety by taking our money and then leaving us to wait for much too long.
It was such a shame to have this as our first experience of Hanoi, as first impressions often last…

The next day, we braved the streets of Hanoi. We heard that Vietnamese traffic was bad – but we had to be there to believe it. Road rules and traffic lights are just a suggestion. If you want to have any chance of getting across the road, you have to look left and right, wade calmly and steadily through the traffic, and just hope for the best. The scooters, bikes, and cars will swerve to avoid you. The footpaths are covered in scooters, rubbish bins, and chairs, so you often end up walking on the road.

Eventually, we made it to Hoan Kiem lake (Lake of the Returned Sword). On the weekends, they close off the streets around the lake, which was a welcome relief! The lake is beautiful and the outside of the temple gorgeous. We didn’t make it into the temple because there were so many tourists.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Hanoi, taking in the sights and the sounds. Cooked food is really cheap here. For lunch we had a big meal of rice paper rolls, salad, lemongrass skewers, a Coke, and a beer – about $8 NZD between the two of us. We arrived at the locals’ entrance to the restaurant, and were escorted through a door to the tourist side. It was shame because we were looking forward to eating with the locals!

In the evening, we went to the crowded night market and bought Gore-Tex rain jackets for about $25 NZD each. We have been unlucky with the weather here – usually there is only one day of rain in Hanoi in December, but our whole trip has been rainy. Negotiating is also hard and stressful – although I’m sure we’ll be pros at it by the end of our trip. I messed up in one of the negotiations for a jacket, thinking we had more money on us, and we had to leave without buying. This is a big faux pas in Vietnam, and the lady looked pissed. We scurried out of the store.

For dinner we had a banh my (a filled roll with hot meat) for $1.50 NZD each. Bahn my are everywhere here, and they are delicious.
After our first day, we were wondering what on earth we were thinking, coming to Vietnam for the better part of a month! Thankfully, things improved over the next couple of days…

Singapore: Cultural differences

Singapore is an interesting place. There are a few striking cultural differences:

  1. Surveillance. Everything – and I mean everything – is surveilled. There are cameras everywhere. And they are obvious – not subtle like we have in New Zealand. There are signs with rules everywhere, threatening exorbitant fines if you break them. The trains have announcements about how you should report any suspicious looking person. It all felt a bit Orwellian.
  2. Safety. The flip side is that Singapore is very safe. On our last day, we passed a sign near our hotel with a ‘Crime Alert’ that someone’s car had been broken into. The suburb we were staying in was quite poor. In Lower Hutt there are probably dozens of car break-ins every day.
  3. No one smiles. Even when you smile at them. Symptom of a big city, perhaps?
  4. BYO napkins. Serviettes are not provided by default at restaurants.
  5. Keep left on escalators. So that people in a rush can walk up them on the right. We quite liked this one.

6. Durians. We’ve worked out the source of the sickly-sweet smell that lingers in Singapore. The smell is from durians – spiky melons that seem to be quite divisive – you either love them or hate them. They are banned on the trains! We tried a durian iceblock and I thought it was pretty gross. Matt seemed ambivalent.

Singapore: Nature walks

The last few days have felt so hectic that Matt and I haven’t had the energy to write about them!

Our last couple of days in Singapore were great. Our frog porridge (that Matt mentioned in the last post) was delicious, although it was difficult to suck the frog meat off the bones without making a huge mess. The frog tasted like a cross between chicken and fish.

Frog porridge (rice porridge and frogs cooked in soy sauce and chilli) from Michelin-recommended Eminent Frog Porridge.

On the day before we left for Vietnam, we visited the MacRitchie Reservoir in the morning (before it got too hot – it was a balmy 28 degrees when we went). It was well worth the hour-long trip to get there. We saw macaques, squirrels, turtles, bright red dragonflies, and a monitor lizard – all a big novelty for us.


Then, we stopped by the Botanic Gardens, which were equally impressive. We got caught in a really heavy thunderstorm that lasted about 45 minutes.

Matt getting up close and personal with red-ear turtles in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens.
The thunderstorm while we were visiting the Botanic Gardens.

In the afternoon, we visited the ION Orchard tower, a very upmarket hotel and shopping mall, with the hope of visiting their free observation deck on the 56th floor, but it was closed for an art exhibition (next time!).

In the evening, we visited Chinatown, and bought some delicious street food – the best food we had in Singapore. Something that has stuck with me is the street vendor shared some of his Eastern worldview – he and his wife always sit beside each other when eating. This is because they know each other so well that they don’t need reminding of the other person’s face – and they are going in the same direction together. This is in contrast to the Western ‘confrontational’ style of sitting opposite each other.

Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown, Singapore.

On our last day in Singapore, for breakfast we visited ‘Guru Nice Bakery’, for a small taste of Western food. It still had a Singaporean twist – everything seemed to be covered in chicken floss (think candy floss with a sugary chicken flavour). It was surprisingly good, and the pastry was some of the best I’ve ever had.

Our flight to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam went smoothly. We’ll post about Hanoi when we’ve regained our energy.

Singapore: First day, local breakfast, Fort Canning Park and Marina Bay

Managed to get a reasonable sleep last night after being awake for 22 hours (no sleep on the plane for me), Lisa was not so lucky. We wandered for a bit and found a cheap cafe / eating house and had a traditional Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast very soft-boiled eggs and sweet coffee with condensed milk  The locals here don’t speak much English as we are not staying in a very touristy part of town but are very friendly. The cafe owner insisted on taking a photo of us with two of his staff, we are obviously quite the novelty.

We then caught the amazing train system (super easy even for tourists) into town and had a wander around, ducking into shopping malls when we needed to escape the heat. We walked through Fort Canning Park which was very peaceful and a nice break from the bustle and then got the train again to Marina Bay which is quite the spectacle. Lunch at the shopping mall there which almost seemed like a city in itself and then had a walk around the gardens there.

Headed back to our hotel as all the walking we have done in the heat is hard work. Heading out to get dinner soon – another local delicacy which is Frog Porridge.


Singapore: Hot and sticky

Our flights and immigration went smoothly. The Sri Lankan gentleman next to us on the plane thought we were Swedish (which I’m taking as a compliment, since Swedes are beautiful people). We also had to try the free Singapore Sling cocktail on our flight, and I think I’ve found my new gin-based obsession when we get home.

Singapore Slings!

Arriving in Singapore, we were immediately hit with the heat and the humidity. This I had expected, but what I hadn’t expected was the strange and almost sickly-sweet smell that Singapore has as a result.

From the airport, we jumped on the MRT train – the only white people on it!! – and made our way to our hotel. We are staying in Geylang, the red light district of Singapore. It was about 10pm when we walked through, but we didn’t see any red-lighting. Geylang is somewhat grungy, and I think I quite like it.

The view from our hotel in Geylang, Singapore

Today, we’ll make a trip into the more glamorous city centre. Matt has slept much better than me, so I’m relying on him to make all of the smart decisions today.

The final countdown…

Eek! Matt and I leave at midday tomorrow.

Our first stop is Singapore for three days, before flying to Hanoi in Vietnam.  We then have a month to get from Hanoi to Bangkok, before flying home again.

Our carry-on luggage is sitting at 6.9 kg each! If we do too much shopping, I might have to wear extra clothing when we fly…