Discovering Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa

9 February 2015

After I have travelled to Vietnam, I can say that it is one of the most exciting, cultural and overall exciting destinations I have ever been to. Diverse landscapes, humble people and great food. Truly my favourite country in Asia.

HANOI: Vietnam's Capital

Hanoi - a small city of tree-lined boulevards, lakes, elegant squares and weathered colonial buildings. The city remains small, charming and historic. Hanoi's centre is an architectural museum piece, its blocks of ochre buildings retaining the air of a provincial French town in the 1930s. The people of Hanoi are known for being more reserved - and at the same time more traditionally hospitable - than their southern compatriots.

WHAT TO SEE:

The main sights of Hanoi that I visited are the Old Quarter, the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the famous Hanoi Hilton or "Hao Lo prison" and the Opera House. There are a lot of temples to see, my favourite is Ngoc Son Temple that extends out into the lake, with Vietnamese history displays, giant turtles including a mummified specimen. On an island in Hoan Kiem Lake, this quiet 18th-century shrine, whose name means "jade mountain," is one of Hanoi's most picturesque temples.

However, much if this city's charm lies not so much in the official sights, but in the everyday life and energy of the city. Take a walk down one of the busy streets, feel the bustle of pedestrians, try one of the street food stalls and have a look at the boutique shops with arts and handicrafts. Every corner there is something else to see including friendly smiles from the locals.

 

WHERE TO STAY:

I stayed at the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel, which can be described as the "Raffles" of Hanoi. The historic French colonial style Metropole wing contains the original rooms, while the new wing is named the Opera. It boasts fantastic restaurants and bars and a famous chocolate buffet. Alternatively, the Intercontinental Westlake 5* hotel is a good choice, located in the north of the city with beautiful views over the largest lake in Hanoi.

 

SIDE TRIP TO HALONG BAY:

It is a fantastic destination for a weekend, but also a gateway to signature tourist experiences in Vietnam. Whilst you can do a day trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay, (it takes three hours to get there), I would recommend doing an overnight or two-night cruise.

Halong Bay, how to describe it? Breathtaking. I remember always looking at brochures of this particular spot but seeing it for the first time was thrilling. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the seven New Wonders of Nature, it is a must-see spot for your trip.

The advantage of a cruise in Ha Long Bay is that you will have more time to explore the larger islands with caves and secluded beaches and see the traditional fishing communities. Cat Ba is the largest island in the archipelago that I visited for two days and what a surprise it was. Half of the island is covered by a National Park, which is home to the highly endangered Cat Ba Langur. The interior scenery is stunning, ideal for a short walk or bicycle ride. Natural habitats on Cat Ba area like coral reefs, mangrove and seagrass beds, lagoons and tropical limestone forests.

 

SIDE TRIP TO SAPA:

Hanoi is also the gateway to the mountainous Northwest region of Vietnam, bordering China. Sapa in the far northwest is a former French hill station. Once again, the scenery in this region is quite simply stunning. Trekking is very popular in this region and you can conquer the highest mountain in Vietnam, called Fansipan and stands at 3, 143 meters high. Tourists who are fit and have mountain climbing experience will enjoy this attraction the most, as the peak is accessible all year round. Go see one of the rice fields, one of the many markets available throughout the week and visit one of the many villages.

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