In Greece in the ‘70s one used to travel hopefully, rather than expectantly. And thus it was when we landed in Halong Bay.
Prior enquiries suggested taxis would be lined up at the port, but this turned out not to be the case. Assisted by the very helpful Concierge and Vietnamese tourist rep, after 30 minutes or so a taxi was arranged. Feeling optimistic we approached the Azamara shuttle bus. Locals hovered, vying for our business, keen to renegotiate our deal. We waited for the bus to start. It didn’t. My Vietnamese is not that hot but we soon got the message the bus wouldn’t drop us off to meet our taxi. For double the price, though, one of the helpful locals could take us to Hanoi.
Back off the bus. Optimism fading. Thank goodness for the Azamara Concierge, Tiago, who, after much toing and froing – apparently the ‘rules’ had changed – got it sorted. And again we found ourselves walking off the ship and onto the shuttle bus.
Eventually, long after all the excursion buses to Hanoi had left, we got our taxi and after a pretty slow, scary, drive on a busy pot-holed road made it to the outskirts of the city. I thought the driving conditions were pretty mad on the way to Hanoi, but this paled into insignificance once we reached the city proper.
Mopeds, scooters, darting everywhere at speed, swarming like locusts. Then, from nowhere an elderly lady cycles slowly, with purpose, and totally oblivious to the traffic, diagonally across the four-lane road in the opposite direction. My heart is in my mouth and that’s where it stayed for most of our time in the city.
Two wheels are King in Vietnam. A family of four travelling on a small moped for two, no wait there’s more, make that five counting the baby. All while dad’s driving and texting. Yes, texting, moving at speed with his entire family on the back of the bike – incredible. If not talking on their mobiles, texting or eating whilst driving, bikes here are used to carry everything: beds; livestock – dead or alive; trees. The driver often invisible, save for a pair of hands clutching the handlebars. And this was not just an occasional one-off, it was common-place.
Crossing the road was an experience and definitely not for the faint hearted. At the Hotel Metropole in the French Quarter – which I thoroughly recommend – the Concierge advised when crossing the street: don’t run; don’t stop; keep walking with purpose right through the traffic. Oh, and by the way, be careful!
But as chaotic as it all was – red lights and the Highway Code in Vietnam seem more for guidance than obligatory – it all seemed to work. We never saw any accidents or bumps. There was no road rage. No altercations or raised voices. Just smiling, dignified, people going about their daily life. The main downside was the pollution that did get our sinuses twitching a bit. Maybe we should invest in masks.
Street life in Vietnam is lived to the full and nowhere more so than Hanoi. On almost every pavement and corner groups of people of all ages perch on low plastic stools eating snacks or full-blown meals, cooked to order on the street. Want a shave or a haircut, gents? No problem, get it done on the street. A game of badminton perhaps? Bring your own net and set it up across the pavement and you have a ready-made court. Certainly, the pavements are used for everything, in particular parking motorbikes, which can make walking on them a bit tricky.
But we loved it!
We were particularly lucky to be there just before the Tet celebrations (the lunar year of the Snake) and all the streets were decorated with artificial peach blossoms, flags and banners which added even more colour, if that were possible, to the city. The Old Quarter is a maze of ramshackle buildings, shopping streets and markets teeming with people and life. Silk, lacquered goods, basket-ware, fake sunglasses and almost everything you can think of. Much cheaper than Hong Kong but, it has to be said, not always the same quality. And, of course, live animals!
Everyone eats on the street, the air toxic with the aroma. There seems to be an abundance of food. As I said, very happy, friendly, people and though little English is spoken I found everyone to be polite and respectful. The only time we were hassled at all was by the occasional shoe- shine boy, trying to convince him they could polish his suede shoes back to life!
The main tourist attraction in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh quarter where the impressive marble and granite tomb of the father of the country lies in state. However, having read there could be long queues – and we hate queuing – instead we chose to go to the Hao Lo Prison, widely know as the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners during the war. We spent a fascinating hour there before walking back to the hotel, dodging motorbikes on the way and soaking up the atmosphere before it was time to get our taxi back to Halong. A long drive, though definitely worth it and a great experience.
Back to the sanctuary of our ship and soon we were sailing out of Halong Bay in the mist through the thousands of limestone islets jutting out from the sea. Passengers crammed the decks until dusk to savour every last glimpse of this spectacular natural wonder and it’s one we wouldn’t have missed for the world. And I reflected, once again, we could not have had this unforgettable experience, unless on a cruise.
Read Chapter 1: Introduction: Is a cruise going to be the right choice for me?
Read Chapter 2: We’re on our way! Hong Kong
Read Chapter 3: Down time onboard the ship
Read Chapter 5: Vietnam: Denang and Anhoi
Read Chapter 6: Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Read Chapter 7: Thailand: Bangkok
Read Chapter 8: Thailand: Ko Samui
Read Chapter 9: Singapore
Read Chapter 10: Azamara Club Cruises: the verdict
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Azamara.