Around the World Trip: Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

*By Whitney*

Vietnam was the 8th country on our trip!

If you haven’t already, check out my posts on our adventures at the other stops: 

Timeline for Hanoi: Oct 4-8th, and Ha Long: Oct 8-15th

We had heard great things about Vietnam in general, and we liked Vietnamese food, so we were excited for this part of the trip! Unfortunately, we started off on a really bad note in Hanoi which made us not so sure about Vietnam! First, we’re not crazy about big cities, and Hanoi was definitely that. To top it off, the motorbike drivers there are crazy and the sidewalks aren’t in great condition, so being a pedestrian is a nightmare. But the big kicker was our bad Airbnb experience!

The Hanoi Airbnb

As soon as we arrived in Hanoi, it was night time and we had to take a bus from the airport, then walk 20 mins or so through what looked like a potentially sketchy part of town to our Airbnb while carrying our bags. Then, when we got to what looked like the address, a man came up to us on the street and knew Jared’s name. So, we assumed it was our host, but there wasn’t really a formal introduction and there was a bit of a language barrier. He informed us that there was construction outside his house (our Airbnb) that would be loud and wake us up early in the morning. He said that we would be better staying at his friend’s place down the street and for us to follow him.

Sounds sketchy, right? Well luckily it was a busy street, so we just decided to follow him. We were very confused, and we weren’t really given much of an option. Along the way I tried to discern more information. He stated that his friend’s place was also an Airbnb and it was comparable to his listing. We arrived at a gate and his friend met us, took us down an alley (it really wasn’t quite as sketchy as it sounds ha), and we arrived at a new building with an Airbnb sign on the door.

We found out that this new host really didn’t speak English, so that was interesting. He took us through the main level which had a common area, kitchen, and washing machine. He took us up some steps to our apartment and gave us our keys. I immediately knew that this was not as nice as the listing we had paid for because it was a much smaller room and not very clean. The bathroom was muggy and full of mold. I was very upset to say the least. But it was about 10pm at this point, our new host didn’t speak English, and our would-be host was gone. So we decided just to stay there and that it would be fine for just a couple days (well 4 to be exact). Unfortunately for me, I just couldn’t shake my disgust over the situation and the accommodations, and it honestly made for a really bad time in Hanoi.

Maybe we should’ve said something to the host or looked for new accommodations. But we didn’t want to cause too much trouble, and we felt it would be a hassle to move our stuff again once we were already there one night. We did leave a 2-star review reflecting everything that happened. This was the only time we’ve ever really had a bad experience with Airbnb. I really wish the host would’ve just told us in advance about the construction, taken us to his place and let us be the judge of whether the noise was a problem. But never the less, it was only 4 days and we survived, ha!

The Hanoi Experience

We were able to have some fun and see some cool things while in Hanoi, but I will say our moods were definitely affected by the busy nature of the city, the motorbike traffic, and the Airbnb!

We did some sightseeing including walking around the Old Quarter and around the lakes; visiting the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the imperial citadel, Hoa Lo Prison museum, and a taoist temple. We visited the Night Market with a British friend we had met in Chiang Mai, and we went to a Jazz Club with some new American friends we met on the bus from the airport!

We learned that we love the northern Vietnamese dish Bún chả! We went to two different Bún chả restaurants, including the one where President Obama visited with Anthony Bourdain! We had some other Vietnamese dishes as well including Pho, but I think we got suckered into some tourist traps with not as good food. Since this was our first stop in Vietnam, we didn’t really know any of the language yet or the dishes (besides Pho), and we found that a lot of the restaurants didn’t have English signs or menus like they did in Thailand. So just to make it easier on ourselves, we only went to places with English, which are usually the tourist spots and probably not as tasty!

We also went to two different gyms and spent some time in cafes writing while in Hanoi.

Ha Long Bay

After our few days in Hanoi, we were more than ready to escape the big city and go to beautiful Ha Long Bay! We took a tourist bus from Hanoi which was arranged by our hostel in Ha Long. Everyone else on the bus was headed there for a day tour and they just stuck us on there as well to get from A to B (which we thought was crazy because it was a 3.5 hour bus ride each way to visit such an amazing place for only a few hours!). We on the other hand were staying in Ha Long for a whole week, which we found out was very unusual for most people who either do a half day, or at most one to two days! But we enjoyed being there longer and getting to see more of the area, and relax some!

Our hostel was actually really nice and had a private room and private bathroom, which is the only reason we agreed to stay in a hostel in the first place. We got to hang out in the lobby and talk to the friendly staff and some other guests a few times. They also provided free breakfast every morning and one free beer at Happy Hour each day, which were awesome perks for an already cheap accommodation! The location was pretty good, in Ha Long City with plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and the local market nearby. However, we found out that we would have preferred to stay across the bridge in the Hong Gai area of town instead of the Bai Chay tourist area. Better yet, we’d really prefer to stay on Cat Ba island!

While we were there we did the absolute must, a day tour on a boat in Ha Long Bay. This was an awesome experience and so beautiful! Another day, we rented a motorbike and drove ourselves to the ferry terminal in Bai Chay to get the ferry across to Cat Ba Island. We spent the day motorbiking around Cat Ba Island. We visited a beautiful beach there, went on a short hike in the national forest, saw a hospital in a cave they built during the war, and saw another interesting cave as well! It was such a fun experience, and our only regret was not spending more time on the island! Like I said, if we go back we’d prefer to just stay on Cat Ba Island!

We also ate some really good food, met some nice people, relaxed, went to an awesome gym, and did some blogging while there! I also got frustrated by Vietnamese coffee a lot there, haha! But overall our experience in Ha Long was a lot better than Hanoi, and it really started to lift our spirits about Vietnam!

Next Stop: Da Nang, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam!

Insider Tips on Hanoi and Ha Long Bay:

  • For tips on hygiene and sanitation, check out the insider tips section at the bottom of my Chiang Mai post! Most of it applies for all of Southeast Asia!
  • In Vietnam, they drive on the right.
  • The currency is the Vietnamese Dong and it’s approx 1 USD = 23,000 dong. They don’t use coins, only bills.
  • You can use plug types A, C, and F. This means generally if you’re from the US or Europe (not UK), you can use your plugs without an adapter. But the Voltage is 220+ so even if it fits, you may still need a voltage converter. Modern electronics like laptops and cell phones are compatible at the US voltage of 110 and the other countries at 220+.
  • The language is Vietnamese, which uses the Latin alphabet with additional accent marks, making it slightly easier to pick up on for Westerners. However, pronunciation is difficult due to many tones.
  • A few important Vietnamese words to learn:
    • Hello: Xin Chao (there are a lot more greetings to learn that they use depending on who they’re talking to, but as a tourist this one was the easiest and seemed to suffice!)
    • Thank you: Cam On (I heard a lot of pronunciations of this one, but basically it’s just like saying “come on”)
  • In Hanoi, people aren’t necessarily as friendly as in other parts of Southeast Asia in our experience. It could just be the hustle and bustle of the city, but I didn’t find people to be as nice or friendly. It was a little better in Ha Long though!
  • Motorbikes are everyone’s primary means of transportation, and they have no bounds! They drive like crazy, don’t follow road or sidewalk rules. You have to be very careful as a pedestrian. And if you ride with someone in a taxi, bus, motorbike etc just try not to look! ha!
  • Because of the crazy drivers, they don’t always necessarily stop for red lights or cross walk signals (if there is a signal at all), so you have to get used to looking for a small gap in the traffic and just starting to walk. It’s scary at first, but you’ll get used to it. Just start to walk out slowly and maybe put your hand out in a “halt” sign, then they will work around you. Try to just keep moving slowly, because the worst is if you come to a dead stop and they’re trying to predict that you were going to keep going, then they might wreck or have to come to a complete stop too!
  • Grab taxi (their version of Uber) is the best way to get a taxi if you need one.
  • Watch out for scams if you rent a motorbike. Be sure to do your research and thoroughly check the bike. I wouldn’t dare rent one in Hanoi because it’s such crazy driving! But in Ha Long it wasn’t too bad for Jared (I would never be able to drive one, anywhere!).
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