Ha Long Bay panoramic

Vietnam diaries part 3: Hanoi in 72 hours

Due to other commitments this blog has been six months in the making, but for those who haven’t seen the first entries from my adventures in Vietnam, you can find out about Ho Chi Minh City or Hoi An by clicking either of the links.

The final leg of my journey saw me have just 72 hours in Vietnam’s capital, but with a bit of prior planning anyone can explore the wonders that Hanoi has to offer in this time, and here’s how:

Day 1: Explore the city

For my trip my hotel, the Splendid Star Grand, was located just five minutes from Hoan Kiem Lake, a perfect central location near the old quarter. Beware though, although Ho Chi Minh can also be a hotspot for pick-pocketing, most locals in Hanoi will warn you of the dangers of its winding streets. Leave any unnecessary items in your hotel room, and ensure any items such as a camera or phone are in a bag while you’re out and about, otherwise you could fall foul.

Leave your hotel early and head towards the Old Citadel war museum, offering a great insight into the many different wars that have ravaged the country for decades. If you’re into history or simply intrigued by Vietnam’s cultural shifts in the last century, it’s well worth a visit.

From there, head west to the Botanical gardens for a relaxing stroll around the cities gardens. Like most cities, the patch of green landscape and quiet surroundings can be a welcome break, even if you have just arrived.

Continue through the park down to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a national monument to the revolutionary leader of the North during the infamous Vietnam war. Just a short stroll away you will find the Hoa Lu prison, which housed both American and French POW’s captured during the two wars. Although the prison only offers a very basic level of information due to poor translations, the site is still worth a visit if only to see the terrible conditions the POW’s suffered in less than 50 years ago.

As the sun starts to set, head back east towards Hoan Kiem Lake, the turtle tower in the middle offering a great opportunity for pictures in the dying light, while the many cafe’s, restaurants and bars will satisfy any cravings you may have.

Hanoi truly comes alive once the sun goes down. Start at one of the many sky bars overlooking the lake before heading into the Old Quarter and wait for your senses to be well and truly overloaded. As mentioned before keep your wits about you, and enjoy the many bars the quarter has to offer, for a night that is truly unforgettable.

Day 2: Halong Bay

You can’t visit Vietnam without visiting Halong Bay, but be prepared for a long day if you’re only doing a day trip. Excursions will leave at around 7am and take roughly 4 hours to reach the bay. Once there you will take a boat through the bay itself and see what a true wonder it is, before heading to a floating village for a more slow-paced view of the cave system. Both are great experiences and will highlight just how spectacular the place really is. After this you will be taken down into a recently discovered cave system, which again is truly remarkable, but has been ruined by coloured lights making the entire system seem unnatural.

Before you know it, your day trip will be over, it’s hard to describe it, and really is a place you have to see to believe, but personally my recommendation would be that if you can extend your stay in Hanoi by a day, book an overnight trip on a junk ship instead. The day trip offers a great introduction to the bay, but you come away feeling that you have only seen a fraction of what it has to offer, as the guides are conscious of the 8-hour round trip to and from Hanoi.

Day 3: Day trip to Tam Coc

There are many different day trips you can do while in Hanoi, but if you only have a single day left to play with in your itinerary, then without a doubt a visit to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc must be on your list.

In comparison to Halong Bay, the 2-hour journey will seem like a breeze. Your day will start with a visit to the old Vietnam capital of Hoa Lu, which was the countries capital around 900AD. You’ll hear about the remarkable history of the Ding dynasty and see the intricate details they painstakingly added to each of the temples.

A short journey round to Tam Coc will offer you a truly unforgettable experience. Personally this was my highlight of my entire Vietnam travels other than Hai Van Pass, and that is taking a bamboo boat down the river. A 90-minute slow cruise will take you through winding valleys between rice paddies, allowing you to truly unwind from the world and simply take in the sights.

To finish off the great day, you’ll take a bike on a 4km cycle journey around the town, exploring the rice paddies and farm lands yourself while learning about Vietnam’s vast agricultural expertise.

Summary of Vietnam

A truly unmissable country, Vietnam should be on anybody’s travel bucket list. Steeped in history and playing such an important factor in the 20th century it’s a beautiful country offering a vast array of activities, adventures and places to visit. Still featuring quite a strong North/South divide, it’s worth spending 2-3 weeks to truly appreciate the country and make the most of its amazing landscape.

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