I’m at the Hanoi airport, sitting on the floor while waiting for Air Asia’s check-in counters to open. It’s my last hour and some stray minutes in Vietnam.
Hanoi has been… interesting. The city has an old world charm. The streets are small in the Old Quarter, lined with shop houses with French and Chinese influences. Sidewalks are nearly non-existent as some shops extend their wares, while most use it as a parking spot for their motorcycles.
Walking in Hanoi is an experience you’d hardly forget. Since the sidewalks are occupied, you are forced to walk in the streets, dodging cars, motorcycles, bicycles and other pedestrians going in all directions. Count on getting lost when you go out to explore, as street names change when you cross an intersection.
Like the other three Vietnamese cities and town I’ve been in, Hanoi has parks that everyone enjoys. It’s where the elderly do their tai chi in the morning, where the workers cool off on a hot afternoon and where the young ones hang out in the evenings.
Hanoi’s heat makes it uncomfortable to go walking during the day. The best course of action is to start out early when it’s not too hot (this works great since the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is only open from 7am to 11am), take refuge in an airconditioned place (like the Vincom Tower, which has a mall and a cineplex) or have a siesta to make up for waking up early, and setting out again as the sun goes down.
For going long distances, you can take the cyclo, a bicycle-like contraption where passengers sit on the front and the driver peddaling on the back. You can also ride a xe om, or a motorcycle scooter, either with you driving or hop on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Then there are the regular taxis. There are three kinds of taxi that ply Hanoi’s roads: the small cars (flag down at 9,000 VND), the regular sedans (flag down at 10,000 VND) and the mini vans (flag down at 12,000 VND). I’m a notorious taxi rider. They have airconditioning and are generally more comfortable, specially in traffic. In all of the taxi rides I’ve had in Vietnam, the drivers automatically use the meter. Unfortunately, some meter move so much faster than others, so watch that meter lest you end up with a 292,000 VND fare for a 34,000 VND ride.
Hanoi is also the jumpoff point for many Ha Long Bay tours. You can easily book a day trip, overnight or multiple day tours to this World Heritage site. From Hanoi, it’s a 3.5 hour drive to the city of Halong (with the 30-minute stop over, it’s closer to 4 hours). There’s a huge wharf where the ships are docked. Fashioned to look like the traditional Chinese Junks, these ships are equipped with a dining area and sleeping areas for the overnight cruises.
There are more than 1,900 islands in the bay, made up of towering limestone karsts. It can be impressivefor those who are seeing these for the first time, but after Palawan, it wasn’t so unusual for me anymore. What impressed me though is the cave. The ship docks at one of the islands and you go up the stairs into the cave. It’s quite a climb, but it gives you a spectacular view of the bay and the ships below. Once you get up, you go down some ways again to explore the cave. It has a cavernous (pun not intended) interior with high domes, stalactites and stalagmite formations, made even more dramatic with both artificial lighting and sunlight streaming from the cave opening. What I really liked about the cave is how they managed to fix it, making it easier for people to walk through so you can see everything without backtracking. The separate entrance and exits makes it easy for everyone to go through the attraction.
Back in Hanoi, I did what I always try to do when I travel overseas: watch a movie. I don’t know why, but I like watching movies when I travel, comparing cinemas in each country I’ve been in. It’s also a great reason for me to skip a city tour in favor of airconditoned comfort inside the Megastar Cineplex. The seats are comfortable, and the theatre, though small, wasn’t full. And much to my relief, they did not dub Toy Stoy 3 into Vietnamese.
I’m now minutes away from boarding. I was hoping to have a last bowl of pho for breakfast, but I ended up with katsudon instead. All the more reason to go back to Hanoi, yes?