Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Two days ago, my trip to Far East brought me from Hoi An to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Again, the plane just needed to lift us some 200 to 300 meters up after the take off in Da Nang to get us out of the dust/mist/fog/smoke/smog, whatever it is. As soon as we got out of that grey soup, the sun I missed the last few days was back again and there was a nice clear blue sky above us. Unfortunately the cloud below obviously overspun the whole country and even at the highest flight level, my hope to see the end of that large cloud somewhere was destroyed, there were not even small holes in sight.

5 minutes before landing we dove into that thick soup again. As soon as we left the plane, the pollution of a big city hit my nose, my throat and especially my eyes. This time it was more than just dust and the smell of thousands of motorbikes, this time the air was even mixed with the smell of fire and burned plastic, somehow...
The 35 kilometers taxi ride to the city of Hanoi took about 45 minutes. My eyes burned and my throat was audibly dry at my arrival at the hotel, thanks to the heavily polluted air... The lobby of the Meracus 2 Hotel was nice, the staff very kind and - I didn't understand exactly why, but - for some reason , they upgraded me to the honeymoon suite in the top floor and there I found a beautiful room. It looked like cut out of the last IKEA catalogue and there were rosebud leaves on the bed and in the bathroom everywhere. To my pleasure, the air coming out of the A/C must have been filtered somehow, because it was really acceptable, compared to the air in the street. Or maybe I got already used to the hanoian air meanwhile.

Trip to Ha Long Bay

Yesterday morning I got up early and was picked up by a tour bus after breakfast. All of a sudden there was even sunlight coming through the clouds and the air was much better in the morning! I was one of the last of totally 19 tour guests being picked up for a day tour to Ha Long Bay,160km southeast of Hanoi. Our tourguide Tam was a funny guy, who did a great job, made a little joke here and there and gave us precious information wherever we stopped. He had a Vietnamese accent, but his English, he apparently learned autodidactically by watching movies and reading books, was very good!


The group was mixed, there was a family with 2 little kids from Japan, some couples, some travelling friends and single travelers fron Corea, HongKong, Japan, Thailand, and me. The bus ride took a little more than 3 hours, the quality of the streets decreased the more we were out of Hanoi. The last part was on a dust road, but there was actually work in progress to the left and to the right of the street and I think soon there will be a better road too.

A ship was ready for our group in Ha Long City and as soon as we boarded and headed out to the islands, we already got some nice local food.

Eventually we stopped near a floating village in between the Dau Go islands (Ile des merveilles). There are people living on boats since more than 100 years, they have a floating bank and even a floating primary school. They invited us to a tour through their village in their bamboo-boats for 120'000 Vietnamese Dong (5 US$) per person.

Ha Long Bay includes some 1600 islands and islets, forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Since 1994 the region is listed as a UNESCO world culture heritage. Most of the islands are uninhabited. 

We went back to the north side of the island with the big boat and stopped there again. There we had the opportunity to visit a huge splendid limestone cave with huge stalagmites and stalactites. The electrical light in different colors give the stones a very special look. I left over some tourists on the first picture, to give you an idea of the size of the cave.

Hanoi Old Quarter

New Year in Vietnam is nice, but not very spectacular. There were a lot of people on the streets at midnight and the bigger streets and places were really crowded. There was a countdown to 2014 but no big fireworks. Fireworks are reserved to the lunar new year (called "Tết") in Vietnam.

Since my hotel is located in the center of the Old Quarter, I spent my second day in Hanoi looking at the city, walking through the streets and gathering impressions. You will find some of them in the pictures below.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hoi An

After two days without luggage in Hong Kong, I now got my suitcase back and I'm already heading to my next destination: Vietnam. The two and a half hours flight brought me to Ho Chi Minh City in the far south of the country and I changed the time zone from GMT +8 to GMT +7.


My hotel (Aquari) is located in Quân 1 (District 1) and the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel took about 25 minutes. En route I already made out one obvious big difference between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC): While you almost never see bicyicles or motorbikes in Hong Kong, the streets here are crowded with motorbikes. There seem to be millions of them, most of them carrying 1 or 2 people, but there are also motorbikes carrying 5 people or mountains of goods or rubbish.

While the temperature in HCMC is around 25°C in December, I actually never really saw the sun. The city seemed to be immersed into a thick layer of smog, fog, smoke, clouds or maybe dust, whatever it exactly was. There's a strong smell of motorbike exhausts in the air and the visibility never exceeded 500 meters thanks to that pollution. That's the main reason, why many people wear face-masks here.

It's difficult to compare Hong Kong to HCMC. There are many differences, not only with respect to the traffic. There are less skyscrapers, obviously, but then you'll also find those typical french buildings, like the old post office or the Notre Dame church, that remind us of the time, Vietnam was called "Indochine" and was governed by the French. And then, in my eyes, there's much more of a living on the streets here in HCMC: You'll find people cooking, sitting, eating or even sleeping on the sidewalks. And you won't be able to overlook the millions of power cables everywhere...

The second day's afternoon I went to the War Remnants Museum. I thought this might give me a short but interesting insight into the younger history of Vietnam. The museum is close to the Reunification Palace and it's built in a kind of a small park. The exhibition itself begins already outside, from a certain distance you can clearly make out the silouettes of the helicopters, bombers and tanks, we all know from Vietnam war movies, behind the park's fences.

What actually changes your mind immediately, as soon as you are inside that park, is the closer look and the texts on the plates in front of all the objects. The cool Vietnam movies fade away quickly and all of a sudden you're standing in middle of original war material, that has already been used to kill hundreds, thousands of people. And you can stand there and touch it.

There are three floors in the museum. I now wanted to see and read everything, but then the time went by so fast, that I had only seen the ground floor so far, when they closed the museum at 5pm. My decision was clear: I would come again the next day and visit the rest of the exhibition, even if I had already struggled and fought tears several times this afternoon. Back home at the hotel I googled the museum and read a lot of usercomments, in which people write, that the exhibition might be "quite disturbing, especially for American tourists". They are right, but you don't need to be American to feel this disturbance.

I don't know, if I was allowed to take photos, at least nobody stopped me in doing so. The images below depict a fraction of what can be seen in there, but they might give you an idea of what I saw and maybe even what I felt. Every additional word would be one too much.

The Marie Curie high school is just across the street of the War Remnants Museum and when I passed by on my way back from lunch to my third visit to the museum, I asked a security guard at the entrance of the school, if I was allowed to take a look inside. I was just asking some students, at what time their lessons would start in the afternoon, when a man went to me and asked, if he could be of any help. He was a teacher in mathematics and he explained to me, that the students had their "years end examinations" this very afternoon. When I told him, that I was a teacher too, he absolutely wanted to take a picture of me in front of the teachers entrance and he invited me to come again the next day and attend one of his lessons... :)


But unfortunately there was no next day in HCMC for me, the next day I left the city and flew to Da Nang. From there I went to Hoi An by taxi (35 minutes) and ended up at the Hoi An Trails Resort for the next two days.


Hoi An is a small town with some 100'000 inhabitants, it's a UNESCO world heritage site and has a beautiful old town. I spent two very relaxing days there and met Mrs Anh, the owner of the little shop on the other side of the road at my hotel, who offered to wash all the clothes in my suitcase for 1 US$, what she actually did. Perfect!