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Entries about hanoi

Our last day in Hanoi

Hanoi to Hue by train

rain 32 °C

This morning we were not surprised to find that it was pouring it down, monsoon rains has been the theme of our trip in Vietnam's capital. We checked out and the hotel said it was no problem for them to take care of our bags for the day. We stepped onto the streets in our rain coats and with our umbrella and tried to find a money exchange service where we could exchange our leftover Lao kip but it became an epic pain in the bum when several places refused to exchange kip. Walking around the busy streets in the thrashing rain suddenly became an unpleasant experience, especially when having to dodge the motorbikes in the tiny narrow streets filled with obstacles. We were finally directed to a pawn shop who actually gave us a better rate than we had researched on the internet but we were a little wary walking in.

After we headed to old town to find something to eat and sat down at in inexpensive street-side place, one of those places with the plastic childsize chairs and tables and ordered some grilled chicken and rice. It was actually really delicious succulent chicken with rice, vegetables and pickled salad. We sat relaxing and watching the streets. They are chaotic. Motorbikes race up and down, weaving around big cars who just beep their horns. Street vendors wheel their carts up and down and women with baskets sell fruit. We were approached by around five different men all selling a plethora of lighters but the shop was small and the nice lady fussed over us.

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We decided that even though it was raining we were going to do what we had planned and have a walk around the French district. The French district is beautiful, it has lovely colonial buildings which house all the upmarket shops and hotels in Hanoi. The streets are lined with sparkling posh shops, Gucci, Omega and Hermes all centred around the central area where the opera house is. The opera house is a huge building with columns directly opposite the stock exchange. It is like wandering around a different city compared to the small, busy streets of the old district. We found a coffee house and sheltered from the rain with a warm drink until the rain had settled a little bit. During the walk Liam’s flip flop had broken but we managed a quirky rubber band fix and were set to go again.

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Since it was still torrential and we were totally drowned we though why not just sit in a café all afternoon and headed back to a nice café we had previously found looking onto the cathedral called Marylyn’s. It is a gorgeous little colonial building overlooking the square that St Josephs is in. Downstairs is a boutique shop but upstairs is a little café where you can sit for hours and watch the world go by. The coffee in Vietnam is some of the best we have had, really strong and tasty and it is accompanied by thick sweet milk, really delicious to have over ice. There are even street-side stalls set up where you can pick from hundreds of coffees, including the famous weasel coffee. We sat all afternoon drinking and talking and when we were ready to go the rain had thankfully stopped.

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Our train was at 7pm but we had heard from travellers we had met a few months ago that the trains just go whenever so it can be an hour late or it might set off an hour early. We collected our bags and headed for a restaurant near the train station we had read about. It is an outdoor area covered by rain protection with lots of tables in the centre and lots of different micro restaurants around the edges. It was described as a collection of street food restaurants with one menu where you can order bits f different things you want. We ordered BBQ pork, rice, green papaya and cured beef salad and spring rolls. It was nice but in our opinion not as tasty as the real thing even though the atmosphere was lovely. We walked to the train station and tried to find our platform. There is no platform on thee ticket just a train number so you have to wait in the waiting area until the train is called. They then put a sign up with the name and the platform. They check you tickets on exiting the waiting area and you can only go through when the train is called. We only had to wait half an hour and pur train was called.

We had bought the cheapest sleeper tickets we could get, hard, third bunk beds which were still really expensive compared to what we normaly pay to travel but we just couldn’t face another overnight bus. The trains are really nice, there are 6 beds to a cabin, two rows of three level bunks. The bottom bunks are the best and most expensive but the middle bunks are quite good too. The top bunks are very shallow and very close to the ceiling, a bit like laying in a rocking coffin. We inelegantly clambered in giggling to each other and with the lad that was below Chelsea. There are no ladders, just little tiny metal notches on the wall to cling to. There is a baggage storage area up on the top bunk and you get a duvet and a pillow. Once we were in we were shocked at how small they are and repeatedly banged our heads on different things.

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The train set off promptly and Chelsea who never normally needs the toilet very often needed the toilet three times, disturbing everyone in our cabin and apologising for having to walk on their beds. We got a short but very loud blast of the national anthem, a story about Vietnam and then we were on our way. We arrived in Hue at 9.30am ish as we were a little delayed. We were worried that we would sleep through our stop as it goes all the way down to Saigon but there was no danger of that. Even though there is no call for the stops telling you where you are they blast the national anthem and tell a story at every stop. However we would still recommend an alarm just in case as no-one lets you know what is going on. Once we realised we would soon be pulling in we got our bags down and shoes on and stood with everyone else departing at Hue in the corridor. The talking and music was deafening and could not have been more grating, unless there was also a screaming baby next to us… which of course there was.

The train journey is one hundred per cent the best way to travel long distances. You can actually sleep, unlike when you go on a bus and they keep turning the lights on a beeping the horn and it is fun and easy.

Posted by Chelsandliam 01:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (1)

Visiting Halong Bay........In the Rain

rain 26 °C

We woke early this morning as the trip we had bought to Halong Bay started at 8am. It has cost us $25 each, and after looking into it we would have struggled to do it cheaper on our own, plus we would have had to worry about what bus, what time etc. With the tour we can just go and follow the guide, plus we get lunch.

Our guide picked us up from our guesthouse on time, we then had to walk through some of the city to the lake where the bus picked us up. We collected several other people on the way which involved a lot of waiting which was annoying but we just followed suit. The first thing we noticed was that there was a lot of people on the tour, at least 40, which we think was too much. It was a very diverse group, and we even had the obligatory screaming baby to contend with. Within 5 mintutes of getting on the bus the heavens opened, we were not that bothered at this point as Halong Bay is 3 and a half hours away from Hanoi so chances are it would not be raining there also.

We were wrong....

The journey to Halong Bay was not too bad, we had a break after around 2 hours where we got a coffee and some biscuits, the we carried on our way. The closer we got to Halong Bay the worse the rain got. Some of the roads were even flooded as we neared Halong City, but this was the least of our problems. With the rain came very overcast skies, mist and even fog, meaning you could not see very far at all, not ideal when you are going to be out at see looking at a natural wonder. We were a little disheartened but there was nothing we could do about it so we decided to make the best of it.

When we finally arrived we were a bit shocked by the wharf. We expected something a bit special but it was just like a very busy ferry terminal. Perhaps if we could have seen the view through the windows and we were not running to take cover from the rain we would have had a different opinion. The whole port was mobbed with hundreds of people waiting to board boats and there was 200 plus boats on the water. We boarded our boat around 1pm, and found a couple of window seats. We had to be seated with six at each table for lunch so our guide sat an elderly Chinese family at our table which turned out to be great, Although they didn't speak a word of English we communicated best we could. Lunch was served and we followed the Chinese families example of how to eat it. It was delicious, we had rice, a clam broth, steamed fish, spring rolls, nuts, an egg dish and stir fired vegetables. We seemed to be the guests of honour at our table and the family loved showing us how to eat each dish. We ate lunch as the boat pulled out of the harbour, as w got closer we could see the limestone cliffs of Halong Bay and it was an awesome sight to eat lunch to.

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Our fist stop after lunch was at a floating village. The boat meandered through the limestone cliffs and pulled up next to the village. You could go on kayak or pay for one of the villagers to row you into a cave under one of the larger limestone cliffs. It was still bouncing down so we opted out and just admired the view around us. Most of the group went on the boats and all came back drenched, not ideal when you have to sit for another few hours in wet clothes.

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The mist was still thick by this point, and you could not really see the limestone cliffs until you were upon them but the views were still amazing. In every direction big limestone islands tower above the seas, some small mounds, others vast rocks outcrops with greenery on them. The mist gave a eerie atmosphere and we could not see that far so we could not get a scale of how magnificent Halong Bay was. We were a little disappointed but did not let it ruin our day. The boat took us to see some of the more famous shaped cliffs such as the 'Fighting Cock', so called as I looks like two fighting cocks.

Our final stop was a cave which was our favourite part of the day, Although a tough climb up some steps to the entrance the cave was vast, full of stalagmites and stalactites, inside was illuminated by hidden lights in various colours, the walls were as smooth as glass where water had run over it for years and formed some distinct shapes. We got in front of the rest of the group so we did not have everyone in our photos and made our way through. We were in there around half an hour and when you emerge at the other end you have a vantage point over some of the bay. The view would have been great had it not been for the mist.....

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We had been on the water around 4 hours and then our boat made its way back. Thankfully, or sods law, the mist started to lift as we made our way back so we could final get a scale of the place. It is astounding seeing the cliffs spread all the way to the horizon and as far as you can see left and right. Unfortunately the overcast skies meant the light was poor and our photo do it no justice but it was beautiful.

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We set back off around 5:15pm, and the bus driver we had decided to drive as slow as possible so we did not get back until 9pm. We were starving by this point so stayed out and made our way to another of the beer joints and ordered beers and food. Tonight we shared, spring rolls (yes again), pork dumplings, pork kebabs and fried chicken, It was awesome. On the way back to the guesthouse we called at a weekend night market and browsed the stalls.

Although the weather was against us we have enjoyed today. It has been a long day, and we do not think that group tours are really for us, mainly because we do not like waiting for everyone, but we are happy to have seen Halong Bay after looking forward to it for so long. Tomorrow night we move on to Hue, via train, we have thee day to spend in Hanoi, a city which although manic we have grown to like, mainly due to its culinary scene, but there is a lot of charm here too. We are looking forward to the rest of Vietnam.

Posted by Chelsandliam 09:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi halong_bay Comments (2)

Getting rained on in Hanoi

rain 31 °C

Today has been a soggy day of sightseeing. We got up nice and early to find Hanoi was overcast with stormy skies and heavy rain. We got ready and stayed inside hoping it would clear. By 11am it still had not cleared and we were eager to get out so we put on our rain coats and braved the rain. We walked through the back streets and went into a small cafe for a morning coffee. Vietnamese coffee is very strong and sweet as they put condensed milk in it and it was delicious. After half an hour in a cafe we went in search of some brunch. We had previously read about these sandwiches with pâté and different meats and we spotted on in a small alley. It is called Banh My Pâté and we weren't really sure what to order as there was a cooler full of different things. We just asked for two and the lady said 'meat' and we said yes. She then said 'everything' and we obviously said yes. She warmed up some bread in her street side oven and then fried an egg in a pan. She added pâté to the pan and let it cook. She then filled the warm baguette with three types of meats and salad and added the cooked egg. It was yummy and really tasty, a great brunch meal which we ate in shelter from the rain under a shops tarpaulin. 

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We then headed for St Joseph's Cathedral as we thought it would be worth a visit but it was closed until 2pm. We decided then to walk to the train station and have a wander around the french district which according to our guide book is in that area. The walk to the station was quite long and very wet as it poured with rain the whole time. The streets are mental, continually full of traffic weaving in and out and beeping their horns. All the paths are filled with parked motorbikes so you have to walk on the road and the pavement is uneven and muddy. When we arrived at the station there was a queuing system like Argos. You took a ticket with a number and waited to be called. It soon became apparent that no one gave a flying frig about the system and it was just a free for all so we joined a huddle that had formed around a kiosk. When we finally got to the front a man tried to barge in front but Chelsea said 'no' and we were seen next. we bought a ticket to Hue for the 29th as we had read the trains can book up and it cost 703000 dong.  It is quite expensive for us but we just can't face another overnight bus journey so soon after the horrificness that was the journey from the border to Hanoi. 

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After paying for and collecting our train tickets we set of in search of the French district. It very soon became clear that our guide book was garbage and that the French district it pointed out was a collection of big French buildings on big wide traffic polluted streets and did not transport you to Paris like it promised. A word of advice to anyone wondering which guide book to take to SEAsia. Do not buy a rough guides one, they are crap in every way possible. We are hoping to find the real French district before we leave as our other guide book points to a different area of the city. After a wet and disappointing walk around the city we headed back to the Cathedral.

 The area around the cathedral is lovely. It is full of small streets that all meet at the cathedral and that are full of really small eating houses, cafes and shops. There is everything from small Vietnamese street food style shops to expensive boutique clothes shops and posh cafes. We went into a really nice cage overlooking the cathedral and had a drink to get dry out of the rain. We sat for a long time lingering over our pricey drinks, talking and watching the street. It was lovely. 

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After we went into St Joseph's and were surprised by its interior. The outside is quite an unattractive concrete building but inside is really nice. Wood carvings, stained glass and high ceilings. It was nice and peaceful and we sat on one of the pews for a while admiring the architecture. It was a nice change to see a church and we haven't seen one for months. 

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By this point it was late afternoon so we headed back to our guest house. We relaxed and showered, dried our rain macs and washed our muddy feet. For tea we walked to the old district. We are still shocked everything we go out at just how busy and frantic the city is. We walked around for a while overwhelmed and not sure where to eat and settled on a Bia Hoi place for a 5000 dong beer. We ordered several snack bits to share for food and it was gorgeous. We ordered crab spring rolls, steamed pork dumplings, fried chicken, and a sort of chicken stir fry an rice meal and we shared them all over several beers. It was a great, relaxed meal and the best way to enjoy Hanoi we think, sat on small tables on the street trying several different nit-bits. 

After 4 Bia Hois it was time to come home as we have an early start tomorrow. We have booked on a trip to Halong Bay. It has cost $25 but we don't think we would be able to do it ourselves for that price so we though we would book onto a stress free trip and let someone else take us. We are looking forward to it and have been since we were back in England so hope the weather is a bit better and we can actually see it. 

Posted by Chelsandliam 09:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (3)

Day One in Hanoi

sunny 34 °C

After recuperating in our room after our sleepless bus journey we were ready to go out and explore. There is only really one word to describe Hanoi, manic. We have not experienced anything like it, the streets are jam packed, there is a constant heavy flow of traffic which mainly consists of motorbikes. The sidewalks are apparently not used for people to walk on but for everyone to park their motorbike on, the small room that is not taken up by bikes is used by shops and small restaurants that spill out onto the streets. We explored the Old quatre today, the streets are narrow but this does not deter the traffic, junctions are like nothing we have ever seen, no one stops, there are no traffic lights, everyone just drives and somehow avoids each other. This makes crossing the road incredibly difficult as because no one ever stops you just have to go for it and hope they somehow miss you. All of this chaos is accompanied by the soundtrack of blaring horns. Each one seems loader and grates on you more than the last.

Apart from this obvious shock, we have quite enjoyed our first day here. We went for a stroll this morning, and called at a street restaurant for brunch. We went to a restaurant that only serves 'bun cha'. There was no menu we were just given enough for two people. The meal consisted of BBQ'd meat and pork patties that come in a thin stew, another bowl of a pickled vegetable that we can not agree what it was, noodles, herbs, chilli, garlic and some crab spring rolls to share. We had enough food to feed half a dozen people but it was utterly delicious and we made a good dent in the giant portions we were served.

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This kind of stuffed us up and made walking around a bit too difficult. We took a break from the stress streets and headed to a small lake that sits in the centre of town. Apart from people trying to constantly sell us, fans, drinks, and food it was calmer and we took our time making our way around. After this we ended p going back to our guesthouse, we were still slightly tired from the previous night, the temperature had gone through the roof and we were totally stuffed from our epic brunch.

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A few hours later we were ready to brave the streets again. Tonight we decided to call for some of the super cheap beer we have heard so much about, and visit a street food restaurant in our guidebook. The streets do not quieten at night. It did not put us off though and we walked for around ten minutes to the first bar. There is a beer in Vietnam that is called Bia Hoi. It is incredibly cheap, we bought two tonight at two different bars and they were 25p each. They seem to be a kind of home brew as they both tasted drastically different. we have read the beer is so cheap as it does not last very long so it has to be sold within 24 hours or so. That is fine by us.

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For dinner we called at a place called Bittek. It specialises in beef, so we ordered what we thought was beef steak and chips as this is what other people were eating. Instead we got a stir fry beef with veg and chips in a kind of gravy. It is not at all what we ordered but it was strangely delicious, and we can not think of why we have not though of stir frying chips before. After another super cheap beer it started to rain so we made our way back.

Our first day has been slightly overwhelming but we can see the appeal of the city. For how busy it is it is still charming and the food going on todays evidence is spectacular. We plan to explore in the opposite direction tomorrow. We have not 100% decided on how long to spend here yet, but we do plan to do a day trip to Halong Bay before we start our trip south.

Posted by Chelsandliam 07:04 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hanoi Comments (2)

Nong Khiaw to Hanoi.... A long journey

sunny 35 °C

The past two days have been extremely tiring making our way through Laos and into Vietnam. We started at 8am, checking out of our guesthouse and walking 2km to the bus stop in Nong Khiaw as we had read that the bus to Odomoxai left at 9m. When we got there it didn't leave until 11am so we had a few hours to wait. The lady behind the counter looked like we had spat in her face when we asked to buy the ticket as it meant she had to actually work and refused, saying we had to buy it closer to 11am. We decided to go for breakfast and crossed the street into what was named a restaurant but was actually someone's front room. They even had a Grandmother sat on a chair watching what looked like a Thai version of loose Women and chickens walked around all over. The family was friendly and we pointed to a sign that said fried rice and helped ourselves to some drinks from the fridge. After breakfast we went back to the bus stop and Chelsea made another attempt to buy the tickets as it was around 10.15am at this point. The lady refused again and had the same 'you spat in my face' look. At this point another tourist had arrived hoping to get on the same bus as us and was also flatly refused a ticket. We sat and waited until 10.45am and Liam decided to queue for a ticket. At this point a bus load of tourists had arrived and all wanted tickets for Luang Prabang and the bus driver told me to 'buy ticket now'. I politely advised him that Liam was in the queue and we had been trying to buy tickets for 3 hours. Actually getting a ticket took an age as all the people wanting to go to Luang Prabang had to be sorted first and there wasn't enough seats for them. By 11am we had got our tickets, our bag was on the roof and there were another 3 passengers sat on the bus. The bus didn't depart until 11.30am as we assume it was waiting for more customers. The public buses from Nong Khiaw are small minivans and its cost us 50,000 kip to go to Odomoxai. The sign at the bus stop does say 45,000 kip and we did point this out to the friendly lady at the bus stop but she just said 'no'. To get to Luang Prabang the sign says 40,000 kip but she was charging 50,000 kip for this journey also.

The actual bus journey itself to Odomoxai was the worst we have ever encountered and we have been on some bad ones. The roads are the worst we have seen and the minivan just bounced along, throwing us around inside like nothing we have experienced. The road looks like it has been churned up to re-lay it and then has just been left. There are big pot holes, ditches, pools of water and big mounds of rocks. There was a lot of evidence of landslides and massive cliff edge drops. After 2 and half hours we stopped to stretch our legs at the weirdest place. There was a row of huts acting as shops but all they sold was cucumbers, there wasn’t even water for sale just cucumber after cucumber of different shapes and sizes. Needless to say we didn’t buy anything and set back off. We thought we might be past half way but we were wrong. The views on the journey were beautiful and the whole way was extremely rural, passing through tiny hamlets where pigs, buffalo and ducks roamed around. We didn’t arrive until 4.30pm and everyone on the bus was totally done in. We knew we would be getting back on a bus the following day so we found a guest house next to the bus station and went in. It was overpriced at 60,000 kip but we didn’t care and we unloaded out things and went out in search of some food. Finding a place to eat in this town actually proved quite difficult. The town is run down and everything was closed or boarded up. We found one noodle house that was open that had two tabled but when we walked in the owners looked at us in panic so we decided to try our look elsewhere. We managed to find one place that was open and that looked remotely like a restaurant. Inside was a group of men drinking beer and playing bowls. We sat down but no one came so Chelsea went up to the paying kiosk and ordered two of the only think she knew how to say in Laos, Kow Pad, fried rice and beers. The place turned out to be quite friendly and we were only stared at a little bit whist we sat and waited or our food. The food was nice and we drank our last beer Lao watching a group of men play a weird game of what looked like bowls. After we went straight to our room to relax in anticipation of another day spent on a bus on the roads in Laos.

The next morning was an early start as the bus left at 8.30am. We thought we would have to get two buses, one to Muang Khua and one to the border but there is one bus that goes straight from Odomoxai straight through to Dien Bien Pu in Vietnam which we were thrilled by. We were even more thrilled when we saw it was not another god forsaken minivan but a VIP bus with fully reclinable leather seats. It cost 95,000 kip for the journey which is cheaper than doing it in two legs and much easier and comfier. The bus journey took all day but was so nice, such a comparison to the day before. Everyone got blankets and pillows and the seats were big and comfy. We took snacks on board as we knew it would take all day. The only downside to the bus as it acts as a sort of local bus between the villages in the mountains so it regularly stops to pick people up and to courier goods on. This mean that half way into the journey Chelsea had a travelsick lady from a village sat directly behind her vomiting throughout half the trip. When we reached Muang khua it stopped to let a few people on and Chelsea pointed out a man smoking a giant bong in the middle of the street. ‘Look at that man Liam with his giant bong….. Oh that’s our driver’. However apart from the vom lady and the driver on drugs the journey was carefree.

When we arrived at the border everyone had to get off and be stamped out of Laos. Everyone just threw their passports at a man in an office who tamped them all without even looking at the pictures or the people. We then got back on the bus and drove a few kilometres through no man’s land and then had to be stamped into Vietnam. We handed our passports over and then had to be medically screened to make sure we didn’t have a fever and put all our bags through a scanner. We then picked up our passports and go back on the bus. It was simple and relatively quick.

We arrived in Dien Bien Pu at around 4pm and weirdly drove past the bus station into a small muddy car park. We were then hounded by a bus driver and a man off our bus to get on their bus to Hanoi. We said we would like our bags and the man was quite forceful and aggressive. We got our bags and said we needed an ATM before we got on any bus but they insisted we should put our bags on the bus to Hanoi and they would take us to an ATM. Both us and another couple refused and walked off in the direction of the bus station. Once at the bus station we were hounded at all sides by bus drivers wanting customers. We managed to walk through and Chelsea asked a lady where we could find an ATM. She pointed in the direction and four of us walked together. After getting cash we had to face the bus station. We walked straight through all the men shouting at us and went straight to the lady in the kiosk. She tried to ask Chelsea what time she would like to go to Hanoi but we had been totally surrounded by shouting men so we couldn’t hear her. She wrote down a list of times and gave us a pen to circle the time we wanted. All the men were shouting the time of their bus for us to pick it like an aggressive game of bus bingo but she circles 17.30. We paid the 375,000 dong and all the men were shouting the time we had picked until the bus driver who owned the 17.30 came forward, giving us his card and showing where it departs. It was totally mental.

After the ordeal we needed something to eat as hadn’t eaten a meal all day so went to the first place we saw, a mobile phone shop with a few tables and a menu of a list of different meats. Our friends from the bus joined us and Chelsea ordered chicken and Liam ordered soup. We both ended up with a noodle soup which was delicious and came with a selection of do it yourself herbs. We sat for an hour recuperating from the stress and then went to the bus station flashing our tickets at the men who heckled us to buy. We went to quite possibly the worst toilets ever and boarded the bus.

We had never experienced any bus like it. It was an overnight sleeper bus and had three rows of reclining seats all of them with two bunks, one on the floor and one higher u. we were shown to some seats and got comfy. At first it was quite comfortable but it soon turned into a nightmare journey. The driver turned the lights out at 7pm so we couldn’t read and had to go to sleep but then he turned them back on at around 8pm and then didn’t turn them fully off till around 11.30pm. It was pitch black when we should have been awake but neon, multi coloured bright when we should have been asleep with karaoke TV on. We picked people us the whole way and the lights kept coming on and he continually beeped his horn. The driver flew around corners, braked suddenly and drove like a maniac so we almost fell off our top bunks several times. We had wondered why the entire floor was padded.

We arrived at Hanoi bus station at 5.30am absolutely knackered and were greeted as we exited the bus by a mob of taxi driver poking us and shouting at us. The rules about personal area we have found out don’t apply in Vietnam. We couldn’t believe how busy the streets were at 5.30am. We found a toilet which was dyer, full of syringes and which shockingly we had to pay for the privilege of using (it was only 6p) and then decided to share a taxi with the people from our bus. Chelsea negotiated a price of 25,000 dong each and we set off for St Joseph’s Cathedral, a central point to search for guest houses. We managed to find our first choice guest house and they had a room but we had to wait until 9am to check in. The owner was really friendly and gave us coffee and tea and we sat on the sofa and waited. We can’t wait to explore Hanoi, apparently Saigon’s quieter sister (Saigon must be totally mental!!)

Posted by Chelsandliam 21:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam laos hanoi nong_khiaw Comments (2)

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