Just say the word “Vietnam” and my mind immediately conjures up images of rice paddy fields and limestone islands in Halong Bay. A recent four-day tour with Incense Travel, starting at the Noi Bai Airport and traveling through Hanoi and Halong Bay was far beyond any expectations I had. The wonderful nature and culture of Vietnam completely took my breath away.
First of all, we were so glad I booked the FAST TRACK service for our arrival at Noi Bai Airport with Incense Travel, which allow us to have someone to take care of my visa stamping on our behalf. As soon as we deplaned, my tour guide and an immigration officer are already waiting for us at the end of the jet bridge with our name on a signboard. We followed our guide to the baggage claim while the officer was getting our visa stamp, NO waiting and NO line required! We just walk through the VIP lane - that’s amazing!
We got transferred to the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi – a very colonial hotel in the center of the sparking French Quarter. We then spent the rest of the day to walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake, have dinner at the super delicious restaurant which offers great view over the lake – Cau Go Vietnamese Cuisine.
Our lovely room at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi
Just arrived for few hours and got our first meal, we both agreed we like this fascinating city – especially the food.
We were picked up at our hotel at 9.00 for Hanoi city tour. Our first stop was the historic Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace, it was quite an experience to see Ho Chi Minh being embalmed in a lovely marble building. At the same spot, we also visited the One Pillar Pagoda, which must be the most iconic Buddhist pagoda in Vietnam. The pagoda was built on one pillar and shaped like a lotus flower dedicating to Goddess of Mercy. The Vietnamese calls Buddhist temple as a pagoda, national hero or Confucius worshiping place as a temple, and a place that dedicating to gods as a communal house.
Hanoi traffic viewing from the Opera House
A short drive took us to the Temple of Literature – a Confucius temple, which was also the first university of Vietnam. The temple was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong to honor Confucius and scholars. The site is now an island of tranquility in a busy city. We met so many young boys and girls dressing in beautiful Vietnamese traditional “ao dai” and taking photos at the temple. Our guide said they are picturing for their class album before graduating the college.
Graduating students in the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
Our next visit was the famous Hoa Lo Prison, which was sarcastically known to American prisoners of war as “Hanoi Hilton”. The colonial French built the prison in 1896 to house Vietnamese revolutionaries, then used by North Vietnam to keep the POWs from 1964 to 1973. We have learned so much of history from our very knowledge guide, we are grateful to have him.
After lunch at a local authentic Vietnamese restaurant, visit the oldest pagoda in Hanoi - Tran Quoc pagoda, which was built in 544 on an island in the west lake. The island offers a great view to the Ho Tay Lake.
On the rickshaws is the best way to see the Old Quarter of Hanoi
At the end, we got a rickshaw ride around the old quarter, where shops, restaurants, café, street vendors, motorbikes, cars are on both sides of every street. The perfect end to a brilliant day.
After breakfast, we were picked up for the airport, where we took a seaplane to Halong Bay for the overnight cruise on our chartered wooden junk. We decided to take one-way seaplane and do the road trip back, so that we can have different perspectives of the area.
According to my guide, once upon a time when Vietnam was attacked from the sea, the Jade Emperor sent a family of dragons to help the Vietnamese fight against their invaders from the sea. Those dragons flew down upon where is now Halong Bay and spat countless pearls into the sea, which turned into a myriad of jade islands linking together to form a barrier against the invaders, and helped the Vietnamese defend their land. Therefore, the area where the dragons landed was then called Halong Bay, meaning Bay of Descending Dragons.
Halong Bay's Islands from the Seaplane
Finally, we landed on the water of Tuan Chau Marina after 1-hour flight, including 15 minute-scenic flight around Halong Bay.
Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, the northeast of Vietnam, Halong Bay has an area of around 1,553 km featuring 1,969 islets, most of which are limestone formations. Happy exploring the dragons’ bay, said our pilot when saying good bye.
While we were cruising on our private junk to the center of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, our chef and crews had been busy and cooked up a storm for our lunch! What a treat to eat a fresh seafood meal in the middle of the bay full of limestone formations rising up from the tranquil ocean water like gigantic teeth of dragons!
My guide said there are some 989 of the islands of the islands in Halong have acquired their names as a result of interpretation of their unusual shapes; such names include Voi Islet (the elephant), Ga Choi Islet (the fighting cocks), Khi Islet (the monkey), and Mai Nha Islet (the roof). Birds and animals including bantams, antelopes, monkeys, and lizard also live on some of the islands.
Our boat viewing from the entrance of a beautiful limestone cave
We visited a cave here – the Surprise Cave and walked through this fascination limestone formation. In the cave our guide showed many stalactites and stalactites, the impressive color of those drip stones made the cave even more dramatic.
Continue on to visit the Cua Van Fishing Village, the biggest and oldest floating fishing village in Halong Bay. Here we got on a little bamboo boat and rowed by local fisherwoman around the village, it was a really good way to witness life of local people living on their floating houses.
We finished off the day by watching the sun set over the bay, several fishing boat are weaving through the islets and shimmering in the dying light. It was our most amazing time of the day.
I and my husband showed up on the boat deck at 5h30 for the sunrise, and I learned some Tai Chi with a young Tai Chi lover – who also work on the boat as a sue chef. It was quite an experience, and we are not sure when we can do it again.
Our last visit today following breakfast was to a small island called Titov. It’s an islet where the Vietnamese’s first president Ho Chi Minh swam on the beach with a Soviet cosmonaut, Gherman Titov. There is a path leading to the top to take pictures of the surrounding area, we did the hike and the swimming before heading back to the dock in the late morning.
Wooden boats at Tuan Chau Marina, Halong Bay
The drive back to Hanoi was a scenic drive through the rich farmlands, and different towns of the Red River Delta. We saw the everyday life of villagers working on their wet rice fields, taking pigs and chickens to the market on motorbikes, and plough the fields with their water buffaloes.
The four day Vietnam tour offers a different perspective to our world. It is an enchanting place where you discover not only the thousand years of culture, but also stunning natural wonder. Limestone islands and vibrantly colored lagoons and the sun sets over seemingly never ending blue ocean. Photographs do not do any of these places justice, it is something you have to see with your own eyes. Incense Travel succeed here in providing a unique travel experience, very good guide, and good driver. There is a lot to be said for having a private vehicle on this tour, enabling freedom to stop and spend time in places of your choosing. With an accomplished guide you learn more about the culture, your surroundings and the history of this very ancient country.