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A country so rich and diverse in culture: a cruel past with horrifying wars, wonderful hardworking and generous people and with so much potential for recreational and resort destinations. Diverse adventures and explorations await in different cities, Unesco World Heritage sites and stunning nature for the adventurous destineer and traveler.

Having recently returned from an intense one week exploration so full of diverse impressions my mind and camera are so full of impressions.

HANOI turned out to be completely different from my preconceived expectations. I expected to find formal French Colonial architecture juxtaposed with communist style concrete soulless buildings and wide streets jam packed with cars, an auditory inferno and assault on all senses. Instead I found a vibrant, exotic, vivacious, small scale and colorful urban life unfolding in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street dining at Old Quarter hanoi
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Street entertainers in Old Quarter Hanoi

Saturday evening in Old Quarter. The streets become pedestrian zones, inviting locals and tourists to share the ambiance on tiny low plastic chairs. Many small restaurants offer BBQ Korean style, where you prepare your own meet and vegetables while watching the street life unfold.

Intriguing coffee houses lure you with a reminiscence of romanticized rustic salvaged vintage combat furniture, worn out tile or concrete flooring flooring, bright and vibrant hues of wall colors, and-the best coffee in the world.

Food is being barbecued at tiny tin cans on low tables Korean style at the sidewalks while cheerful people are gathering for coffee, drinks or food on tiny kid sized plastic chairs.  The fumes of burning hot chestnuts merge with grilled corn on the cob; charcoal flames are being whipped to perfect intensity by old squatting ladies with banana leaves. The tantalizing mouthwatering sniffs of barbecued meat and onions interspersed with the scent of incense create a mysterious layered impact of scentsations. while live music and dance performances add to the auditory fusion.  Brightly colored lanterns and string lights add to the layered romantic experience.  We were lucky to experience the Old Quarter during the weekend when large areas are closed to traffic and Old Quarter becomes a large pedestrian zone

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street food

Beware, Hanoi can be cold and humid. Arriving from Bangkok’s hottest season in sandals and thin clothing was a thermal shock, but fortunately the Old Quarter is full of stores selling North Face feather jackets.  Comforted by cozy down jackets all street life activities can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Street life in Hanoi

At daytime the sidewalks are completely overtaken by parked motorbikes and you jump for your life trying to navigate the narrow streets full of motorbikes, bicycling rickshaws and vans.  The city is best enjoyed by bicycle rickshaw.  The elderly male rickshaw drivers are agile dare devils, going against intense traffic, honking cars and motorbikes with whole families of 4-5 on top.   We covered the major sight seeing venues and the rich variety of Old Quarter streets by rickshaw.

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Explore the city by bicycle rickshaw

Each street has their own type of businesses: one street of bamboo vendors, one for auto spare parts, one for motor bike repair shops, one for Chinese temple accessories, one full of vibrant baskets filled with garment dyes, one for fabric vendors, one for tailors, one for chrome metal manufacturers, one for lock makers, one for bird and fish vendors, one for tombstone, etc.

Some of the biggest sightseeing’s are the Women’s Prison but the line of tourists waiting to buy tickets was too daunting for a sinister experience.  The Library Temple Gardens was quaint and poetic. The monumental Ho Chi Minh Monument and museum turned out to be closed on a Monday. The lake is charming. Time for another Vietnamese coffee!

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Conc’ Café: a coffee place with overtones of the Vietcong era

Hotels in the Old Quarter are tiny and can be a “hit-and-miss”, as even 4 star hotels can be rather unimpressive at the least and the photos on travel sites can be very deceiving.  Spas can also turn out to be less than a glamorous experience.  I recommend to book a hotel for the first night only and then explore some hotels by foot in person to find one that live up to your expectations.  With the large amount of tourists in Hanoi, new smaller independent hotels seems to have a great target audience. Most hotels can arrange junk boat excursions at Halong Bay and city excursions, but do search Trip Advisor first to read the reviews.

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Mysterious Halong Bay covered by clouds and drizzly rain

A tour to Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a must. The drive takes about 4 1/2 hours and is rather nauseating as the roads are still less than desirable and some of the excursion vans offer very little legroom.  Modern rest stops are surprisingly clean and sell all kinds of souvenirs plus some limited food choices. Once you arrive at your cruise junk boat and start your excursion through the stunning freestanding rocks and mysterious caves you forget about the hurdles of getting there.  Our day was poetic, interspersed by a thick layer of fog and a light drizzle. Elderly ladies in bamboo row boats will take you through beautiful secret photogenic coves-or you can choose to kayak yourself, but cannot take photos.  I strongly recommend to take the bamboo boat to support the lovely Vietnamese hardworking women.  You may even get a song.

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Bamboo boating in Halong Bay
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A wonderful Vietnamese woman and her bamboo boat

After a delightful fresh seafood lunch on the junk boat, we entered a great huge stalagmite cave which was fantastic and mysterious, although a slightly distressed experience as the cave was packed with groups of very loud Chinese tourists. The caves were used to hide troops during the war.  The stalagmite formations were truly stunning and offered myriads of photo opportunities.

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Magnificent Karst Caves at Halong Bay

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I highly recommend to take the 2 day junk boat trip in lieu of the one day trip.  One day just gave you an initial impression, whereas sleeping on one of the red-sailed junks will leave you with truly memorable experiences.  The 4-5 hour drive back to Hanoi was rather grueling as the minibuses were designed for Asians and not for westerners (No leg and shoulder space).-and the traffic congestion was gridlocked getting back into Hanoi.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen