After arriving at the Hanoi airport and clearing immigration, we looked for a SIM card for Jim’s travel phone. We had researched to find the best store to buy it from and settled on Viettel. Their station was easy to find, and although the sales reps were nice, they were a bit pushy. They spoke quickly and flashed a few offers in front of us. The process as a whole was a bit overwhelming, but we quickly had a sim card. It was not a comfortable encounter, but the sim seems to be working, so we’ll call it good.

I went to the ATM to get some Vietnamese currency; we called a Grab and were on our way. Although our driver was very skilled, the trip was terrifying for us. There seems to be no rhyme, reason (or laws or order) on how they drive here—scooters zip in and out of lines of cars. The cars maneuver their way into any tiny slot that may be open; the lane markers are a suggestion, not a rule, and they are mostly ignored. It appears horns are used as a method of communication (look at me, I’m here or don’t run into me) rather than in an aggressive manner as in the States.

Traffic in Hanoi Vietnam
Scooters in Hanoi Vietnam.
Lots of scooters in Hanoi, Vietnam.

We finally made it to the hotel and tipped our driver handsomely. Once he saw the tip, he grabbed my hands and bowed his head in thanks. He did not speak a word of English, but the gesture meant everything to us.

The Lapis Hotel

We’re staying at the Lapis Hotel, just a little outside the Old Town area. It is surrounded mainly by businesses, embassies, and local restaurants and apartments. The rooms were a decent size, and the bed was comfortable. The window was large but covered with a sheer curtain. Once you move the curtain, you realize it opens into a window well; cement walls are all around. We had read about this possibility during our research, so we were not too surprised; we kept the sheer curtain closed so the illusion of an entire scenic window remained.

The bathroom was made of marble; it was a little narrow. You had to climb up into the bathtub to take a shower. It’s a little tricky to get out. I would not recommend this type of room if you are mobility impaired. Like Europe, Vietnam did not seem to care too much about disabled guests.

We ended up eating several meals in the hotel restaurant, and although they were a little more expensive than we had in other restaurants, the food was good.

Bed at the Lapis Hotel in Hanoi Vietnam
Bathroom at the Lapis Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Bathtub at the Lapis Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The breakfast buffet at the hotel was very good.

Breakfast station at the Lapis Hotel
Fruit selections at the Lapis hotel in Hanoi
Pastry selection at the Lapis Hotel in Hanoi Vietnam.

Time to Explore

In the morning, we headed out in search of a cup of coffee and explored a little before the crowds of people descended on the area. The person working the front desk of our hotel suggested we check out the area around the lake. Map in hand, we set off. We were pleasantly surprised to find some of the streets in the suggested area blocked off and much easier to traverse. We stopped for coffee and an egg McMuffin at McDonalds (our go-to for coffee when abroad) and then wandered into the side streets that were waking up with shops opening for business.

The streets are narrow and crowded with shops, cafés and businesses. They came to life quickly, and we dodged cars, buses, scooters, bikes, and people. After a few hours of aimlessly roaming, we headed back to the more open area around the lake. Having the streets around the lake only open to pedestrians was a welcome reprieve from the crowds.

Streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Lady pushing bike on the streets of Hanoi Vietnam.
Lady carrying baskets in the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

At lunchtime, we returned to the hotel for a restroom break (restrooms are an adventure in themselves here) and were getting ready to head back out when our favorite desk clerk greeted us. After a quick discussion, we mentioned we had hoped to go to Quang Phu Cau incense village that we had read about but were having a hard time finding transportation (the public bus would take 3 hours one way and just dump you in the village). She suggested we have lunch and that she make a few calls. She was able to find a private driver and tour guide for us.

We were picked up and whisked away to Quang Phu Cau within the hour. I use the term whisked lightly as it took forever for our driver to get out of Hanoi, another adventure in itself.

After an hour and a half, we arrived at a factory in this small village where we were shown the process of making the incense and could take some pictures. We probably only spent about an hour exploring the area and then started making our way back to the hotel in Hanoi. We enjoyed seeing the countryside, watching the workers in the rice fields, cows roaming free (even on the roads), and cemeteries and villages along the way.

Our driver spoke no English, and our guide spoke very little. It was an interesting trip.

Incense factory in Vietnam.
Incense colors in Vietnam.
Worker gathering incense in Vietnam.

Halong Bay

We had made reservations for a day-long tour to Halong Bay, about a 3-hour drive outside of Hanoi. Our tour guide had messaged us the night before, so we were outside our hotel and ready to go at 7:30 AM. We were picked up and then spent most of the next hour on a full-sized bus trying to navigate through narrow, crowded streets to pick up other guests.

When the last guest was finally picked up, we hit the road for the long trip to Halong Bay. We stopped for a quick break and finally reached the bay at about noon.

Lunch was served after we boarded the boat, and the captain set sail for the bay. The food was good, and the service was well organized.

Lunch area on Halong Bay cruise.
Dining area on Halong Bay tour with Cozy Tours.
Chicken Rocks in Halong Bay Vietnam.

After lunch, and we had been cruising the beautiful bay for a while, the boat stopped on one of the islands with caves to explore. We were taken aback by all the boats jostling for a position to drop off their guests. There were so many people there that we could see lines to get into the cave and just a sea of people on this tiny slip of land. After a quick chat, we decided to forgo this bonding experience with the mass of humanity and stayed on the boat. Once our fellow cruise mates were dropped off, the boat moved into the bay, waiting about 45 minutes to pick everyone back up.

Halong bay view from the ship.
Halong bay view from the Cozy tour ship.
Jim on the Cozy tour boat in Halong bay.

This Place is Crowded!

We were amazed at the number of people and boats allowed to be crammed into one place. The next stop was a different island for a bamboo boat ride or kayak option. We chose the bamboo boat ride (the boat was not bamboo) and moved with the once again crowded dock to pick up our life jackets and wait for our assigned boat. Fifteen people were headed onto our little boat, and with a local person at the back rowing, we set off to float through a cave into a bay. Again, the place was very crowded, and the little boats had to be careful when traversing the cave/tunnel. In an attempt to entertain us, the gentleman paddling the boat (standing on the back like a person driving a gondola) began to rock the overcrowded boat. My elderly seatmate was not impressed and grabbed my leg, letting out a hearty scream. The boat quit rocking.

Jim and Rosie on bamboo boat.
Bamboo boat sailing into the cave.
Boats going through the tunnel cave in Halong Bay Vietnam.

Ti Top Island

Our excursion finished, we returned to our cruise boat and set sail for the final island. There was a lookout at the top of this island and a beach area for those who chose to swim. It was a cold and cloudy day, so there were not many swimmers, but several people did wander into the water for photo opportunities. Once again, the island was packed with people, and the boats bumped into each other, trying to find a spot to dump their passengers. The ship then moved into the bay so other ships could dump their passengers. At the appointed time, our boat returned to pick us up and start the trek back to the terminal.

Fishing boat in Halong Bay Vietnam.
Another fishing boat in Halong Bay.

Will it Last?

We were surprised to find oil drilling taking place in the bay. Although the area is stunning, I’m not sure how long the ecological stability can be maintained with the number of boats, tourists, and oil drilling going on.

Oil rigs in Halong Bay Vietnam
Boats bumping into each other in Halong Bay Vietnam.
Crowds in Halong Bay Vietnam.