One of the best things about living in Penang is that it is close to many desirable locations in Southeast Asia for short or long vacations. I have been to Saigon and the southern part of Vietnam a few times, but Kevin has never been. So a while back we decided to take a vacation in Hanoi and Halong Bay.
We searched online and found a very reasonable rate for a private tour that included a few days in Hanoi and then a few days in Halong bay and the surrounding area. This included an evenings stay on a junk anchored in Halong Bay.
Visiting Hanoi we had to suffer through the visit to Ho Chi Minh's tomb and listen to the prepared speech while standing under a blazing hot sun for 2 to 3 hours. This is a mandatory stop for any tour group visiting Hanoi. Once you get through the propaganda and hearing that Ho Chi Minh had been voted the most popular leader in the world for the past 20 years, the rest of the day is fine. The accommodations in Hanoi were very nice and included a Continental breakfast. The pastries served in the hotel restaurant were great and the cocktails were cheap and plentiful.
After a couple of days in Hanoi we traveled by van, with the tour guide, to Tam Coc for an evening stay and a tour of the night market. While there we took a small boat ride along the river to see the numerous beautiful caves along the banks. It was interesting that when we got out in the middle of the river, the woman steering the boat stopped dead in the water. Out of no where another woman in a small boat appeared to sell us anything and everything. She had everything from Coke and snacks to clothing and handicrafts. If you didn't buy something you were in for a rather long wait until you did. It was a pleasant experience, however, and she could make change in any currency!
From there we went to Halong Bay, where we stayed in a very nice hotel with a fantastic view of Halong Bay. The next day we went, via junk, to Halong Bay where we spent the night along with a number of other junks anchored in the bay. There were 7 people in all aboard our junk. That evening we were served a fantastic meal of local seafood and wine. I must say that this was one of the best dining experiences I have ever had. After dinner the mandatory sale of souvenirs began in earnest. After we had bought a few tokens we settled in for a very nice evening of drinks and conversation, with the others, who were from the US and Israel. The scenery of Halong Bay is absolutely breathtaking and unforgettable.
The next day we made our return trip to Hanoi for our last night of the trip. The staff of the hotel went out of their way to make our stay as pleasant as possible. They even stopped on their way to work to buy us the traditional coffee that the locals use, instead of the touristy stuff. The next day was another nice breakfast and off to the airport for the return trip to Penang.
One thing that I noticed was that the tour guide went out of his way not to show us poorer areas of the country. We did not have too much of an opportunity to interact with he locals, as the only ones we met who could speak English wanted "dollars". I was constantly approached in public with the greeting, "hey Joe you got dollars?" Kevin being Chinese was not approached. I thoroughly enjoyed Hanoi and Halong Bay, but I find the people in the South to be more friendly and not motivated so much by the dollar. But the scenery and the food is well worth the trip to Hanoi and Halong Bay.