On our first proper morning in Hanoi we wandered round to the Friends Travel office which is just a 5 min walk from the La Siesta hotel. At the office we were greeted with fresh drinks and asked to complete some forms and were also given our itinerary, flight tickets and other information we would need for the trip. Then it was time for the bikes! Our trip was called “Real Hanoi Bicycle Experience” which you can book as a standalone trip but was included in our itinerary.
Cycling is a great way to see the city. There are a lot of small streets with old style buildings, coffee shops, bars, little restaurants mixed in with more modern complexes with global brands. And, as always, hundreds of mopeds! The tour took us to a temple where we learned about the offerings people leave (often random items like cigarettes, Coca Cola, biscuits etc.) in the hope of good luck and good health. We were taken to St Josephs Cathedral but there was a funeral going on so I didn’t want to interrupt (we were allowed to just wander in when the service was going on but that’s a bit weird!) We visited the political buildings as well – interesting to see the difference in architecture in different parts of the city!
One of the coolest parts was cycling over the Long Bien Bridge which connects Hanoi to more suburban districts. We cycled over the bridge to a small fishing area where we could wander around the fish farm and sample some locally made snacks.
We were also taken to a remote farmers village on an island underneath the main bridge in Hanoi. This was a really interesting segment and definitely helped the tour live up to its “off the beaten track” mantra. We spend time with a family learning about how they run their farm, look after the land and live a rural life in a modern world.
Cycling in Hanoi is an experience in itself, manoeuvring through the traffic – busses, trucks, mopeds with far too many people – whilst having no helmet on! I definitely became much more confident as time went on and it is a trust exercise – no one drives very fast and if you pull out into the traffic, people will avoid you.
The tour lasted 3.5hours, we had a great time and learned a lot!
In the evening, we joined the “Real Hanoi Bicycle Experience”. We met the guide again at the Friends Travel office and we were then taken around various food carts and small restaurants in the city – some on the main streets and some down incredibly narrow alley ways and back streets. We sampled egg pancakes, spring rolls, pork broths, coconut ice cream that was apparently served to Obama and then finally we ended with the traditional egg coffee – Café Giang – in the aptly named Giang Café! This café was first open in 1946 by Mr Nguyen Giang – the coffee recipe came about because there was a shortage of milk. The café is up a narrow flight of stairs, passing private residences. The décor is quite rustic but they have a couple of window seats which would have nice views of the water during the day!
The next morning we were picked up promptly to taken to Ninh Binh, which is a part of the county mostly known for valleys and mountains.
First we stopped at the Hoa Lu temple which is a large complex of temples with a small museum showing historic artefacts from royalty over the centuries. Hoa Lu was the site of the historic capital city of Vietnam when they first gained independence from China. To add context to our visit, it was ridiculous torrential rain. We didn’t have any ponchos so had to hastily buy some! Fortunately for us, as soon as we got off our minivan, we were harassed and grabbed by people trying to get us to purchase ponchos and sampan hats! It was nice to walk around the different buildings and see the ornate architecture on the woodwork. We didn’t spend as long as we would have normally done because of the rain but we still enjoyed it!
Next, we were taken to a conservation site, Cuc Phuong, to embark on a rowing boat journey through the dramatic scenery on the Ngo Dong River. Again it was extreme torrential rain, just to set the scene. What we didn’t really anticipate was that the rowing boat would be tiny and that an even tinier little old lady would be rowing us around. To her credit, she kept a cheery demeanour despite being faced with a group of people, each one probably quadruple the size of her in every direction! Not unsurprisingly, she asked us to help out rowing part of the way round!! Lol. The journey was incredibly beautiful – so peaceful and calm, waving to other boats, rowing through caves, and through the forests / plants all around. We were pretty tired when we got off!
We were supposed to go for another bike trip but because of the rain we couldn’t do it. We were taken for a nice lunch at a local restaurant – lots of fresh veg dishes – before the onward journey to our hotel in Ninh Binh, “Emerelda Ninh Binh Resort”.
The Emerelda Ninh Binh Resort was absolutely beautiful. The rooms were in blocks of 4 ( 2 upstairs, 2 downstairs). We had a massive room! There was a lovely outdoor pool and an indoor one too which was ideal because it was still raining. We spent time in the pool and treated ourselves to massages at the spa. At night, we had a few drinks in the bar and then had a meal in the very busy hotel restaurant which was lovely! It was such a peaceful, relaxing experience at the hotel which is what we were needing after a day of knackering ourselves rowing boats!
The next day we left Ninh Binh to travel to our Ha Long Bay Cruise! … Stay tuned for part 3!