Tai Chi at Daybreak: 5 Days in Hanoi, Vietnam

Last month I had my fantastic first trip to Vietnam. I’ve got so much I want to share about this fascinating country and its food and culture, and I’ll be writing several themed posts over the coming months. But just for now, these are extracts adapted from my journal, written while I was in Hanoi, and some of which I published on Facebook and Instagram at the time. They are not comprehensive at all, but just scratch the surface of all I did and saw, highlighting one stand-out experience from each day, in the same style as the journal I’ve already posted from my time in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. What follows gives you ideas for what to do in 5 days in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hanoi Day 1: A Very Tired Arrival

The Note Coffee bar in central Hanoi has great coffee and great views from its upstairs seating area.  But its USP is inviting you to write your day’s musings on PostIt notes and to stick them all over every surface

This picture was taken the morning I arrived in Hanoi, when I was getting caffeined-up after a very long train journey – 32 hours on a sleeper train! – from Ho Chi Minh City. The train journey was an entertaining and quite surreal experience and deserves – and will get – a post of its own.

Meanwhile, here I was in The Note Coffee bar, whose upstairs windows gave me a beautiful first view over Hoan Kiem Lake, which dominates central Hanoi. The Note Coffee is so-named because its interior is festooned with PostIt notes covering every surface, which visitors have been encouraged to scribble on.

It’s fun and quirky, the coffee is very good, and all the messages from locals and visitors from around the world gave me a glimpse of who I could expect to meet, and what I could expect to find, as I started to get to know Hanoi.

Day 2: Getting the Hang of Hanoi

Central Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam – is in the north of the country, which was unified after the Vietnam War. I found it has a more traditionally Vietnamese feel than Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and more French colonial influence from before the Vietnam War remains. As a northern city, it also has more influence from nearby China.

Hanoi is a very photogenic place indeed. This is the beautiful Huc Bridge, which leads across the large Hoan Kiem Lake, in the centre of the city, to the Ngoc Son Temple. Crossing the bridge, and paying the entrance fee to see the temple and take some photo opportunities across the lake, is a must-do while in Hanoi.

On Day 2 in Hanoi I also realised that I was getting much better at crossing the roads through all the motorbikes! They will not stop at red lights etc, and there are so many that a proper break in the traffic is rare. So the trick is to do as the Vietnamese do i.e. to be bold and walk into the oncoming traffic slowly and deliberately so the bikes (and cars, and rickshaws, and the odd lorry – but it’s mostly motorbikes) can see you and gauge their speed not to hit you, or to swerve. It takes some nerve, but it works as I’m still here(!), and it becomes second nature after the initial culture shock.

Day 3: A Day Trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay

The stunning and ethereal rocky islands of Halong Bay were used as a location for the 2017 film Kong: Skull Island

Today I took a day-trip to Halong Bay, ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. This scene may look familiar to you if you’ve seen the 2017 film Kong: Skull Island, which used Halong Bay heavily as a location for its fictional lost world.

This mesmerising UNESCO World Heritage site has been created by karst erosion. But I prefer the mythical explanation – that a large mountain dragon hurtled down towards the sea and gouged out limestone pinnacles with its tail as it did so.

Halong Bay is a four hour drive from Hanoi, and many people therefore do a 2-3 day trip, staying on a cruise boat in the bay overnight. I only had time on this trip to do a day cruise, but it was so worth the very long day and 8 hours in a bus. Sailing between the limestone islands, and getting off your boat to visit the caves, is a wonderfully tranquil and ethereal experience, and a counterpoint to being in the city.

Caves in Halong Bay, Vietnam, 2017
One of the sets of funkily lit caves that it’s possible to visit in Halong Bay

Day 4: Finding Inner Peace in the Middle of the City

The mist adds to the tranquil, spiritual feel of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake at dawn

For the last two mornings I’ve got up super-early and walked to Hoan Kiem Lake to see the sunrise around 6am, and the really masses of local people, young and old – and mostly older actually – out exercising.

All around the large lake people were out doing tai chi, either singly or in groups. And there were several zumba-lite style classes going on, with competing music coming from portable speakers – Boom Boom Boom Boom by the Vengaboys was popular! An older Vietnamese woman saw me watching and taking photos of one of the classes and invited me to join in. I have no shame, and I love Zumba, so I did. And suddenly the mad peroxide blond foreigner became the focus of other foreigners’ photography.

This time of day – before all the motorbikes come out about half an hour later – is the only time you see really quite a lot of cyclists also out for the exercise. With the morning mist rolling over the lake, the whole thing was a very heartwarming, inspirational and spiritual experience. It put me in a fantastic mood to start the day, and got me looking up local tai chi classes for when I get back home.

Women Doing an Early Morning Zumba Class in Central Hanoi, Vietnam, 2017
Women doing an early morning Zumba class across the road from Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi

Day 5: Goodbye Vietnam & Hello Again London

Sunset over Hanoi and over my trip to Vietnam as I start my long flight home

Here’s sunset over Hanoi – as I sadly leave this wonderful city which I’ve resolved to revisit – and sunrise over London as I arrive back in the UK.

Reflecting on the flight about my whole trip, I realise that I can’t recommend visiting Vietnam highly enough. It’s a complex and multilayered country. It took me over a week to start appreciating that properly, and all that it has to offer.

I’d love to go back to Vietnam and see the terraced fields in Sapa, the historic cities of Hoi An and Hué, to spend more time in Hanoi, and so many other things really.

For now going home is sad, but I’m full of happy reflections. Thank you Vietnam, it’s been totally fabulous and inspirational!

The lights of the suburbs of London at dawn, as I arrive back at Heathrow Airport

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