City Escape: Finding the Peace at Uncle Ty’s Farmstay

Living and working in a bustling city like Hanoi has endless advantages. Yet, sometimes, I just need a break. I need peace and quiet, I need to sit back and not think about work, I need to hear something other than the constant buzz of motorbikes and I need a breath of fresh air. For these reasons, a friend and I spontaneously booked a one night stay at Uncle Ty’s Farmstay in Dong Bai Village after reading about it on Wander-lush.org and set off the next morning.

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From reading about it on Wander-lush.org, I found out that there is more to the background of Uncle Ty’s. It a successful community based tourism initiative that was started with a small loan from a NGO in Hanoi. These type of success stories make visiting places like Uncle Ty’s even more worth it.

Google maps said it would take about 1.5 hours to cover approximately 70km’s but due to some poor navigation skills and a couple of wrong turns, it took us 5 hours – that’s a long time to be on a bike! Eventually, we arrived at the idyllic farmstay in the middle of a tiny farm village. The dogs were roaming free, the calves were warily following their Mother’s around and the surrounding land was as lush as can be. I couldn’t picture a more perfect setting for a city escape.

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As we arrived, we were given a sheet with a list of activities that we could choose from, ranging from a tractor ride to catching ducks whilst blindfolded, which is a village tradition. Due to our poor timing, we only chose one activity being the boat ride on the lake. This beautiful lake is emerald blue in colour and surrounded by flourishing rolling hills. Besides the very excited dogs that joined us, the boat ride was tranquil and immediately put us at ease.

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One of our favourite parts of our stay was the delicious feast they provided for us. They catered to all our dietary requirements without a single cautionary question and provided us with more than we could consume. However, it was so good that we gave them a run for their money!

One could see that a great deal of love and care has been put into making Uncle Ty’s a comfortable and tranquil setting yet one that still feels authentically Vietnamese. our private room was simple with hand-crafted straw lamp shades, a plug point, electric fan and a mosquito net. Below the rooms, wooden tables and chairs are neatly set up along side the fish pond and the hammocks hang low whilst over-looking the immense greenery.

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Visiting Uncle Ty’s was worth every second of getting lost and I can’t wait to go back!

 

 

A Guide to the Best Cafe’s in Hanoi

It’s no secret that Vietnam is famous for its coffee, which means an abundance of cafe’s to choose from. Whether you are after a strong black coffee or something on the sweet side, you’ll find it in Hanoi.

The Note Coffee

Possibly the most fun, imaginative, friendly and colourful cafe you could come across. Before even stepping inside, you’ll be greeted by the friendliest “hellooo” from across the street. Inside, you’ll be surrounded by colourful sticky notes written by people from all walks of life. When I say surrounded, I mean it. They are on the tables, chairs, stairs, walls, the roof and even the hanging lights! They make a pretty good egg coffee too (which is a MUST try in Vietnam).

Location: 64 Lương Văn Can, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội

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Cafe Nola

Nola Cafe is hidden away between the surrounding buildings and is accessed by a narrow alleyway between two shops. As you ascend the stairs, make sure you go up to the rooftop terrace before deciding where to sit. This cafe is full of creativity and is surprisingly peaceful considering its based within the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter.

Location: 89 Phố Mã Mây, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội

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Eden Coffee

One of my all time favourite cafes in Hanoi has to be Eden Coffee. Conveniently located next to St Josephs Cathedral, this multi-story cafe is filled with beautiful murals, intricately patterned furniture and a rooftop terrace that won’t disappoint. Not to mention, they make a GREAT coconut coffee!

Location: 2 Nhà Thờ, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội

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Gấu Coffee Roaster

French pastries and Vietnamese coffee – what a combination! Make your way upstairs to sit on the balcony, sipping on your coffee, indulging in your croissant whilst watching local life unfold before you.

Location: 33 Hàng Bè, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội

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Maison Marou Chocolate

Hand made artisan Vietnamese chocolate – need I say more? Maison Marou is a chic shop and cafe in one that specializes in decadent desserts, perfectly balanced hot chocolate and delicious Vietnamese inspired flavoured chocolates. At the back of the cafe, you can enjoy your treats whilst overlooking the chocolate desserts being made right before you in their open plan kitchen.

Location: 91A Thợ Nhuộm, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội

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Blue Birds Nest Cafe

Nestled down an alley, behind a gate in the lovely area of Truc Bach is where you’ll find Blue Bird’s Nest Cafe. This cozy cafe is a co-working favourite among locals and expats, that has plenty of books to get lost in, great coffee and the sweetest cats to keep you company.

Location: 13 19, Đặng Dung, Quán Thánh, Ba Đình, Hà Nội

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La Studio

La Studio is one of my all time favourite cafe’s in Hanoi. What’s even better is that it is one of the most ethical cafes I have come across in Hanoi. Everything is vegan and freshly made, there is no plastic in sight and you are required to bring your own takeaway cups/containers. What’s even better is that all their breads are homemade! Although these types of cafe’s may be pretty common in the Western world, they aren’t in Vietnam. To see a few people coming together to try make a difference with such a strong support base is a such a treat.

Location: 44 Ngõ 31 – Xuân Diệu, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội

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Loading T

Located in an old French mansion, Loading T serves an array of different drinks, including a pretty good egg coffee. Walk up the crumbling stairs and you’ll be welcomed by the delicious smell of Vietnamese coffee, beautiful tiles and the friendliest barista.

Location: 2nd Floor, 8 Chân Cầm, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội

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Coffee is a major aspect of life in Vietnam and I urge you not to skip it!

 

The Power of a Local Experience in Hue

Before arriving in the central Vietnamese city of Hue, a number of people expressed their disappointment in it. Consequently, I didn’t arrive expecting much but in actual fact, I was pleasantly surprised thanks to a countryside tour with I Love Vietnam Tours. This is an all female motorbike touring company that is run by a group of young and passionate woman, who strongly believe in empowering woman through tourism.

From the get-go, Thao, Mint and Huong were friendly, enthusiastic and informative. We jumped on the back of their motorbikes and headed towards our first destination – trying salty coffee! Sounds odd but it was surprisingly good. We chatted, joked and slightly customized our trip, for which they were happy to accommodate.

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Next up, we drove through endless rice paddies to reach the traditional Thuy Chanh Village, which is home to about 3000 households. Here, we visited a small museum dedicated to the traditional way of life in the village. The curator of the museum, an elderly lady dressed entirely in purple, showed us how people used to cultivate rice before machinery and how they still catch fish to this day. As the village is situated on the outskirts of Hue and my Vietnamese is limited, I wouldn’t have learnt as much as I did without the tour.

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Our next destination was the Standing Lady Buddha, which stands at 14 meters high. After living in Thailand for 7 months, I thought I was quite informed about Buddhism but I learnt that Buddhism in Thailand differs from that in Vietnam. Luckily, I had Thao to explain all these new things I was seeing. For starters, as we were walking up the stairs towards the Buddha, I noticed people stopping every few steps. Thao explained that people place incense along the side of the stairs whilst praying. The importance of Buddhism in this area could be seen in the sheer number of incense stacked along the sides of the stairs.

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As we reached the top of the stairs, Thao wasted no time in explaining the countless number of water bottles at the base of the Buddha attached to more burning incense. Once the incense finishes burning, people will drink the water in the hope of good fortune. None of this would have made sense without the explanations from Thao, Mint and Huong.

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The following destination is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever seen. Khai Dinh Tomb is the burial place of of the last Nguyen Dynasty emperor. Before he passed away, he raised the taxes by 30% just so that he could build this for himself. Needless to say, he wasn’t very liked. However, with a structure as beautiful as this, I’m sure the generated revenue will make up for it. From exterior to interior, this place is exquisite. The interior, where his remains lay, is a myriad of mosaics in every direction you look. The exterior is just as beautiful with lush rolling hills as a backdrop.

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Unfortunately, darkness descended upon us but Thao, Mint and Houng didn’t end the tour. We completed the Vong Canh Hill and Tu Hieu Pagoda in darkness. Although we had limited visibility, the peacefulness made up for it.

I wouldn’t have been able to visit all of these destinations and learn everything I did without the girls from I Love Vietnam Tours. We enjoyed it so much that I booked myself into a cooking class with them the following day and did another tour in Hoi An!

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Why Go Small and Local?

When visiting a foreign country, it’s important to remember that tourism can have a positive and negative impact on local communities, which depends on your decisions as a traveller. By choosing a local company, you’ll be injecting capital into the community that can be used to finance important aspects of life such as education. The woman working for I Love Vietnam Tours are mostly university students, and from my university experience, the extra money is always useful. Besides the extra income, the lady drivers are able to practice their already impressive English fluency, which will come in handy in their futures.

By choosing a small scale local tourism company such as I Love Vietnam Tours, you’ll have a more genuine, authentic and personal tour. Whilst touring, the women engaged in authentic conversations with us and took an interest in our personal lives. The tours were in no way scripted but explained to us with great passion, detail and authenticity. As a social enterprise, I Love Vietnam Tours gives a portion of their profits to charities in need, furthering the difference your decision could make.

Exploring Hue may require leaving the city center but it’s definitely worth it!

Kelsey x

Responsible Tourism: Trekking with the Sapa Sisters

After an 8 hour overnight train trip and a winding mini bus trip over the pass, we arrived in the mountainous town of Sapa, in the North-West of Vietnam. In all honesty, Sapa looks like a town out of the European mountainside. That is, until you see the traditional woman walking around in their brightly coloured customary clothing.

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My Experience

As we arrived at the Sapa Sisters office, we were welcomed by the friendly staff, a breakfast of our choice and the offer of a shower. Our guide, Lan, went through the two different prospective routes with us. We chose our route, with a little persuasion from Lan, and off we went.

The decent into the valley was muddy and misty but none the less, it was breathtakingly beautiful. It was like going back in time. The farm animals were free roaming and happy as they went about their daily lives. The homes were simple and the local children were running along the terraces without a technological device in site.

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As it was December, the rice had already been harvested so the fluorescent green rice paddies depicted in photos were no where to be seen. Yet, the terraced layers with fog rolling over them was a spectacle in itself. As we descended towards the villages in the valley, we had many questions for Lan, who always answered openly and truthfully, transferring her knowledge of the landscape and people onto us. I was happy to learn that the rice terraces are owned by the people working on them in a subsistence manner as the rice is harvested for consumption, not sale.

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We reached Lao Chai where we stopped for a buffet style lunch cooked and served by the local villagers. As soon as we sat down, we were bombarded by locals trying to sell us their hand made traditional materials, clothing and jewelry. Although beautiful, the insistence of the locals was slightly over bearing.

As we trekked through the village, Lan showed us the traditional way of life, which made me realize how artificial and fast paced our lives are in the city. In these villages, life is slow. Traditional clothing is dyed using the indigo plant, which is planted, grown and harvested by the locals. Additionally, they also harvest their own hemp to make material. Traditional “machinery” is still used grind corn and rice, which can be human or water powered. These are things that my technology numb brain would never have thought of.

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That night, we stayed at Zao’s Homestay with about 20 other trekkers. We all ate a home cooked Vietnamese meal together that ended with shots of rice wine from a plastic bottle. Needless to say, it was a good evening.

Why Should You Trek Responsibly?

Many of us trekking through the valleys surrounding Sapa come from well off backgrounds and have never had to face the types of hardships that the Hmong people do, especially woman. In their society (and many others), males hold majority of the power, resulting in their ownership of land being dependent on their marital status. In a society that lives off the land they own, this is vital to their quality of life. Additionally, many woman in the valley fall victim to human trafficking in China, whose border is fairly close.

Although tourism has brought many benefits to these people, it has brought a different form of exploitation through low wages of local guides working for major tourism agencies operated from the major Vietnamese cities. A guide who feels valued is more likely to provide you with a more insightful trip, which is exactly what I experienced. Our guide, Lan, was forthcoming with information regarding the valley, open to answering all of our questions and could speak fluent English, even joking with us along the way.

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By trekking responsibly, you are not just supporting a single woman. You are supporting an entire community that can continue to live their traditional lifestyle of subsistence farming on the rice terraces, whilst improving the lives of their families and the villages you trek through. People in these villages have been empowered through tourism by learning new skills to open their own restaurants, home stays and by selling their traditional clothing and accessories.

I’m so glad I could responsibly contribute to this society whilst experiencing their way of life.

Kelsey

 

Ha Long Bay: Mass Tourism Gone Wrong

Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern Vietnam and for good reason. It consists of thousands of limestone mountainous islands teeming with natural wildlife jutting out of the emerald waters below. Trying to explain the natural beauty of Ha Long Bay is near impossible. No words or pictures can accurately describe it. Yet, with so much beauty comes a downside: mass tourism.

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Mass tourism can be defined as thousands of people going to the same destination at the same time and is often sold as a package deal. The day trip tours to Ha Long Bay are the perfect example of mass tourism. Let me explain why.

We were fetched from my friends parents hotel at 8am along with a number of other tourists. They drove us all the way to Ha Long Bay and arrived at the port with what must have been about 50 other buses packed with tourists. Our guide explained to us that Ha Long Bay attracts 5000-7000 visitors every single day. We were lead to our boat that was docked between a fleet of other boats that could each hold a substantial number of people. Our boat could hold 70 people but luckily, there were only about 30 of us for the day, which was probably due to poor weather and the low tourist season.

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As we left the harbour, I could see the most magnificent landscape ahead. To see these ginormous islands teeming with vegetation and wildlife is something i’ll be back for. Yet, in every direction I looked, giant white boats all providing the same kind of buffet lunch experience packed with tourists could be seen. It was near impossible to get a photo of the landscape without one.

As we neared the iconic rocks that are supposed to depict two chickens kissing, we had to wait in a literal queue of boats to get a clear view. Not to mention the number of boats who pushed in or right past us for their gain. Sounds like a petty childhood fight, right?

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The next stop on the carefully planned itinerary was canoeing or being rowed on a bamboo boat by a local through two arches in the cliff side that lead to two beautiful enclosed bays. Due to the poor weather, we decided to do the bamboo boats. We were rowed towards the first arch, where once again we hit a traffic jam of people in canoes and bamboo boats.  In fact, the canoes with tourists were the only ones contributing to the congestion due to a lack of spacial awareness and little experience. As the tourists bumped into each other, the arch walls and bamboo boats, the locals became increasingly agitated. In all honesty, the boat congestion, the tourist’s squeals and the neon orange life jackets dotted around the bay took away from appreciating the natural beauty around us.

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Thereafter, we headed to Dong Thien Duong, which is one of the most spectacular caves I have ever entered. It is filled with giant stalactites hanging from the ceiling and stalagmites rising from the ground. Due to the large number of tourists and time constraints, it was difficult to just stop and stare at this magnificent cave system. Once out of the first cave, we were told that we could go to the second cave but need to hurry as they boat will be leaving soon. Who wants to rush through a natural phenomenon?! Not me.

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Through my mass tourism experience, I’ve come to realize that there is little to no adventure involved. Sure, you get to see this beautiful landscape but where is the adventure and authenticity in simply seeing with our eyes?

Ha Long Bay is breathtakingly beautiful. Mass tourism doesn’t take away from that beauty but it takes away from experiencing it. I am yet to stay over on one of the islands but from talking to others, it’s a much better experience.

Kelsey

 

 

 

Day Trip: The Natural Beauty of Ninh Binh

Escaping the hustle and bustle of big city life every once in a while is necessary and the sleepy town of Ninh Binh is the perfect destination. Only a two hour train ride away from Hanoi, the surrounding landscape is dotted with towering karsts, sprawling greenery and ancient pagodas.

As we stepped off the train and out the station gates, we were bombarded with motorbike and taxi offers. After a couple of “no thank you”‘s, a young lady approached us inviting us to her restaurant where her mom does all the cooking. After a Banh Mi, she organised her dad to be our taxi driver for the day. Although this was great, I would suggest hiring motorbikes, which cost 100 000 VND for the whole day.

The train between Ninh Binh and Hanoi has different classes from which you can choose. As naive travelers, we just took what we were given, which was the pricier and more comfortable seats costing us 206 000 VND round trip. However, you can travel in a very minimal carriage for 116 000 VND round trip. Next time, I’ll opt for the cheaper option.

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Tam Coc

Our first stop was Tam Coc. We boarded our steel boat and headed down the river with our guide (for navigation purposes) and rower. As I was taking in my surroundings, I turned around to see our guide rowing with his FEET whilst holding an umbrella in his hand to shade himself from the sun. I was rather shocked (and amused) to say the least.

As we rowed further away from the starting point, we found ourselves feeling more and more at peace with the towering karst formations and the constant greenery. The entire ride lasts between 1.5 -2 hours, whilst you pass expansive rice paddies, wildlife and progress through beautiful cave systems where you have to watch your head.

Entrance fee: 195 000 VND per person

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Bich Dong Pagoda

The entrance to the Bich Dong Pagoda has become somewhat synonymous with Ninh Binh through social media and it’s easy to see why. This beautiful structure leads you to three different pagoda’s, one being built into the side of the cliff face that enshrines a beautiful display where people pay their respects. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of the third and most hidden pagoda, which requires people to go through a cave and about 40 stone steps to find it. No doubt I’ll be back to find it.

Entrance Fee: Free

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Hang Múa Caves

Sweeping views of Tam Coc, expanding rice paddy fields, limestone karsts and Ninh Binh in the distance? Yes please! Beware, the 500 steep stone steps to the top aren’t for the weak but 100% worth every drop of sweat. As you near the top, you’ll reach a fork in the stairs. We tackled the more difficult route first, on the left. As we reached the top, we were met by an elongated dragon sculpture that stretched across some pretty ragged rocks. On the other side of the fork in the stairs is a pagoda-like structure from which you can see Ninh Binh in the distance. The hike may test you physically but you’ll reach the top wondering how this much beauty exists in this world.

Entrance: 100 000 VND per person

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Note: This blog post is a work in progress as I plan on going back to explore this gem of a place again.

Kelsey x

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Free but Awesome Things to do in Hanoi

The start up costs of moving to Vietnam exceeded my original expectations and to top it off, my first salary was less than half as I only started half way through the financial month. Needless to say, I’ve been on a tight budget. So, I challenged myself to try and stick to doing the free activities that Hanoi has to offer. It’s safe to say that I haven’t been disappointed in the least!

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

This is one of the most interesting yet strange experiences I have had. Ho Chi Minh was the first communist leader of Vietnam and is held in high regard all over the country. Hence, Saigon is now named Ho chi Minh City. The experience is highly controlled with no talking or photos allowed. As you are escorted in conveyor belt fashion, you will walk past his glass encased body for approximately 30-60 seconds. Although short, it is well worth it. It is only open in the mornings and is closed for a few months of the year when his body is sent away for maintenance (check beforehand).

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St Josephs Cathedral 

Built in 1886, the cathedral has been attracting visitors from around the world for many years; and I was no different. The cathedral is located in the old town and is surrounded by trendy cafe’s with beautiful balcony views overlooking the cathedral and local eating places. If you want to enter the cathedral (which I suggest you do), it is open all day except between 11:00am and 2:00pm.

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Hanoi Mosaic Wall

According to Guinness World Records, this beautiful creation is the largest ceramic mural in the world . It runs along the Red River Dyke, which runs parallel to the high way, so it is quite difficult to view from a wider angle. However, it is SO worth seeing. It was completed in 2010, which coincided with the celebration of Hanoi’s 1000th year. The concept of the wall was initiated by Nguyen Thu Thuy, who wanted to revive Hanoi’s urban center and bring the local community together.

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Tran Quoc Pagoda

After numerous repairs and restorations over the years, one would never say this Pagoda was built in the 6th century. As it closes between 11:30 and 1:30, I would suggest either arriving when it opens or at 1:30 to avoid the tour groups that arrive soon after. I was the first person to enter and had the area to myself for a few minutes. Even if you aren’t broke like me, I would suggest going to see this snippet of Vietnamese history. Afterwards, take a stroll along the lake. The views won’t disappoint.

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Phung Hung Art Project

This art project isn’t just any art project.  The Phung Hung Art Project was initiated as a commemoration of 25 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and South Korea. Through a collaboration between Vietnamese and South Korean artists, the arches in the walls leading up to the Long Bien Bridge has been brightened up with art depicting the lives of those living in Hanoi. The aim of the project is to create a community and cultural space that can be enjoyed by locals and tourists. In my opinion, they have definitely succeeded as there were both locals and tourists marveling and taking pictures of and with the artworks.

Location: 29 Phung Hung

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Train Street

Down the road from the Phung Hung Art Project, you’ll find one of the famous train streets in Hanoi. There is more than one area where you can view the train thundering between local homes. The one I visited is in the Old Quarter and is probably easier to get to than the other one, which is located further away from most of the tourist attractions. At the Old Quarter location, you can enjoy a coffee or fresh fruit juice along the tracks and browse the local shops that have opened their doors along the tracks.

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Long Bien Bridge

Long Bien Bridge opened for use in 1903 and has been of strategic importance to French colonists and the locals of Hanoi as it connects the districts of Hoan Kiem and Long Bien. The bridge has seen it all in Hanoi, even making it through bombings during the war. (Although, it was damaged). You can either drive over the bridge on a motorbike/bicycle or walk over it, but no cars are allowed. The best way to get onto the railway tracks is to enter from the Long Bien Train Station. There are no barriers or guards around to stop you from simply stepping onto the tracks and straight onto the bridge.

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Old Quarter Free/Self-Guided Walking Tour

The Hanoi Old Quarter is probably my favourite space in the city. Between the crumbling French colonial buildings, the bustling streets, the cute cafes and places of cultural importance, you’ll see locals going about their everyday lives. The Old Quarter is rich in history, colour and culture; and definitely shouldn’t be missed. It is easy enough to explore on your own, but you might prefer a more cultural and enlightening experience with a free tour with Hanoi kids or Hanoi Free Local Tours. However, you will be expected to cover the costs of your guide such as food and entrance fees (if applicable). I will definitely be doing one once I am paid!

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Quang Ba Flower market

Much like the Pak Khlong Talat flower market in Bangkok, the Quang Ba Flower Market is where most of Hanoi purchase their flowers in the early hours of the morning. I have yet to venture there for the main trading hours between 2:00 am and 5:00am but the evidence of a busy trading session could be seen when I arrived at 7:30am. The concrete floor was laden with stems, leaves and petals from an array of flowers. Luckily, there were still plenty of flowers on display and traders were still hard at work preparing their bunches.

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Sunset over the West Lake

Watching the sunset over the calm waters of Hanoi’s biggest lake after a day of exploring is the best way to end off a day. As the sun sets, the local life will slow down around you too.

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To my surprise, Hanoi actually has many free travel options!