First place where we set foot in Vietnam: Hanoi.
The flight over from Europe takes forever, with a very difficult layover in a freezing Guangzhou airport, but we made it all the way over to Vietnam, and that's all that matters.
Hanoi is the capital of this big country, and we wanted to tackle that before heading down south, to gentler weather and, we would find out, gentler people too. More on that later.
It was cold and dark and rainy and we spent a couple of days zigzagging through the streets of old Hanoi, wandering without a very precise destination, just trying to take it all in while getting over the jet lag. Then we decided to take a city tour, and booked one at the hotel. You can visit all the places on your own, but this is a quick and almost painless way to visit a lot of the most important landmarks. Not having to worry about getting lost, or getting tickets from all the site's long lines, are also facts to factor in...
You might want to spend a bit more time in some of the places, and you're missing that, or pick a different place to have lunch, and you're stuck with the restaurant they chose, but it's a way to fit a few places in a couple of hours, if you're in a rush.
Halong bay is a must-see. One of those places, not only on Vietnam but on Earth, that one should make an effort to visit.
How you get there, and how you experience it, that's another thing. You can visit on almost every budget, from big tour buses to private cars, and everything in between. And that's just how you get there. You then have to pick from the dozens (hundreds?) of junks that are available.
We booked a mid-range trip out of Hanoi, with our trusty Mr. Loi Nguyen. His prices were a bit cheaper than what we were being offered back at our hotel, and had always come through so far (and would again in the future), and so we decided to get train tickets to Hue on the following day as well.
Included in the price: transfer to Halong in a small bus, complementary bottle of water (small, as usual, and non personalised), one night on board, visit to the caves, and meals (drinks not included). The last day's lunch is already eaten on land, while waiting for the bus back to Hanoi.
Our boat was a bit old, the crew maybe a bit too young. Meals were nothing to rave home about, and they had the strangest happy hour concept: buy 2, get 1 free. We're used to 'buy 1, get 1', but that's how things roll in Halong. You can also get cigarettes and stuff from one of the ladies that rows by, albeit at a premium price. No harm done, it's 11 o'clock in the evening, and we're moored somewhere in the middle of nowhere, so that's more than fair.
Regardless of price range you get to visit the same places all the other tourists visit, as you'll soon find out when you meet all of them on the caves, and then on the other island, and then on the next day... The price difference will get you different food, different sized boat, different crew mood and so on. We got on that mid-range junk, and mid-range we got. We got fed, carried around, shown the sites, and deposited back on land, for our lunch and trip back to Hanoi. Could be better, but it could be much worse. We enjoyed our time in Halong a lot, and would recomend this without any doubts.
Sleeping on the boat really is a nice way to end the day, and cruising slowly on the misty (yes, misty and cold) sea is relaxing and a one of a kind experience. The caves are a bit crowded, maybe a lot crowded, but you should be used to the whole 'group tourism' thing by now. You do get to share everything with a ton of people, and you also have limited time to enjoy the views. As soon as you get over this, you'll be able to get along just fine.
While in Vietnam we bought a couple of books about the country, to help us get a more informed feel about this land, and it did make a big difference when it comes to understand a few things. Halong Bay is featured in the books, and in a pretty scary way in Vietnam: Rising Dragon.
No spoiler alert here, but you should visit sooner than later.
We got to Hue after a 12 hour night train ride from Hanoi, and that takes a toll. We were feeling pretty tired, and just hoped on a taxi and went straight to the hotel, the cosy Huenino. We were quickly checked-in and offered a filling breakfast and plenty of tea and coffee. It felt good.
Soon we were ready to take a stroll to the imperial city, and soak in the ancient times feel it transmits. It was hot and it's still a decent distance to cover, so plan accordingly if you're planning on walking there. There's also a substantial amount of walking to be done on the inside, and you'll find water bottles being sold on plenty of places.
It's a magnificent compound, to say the least.
We skipped the tombs further south, Hue was a one-day stop. Still had a few hours to kill on the next morning, but the rain caught up with us again, and we stayed at the hotel, taking advantage of the wifi to plan our next days. Again plenty of tea and coffee to keep us company until the time came to board the bus.
Open tour bus, another Vietnam staple. You get to travel lying down, and sometimes even get free wifi en route. Make sure you pick a decent bus company for these trips.