I was happy that I saving over 40 hours of uncomfortable bus travel according to forum posts detailing the horrors of the Vientiane-Hanoi bus route. Like some other aspects of Laos, the prospect of the bus ride felt depressing , which was a big contrast to the vitality of Vietnam.
Immediately as I stepped out of the hostel, I was met with a pack of cutely shaved dogs, jumping around in excitement. My first stop was toward Ho Hoan Kiem Lake in the historic downtown, passing through Hang Da Market, the National Tuong Theater, then the promenade encircling the lake, where I walked clockwise to more quickly reach the “tourist information center,” but they turned out to be a tour operator using a deceptive name. However, they maintained the facade well by stocking a larger array of tour information than some other shops which I passed by along the way, so I was able to develop a more comprehensive plan.
I visited the nearby Ngoc Son Temple, which stretches out to the middle of the lake, then weaved my way through Ly Thai To Park, passed the State Bank of Vietnam, observed statues of Confucius and other figures, before reaching the Vietnam Museum of Revolution and the National Museum of Vietnamese History, which covered an expansive range of history with meticulous details of all successive lines of rulers and military conflicts followed by Vietnam’s modernization through communism.
On my way back, I passed Trang Tien Plaza and loop around the other side of the lake, flowing through immense crowds of locals and tourists all enjoy the great day. Along the way, I stumbled upon a tour office that offered a really cheap evening walking food tour (I guess they were trying to fill the last spot), so I paid then walked down the street to the water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.
Back at the tour office, I waited for the guide to pickup a couple of other tourists first. He wasn’t great at English and it felt like he was also inexperienced and trying to minimize his costs in order to improve profits (well, actually I paid a good price, but I learned that the others paid much more than me :)), but we managed to still get a good selection of foods as we checked out a few famous local hole in the wall restaurants.
Afterwards, I joined the guide for a beer at the Old Quarter, a very crowded and lively center filled with locals enjoying an evening out with friends. On my way back, I found a few more tour operators and tried to arrange for a custom tour combining routes from two other tours, only to find out that pretty much all the tours are operated by the government, so there was little flexibility.
With inexperienced/novice guides, don’t be afraid to take control of the tour by making suggestions or asking to see specific sites (within reason of course). It helps to keep the tour flowing and you get a better experience.