My final week in Southeast Asia was spent in Northern Vietnam, specifically in a place I had never heard of until I booked my flight, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I heard had Vietnam overall was fantastic and that if you could only go one place, Ha Long Bay was the place to go, and I don’t think it could be more true. Overall, I actually think I liked Ho Chi Minh better than Hanoi, but Ha Long bay is too magical to miss and just about 4 hours away from Hanoi so if you can only do one, choose the north.
Ha Long Bay
After spending a few great days in Ho Chi Minh I was off to meet my friends in Hanoi, who were anxiously trying to choose the appropriate tour for Ha Long Bay, which is like picking the best Starbucks in Manhattan. They all look exactly the same, the pricing is the same- they are all just variations of each other. However, any true Starbucks connoisseur knows that the differentiation is in the details- the personality of the barista, cleanliness of the bathrooms, do they offer the full breakfast sandwich menu? This can make or break a Starbucks. The same goes for Ha Long Bay tours. The guide, cleanliness in accommodations and the food are what differentiates all of these white washed junk boats. Luckily, my friends did their research and with the overwhelming assistance of our guesthouse tour expert, Michael, we found the perfect fit: Elation by ODC Tours. The boat slept about 13 people, was quaint and elegant all at the same time and somehow the three of us were put in the honeymoon suite fit with a marble bath and back deck. And it fit the bill. For $90 a person we would spend one night and two days hanging the bay, kayaking a bit, hiking a bit, seeing an amazing cave and eating a lot.
When going to Ha Long Bay there are three well oiled options. You can do a day tour, an overnight tour, or a 2 night 3 day tour with a possible excursion to Cat Ba island. We opted for 1 night and 2 days being my friends were running out of the allotted time they had in Northern Vietnam. I think we could have easily stayed 2 nights, it was that enjoyable, but one night is great as well. I don’t know if I would do a day trip unless I really had no other option. It’s a bit of a trek out to the bay and half of the beauty is just sitting, relaxing on the boat and reminding yourself it’s all real. Not a picture.
Now that I’ve blabbed on about it, I realize most people don’t know what is so majestic about this bay. Well, for starters, it’s supposedly one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. So there’s that. But I don’t even really know what that is so I guess it’s not saying much. Second, the bay is filled with over 3,000 limestone krags, jutting through the emerald waters. To say the landscape is dramatic is an understatement. Lady Gaga’s entrances at her concerts are dramatic (or crazy, whichever you prefer), this is on a whole other level. You’re floating on this boat, through these huge sheer cliffs of rock and vegetation, just mumbling to yourself or your friends, “This is incredible. Wow. I can’t believe this. Wow. I can’t believe this is real life. Wow. This is amazing.” etc, etc, etc. You will say this over and over and it will not get old. Nor will the krags. I felt like a character in The Land Before Time.
Needless to say it was all perfection. I don’t need to give you the minute by minute details of what we did. All of the boats run a tight ship and offer the same agendas, kayaking, hiking to a viewpoint, meals, caves. Some obviously better than others. There is great food and a full bar on your mini cruise ship. So it’s a great getaway.
On our way home from our delightful journey we had a bit of a hiccup. A flat tire. The van had to pull over in god knows what town and get it fixed. The auto repair shop was right next to a little restaurant where the women who worked there were sitting outside with their kids. One of which was a 3 year old boy who was relieving himself in the street and then running around. The little boy was really cute and funny so we sat on the curb on the other side of the street and I kept trying to beckon him over. He would look at us, slyly, then run in the other direction. Eventually, his mother, who saw the game we were playing beckoned us to come over by giving us chairs. So we sat silently across from each other using our hands and eyes and emotions to communicate. She held her other son, who was also adorable and we found out he was about 6 months old. Her friend brought us out some green tea and her other children for us to admire and coo over. It is these casual encounters and circumstances that help make trips special. Meeting people from all over the world, seeing how they live, communicating with just your eyes, hands and shared human experiences. Plus, it didn’t hurt the kids were really cute.
When we returned to Hanoi we checked into the May De Ville Hostel, which I would highly recommend to anyone going to Hanoi. Reasonable, clean and with a variety of pricing options it’s in a great area and serves breakfast. Albeit a crazy area. That is when I became acquainted with the madness that is Hanoi’s traffic. Saigon has nothing on this city. It is insane. There are no sidewalks because they are taken up by street restaurants and stands, no traffic lights because apparently they aren’t important, and an incessant honking of scooter horns it could drive ya mad. But other than that, it’s great 🙂
Another great thing about Hanoi is this little thing they have called Bia Hoi . Bia Hoi is a popular, cheap draft beer that is served on the streets around happy hour and into the night. People post up on the sidewalks, sitting in kiddie chairs at kiddie tables, in front of places that have it, order simple fried foods and $0.25 drafts of Bia Hoi. You just sit, drink, snack and watch the madness. It’s really cool. If you go to Hanoi you MUST Bia Hoi. I don’t know if your supposed to use it as a verb but I am. I am also thinking of starting this in Brooklyn. The hipsters will flock.
On my friends last day in Hanoi (they had an open bus ticket to start heading south) we decided to take a tour with what Trip Advisor said was one of the top activities in town: HanoiKids. Hanoikids is a non profit, volunteer org where students in Hanoi volunteer to give free tours to practice their English. There are a few options of the tours you can do and they are very popular so its important to book ahead. We somehow squeezed in a slot on Saturday morning. We decided to have them take us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as the Vietnamese call him, is embalmed and on display for the people to pay their respect to. Little did we know there was an apparent holiday going on. They pulled a Thailand on us. So the line was outrageous. We decided to try and wait it out to our Hanoikids guides chagrin. They said most westerner’s just want to walk around and not go inside. Well, they hadn’t met our motley crew and we were in it to win it and get a glimpse of Uncle Ho. An hour later of line waiting and conversation on favorite hobbies, music, and the Hanoikids stories and we were in. And it was kind of cool. But kind of weird. Guards like shuffle you around the glass case where he’s just laying there. One of our guides told us there are conspiracies that it’s not really him but a wax statue because Vietnamese people believe you need to be buried or cremated to have your soul released or something along those lines. I guess we’ll never know.
After the that we walked the beautiful grounds, saw a palace and some other important things and then had a great lunch of Pho spring rolls. Basically the soup turned into spring rolls. They were amazing. We bid our guide adieu and walked back to pack the girls up and move me to another hotel since May De Ville was full for the night. We said our sad goodbyes, knowing I would not see the girls again until America, and went our separate ways. I was sad and jealous to see them go, but overall happy and excited for their next adventure and just wish I had the time to join them. Unfortunately I didn’t, I had two more days in Hanoi before heading back to Bangkok and then back to the good old US of A.
The next two days were a slow but sharpened blur, which I know makes no sense but I feel tends to happen when I am traveling alone. I did an early morning Sunday Walking tour with Awesome Tours, which was cool. I got to see the streets abandoned except for vendors and the Vietnamese people practicing their exercise routines around the lake that is in the middle of the city. That is also when I had my Vietnamese Dance Lesson as I mentioned in another post.
I strolled the streets, enjoyed the cafes and restaurants, shopped and decided to take a trip to the Temple of Literature, what is said to be one of the oldest educational institution in the world, founded by Confucius himself. I met a woman while there, who had been traveling around the world alone for the past 7 months and asked her if she would like to do a tour with me and split the cost. It was nice to just have someone to join you, help you take pictures and share travel stories and experiences. After the temple we had lunch together, swapped stories, suggestions and contact information and went our separate ways.
I switched back to May De Ville even though it was a bit more expensive ($25, oh my!) since I didn’t really like the hotel I switched to and when you are traveling alone, I am a firm believer you have to do what makes you comfortable. On my last night, I went to the walking street night market, which is also crazy and actually almost got pick pocketed. Six months without an incident and in my final days I almost got robbed. I would have killed someone if that happened. Luckily, I reached down for my bag just as someone was trying to fidget with my latch and they pulled their hand away, leaving my belongs with me, thank god. I turned and saw a Vietnamese woman with a blanket draped over her arm and realized she was my suspect. She wandered off into the crowd. Sure, I was spooked, but luckily, nothing had happen and it wasn’t like I was in danger. Just my credit card was. I steadied myself, kept my hand on the latch and walked back to the hotel. My flight was on a Tuesday morning, early, so I booked taxi to take me to the airport at around 7.
This is where things become a slow blur. I remember getting in the taxi, onto the highway but I don’t really remember the airport. Checking in, getting on the plane, going through the motions. All I can remember thinking is, “Yes, Vietnam. I have liked you very much. I would like to come back someday, if you’ll have me”