Next stop on our trip was Hanoi, a short 2 hour and super cheap (less than 40 bucks) plane ride away on JetStar, up North. We were pleasantly surprised with Hanoi, the first surprise being the cooler temps. I had been seriously craving fall weather while glimpsing through all our American friends instagram pics so it was great to actually put on a scarf and a Northface fleece and drink a hot tea. Speaking of Northface, they sell “knockoffs” everywhere up here…We bought two jackets and thus far they seem as good as the real thing. My biggest thing being that they are WARM. I seriously question if they aren’t the real thing given that North Face products are mainly manufactured in Vietnam. Seems to be mixed stories online about it…. After a quick shopping trip, we spent our day wondering around Ho Hoan Kiem lake and trying to do as many fall-esque things as possible.
And of course no trip to Vietnam would be complete without trying as much Vietnamese food as possible. One of my favorite discoveries was “sin to cot dua cocoa” aka coconut milk cocoa at Cong Caphe. It was like coconut ice cream but slushy like a milk shake with chocolate syrup on the bottom. It was the perfect concoction to make any lactose intolerant ice cream lover have a complete food-gasm. Other highlights were Bun Cha (grilled pork served with noodles and herbs) and of course the obvious one being the Pho.
After a day in a Hanoi, we headed over to Halong Bay the next morning. (The place we stayed for the night in Hanoi Hanoi Delano Hotel was nothing to write home about but did have a nice bathtub and was clean. Most of the hotels seem to be decorated with a lot of dark Chinese style interior which isn’t really our bag. Nonetheless, they did the job and staff was friendly.) In 2012, Halong Bay was nominated by the New 7 Wonders Foundation as one of the “7 wonders of the world.” Although it seems like these lists of Wonders are becoming the 85 Wonders of the World, Halong Bay absolutely lives up to its reputation. The drive over to Halong City from Hanoi was included in our package and wasn’t too bad (about 4 hours in total with a 30 minute touristy pit stop). After a lot of researching reviews and debating (there are tons of different companies!), we ended up going with a 3 day, 2 night “mid-range” cruise line called Greyline. With the #1 cruise line on Tripadvisor being quite pricey but reading about the not so great food on the “budget” lines, we met in the middle with this one. Main positives being that we could afford a balcony room on Greyline while enjoying good food, decent rooms and a good mix of couples, hippie silver-hairs and families. Negatives being the boat was a little run down with outdated 80’s Chinese decor and expensive cocktails. The crazy thing is though, no matter what ship you are on, the natural beauty of this place will keep you in awe the entire time. (And based off of my research, they are all on pretty similar itineraries). I mean when this is the view you look at while eating 5-course dinners every day ….
In between taking as many showers as possible since this was also the view from there, we cruised along, ate lunch and got ready for a trip to the stalagmites in Me Cung Cave cave and kayaking. We loved the views from the top of the island and kayaking through the limestone formations.
And of course a jump in the ocean after the international kayaking contest (the Norwegians won) was a must. It is actually a lot warmer than it looks!
The boat had something like 16 rooms total and only 80% of them were full so there were around 25 people from all over the world on the boat – Norway, Argentina, New Zealand, UK, Australia, US… We became quick friends while exploring the bay and transferring between the big boat and the sites on the “tenders” or smaller transport boats. The tour guide’s name was “Happy”, clearly not the actual name given to him by his mom, but he spoke great English and was always excited (even though these guys do this trip like 10 times per month, year round!). The boat hosted a spring roll cooking class before dinner and everyone got involved. Cocktails and beers were flowing and eventually after dinner, one of the Spaniards turned on the karaoke machine and the rest was history! Unfortunately, anyone not participating in karaoke was probably kept awake by our insanely hot microphone and loud Chinese organ karaoke music.
On the second full day, we were the only ones with our current group that chose the 2 night cruise so we headed out and met up with another tour guide to explore Cat Ba Island, the largest of the Halong Bay Islands and the most inhabited. Interestingly enough, we ended up with a older Russian couple that spoke no English but totally kept up on the bikes and were very sweet with their fatherly gestures towards me. We learned about a new school that is being built by Vietnam, in conjunction with Australian aide, for families whom formerly lived on the water on floating villages and have moved (some voluntarily, some not so voluntarily) to the island. We also got to see the rice fields which look similar to wheat in their early stages and the infamous snake wine which apparently is a local form of Viagra. When we hopped back on the boat, we ate some lunch and swam around some more. Adam hung out at his own private island.
On the final day, we visited a traditional floating village in Halong Bay. There are about 1,600 people that still live in Halong Bay in one of four floating villages. The people here survive on fishing the shallow waters and raising oysters, pearls, and other shelly gnar gnar sea creatures. The floating village we visited was more like a one-family house and “office”. Their property was basically a series of boats tied together and anchored to the ocean floor. Between all the boats, the family had created a small house with living and dining areas (with a TV and stereo), kitchen, storage, crate for the dog when visitors come on the boat (yup!), and their “office” with several 20 foot by 20 foot underwater nets where they raised grouper, oysters, and other fishy delights. They fed the fish in front of our group and they went NUTTY when they dumped the chum in the water. Our guide told us to stick our finger in – we politely declined. ;0)
We headed back to the boat, packed up our stuff, and sailed back to Halong City. From there, the tour company took us back to Hanoi – we were amazed that in just 72 hours we had been to all of those sights and traveled in so many different vehicles! Overall, the typical Halong tour is exhausting but definitely well worth it!
Lesson #11: Always opt for the balcony room on a cruise line. It’s worth the extra couple bucks. Lesson #12: Individual connections transcend your current country’s stance towards each other. Lesson #13: Bring your own drinks on the cruise or pay 6 dollars per cocktail or 3 for beer. Lesson #14: When the bartender asks if you would like another beer and tells you to sing your third karaoke song, politely decline both and get some sleep for your Day 2 adventures 🙂
“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” -Rumi