Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong Bay
We arrived into Hanoi on 28th September. Hanoi is wild— loud, dirty, with motorbikes literally everywhere—all things I don’t particularly care for but yet it felt alive and real. Real life happens in Hanoi. I envision it’s like a Bangkok Lite. On our first night we go on a street food tour with Ha Food Tour. Our guide is Rose. Her English is perfect, her smile contagious and her energy unrelenting. We had received a travel tip from our friend Suzanne on, of all things, how to cross the street in Hanoi. There are 8 million people in Hanoi and 6 million motorbikes. We bunch together like "sticky rice" and begin our game of "frogger" as we dodge motorbikes with no intention of stopping. We've been told you just "go"-- stick together and go. It works.
In our 3 hours, Rose whips us to 7 different spots— some are light meals like Bun Bo Hue (beef soup), Banh Mi (pork sandwich), Bun Cha (noodle soup), Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake), while some are snacks such as fried donuts and egg-coffee. We also met our new friend Eduardo on the tour and went with him to Beer Street. We became fast friends with Eduardo, our new gay Mexican-born Vancouver friend.
Beer street was very out of this world and so much fun. Beer street is a collection of bars up and down the street with child-sized plastic stools set up outside. We play the game of finding the bar where we can find the cheapest beer. We pick up a few other people along the way and carry on until 2am— a bit of a rarity for us. Over the course of the evening, I learn that I'm good with a casual 2 beers and calling it a night. But once I have that 3rd, the beer train will keep going all night.
The next day we go to Hoa Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton). Not much remains of the prison as most of it was torn down to make way for an office building. And the tour is understandably geared towards telling the story of the French oppression of the Vietnamese rather than the fact that American bomber pilots were held here. Having learned about Hanoi Hilton from the American perspective, I found it most interesting to learn about how the French built the prison during their occupation--err, colonization and imprisoned thousands of Vietnamese.
After Hoa Lo, we walk around the surrounding area, stop by the famed Sofitel hotel, and then head to the Bun Cha shop made famous by Obama’s visit. At the Sofitel, I do my best to embarrass / make Anna laugh by spinning around in the lobby, pretending to gawk at the fancy hotel. After lunch, we grab a taxi towards old town and stop at Ngoc Son Temple in the lake, which was just sort of ok for us. The interior of the temple is beautiful but having visited so many temples in Japan and China, this one fell a little short for us. But at only a couple dollars each, not much money or time wasted.
After the temple, we split up from Eduardo to do a bit of shopping before dinner but we don’t last long in the Hanoi heat. We return to Blue Butterfly for more Banh Xeo for dinner and finish the night at the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. Water puppetry is a Vietnamese tradition dating from 11th century. Wikipedia tells me that the puppets are made out of wood and lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool with the puppeteers hidden behind a screen. It's worth an hour of our time in order to appreciate this ancient art-form. Many of the other patrons took pictures with their phones throughout the entire show and the guy in front of us recorded the entire hour-long production. I feel for his friends and family who will have to suffer through watching that video on his phone.
After the show, we head for the famed night market. Amidst hoards of people, I had the bright idea to don these costumes and walk thru the market as if everything was normal. We last about 5 minutes because our costumes also trap in heat and prevent any breeze from getting in. We find a young mom, her daughter, and her mother and hand our costumes over to them. We run into them later and are happy to see them enjoying the costumes.
Day 3 and we are off to Halong Bay. The drive is 3 hours and while not very long, I am moderately uncomfortable in the van packed to the gills with luggage. I’ll still take it over a bus though. I’m thankful that our hotel in Hanoi, Noble Boutique, booked us for a cruise on Huong Hai Sealife Cruise. We arrive in Halong without knowing much about the area— other than we wanted to visit. Turns out the thing to do is to take a cruise thru be massive bay. There is not much to see if it are not on a boat so we feel good about the fact that we have booked on a cruise. We opt for the 3 day, 2 nights option rather than the more common 2 day, 1 night as it gave us the chance to explore the bay by kayak. Sidenote: one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I really enjoy kayaking— for about 20 minutes. Anything longer and I’m done. On the boat we meet some great new friends, the only other two couples who have elected for the 3 day, 2 night option. We eat every meal with Mariana, Jurgen, Linda and Jose. Just to keep it interesting, Mariana is from Namibia and Jurgen is German but they live in New Zealand. Not to be outdone, Jose is from Paraguay but he and Linda live in Connecticut after living abroad in Brazil. I tell myself that we have all been attracted to each other due to our love of travel and adventure. We become fast friends and enjoy the next couple of days with our new friends aboard the Huong Hai Sealife and out exploring Halong Bay.
The karsks, best described as sheer limestone cliffs that shoot out of the water, are too numerous to count. They are breathtaking and my favorite geological formation. I spend my days in wonder at the sheer expanse of Halong Bay, taking more and more photographs and flying Sheila the Drone any chance I get. The only surprise is that swimming in Halong Bay is not allowed. It’s been outlawed by the government and I’m still not sure if it’s to protect environment, because there are too many jellyfish in the water, because there is too much trash in the water, or some other reason altogether. I decide it’s because of the jellyfish. After all, there are a lot of them.
On our last morning, we take a small ferry boat to a nearby dock and the 6 of us board small bamboo canoes where our local canoe pilot takes us to a local fishing village over the water. We arrive at the village to find it’s an oyster farm. We attend a brief explanation on how a foreign round object is inserted into the bladder of the oyster. The oyster identifies the object as an intruder and builds a thick wall around it in order to protect itself. That object eventually becomes a pearl. I’m thankful Anna doesn’t care for pearls. Nevertheless, we decide we will not be buying any pearls because the process injures the oyster. One of the most interesting aspects of this journey around the world Is the things we have learned and the impacts they have had on our beliefs and behaviors.
After our visit to the water-villages, we are back on the cruise boat to enjoy a leisurely brunch with our table-mates and friends before arriving back on the mainland and returning to Hanoi for one more overnight stay. The following evening we are boarding an overnight train to the remote area of Sa Pa to explore the terraced rice fields.
But first, tonight we are going to a cooking class with Rose, our energetic guide from Ha Food Tours. We meet Rose near our hotel at 5pm. Our friends from Halong Bay, Linda and Jose, join us for the class. The four of us follow Rose down the street like little ducklings as she buys fresh produce, rice noodles, rice papers and meat from the local vendors posted up and down the street. With our provisions in hand, we hop in a taxi and head 10 minutes out of central Hanoi for our class, in a fairly large stately home. This class is hands on. Rose gives us instruction but we do all the work ourselves. We learn to make beef pho, fried spring rolls, green papaya salad and the all-important egg coffee. Rose seems particularly impressed with my skills— maybe because I really have a knack for cooking or maybe because she is not used to guys that can cook. Nevertheless, I take her compliments and turn them into jokes with the others that I’m now the star student. The entire evening is a smashing success. It feels like we’ve known Jose, Linda and Rose our entire lives as we laugh together for hours.
The following evening we board the overnight train for the remote mountain area of Sa Pa and it’s terraced rice fields. We meet new friends on the train, as we tend to do. And as luck would have it, or perhaps just the nature of traveling in Vietnam, we would run into Sarah and Jordan on multiple occasions in Sa Pa, again in Hoi An, and again in Cambodia. In Sa Pa we hike from town to the remote rice-farming villages of Lao Chai, Te Van, and to Cat Cat village the next day. Initially we were not impressed with the area but I think it had more to do with the rainy weather on the first day and the fact that a mix-up by the tour operator cut our itinerary short. Day 2 makes up for our disappointment. In the end, itis a great excursion from Hanoi. We get to experience rural village life up-close, see the beautiful rice fields, play with local dogs, and even pick up some local handiworks.
After our side-trip to Sa Pa, we head back to Hanoi for a night before moving further down the coast to Hoi An. As expected, Hanoi indeed proves to be the perfect jumping off point from which to explore Halong Bay and Sa Pa. Hotels will let you leave your luggage behind as you head out to explore the surrounding areas. We loved shedding the extra luggage and contemplated how we could pack even more lightly.
Yet, Hanoi is so much more than a jumping off point. Go to Hanoi for the ease of exploring the surroundings but stay for the food, night markets, beer street and the overall energy of the place. Just don’t stay too long or your nerves will be fried.
One final thought on Vietnam, and as always, it's about the people. Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sa Pa are in the north of Vietnam. I wasn't sure how we, as Americans, would be received. There was the matter of a brutal and costly war in which we played a big part. From the people we spoke to, they have moved on. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed warmly and graciously. It genuinely felt as though they were happy that we had come to see and to learn about their country. We were already in love with the food and the coffee. I'm thrilled to say that we are now in love with the people.
Thanks for reading. If you liked what you read, I'd love to hear from you. Until then, keep playing!
Our Hotel Pick:
Clean comfortable rooms, at $40-$50 per night, a bit of a higher price point for Hanoi. However, service is impeccable. Giang at the front desk arranged everything from our Halong Bay Tour to dinner reservations, to train tickets, to tours in the countryside. She even packaged up several boxes worth of things that we needed to ship and handled the entire process from end to end. Book here if you would like lots of local help.