So there we were…gliding through the waters of the majestic Halong Bay on the top deck of our junk.
After too many rainy days in Hue, we headed north for the capital city of Hanoi. It’s quite a long distance covered by bus so we opted for the train which we heard was much more comfortable. We were pleasantly surprised when we found our cabin and saw our top sleeping bunks. We booked the cheapest hard-bearth option but compared to the only other sleeper trains we had been on in India, we thought it was high-class! It was a very comfortable ride and when we arrived in Hanoi at 5 am the next morning, we hoped in a taxi to find a hotel. Our taxi pulled around the corner and in less than 1/4 of a mile, we noticed that something was wrong with the meter. It jumped from 40,000 to 60,000 Dong in 2 seconds ($2 – 3). We immediately knew something wasn’t right, even though we were still half asleep, we demanded that he pull over and let us out. It turns out it is very common for taxis in Hanoi to run speed meters on tourists and get extra cash, luckily we caught it early and jumped out in time.
We spent a few days in Hanoi not really seeing any sights, just wandering the streets and shopping and then we headed for the coast to visit the infamous Halong Bay. The bay is a well-known tourist destination where huge limestone cliffs jet out of the water. Seeing the bay by boat is the only way to fully experience it. Many people book a tour out of Hanoi and spend a night on a junk (a boat) out on the water. These can be overpriced and extremely touristy, so we chose to get out to the bay on our own and arrange a ride once we got there. We ended up on the island of Cat Ba, which not only has easy access to the beautiful bay right around the corner but also is home to national park where you can do some day hiking. We enjoyed exploring the park by foot even if the trail was not overly difficult. The following day we arrange a boat to take us out on the water to check out the amazing scenery. It is just as spectacular as we thought it would be and well worth the trip. Leaving from the island though we got to see Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay without the tourist crowds. It was a much better (and cheaper!) decision to do it on our own.
Back in Hanoi we reunited with our old friends Rob and Danielle again (this is the 4th time in our 4th country). We met up for a night of drinks before heading up to the town of Sapa even further north. They were going that way also so we all shared the train up there and got to spend a few days together. Sapa was a stark contrast to anywhere else in Vietnam. High up in the hills, with much colder weather, surrounding villages are home to several different minority tribes. Many of them still don their traditional attire and can be seen bothering all the tourists while trying selling their handicrafts. “You buy from me?” is the broken record you hear every time you leave your hotel/restaurant/store as the women follow you around trying to get you to purchase items from them. Besides the persistent tribal ladies, a walk down into the valley and through their villages is a wonderful way to spend a few days and we enjoyed relaxing in Sapa before heading off to cross the border into Laos.
Hiking through Cat Ba National Park and exploring the island by motorbike
Cruising the waters of Lan Ha and Halong Bay
Hiking down into the Black Hmong and Red Dao villages in Sapa
Jason’s bag getting covered in jackfruit goo on the way back from Cat Ba island to Hanoi, it is sticky like gum and hard to get off
The Hmong women who follow you around Sapa, at first it’s amusing, then it becomes slightly annoying when they follow like your shadow
Shady taxi cab drivers in Hanoi
Vietnam as a whole – while we did have some great times, the country was very underwhelming and didn’t live up to our expectations
So there we were…repelling backwards over a gushing waterfall, trying not to slip on the slick rocks and break our necks.
An overnight bus brought us from Phnom Penh to Vietnam’s southern “capital” Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We immediately noticed the amount of traffic and motorbikes on the street which we were constantly dodging whenever we wandered around the city. We spent our first day visiting the local markets scouting out any new Vietnamese goodies we just couldn’t live without. The following day we made our way to the Chu Chi Tunnels, where many Vietnamese took refuge in underground tunnels and fought American soldiers in the war, and then to the War Remnants Museum (or Vietnam War Museum). It’s crazy to think that soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat in these tight spaces. Unfortunately, the information given about the war in both places was extremely slanted and one-sided making them hard places to visit objectively, especially as an American. Let’s just say this, we heard the term “American devils” more than once. But, it was interesting to get another perspective nonetheless.
After a few days in chaotic Saigon we headed up into the hills of Dalat, a hill station dubbed the alps on Vietnam. While the town didn’t have much going on, we found some fun in the surrounding hillsides. The first day we rented a motorbike and went to Lang Bian Mountain for some hiking. Not able to find much of a trail, we climbed the steep road until eventually locating a small path that led to one of the peaks. Not a tough day of hiking by any means but we enjoyed the fresh air and views of the hills from the top. Our second day in Dalat was much more of an adventure. We signed up for a day trip of canyoning where you hike into the jungle and make your way down a valley by repelling over cliffs and through waterfalls. It was an exhilarating day and great way to see (and go over!) some spectacular waterfalls.
We were really looking forward to our next stop of Nha Trang, a city on the coast of Vietnam that is known for its long stretch of beach. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for us and we had rainy skies and overcast clouds both days we were there. On the plus side, we ended up being there on St. Patty’s Day and found a small bar celebrating in good fashion. We enjoyed a night of fun (which we paid for the next day) despite the weather and met some great people, some of who we saw again in Northern Vietnam. Hoping to escape the rain, we went further north to Hoi An, also along the coast. Hoi An’s old town has been named a Unesco World Heritage Site and is a lovely place to wander and see the historic architecture. Most people visiting Hoi An also visit one of the town’s 200 tailors who can custom make any piece of clothing you want in about 24 hours at very reasonable prices (to give you an idea, Jason got a top of line suit for $70!). We ended up buying several things to wear back home and were able to pick the style and fabric for each of them. We are very happy with how they all turned out! Also while in Hoi An, we found out that a family friend of Becky’s parents happened to be there at the same time and we were able to connect at their hotel one night for dinner. We had a wonderful time sharing a great meal with them. Thank you Steve and Nancy for a great evening together and for treating us to dinner at your swanky digs!
After picking up our tailored clothes, we moved on further north again to the town of Hue. Once again we ran into pouring rain so we weren’t able to explore as much as we have liked to. We walked around the Citadel and Forbidden City, but ultimately the rain put a damper on our visit – such is life. We soon hopped on the local train, heading for the capital city of Hanoi. It was time to explore the northern side of the country.
Canyoning, sliding and cliff jumping through the waterfalls in Dalat
Walking the peaceful streets of Hoi An’s old city
Getting some great clothes made at rock bottom prices from Hoi An’s many tailors