After much delay, here it is – my final post on Vietnam. Of course, this means I should be planning another trip back. But since there are so many places I’ve yet to visit, my next big adventure likely will be elsewhere (can you believe I don’t have a trip planned!). For now, I’ll have to settle by reliving my quick trip to Halong Bay and a couple rainy and charming days in Hanoi.
We stayed near the old section – not far from the Hoan Kiem Lake. There are four sacred animals in Vietnamese lore: the tortoise, dragon, unicorn and phoenix. This lake and its pagoda celebrate the legend of the tortoise who returned a magic sword from heaven to the Dragon King who had allowed it be used in battle to defeat a neighboring country.
Not much of a fan of visiting busy cities (other than for the food), after the long flight, we stayed in Hanoi as our base for visiting Halong Bay and Sapa. Long enough to shower, walk around the lake, eat pho and get some sleep.
It was a 3 hour ride to Halong Bay. The sun eluded us for much of the first part of our trip in Northern Vietnam, but we managed to avoid the rain. And it made for some mysterious looking photos of the rocks jutting up from the water.
Wanting to spend one night on the junk and one on Cat Ba Island, there weren’t a ton of (inexpensive) options. We booked our tour with a Vietnamese company that I can no longer find, one of the few that could meet our needs. The junk was older than others we saw, but the food and tour seemed to be standard as compared with everyone we talked with as we were shuttled from place to place. Do your research to make sure you’re not being overcharged and the tour follows the description. We found that guides are lazy and will easily leave out sights if they can get away with it.
Our “honeymoon” room was very private with a large, comfortable bed and in-room bathroom that brought new meaning to the phrase “sh*t, shower and shave” (don’t expect too much romance here).
But as we learned when we returned to Hanoi, it was a airly typical setup and larger than most Vietnamese bathrooms.
Our tour took us to the Surprise Cave, a good place to stop when rain threatens.
As you exit, look for the women selling fresh seafood and vegetables.
You’ll note it’s all women — the men fish farther outside the bay. Families live in makeshift fishing villages on the water. Check to see if there’s electricity or not as you pass near them on your way to Ti Top Island.
If it’s sunny, you can relax on the beach. If not, take a humid hike to the top, maybe passing near a couple monkeys, and have great views of Halong Bay.
Though we were warned about getting blown out to sea, there was no wind (or rain) as we kayaked around the bay before dinner, which included a demo on spring roll making by our guide who had a persistent cough he claimed was the result of having recently quit smoking. He wreaked of alcohol and was very open about how much he liked to party, but he was also very open about Vietnam and it’s opinions on Americans and their money.
You’ll usually get forced to do some shopping at some point during your cruise – but you can also see the oyster farm without buying pearls.
Since we did a two night trip, we were able to take some rickety, old bicycles to ride around Cat Ba Island National Park, where we found lodging option #1 that would have been included with the base tour price — huts with questionable water and electric — and were very glad that we chose nicer accommodations.
The island is practically untouched — for now. Mountain goats and birds are everywhere. Local kids “fish” for frogs.
The island was one of the highlights of our Halong Bay experience and a must-see if you have time.
For some luxury, especially if you’re headed for an overnight train to Sapa next, spend the night at Cat Ba Sunrise Resort. It would’ve been perfect if only it was sunny and warm. We managed to make the best of it and use the spa facilities and sauna/(not so) hot tub.
Food on the cruise was plentiful, as was the case across Vietnam. And it was delicious.
Just don’t pay much attention to how it’s cooked.
When we returned to Hanoi, we had a little time for sightseeing. Highlights were the “Hanoi Hilton” – the propaganda-filled POW camp where John McCain was imprisoned and a walk through the similarly propaganda-filled Ho Chi Minh museum (the masoleum was not open often and has very limited hours).
Near the museum is the Presidential Palace.
I’m sure others will find much more to see (and eat) in Hanoi. But if you only have a couple of days, you’ll easily find yourself enchanted by this city. And if you’re traveling to the South, I’ll almost guarantee that you’ll find find it far more charming than Saigon.