Wrapping Up Vietnam in Hanoi and Halong Bay

by Brian Carroll on March 13, 2013

Post image for Wrapping Up Vietnam in Hanoi and Halong Bay Continuing our way north through Vietnam, Brian and I caught our last flight in the country, this time to Hanoi. With five days left in the country, we had to decide what our itinerary would look like among up to three destinations: Hanoi (obviously), Halong Bay and Sapa. As some background, Hanoi is another bustling Vietnamese city, essentially the northern counterpart to Ho Chi Minh – lots of motorbikes, people and noise. Halong Bay, a Unesco Heritage Site and noted as a must-see destination, was a 3-4 hour bus ride northeast of Hanoi. Once there, we'd either do a day trip, or overnight boat trip. The last option was Sapa. Sapa, a favorite countryside destination for westerners with it's rice paddies, is northwest of Hanoi, and would require an overnight train to get there (and freezing this time of year). While we could have squeezed all three destinations into our remaining days with a little sleep deprivation, we decided that neither of us wanted to be rushing and thus we'd need to bypass one destination. Ultimately, based on the extremely cold temperatures this time of year and our lack of appropriate clothing, we both decided that we'd pass on Sapa. So with five days left, our trip would consist of time in Hanoi on the front and backend, and Halong Bay (via the small town of Cat Ba) sandwiched in the middle. When we arrived in Hanoi, neither of us were too impressed. Having come from the warm weather of Hoi An, we were now greeted with rainy, dreary weather in what felt like an anonymous big city. Among the noted highlights in the city was a visit to the tomb of the former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, embalmed in formaldehyde – kinda creepy (and in fact, they take his body to Russia two months a year just for routine maintenance!). We passed on that. Instead we spent our time checking out some parks, grabbing some authentic northern Vietnamese food and browsing among a few art galleries – Hanoi is supposedly known for this and as such I commissioned a few. Yes, commissioned. One other random highlight to Hanoi was the fact that we were able to meet up with a friend of Brian's who happened to be traveling and in Hanoi at the same time as us. Randomly, she lives in Hermosa as well and lived literally across the street from where I used to live – small world. After our brief stint in Hanoi, we made our way out to the island of Cat Ba, which would be our launching point into Halong Bay. Up until this point, neither Brian or I had taken any buses in Vietnam, and were completely fine with that - as the roads are bad, bus driving is suspect and the drivers seem to have a huge affinity for horn honking – like ALL day long. Unfortunately, to get out to Halong Bay, the only real way to get there was via bus (and then boat and then bus again), so we bit the bullet.

Motorbiking in the countryside

Arriving in Cat Ba was a bit odd. It seemed as if the town was all closed up (granted we weren't visiting the area in high season). In fact, walking on the streets, it felt like we were the only tourists around, and as such, we were quickly hounded to purchase motorbike rentals, souvenirs, etc... by the few salesmen around. Furthermore, just finding open restaurants to eat became a struggle. While the isolation had its obvious drawbacks, one benefit to it was the fact that the roads were empty – which made driving a motorbike around (without dying) a real option – so we gave it a go. Now, on the main streets of Vietnam, I would never recommend riding a motorbike for someone inexperienced – like me. And even if you are experienced, riding in Vietnam is an entirely different ball of wax, as obeying traffic signals is more a loose guideline than a rule. But where we were, it was manageable as the streets were empty and in fact, cars (except for commercial use) did not exist on the island. We ended up spending our first afternoon in Cat Ba riding around the island, checking out some caves that were used as a hospital during the Vietnam War and interacting with the locals – at one point, we parked our bikes and stumbled on a local family singing karaoke at their house, at which point Brian joined the party and gave his own Vietnamese rendition, which was actually not bad. Overall, it was a great way to spend the day and it was nice to have found the time to give motorbikes a go in Southeast Asia.

Floating Homes

The next day we departed for a one day tour of Halong Bay. Now while there are many options for visiting Halong Bay, most common are one night or two night boat trips that run from $200-$350 in total. Usually on the two night trip, you actually stay in the town of Cat Ba (where we were). So after researching it a bit and knowing the weather was going to be cool, we decided that the best way to go was with the one day tour, while staying in Cat Ba at night.  This is definitely a good way to go as we paid a fraction of the overall price and really had the same experience on the water.

Out in Halong Bay

Halong Bay itself is a pretty unique place and a true natural wonder. Many people (and lots of dogs for that matter) live in tiny little floating homes for fishing purposes just off the coast. As you take a boat further into the Bay, you see tons of limestone mountains jetting out of the water as far as the eye can see. As part of the tour we had the opportunity to kayak out in the bay and later visited some cool caves. While I thought the area was scenic, it wasn't as striking to me, having previously been in Milford Sound, New Zealand and Krabi, Thailand. While initially Vietnam was the first of two countries Brian and I had planned in our itinerary, due to some changes in our schedules, I ended up catching a flight to Hong Kong while Brian made his way to Thailand. Overall, it was great to spend part of my time in Southeast Asia traveling with a good friend and it turned out to be a very memorable time from start to finish. Last stop for me on this trip to Southeast Asia, Hong Kong.

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