We arrived into Hanoi on the sleeper train at 4am, and hung around the train station for a few hours until we thought our hostel would be open. Arriving this early in the morning made the sleeper aspect of the train seem quite superfluous. What little sleep we could snatch was hampered by our bunk mates arriving at midnight. It was a couple, the gentleman dressed as what I can only describe as an old fashioned dandy. They were also extremely drunk. How do I know this? Because I felt drunk from the fumes after about five minutes, and although they were trying to be very quiet and allow us to keep sleeping, with the mixture of the train movement and their alcohol impaired balance, they kept bashing into things or falling off the bunk. But they were very friendly and apologetic, and the guy was such a character that we couldn’t help but forgive them.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, even though it is the second largest, following Saigon. It has had different names throughout history, depending on whether Chinese or Vietnamese were occupying the area, and it has always been an important city. It was the capital of French Indochina for the first half of the 20th century, afterwards it was the capital of North Vietnam, and at the end of the Vietnam War it became the capital of reunified Vietnam. The first thing that struck me about Hanoi was the chill in the air. I had completely forgotten that the further north you go, the colder it gets, and that in the Northern hemisphere it is actually winter. How are you supposed to remember such things when you’ve been living in shorts and t-shirts for months? Not meaning to rub it in or anything.
When we got in a taxi to the hostel, the next things to strike me, and one of them literally, was the beauty of the city, which is steeped in culture and history, and the noise from the scooters and motorbikes. In the UK, when someone toots their horn at a pedestrian it can sometimes be because they’re looking good. For a while in Hanoi I thought that Mark and I must have been the best looking people in the city. Until I realised, that they toot because you’re in the way, or they toot because someone else is in the way, or for the majority of the time, they just toot to let everyone know that they’re there on their shiny bike. I was quite deaf after a couple of hours. Mark had the idea of buying an airhorn and giving them all a taste of their own medicine. They also don’t stick to the road, they will squeeze along any tiny alleyway or strip of pavement, making stepping out to walk around quite a challenge.
It was too early to check in to our room when we arrived to our hostel in the Old Quarter at 7am, so we took the opportunity to wander round the streets and the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake, housing a temple in the middle of the water which is linked to an old legend of a magic sword. The lake is surrounded so early in the morning by people exercising in all shapes and forms; badminton; Tai Chi; dance classes; running; but strangely no swimming. Perhaps it’s a sacred lake because of the aforementioned legend. It was fantastic to see so many people, especially elderly people, getting out and about to get some fresh air and exercise, and it gave me an instant insight into a North Vietnamese lifestyle. Some young schoolgirls came up to us with a tourism questionnaire for their studies, and they seemed so happy and excited to be conversing with us in English, and that we could understand each other.
The streets of the Old Quarter are narrow and bustling, and you still experience touts trying to tempt you into their shops, or up to one of the many market stalls that close off the streets to vehicles – except for scooters and motorbikes, which as previously mentioned get everywhere. Mark and I formed a plan to rebuff touts, which seemed to work for the majority of the time – we just smiled like simpletons (slightly cross-eyed helps), and we were no longer pursued. This didn’t work for Mark on one occasion, where he was touted to buy the most bizarre thing ever. An older gentleman approached him in a very furtive manner, sidled up to him, and whispered something while holding open a portfolio. Mark shook his head and walked away, and I asked him if he had been offered drugs. He hadn’t, the old guy was trying to sell him stamps! He had a complex for a while after that, worrying that he looked like a stamp collector.
We decided we wanted to walk to the river, and even though this involved crossing a six lane highway, in a city and country where road rules are difficult to decipher, we still weren’t deterred. We just followed the locals, and managed to make it across without injury. This part of town was completely different to the Old Quarter. The size of the streets was the same, but it was definitely less touristic, and not an area where tourists are seen that often. That being said, when we were getting concerned because we appeared to have taken wrong turns into peoples’ back yards, they were friendly and helpful and pointed us back in the right direction. And although we saw the river, it was not the best view as peoples’ houses were right on the river bank.
We walked round vast warehouses storing who knows what, with industrious motorcyclists shuttling in and out piled high with goods. Every time we passed a rubbish bin or a restaurant, lots of plump cockroaches would come scuttling towards us. Yucks. And we walked through a food market which had cages of live ducks and chickens in them, plates of offal out on the street, fish still flapping about in shallow water and livestock heads. I didn’t feel hungry for quite a while after that.
When I did finally feel hungry again, we found a fantastic place for the pho soup that I had come to love. It’s a plain thin broth with noodles flavoured with your choice of meat, spring onions, coriander and basil, chilli and pepper, and it’s delicious, and I adopted it as my new form of comfort food. We only had one day in Hanoi, and we had to spend some time planning our next move to Ha Long Bay. We don’t usually take our travel tips from Top Gear, but we had watched their Vietnam special, and had been entranced by the final scenes where they try to navigate around Ha Long Bay in cars that they had shoddily transformed into amphibious vehicles. The scenery looked spectacular.
I will give you a word of advice here – most hostels, guesthouse and hotels in Hanoi are out to sell you a tour, and they will all tell you that theirs is the best and cheapest. But we had been stuck on a touristic tour in the Mekong Delta and wanted to avoid it at all costs, so we looked into making the journey there ourselves, and booking a boat tour in the area. I’m really glad that we did this, as we heard some horror stories from other people about the tours they took, where they spent most of the time on the road from and to Hanoi, and only a couple of hours actually boating around Ha Long Bay. We chose to take a bus/ferry/bus service that we could book all in one, to take us to Cat Ba Island, one of the islands just south of Ha Long Bay, then find a local cruise to book.
With only one day to spend in Hanoi it was difficult to get a detailed view of the place, but the people were as friendly as we had experienced everywhere else in Vietnam. The touts were not as invasive as in Hoi An, but it may be the difference between large cities and smaller towns, as the touts in Saigon were also not overly intrusive. It’s a very vibrant colourful city, but there were lots of cultural places that we didn’t have the time to visit, such as the display of Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body, that people flock to from all over the country to pay homage to their great leader. You can see the remnants from the Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, mixed with the more recent colonial French cultures that we had come to recognise throughout Vietnam, in the architecture, food, and very nature of the city. I wish that we had more time to explore it, as we didn’t experience the city as a whole, but I think choosing to explore the Old Quarter was the best option to get an initial feel for North Vietnam.
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
We got a taxi to find the correct bus station for us in Hanoi. To counteract our inability to converse with people, we devised ways of getting them to understand us, usually through writing down a destination, or pointing to things in books, but on one occasion there was a picture of a bus involved. We managed to sidestep the ticket touts at the bus station who try to get you to get on one of the tour buses by telling you that it is the route you want to take, when it totally isn’t, and went into the bus station to buy the ticket for the route that we had decided on. Then it was a simple case of a two hour bus journey to the docklands area of Hai Phong, at which point you disembark, wait for a while get on a smaller bus, then drive through to the ferry dock, get on the ferry and journey across to Cat Ba Island. If you’re ever thinking of visiting Ha Long Bay, this is by far the easiest, quickest and cheapest route, rather than via Ha Long City. There had been several times where we have felt a little uneasy about arranging our own transport rather than through a tour operator, but they have always worked out well.
As we approached Cat Ba Island, we started to see the amazing rock formations of the island, and the islets around it. They are made up of a mixture of steep jagged hills, steep rounded hills, like the shape of R2-D2 in Star Wars, all covered in greenery, some connected to each other, and others completely independent. It was a landscape that I had never seen before. The closer we came to the island the more formidable it became. We saw a large number of huts on stilts, and people rowing between them, using them for fishing, or perhaps even as their dwellings. We disembarked on the east of the island and loaded up into another bus to take us to the main town on the southernmost tip. It was late afternoon, a beautiful sunny day, and the light enhanced the breath taking scenery as we drove along rocky coastal roads, through farming valleys, up and down the hills through villages and jungle, and eventually arrived in the town at Cat Ba harbour.
We had to run the gauntlet of offers of accommodation walking past each hotel, telling each that we had already booked accommodation. We were soon glad of these offers though, because as we walked further and further away from the harbour to our hotel that we had booked specifically for the sea view, we began to realise that we may not actually be getting what we had hoped. The hotel was lovely, but it had a building site next door to it, and we could not see the sea.
We were very disappointed as we had gone over our budget for this particular accommodation because of what we thought we were getting. We were even more disappointed with the attitude of the duty manager. We wanted to leave straight away and go back to the hotels on the waterfront, stating that we had paid for a non-existent sea view, but he kept arguing that we could in fact see the sea from the 7th floor upwards (we were on the 4th floor). Even if that was the case we would have needed a pair of binoculars. It was with no small irony that I noted the hotel name was Fantasia.
In the end we reached an agreement to stay for one night instead of two, and ventured back down to the harbourfront to arrange accommodation for the next night, and to have some dinner and beers. We found a hotel right on the waterfront, and although it wasn’t the most modern, it was clean, and it had what we wanted all along – a small balcony area which we could sit on to take in the beautiful views, and panoramic windows looking out over the same. It was much cheaper (US$4 for the night!), and the manager was very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, and we were able to book a tour around Ha Long Bay for the following day with him for a very good price. We realised that our experience at Fantasia was a one off, because from then onwards everyone that we met was open and honest, friendly and helpful, and willing and wanting to show off the area and help visitors enjoy its many charms.
We took off on the boat tour at 8am the following morning. As we made our way out of the harbour we could see that the life blood of the island is in fishing and tourism, with many boats and their crews moving through their morning victuals. We saw men soaping up on the boats then jumping in the water to rinse off. Everyone we passed had a smile and a wave for us. The group we were with were mainly Europeans, and it was a very chilled friendly group to spend the day with. We could all sit up on the open top deck of boat to best appreciate the views. When we came out of the harbour for a short period we were in the South China Sea, albeit in a very sheltered area. This didn’t stop quite a lot of large waves rolling us around, and I was very glad that I wasn’t hungover.
Although Cat Ba Island has stunning scenery, the further we travelled around the west point of the island and up towards Ha Long Bay, the more amazing it became. We stopped on Monkey Island for a quick explore, then continued through the blue green waters, and on every side monoliths appeared out of the morning mists, some making up fair size islands, but the most impressive were the single hills that spring straight up out of the water. On closer inspection you can see that these rock formations have been pushed out of the earth over an unfathomable period of time at a diagonal angle. You can see the grain of each portion of rock moving diagonally from bottom to top. It is a very eerie and impressive sight, and another completely new experience for me.
We weighed anchor just outside of Ha Long Bay to eat a delicious lunch prepared on board. What I love most about Vietnamese cooking is the freshness, the use of herbs and the flavours that they contain. We all sat around eating and chatting, then when finished continued into Ha Long Bay to Sung Sot Cave, which was immense. For a time we thought that parts of the ceiling had been concreted over, and we couldn’t understand why. But we soon realised that it was actually part of the rock formations in there. We saw a pile of money next to a small stalagmite, and realised that it was because it was in the shape of a tortoise, which is very revered in Vietnamese culture.
After the cave, we continued through the bay, and I was surprised that the scenery did not become boring. After all, it all looks the same. But I think it was what it made up as a whole that was the most impressive part. In total there are 2000 islets, most of which you are not easily able to access, and I think all of which are uninhabitable. The people living in the bay are born, live and die in floating villages. Very rarely do the majority of the locals go on dry land. The villages are floating huts connected by floating walkways, housing habitation and food stalls, for locals and tourists. We stopped at a small floating boat rental office, and got into kayaks to have a paddle around a small part of the bay. We didn’t realise until we ran aground that we had managed to paddle over somebody’s mussel farm. We vigorously punted our way out and around the corner, and enjoyed some time exploring the caves and pootling around a couple of the smaller islets. We no longer felt so bad when we noticed as heading back to the floating platform that six of our fellow tour members had also done the same at the mussel farm, and that the irate farm owner was now gesticulating at them.
Then we headed to what had to be the smallest beach in the world. Our tour boat couldn’t pull all the way up to it, so the choices were to be boring and stay on the boat, or take the plunge, literally, into the water and swim to it. Well, you only live once. We weren’t as adventurous as the young Germans, who jumped from the top deck (show offs). You could clearly see from their faces as they surfaced that the water was not that warm, but that didn’t stop us. We jumped in, well, Mark jumped, I kind of plopped in, from the bottom deck. The water seemed really calm but there was quite a strong current. Ten of us were swimming to the beach then back out to the boat and snorkelling a little.
Suddenly one guy who was swimming towards the boat started saying “Save me, save me!” “Hahahaha” we all said, and “What a funny joke” the English life guard who was swimming with Mark and I said. Yes there was a current, but seriously, anyone could swim the ten metres from the beach to the boat. Couldn’t they? Apparently not. He was serious. Life guard boy promptly swam over (admittedly very quickly after realising our mistake) and did what he was trained to do. Once the guy was back on board, and one of the older guys had laughed at him, a lot, he was quite embarrassed, and explained that he had only ever swam in a pool before. I got a fit of the giggles and couldn’t sit near him for the rest of the trip back.
We were back on dry land in time for Mark and I to enjoy the sunset from our balcony, beers in hand. Then we headed downstairs to have a bite to eat and a few drinks. We were half way through watching a premiership football match in a bar, when they gave the clear signals that they were waiting for us to leave (mopping, stacking chairs, turning off the TV and lights). When we left, we realised that when Cat Ba shuts down for the evening, it really shuts down. Even the streetlights were turned off. We had an early night in preparation for a long and exciting journey the next day, to a country that all of us will have experienced in food at the very least, but that we wanted to experience more of, China.