Hanoi & Halong Bai, Vietnam

2 Sep

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Hanoi & Halong Bai, Vietnam

We were greeted in Hanoi by grey sky and drizzle. As such we opted to take a cab to our hotel instead of the less expensive motorbikeoption.Our driver was pushy and quoted an insanely high price for the short ride and as such we requested he go by the meter. He reluctantly agreed and to drive up the fare took the longest way possible to our hotel. (We know because J.J. was following along on a map.) When we’d ask him to turn down streets to shorten the trip he would ignore us as the amount on the meter grew higher.

We paid him without tipping (he didn’t even drive us to our hotel but rather dropped us off on a main street) and walked to our hotel. Thankfully our room was ready and after quickly booking our overnight boat trip to Halong Bai for the following morning we spent the rest of the day sleeping, waking up only for dinner. J.J. wanted to try a restaurant nearby called La Place where we had a table on the second floor overlooking a beautiful old church. After a good meal, our only one that day, it was back to bed.

The tour operator of our overnight boat cruise to Halong Bai picked us up by bus at our hotel early the next morning. We joined about 15 people on the bus as we made our way to the boat docks 2 and a half hours from Hanoi. We arrived at port and soon discovered the most touristy place we’d been in Vietnam. Throngs of travellers carrying backpacks and wheelie bags and ranging in age from toddlers to elderly were herded like cattle by their guides to their respective white junk boats (some junkier than others) which lined the harbour.

We took a smaller covered wooden boat out to our junk boat where we were directed to the dining room located on the boat’s second level. There we were given the itinerary for the next 2 days and then given our room keys. The walls of our cabin room were wood paneled as were the floors and the ceiling. We had a large window looking out at the many other junk boats crowding the bai and we could see the shore we’d left behind. The washroom was tiled and we soon learned that unless the motor was running the toilet wouldn’t flush.

Once settled we headed back upstairs to the dining room for lunch where we joined a Swiss mother and daughter at their table. The menu consisted mostly of seafood but we’d communicated that I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat seafood and alternative dishes were brought for me – all deep fried except for a delicious beef dish.

After lunch we cruised to Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave) where we walked up the many steps and around the looping wooden path through the cave’s 3 chambers. At one point J.J. and I stopped to look at a phallic looking rock lit by a pink spotlight. We joked about this formation and later learning from our trusty Lonely Planet that this rock is often appropriately referred to as ‘Cock Rock’.

We boarded our junk boat and cruised by a number of women rowing covered wooden boats stocked with snacks of Oreos, Lay’s and Fanta for sale as we made our way to a wooden floating dock lined with life jackets, paddles and kayaks. As the sky began to turn an ominous dark gray our boat docked at this small and unsteady platform so that we could kayak around the bai. J.J. and I paddled around getting up close and personal with the huge rock formations jutting out of the water, much like the bays surrounding Koh Phi Phi that we’d seen last year in Thailand. At one point we paddled over to what we thought was a plastic bag floating near the surface but upon getting a closer look, discovered an enormous throbbing jellyfish. We saw 3 more just like it on our way back to the floating dock. So much for swimming in the bai, at least for me.  J.J. braved the jellyfish infested waters as I waited on the boat. I told him it was lucky for both of us that if he got stung he’d be able to pee on himself.

We had tea and fruit on the deck of the boat before it was time to shower off the caves, and for some, the salt water of the bai, before it was time for dinner. We re-joined the Swiss mother and daughter duo and once again I was bombarded by a number of deep fried so-so dishes as well as one delicious chicken dish. Once we had finished eating, J.J. and I headed to the top deck of the boat to avoid the karaoke that was about to begin in the dining room and to try to get some slow exposure shots of the lightning storm that was now in full effect. Unfortunately we weren’t as successful with the lightning photos in Halong Bai as we had been in Mui Ne. Back in our room we were lulled to sleep by a tone-deaf karaoke version of Sha-La-La-La-La.

The next morning we were greeted by another grey and rainy sky but still enjoyed the view of Halong Bai (from some angles you could see very few other junk boats) while we sipped hot tea and ate amazing local fruit as we slowly cruised back toward the harbour. Over breakfast we got to talking to 2 women on a long weekend holiday from Singapore. We were then joined by a Malaysian woman who had lived for the past 17 years in California with her husband. She talked our ears off about anything and everything from her huge tomatos that she grew to make 80 gallons of tomato sauce which she gives away as gifts as well as to charity. She then told us about her 4 cats, 2 outdoor and 2 indoor, and proceeded to show us videos she had taken of her one sneaky cat taking a flying leap at the door handle of a closed door, opening it and looking around slyly before walking through the doorway.

The Malaysian woman’s sister interrupted her chatter to ask if we could launch the karaoke DVD. Somehow these ladies persuaded J.J. to join them. Surprisingly this is the first time I’ve really heard J.J. sing and what’s more surprising was 1) J.J. can make his voice sound like Elvis when singing Pretty Woman (I videotaped this but he has sworn me not to share the footage) and 2) J.J. got totally hooked, singing 4 or 5 songs solo.

We made a short stop in a local fishing village which consisted of families living on boats who fished for a living. There was even a floating school for the children of fishermen and women. After a wet tour around the area in small uncovered boats it was time to complete our journey back to the harbour.n After a quick sit-down lunch at a local restaurant we were in a minivan that would take us back to Hanoi for our final night in Vietnam.We checked back into our hotel in the evening and had a low key late dinner at the nearby Gecko restaurant, followed by a walk in the rain before calling it a night.

The next morning we slept in and took our time getting ready for the day knowing that we’d be travelling to Bangkok later that night, arriving at BKK at 2am. We started our day with a delicious breakfast and well-made coffee at Paris Deli where we took advantage of the free wifi to email home.

Next we walked off in search of Old Quarter, the part of town that came recommended by the Swiss mother and daughter from our Halong Bai cruise. Old Quarter was a bustling area of shops full of merchandise that spilled out onto the sidewalks, motorbikes buzzing past and the scent of various street foods being cooked up. Some of the streets are dead-ends made of cobblestone while others are paved and wind around, connecting to others.

The afternoon heat was rising and as we came across Highlands Coffee in the city centre we decided to escape to the air conditioning for a cold drink. The coffee shop was located on the second floor of the building and while J.J. waited for our drinks I took the camera outside to capture some of the madness of the streets of Hanoi from a bird’s eye view.

By sunset the clouds had rolled in and it was growing more and more stormy looking and so we opted to walk back to the area of town along the water back to where our hotel was located in case the clouds opened up. We popped into a few shops as we walked along reading menus before finding a restaurant that served Pad Thai where we got a jump start on our upcoming journey to Bangkok.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to change and collect our things before the cab came to collect us for the airport. We drove the hour-long drive to the airport and after 3 weeks it was time to say tam biet to Vietnam.

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