Our week in Northern Vietnam
19.12.2015 - 24.12.2015 60 °F
The flight from Bangkok to Hanoi was a mere hour and forty minutes, which we spent napping and talking to the Vietnamese man next to us who was thrilled that out of anywhere in the world, we chose his home country to visit on vacation. We told him how excited we were to try the food, and gave each other mental high fives when he nodded and smiled at our correct pronunciation of their famed soup "pho" (look it up.. it's not how it appears.)
Going through customs was surprisingly quick and easy. After finding our driver, it was more comforting than you might think to once again get into a car that had the driver seat on the left side. This comfort did not last long, however, as we realized that the hectic streets in Thailand were just amateur hour. I'm not sure if there are actually any traffic laws, but if there are, they are not being enforced. After checking into our guesthouse in the Old Quarter, we wandered out on foot to find dinner and learned by watching the locals that to cross the street, you just casually walk into oncoming traffic and trust motorists to go around you. It sounds terrifying, but it works, and by the end of our time here we were used to it.
We will admit that overall, the weather (once again) was not what we expected. We didn't realize that despite the close geographic proximity to Thailand, Northern Vietnam has a completely different climate with four distinct seasons. We had anticipated sunny, hot and dry days, especially the ones spent at the beaches of Halong Bay, and what we got was pretty much the opposite. It was cool and cloudy every day, and rained most days, but luckily the rain never lasted long. That being said, our time here was still worth it and we enjoyed experiencing the new culture. Vietnam is a beautiful country, despite its winter clouds.
We left this day open to explore Hanoi, and visited Ngoc Son Temple, which we reached by crossing a pedestrian bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake. Like in Thailand, the Vietnamese largely practice Buddhism, but their culture is heavily influenced by the Chinese and French, which can be easily seen in their architecture, decor, and religion. After spending some more time walking around town, we found a five story roof top bar with a scenic view of the lake and city. We watched the sunset here (this was pretty anti-climatic due to the clouds) and found another restaurant close to our guesthouse for dinner.
We were picked up from our guest house early in the morning to begin the 4 hour journey via bus to Halong Bay. This bay, studded with thousands (yes, thousands) of limestone cliff islands of all shapes and sizes, is the prized treasure of Northern Vietnam and we enjoyed listening to our guide sing its praises as he shared its history with us during the drive. We learned that in Vietnamese "ha long" translates literally to "descending dragon" and the legend goes that dragons once descended from the sky and created the limestone barriers in order to protect Vietnam from enemies of war.
After arriving at the bay, and boarding our cruise ship "The Silversea" we were served a delicious Vietnamese lunch as we cruised through the stunning limestone cliffs.
After lunch we took a smaller boat to an island that is home to "Paradise Cave" and walked through its massive caverns with our group and guide. He told us that there are many caves on the islands, but this is the only one open to the public. As with many parts of nature, human interference is detrimental for the natural ecosystem inside the caves, and we're glad they've chosen preservation over tourism for most. Of course the cave was beautiful, but possibly more stunning were the views from the entrance and exit which were accessed by platforms high in the air.
After returning to the ship we spent the evening cruising through the bay, taking photos, meeting other passengers and eventually docking for dinner followed by hours of karaoke. Karaoke is a huge deal in Vietnam, and I honestly think our host was offended when he put us on the spot in front of everyone to perform "Hotel California", which he picked out for us based on our nationality, and we declined. He, without delay, belted out some Vietnamese song to much applause.
This morning we visited a pearl farm, which we have mixed feelings about the ethics of but won't get into at this moment. We then boarded a smaller cruise boat and made the journey to Nam Cat Island, a tiny resort island off the coast of Halong Bay's largest and most populated island, Cat Ba. We visited a small beach side resort where we were free to explore on our own for a few hours. We decided to take out a kayak despite the fact that it was raining off and on, and a touch on the chilly side. Of course better weather would have been preferred, but we still enjoyed navigating through the limestone cliffs, and found an island with a small beach where we got out to explore and search for seashells.
This day mostly consisted of travel, but we really enjoyed our early morning boat ride when we unexpectedly passed through a floating fishing village in the bay. We didn't have a guide at the time since were being transported as the only tourists on a small boat of Nam Cat employees (long story) but it appeared to be a fully functioning village complete with a market, restaurant, and even dogs scampering around.
We arrived back in Hanoi that evening and attended a water-puppet show, one of Vietnam's claims to fame. We had all of our luggage with us, which they surprisingly allowed, and I'm sure people got a a good chuckle watching us attempt to squeeze ourselves and packs into the tiniest theater seats we've ever seen. The show only lasted about 45 minutes, so the uncomfortable seating was no big deal and worth it. Definitely a unique experience.
We treated ourselves to gelato while we waited for our ride to the oddly named "Family Transit" hotel where we would spend our last night in Hanoi before flying back to Bangkok and preparing for our Christmas day bus ride to Cambodia.