Ha Long – How Beautiful

The first leg of our holiday is coming to an end.  At 5:20pm today we fly to Vientiane; the capital of Laos.  I must say, I’ve fallen deeply in love with Northern Vietnam.  I just finished the best bowl of soup of my life; Chicken Pho to rival grandma’s best noodle soup.  The rice noodles are light and delicious, and the fresh lime sits at the top of the soup, too light to sink, and coats every noodle in delicious fresh flavour.  Now, I’m ordering my second Vietnamese coffee for the day.  Dave pointed out just now that it tastes like Baileys, without the alcohol.  He’s right.  Motorbikes are zooming past us, and we’re eating on a balcony on some little side street of Hanoi’s old quarter.  Life is good.

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My view during today’s lunch

 

Halong Bay – History and Modern Uses

Last night we returned from 3 days in Halong Bay.  Translated, it means ‘Descending Dragon Bay’, and it’s located in Northern Vietnam, about a 3.5 hour drive from Hanoi City.  It’s famous due to its karst limestone landscape, 2000 islands  and its many fishing villages.

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Historically, Ha Long Bay is significant.  People have been living in the area for more than 20,000 years.  The bay has also saved Vietnam from Chinese and Mongolian Invasion on more than one occasion.  Now, it’s known for its beauty and tourists flock to Northern Vietnam to experience its gorgeous views.

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Views such as this one

Halong Bay Cruises

The primary way people choose to see the bay is through cruises.   There are hundreds of choices to make when taking a Halong Bay cruise, we decided to go with a mid-range, 2 night trip with a night on Cat Ba Island.  There are also day trips, 1 night trips and some people choose to spend the night on Monkey Island or other places in the area.  1 night on the boat was enough for me.  I don’t know if it was because I was reading Life of Pi, or if the boat noises kept me up, but either way, I didn’t get much sleep during our night on that Vietnamese Junk.

Our boat was comfortable enough.  We had a comfortable bed and a nice little bathroom to ourselves.  The cabin was small, but space isn’t something I expect in Asia, so that was no surprise.  We had a fan that worked and an air conditioner that didn’t, and all in all, it was a cool way to spend a night in Halong Bay!

Activities During The Cruise

I feel like we spent all 3 days getting on and off boats for different activities.  There were a variety of things to do, including kayaking, exploring a cave, visiting a Pearl farm, visiting Monkey Island and floating past a fishing village.  All were interesting in their own way.

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The little boat we took to each excursion

Kayaking was probably the most beautiful of all our stops, but the weather made it less enjoyable than it could have been, but still…being on the water was very nice.  This activity made me very happy that I still have a water-proof camera 🙂

We visited a huge cave shortly after kayaking as well.  It was beautiful and had some pretty spectacular views.

Day 2 began at a Pearl Farm, where locals have found ways to get oysters making pearls in a sustainable way.    It was an educational stop!  We learned how pearls are artificially implanted to produce real pearls.   This is much better for oyster populations, because before this process was discovered, oysters were found in the wild, opened up and killed just on the off-chance they were carrying pearls.

Monkey Island was our last stop before Cat Ba Island.  There’s no surprise regarding what we found there…Dave also went hiking up a steep mountain.  He didn’t take any pictures (because, of course he didn’t :p), but he did scrape up his leg on the jagged rocks.  Vietnam doesn’t baby its tourists the way Thailand and Cuba does.  They let you decide for yourself if you can do something.  As a result, Dave saw 60+ year old grandparents hiking up the mountain on his way down.

Cat Ba Island

As I mentioned earlier, our second night of the tour was not spent on a Junk.  Instead, we went to one of the only islands in Halong Bay where people live:  Cat Ba Island.   Cat Ba island is home to about 13,000 residents, and its main purpose is hosting Ha Long Bay tourists.

As we came into the area, we passed a floating village, home to about 1000 people.  These villages are an incredible sight, even when you’ve seen them before.  We were able to see a floating village in Cambodia during the dry season.  It was very cool seeing one completely afloat!

Once we checked into our hotel, we rented a motorbike and headed for Cat Ba’s most famous sight:  Cat Ba National Park.

The park itself is quite nice.  We didn’t see much for wild life, but I made some canine friends!  Mostly, we were just happy to be out in the wilderness, enjoying the fresh air and the peace and quiet.  The hike up was hard work, but it felt so good to get some good exercise in!  I’ve been too busy this year to get to the gym, and my body was definitely not happy with me on the way up, but it was well worth the trip!

We stopped at a little shop at the end of the hike and ordered some iced coffees.  We figured they’d probably be instant, given the location of the cafe, but this lovely Vietnamese woman made us fabulous Vietnamese iced coffee with fresh grinds and sweetened condensed milk!

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We spent the evening walking around and enjoying the town.   I think my favourite part of this whole tour was Cat Ba island.  I never really feel like I’m on a holiday with Dave until we’ve rented a motorbike!  It was also nice not to have a guide following us around.   We both enjoyed the freedom to explore the things we were interested in, at the pace we wanted.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and before long, we were on our way back to Hanoi.  We met some very nice people on the way back and it was great chatting with them and hearing their stories.  We also learned how to make spring-rolls, which was fun.

It was a lovely trip and I’m very glad we made it!  Halong bay is definitely a must-see for anyone travelling through south East Asia.

Next, I’ll be writing about our time in Vientiane, Laos!  Exciting things are yet to come!!

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Photo from vientienbackpackershostel.com

Cheers!

Initial Impressions

Day one of our 33 day holiday is coming to an end, and it’s time to recap and reflect.

Hanoi City – Organized Chaos

We have begun our trip in Hanoi: a bustling and historic Vietnamese city.  We’re staying in the Old Quarter of Vietnam’s capital, where coffee shops are on every street corner and motorbikes are the primary means of transportation.  There’s an organized chaos here, in every sense of the word.

There are thousands of shops piled atop one another, and everywhere you look, there are people eating bowls of Pho on the sides of the street, and sipping coffee at tiny tables, sitting on tiny plastic stools.  What’s interesting, though, is that all those tiny little shops are organized and neatly merchandised.  My (extremely neat) sister would be impressed by the level of organization these shop owners manage to have in their little side-of-the-road shops.

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A small and popular restaurant in the Old Quarter

A good friend of ours lived in Vietnam for 4 years and she gave us valuable advice before we left for Hanoi.  She told us that the roads here are like a river; vehicles weave in and around one another and never really stop moving.  She told us to walk boldly but slowly and that vehicles would mostly just part around us.  It was terrifying at first, but she was right.  There are no crosswalks in the North American sense, but somehow, we got around just fine.  In a lot of ways it was less scary than India.  Ok…in every way.

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French colonialism is easily identifiable all over the city.  The streets, buildings and even French language are visible everywhere you go.  Cambodia was also colonized by the French, but the impact there wasn’t as obvious as it is in Hanoi.

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So different from China’s Skyscrapers

Hoàn Kiếm Lake – Passive and Pleasant

After a long day of travel yesterday and a long semester of 60-hour weeks, I wasn’t up for much today, so we mostly spent our time down by  Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which was a lovely experience.  The lake is a beautiful spot for wedding photos, so we saw several happy couples being chased by photographers.

There was a small temple by the lake as well.  We paid 30,000 dong each to enter (less than $2 Canadian) and enjoyed the quietness of the place.

There’s plenty to see walking along the lake.  The Old Quarter is a lovely place to spend the afternoon!

Different from Delhi / A Change from China

One of my favourite parts of travel is walking around at night, when the shops are lit up and the weather has cooled.  Vietnam is so different from India.  While there are shops everywhere, just as there is in New Delhi, nobody grabs you by the arms and nobody is too terribly pushy.  South East Asia, though hectic and tourist oriented, seems to have more of a dignity about it.  People bargain, but don’t try and rip you off.  People try and sell their goods, but if you say no, they move on with their days, un-offended and un-worried.

Tonight we walked around for a little while and found a restaurant where we enjoyed the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had.  Although I love Chinese food, the oil has started to gross me out a bit.  Vietnamese food is fresher and crispier…with more raw vegetables and coconut sauces.  Dinner was delicious…and the coffee I just finished was an excellent way to end the night!

Tomorrow we set off for HaLong Bay…another UNESCO World Heritage Site to add to our list.   We’ll be spending 2 nights and 3 days enjoying one of Vietnam’s greatest treasures.