05.11.2014 - 11.11.2014
Vietnam is everything we hoped it would be and more! The second we stepped out onto the streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, we fell in love with the city! We felt instantly comfortable with our surroundings and were so excited to soak up all that Hanoi has to offer. There is this special, vibrant energy pulsating through everything... it's one of the most atmospheric cities we have ever been to!
Our first day, we explored much of the Old Quarter, starting at the beautiful tree-fringed Hoan Kiem Lake with its signature red bridge leading us to the Jade Mountain Temple in the middle of the water. From there, we let ourselves get lost in the many little streets... checking out each of the vendors' goodies, admiring the perfectly coordinated chaos of motorbikes and pedestrians as they ebb and flow in an unspoken unison, sampling the delicious street food from Pho to grilled pork-on-a-stick, and, of course, sitting on those infamous small plastic stools while drinking the cheapest beer ever, Bia Hoi (which is surprisingly tasty)! As for the food, it is really incredible! We love spicy food, and we realized we were needing more and more spice to satisfy our cravings. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, "our palettes have changed and we need an elevated level of spice" in our lives!
We were picked up the next morning by our cruise company that drove us the 4-hour ride to Halong Harbor. We then boarded our Glory Cruise boat with about 20 other people, where we spent the next couple days. It was misty and cloudy that first day, which created this magical, almost mysterious, atmosphere... and as the boat made its way through Halong Bay's immense number of mountainous islands, we were immediately mesmerized by the views! The cruise staff kept us on a strict itinerary most of the time, so the first activity was kayaking through the grottoes, and then a stop to Titop Island, where we climbed the steps to the summit for the most incredible panoramic view of Halong Bay.
It rained that whole second day of our cruise, but that did not stop the scheduled activities. We were taken on a small boat ride through a fishing village, which was really wonderful... everywhere you turned your head, you were greeted by more and more of these beautiful islands. Afterwards, we kayaked and swam for a little while in the rain, but then quickly opted for the warmth of the boat again. We made friends with a South African couple, Martin and Claudia, on the boat, with whom we spent most of our time in those few days... so, we had a great time in the evenings chatting over some drinks.
In the morning of our last day on the cruise, we were taken to Surprise Cave, which was really nice... It's such a natural work of art! It's hard to believe that water used to flow through there, which has created these cool designs in the rock's surface! From there, they took us back to Halong Harbor to bid farewell. We had such a wonderful time cruising through Halong Bay, and we are so happy we got to see so many beautiful things! It was kind of sad to leave to our cruise boat, but we were happy to go back to Hanoi... we still had so much more to see in the city. Martin and Claudia were leaving Hanoi the next morning, so we all went out together that night, where we were dined on more delicious street food and then made our way to the Bia Hoi Corner in the center of the Old Quarter, where we sat amongst hundreds of locals enjoying the refreshing Bia Hoi beer!
Thanks to Lonely Planet's suggested day tour, we were able to see a lot of Hanoi's main sites in one full day. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum , both of which we were not actually able to enter, but at least admired from the outside. Next, we walked past the Presidential Palace on our way to the Botanical Gardens. The Temple of Literature was really nice, but we picked the wrong day to go because hundreds of Vietnamese high school graduates were there posing for their professional photographs and ruining our Nat-Geo money shots. As we walked backed to our hotel through the western part of Hanoi, we briefly stopped at Lenin Square to watch the youth of Hanoi practicing their skateboarding skills. Such a dynamic and lively city... we really didn't want to leave!
The next day, we took a 2-hour train ride from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. The whole area around Ninh Binh is not on many westerners' radar and is actually more of a tourist destination for the local Vietnamese, so we kind of felt like we had the place to ourselves half the time. We rented a scooter from our hotel and were finally able to experience how the Vietnamese take on the road. Thankfully, this is a much smaller city, so it's nowhere near as crazy on the road. We first visited Trang An to do a water boat and cave tour. This was truly one of the most beautiful spots we have ever seen! Similar to Halong Bay, you see these huge mountainous islands jutting straight out of the water, and there is so much green vegetation everywhere you look. The emerald-colored water is so clear, you can see so many fish swimming through the plants. The lady masterfully rowing our boat took us through six caves, each between 250-350 meters long. In three of these caves, we had to duck so low in the boat to where our faces were almost touching the seat, so as to avoid scraping our heads on the low ceiling. It was really, really cool to go in and out of the caves like that! Next, we visited the Bai Dinh Temple, which is a very large Buddhist complex, and the whole area is quite stunning! As you enter, you are greeted by hundreds of Buddhist statues before approaching the main triple-roofed pagoda that contains a massive bronze Budda flanked by two more Buddha figures. Just beyond is a viewpoint with a 13-story pagoda and another giant Buddha. We were really impressed by how grand of each of these structures are. We arrived just before closing time, so we happened to be the only people there... which was really great, but also kind of unnerving. It should have been a peaceful experience, not having to deal with any other tourist and taking in all the beauty surrounding us, but we were actually quite stressed because we had to rush through the whole complex due to the fact that we only had an hour to see everything and get back before the last bus left. It was getting dark and misty by the minute too, so it was getting increasingly hard to see. It's a shame we didn't have more time to spend there, but we were so happy we went to see it on such short notice.
So personally, trekking through a rain forest is not my thing... I really don't like slopping through the mud and sweating profusely in such a wet, humid climate, but that is exactly what we did when we visited the Cuc Phuong National Park, which happens to be the oldest national park in Vietnam. It really wasn't all bad, though... the rain forest itself was really green and lush, and trail we trekked gave us a great workout. We pretty much had the whole trail to ourselves, and we came upon a thousand-year-old tree in the middle of our trek. Before we even started the hike, we toured the monkey and turtle sanctuaries, which was really cool. We saw quite a few different species, and they were all just as curious about us as we were about them. All in all, this lesser-known national park was well worth the visit!
And now, on our way down to Phong Nha National Park, we experienced our very first sleeper bus! We had ten hours on this bus with about 40 other people, and we actually managed to sleep a little. We are excited to experience Central Vietnam, and hopefully the weather won't be too wet!