On January 17th we rode an international bus to Ho Chi Minh City and it was one of the easiest border crossings that we have experienced. We only had 12 hours to spend in Ho Chi Minh, and I spent all 12 in bed in our hotel room extremely sick thinking of all the tropical illnesses I might have contracted. After Mike determined I wasnâ€™t going to die of Ebola, he went to Pizza Hut and visited the ATM (several times since he couldn’t understand that 1 million duong was only $50). Super exciting stuff!
We did want to explore Ho Chi Minh, but due to Tet coming up we decided to fly directly to Hanoi. It seemed like our safest plan was to head to northern Vietnam where the sights we wanted to see were more concentrated. This would reduce our chances of getting stuck somewhere while the cities shutdown for the 4 day holiday.
So on January 18, we took a 5 AM flight to Hanoi. I still wasnâ€™t feeling very good, so we checked into our room for me to rest. That afternoon, we went on a mission to find a tour company for Halong Bay. Our guidebook recommended tours versus doing it ourselves, as they are normally cheaper, and you see more. It was backwards from how it normally works! After, checking a few deals out, we settled on one that would leave the next day.
It was nice to walk around the old quarter because all the locals were doing last minute shopping for Tet. The streets were lively, and the shops were packed. We didnâ€™t explore much of the area as I was still weak.
The next day, we were picked up in a min-bus and drove 3 hours to Halong City. It was fun to observe the Tet preparation in the small villages as we passed by. Orange trees are a popular decoration for peopleâ€™s living room, so we would see stands selling them, and motorbikes driving down the road with huge trees attached. But I would have to say our most interesting motorbike cargo was a full size cow strapped onto the back!
After arriving in HaLong City, we road a dinghy to our boat named â€œElisabeth Sails.â€ The boat was really nice, and our little cabin on the bottom floor was luxurious, with a big window looking out to the water. The middle floor was a nice dining room, and the upper deck was for sunning.
As soon as we were settled, the boat started to motor towards the islands, and we sat down for lunch. We sat at a table with 2 other couples and were served family style. I automatically assumed we would serve ourselves then pass the dish to the left as we do at home. So I kept passing dishes, and the woman next to me kept setting them in the middle for everyone to reach them. It didnâ€™t help that all 3 couples spoke 3 different languages with no common language, so it was a bit of a learning experience! By dinner, we sat at the same table, but I now knew the procedure to reach over and serve myself from the center of the tableJ
Halong Bay is well known for its 1000â€™s of tiny limestone islands with shear cliffs. The name means descending dragon, and from the sky it looks like a dragon’s back. Our first stop was a huge limestone cave that we explored on foot. It was impressive with huge stalactites and stalagmites.
Kayaking was next on the agenda, so our boat traveled to a floating village for us to explore and view the nearby tiny islands. The weather was cold and threatened rain, so I wore my rain pants instead of a swimsuit! It was fun to kayak around and see the islands up close.
Finally, the boat anchored in a nice spot for the evening. It was relaxing to watch the sunset from the top deck with these dramatic views.
It was a treat to wake up to a beautiful view of water and islands! After breakfast, we left the boat for Cat Ba Island, which is the largest island in Halong bay and one of the only ones inhabited. We loaded into a mini-bus destined for the national park with the option for a bike ride or trek. Mike and I opted for the trek to the top of a nearby hill. The ground was slippery but the hike was easy. Mike and I stayed towards the back for a little extra space. I think we gave the guide the idea that we were scared because she kept offering to help me over the rocky section and carry my pack!!
Iâ€™m sure there would be a lovely view from the top, but it was all socked in by fog. However, we decided to climb the watch tower, which was a few stories high of rusted metal, anyway. At the top, some of the wood boards were missing, which added to the feeling of why are we doing this?!
Safely back at the minibus, we traveled to Cat Ba City to check into our hotel room for the night. After a quick lunch, it was time to head to Monkey Island. The boat ride was short, but we got to see more floating villages and more pretty islands. On Monkey Island, Mike and I followed a trail and scrambled to the top of the hill for an amazing view. We only saw one monkey, and it was chilling on the beach.
That evening, we enjoyed chatting with our 6 boat mates from Australia about everyoneâ€™s travel adventures. Our guide recommended a bar, so after dinner we all headed there. When we started to get close we could hear the music, and after we opened the door tons of smoke poured out. It was a localâ€™s dance club with a stage and pole in the center for dancing. We grabbed a drink and sat outside on the back deck. It was quite the surprise, but it looked like everyone was having fun!
On January 21, we separated from our group to extend our stay on Cat Ba island while everyone else headed back to Hanoi. We moved to a cheaper hotel run by a super nice family with a great view of the bay. The day was spent exploring the little village and watching movies in our hotel room. The weather was cold and raining, and it was nice to have some downtime! The town shutdown early to start their family celebrations, but we luckily found a small cafÃ© open for dinner.
The next day was freezing and the main day of Tet, so the town was very quiet! After searching for awhile, we finally found a shop open to rent a motorbike for the day. I think it was the shop owner’s own bike too! After bundling up in our warm clothes, we took off to explore the island. Many young people were also spending their day off on motorbikes riding around the island.
An old North Vietnamese hospital cave was our first stop. The cave was used from 1965 to 1975. Our tour guide was in the army and spent 18 months living in the cave. He loves giving tours and even had props! Now he farms and gives tours. Inside, the natural cave was concrete walls and passageways. The hospital had many different rooms, including a swimming pool and cinema!
After the tour, we enjoyed a cup of Vietnamese coffee (strong with sweet condensed milk) with our guide and learned about his family and history. The coffee was excellent, but I really enjoyed getting to know this man. He was 50, but looked like he was 30 and was super friendly.
Mike let me drive for awhile with him on back. It was a bit hard to handle but really fun. The best part was driving through a little village, and the villagers laughing at Mike on the back of the bike. J Finally, it got too cold to explore, and we headed back to our hotel room.
Our options were very limited for dinner, but we found one place open with all the tourists eating there! On the walk home, there was a stage set up and dancers performing traditional dances. It was also neat to observe the locals celebrating. They drove their motorbikes right up to the stage to watch the show. They all stood around with their helmets on next to their bikesJ As soon as the show ended, the town quieted down again for the evening. It was really neat to be in a small town to observe the main celebrations of Tet!
On January 23, it was time to join up with another tour group to hitch a ride back to Hanoi. We got to ride on a different boat back through HaLong bay to HaLong City. The views were good, but it was really, really cold so we watched from inside the cabin! We got back to HaLong City for lunch and then headed to Hanoi.
There was no traffic and all the store fronts were closed due to the holiday, so it made for a boring drive back. Hanoi was also shutdown, so we found a pizza place open for dinner and retreated to our hotel room for more cable TV. J It was an awesome few days in a place that I have always wanted to visit. Plus, it gave us an interesting way to observe their biggest celebration of the year!