Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Vietnam: A Love/Hate Relationship Part II

Vietnam - November 2019

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and very hectic in its own right. We again found it too hectic for our liking and the hostel we had picked was a hole. That is one of the problems with booking a place ahead of time, the pictures lie. We would walk into hotels/hostels upon arrival in some towns coming up. However, we still got out an experienced the city and actually liked parts of it in the old quarter (such as the Ngoc Son temple and Imperial Citadel), especially on Saturday when they closed down some of the streets for a festival. I would have been tempted to stay had we not had a bus ticket.

In the end, we only spent 1 1/2 days there before busing off too Ninh Binh, about 2 hours away. Hanoi probably has more to offer but it’s a city and crazy and smelly. Plus, the countryside is much more relaxing.

Ninh Binh was very pretty upon arrival as our hotel was positioned just out of town amongst a towering cliff and sweeping views across a shallow pond, including a few classic fisherman on the hand built boats. We liked this place already. Fabi struck gold with this idea. We would visit 3 different places the next day via motorbike: Trang An boat tour, Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, and Tam Coc (also Mua Cave but we didn't have time to explore this much). All had something to offer but some more than others. 

The boat tour was neat as they took us through several caves and temples over the course of two hours. It would have been amazing to be the discover of these waterways with the towering rock walls shooting straight up. 

The ancient capital was so-so as we wondered around aimlessly trying to figure out where to go and what it all meant as there wasn't a whole lot to read. It is more of a leisure stroll in the park. 

Tam Coc was our favorite. We climbed up these gothic-esque stairs to the temples above with superb views of the valley and river below. One thing we learned was that soon to be married couples take a day and go to all of these beautiful locations for pictures to display at the wedding. One couple that had been on a boat near us was up here too and had must have had some of the best photos from it. Ninh Binh was one of our favorite places so far but we chose to leave for the infamous Ha Long bay the next day. 

Ha Long Bay is famous for its thousands of limestone islands that dot the water. It is on everyone’s list if they come to Vietnam and the most visited place in North Vietnam, so we hopped on a bus and arrived after a few hours. Another girl, Abigal was on our bus and had been dropped off at the same bus stop. The people there, at some tour company, were hounding us for a taxi ride and were very annoying. I could tell that she was more frustrated than us so we offered to share a Grab with her to her hotel and then onto ours. She was from Canada and a pleasant person so we exchanged info to potentially meet up later. 

Our hotel was right on the beach in a quiet street not too far from Poem Mountain; it’s one of the superb viewpoints of the many islands. However, it is now officially closed. Before, it was “closed” and you could still sneak through, granted one of the home owners let you access it by going through their house, for a fee (read: bribe) of course. Sounds weird right? My type of adventure! But, this recent news and reports from people convinced us not to even waste our time. Instead, we set out for the Ferris wheel, a short walk away. It ended up being up the windiest road with half a shoulder if we were lucky. Definitely not people friendly. We made it up a road with a little luck and towards a gate, where the guard (who spoke little English) promptly ran to grab a sign and repeatedly said “stop”. It felt like something out of a bad movie. We were at the maintenance/workers entrance. To get to the wheel, you have to take the sky tram from the other side of the bridge. So instead, we found a nice place to get some smoothies and watch the sunset before taking a Grab back down the crazy road. 

In the morning, we grabbed lunch and headed to Catba island. Upon arrival, there was only one van, which was full by the time we got off, to take everyone to the city some 15 km away for 30 dong. Since we missed it, the taxi driver wanted 450 to take us. So the three of us walked instead. The driver followed behind about 200 yards for a bit but eventually gave up once we arrived to the first town and grabbed lunch before getting a different driver. He was pretty creepy. We found a sweet little place for $7 a night on the beach and settled in. 

There are basically three things to do from Catba, a tour of the islands and bay, hiking in the National Park, and the beaches. On our first full day, we enjoyed the park and aptly hiked up to the peak with Abi to get a view of the area. It’s very beautiful as you get a 360 degree view of the forest below. The beach we went to was pretty empty of people as it was out of season and not the best beach in Catba, but we still enjoyed it.

We finished the day with a nice sunset hike at a popular place.

The second day we scheduled the boat around the bay. We went with the luxury boat for a cool $20. It took us around and through the limestone rocks jumping out of the water like something out of King Kong and we actually visited one of the locations in the film near a fishing village.

The lunch on board was family style and everything was quite fresh and tasty. Even the fish eye. They probably brought out 10 different plates to try. It was a feast. Catba bay is an alternative to Ha Long bay but was very impressive in its own right. Many of the tours overlap from the different bays as well.

We then took a sleeper bus to Sapa the next day over the course of 9 hours and arrived to a foggy night in the city. It was somewhat colder in the mountains of northwest Vietnam but we hoped for better weather the next days as it is known for its killer views of rice fields. Unfortunately, it was cloudy for most of the next day with some much needed sun popping through occasionally but we decided to skip the rice fields due to the weather and explore the French inspired city. After all it is a beautiful city and something highly resonate of the cities in Europe. Due to the weather being so foggy and hiking or any other outdoors activities not possible, it would be our last day in Vietnam as we booked a sleeper bus to Laos on the following day.

In all of Vietnam, we most certainly enjoyed the countryside and the people in the countryside a lot more than those in the big cities. The hospitality and interactions were much more real in places like Ninh Binh, Sapa, and Da Nang. Vietnam was not as we expected but still worth a visit to see the natural beauty of the land. I would go back for the landscapes and to explore other sites.

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