Monday (Oct 17th): First full day in Hanoi. Daytime exploring the Old Quarter with stops at Ho Hoan Kiem lake, Ngoc Son temple, Hoa Lo Prison Musem (Hanoi Hilton) and miscellaneous vendors to buy some essentials. Completed a walking food tour at night with 9 different stops.
Tuesday: More walking around the old quarter and the outskirts. Stops at Truc Bach Lake, Old House of Ho Chi Minh, Temple of Literature and the Vietnam Military History Museum. At night we had a nice dinner at Old Hanoi (Gordon Ramsey recommendation).
Wednesday: Last full day in Hanoi. Daytime exploring the Old Quarter with stops at Bach Ma Temple, Coffee Shops, Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic (4 Kilometers long), …….Market and Old City Gate. We also received 30 min Vietnamese head and back massages.
Thursday: Four hour drive out of Hanoi and through the countryside to Halong Bay. Departed on our Junk Boat (sail boat) and cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay (within Halong Bay). Completed kayaking around some islands, watched the sunset on the beach and back to the main boat for dinner and squid fishing (no bites).
Friday: Full day on the bay. In the morning we went to an island cave with everybody onboard (roughly 20 people). Returned to the main boat and separated from most of the group for our day voyage (for us, this was the three day trip as opposed to the two days which most groups completed). We cruised the bay for a few hours, kayaked around a few islands and to a floating fishing village and met the family operating the “village”. We also kayaked a small inlet of islands to an even better cave and a more secluded beach. After kayaking, we motored back to the main boat to greet the new group of guest.
Saturday: Relaxation on the boat in the morning and then back to the dock by noon. Completed the four hour drive through the country side back to Hanoi. Walked to dinner in the Old Quarter and then prepared ourselves to depart Vietnam.
Sunday: 5am wake up call and to the airport. Bye Bye Vietnam.
Sticky Rice (stay together)
Well, what could have been a disastrous week turned out to be very pleasant, humbling and fulfilling. I always thought that Vietnam would be one of the more difficult destinations for our travels, but thankfully everything came to together as planned (with a lot of thanks to the nice Vietnamese people). We narrowly avoided a few things that could have been detrimental to this leg of our trip:
1. Giovanna’s check baggage never made it to Vietnam with us. What a great way to start the trip! This was no minor inconvenience as her whole life for the next year was checked in the bag. Immediately the thought of never seeing the bag set in and the fear of not being able to communicate with anybody at the airport seemed very daunting. We must have looked distressed, so one of the airport attendants came to our help. They were able to submit the lost baggage notice for us and reassured us we would see it in two-ish days. Ultimately we fretted for the next 24 hours about the bag, but it made the journey from SFO to Vietnam and arrived at our hotel and delivered to our room. We could not have been more relieved!!!
2. Typhoon Sarika was the first typhoon to hit Halong Bay/Hanoi and scheduled to hit midweek . The main reason for our stop in Vietnam was to go sailing in Halong Bay, so the thought of canceling this portion of the trip would have been disappointing. This typhoon did not disrupt Vietnam as originally forecasted, so we were able to depart on our sailing voyage.
3. Typhoon Haima, the much larger typhoon was set to hit Halong Bay four days after typhoon Sarika. Between these two weather systems was our window of opportunity. We took the opportunity and departed on our trip. This typhoon moved towards China and avoided our cruise.
With all that out of the way, let me talk about all the great and interesting things this country has to offer. The locals here are incredibly nice and were always available to help. Given the recent events that have happened in this country (what they call the American War), there was no ill-will towards us. They are very prideful in their heritage and the challenges they have overcome. Since their sort of “government reform” in 1985, they have been one of the top 10 developing countries in the world…according to one our tour guides. Given this was a war torn country a few decades ago, I can see how they justify this comment.
Cafe. Coffee. Very strong, bitter and delightful. They are proud of the coffee and we were sure to partake. I’m still caffeinated from all that we drank, and my only souvenirs of this trip were coffee related (their coffee beans/grinds and their version of a coffee maker which is a mix of a french press and a drip machine). The coffee we purchased was weasel poop coffee. Google it.
Bia. Beer. The options were the following: Bia Hoi Noi, Saigon, Tiger, Ha Long and Heineken. Their local beers were all lagers and generally very refreshing and very light.
The food, other than our food tour fell narrowly in our comfort level. One dinner provided some gastrointestinal distress (think it was the pork ear). The food tour was great, safe and provided us 7 or 8 different locations and options. My favorite item was the egg-coffee, one of their many specialties.
The city itself is what could be considered organized chaos. People moving in every-which direction with a smattering of parks, museums, temples and other culturally significant buildings. We walked to as many locations as our legs would take us. Ultimately I felt the museums and temples were not as grandiose as originally thought, but their government buildings were impressive. Most everybody commutes by moped. They are moped crazy. So much in fact, its daunting to even cross the street. But as they assert, you need to confidently just cross the street and they will avoid you. Be sure to steer clear of the cars, trucks and busses as they will plow you over. Unfortunately we witnessed somebody on a moped get hit by a car which added to our trepidation.
Towards the later half of our stay in Vietnam, we took the 4 hour bus ride to Halong Bay with Swan Cruises. I was completely mesmerized by the country side and watching how they live outside the city. Once we got to the bay, we were quickly shuttled to our Junk Boat (the name of all the sailing boats in Halong Bay) and departed. We took the three day, two night trip and it was nothing short of amazing. The bay is even more impressive than what I pictured in my mind, and there was no shortage of food, and excursions for us. My favorite moment of the trip was kayaking to a floating fishing village and watching a few monkeys dancing around the trees. Since we were only one of two groups that completed the three day cruise, we had a more intimate experience with our tour guide (in which Giovanna befriended) and the local fishing family. We met many wonderful families on the trip from all different locations: Germany, Israel, Spain, South Africa, France and Australia. We were the only Americans on the trip, which our tour guide jokingly pointed out. He however redeemed himself by the end of the trip and we were able to really connect with him. The bay was not as preserved like our national park system as some of the caves were vandalized and the bay had a lot of floating debris (which could have been due to the typhoon). But despite all that, the scenery was striking. I will never forget the image of all the fishing boats and fishermen paddling through the thousands of islands that makeup the bay.
Now im gleefully eating my Burger King in the airport getting ready for our next destination. Thailand bound for the elephants…
Holy shit, Vietnam! I now understand why they say Vietnam is the country that runs on coffee. These people never stop! I literally don’t think they sleep! The Vietnamese work day starts at 4am (which means they are well awake before then) but they stay up all night drinking beer & “happy wine” (rice wine that is so strong 1 sip gives you a buzz & clean esophagus). I just don’t understand! I LOVE sleep way too much for this lifestyle. Speaking of coffee, WHOA BABY, the coffee here is serious! It is so dark, strong & thick I don’t think Eric (my coffee connoisseur) will ever be able to get a coffee buzz from non Vietnamese coffee again *thank goodness we stalked up on all those Vietnamese coffee grinds but I really hope they let us into Australia with them*. I mean, this stuff is so intense they serve it on ice with condensed milk to help with the bitterness (they literally thought Eric was crazy for requesting his coffee hot & black but now we know why). The traditional Hanoian way to have coffee is refered to as “egg coffee”. Which is, you guessed it, coffee with egg yolk & condensed milk. This odd combination, again, is to help with the bitterness & to create a delicious drink (the egg/milk combo is very thick & sweet almost like a custard, so with my sweet tooth, I dig it). Since we are on the topic of coffee let’s talk about poop for a second (we all know coffee makes for the best laxative). The Vietnamese coffee beans come from weasel poop. I am not even joking, look it up, it is very interesting! Ok, ok, enough of the bathroom talk on to the good stuff. My initial reaction to Hanoi is that it is dirty and crowded. Crossing the street was like a real life version of Froger, a balancing act of trying not to get killed by the motor bikes and trying not to walk in the path of the motor bikes. Traffic laws just simply don’t exist here making life for pedestrians very risky. We did have the unfortunate experience of seeing a woman on a motor bike get hit by a taxi car. That was very unfortunate and made me never want to leave my hotel because the second you step out, Froger. My tour guide, Me, explained Vietnam averages 300 deaths/injuries in a day due to traffic related incidents, which sadly is not surprising. Me, my favorite tour guide & probably what really made my trip special, was a 26 year Vietnamese woman from Sapa who guided us through the Halong Bay area for 3 days. She was so wonderful with a great sense of humor and really took the time to share her culture and past life with me which I feel very grateful for. It is one thing to visit a foreign world but it is another for a local to share their world with you. I honestly think Eric and I were the only Americans in Vietnam which was quite an experience. I have never felt like such an outsider but in a weird kind of way it was actually very refreshing & satisfying. Every person/groups of people we crossed paths with was speaking a very different language. We spent a majority of our time in Halong Bay with a family from Jerusalem who obviously were speaking Hebrew, Me (our tour guide) who spoke Vietnamese and a lovely couple from Germany (speaking German). The craziest part of it all was to watch as they are all forced to speak English in order to communicate with one another. One of the travelers asked if I could speak any other languages and with extreme embarrassment I had to say “no”. Eric & I were not only the only Americans but also the only ones who weren’t forced to learn a foreign language. It was not only embarrassing, it was disappointing. In America we pay all this money for an education but what do we really learn? I can guarantee you that Eric has never and will never use calculus and the topics I learned in school are all out dated due to the education systems constantly changing & varying by location. Anyways, the point I am trying to make is I really enjoyed my time with the other travelers. I learned a lot from them in our few days together *I really hope to meet our new German friends in Bali this summer*. So back to my initial reaction, dirty. Hanoi is known for its street food which before actually visiting I thought was going to be a much different experience. I envisioned small restaurants with a window you walk up to and order from then grab a seat on the side walk to enjoy. Kinda like a food truck scenario with small tables out front to sit at. Boy was I wrong! I couldn’t have been more wrong about this. “Street food” in Hanoi is a much more literal term than I could have ever imagined. The food is literally prepared, cooked, served and enjoyed on the streets (more on the sidewalks than streets but in Hanoi people drive on the sidewalks too so for all purposes of the term “street food” it works). Now, this may not sound so different but let me just paint you a little picture here. Imagine: an older woman sitting on the sidewalk with a wooden chop block on her lap cutting raw chicken with a large cleaver then taking that same chicken and cooking it over some kind of a homemade stove (a large bowl of hot coals with a piece of foil over the bowl). Mean while there is a large pot of water and vegetables sitting beside her so that when the chicken is done she throws it in. Then this pot sits on the sidewalk until a bowl is ordered and served. Keep in mind the streets of Hanoi are VERY crowded, VERY hot & humid and have bugs/animals roaming around. Also, keep in mind the working day starts at 4am and that Vietnam is a “developing” country (not to mention the males pee anywhere and everywhere, openly in public. Yes, I saw more than I ever wanted). So needless to say, during our sreet food tour through the Old Quarter, Eric was eating for 2 and one of the two of us spent a large amount of time in the bathroom this week.
“You need to understand that life isn’t what you are given; it’s what you create, what you overcome, and what you achieve that makes life beautiful” -Anonymous