After we entered Vietnam we didn’t have an intense feeling of being in a new country. The weather, the villages and the scenery were all similar to our last days in Laos. We were still greeted by many locals, even adults shouted loud hellos when we passed by. Kids on their way home from school raced us on the hills. For a while the biggest difference was the improved road quality. We spent three days on the main road on smooth tarmac with shorter inclines.
The first food we tried was fried bananas. This sweet is made and sold on the street, it tastes like doughnuts. There are countless little restaurants, but we didn’t go often because they only cook soup. I mean, I like soup, but we had so much of it in Laos and I expected a bigger palette in Vietnam. I read about Vietnamese cuisine and kept multiple pages open on my phone to be ready to choose something special, so I was slightly disappointed when all I could choose from was wide or thin noodles. On the other hand, some shops had a great selection of sweets. We discovered a delicious cookie, cereal bars and some kind of jelly made of rice flour.
We left the main road that kept getting busier for a bumpy road that led us to a gorgeous waterfall and a lake full of little islands. It was a thousand times more beautiful than the rice paddies which are everywhere.
When we couldn’t find a better route we pedalled next to crowds of motorbikes and scooters. Just like in the previous countries, people transport all kind of stuff by bike, but it was new to see mandarin trees behind the drivers. The trees serve as decoration for the Lunar New Year.
We arrived to Hanoi in crazy traffic, noise and smog. We could hardly find the homestay we chose. Its street was a randomly numbered maze. We had to get something to eat before we continued the search, so we sat on the tiny chairs on the street and had some soup with fried fish. Then at last we found the place. It didn’t have any signs, but the house number checked out and the neighbours confirmed that we were at the right place. So we rang the bell, but nobody came to open the door. Great…
We went on to the old city to the other hotel we chose. On the way we asked for a room in three guest houses, but one of them was too expensive and the other two lied that they were full. We don’t know why, it was obvious they had vacant rooms. We found our next target more easily even though we had to go inside a shop to get to the hotel reception. It was quite unusual, but not in Hanoi. I liked the room, but there was no place in the building for our bicycles, not even in front of it. While we were discussing what to do, a guy told us that he had a hotel nearby. His offer was acceptable and he promised storage for the bikes so we followed him, we were too tired to ask around. The room was alright, we stayed. In that building we had to cross a sandwich shop to get to the stairs.
The city centre is a complete mess. It is full of motorbikes who never stop, it’s scary to cross the road on foot. Pavements are also full of parking bikes, you can only walk on the roadway.
Despite being a socialist country, capitalism is flourishing, everybody sells something. Locals sell stuff on the market, in shops, on the ground, on bikes, on bicycles and on foot. We took advantage and bought some new bicycle gear and an e-book reader. There was also a wider selection of food in the capital. We ate bun bo nam bo which is noodles with beef and peanuts and the signature dish of Hanoi, bun cha which is barbecued pork served with noodles, vegetables and sweet and sour sauce.
The mausoleum was closed, but we could get over not seeing HoChi Minh’s body. We saw some churches, lakes and the train street where the train goes very close between the houses.
We felt Hanoi most when we were walking on the noisy and crowded streets and when we were sitting on the tiny chairs eating. The city is the opposite of the charming towns of Laos that we liked so much. Three days of Hanoi was more than enough for us.
After Hanoi we enjoyed the flat terrain. We already booked our accommodation for Cat Ba so we didn’t have time to go on quieter, more interesting roads this time. Once we had to make a detour when it turned out that cyclists (and bikers) are not allowed to use the express way. It surprised us that these people have rules. Their traffic can only be compared to India and the amount of honking too.
Those two nights we slept in guest houses we spotted on the road, as usual. The first place seemed like the majority of their guests are not the weary travellers. Prices were also listed by the hour and the only decoration of our room was a picture of a naked woman. The next evening we found a nicer guest house, but the neighbour’s maximum volume karaoke spoiled our time. I don’t mind somebody listening to loud music, but singing in falsetto so loud that the whole town has to suffer makes me angry, it’s selfish and annoying.
We took the ferry from Ha Long city to Cat Ba island. I’m glad we found this option in the last minute. It was much cheaper than the other ferry and also much more beautiful as this one goes through Ha Long bay.
On the island we applied for a full day tour to see Ha Long and Lan Ha bay from up close. Normally we don’t like organised tours, but this one was really worth it.
We walked to the tour office at quarter past seven as we were asked the day before. We had to wait almost an hour until somebody turned up. Not a great start. But after that everything went well. We were taken to the port by bus and got aboard with twenty other travellers. From the top of the ship we had great views of the gorgeous karsts all day long.
Occasionally we stopped for some activities. The first and best one was kayaking. We were thrown right into the deep end, we started paddling in a dark cave with strong current. We saw that it was difficult for some people, but we handled our double kayak like pros, even though I’ve never done it before, Adam hardly ever. We arrived to a wonderful hidden lagoon then paddled on through more caves and lagoons. We were having a great time, the two hours passed very quickly.
We got hungry from all the exercise so we were happy to see that the tables have been set when we got back onboard. The crew served us rice, eggs, spring rolls, clams, squids, roasted peanuts, watermelon, noodles, fish and soup. Five people shared the dishes, but it was more than enough for all of us.
While we were feasting the ship arrived to Ha Long bay from Lan Ha bay. There we stopped for swimming. Adam quickly dived into the sea from the top of the ship and after I gathered enough courage I followed him. The first two minutes were terrible, then I got used to the cold water and enjoyed the sea. We got snorkels but we didn’t see anything under the water, other than a few fish.
Our last stop was a floating village. 6000 people live on the water in Lan Ha bay. (It’s forbidden to live in Ha Long bay since it became an UNESCO world heritage site.) Inhabitants trade fish, clams and oysters. Contrary to the western world, oysters there are only eaten by poor people because they are literally everywhere and not even tasty. Big, valuable fishes in nets next to the house. Most of them are exported to China but every family has one fish that they keep only to be lucky. They don’t sell or eat the lucky fish, they believe that the bigger the fish is the luckier they’ll be. Also, the person who has the heaviest fish becomes the boss of the village. People who live in the bay rarely go to the mainland. They buy provisions from a boat that regularly takes their orders. Children don’t go to school, it’d be too expensive and difficult. People don’t really go to the doctor’s either, still their life expectancy is longer than the townsfolks’. We were surprised to see dogs on the floating docks. Our guide told us that dogs aren’t kept as food source but to scare away birds. The residents of the sea get their drinking water from the rain and electricity from solar panels. The house we visited even had a karaoke machine!
We spent a week on the island. We’ve never spent such a long time in one place, but Cat Ba was perfect for vacation. It was off season so we didn’t spend our days on the beach, we just walked around sometimes to admire the scenery. We found the cheapest hotel of our whole trip where 6 nights cost just as much as 1 night in an average guesthouse. We could hardly believe it, but it was true, we got a nice and clean room and bathroom for 40.000 dong. The breakfast in the hotel was also great, we often started the day with bread, eggs, banana, pancake and coffee.
Vietnam celebrated the Lunar New Year while we were in Cat Ba, we stepped into the pig’s year. We knew the date but forgot that the party takes place the night before new year, we woke up at midnight to the sound of fireworks. Though there might not have been a big party, it seemed more like a family holiday. Anyway, we were just happy that we couldn’t hear anybody celebrating by karaoke.