Chapter Thirty-Four: Vietnam pt. 1 – Hanoi & Ha Long Bay

I am in love with Vietnam so far. The people we have met have been incredibly warm and friendly, the landscapes are dramatic and beautiful and the cities are wonderfully chaotic. On top of that, everything is so incredibly cheap!! We are paying about $15-20 CAD per night for a private room with bathroom and meals are $1-3, with beers usually around a buck.

We have had 5 stops so far: Hanoi, Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, Phong Na-Ke Bang national park, Hue and Hoi An. This post is just about the first two, so it doesn’t drag on…

Arriving in Hanoi was the perfect way to get re-invigorated for our Asia trip after a restful three weeks in Belgium. The ride from the airport to downtown was hectic and I worried that our bus might kill a motorbiker on more than one occasion. It seems 95% of the population here gets around on motorbike, so crossing the road at any time is a death-defying experience. The streets are absolutely teaming with stalls selling anything from pho to tourist trinkets to pharmaceuticals. It was rainy and cool when we arrived, so we decided to drop our bags and get some hot pho. I love pho at home so I was really excited to get it from the source, and it did not disappoint. Then we went back to our hostel to check in (I slept horribly in the dorm rooms with everyone snoring and, given that everything here is dirt cheap, we decided it would be our last time using dorms.) We spent the afternoon getting acclimatized and wandering around the old town. We went to a former prison-turned-museum, first run by the French and then used as a POW camp during the Vietnam war, or, as it is called here, the American war. We were pretty tired from our overnight flight and the time difference, so it was all we could do to find a little seafood shop for some dinner and then get to our hostel to sleep.

The next day we were slightly more energized so we hit up the tourist hot spots – the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, pagoda and museum, the old palace of the Nguyen dynasty and several temples. We squatted at little plastic stools on the sidewalk for both lunch and dinner, which were fantastic. Street food is such a part of the local culture here. Well into the night, you can find people on virtually any street slurping noodles from bowls outside of shoestore-cum-restaurants.

We headed on the next day to Cat Ba Island, in the Ha Long Bay region. We read that it would be a nicer base town and less touristic to visit Lan Ha Bay versus Ha Long Bay, which is still within the same larger bay region and the limestone rock formations are the same in both areas. We arranged a hiking tour on the first day through jungle forests. I had a not-so pleasant surprise when some red ants and leeches crawled up my pants but it was worth it for the scenery and the lunch afterward. J We then went on a boat tour and this was our real introduction to the beautiful, mysterious and ethereal Lan Ha Bay. It was misty from the rain, which just contributed to its other-worldly feel. From the boat, you see the craggy limestone islands appear in clusters out of the emerald green water and it is like nothing I have ever seen before. The boat ride through was very peaceful. We passed by floating fishing villages and stopped at monkey island to play with all the monkeys. It was a beautiful day. The next day, we took another boat tour which took us further up to Ha Long Bay, where we paddled kayaks around for an hour or so. I am not a religious person, but there are times when I feel spiritually connected with nature and the energy that surrounds us and here, in these whimsical mountains and ancient culture, I certainly felt this way. Afterward, we had another delicious lunch on the boat. Sadly, Jasper was sick with food poisoning, so this day was not quite so magical for him. Apparently, rocking boats and foreign foods don’t help an upset stomach.

A note about the food: I am trying to eat as many things as possible as I want to truly absorb all that I can in our short time in this country. Most dishes come with either rice or rice noodles (or rice paper), and some protein and/or vegetable but they find creative ways of putting in together. My favourite things so far are the pho soup, the fresh spring rolls (and the fried ones, let’s be honest), hot pot, bbq, bun cha (pork grilled smokey sweet with rice noodles, salad and a sweet & spicy sauce), papaya salad (even though I hate papaya… strange) and cau lau (a Hoi An specialty with thick, sweet noodles, char su pork, herbs and crispy crackling on top). But those are only to name a few. They also have amazing fresh fruit, especially mango, and they have stands where they give you a cup of mixed fresh fruit with condensed milk (a staple here) and ice and mash it all up. So good! I have also tried egg coffee, which sounds disgusting, but is actually quite nice. It’s Vietnamese coffee with whipped merengue in place of milk. I love experiencing culture through my stomach! ❤

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