Picking up from Laos, we continued onto Hanoi in Northern Vietnam. My attitude heading into this city wasn't very optimistic because, having experienced the busy, smelly and slightly dirty Bangkok, I was skeptical about another big city. Much to my surprise, I was taken away by Hanoi. Sure, it had some smells and some of the craziest traffic I've ever seen, but within that was a very walkable city with an unmatched feeling of life. In fact, the traffic quickly became one of things I liked best about Hanoi - navigating these streets, with nearly no traffic-light intersections and the sheer amount of motorbikes weaving in and out, was becoming a fun mini-game that added to the feel and life of the city.
Our first greeting in this city was the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel - Downtown location. This place had such a cool atmosphere, and it was a great place to meet other travelers. As innocent as it looked during the day, it would later become our bar/night club because the drink selection was huge, and to encourage a good time there were always drink deals and daily themes.
Our plans for Vietnam had varied a lot throughout the trip, however up until this point we had all been in agreement that the plan would be: Hanoi for a short time - up North to Sapa, based on a recommendation from our friend J Kills (who we met in Bangkok and Ko Phangan earlier) - on to Ha Long Bay. Sapa is a town in Northern Vietnam with access to a lot of hiking/trekking where you can experience more authentic, off-the-grid living in homestays among the mountains and rice fields. Ha Long Bay is one of the wonders of the world, recognized by it's towering 'karts' which seem to shoot straight up out of the water, and number in the thousands. After these plans, I would in theory head south by flight to Ho Chi Minh city to catch my flight, since my travel plans ended after 30 days but my friends continued for another month.
HOWEVER, Andre and I had quickly fallen in love with this city, and on top of that we were happy to have some nicer accommodations now. So, as it went, Andre and I would stay in Hanoi for double the time while half of our group went north to Sapa, and the other half went southeast to a new place we learned about, Mai Chau.
After we bid our friends a short farewell, they were off, and we were on course to explore the city. I moved into a hotel with Andre, and for the low price of $25/night we were treated like royalty. Don't get me wrong, the hostel I had been at was plenty accommodating, but this place was absolute luxury.
We visited a historic church - St Joseph's Cathedral - however we could only admire the ornate building from outside. The rest of that day was spent in the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which was once used by the French during their occupation to house Vietnamese people and revolutionaries. This experience was quite heavy and we had to take many breaks to absorb and process the information we were facing. The Vietnamese people were subject to such horrible treatment and care during this occupation, and yet they persevered and always kept fighting. It was both deeply disheartening and inspirational. I was blown away by how real and up-close this place allowed you to get with the history of it all - unlike many Western museums I felt like I was able to see a firsthand account of what happened. Next, the museum illustrates the prison's expansion and use during the Vietnam war, when American soldiers were bombing the cities. Many prisoners of war were housed here, and it was encouraging to see how well these soldiers had been treated, despite the huge disputes between the two countries, and in contrast to how poorly the Vietnamese had been treated when the French occupied this prison.
Later on we would get to visit the Bun Cha restaurant where Anthony Bourdain and Obama met a few years ago. Andre was, understandably, overwhelmed and I welcomed his "What up Instagram" live session to express his happiness. We got to sit by a small lake that evening and enjoy some ciders while watching the beautiful purple sunset.
Andre and I visited the Vietnam National Museum of History which was incredibly informative, and gave me the overall impression that you should definitely not invade Vietnam. They are, now evident to me, a very strong and resilient people.
Wandering this city was quite an incredible experience, and I'm very glad we decided to spend the extra time because it allowed us to settle in and feel more immersed in the daily life of Hanoi. The food here was some of the cheapest I have ever had, while also being some of the best. Banh mi (subs), bun cha (grilled pork and noodles), pho thin (beef noodle soup), bun bo (beef noodle salad/soup), banh cuon (rice noodle roll) and egg coffee are only some of the dishes we were able to enjoy, but enjoy we did! We made it a mission to visit the most well-known, popular places for each dish and as a result we got to dine on some of the best food of our lives.
There are many other cities around the world that I'd like to visit, but Hanoi will stay on my list to visit again.
Ha Long Bay
After some extensive planning, we settled on a nice cruise through Christina Diamond Cruises which would take us to many parts of Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, which is less touristy and thus less busy and polluted.
This was top 3 in terms of experiences for the whole trip in my view. Not only the accommodation, because the room and boat were amazing, but we got to see the famous Vung Vieng floating fishing village, kayak the Bay and visit a famous cave, and once again have an exceptional culinary experience, this time with 8-10 course meals. On top of all that, we made some exceptional friends both on our boat and during our daily excursions.
My favourite experience, and one that I will never forget, was kayaking during some on-and-off pouring rain conditions. We ended up at the Thai Cave, which is known as a teaching cave where children from the floating villages can all come together to be taught by travelling instructors. Exploring this massive cave was both fun and eerie. When we exited the cave, we found our shored kayaks about 400 meters out in the bay. After some deliberation about what to do, myself and our guide went for a nice relaxing swim. Just kidding, I was terrified every minute that I would run into a giant box jellyfish or a shark. But we made it, collected the kayaks and brought them back to save the rest of our group (Andre, Nick, and two french girls).
The boat cruise was very enjoyable, and I was pleasantly surprised having never done a boat cruise before. Our staff was so friendly and our guides were terrific, always trying to make us laugh and have a good time. We also made a lot of friends on the boat which was great. We shared stories together, played some card games, and cowered inside during the intense monsoon rains.
One night in particular stands out, and I know Andre will cherish this for years to come. It was the World Cup game between France and Croatia, a huge storm was brewing outside, and we were sitting in the dining room - now converted to a TV room - watching the game, Andre, Nick, myself, and the whole boat crew. Because of the weather interference, the satellite connection was spotty, and we even had to resort to watching on one of the staff's phones for a short while. France ended up winning 4-2, but what stands out more than the game was the whole experience. We bonded with these people on another level, half of them unable to understand us and vice versa because of the language barrier. Elation, frustration and excitement are all universal.
Unfortunately, our cruise had to end at some point. We missed our boat, but I gotta say it did feel good to touch solid ground again!
As I mentioned previously, my travels ended shorter than some of my friends. Once back in Hanoi for a night, my friends decided it was only fitting to have a big crazy drinking night before bidding me adieu. We met up back at the backpackers hostel and wouldn't you know it, they were doing 2 for 1 mixed drinks. I can't remember how many long island iced teas I had, which is probably a good indication of how the night went. Before we transitioned to a club down the street for dancing, we were getting free shots both in glasses and straight out of the vodka bottle. Wow, that made me nauseous just typing it. I had fun and eventually called it, giving all my friends a big hug and wishing them well, and then Andre and I stumbled back to his hotel. The next morning he and I had a tearful goodbye, as I won't be seeing him for more than a year now that he'll be teaching in China. On to Ho Chi Minh city in Southern Vietnam!
Ho Chi Minh
Right off the bat, I got a very similar vibe from Ho Chi Minh that I had had from Hanoi. Very busy streets, lots of good food, and many sites to see. I was only here for one night before my flight back home, so I was unfortunately unable to see the famous Cu Chi tunnels used during the Vietnam war.
I had chosen to spend a little extra (for context, $19 for the night) to stay in a futuristic-looking capsule hotel, which also had some luxurious features like a rooftop bar and patio, and a rooftop sunset pool. This was, in my view, the best way to end the trip.
I had some of the best BBQ of my life just minutes down the street from the hotel, and then made it back for sunset photos over the pool. I got a drink at the rooftop bar and sipped while taking countless long-exposure shots of the busy streets and skyline laid out in front of me. After a quick swim and shower, I was in bed dreading the 15.5 hour flight I had the next morning.
If you've stuck with it for these blogs - thank you! I appreciate someone taking time out of their day to read about my travels. I hope that it was enjoyable and maybe even a little informative for your future travels. I know I loved writing and going back through my photos. Cheers!