Old Friends in New Cities: Our Start in Vietnam
After a disastrous ending to our travels in Thailand, we were finally legally ready for our next adventure in Vietnam. We didn’t necessarily want to plan everything out, but we came up with a loose itinerary that allowed us to see some of the highlights of the country in just over two and a half weeks. Our first leg of the journey was a brief stop in Hanoi on our way to visit Katie’ s cousin Kyle in Hai Phong, where he was teaching English. While having to cut out visit to Hanoi short as a result of our visa issues was disappointing, we were determined to make the best of it. And, we were confident a true cultural experience in the smaller, less frequented city of Hai Phong would be a worthy trade-off.
What We Did
Day 210 (2/22/17): We checked out of our hostel at noon, and spent the next couple of hours crowded around a notebook and a few laptops in the lobby trying to plan out trip Vietnam. Once we had a basic idea of what we would be doing, we packed up and headed for the airport. This is where the day went to hell. We got to the airport early hoping to have some time to go to the airport lounge using our passes to get a good free meal before departing for Vietnam. We went to check in and drop our bags, handing over our visa approval letter, confident we were all set. We were wrong. As it turns out, through some mistake either of the visa company or our own, two of the letters in Adam’s middle name were switched so it said Joesph instead of Joseph. The lady at the counter noticed immediately and informed us that Adam would not be allowed to enter Vietnam using that letter. This, of course, caused an insane spike in stress levels as we were once again sent scrambling for a way to get it corrected before our plane was to depart. With the help of the visa company and the incredible manager at the Nok Air ticket counter, we got everything fixed, and had a new visa approval letter in-hand. Still feeling on edge after going through security, we discovered that the lounge was in the domestic departures terminal, and despite what the online map said, the two did not connect. Coming to grips with the fact we were going to have to buy overpriced airport food, the boys headed to McDonalds and Katie and I went to Subway. At McDonalds, the guys were told by one employee that they did not accept credit card (and We had already exchanged all of our Thai baht for Vietnamese dong), and at Subway, we were told that they were out of all the vegetables accept black olives. This launched some needless, hangry, stress-induced bickering between the couple’s. And, wouldn’t you know it, but just 30 minutes later, a different employee told us the McDonalds did in fact take credit card. So, annoyed at the blatant lie told by the other employee, we reluctantly ordered and sat down to eat. Then, to top it all off, while sitting eating the hamburger neither Katie or I really wanted we saw that Subway had magically gotten all of their vegetables back. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr. Anyways…… We boarded our plane and made the short flight to Hanoi. After getting our visas at immigration, we found our driver who took us to our hostel in the Old Quarter. Upon arrival, we were informed that there was free beer being served on the rooftop bar (I think this was God giving us a break) and We promptly dropped off our bags and headed up there. We ended up having a few before we joined the group for a free pub crawl in the city. None of us made it past the first bar before returning to the hostel, but we had a good time sipping beers, dancing, and meeting some new people.
Day 211 (2/23/17): Since our time in Hanoi was limited, we decided to join the hostels free walking tour through the Old Quarter after a breakfast of pho, eggs, and toast. The tour was actually very cool and turned out to be a good way to see some of the highlights of the city in a short amount of time. Our guide took us to Bach Ma, the oldest temple in Hanoi, St. Joseph’s cathedral, Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and the largest market in the city. We learned some of the local legends of the country’s capital city and our guide pointed out some streets in the city with good food and a cool local vibe. After returning to the hostel, we decided to venture out for lunch. We ended up at a craft beer place with two for one burgers and beer. We spent a few hours stuffing our faces and playing cards. Feeling good, we returned to our hostel, collected our bags, and made our way to the bus station. We caught a two-hour ride to Hai Phong, where Kyle met us and took us into town and stopped to us each a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich). We got a couple of beers at a local ‘beer hoi’ (beer club) before meeting some other teachers at the soccer pitch near the university. We spent the next two hours playing soccer with them, sweating profusely despite the spitting rain and cooler temperatures. When we were finally kicked off the pitch, we ventured to another nearby beer hoi and drank, talked, and munched until the early hours of the morning.
Day 212 (2/24/17): Today, was outstanding. First, we got the chance to meet more of Kyle’s friends and coworkers. We woke up late and got ready to go to lunch with two of Kyle’s bosses at a well-known Vietnamese place near the city center. The food was incredible. We had the absolute best spring rolls I had ever had in my life followed by a generous portion of banh da Kya (seafood noodle soup) and all the beers we could drink. Afterwards, we returned to our lodging to rest a bit. The boys opted to stay in and watch movies, while Katie and I ventured out in search of yet another cheap massage. We found a place a few blocks away that did hour long massages for 150,000 dong (LOL), the equivalent of $6.58. Once again, the experience was incredible and Katie and I returned feeling relaxed. We spent the next couple hours napping before Kyle came and got us for dinner. We stopped at a random place on the street for dinner. We enjoyed mi cal bo (friend noodles with need beef and vegetables), soup, and cucumber salad. I was in love. And all of this cost is just over $3.50 per couple. Afterwards, we went to Kyle’s co-worker Teddy’s house, where we got an opportunity to meet some of Kyle’s students. We had fun asking them questions and seeing Kyle interact with them. After the class needed we talked with Teddy over a couple of beers. To round out the evening, we met up with Kyle’s friends Miguel and Hao for a couple more beers, mango, and puffed young rice (basically better tasting rice krispies) before calling it a night.
Day 213 (2/25/17): We got up earlier, packed our bags, grabbed a breakfast banh mi, and boarded a ferry bound for Cat Ba Island. After a short boat ride, and a shorter bus ride, we arrived in the main strip in town. We walked up the hill to our hotel, checked-in, and then went back down the hill to get food. We went to a place Kyle had been to before called Oasis that had a good mix and Vietnamese and Western options. Afterwards, we decided to venture up to Canon Fort. We spent some time wandering around the old fort, exploring the tunnels, anti-aircraft towers, and war relics and admiring the view of the surrounds islands and karsts. Once we had taken several dozen new pics, we walked back down the hill. Adam went back to the hotel to nap while the rest of us headed out to explore the three main beaches of the town. We started at beach 2 (yes, they had very creative names) where we proceeded to briefly wade into the freezing water and perform an impromptu jellyfish autopsy on the beach with a stick. We then proceeded to beach 1, a smaller beach around the corner. Agreeing it was less impressive than beach 2, we quickly moved on. We walked to beach 3 by taking a lovely trail along the coastal cliff face. It offered terrific views of the water, despite the cloudy weather. Beach three was also small, but very nice, and seemed to be entirely surrounded by a large resort, nearly deserted given that it was off-season. We returned to town from beach 3, purchased our tickets for a boat tour of Ha Long Bay, and returned to the hotel for a nap before dinner. We ended up dining at a great Vietnamese place down the main strip called Phuong Nhung Restaurant. They had good spring rolls, pho, and mi xao. Tired from trembling a bit, we turned in early for the night.
Day 214 (2/26/17): A shuttle bus picked us up at 8 a.m. today and took us to the port to meet our large wooden boat for the day tour through Ha Long Bay. Our tour started with a quick boat ride to the famous Monkey Island. We walked across the beach and began a fun, yet somewhat treacherous climb to the top of the jagged limestone mountaintop. The trail was not very well marked, but the rocks proved with good footing and grips, so we had a blast climbing the rocks and navigating our way to the top. We got some nice shots of the bay and the surrounding area before beginning our careful decent back to the beach. Once on the beach we found a family of macaques, including two babies. They were playing around in the sand and chasing a Vietnamese couple down the beach who had made the mistake of offering them food. While it was cool to see them, especially the little ones, they were obviously acclimated to humans and i can’t say I really approved of one of the guides giving one of them a beer to drink. We got back on the boat and headed further into the bay. We stopped to do some kayaking a little before noon, just as the sun was coming out. The kayaking was wonderful. We explored caves and lagoons and marveled at the local wildlife before heading back to the boat for lunch. After lunch, we floated through the limestone karsts and rock formations before anchoring up to swim. Adam and I stayed on the deck, soaking up the brief moment of sun, while Katie, Justin, and Kyle braved the cold water and swam to a nearby beach. After a little while we departed, coasting through more of the bay and viewing the many floating fishing villages before returning back to the dock. I started feeling under the weather with a fever, and stayed in the rest of the night. The rest of the crew went out and got dinner and a beer or two at various points in the evening, but remained relatively calm.
Day 215 (2/27/17): I was still not feeling well, so Adam and I slept in late. Kyle, Justin, and Katie got up earlier to meet Miguel and head back to beach 2. They spent the morning playing sand volleyball and other games with some of the locals working at the resort there. By the time Adam and I arrived, after lunchtime, the crew were all four beers deep and on a roll. They split a large family style Vietnamese lunch and enjoyed the nearly empty beach. We spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing (me in multiple layers as I was still feverish), drinking, and playing cards. We were joined by Kyle’s other friend David and his girlfriend Miley who helped in a very amusing round of Kings. We hitched a ride back to town, and made a plan to meet up for a hot pot dinner. The dinner plan fell through, however, as Kyle’s friends fell asleep and Adam and I once again stayed in (I was kind of a stick in the mud for a few days here because of how Crappy I felt). Therefore, Katie, Justin, and Kyle were left to fend for themselves again, settling on a trip to the My Way restaurant down the strip.
Day 216 (2/28/17): Today was our last day in Cat Ba. We decided to round out the trip with a scooter ride out to Cat Ba National Park. The drive itself was very pretty, taking us around the twists and turns of the mountains covered in lush, dense jungle. We parked the bikes, paid admission, and began our hike. Since we were catching a ferry later that day we opted for the shortest route, only about 2 km roundtrip. It was a nice scenic hike through the jungle, although the number of stairs left me feeling pretty rough after battling an illness for a couple days. Everyone else handled it easily, however, and the view from the top was gorgeous. After sitting at the peak for a bit, we headed back down, taking the more difficult route for a change of pace. Then, we began the drive back to town where we got lunch at Oasis and chilled some more before our boat back to Hai Phong. That night we went to a beer hoi near Kyle’s place that he frequently visited where he introduced us to nem chua, a Vietnamese sausage served as a bar snack throughout the country. Yum! Afterwards we grabbed fried chicken for dinner at Paris Cafe before heading back to pack for our journey to Hanoi and then Da Nang the next day.
What We Learned
- Food in Vietnam is cheap and delicious. I know I have said that about just about everywhere is Asia, and while it is true, Vietnam is the cheapest yet. Most meals you get on the street at typical Vietnamese places will be big portions and come with soup or some sort of salad will cost you $2 or less. So far, I have become obsessed with pho, banh mi, mi xao, and spring rolls and am sure that list will grow as we continue through the country.
- The massages are different from Thai massages, but they are still absolutely amazing. We went for a massage with absolutely no idea what we were going to get. We discovered that a massage in Vietnam is more like a Swedish full body massage back home except that it focuses on pressure points. And by focusing on these areas, they discovered spots I was confident I was not ticklish that I was biting my lip not to laugh out loud. Really. These ladies will find a spot you didn’t even think would tickle. Our masseuses were extremely nice women and they were very, very good at their job.
- In Vietnam, you will hear lots of horns honking. The Vietnamese tend to use their horns for communicating just about everything. A honk to tell someone: Hello! Get out of the way! I am here! Watch it! I love bananas! Just kidding….. but that is how it feels sometimes. You will see.
- In Vietnam, the scooter is a family vehicle. No joke, it was not unusual to see four or five full-grown people riding down the road on a scooter. And not only is the scooter a family vehicle, but it can be used to transport just about anything, from a dozen live chicken to six half barrel kegs. Every day you would be stunned by a new feat of balance and balls when it comes to transporting people and goods in this awesome country. But watch out, these scooters tend to go whatever way they like, whether it be the wrong way on a one-way street or up on the sidewalk.
- It gets cold in the north in winter. Most of Asia is reasonably warm during the winter months, but we did not find it to be the case in Vietnam. While I thoroughly enjoyed Ha Long Bay and Catba Island, it was chilly, and made swimming a bit less enjoyable.
- A truly unexpectedly great thing about Vietnam, is that you will literally see a puppy every single day. I promise. The Vietnamese love dogs (they do eat them at a few places but it is not something most people do), and you will see a bunch of them roaming around on a daily basis. And when there are lots of dogs there tends to be a puppy or two…..or twenty. So if you are feeling blue in Vietnam, juts remember it won’t be long until you can find yourself a little ball of fur to snuggle with.
- Meeting all of Kyle’s friends and coworkers was awesome. Some of the Vietnamese locals provided a super interesting insight into the culture of the people and I really enjoyed hearing their point of view. I also enjoyed the soccer match as I had not played in years and we got to meet some really cool people on the field. I thought it was awesome how it was kept open invitation to play and that afterwards everyone goes out together to get beer and food and learn more about each other.
- Our boat tour of Ha Long Bay was awesome. While there were parts of it I did not care for a s much, the highlights of the cruise made the entire thing memorable. Climbing to the top of Monkey Island was a ton of fun. My favorite type of hiking is the kind where you get to climb rocks and this included a lot of that. The actual climbing you had to do up these steep, jagged limestone rock faces was something they would NEVER allow you to do back in that States. And, while I never felt unsafe the jagged rocks that made the climb so easy would be a huge issue of you were to fall. Sitting at the top surveying the water was incredible and I liked that you kind of had to figure out your own path up to the top. My other favorite part of the tour was the kayaking. We spent almost two hours paddling through caves, around the steep karsts, and into secret lagoons. It was not overly crowded either. On more than one occasion, Adam and I found ourselves in a large lagoon completely by ourselves, admiring the secret jungles surrounding the water’s edge. It was really cool. Also, we were very, very lucky in that we got to see a group of about a dozen golden-headed langurs, one of the most critically endangered species of monkeys in the world. We saw a big family of them playing in the trees on the limestone cliffs along the water. They were not even three feet above our heads as we say in our kayaks in the water. The family even included a couple of babies who were almost entirely golden in color (only their head remains golden when they reach adulthood). There are currently only about 70 of these creatures left in the world. That means we saw 15-20% of the entire population at once. It was truly a once in a lifetime sight.