Travel: Far from home in northern Vietnam
HANOI – So the theme of our trip had emerged by the time we got to Hanoi – cram everything we possibly could into the time that we had, and rest when we got back to the states.
Ryan and I found a boutique hotel in the Old French Quarter with beautiful rooms. It was $30 for a night – pricey for Hanoi, but we still felt like we were robbing the place.
We had five full days in the north before a flight down to Saigon and packed an agenda so tight it’s amazing we got any sleep at all.
We booked a two-day, one-night trip at a local travel office for a tour of Halong Bay, a beautiful United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin. The tour, which included a private room on a house boat, meals, round-trip bus transportation and kayaking, was something like $50 a person. We quickly learned that Vietnam was way more inexpensive than we had budgeted – great news.
A bus picked us up from our hotel and made a couple more stops to gather more tourists before we left Hanoi. The trip to Halong Bay is about three-and-a-half hours, yet only about 100 miles away.
It’s a two-lane road all the way there, filled with terrifying passing and absolute chaos.
It’s a nice way to see the small towns where people live, but the thousands of scooters all over the roads and large buses make for some scary driving.
We arrived at Halong Bay and it was foggy, so we could barely see the jagged rock cliffs that sprout out from the sea. We could see just enough to realize how beautiful it was, so we boarded our house boat, which the Vietnamese call “junks,” and set out to sea.
We ate lunch on the boat – fresh fish and vegetables – and settled into our nice-sized cabin. We then boarded a smaller boat in the middle of a rainstorm and went to an island to explore some beautiful caves. We tried to gather the history of the place from our tour guide, but his English was broken and very hard to understand. We took in the views and wandered around instead of worrying about what he was saying.
We kayaked after that through the beautiful, rocky islands. Halong Bay is breathtaking – so much natural beauty, and relatively clean considering some of the other spots in Vietnam we had already seen.
We enjoyed dinner with the other travelers on our boat – a Canadian couple, two ladies from England, a French couple and a Vietnamese family – and then quickly retired to our cabins after enduring a few karaoke songs with the crew.
The next morning was the best part of this trip. We woke up as the sun was rising and went onto the roof of the boat and enjoyed the silence and the beauty all around us.
After another horrifying bus trip back to Hanoi, we decided we had just enough time to book a train ride up to Sapa, where we had read about beautiful mountainous terrain where the local tribes grow rice on steep terraces. If we got on a train that evening, we could get there by morning and spend a night and a couple of days in Sapa before a train ride back to Hanoi that would give us one full day there before the Saigon flight.
We booked it into another travel office and had enough time to go back to a little restaurant we found the first night we were in town for what turned out to be the most delicious food we ate on the entire three- and-a-half-week trip.
It was called Bun Bo – a flavorful beef broth topped with rice noodles, lime, bean sprouts, fried garlic, Thai basil, mint, cilantro and peanuts. This restaurant, called Bun Bo Nam Bo, only served this one dish, so you walk in and seat yourself and within a minute or two the waitress delivers the bowl. Dinner for two, including a couple of Hanoi-brewed beers, cost about $5 total.
The restaurant was full of locals, and there were napkins and trash scattered underneath the picnic tables inside. It was just a long, narrow room and the place lacked any ambiance at all, but the food was good and the locals were eating there – it was just the kind of place we wanted to eat at.
We ate every last drop and headed for the train station. We had a sleeper car with four bunks, and were happy when an Australian couple about our ages arrived in our car. We chatted with them for a while and then went to sleep – the train left Hanoi around 9 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive in Lao Cai, near Sapa, at 5 a.m.
The bus to our hotel picked us up from the train station and drove us to Sapa – about a two-hour ride through beautiful mountains. We got there and rested for a bit before heading out on the hiking, or trekking, trip with a local girl who was about 16.
We hiked all around with
a group of other travelers – some English girls, a Dutch man who lived in Spain, a Malaysian man who lived in Amsterdam, and a gal from San Francisco. The trekking was beautiful – the rice terraces in these hills are some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
Sapa was a cool little mountain town. It was definitely full of tourists, but we got to see a lot of local tribes and got a feel for how these people live. The only part I didn’t like was that girls as young as 6 or 7 were constantly following us asking us to “buy something.” Tourism has definitely changed the way these people live, for better or for worse.
Back in Hanoi, we had a full day to wander around the Old French Quarter and downtown areas. We checked out the Hoa Lo Prison, or Hanoi Hilton as it is called, where John McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
We also went to see an American B-52 bomber that had been shot down and still lay in ruins in the middle of a filthy pond on the north side of town.
Hanoi has some beautiful lakes and scenery, and so much character. The rivers and streams are littered with trash, and so are many parts of the city, but we also found some very clean and beautiful parts of town and developed a quick affection for this historic city.
As the day came to an end and we had to catch a cab to the airport to head to Saigon, we had one more stop to make – Bun Bo Nam Bo for just one more taste of that delicious, authentic Northern Vietnamese food.
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