Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Now in a hostel in Vientiane with crappy Internet, so I’ll post this when I can. Whew, so much has happened since now and then. I’ll start with where I left off…

Day 7
I felt pretty much recovered the day I flew out to Hanoi. I had my last Banh Mi in the morning and was in Hanoi’s old quarter by 2. All the taxis will try to rip you off, but there’s a minibus that goes from the airport to the city center for 40000 dong (approximately $2), and if your hostel is close to a Hanoi bus stop, you can also get a ride for as little as 7000 dong. The hostel I stayed in Hanoi was seriously the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, and I’m not just talking about being clean – the staff wanted to do everything for me, giving me cups of water every time I sat down and not even letting carry my small bag up to my room. I got the “You’re Korean!” thing again, even though I kept saying I was American but they were super friendly. I couldn’t help but be a little suspicious if they were expecting a huge tip or something, but in the end, I guess they were going after those Hostelworld ratings… Since I didn’t get there til the afternoon, I wanted to do as much as possible. First, I went to Bach Ma temple – has some really cool artifacts in the main room, and this was my first exposure to Vietnamese temples. I kept seeing those exotic bird motifs everywhere. 

Bach Ma Temple

The ever-present bird

Then I and headed out to Hoan Kiem lake to see Ngoc Son Pagoda on the little islet in the lake and the locals hanging out as well as a water puppet show at Thang Long theater. The puppet show is worth seeing for 60000 dong – it’s just small puppets maneuvering through water, an art created by Vietnamese farmers, but the traditional music was good and some of the effects were impressive.

Ngoc Son Pagoda

Water Puppet show at Thang Long Theatre

People chilling by Hoan Kiem Lake

When I got out, the sun was setting over the lake, and it’s quite beautiful. I stopped by the Ly Thai To statue to get rammed in by a kid on roller blades – it’s a popular spot for skating and B-boying.

Ly Thai To statue - can't see all the crazy skaters around, but this is a popular spot

My impression of Hanoi is that it’s a tad bit slower than HCMC (I mean, there’s a bus system that actually works on the streets! Although the roads are still bustling with motorbikes) with more cultural things like temples and pagodas. There’s still some French architecture as well.

I ended up having a quick dinner in Lotteria because I was just hungry (I know I should have tried Vietnamese food, but more to come later!). It was actually my first time trying the Rice Bulgogi burger in Lotteria and it was pretty good, although the rice kept falling apart.

Rice Bulgogi burger from Lotteria

Busy street by the lake

Day 8
I headed out to Halong Bay on a 2-day, 1-night tour booked through my hostel. I’m sure I could’ve gotten significantly cheaper if I looked around when I got to Hanoi, but I just didn’t want to deal with the hassle of wasting time to find the best deal and the price they gave me wasn’t too bad. Again, the staff was creepily nice during breakfast. I joined the other people on the tour on a 4-hour minibus ride that took us to the pier in Ha Long City to board our junk boat. I would find out that this was just a series of transfers between smaller and larger vessels that would mark the entire weekend.

Unfortunately, our guide had terrible English, but it turned out to be a pretty good trip. Most touristy thing I’ve ever done and sometimes the crowd was just plain annoying, but it was my first experience throwing myself into a group that I didn’t know at all while solo traveling. I shared a room with a guy from the Netherlands who was also alone. As expected, there were a lot of couples on the trip, but I didn’t feel too left out, as there was a good number of travelers from England as well. Almost everyone was European; I was the only American on the trip. I found this to be a common phenomenon throughout my trip in Southeast Asia – maybe the Europeans just know how to vacation better?

All the goods on a boat

One of the many caves

It's supposed to look like cockfighting

One of the many cliffs around the bay

Beautiful sunset

The boat was small, but still large enough to have a dining room with a bar, our rooms, and a sundeck on top with lawn chairs. I took advantage of the sundeck a lot since I wanted to get as much of the bay as I could. We were pretty lucky with weather – it was clear the entire first day, when we did most of our outdoor activities – getting off at an island to look through a cave, kayaking (I felt sorry for my Dutch partner because I’m sure I wasn’t putting in nearly my fair share with the paddling), and stopping at another island for going up to the top for some views and swimming if we wanted. It’s a shame that it was just filled with tourists the entire time though; I’m sure the gigantic cliff faces dotting the bay must have been even more stunning when it was completely empty 30 years ago. But how did people travel back then without wifi and a completely non-English environment?

For night activities, there was fishing (but no one had much success) and just hanging out on deck. I struck up a conversation on the sundeck with an English guy about everything from traveling to health insurance in different countries. The view of the bay was equally beautiful at night, and I think it was worth paying extra to spend the night. As with the rest of the trip, I didn’t sleep much, but the beds were comfortable and the private bathrooms surprisingly clean for a boat.

Room on the boat

The second day was pretty cloudy with significant rain coming in the second half, but we could just stay indoors as we ate our last meal. We went to another inlet area for some more pics, but I think there’s only so many things you can do in a bay. I would say 2 days is sufficient enough for a tour if you just want to have good views of the bay, maybe 3 days if you’re splurging on a luxury cruise and you enjoy that sort of thing.

We headed back on the minibus to Hanoi and the English guys invited anyone who was interested to go to a great Vietnamese restaurant they had found near their hostel. I joined in, and it was the best dinner I had in Vietnam thus far - as much as I enjoy traveling alone, there are definitely advantages to traveling in a group after all. The restaurant is packed with locals, but the waiters are super efficient and the menu is packed with various Vietnamese dishes.

Quan An Ngon Restaurant - so packed but I recommend it!

Afterwards, one of the guys and I went to the night market, where I finally succumbed to souvenir shopping – and I got the iPho shirt I’ve been wanting! My hostel warned me that this was a prime place for pickpocketing, so I kept a tight hand on my bag. Also, everyone tries to rip you off if you’re a foreigners. I had to barter down a silk scarf 50% and I still think the woman was probably ripping me off. The key is to pick places that aren’t busy and walk away when they’re not budging to fit your suggested price. Still, I wish I knew some Vietnamese because that would have helped a lot.

Hanoi night market - soon to be PACKED a couple minutes later

Day 9

It was my last day in Hanoi as I would leave on the overnight bus to Vientiane (capital of Laos) that night. I walked over to the Ho Chin Minh Mausoleum, but the lines were super long, so I decided to just visit the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum instead. I mean, I’ve heard it’s worth looking for the creepy atmosphere, but I’m one to think the dead should be buried or cremated in peace. The museum was also really crowded (probably tour groups coming in after the mausoleum as well as schoolchildren running around) but I loved all the quirkiness. It’s basically all propaganda with the signs endlessly glorifying HCM besides artsy displays that would “interpret” his vision for Vietnam or another. It’s also got some memorabilia of the man himself (his glasses, his weights he used to exercise, etc.). My favorite was a 3-D representation of Guernica or as the sign read, “the fight against fascism”. Definitely worth a look, and probably more interesting than the mausoleum, or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Cool Guernica exhibit at HCM museum

This is supposed to be some sort of representation of nature ... not sure exactly but quirky enough for me

HCM's personal weights

HCM mausoleum

Next, I went to the famed Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple with 5 different compartments with the last being an ancient university. They’ve really done up the place, with colored hedges neatly spelling out Chinese characters and beautiful lakes in the first several compartments. Again, it was crowded, but I definitely appreciated the aesthetic of the temple.

One of the lakes in the complex

The lawn staff keeps it up here

Temple of Literature - gorgeous

Then I stopped for some pho (finally!) by the side of the temple. But remember to always check your change because the guy tried to cheat me off 100000 dong when I was paying for my meal, but good thing I thought to count that time.

It was a little hot towards midday, so I decided to try out the buses. I was clueless as to how to pay when I got on board, but I soon found out it was like Bangkok – there’s a guy on the bus who collects money by hand and issues you a ticket saying you’ve paid the fare. I reached West Lake, a larger lake than Hoan Kiem in a more residential area, with Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Hanoi, in an islet off it. Since I got there right when it opened after lunch, I got to see inside the main complex which is chock full interesting Buddha figurines and other artifacts before the many elder nuns shooed me away.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Nuns setting up for the afternoon

I took the bus back to the hostel where they were nice enough to let me take a shower before my loooong ride. I was right about them being all about Hostelworld ratings because they reminded me to do so when I got the online prompt. But I can’t deny they were the nicest hostel staff I’ve ever met.

Now onto the hellish bus ride across the Laos-Vietnam border and to Vientiane…

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