The second part of Vietnam brought us to the country’s capitol city of Hanoi and a trip out to Halong Bay.
We opted to stay in the bustling Old Quarter of Hanoi which would grant us ease of access to restaurants, bars, shops, temples, entertainment, but most importantly…PHO.
We checked in at Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel , a budget hotel conveniently located in the heart of the Old Quarter. Much of the Old Quarter is comprised of narrow streets with merchants selling a myriad of different items. Dating back 1000 years, this area was once the heart of trade with streets being named after the commodity that was once sold there. Intermixed with merchants shops are number of attractions including pagodas, hip cafes, colonial architecture, and a stirring city center.
We had one night before we left for Halong Bay so we hit the streets in search of good Pho. I was thrilled to be going for Pho in Vietnam because I had fallen in love with this culinary delight back in California. While I was a pharmaceutical rep I had Little Saigon as part of my territory and all my Vietnamese doctors had turned me on to this perfection of food.
We took a brief walk over to the restaurant I had researched, Bun Bo Nam Bo, and orderd up two bowls of Pho and two Hanoi beers. I’m not too much of a beer drinker, but the combination of the two make for an ideal meal.
After enjoying dinner we walked the streets to do some exploring. When it started raining we grabbed a seat at a bar and sat outside watching all the activity that passed us by while inhaling the energy of a unique city.
In the morning we were off to the UNESCO world heritage site of Halong Bay with Au Co Cruises for a 3 day, 2 night stay on a luxury boat. The cruise would glide us through the Gulf of Tonkin where we would visit Halong Bay as well as various other highlights while being anchored out to sea at night. We opted to book a float plane from Hanoi in efforts to avoid the 4-5 hour bumpy drive that is notoriously brutal. Peter had done his due diligence on FlyerTalk.
We arrived to the airport and were whisked away to our float plane. I felt at home, having grown up flying with my Dad and family in our float plane in Alaska. There was however some discussion as to whether or not the flight would be cancelled due to the rain, but we were cleared for take off and we were on our way.
How about that view as we started our decent to Halong Bay?
The Canadian pilot landed us perfectly with a soft touch down on the bay. Upon departure we loaded into a golf cart where we were taken to our home on the sea for the next couple nights.
We were treated to a warm welcome of drumming, singing, and colorful outfits as we boarded our cruise.
We were then escorted to our room which was quaint and cozy.
By far the best part though was the private balcony connected to our room where we could sit outside, enjoy our coffee in the morning or read while taking in the sights as we navigated between Halong Bay’s thousands of limestone islands.
After check in we headed to the dining room for lunch. We enjoyed all of our meals here and were always treated to impressive views and really delicious food.
Our first activity was a trip over to Dong Thien Cung, an enormous cave adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is mother natures work of art being formed from just rock and erosion.
Our guide pointed out a face carved into the rocks.
And that mother nature has a sense of humor.
The views from inside and right outside the cave are both something to marvel over. We had overcast conditions which added to the allure and mystery of these majestic part of the world.
It was at this point in the trip I had started to become friendly with the other tourists in our group.
There was the lively group of four American women. They were friends from college, all in their 50′s and were all Theta’s at their University, same as me! The sheer delight that exuded from these women upon hearing this information was almost immeasurable. They started relaying secret words, handshakes, and songs. All of which I didn’t remember. The only thing I could think to say was, “let’s all fly kites off the roof of the boat later tonight,” which seemed to work as they roared in laughter. Oh sorority humor. There names were Jerry, Suzie, Wendy, and Babs. I was immediately drawn to the aptly named Babs. I discovered Jerry had been a nurse serving in Vietnam and that this vacation was a bit of a closure trip for her.
There was the married American couple, Polly and Jim, who ended up becoming our buddies. They were impossibly nice, fun, and funny. Jim was a hot-shot ad-man in Chicago during the Mad Men days and had stories for days of glitz and glamour. Peter and Jim sadly agreed that the ad-men of today are the ones sitting behind computers, socially awkward.
A mom, dad, and daughter from Mauritius, Africa. We had never met someone from this island nation; Peter assumed they were into money laundry. Why else would you live in Mauritius, he reckoned.
Megan a young Canadian who was interning as a lawyer in Hong Kong that took the weekend off to travel solo in Halong Bay.
Rounding out our crew was an American man who works as a travel agent in Saigon. He was accompanied by his Vietnamese wife who was pregnant with their second child.
It was all around a pleasant group. I did however find myself gravitating towards the Theta’s and Polly and Jim.
During the evenings the boat had a bar set up where we would all convene and get into deep discussions over wine and dinner. After desserts we’d all fish for squid off the side of the boat. The Theta’s would try to lure me into signing up for some alumni meetings/newsletter. “Come on Jaime, sisters for life.” My indignant response was typically, “Babs, no thank you.”
Our second day Peter woke up early to attended the Tai Chi class on the roof of the boat. I opted for more sleep.
It was a jam packed day of activities starting with a visit to Bai Tu Long Bay where we took a row boat to the floating villages of Cua Van and Vung Vieng and the fishing village of Cong Dam.
The following pictures are the homes of villagers in this aquatic city.
Here is Peter and I experiencing what life would be like as a floating village dweller. Fine by me. Home is anywhere I am with Peter.
The scenery of the bay was really quite beautiful and serene.
Our afternoon activity brought us to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, for some bike riding in the National Park and a visit to Viet Hai village. I also wore a fanny pack for the first time in my life and realized how truly practical a fashion faux-pas could be. . Although it does seem to be making a bit of a comeback in the hipster world.
The island is a thick and vast jungle of emerald beauty that we enjoyed as we cycled past rice paddies and village homes. The air was so fresh. It felt amazing to breath in such oxygen as we biked through the jungle.
Back on the boat there was a little celebration and recognition for International Women’s Day. Right before dinner the women were instructed to stand up and join each other at the front of the dining room. We were celebrated and given a red rose in honor of our day.
In the group picture below Polly is to my right and the expecting Vietnamese lady to my left. You can tell from the pictures how fun Polly was. The Mauritius Mom and Daughter combo are second and third from the right and the Theta’s are first, second, fifth and sixty to the right. The Canadian lawyer is far left.
“Yes I will accept this rose.”
The next morning was our last so we took the opportunity to grab some photos of the boat and surrounding beauty.
The end of our trip came with a bit of drama.
We had a scheduled float plan flight back to Hanoi, but due to weather conditions it was delayed until the last possible second and then ultimately cancelled. We were told by the airline that they would get us a driver and car. A few other people were in this situation so one by one we watched people leave in the cars provided by the airline. When our car pulled up it looked like it was about to break down, very unlike all the other passenger cars we saw pulling up for the other stranded tourists. The drive alone is a long one and known for being uncomfortable. Peter kindly requested a different mode of transportation which they did deliver on. Off we went to Hanoi arriving quite a bit later than expected, but eventually arriving back at Elegance Ruby about 6 hours after our anticipated arrival time.
The next day was our last full day in Vietnam. We did a walking tour of Hanoi which provided many photo opportunities because there is so much going on and so much to see in this city.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Ngoc Son Temple
All types of Vendors
We are always in search for good Pho which proved to be really easy to come by. We stopped at Pho Thin for a late lunch.
A well known performance art in Hanoi is water puppet shows. With my love for anything performance related, I was obviously excited for this idea. That evening we purchased tickets to Thang Long Water Puppet Puppet Theater. Why are water puppet shows popular in Vietnam?
This folk art was created thousands of years ago by rice paddy farmers. The shows were done in celebration for the end of a rice harvest , religious celebrations, or a way to entertain each other when the rice fields would flood. The farmers would do the shows in waist deep water in the rice paddies with a pagoda placed in the field to hide the puppeteers. The water also hid the puppet strings and provided a glimmering stage for the puppets. The show depicts village life as well as important historical events.
The performance was both fun, funny, entertaining, and silly. I loved it!
Not only were there puppets but we were also treated to live singing and live instruments. To the side of the stage there is a raised balcony that held narrators who told the story by song while a live band played traditional Vietnamese music.
At the end the puppeteers came out for applause and a bow. Job well done.
The next morning we went for coffee at one of the hip cafes, Cong Caphe, which specializes in coconut coffee; two of my most favorite things, so this was something I didn’t want to miss out on. Peter got so caught up in the hipness of the place that he went straight hipster on me with his tiny coffee cup, a new hair style and a cold, judgemental stare.
Before leaving Vietnam we went for one last bowl of pho at My Xao. I managed to get my favorite picture of Peter of all time.
Aptly entitled Tall guy in a little Chair.
Up next we were off to explore the country of Laos.
Thanks for a wonderful trip Vietnam. We enjoyed you, Pho sho.