This will proooobably have to be a two-parter. I spent the most time of any country in Vietnam, and my other posts probably should’ve been two parts themselves… Also, I’m gonna try a new format, with sections! Lawdy, at this point, it’s been a while, so I’m struggling to sit down and write it all down before I forget it.
- Getting into Vietnam, friends, and Hanoi
- Ninh Binh
- Cat Ba Island and Ha Long bay
- The Ha Giang Loop
- Motorcycles and setting off
I flew into Hanoi, where my friends from back home were going to visit me. When I got into the airport, Phil was already there. It was great seeing a familiar face after so long on the road and meeting and saying goodbye to people in such quick succession. I had already booked a hostel for us in Hanoi. Hanoi is one of those big tourist cities that has such high throughput that there are tons of cheap and excellent hostels. We got there from the airport pretty easily at night and immediately went out to sample the local snacks. A night market was still going, but I quickly noticed that it seemed to have much less focus on food than night markets in other countries, where it would usually be a long procession of different food carts.
My other friends Ben and Liz arrived a day later and we all explored Hanoi together, trying a million new snacks and checking out some of the big sites. It was pretty fun seeing the place through their fresh eyes, since I’m pretty sure none of them had been to Asia before. Vietnam was still brand new to me, but by that point I was pretty used to some common features in all of these countries, like the chaos, busy markets, crazy traffic, etc, and they were seeing all this for the first time. That said, Hanoi was probably one of the more hectic cities of the trip in terms of how busy and chaotic it was, aside from maybe parts of Bangkok, so it was also still interesting to me.
Hanoi felt very old-world-colonialism-y. The buildings all have this awesome faded look and I think there’s still a large French influence from when they colonized by them. We went to a few big places like the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and a few others, and mostly just had a great time walking around, trying snacks, and talking.
One thing I thought was pretty cool was this train line that ran right through part of Hanoi, among crowded apartments (it was also popular with probably every backpacker, see if you can spot them in these photos!):
It only came through twice a day or so, at well defined times, so people pretty much set up shop in it, and there were a few cute cafes and restaurants on the line:
A common sight was people selling stuff off of bicycles that they just used as a cart. I ate quite a few meals off of these!
The next day we looked into nearby areas in the north we could visit. One I had seen lots of pictures of online was Ninh Binh, which you could go to via a day trip from the hostel. We wanted a bit more freedom or something… this turned out to be a silly idea. There are a lot of bus services to places, where it’s kind of a package deal, like you’ll get a ride there, a meal, brought to the main sights in the area, and a ride back. They’re actually usually a pretty convenient deal and I’ve done them a bunch in the past, but for some reason (probably my bad idea), we just wanted the ride there and to figure stuff out on our own. They allowed us to just get the bus ride (not the tour), but you could tell the tour guide wasn’t super happy about it. It turned out to be kind of a mess for a bit. Ninh Binh does have an actual decent sized city, but they were going to the sites outside of the city. We wanted to rent scooters and do our own thing, so the bus dropped us off at a place we might have been able to get scooters, but it wasn’t really for that. We ended up in the most comically confusing, frustrating Google Translate conversation with some locals who seemed to want to drive us around on the back of their scooters for a hefty price, but were hesitant to actually rent them to us. Eventually we walked down the road and just rented bicycles, which turned out to be fine and way cheaper. So, we probably should’ve stuck to the tour.
Anyway, it was a really pretty place, our first taste of Vietnam outside of the city, and it did not disappoint. The land structure you see all over Vietnam (and the other SEA countries) is the “karst”, these narrow rocky peaks formed by limestone dissolving, or dragonfire, or something. It was perfectly foggy that day, which made for an awesome landscape with them poking up out of the mist.
One of the main attractions is this boat ride on the lake, through the karsts:
The place was actually this kind of massive complex, with shops and ticket booths and a very well produced tourism video, although we didn’t have to wait at all for a boat ride. It really seemed like they were preempting tourism in the area getting huge, which is probably a good prediction.
Another funny thing is that they shot part of the movie Kong there in the past couple years, so they advertised that pretty heavily (which is not exactly a draw for me, but whatever). They even had, during one part of the boat trip, us get out on this island, where there were a bunch of… “natives”? there around teepees. We were genuinely confused as to what they were. We mostly assumed they were paid actors, part of the Kong thing, but they weren’t really…doing anything. They were just sitting around kind of bored, so we wondered if there was any chance they were actual tribespeople. All in all, a weird and confusing thing.
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
One of the main other things my friends wanted to do with their time there was to get to Ha Long Bay, which is one of those “must see” things in northern Vietnam. I had also been told by this time to go to Cat Ba island, which was perfect because it turned out to be basically right in Ha Long Bay. We chose a hostel that was pretty far outside the main town. It had a pretty good vibe and looked nice, and we were literally across the road from a beach, but it was also not great for getting food anywhere besides the hostel.
The first day, we rented scooters and just explored the island, which turned out to be this amazing dense jungle covering more karsts:
It was my friends’ (besides Phil, who owned a motorcycle) first time on scooters, but they got the hang of them pretty quick:
Bikes are really necessary for getting outside the main areas and getting to truly “explore”. Otherwise, you end up just getting stuck with kind of prepackaged routes. That can be fine too, but I’ve the random things you find yourself tend to be really memorable.
Just driving around looking at everything was awesome. We went to a few caves on the island, which is full of them.
We went to the north tip of the island, about an hour’s ride. We found this caged ladder and were looking at it, but the entrance to it was boarded up and locked. Suddenly, an old man appeared and told us he would open it for something like a dollar apiece. We said absolutely and went up. It wasn’t too bad because it was caged, but still a little spooky!
But, the view of Ha Long Bay at sunset was worth it!
The next day we took one of the Ha Long Bay tours. There are pretty fancy ones that cost ~$100 or more, where you sleep on the boats, but I had been told that it wasn’t totally necessary, you’d probably get your fill after a day one. So we paid $20 for a whole day thing, which turned out to be a pretty sweet deal. We got a massive meal cooked for lunch, they brought us kayaking, around the bay, to a snorkeling spot (though pretty much no one did because the water was cold), and more. To be honest, the main highlight was just being out on this cool junk type boat, looking at the cool karsts popping out of the water and other boats.
There were a few “boat villages”, where it seemed like they moored them together and people lived (memories of the Gyptians in the Golden Compass!):
Last, they brought us to “monkey island”, which Ben seemed to be going insane about. There weren’t many monkeys, honestly, but they did take us up a short hike where there was another incredible 360 degree view:
One monkey, not exactly friendly.
I noticed every evening, at the beach across the street from our hostel, at dusk, locals would come and hunt for snails. I was told they’re a popular drunk food in Vietnam, and I’d often see young Vietnamese couples eating them. I never got to try them though!
We might’ve been far out of town, but that little beach was great.
Our last day there, we were planning on getting scooters and doing other stuff, but the guy at the hostel who rented them told us that he had heard there were cops doing traffic stops that day, so he wasn’t going to rent them. In Vietnam, it’s technically illegal for any non Vietnamese citizen to ride scooters/motorbikes, but of course a lot of tourism thrives on it, so it’s almost completely tolerated. Still, you do hear of occasional traffic stops, where they’ll essentially shake you down for a “fine”. Anyway, we instead decided to check out the area a lot closer to the main town. The main attraction there is the Cannon fort, which was a fort the North Vietnamese used in the war to defend against American bombers. The way up had some great views of the bay around the island:
It was pretty clear that the island very much has its own industry going on, besides tourism.
The fort area was cool as well. You could go into the trenches and tunnels:
They also had a few guard stations you could go into, and what really seemed like should’ve been artifacts (a rusted old rifle, logbooks, radio, etc) were just sitting there, that you could pick up if you wanted! Weird, but I guess they went by the honor system and it mostly worked.
Ha Giang Loop
One other thing I had been told by several people to check out by this point was something called the Ha Giang Loop. A few people who had traveled the area far more than me had said that it was the best thing they had seen in SEA, so we decided to check it out. We bought bus tickets to the city of Ha Giang, about 8 hours north of Hanoi. We got bus tickets through the hostel, and left with what we thought was plenty of time. But, when we punched in the name of the bus station (“My Dinh 2” or something), it was…confusing. To make a long story short, we had the Uber driver drop us off in some back alley that was definitely not the bus station, and we were running all over creation trying to find it. We found the depot, which was not especially well organized, and frantically started searching for buses that said Ha Giang on them, only to find out that ours had just left about 10 minutes ago! At this point we were pretty bummed, but I found a very friendly taxi driver who spoke some English, and I explained our situation. He asked to see my bus ticket, and somehow did some magic, calling the bus line operator or something, and supposedly got them to hold the bus for us. He told us that he could drive us there extra fast for a price. This seemed extremely dubious to us… he actually got them to stop a bus, remotely? and would get us there, wherever it was right now? but, we were desperate, so we paid something like $20 (pretty steep for that part of the world) and we were off. He raced us there, and lo and behold, he actually caught up to the bus, which was pulled over on the side of the highway. The bus driver was visibly pretty annoyed, but we got on it!
The bus was a sleeper bus that would get in at some absurd hour like 4AM, which was awful, but since my friends had such a short time, we really had to make the most of it. If it was just me, I would’ve gotten one at a more reasonable hour, but we needed all the time we could get (again, why don’t they just leave at like, 10PM!??). So it got in at 4AM or something, and we essentially wandered into the city and hung out on a doorstep while the light came in. That said, it was really cool, since the city is surrounded by huge karsts, you could see them slowly appear as it got lighter.
At 5 or 6AM, Ben and I went searching for food places that were opening. Then we began to figure out our plan. Initially, I actually wanted to get my friends to do a trek, since I had recently had such a great time on them in Myanmar. I thought they’d really like seeing some village life and getting into the jungle if possible, but my internet searches hadn’t turned up a ton in terms of trekking in Ha Giang. We talked to a few locals who said they could arrange it, but from what they showed us, it seemed more like a day hike in the woods, rather than staying in remote places, etc.
So, we decided to rent some scooters and do the loop instead, and holy hell, I’m glad the trek thing didn’t work out. Pretty much immediately, we were confronted with insane views. Most of the loop is going up and down these massive valleys, often shrouded in fog.
There are actually plenty of natives in the area. A lot of them wore what seemed like traditional garb. It’s one of those places that have a ton of smaller (non Vietnamese) ethnicities, like Hmong, so the people are noticeably a little different.
Something I could never get tired of were the rice terraces, which made the mountains look like big fancy cakes. They’re also a good metaphor for finding a good solution to a hard situation, since they’re successfully farming on maybe the most uneven ground.
We didn’t book hostels or anything. My friends were a little nervous at first, I think, just going into a place with no actual plan for where to sleep, but even in these tiny towns in the valleys, there would usually be a few dingy options. I don’t know if they’re for Vietnamese people, because we didn’t see a ton of other Westerners. The first night we ended up staying in this one called A2 Coffee House, which turned out to be great.
There’s one section of the loop that I had read you can’t miss, called the Ma Pi Leng pass. Don’t get me wrong, the whole place was gorgeous, but this section in particular was mindblowing. Maybe it was the river, or just the magnitude of the valley, but we must have stopped to look about 50 times. It was a bit cloudy, but this actually turned out to make it slightly more epic looking with the clouds. Anyway, just look at some pics.
Something I liked was that the entire region was not very tourism centered, because it was basically only accessible by scooters. So, most of the towns and villages were just nestled in these valleys, letting you see how a relatively untouched place did its thing. A lot of people (especially families, but I think anyone that wants to play it very safe) don’t want to rent scooters, and it is non-trivially dangerous, to be fair. So, that cuts down on the tourism in this area a ton. We only saw maybe one or two vans that were driving people around the area (and felt a snobby disdain for them!), but I bet in 10 years there will be many more. Sapa is the other famous place in north Vietnam to see a similar landscape, and I’ve heard it’s becoming somewhat of a tourism circus, so I bet people will start flocking to Ha Giang more and more.
The loop was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon in the US, and to be honest, the Ma Pi Leng pass was far more impressive to me.
We got a bus back, and had one more day to poke around Hanoi, since my friends had to be ready to get their flight. On the way back to the hostel, we noticed something was up… a lot more people seemed to be in the street and intently watching something on TV. We were told that Vietnam was playing in the Asian Mens Soccer, under 23 league, and were playing for the semi finals (so, what would let the winner go to the final game). We got back to the hostel, where the game just finished, and the city went insane. We went outside, where everyone had suddenly got Vietnam flags, capes, headbands, everything, and it was awesome chaos. Everyone was flying around on scooters, which made for some great photos.
We thought it was a little funny that all this commotion was for qualifying for the finals for the Mens Under 23 Asian Soccer, but it was also cool just to see everyone there so universally happy for this little victory. Down by the lake was the hugest crowd, and you could be forgiven if at a glance you thought you were witnessing another communist revolution:
Everyone was chanting “Viet Nam Vo Dich!”, which basically means “Vietnam Wins”, and we got into it too, which made any Vietnamese who saw us pretty happy. Soon, we had to say our sad goodbyes, because my friends had a plane to catch. They left a lot earlier, which was probably a good idea, since cars basically couldn’t get through the streets in the old quarter at all.
Well, that’s all for now. At this point I hadn’t even left Hanoi (for good), but it was actually a big chunk of my Vietnam trip. In the next segment, I’ll talk about the motorcycle trip and the rest of Vietnam!