Vietnam: Halong Bay and Hanoi

After our vigorous hiking in Sapa, we made our way to Halong Bay via night train and van. We were on the boat and headed into the bay by 1:00 PM on a cloudy, rainy Wednesday. Disappointed that we couldn’t soak up any sun on the top deck of the junk boat, we sat inside the dining room and enjoyed views of the limestone cliffs and islands as the junk boat cruised along.

“Junk boat” is an off-putting name for the type of cruise ship we were on; nothing about the boat was junky, but this is the traditional name for these boats. The boat was made of gleaming wood with high-end fixtures. Our room had a gorgeous bathroom, giant bed, and a seating area right next to a 5-foot window. It was a fairly small boat, maybe 20 rooms – nothing like the cruise ships I’m used to seeing.

Even though there were spotty rain showers, we decided to take advantage of the kayaking trip. The kayaks were extremely narrow, meant for kayakers with more experience than any of us, and we tipped precariously from side to side until we found our balance. I was sure we were going for an involuntary swim before the trip was over, but we somehow managed to stay afloat. We paddled around the islands with the others for about an hour, then headed back to the boat. Jeff went swimming, but I opted to cozy up in the room and read for awhile before dinner.

All of our meals were several courses of delicious food. Just when I was sure this was the last plate, another one would appear. We were full and happy after dinner.

A few of the passengers stayed up in the dining room, playing Jenga. We had two games going, and after a few hours (and drinks), we a crew member involved! Every time a tower would topple, the dining room would erupt in moans and cheers.

The next morning I got up early to watch the sunrise, one of my favorite vacation activities. Jeff soon joined me, and we watched, quietly content, as the sun peaked out from behind the limestone islands all around us. The clouds began to break up, and the sun shined brilliantly as we headed down to breakfast.

After eating, we made a trip to Paradise Island to check out a cave and swim for a couple of hours.

Lunch was served on the boat as we headed back to Halong. The tour was a really cool experience, but I got stir crazy being on the boat. I’m a pretty restless person by nature, and just the thought that I had nowhere else I could go was a hard adjustment for me.

After our two-day (really only one day) cruise around the bay, we headed back to Hanoi. We had already spent one day there at the beginning of our trip, so we had a good sense of what the city was like: chaotic, but charming. Crossing the street in Hanoi is a near-death experience, as scooters – the most popular form of transformation – stop for no one. We learned to avoid hesitating, shoot the gap, and when all else failed, close your eyes and run.

I know this city sounds a lot like hell, but for some odd reason, I loved it. The city was a mix of European and Asian architectural styles. Little cafes dotted every single street. The northern parts of the city moved at a slower pace where the streets were wider and lined with trees. Walking around the city, stopping in at different little shops and resting at cafes was my favorite Hanoi activity.

On Friday, we had plans to take a cooking class. Our hotel called a cab for us, and we set out to start our day. Ever the conversationalist, Jeff chatted with our cabbie, asking how his days was going. He answered shortly, “Not so good,” and that should have been a sign to all of us. I ignored the tiny twinge of anxiety that developed as I watched our driver edge tensely into traffic, and we headed to our destination.

Traffic on the main road was heavy, and our driver was maneuvering between lanes, trying to find the quickest route. He made a quick shift into the far left lane, and at that moment a cop stepped down off the curb and into the lane about 15 yards in front of us. Our cab driver continued forward, and I watched in slow motion as the cop eyed the driver, but up his hand in a “stop” motion, and the cab continued moving forward.

I remember thinking to myself, “He’s not going to stop,” and the cop seemed to simultaneously register the same thought. His eyes widened and he started to hop backwards as our cab driver drove right through him, hitting the cop, who clumsily fell onto the hood of the car, rolled off to the side, and whacked the car’s side mirror with his club, all the while screaming what I can only assume were obscenities.

DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?

We were all silent for a moment, turning wide-eyed to look at one another, and I watch in the rearview mirror as the cab driver’s face slowly broke out in a smile. Soon we were all laughing at what had just happened. The cop was unharmed; we had been going very slowly when he was hit. I laughed nervously, wondering what in the hell was going on, when the cab driver explained in broken English that the policeman only wanted his money. It didn’t seem to any of us that our driver had been doing anything wrong when the police officer tried to stop him. According to our driver, the police often stop cabs and fine them arbitrarily. Apparently, he wasn’t in the mood for an unfair fine!

Not two minutes later, a scooter flew up beside us and pulled in front of the cab, the road-kill cop on the back pointing and angry finger at our driver, who immediately threw the car in park and rested his head on the steering wheel.

A lot of angry shouting ensued as the officer opened the door and gestured wildly. I was sure a gun would be brandished and we’d make world news as the cabbie was murdered before our very eyes. Instead, his license was taken, along with a large sum of money, and we road the rest of the way in silence, while our cab driver ran his hands frantically through his hair and muttered to himself. I assume we were his last clients for a lonnnnnng time.

After that little adventure, our cooking class seemed like child’s play. We were taken on a tour of the local markets before we got down to business, and when we made our way back to the house, we found another person was joining our group. We chatted amicably, and found out we’d both been trekking in Sapa. Eric had been there just a day before us, and as we talked more, we discovered that Eric was the guy Peng, our Sapa trekking guide, had been talking about during our hike! Eric has booked a tour with the same company just a day before us – small world. We laughed about it throughout the cooking class.

We learned how to make spring rolls, a tofu and tomato soup, eggplant stew, and several other dishes. My favorite was the eggplant, with the tofu a close second, but the one I will probably make the most is the spring rolls, which were the best I’ve ever had.

 

After lunch, we parted ways with Eric and set out to see some sites, all of which ended up being closed. Regardless, it was a nice way to see more of the city, and we took our time stopping for drinks at a few different places.

As day turned to night, we found a market where the streets were closed off, and for the first time, I walked casually, no need to fear for my life. The market was pretty disappointing, but it allowed us to explore more of the city.

After the cab adventures, cooking, and walking MILES, we were all exhausted and headed to bed fairly early.

Our last day in Hanoi, we tried banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. These were delicious, but simple. I could eat them every day.

After breakfast, we made our way back to the Temple of Literature, which had been closed by the time we found it the day before. Because it was a Saturday, the place was packed with graduates taking photos for their ceremony. It was neat to see, but it made it hard to walk around and see things. We didn’t stay long, heading to St. Joe’s Cathedral.

There was a mass going on at the cathedral, we walked quietly around the outside of the gorgeous old church and headed up to a second-story cafe across the street.

Danette and I were anxious to shop, having scouted out all the best stores, so we sent the boys off to have drinks and relax at a nearby bar while we looked for souvenirs in the local shops. I found a few bamboo bowls, a cotton dress, and small presents for friends before tapping out and going to meet the boys for a cool drink on the bar balcony.

The rest of the day was spent killing time before our PM flight. It wasn’t hard to find cool bars and cafes for a snack or drink, and we savored the slower pace of a day with no agenda.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to explain Hanoi. To me, it’s a city of loosely defined spaces where people seem to live on the edge of inside and outside. All the fun seemed to happen on stoops, patios, balconies, and street-side cafe tables. The streets themselves were too dangerous, and the interiors too quiet. On the fringe of these two worlds was where real Hanoi thrived.