Anthony Bourdain says that Vietnam is one of his favourite places on earth, and it only takes a few minutes in Hanoi to understand why. The Vietnamese capital is instantly likable. Its bristling with life and energy, and after only a few short minutes wandering the Old Town we were hooked, and not intending to sound like a cheesy guidebook but accepting that we do, we were hopelessly infatuated. Its impossible not to be. The architecture, the food, and the sheer number of people out on the street working, shouting and selling everything you can imagine. Its exactly what we hoped Vietnam would be like, but at the same time its something completely unlike anywhere either of us have ever been.
We have been looking forward to arriving in Hanoi for a while, as the plan was for Doug’s sister Heather and her boyfriend Kieran join us for a little over a week. It was wonderful to see familiar faces, and to be able to share adventures with them. That in itself has made our experiences much more special, when there are others who can reminisce with you, and add further layers to the experience. Witnessing their sensory overload as they transitioned from the world of Saudi Arabia to the intensity and organized chaos of Hanoi was interesting. For all of the content of this blog, we traveled with Heather and Kieran. They may even make an appearance on the blog as a “guest blogger” once they get back to Saudi Arabia.
We were so looking forward to the food in Vietnam. We’ve eaten some great food so far on this trip, but after 105 days on the move we have learned that much of the foods throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser degree Burma, are very similar. But Vietnam has some different offerings, including the famous Banh Mi sandwiches and of course pho soup.
After a few days being immersed in Hanoi, we headed east to the touristy but beautiful Ha Long Bay. This coastal region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, well known for its stunning karst topography which creates hundreds of individual islands towering out of the South China Sea.
Our time in Ha Long Bay was a rather mixed experience. In the interest of time and cramming in as much in as possible, we opted to take a 3 day, 2 night organized tour. The tour was to have 1 night sleeping on a boat, followed by a second night in private bungalows. We thought we’d paid a bit of a premium to get a tour that would be a little nicer and less focused on partying. But that wasn’t exactly what we ended up with. As is the frustrating norm in Asia, no one seemed interested in explaining where we were going, at what time we would leave or arrive, or even what we were doing at that moment.
We also learned an annoying habit the Vietnamese people have for dealing with tourists. When they don’t like what you are saying, for example if you are explaining that your Long Island iced tea actually tastes like gasoline, they simply pretend not to speak any English and eventually walk away. But when it is time to pay, they speak remarkably good English.
There is an element of control lost when you take a package of someone else’s organizing, so its good to expect the unexpected. The views, sea kayaking, and random squid fishing more than made up for any confusion. No squid were caught in the end, but Doug almost had 3 fish, if only they wouldn’t jump out of the net. It’s like they knew!
The boat tour was not well organized, and its safe to say that the quality level of the boat wasn’t what we were told when we bought the tickets. Once the boat anchored for the night, this very same top deck turned into a dance floor, filled with drunken 18-20 year olds enjoying the free “vodka” (water? served from random water bottles) and keg beer which they couldn’t figure out how to tap. But that view is just incredible.
We left Ha Long Bay with mixed emotions, trying to focus on the amazing scenery and to forget the challenges of our “organized” tour. In keeping with our relentless pace, we returned to Hanoi at 6pm and boarded an overnight train for Sa Pa at 9pm. Sa Pa (or Sapa, one word) is a mountain town located northwest of Hanoi, very close to the Chinese border. At an elevation of 1500m, Sa Pa is populated by hill tribe peoples who still maintain a traditional and largely agrarian way of life.
We went to Sa Pa to take a 2-day trek, which would include an overnight homestay in a small village. After our experience with the organized tour of Ha Long Bay, its safe to say that our expectations for this organized trek were pretty low. Sometimes its nice to be wrong! The trek was incredible, and we had a fantastic guide.
The Sa Pa trek was a highlight of Vietnam so far, and one of the best things we have done on our entire trip. We are so glad we got to share it with Heather and Kieran.
It was hard to say goodbye to Heather and Kieran, as we had gotten used to having them as traveling partners. We are so happy they were able to come and join us, as they got a little preview of South East Asia before moving to this part of the world next year.
To finish off this post, a few random pictures which didn’t quite fit into the narrative anywhere else.
Our 1st week in Vietnam has been a whirlwind, full of striking scenery, delicious food and the hectic but intriguing feel of being in Asia that is difficult to put into words. We have especially loved travelling with more than just us, it really does enhance the dynamic of what we see and do…if anyone wants to join us, we plan to land in Sri Lanka around the end of July! We’d love for you to join us any time, but we are specifically listing Sri Lanka for a few reasons. Its relatively cheap to fly from Canada, July is far ahead enough you can get a ticket still, and everyone we’ve met who has been there has absolutely loved it. Apparently its like India without the hassles.
- Doug and Emily / April 18, 2017 / Hanoi, Vietnam @ Cong Caphe / 1:42 pm