18.04.2012 - 01.05.2012 38 °C
Our first major stop after the central highlands was Hoi An, a charming riverside town famous for silk. Handmade, colorful silk lanterns illuminate the streets and riverfront at night, creating a warm, pleasant atmosphere. During the day, the aesthetic of old, clapboard or stone buildings, which line Hoi An's narrow streets, is equally enjoyable, and we spent a lot of time walking and taking photos. Most of the buildings are restaurants, or souvenir or silk shops, but they are beautiful nonetheless. There is also an old, wooden bridge and several temples that are worth the look as well. On one afternoon we rented bicycles and rode out to a nearby beach. Though the weather was cloudy and windy and therefore not suitable for sunbathing and relaxing, we enjoyed a beautiful ride through nearby towns, along the riverside, and through rice paddies. Although it is overrun with tourists, Hoi An maintains its charm, and one can easily spend several days there (which we did).
From Hoi An we took a 19-hour bus ride to Hanoi. This was our first experience on a Vietnam sleeper bus, which basically consists of some 40 or so narrow beds and a bathroom that are crammed into the space of a regular coach bus. We felt fortunate to not be very tall, since there isn't a lot of leg room on these buses. Although being reclined helped with sleep, we didn't have the option of sitting upright, which actually made the journey worse at times. Overall, however, the buses are not that bad (save the mysterious thief that moved through our bus collecting mp3 players and phones from sleeping victims... Nothing was taken from us this time).
Hanoi was as expected, a large, bustling city not unlike HCMC. We weren't really interested in sticking around, but the city acted as a base for our next stops to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh. We did, however, enjoy the famous water puppet theatrical performance, which was surprisingly entertaining.
Halong Bay vs. Ninh Binh
No trip to Vietnam is complete without a stop in the famous Halong Bay, or so they say. Every hotel and tour company offers a range of ridiculously overpriced accommodation, food, and sightseeing options for visiting the bay, but the real draw is the lazy boat ride amongst massive limestone cliffs too numerous to count that shoot up from the sea. It really is a sight to behold, and in hindsight, would have made an excellent day trip. However, with so many dazzling tour options and all of the locals raving about Halong Bay, it's hard not to get caught up in the hype. Plus, we liked the idea of spending two nights sleeping on a boat at sea, which was one of the mid-range options.
For our tour, we chose a step up from the "party boat," which is the entry level $80 tour, which mostly attracts single backpackers and North American frat boys. We paid about $110 each (yikes!!!) for a "three-day," two-night tour that promised excellent food, cave exploration, and kayaking, as well as accommodation on the boat in charming wooden cabins (the photos even showed silk tablecloths and flowers on the beds!). We were picked up from our guesthouse early in the morning and driven about three or more hours to the bay. We were paired up with another couple, who were on the same tour, but aside from the four of us, everyone on our bus had signed up for the two-day, one-night tour. Nevertheless, after a lot of confusion, backtracking, panicked phone calls, and the mysterious disappearance of one of our guides, we were all shuffled onto the same boat, which, strangely enough, was anchored in a harbor miles away from the other boats. The first activity of the day was meant to be lunch, but when we entered the dining room, there were tables set for everyone minus four, which was the first hint that those of us on the longer tour were on the wrong boat. Moreover, we were informed that there wasn't enough food and wound up having to wait several extra hours in the harbor while the staff went shopping and prepared extra lunch. In the meantime, we were informed that a storm was approaching and we may have to sleep in a hotel on land, as opposed to the boat. Apparently the government doesn't allow boats to stay at sea during bad weather, since in the past, boats have sank and tourists were killed, or at least that's what they told us. Of course, hearing this immediately enraged everyone, especially those that had signed up for only one night on the boat. We remained hopeful, however, that the storm wouldn't come; after all, the weather was calm and sunny. They let us check into our rooms anyway, which were substantially less impressive than the photos.
When we finally got started, several hours too late, we were more than impressed with what we saw. The limestone cliffs were stunning, and we enjoyed the afternoon hanging out on the deck, soaking in the sun and the sights, and sipping overpriced beers (Note to travelers: If you're going to Halong Bay, sneak in your own booze! Bring plenty of water, as well. The boats, tourist stops, and floating markets charge ridiculous amounts of money!) Our guide entertained us by finding animal shapes in the cliffs, which the rest of us couldn't see; when we did point out our own interpretations of shapes, he fervently disagreed, saying things like, "you're wrong! It's an elephant, not a turtle." We visited the cave, which was massive and interesting, and offered a cool respite from the heat. Leah was nearly attacked by a monkey, which was more amusing than scary. We also did a little tandem kayaking, which was brief but a lot of fun.
After a nice dip in the cool waters, we received the news we'd been dreading all day: we had to stay in a hotel, not on the boat. Something definitely seemed strange, perhaps because the weather was calm and the other boats didn't seem in a hurry to go ashore. Or, maybe because, with every phone call to his boss, our guide changed his mind about where we should sleep. The whole situation seemed strange and was very frustrating and disappointing for all parties involved. We felt bad for our guide, who acted as liaison between us and the tour company that was clearly responsible for all the hassle. At the end of a very long, grueling debate, we conceded and were shuffled into a small boat and taken ashore. The hotel was nothing special of course, but we survived the calm, storm-less night, free from any dangers (except bed bugs, which one of our traveling companions found in her "three-star" hotel bed).
The next day we parted company with those on the two-day, one-night tour, all of whom would immediately return to Hanoi, full of disappointment and regret. The four of us on the longer tour were taken onto a smaller day boat, and continued our tour of the bay. Although it hadn't rained, it was significantly more overcast than the day before, so the views were less beautiful, but we passed the time with good conversation (and of course the mandatory SE Asian tour side-stop to a floating pearl factory).
The highlight of the day was a 2-hour kayaking trip through caves and into smaller coves. In one such cove, which we accessed by following the current through a low cave, we got stuck trying to fight the tide to get back. Our traveling companions went ahead of us, and just as they were gaining headway, another boat appeared in the narrow canal, forcing them back into the cove. We then went ahead, rowing with all of our strength and, just as our friends before us, we were starting to gain distance when the boat reappeared (this time from behind us) forcing us out of the cave and back into the open cove. We're not sure why the other kayak bothered coming through the cave when they just turned around and left again without enjoying the beauty of the cove. We're also not sure why they felt it necessary to run us all off track. Nevertheless, none of us had the strength to make a second attempt and wound up being pulled through the cave by our tiny little guide. He was barefoot in the water, and cut his foot trying to help us through, which put us even more to shame. Overall, in addition to the challenge, kayaking was a lot of fun, and offered absolutely beautiful views. We were happy to have signed up for the longer tour for this experience alone.
At the end of the day, we were joined on a larger boat with another tour, and suddenly everything made sense... This was the boat from the photos (minus the flowers in the beds)!
The quality of the previous day's boat, coupled with the mysterious lack of food and space, as well as the disappearance of our guide, could only mean that the four of us had been on the wrong tour from the beginning. The standards of everything -food, service, rooms- went way up the second boat, and we finally felt satisfied. We also met a lot more great people, and spent the evening singing and playing music on the deck with travelers from all over the world, as well as drinking the booze we'd had the foresight to smuggle in. The following morning we journeyed back to shore. By then, there was almost no visibility and the air was really dirty, so our remaining hours on the boat offered little satisfaction.
All in all, Halong Bay was an experience worth having, despite the numerous setbacks and ridiculous costs. However, judging by stories we've heard, it's not unusual to have difficulties like ours, which definitely detract from the overall experience. It should also be noted that the government recently mandated that all the boats in Halong Bay be painted white. So, the photos of charming wooden junk-boats with burgundy trim that charm prospective clients should probably be replaced by images of dirty ships with chipping white paint and deck chairs covered in speckles of spray paint.
Even though Halong Bay is labeled a "must-see," we think the much-cheaper Ninh Binh is equally, if not more so, worth the trip.
Ninh Binh is a small town about two hours south of Hanoi that can be reached by bus, train, or tour. We tried all of these options, but everything was booked due to the Independence Day holiday, which fell over our time in the north. Luckily, we met up with a friend of ours, and the three of us were able to hire a car/driver for the day for roughly the same price as the tour.
Our driver spoke little English, but was very pleasant and got us where we needed to go. Ninh Binh has some beautiful temples, among the best in Vietnam in our experience, which was our first stop of the morning. With no real time constraints, we spent our time wandering through two adjacent temples and into a little nearby village, where we stumbled upon a third. Despite the oppressive heat, we really enjoyed the stroll. Following the temple, our driver took us on a scenic drive through rice paddies lined with limestone cliffs and small villages. We stopped for lunch in an area known for its burnt rice and pork, which was delicious.
On a side note, Ninh Binh is also known for its dog meat. On our way home, we caught this sight...
Although our plan had been to rent bicycles and ride through the paddies, we realized that we were short on cash (oops!), and instead we skipped ahead to the reason why we'd come to Ninh Binh: the boat journey. Although at this point in our Vietnam travels we were a little burnt out on boats, our Ninh Binh experience was easily the best we had. We rented a small boat -just the three of us plus the boat driver- for a scenic two-hour ride down a river. Like our drive earlier that day, the river went through rice paddies that were lined on either side by massive limestone cliffs. Unlike Halong Bay, the cliffs were so close to us that we could really appreciate their magnitude and color. Likewise, the paddies were lime green and equally as beautiful. We even rode through three caves. For the entire ride, we were speechless, completely in awe of the beauty around us.
To our amusement, most of the boat drivers rowed with their feet. One young girl that passed us did so with an umbrella in one hand and her cell phone, which she was madly texting on, in the other. Our own guide was quite pleasant as well, although he hesitated to let us off the boat at the end without a tip (just another example of the cheekiness of Vietnam).
For a fraction of the price of Halong Bay, Ninh Binh was easily more beautiful (though we did have better luck with weather) and arguably a better experience overall; less tourists and hassle also added to our satisfaction. Although Halong Bay remains the number one draw to the north, Ninh Binh could easily surpass it, and we highly recommend it to anyone passing through.
To view the photos from Hoi An and northern Vietnam, click here.