Monday, August 31, 2015

Halong Bay, Vietnam: Leafy Dragon Islands

I knew I absolutely wanted to hit up Halong Bay on my trip - not only does it look life-changingly beautiful, but it's only about a 3.5 hour trip from Hanoi.  There were a million tours to Halong Bay being offered around Hanoi - there's seriously any kind of tour you could possibly want: party, relaxing, romance, adventure, etc.  I booked romance, obvs.  And by romance, I mean I booked a 2 day/1 night relaxing tour.

What It's All About:
Halong Bay is a gorgeous set of almost 2,000 islands that rise up from the gulf of the Northern shore of Vietnam.  It's a World Heritage Site (though at this point honestly, what isn't).  Vietnamese legend says that when Vietnam was defending itself from invaders back in the day, the gods sent dragons to protect them - the dragons spit out jewels and jade, which turned into the islands as natural protection.  Why the dragons couldn't just spit out rocks and dirt that turned into islands is a mystery to me, but hey - not my legend.  The word "halong" itself means "descending dragon."

Halong Bay itself is incredibly touristy - as soon as we arrived, all you see are tons of other tourist buses, and most of the dozens of boats in the harbor are tourist cruises.  However, knowing all of this beforehand, none of this takes away from how truly breathtaking the place is.  The water is a gorgeous blue-green (limestone again, ftw), and there are truly crazy craggy leafy jungle-covered mountains as far as the eye can see.  Islands of all shapes and sizes. Ugh, it was just as pretty as I had imagined.

Overlooking Halong Bay - it was actually pouring in this photo, but the sun was trying.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • The tour I ended up booking was incredibly nice - there were only 14 people on it, and we were all picked up at our hotels in the morning, transported to Halong Bay, and then had our own boat to ourselves that ferried us out about an hour further into the bay. Driving through all these islands was insanely pretty.
The first glimpse of Halong Bay's islands
On the boat I met my new friend Sonia from Portugal - we hit it off instantly.
  • After we arrived to our larger boat in the harbor and checked into our rooms (we got to spend the night on a boat in the harbor! BEST), our guide ferried us around to some highlights in the bay.
  • Our first stop was the Hang Sung Sot caves one of the islands in Halong Bay - these caves had three huge chambers inside with awesome formations.
Hang Sung Sot cave entrance
Some of the formations inside 
One of the giant caverns inside, which they light up in tons of colors. Also most of the tour consisted of "and this formation looks like a <insert animal/person/shape here>"  
View of the bay from the caves
  • Second stop on the tour was kayaking!!!  Eeee this was so fun.  Our guide gave us a 30-minute time limit however, which I'm pretty sure we all openly defied.
Kayaking! Off we gooo
Then Sonia and I found a cave that passed under an island, and despite also not being allowed to pass through (I think it was a private area for another tour), we did. By "we", I mean Sonia and her Portuguese spirit did. This is us coming out the other side of the cave - the kayakers in front of us were part of another tour that was allowed to be there
We are master kayakers
And the sun was peeking through on our (late) return back to the boat
  • Our tour's final stop was the tallest island in the bay - it has a small beach, as well as a pagoda that has been erected at the top (which you can hike up to for good views of the bay).

Approaching the final island - pagoda at top
After a steep 15-minute hike, we were rewarded with these views
  • It started raining, but that didn't stop us from hitting the beach afterwards. Our guide gave us a time limit of 5 minutes at the beach. Sheesh. Slave driver.
So excited for 5 minutes of beach time!
Some of the girls from our boat - England, Spain, Portugal, and the US all in one place  
Sonia took this adorable pic of this boat man on our way out
  • Headed back to our main boat for dinner and nighttime, which was anchored amidst all the islands somewhere
This was our private boat - how cute is it!?
Getting on the boat near dusk
  • It was cute because all the meals on the tour were served in this small dining room with a communal table. It was just a fun little community for the night.  Post dinner, we were given the option of karaoke or squid fishing. Naturally, we chose to do both. 
Sonia and I tearing up the karaoke floor.  The selection of songs was.....incredibly interesting
After shouting into the microphone for an hour, we went out back to fish for squid with these bamboo poles the staff had set up.  Apparently it's squid low season though, so our guide told us it was "near impossible" to catch one
It was seriously the most relaxing thing ever. Plus at one point, something tugged on Sonia's line and we got super excited. But nope, no squid.
It was storming way in the distance - I caught this photo of the lightning behind one of the mountains

  • The next morning, we woke up to a misty, magical view - it basically rained the entire day. 
Imagine waking up and looking out the window of your room to this
  • The day consisted of visiting a pearl farm (they grow a lot of pearls in Halong Bay - also the first moment I've felt empathy for an oyster), then a "cooking class" on the boat.
Teacher showing us how to make spring rolls
We rolled this pile of spring rolls; all shapes and sizes
And here is the deep-fried, delicious result
  • After lunch, most of us took a small boat back to shore to be transported back to Hanoi.  Some people had signed up for a 3 day/2 night tour, and they were shuttled to a separate island to spend the night at a bungalow.  

Moment of the Day:
Spending the night in Halong Bay was one of the best, most relaxing experiences ever and I adored it.  It was just one of those moments that felt incredibly surreal - sitting on the back of the boat, feet dangling over the edge, holding bamboo poles, chatting about our lives, strains of karaoke music in the back but pure peaceful silence otherwise - all while staring out at the water framed by huge black mountains; lightning flashing every 10 seconds in the background. That was the world's longest run-on sentence, but I needed it to describe just how incredible the night was.

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Halong Bay was formed 500 million to 300 million years ago
  • On truly bad stormy days, they will cancel all boat trips out to Halong Bay - I ran into a family in Laos that had that happen to them - therefore, despite the drizzly weather we had, we were really lucky.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hanoi, Vietnam: Self-Guided City Tour

Early the next morning after Vang Vieng, I headed by bus to Lao's capital city of Vientiane to catch a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam.  The friends I met were all staying an extra day in Vang Vieng, so we said our good-byes (tear).  

The weirdest (and par for the course) part of the bus was that there's a regular minibus that drives to Vientiane starting at 9AM, but you can apparently request an earlier one if you want. I requested an 8AM shuttle to be conservative for my flight - and it was the strangest experience of my life. The minibus was totally full of locals, and it literally pulled over every 15 minutes at some shady side business on the side of the road - I think the driver was using the trip as a personal excuse to do his grocery shopping.   But weird roadside markets that sold things like dead bats and rats and stuff. Seriously. I wasn't even sure I was on the right minivan for the entire 4 hours because no one spoke any English and the van kept randomly veering off the road (I thought I'd accidentally hopped on a locals-only strange market shopping extravaganza). But I did end up making it, so all's well that end's well.  And now I'm in Hanoi!

What It's All About:
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, and the biggest city in the northern half (2nd largest city in the country). It has this super adorable, bustling old city center - and CRAZY MOTORBIKES EVERYWHERE.  That seems to be a huge thing in Vietnam; the number of motorbikes will blow your mind. And run you over, as well.

Streets of Hanoi

The cutest thing is that the roads in the old city center are all named after the items those roads traditionally used to sell or be known for.  So there's a street named after fabrics, a street for bamboo, tools, coffee, street food, etc.  Also, so much delicious street food.  

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • A quick one-hour plane ride later, landed in the northern city of Hanoi, Vietnam!

Landing in Hanoi
  • The next morning, I incredibly nerdily downloaded a walking tour onto my phone and set about my own personal walking tour of the old town. Seriously - imagine me with a phone in one hand, a map in another, and navigating the streets while reading the corresponding facts - that was me all day. I truly was taking my time - the walking tour guide said it should take 1.5 hours to 3 hours top (if you went slowly), and after 3 hours, I was only on stop 4 out of 16. Oops.

First up on the C.W. walking tour; the Tran Quoc Pagoda in the middle of the lake that borders the south of the old city. It's the city's oldest pagoda (6th century-esque)
Crossing the bridge to the pagoda

Temple inside

The lake where the pagoda is located is the Hoan Kiem Lake, named after some kind of magic turtle that came along and took some sort of golden sword to the bottom of the lake. I'm seriously paraphrasing my guide here; mainly because I can't remember the exact details.
Walking through the tiny alleys of Hanoi. All the businesses have the Vietnamese flag hanging outside of them in preparation for the Vietnamese Independence Day on Sept. 2nd

Then I took a break with a Vietnamese coffee and watched all the crazy drivers
For lunch, the famous Vietnamese specialty called Bun Bo Nam Bo (uhhh funnest dish to say ever!).  Basically rice vermicelli noodles with beef and onions and delicious sauce and carrots and peanuts

More colonial prettiness (French influence)
I can't remember what stop this was on the C.W. walking tour - but it's the city's most famous temple because of the white horse statue inside, which inspired the city's name.
Another stop; a traditional restored Vietnamese home
St. Joseph's Cathedral; built to resemble Notre Dame - stuck out like a sore thumb
  • Post-walking tour, I went to the Hoa Lo prison; a prison the French colonialists constructed to house Vietnamese political prisoners (basically, anyone that could oppose them) from 1886 to 1954.  Later, during the Vietnam War, the prison was used to house American POW's and was nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" (John McCain was imprisoned here).  It was a really interesting museum; mainly because it was slightly propaganda-ish in its descriptions, i.e. outlining in great detail how terribly the Vietnamese prisoners were treated (and the horrendous conditions they endured) even though they were just fighting for their country, vs. how amazingly well the Americans were treated when they were housed there.  
This room scared the bejesus out of me, because when I first walked in, I thought they were all real people. Anyways, was a reconstruction showing how prisoners were shackled to wooden platforms

This was a sewage pipe where some of the Vietnamese prisoners managed to escape through sawing through those bars. Uh, who can fit through that tiny tiny hole!?!?  Malnourished for sure
And then I came out of the prison (literally) and it started POURING. And the streets flooded. And in my 20-minute walk back to the hostel, I waded through every piece of sewage in Hanoi.
  • Later that night, I signed up for a street food tour that came highly recommended.  Vietnam has the most baller street food ever - it's incredibly well known and there is so much variety (a welcome change from the rice-or-noodles-only mentality of Laos/Myanmar).  We hit up 8 stops on our tour - and all were super by-the-side-of-the-road, local, authentic-looking joints.
First stop - bun cha!  Or some kind of noodles dipped in delicious beef-y broth-y stuff with veggies

2nd stop - green papaya salad
3rd stop - she's making rice paper pancakes to wrap rolls in

3rd stop - the spring rolls were stuffed with mushroom, pork, and topped with crunchy onions
4th stop - deep friend spring rolls
5th stop - some kind of delicious dessert that consisted of yogurt, condensed milk (they loooove that stuff here), and sticky black rice. Contrary to description, it was really good.

6th stop - a local beer at a bia hoi (a beer hall) - these are all over the side of the roads here: you perch on a tiny tiny plastic stool and drink a local draft beer (25 cents) in the streets. Super authentic
7th stop - an egg coffee. It's treated like a dessert here - they mix egg yolk with sugar and condensed milk, and stir it up with some coffee. It's like liquid ice cream - so good.
  • And for the last stop, there was a banh mi sandwich (French baguette with fresh cilantro, carrots, veggies, pork, etc. inside) that I didn't take a photo of because I was so full I couldn't even touch it. 
  • I love how bustle-y this city is

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • There are 37 million motorbikes in Vietnam. The reason why there are exponentially more motorbikes than cars is because the taxes for cars are super, super high - and therefore way out of reach for a lot of citizens. Additionally, so many streets are super narrow and much more navigable with bikes.  You'll see the craziest things on motorbikes here: a family of 4 balanced on one bike; a man carrying a large steel construction beam on one shoulder while driving a motorbike with his other hand; etc. 
  • If you wait for no cars/bikes in order to cross the street......you will never make it across the street. Crossing the road is basically an art form here in Vietnam: you just start walking at an even, slow, confident pace; and the bikes will naturally swerve around you. Never hesitate or stop, because they will run you over.