In October 2012 I realised it was time to stop resisting the travel bug.
It was the same month in which I resigned from my job.
In November I boarded a plane and travelled halfway across the world.
Over three months I backpacked through Vietnam, the Philippines and India. And no, three months most definitely was nowhere near long enough!
I flew into Hanoi on November 15th. I was meeting my friend Gena there, she had arrived from Thailand a couple of hours earlier than me and was waiting amongst the cluster of taxi drivers holding a little sign with my name on it. Cute!
We'd reserved a couple of beds in a dorm at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (The Original), which i would definitely recommend if you're young, not bothered by dorm rooms, and keen for a good time in Vietnam! Its affordable, a decent breakfast is included, and most of all its just fun. We met so many people there!
Gena and I spent a couple of days wandering the streets of Hanoi, planning our trip through the country and booking a tour to Halong Bay.
Hanoi is a bustling city - quaint buildings, scooters en masse, loud horns tooting from every which way, and a tangle of power lines above every street. Very beautiful in a rather rustic way.
After a couple of days in Hanoi, which included lots of delicious food, exploring the city, and a night out at a club that got closed down by armed police (yikes!), we made the 3 hour bus journey to Halong Bay for a 2 night/3 day cruise on our junk boat "Elizabeth Sails". Junk boat by name, but not by nature - this was upmarket by our backpacking standards! We had a cosy twin cabin with ensuite (complete with an incredible shower, we jumped up and down with delight when we saw it!). Given we had read and heard horror stories of boats with rats (!!!) we were delighted when we boarded our immaculate boat.
On arrival onto our boat we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh seafood, veges, rice and fruit, as we cruised through the bay. The striking limestone hills protruding out of the sea were beautiful, reminding me vaguely of the tranquility of the Marlborough Sounds back home in NZ.
That day we visited the "amazing caves" which were pretty amazing (although most of the sights at the cave were along the lines of "here is a rock that looks like a woman" "there is a rock that looks like an elephant" "here is a rock that looks like a - what do you think it looks like ladies...a cannon...?" and so on). For the remainder of the afternoon we lazed about on the sun loungers on the rooftop of our boat, and visited a beach that was just so-so (too full of tourists).
Our busy day was completed with a delicious seafood dinner which we washed down with a couple of Hanoi beers and promptly headed to bed for a bit of reading and an early night. We were tired...and also attempting to avoid joining in on the karaoke upstairs that pounded through our ceiling for hours on end!
The next morning was an early start - we breakfasted at 7 and were quickly shuffled onto a new boat that took us to Cat Ba Island where we spent our second night. We arrived on Cat Ba at lunchtime and checked into our hotel...again it was luxurious for our backpacking standards! We ate our all inclusive lunch in the restaurant overlooking the ocean - another tempting array of (mostly) delicious Vietnamese cuisine. Right now we just felt like we were winning at life.
For the afternoon we had the option to either jump back on the boat and visit Monkey Island, or stay on Cat Ba and chill out on the sun loungers at the resort there... Given a rather terrifying experience I had with an oversized monkey when I was in Thailand a while back that scarred me with a mild fear of wild monkeys, coupled with the fact that we were now 4 days into our Vietnam trip and had not yet had any tanning opportunity (I know, right!!) we easily selected the option to laze on the beach.
It was a glorious afternoon.
Later that evening we decided we would hit Cat Ba town for a good night out. We started at the Downunder Bar, owned by a guy from Dunedin who married a Vietnamese woman. It wasn't very busy that night (we must have been the only kiwis in town...) so we got a beer and a manicure from his wife and headed back to the hotel for dinner and a cocktail. Somehow they managed to make my pina colada taste like flour, so we washed that down with a few 2 for 1 mojitos at another bar in town. We bumped into two German friends we had made in Hanoi and they joined us for a while, but Cat Ba wasn't exactly raving so we called it a night.
The next morning we were up with the sun again for an early breakfast (buffet, yum!) and back on board the boat to Halong City where we would eat lunch and then bus back to Hanoi.
Halong Bay was stunning and I would definitely recommend a tour if you're ever in Vietnam (it was significantly better that our Mekong Delta trip down south which I will come to later/in another post). It is very touristy and I imagine rather difficult, if not impossible, to explore without doing a tour - but in my eyes it was absolutely worthwhile.
Have you visited Vietnam? What was your favourite city/region?