It was a heck of a lot colder than Thailand, I noticed as soon as I stepped off the plane. A chilly 15 degrees – and the sun wasn’t in sight. But I didn’t come to Hanoi for the weather.
After struggling for about half an hour to find my AirBnb hidden in one of the city’s many tiny alleyways, a couple German girls I met at the airport who happened to be staying at the same place came to my rescue.
I soon met up with Ryan and Sugi, who’s trip had aligned with mine once again. I hopped on one of their motorbikes so we could join some people at a bia hoi – where there was promise of 50 cent beers.
After a couple hours enjoying the ridiculously cheap drinks and piles of street food – fried prawn pancakes, meat skewers, a giant basket of herbs and delicious dips – it was clear. I was in love. Freezing in my light rain jacket, but in love.
The next morning I threw myself into the streets (quite literally). The river of motorbikes was heavy, the “sidewalks” jammed with little plastic tables and chairs filled with people eating steaming bowls of pho and grilled meat. Women in conical hats lugged giant baskets of fruit through the streets and horns honked non-stop. It was the definition of organized chaos.
I eventually decided upon a cluster of plastic tables being served pho bo and awkwardly sat beside an older guy on one of the tiny chairs, hoping it would result in soup. It did.
I spent the day getting lost in the streets, first by myself, then with some others, gorging on egg coffee, bun cha, and whatever other goodies I could scrounge up off the street.
Colby got in that night from his 24-hour layover in Hong Kong. Thankfully it was warmer, perfect for initiating his arrival with more street soup and cheap beer.
After one or two, he also leaned back in his chair and said, “I think I’m in love…”
The next night we got our first taste of Vietnam’s football obsession. We joined a hoard of people from our friends’ hostel and set out to find somewhere to catch the game, eventually deciding on the local place Colby and I had beer the night before. Our group was big so we filled the entire upper room, interrupting a family having dinner. They were was quite amused by us. But when Vietnam scored, we were all one big, cheering crowd.
After some more sight-seeing, torrential rain, and a minor sickness set-back, we were eventually off to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise.
There’s no wonder this bay is on everyone’s list – even with the overcast skies, the miles of towering cliffs were hard to look away from. Our tour company, Vega, also focused on guiding us through the less traveled routes so we were rewarded with emptier waters than other parts of the bay. We kayaked between caves the first day and climbed up to a gorgeous viewpoint. The sun shone brighter the next day, and we basked in more hidden coves, the largest cave in the bay, and hiked up to two more viewpoints.
Then, a four-hour bus transported us to another world. We arrived in Nihn Bihn province in the dark and enjoyed a beautiful family style dinner prepared by our homestay amongst other guests.
When the sun rose in the morning we were pleasantly surprised. It was like Halong Bay on land. But amidst the dramatic limestone mountains towering cliffs was a peaceful village life that begged to be explored. After a pho breakfast prepared by our homestay, we hopped on a scooter, got lost momentarily, and headed to the well-known Hang Mua viewpoint where we hiked up the 500+ steps to a dramatic vista of the surrounding mountains, river, rice paddies and small homes.
For lunch: grilled goat (the local specialty).
After running out of gas and being rescued by our host (thanks Alex), we also enjoyed a boat tour that snaked through caves, tunnels and hidden pagodas. The women rowing the boats blew my mind, even more so after she asked us to a row and I saw how fast your arms got exhausted (and we were able to stop whenever we wanted).
We were wiped by the end of the day, which made family dinner taste that much better.
We opted for pedal bikes the next day. 10 minutes in, my steering became loose, nearly sending me into a speeding motorbike. A man saw me struggling and pointed me towards a house where another man with one leg waved, motioning for me to come over.
“What the heck,” I thought.
The man with one leg took my bike and looked through his tools while his wife invited Colby and I into their simple entryway. She began preparing some strong green tea in tiny cups, which she didn’t let get empty.
We made the only kind of conversation you can with someone who doesn’t speak a word of your language. Their tiny grandson alternated between staring at us shyly and rolling around on the floor in that ridiculously entertaining way two-year-olds do.
Soon the man came back in and sat down with a smile, pouring himself some tea. After some more very broken conversation, we realized we had Google Translate (duh). We introduced ourselves and asked each other some simple questions, all of us excited about the language barrier loophole.
Eventually, the man said something into the phone and Google’s voice echoed back “I walk among the wounded soldiers”.
While it seemed obvious already, our eyes widened a bit and he proudly pointed to a young photo of him in uniform. While there were so many questions, we both got a little speechless, unsure what would be the right thing to say next.
We sat in a moment of realization of what he must have seen until we were suddenly interrupted by the flailing grandson and a phone call from someone – his daughter or son he told us about, perhaps. His tone was teasing as he bantered with them.
He asked for 20,000 dong (about a dollar) for the bike service, which we were more than happy to pay. After a couple quick selfies, we were on our way – grateful that my bike broke down.
Of course, a few hundred metres down the road, my seat also becomes loose so we decided to head back to the homestay and switch bikes anyway. But it didn’t matter.
Nihn Bihn – Tam Coc and Trang Ang, to be exact – suck you in in a whole different way from Hanoi. Pedal bikes and scooters mozy through the narrow streets and dirt roads, water buffalo and goats graze, ducks frolick in the plentiful waterways, and towering green cliffs offer dramatic views in every direction.
You also see skinned goat heads on food carts and dead pigs being blowtorched, but it all just works. The vegetarians we met at our homestay were even very open-minded about it.
We could have spent much longer than the two nights in peaceful Nihn Bihn, but we had a sleeper train to catch.
Second class was a little cramped but quite comfortable, with 6 cozy beds per bunk. Boarding at 9:30pm and arriving at 8:30am, the timing was perfect.
So we tucked ourselves in as train rocked us to sleep, screeching tracks and all. When we woke, we would be nearly 600 km south in Hue.