After a few days trying to navigate the millions of scooters in Hanoi, it was a welcome break to retreat to the coast for an overnight stay on a "junk boat" in Ha Long Bay. We were told it was just 110 miles from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay so I figured we'd be there before I could even get my sunglasses out.
Not only did I not need my sunglasses the entire time due to the haze, but I ended up needing to settle in longer than anticipated due to the traffic and low speed limits through all the tiny towns we passed. The 110 miles took 3-1/2 hours. I enquired about the train and learned that the rails were too narrow and bumpy and would take 6-1/2 hours. The remainder of our travel in Vietnam was done by airplane, which is the most efficient way to travel in the country.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is made up of nearly 2,000 sculpted limestone islands varying in size and shape. It's a big tourist destination in the summer, which we were supposed to be in while we were there, but the cool, overcast weather didn't agree.
Most people take overnight boats out for 1 - 3 nights to explore the islands and relax on the water.
If the winds were as gusty as when we went, then there's not a lot of deck sitting going on, but we shuttled ourselves onto smaller boats to explore the stalactites and stalagmites in Tien Ong Cave, dating back 700,000 years.
We hopped another smaller boat to experience one of the fishing villages where families live and work. Kids often live there too, alongside floating school houses. Many "houses" were abandoned as people move from village to village depending on where the fish are biting.
There's a nice hike on one of the islands, up many steep steps to get a better perspective of Ha Long Bay. After enjoying some time on the water, we headed back inland for a fast flight to our next water-filled destination.
An hour plane ride to south of Hanoi is Danang, a port city on the coast of the South China Sea. Nestled on the side of the mountain on the Son Tra Peninsula was the site of our recently opened, beautiful Intercontinental hotel. It seemed a bit out of place in rustic Vietnam, but I was able to look past it and relax into the gorgeous surroundings, continuous haze and all.
You could eat at tables suspended over the water, have cocktails with the ocean crashing in front of you or swing from the ceiling with a mai tai.
I could have been in Hawaii, but a few steps outside of the hotel revealed rice paddies instead of sugarcane. Rice is a $4 billion export industry for Vietnam and you could see people working in the paddies many places we traveled.
A 30-45 minute drive from our plush hotel was the traditional town of Hoi An, once a flourishing port and hub. Now, there's many tourist shops where you can have clothes made and delivered to you within hours.
You can also try your hand and lantern making. I can safely say I won't be quitting my day job after having more glue on my fingers than the lantern.
The street market did have locals buying fresh vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colors. There was also a woman simply placing cooked white rice in bags to sell.
At this point in the trip, I developed a pretty nasty cold/flu, which is fairly typical for Westerners taking in all the new sights and smells in SE Asia. That's when I got on board with the Vietnamese pho soup for breakfast. Pho's origins are from North Vietnam, dating back to the mid-1880s, pulling on both French and Chinese influences. There's a warm homemade broth with a mix of spices, which could include ginger, cinnamon, clove, and cardamon in a chicken and/or beef stock. Noodles are added to the broth, often with shredded chicken or beef, topped with cilantro and the chili heat of your choosing. It was a feel good back-up in the absence of Sudafed.
The trip had to continue, so we trekked further south to Ho Chi Minh City and the interesting Cu Chi Tunnels used in the Vietnam War. Continue reading.