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Hanoi is one of my favourite cities, a wonderful melding of culture and chaos, with endless traffic, a bustling night market and a plethora of delicious street food.
The weather wasn’t ideal so we had a pretty relaxing first day, visiting a temple, a traditional heritage shop and experiencing various other sites, sounds and surroundings we encountered in our wanderings. Aimlessly walking through old-town Hanoi is a wonderful adventure, with motorcycle dodging on streets, stepping over stalls that spill on to sidewalks and taking in the extraordinary variety of of things happening all around you, all at once, all the time.
In the evening the weekend night market opened and we wandered block after block through brightly lit stalls of sunglasses, clothes, speakers, jewelry and decorations. We also had a wonderful time sampling as much street food as we could justify purchasing before finding a second-story craft brewery/bar with delicious lemongrass honeysuckle beer. Sufficiently suffonsifiedwe sat above it all and watched the bright lights, vibrant colours and ever changing mass of shoppers and street merchants flow through the streets below.
The weather was going to get colder – down to an unthinkable 11 degrees – so we decided to go to Ha Long Bay early to try and beat the cold front. Getting there turned into quite a bit of work, not because it is difficult to get to, but because of the mass multitude of options to choose from – hundreds of boats visit Ha Long Bay every day, each offering different itineraries at varying levels of quality. We decided to do 2 nights and actually go to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is immediately northeast from Ha Long and reported to be less polluted, more protected and much quieter than its better known neighbour.
We got on a bus in the morning and drove about 3 hours to Ha Long Bay, where we boarded the Cristina Diamond Cruise and cruised through Ha Long to Bai Tu Long Bay. As we ate lunch we sailed by the stunning huge limestone cliffs covered with lush green foliage, other white ships (painted as per government regulation) and small local fishing boats. It wasn’t sunny but the misty grey weather created a unique and mysterious beauty, cloaking us in clouds, mist drifting through the limestone peaks and creating the illusion that the green and grey went on forever.
That afternoon we stopped at a place to go kayaking. It was still misting but the water was calm and the air not too cold. We paddled among the peaks and the emerald green water, past locals who have lived on boats in the bay for centuries fishing and pearl-farming.
After kayaking we visited one of the pearl farms, and then went to a beach to stubbornly go swimming, regardless of the weather. The beach would have been absolutely spectacular on a sunny day, but was still breathtaking (mostly from the beauty, but a little from the cold) as we stepped into the water at the base of the cliffs that surrounded us in every direction. Though no one’s definition of warm, the water was actually not too cold, especially for us Canadians, as it was less chilly than the Pacific Ocean (and most lakes) in the summer back home.
That night we had a delicious dinner with an abundance of seafood, including freshly caught squid, prawns and fish – along with a very generous selection of meat and vegetarian dishes. We met Irene and George, a couple of nurses (ICU and specialty paramedic) from the Netherlands with whom we had a great time chatting. Cam went squid fishing and caught a decent sized one, which the guide offered to chop into sashimi for him. As he was full from dinner he declined and wanted to throw the squid back, but the guide was quite insistent that as the squid was now “freed from the ocean” it was much better off on the ship (likely in the mouths of the crew).
The following day we had an early wake-up call, and I got up at 6:15am to do Tai Chi on the top deck. It was misty and grey, calm and beautiful, a wonderful way to start the day and worth the early rise. After breakfast most of the ship headed back to Hanoi after some excursions, but the four of us who were staying 2 nights (us, Irene and Peter) were transferred to a smaller vessel and taken to one of the far deserted corners of the area. Here the emerald water was devoid of any other life aside from the odd local fisherman, and it was remarkably quiet and peaceful. We were transferred once again to an even smaller, slightly leaky local wooden fishing boat (that only broken down once) and taken to the “Master Cave”, named for a teacher that travelled through the region many years ago schooling local children there.
We entered the Master Cave off a pebbled beach and walked into the dark opening. We had flashlights to light the way and walked through the large chamber past modest but beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, and heard the odd bat welcoming (or warning) us as we walked into the darkness by the light of our flashlights. It was a lot of fun to explore.
After the cave we had another delicious lunch before more kayaking, a little colder and less calm than the day before but still fun. That evening we had another delicious dinner and went to bed early in anticipation of another early rise. I got up once again to do Tai Chi before we began the journey back to Hanoi.
Back in Hanoi we enjoyed a fun night out. Irene, Peter, Troy (an Australian accountant turned police officer we met on the ship) and George (an Irish filmmaker we met at our hostel) joined us for some dinner, drinks and KTV (karaoke in a private room, great fun). In the morning Cam went to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, who apparently looks like Lenin and Mao – “very waxy”. Having no interest in dead dictators myself, I spent the morning wandering the streets of Hanoi, once again enjoying wandering and observing life in the city. In the evening we boarded a night bus that would take us to Phong Nha, about 8 hours South.
Phong Nha is a small town on the edge of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, an area with riddled with caves including the largest cave in the world (so large you could fly a 747 through it, though to get there requires pricey trek so we had to skip it). After stumbling off the bus at 4:00am we got a couple more hours of sleep on the floor of our hostel lobby before getting on a van for a tour that would take us around to see some caves. The region is absolutely beautiful, surrounded by mountains, rice paddies and rolling hills covered with lush green jungle that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
Our first stop on the tour was the Paradise Cave, named for its divine beauty and the locals description of “heaven on earth”. Only discovered around 10 years ago, the cave was absolutely wonderful to walk through. We entered through a small opening, about 4 by 6 feet at the top, then climbed down wooden stairs that opened into a tavern with 40-60m high ceilings and massive stalactites and stalagmites everywhere we looked. We walked about 1 km into the cave, every foot different but every bit as unique as the last. Though it was obviously a well-visited tourist spot it wasn’t too crowded and we enjoyed the magical majesty for about an hour before climbing out and heading back down the mountain to the van that would take us to a couple other caves in the area.
After visiting the 8 Lady Cave (sadly named for a number of women who got trapped there during the war) we stopped at a seemingly random spot on the road and were told we were hiking about 20 minutes through the jungle to Tra Ang Cave. The jungle was muddy but fun to trek through, and when we arrived at our destination we were served bbq pork and tofu on a tarp and plastic sheet on the ground, complete with piles of lettuce, herbs, sprouts, rice, cucumber and rice paper that we used to make spring rolls. It was a hearty and delicious lunch that we devoured, and after briefly cursing our lack of foresight to check the weather before booking the tour (it was about 12 degrees and raining) we changed into our swimsuits in preparation to explore the next cave.
To reach Tra Ang Cave we needed to cross a river and scramble up over big boulders before coming to a large opening at the base of a rocky cliff with an enclave filled with water. The only way to explore the cave is by swimming, so armed with life-jackets, headlamps, helmets and gloves we jumped in. The water was actually warmer than the air so we quickly acclimatized and were soon mesmerized by our surroundings. Swimming into the pitch-black with thin rays of light from the headlamps, we could make out the limestone walls and the ceiling that rose about 5-10 meters above us. Cam and I swam at the front and enjoyed venturing deeper into the black abyss. The light from out headlamps showed bats flying around us, dipping into the water to pick up bugs and fish. At one point we all turned our headlamps out and experienced true darkness, being able to make out absolutely nothing around us. We swam 300 meters before reaching the end of the cave, which continued further through a small opening but anyone bigger than me would need vaseline to fit through (therefore the tour wisely stopped there). We swam out and climbed back to the camp where we changed, hiked to the van and drove back into town to enjoy a relaxing evening before getting on another bus to Hue in the morning.