My time in Vietnam began as it started: on a street corner, surrounded by a group of tipsy Vietnamese men, having no idea what was going on around me.
The bus from Hoi An to Hanoi is 16 hours long. It was, unsuprisingly, pretty miserable. When I got to the main bus office in Hoan Kiem district, I was able to walk the last kilometer to the accomodation I had already reserved. Zesty. I’m not sure if Zesty fancied itself a hotel or a hostel, but it definitely wasn’t a resturant or cafe.
It was January 26th when I arrived in Hanoi, 2 nights before the lunar new year celebration (known as Têt in Vietnam). What I didn’t realize when I started my trip from South to North this time of the year was that for about a week before and a few days after Têt, the entire country heads North to their hometowns. This means fully-booked buses; which is why I didn’t make any other stops after Hoi An (at places such as Hue or Dong Hoi). Also during Têt, all the businesses start to shut down so people can be with their families; this means a lot of wandering around my first two days in Hanoi to find mostly closed museums, cafes, and restaurants.
There were a few exceptions during these ghost city days: I was able the visit the Ho Chi Minh museum which is located just next to his maloseum. More examples on the glory of Ho Chi Minh’s life and the benefits of Communism. Afterwards I found a nearby cafe that served the famous Hanoi “egg coffee”. I was happy to try it but ultimately decided I’m not crazy about egg coffee. I’ll still always prefer my coffee black with no sugar. In a future cafe I declined an opportunity to try their “yogurt coffee”.
As most restaurants were closed, I sustained myself on street food with the exception of indulging in Italian food and craft beers on tap from Pasteur Street. Although, this just brought up some homesickness and nostalgia for some seriously delicious New Haven pizza and beer.
On the night of Têt, I went out with a group of Couchsurfers, some travelers and some local Vietnamese that couldn’t make it back home for the holiday. We visited a local bar in Hoan Kiem and watched the fireworks over the lake at midnight. The following morning I stayed in to take care of laundry (since all services were closed) and to finally watch the movie I’d been dying to revisit since I arrived to Saigon.
After Têt, I set out to explore some of the surrounding areas of North Vietnam and see two more of those Vietnam bucket list destinations: Ha Long Bay and Sapa.
Cat Ba Island:
I chose Cat Ba as a lauching point into Ha Long Bay. My intuition told me not to book one of the many many tours from the street corners that shouted ‘GREAT TOUR’ and ‘BIG PROMOTION’. Instead, I caught a bus and ferry to the island with a friend I met in Phnom Penh. The transport isn’t more than $7 and once on the island you get a lot more options of customized tours for a lot cheaper than booking in Hanoi. The island itself isn’t without some activities to do as well.
On the first full day, we took a boat from the main island out to what was known as ‘Monkey Island’. I’m not entirely sure the monkeys even lived on that island though seemed wholly accustomed to a boatload of tourists coming in by boat to take selfies in front of them. After sad monkey island, our boat took us through Lan Ha Bay which is just south east of Ha Long but equally beautiful. I wouldn’t have even known (if it had not been for our guide telling us) when we finally crossed into Ha Long Bay.
Pictures won’t do it justice but the lime formations coming out from the water were spectacular. We didn’t have the best weather on this particular day but the mist added a certain allure to the spectacle. In the afternoon, we did some kayaking around the rock formations as well as diving off and swimming from the boat (for those who didn’t mind the cold). My biggest impression of the scene around the bay was the lack of other boats. I heard that Ha Long Bay can get crowded with a stream of boats coming through the same path but apparently this is only true if they leave from the northern Ha Long port; the Cat Ba side ends up being much less crowded. Despite this we did pass the occasional boat and on one I even spotted my American friends from back in Siem Reap. The trail grows smaller still.
On the second day on Cat Ba, we rented a scooter to ride up into the national park. Along the way we stopped at Hospital Cave which served as a home to soldiers on the island during the American-Vietnam War. 3 floors of concrete rooms built into a cave even included a room for swimming and a movie theater.
The national park was only ~$2 to enter and allowed us up an easy hike to an awesome view of the island. With the mist, the rock formations on the island looked like Ha Long Bay minus the water. We spent the rest of the afternoon circumnavigating the island by scooter before heading back to the station to catch our ferry and bus to Sapa.
Sapa sits about 300 km Northwest of Hanoi and is COLD. Not cold like home, that would be crazy, but still colder than what I was prepared for… I had to wear a jacket! After checking into the hotel early morning we spent the first half of the day exploring the town center. Sapa town doesn’t have too much to offer by way of attractions but there are countless alleys with crafts and the walk around the lake is really nice. The cold eventually led us to a hot pot restaurant for lunch, which promptly induced napping. In the afternoon we booked some trekking for the following day, the real reason we came to Sapa.
The following morning we set off with our guide, a local from the Lau Chai village, and made our way into the surrounding villages. The mist appeared to obscure everything more than 15 meters away but visibility got better once we got into the valley; the terraced rice paddies rose all the way back up into the mist and mountains. On the way we learned all about the customs and local crafts including courtship by ox horn full of rice wine and hemp weaving of their traditional dress.
Back in Hanoi:
When I finally came back from Sapa, places were open again! This meant I could finally try out some of the cafes and visit the fantastic Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Some memorable cafes were:
- Haka – 39 Hang Dau, Hoan Kiem District (Egg coffee by the lake)
- Unknown? – Tay Ho District (Old radios cover the walls)
- Unknown? – Hang Ma, Hoan Kiem District (Vinyl playing and tiny plastic chairs in the street)
- The Note Coffee – 64 Luong Van Can, Hoan Kiem District (An uplifting note attached to every drink order)
- Tranquil Coffee – 5 Nguyen Quang Bich, Hoan Kiem District (Coffee, tea, books, records)
Tranquil was an absolute standout. Japanese inspired layout, tons of books to read, records playing until late at night and occasional film nights that they host. I went three times.
As I write this now from the Exile Cafe in Dharamshala, I remember the last scene in Hanoi: on my last visit to Tranquil, just a few hours before my flight out of Hanoi, I got stopped by a few characters having tea and beer on the street corner. At a minimum I was able to communicate that I’m from the US and that was enough to provide them with enough of a reason to invite me to sit with them. This may have been the last example, but it wasn’t the only time in Vietnam where I was invited to join any number of groups who may or may have not spoken English and who may or may have not fought against my country in a war.
I’m not sure if I’ve been to a country where it is easier to make friends.