Our last two days in Hanoi, and also in Vietnam, we spent roaming around the city and meeting up with locals. We took long walks through the French Quarter, the Old Town Quarter and we visited the Cathedral. We watched people go about their daily lives, and we had a lot of delicious vietnamese foods and other treats.
Hanoi is our last stop in Vietnam and because of that we came there with a bit mixed feelings. During the last two weeks we experience so many things, and we weren't yet really ready to leave.
We had tried to set up meetings with Couchsurfers beforehand, but due to us only staying in Halong Bay for one day, and therefore being ahead of our schedule, we went out to experience the city on our own.
Our hotel was located close to Hoan Kiem Lake, so we headed out and started walking first around the lake, and then towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidents Palace. We knew that most things wouldn't open later in the day, but we ended up being really really slow anyways, just taking in the city and all the people living in it. We probably spent an hour at the train tracks running through the city, because that is just one of the craziest places we've seen - it is so fundamentally different to Germany.
Like many other people, we were unsure what would be the best way for us to actually explore Halong Bay. The absolute standard thing to do is to book a "Junk Tour" on a boat, either one, two or three days on the water and overnight stays in a cabin on the boat overnight. We had read good and bad things about those tours and even about Halong Bay itself. Supposedly the Bay was overcrowded with tourists and partly very dirty and full of trash, so at some point we even wondered if we should go at all. In the end we decided to book a junk tour anyways, because we wanted to do some special things while on holiday. To get around the overcrowded and trashy parts, we booked a tour that went to Bai Tu Long Bay, a part of Halong Bay that is further out and less crowded than the main regions.
First of all: We have a LOT more pictures of the fantastic landscape we saw that day than I could possibly fit into this post, so go check out the corresponding photo set "Trang An & Hang Mua"!
In the Ninh Binh Region the main attractions are boat rides on rivers than run through the rice fields, along the limestone mountains, and sometimes even below through the many, many grottos in the limestone. We didn't have time to go and do all of them, even though they are supposed to be very different. We had read that the Trang An Area was usually a bit less crowded than the Tam Coc Boat ride, and that it led through more and smaller grottos. The main difference is, that in Trang An, the river is wedged in between limestone mountains, while for Tam Coc, the river runs through wider valleys and rice fields.
By the way, the whole Trang An - Tam Coc - Bich Dong Region is actually a UNESCO World Nature Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site - the only place in Vietnam that got both of these titles.
So we once again rented a motorbike, got on it and drove to Trang An. At the tour complex we paid our fare of 200.000 Dong each and were directed to a boat together with two young vietnamese women. Our rower was a middle-aged woman with a very friendly smile, but no knowledge of english. The two vietnamese girls in our boat translated for us whenever necessary. There are two routes through you can take though the grottos, a shorter and a longer one. We had asked to be taken on the longer one, but I am not entirely convinced that it was what we got in the end.
We arrived in Ninh Binh at 3 o’clock in the morning and first of all we had a little fight with the vietnamese taxi mafia. Right at the platform a guy walked up to us and asked if we wanted a ride. The price he named was of course to high and we knew it, so we declined and walked out of the train station. Out there, all three taxi drivers refused to drive us and told us to take a ride with the other nice gentlemen. After a bit of discussion we decided to walk, even though we knew we could go the whole way to the Hotel (about 7km) - but after only a short walk we managed to take another taxi.
The nice staff at Tuan Ngoc Hotel greeted us even though we got in that early, and even gave us a room to take a nap in. Which we absolutely would have, but didn’t have to, pay for. After breakfast and settling into our new room, we wanted to take a bike ride to the Bich Dong Pagoda.
When planning our trip we hardly booked anything from home. The only thing besides our flights and the first hotel that we booked beforehand was the Tu Lan Experience with Oxalis Tours. That was because even then the one we initially wanted to do (2D1N-Trek with a night in the jungle) was booked out and so we decided to go with the one day trip.
BEWARE: There will be pictures of spiders in this post ;)
FYI: Our information and opinion about this tour is our own, this is no sponsored post whatsoever, just our personal review of our experience.
We were picked up fairly early in the morning at our hotel, and drove to the Tu Lan Caving Center, which took about 1.5 hours. At the base camp we first got a briefing about the route we would be and some safety information. Then we checked what we wanted to take for the days trip. Those things we gave to our guide Tha, who carried them in a watertight backpack. Everything else we left securely locked at the base camp.
The first part of the trip was a 20 minute walk to the first cave. Right in front of it we had to cross a river, about hip deep - for me anyways. With camera in hand we were a little bit insecure at first, but going with the flow of the river we all crossed savely and made our way to the first cave, still dripping water and mud from shoes and pants.
We only had half a day in Hue because of the additional Day in Hoi An. The Bus we had booked with Hung Than Travel was scheduled to start to Phong Nha at 4:30 pm. That meant we had to skip all the Kings Graves and sights further out of the city, and instead just took a look at the citadel, which was within walking distance. That way we also got a short look on the city of Hue by daylight before we had to take off again.
To get from Hoi An to Hue we had initially wanted to take the train, but then decided renting a motorbike was in the end cheaper, easier and gave us a much better opportunity to actually see something on the way. It is also a bit more risky, because technically it’s illegal to drive a motorbike without a vietnamese drivers license. The Vietnamese don’t care though and rent you one anyways and I guess make a good amount of money with it, because we saw loads of other tourists on scooters.
The day before we had signed up for the bike at Motorvina and when the taxi dropped us off at the Hoi An Office we were immediately shown the 135ccm scooter we had booked. Read our review of Motorvina and why we chose them at the end of the article.
By now I had decided that I am only young once, no risk no fun, so after I told Tim once again to drive extra carefully we finally took off. And in the end I think it must have been one of the best decisions we took and probably was one of our best days in Vietnam. The weather was absolutely perfect - and we had a whole day to drive and explore the country.
Today was our “day off” - we knew when we planned the trip that we would mostly be on the road, so we decided to take this day “off” for real, just going to the beach and doing nothing really. In the end it was a good decision because I also wasn’t feeling a hundred percent well and lying at the beach sounded a whole lot better than being on the road again.
We had decided the day before that we were going to risk renting a scooter one-way to Hue tomorrow, so we took the opportunity to rent a scooter for the day so Tim could practice driving in vietnamese traffic. We rode out to An Bang Beach and tried to find a nice and quite spot. We went to the far end of the beach, but due to the lack of shade anywhere else we stayed where there were parasols and lounge chairs. And then we did nothing. For a whole day.
Since our Homestay was located a few minutes outside of Hoi An, we used the free bicycles provided to get into and around the city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The bike ride took about 10 minutes, leading through rice fields until we got to the city, there we continued on to the old town, located down by the river.