Angela and I had a wild, but incredible trip to Vietnam over our Chinese New Year holiday. We did not have school on Thursday or Friday, but we decided to not fly out until Friday. That allowed us to have one day off, and to bring in the year of the Horse with a celebratory drinking outing on Thursday night. We had a buffet of Indian food, and some beers at the local Shanghai Brewery. On Friday, we were to depart for Vietnam. Friday morning, I threw up the entirety of the Indian buffet that I had eaten the previous night. At first I was concerned that maybe I had one too many beers in honor of the new year, but soon realized that I had some sort of 24-hour flu. I am also a little skeptical that maybe the Indian buffet was partly to blame. Either way, I did not have a pleasant trip to Vietnam. I spent the morning throwing up in various bathrooms in the Pudong International Airport, while Angela took care of checking our baggage and leading me to where we needed to be. I did manage to stop being nauseous right before we actually boarded our plane, which was a relief. I had the chills and aches, but we made it to Hanoi, Vietnam without incident. We were to stay in Hanoi for the weekend before departing for our Spice Roads bicycle trip on Monday.
On Saturday, I was feeling much better. Angela and I decided to wander around the Oldtown quarter of Hanoi. The traffic was not as bad as it normally was, because the Vietnamese people were in the midst of celebrating Tet. The first thing that we did in Hanoi was to get scammed into paying for the photo I took below of Angela.
The woman was good. She put the hat and the pole on Angela’s shoulder before we realized what was happening. Then she insisted I take a picture. As I slowly pulled out my phone, I tried to reason in my head how we would end up paying for this. I took the picture, and the woman immediately bagged some pineapple and gave it to Angela, saying “happy new year.” We stood there looking at her, pineapple in hand, before we asked her how much. I am sure we could have walked away, but this time we were defeated. She asked for 80,000 Dong (4 dollars). Angela gave her 50,000 and we were on our way.
After paying to take Angela’s picture on my own phone, we visited Hoan Kiem Lake. This is a beautiful lake right below the Oldtown quarter of Hanoi, and in the middle of the lake is the Ngoc Son Temple. There used to be a species of tortoise that lived in the lake, and the last one was only recently moved to treat wounds it had from the pollution. You can read more about it here. There was a large stuffed dead turtle in the temple that is revered as being holy.
The next stop we made was visiting a water puppet show. We were told that this was a must see, so we purchased two tickets and waited for the show at the cafe next door. I ordered some Vietnamese coffee, which is delicious.
You can see the same show that we did by checking out this video. We enjoyed the show very much.
After the water puppet show, we decided to attend Catholic mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The mass was very traditional, which was neat, but also entirely in Vietnamese. They were good singers, though.
Saturday night, the 24-hour flu caught up with Angela, and she spent the entire night awake and in the bathroom, along with a good portion of Sunday. Luckily, our hotel had HBO so we watched a lot of great movies. Angela had her stomach flu for much longer than I did, so I felt like I lucked out in a sick way.
Thankfully, come Monday morning Angela was feeling a little better, so we went ahead and met our guide, Mr. Dan Tran, at 7:30 AM. He had the wrong hotel address, so we had the front desk call his cell phone. Soon after, Dan came biking up to our hotel on a Trek while talking on his cell phone. Dan was a freelance bicycle tour guide around the city of Hanoi. He was hired by Spice Roads to be the guide for this tour. Dan’s wife and two young sons had gone home for Tet, so he was living the bachelor life. We were concerned at first that we had made the entire tour group late because of our address mishap, but soon after learned that we were the only two people on the tour. We knew that the minimum people for this tour was two people, but we both figured there would be a few other random people on it. We were the only two, with a private guide and driver. Pretty good deal for us, as I think Dan did some things that he normally would not do with a larger group. The first was to take us to his house for tea while he got the bikes ready. Dan’s house was on the Red River Delta in a little suburb on the North side of Hanoi.
We ate some homemade sweets that his neighbor made while enjoying a cup of tea. Dan told us the sweets had no chemicals, so that was a relief. He had very good English, so communication was never a problem.
I helped Dan fill up our water bottles in his front patio, pictured above. Below, you can see our bikes. Bicycles are Dan’s hobby, so he had a large collection that he used for his own tour business, but these were all Treks given to Dan by the tour company to use.
We started our bike trip heading out North of Hanoi into the surrounding villages and countryside.
We were supposed to bike along a paved road on top of the dike that ran along the Red River Delta. We did for a lot of the ride, but Dan liked to take all sorts of roads parallel to the dike to see the countryside and the villages.
Pictured above is Angela in the first village we took a pit stop in. Dan bought us some dragon fruit and we ate it while we spoke with the woman who sold it to us. Dan acted as our translator.
We biked through a lot of farms (above) and little villages (below).
Pictured above is Angela taking a break with our guide, Mr. Dan Tran.
Dan would often stop to ask for directions when he took one of his beautiful side detours. One time we stopped to speak with some women harvesting ears of corn by hand. They wanted to give us some corn, so they tossed two ears to Angela.
Dan assured us that we didn’t have to keep them, so we thanked the nice women and tossed the ears back. Next to where we stopped, there was a man plowing with a tractor, which was a rare site in the countryside surrounding Hanoi. Most of the farmers worked by hand.
After a few hours of biking, we stopped in a local village for lunch. Dan took us for an authentic small town lunch of some sort of vermicelli. We ate right next to the meat grinder, pictured below. I guess that means that our lunch was probably very fresh?
Angela and I had a lot of unique experiences on this trip due to the fact that we were the only ones on it. The first was a stop at Mr. Tom’s house, who Angela affectionately called Uncle Tom. The experience was soon referred to as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Dan would often stop to meet with our support driver named Thai along the way. Thai said his friend lived with his family in one of the small villages we stopped near, so Dan decided to take us for a visit as well.
As you can see in the picture, Uncle Tom had a huge altar for his ancestors in his cabin. He was very proud of this altar. Uncle Tom served us tea, and spoke to me all about his altar while Dan translated for him. Dan was not too particular about the details though, as Uncle Tom was clearly pointing out unique features of the altar while Dan kept saying “Yes…it is an altar for his ancestors. Ok…so, it is an altar, for his ancestors.” Uncle Tom was very nice, and after a few cups of tea and a joy ride on Dan’s bicycle by Tom, we were back on the road enjoying the Vietnamese countryside.
We stopped for a moment to observe a soccer game between a group of young Vietnamese boys, and to high five some of the other spectators.
Pictured below is a woman working the rice fields that Dan stopped to ask directions. He said that many Vietnamese people did not like pictures being taken of them while they were working, the same way I may not want my picture taken if I were working while dirty and sweaty. That was an interesting way to think about it, so I only took pictures if Dan took one first. This woman was especially nice. Dan said only the women planted the rice, because the men plowed it first, so they got to stay home and drink wine. That didn’t seem fair.
We rode for about 44 miles on the first day. After riding several miles on a bumpy dirt road, we decided that we were about toast for one day. Since it was only Angela and I, we got to call the shots. We met up with Thai, our support driver, and drove 2 and a half hours from where we ended up North to Ha Long Bay City. Here we spent the night in the first hotel built in Ha Long Bay City, and where Ho Chi Minh apparently stayed. Based on that fact alone, I was a little disappointed in the lack of completely luxurious amenities, but the view of the bay was nice.
The next morning, Dan and Thai picked us up at the hotel and the three of us got out at the Ha Long Bay City harbor. We were supposed to board a junk boat, and go to some big, famous cave in Ha Long Bay. However, when we arrived at the harbor, we discovered that most of China had also decided to go to the harbor.
Angela waited with the bikes while Dan went to get our tickets. He said that it was the busiest he had ever seen the harbor.
Dan decided that everyone was going to the same cave, and so we should head to some island and start biking instead. He assured us that we would see a different cave. Angela informed me that she hated caves anyway, so we agreed to whatever Dan thought was best. We boarded a junk boat, and even though there were hundreds of other tourists, the only people onboard our junk boat were myself, Angela and Dan.
The views of Ha Long Bay were stunning to say the least. We sailed for about an hour and a half.
We passed through a narrow channel between some of the rock formations. There were several floating houses in the bay that would sell fish right to the passing tourist boats. It was apparent that all of the boats were indeed heading to the same place, because as soon as we broke off to our destination, we became the only boat around.
Above is a nice shot of Dan and I discussing important life matters on the boat, and enjoying the sights.
The boat ride was really beautiful. We even had some tea on the boat, along with the snacks that Dan’s neighbor makes. He brought a whole bag of them along.
We soon arrived at the Northern pier on Cat Ba Island. We dropped our bags off on a bus and immediately started biking.
After a few kilometers (and two nasty hills), we stopped at Cat Ba National Park. We were supposed to hike to the highest peak in the national park, and Dan assured us since we were young it should only take 45 minutes. So we did it.
Above is perhaps the best picture from the trip. I think it really demonstrates how steep the climb was to the top. It probably took about an hour to get to the top. I guess we weren’t young enough.
The view at the top was worth it, however. Until a group of young Belgium men and women arrived and started yelling profanities at one another. And people say that Americans are rude tourists…
After we hiked down from the mountain and ate lunch, Dan decided it was time for a 20 minute nap. Angela agreed, but unfortunately there were only two hammocks. I sat on a stump and deleted bad pictures off of the camera.
After our mountain and nap adventure, we were back on the road. Angela and I played a few rounds of name that song while we biked through the terrain pictured below.
After a few kilometers of easy roads, we arrived at the village pictured above. Since we missed the first cave, Dan took us to the hospital cave on Cat Ba Island. This was a fascinating hospital that was used during the Vietnam-American war. There was even an old swimming pool and movie theater inside the cave, pictured below.
After visiting the hospital cave, the ride became really hilly. We did not have to bike more than about 15 kilometers, but there were several large hills. We finally arrived in Cat Ba City. The picture below shows how Angela felt after all those hills pretty accurately. Even with that ice cream cone, she was still angry.
We had some extra time that night, so we walked around the small town. There were a lot of tandem bicycles in the city, which I found interesting. We decided not to try one out.
We enjoyed the sunset over the bay before meeting Dan for dinner and calling it a night. Dan made us drink too many beers.
We woke up early the next day and left Cat Ba City along the West coast to the town of Phu Long. The ride was really beautiful as the winding road followed the bay. Although it was hilly, we started the day with the hills before we were too tired.
I found another tractor near a shrimp farm on our way to Phu Long.
Once we arrived, we boarded a small boat and traveled through a mangrove forest. These were tree/bushes that grew right out of the water.
Eventually we stopped and walked along a thin walkway to Thien Long Cave.
This cave was only discovered in 1998. Our boat driver had to turn on a generator that powered a few lightbulbs throughout the cave. There were ancient human remains that were discovered in this cave.
Angela conquered two of her major fears this day. Not only bats and caves, but Angela and bats in caves. She did a nice job.
The surrounding landscape was really beautiful. Thien Long Cave is not a destination for tourists as it is not easy to get to, so we were the only ones around. There were a few local shacks, but nothing else.
After we returned to the village, we ate lunch at a restaurant that had a monkey chained up. After lunch, Dan tried to feed the monkey some crackers. After he tossed the package of crackers to the monkey, the monkey jumped at his face. Luckily the chain stopped the monkey from killing Dan. After Dan walked away rather quickly, the monkey did eat the crackers. Dan speculated that maybe the monkey thought the package was empty, and that is why it was so angry with him. Or maybe the monkey was just mad because it was chained up all the time. Poor monkey.
After lunch (and of course tea), we laid around in some hammocks and waiting for the boat that would take us back to the mainland. This time there were plenty of hammocks for all of us.
We biked to the harbor and caught a speed boat back to the mainland. Unfortunately, one of the speedboats engines failed and we went very slowly. I was nervous because I thought we were sinking. I even had a whole evacuation plan mapped out in my mind; I would put our passports and wallet in the seat of my bike shorts, and then get us both out the window. Well, it never came to that. We arrived safely on the mainland, and took the van back to Hanoi. The bike trip was incredible.
We still had Thursday and Friday in Hanoi, so we saw some of the sights. On Thursday, we went to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Ho Chi Minh’s body is preserved there. Angela and I decided to visit the museum first, and when we went to the mausoleum it was already closed. We decided that was alright. Below is Angela in front of the mausoleum.
On Friday we completed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour of Hanoi’s Oldtown. Below is the old city gate and 1/3 of Angela.
We also visited the Hoa Lo prison, which was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by many P.O.W.’s kept there during the war. Below is Angela checking out the uniform that senator John McCain was captured in.
Friday night we enjoyed drinking several bia hoi beers. This is a local brew, made without preservatives. One glass cost 5,000 Dong, which is a little less than 25 cents. The vacation was spectacular. All for now.