We say goodbye to Jaime in the morning and sleep in a bit since our flight doesn’t leave until the afternoon. Hong Kong airport really is something, very modern and pleasantly able to keep a sane level of air condition, where others just opt for the ‘Celtic frost’ setting. We’re left sitting on the runway for a while due to heavy rain and thunder, but all in all we come into Hanoi not more than half an hour late. We did the visa application online, but there’s still another form to fill out once we get there of course. Double entry visas are $65 apiece and we don’t quite have that in USD but the guy is nice enough to take it in Chinese Yuan. When looking up the exchange rate though, he selects CHF (Swiss Francs) instead of CNY which actually gives us more money back than the visas cost! We help the poor guy realize his mistake though and he’s very embarrassed and helpful after that.
Surprisingly many of the money changers won’t take Chinese Yuan, so Jen with her 15,000 Yuan pack of bills is having a hard time getting her hands on Vietnamese Dongs (heehee). The ATM I find has a fee of 30,000 dong (˜10 sek), which seems to be true for most ATMs (except at least VientinBank). We also get a Vietnamese SIM card since they’re only about $10 and it could be handy if we’re in a bind somewhere. A taxi into central Hanoi ends up costing us 500,000 dong (225 sek) for the 45 minute ride, a bit more than expected, but whatever.
The Golden Time Hostel 2 has the most adorable and service minded owner you can imagine. She’s super helpful, speaks decent English and really goes out of her way to set things up for us. The hostel itself if very nice as well, with large clean rooms, a big bed and decent WiFi. She tells us that we can leave our big bags at the hostel while we go for the cruise in Ha Long Bay and even have a shower as we get back before getting on the train to Da Nang! First we have an evening in Hanoi to look forward to though. The owner marks a bunch of sights on a map, but most of them are closed at this hour. There are a ton of cozy little shops lining the streets so we just head out to wander around looking at those. We happen on a bag store, and since Jen’s backpack has seen better days and she needs a slightly bigger one, she gets a huge new one (75 + 15 l!) and a smaller carry-on, all for 800,000 dong!
There is a little lake right in the middle of the area we’re in, so we go for a stroll around it. The mood is very cozy and non-threatening with kids running around all over even though it’s late-ish (around 21). We run into a bunch of students that have gotten an assignment to interview tourists to practice their English. They are very cute and we stay and chat for a bit. All things considered, Hanoi is really nice so far; cozy little stores, salesmen who will take a no gracefully, and very nice food.
We have an early pickup the next day for our cruise in Ha Long bay. Surprisingly enough, the traffic is really slow and feels rather safe here, no one is driving full tilt and overtaking anything that moves. The drive out takes about 3.5 hours and even though it’s off-season, the boat is full. The cabins are very nice even though the boat exterior has seen better days. As we pull out you can really appreciate how lovely the scenery is here in Ha Long bay, I was a bit nervous that the pictures you see of the place were more or less taken at the same little area from different angles. But that turns out to be unfounded, the bay is very large and the rock formation endless in their variety. It has been overcast the whole day so far, making the light difficult to take good photos in and as we pull up to our first stop at a private island; the heavens open up and a torrential rain starts pouring down.
The island has a cave and we go there first. It was discovered by some fishermen, which made it their home for a while (and trashing most of the stalactites in the process), until the government took it over. Now the cruise company rents the island and are obligated to take care of the cave too. The problem is that ‘taking care of’ apparently includes putting masonry all over the ceiling so that stuff doesn’t fall down on tourists or something. It’s still a rather impressive cave though. Emerging from the cave again, the rain has turned into a full on thunderstorm! The storm is not that close though and there are plenty of high islands and boats for the lightning to hit, so we’re not that worried about going swimming. It’s maybe not the Ha Long bay experience you see in the brochures, but we’re having a great time!
For dinner we’re seated next to a the nice deaf couple from San Fransisco and we have conversation through note-passing. I tell them that they should try diving since communicating for them wouldn’t be any different from what they do on land. They like the idea and say they’ll probably give it a shot. The next stop is the following morning and it is a fishing village. Since the the islands around Ha Long bay are all limestone and rather steep, it’s not really possible to live on them. So the families are all living in floating houses here. So we each get a private ferryman/woman that rows us around the village. It’s rather cool to see how they’ve adapted to the life on water with little fish farms, generators for electricity and little store-boats going from house to house.
Each ferryman/woman also has a scoop net to pick up trash as it floats by, but I guess that is just common sense when tourism is a major source of income for the village. The tour ends at the oyster farm where we get to see how they cultivate pearls by prying the oyster open, putting a tissue graft from (basically a piece of shell polished into a ball) another mussel inside, followed by a gob of antibiotics to take care of possible infections. Naturally there is a shop to buy all manner of pearly creations, but we manage to escape unscathed. The village is the last stop on our cruise so after boarding we vacate our room and have one last delicious lunch. The crew are all in a row to say goodbye while we’re all gathered and the engineer even whips out the most out of tune guitar I’ve ever laid ears on and do a heartfelt ballad about Hanoi. Following lunch we grab our stuff and head up top to bask in the deck chairs and take in the view of Ha Long bay.
The ride back to Hanoi includes a stop for a water puppet show. This is an old local tradition where you have these puppets mounted perpendicular at the end of long sticks. These sticks are then held under water so that only the puppet is showing. The puppet masters are standing behind a curtain, out of view and the result is kind of neat. The show is divided into short glimpses of everyday life; the farmer plowing his field, fending off the fox when it comes for the chicken and so on. It’s somewhat entertaining, but quickly gets boring. Fortunately it doesn’t drag on too long, considering that we have a night train to catch back in Hanoi. Luckily for us the traffic isn’t very bad and we have time for both the aforementioned shower and a light dinner before catching a taxi to the station.
At Vietnamese trains they don’t check the ticket on board the train, instead they check it as you leave the station house to enter the tracks and again as you enter the station house at your destination. If you lose your ticket there’s a sizable fine. We end up sharing a compartment with two American girls who are part of a group trip doing basically the same circuit as we are, but including Thailand as well. They are super nice and there are others from the group joining us for an evening of stories, laughter and exchanging of travel tips.