Everywhere in Vietnam Begins with H

Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, and the Hai Van Pass. Next is Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City.

I’ll begin by saying I really love it here in Vietnam. The country, the food, the people, all good things. Not every backpacker I met loved the people, and said comparatively the Cambodians and Thai were nicer. I’ll get back to you on this, but would guess that part of it is tonal. Vietnam’s language is terse, full of one syllable words where intonation is everything, and usually sharply spoken. And they’re shouty. What is customarily rude in western culture is matter of fact here, but my impression is that most people are well intentioned.

After flying from Singapore to Hanoi I found myself waiting for my visa in the airport. I had done the legwork to get my e-visa taken care of ahead of time, and as a result this was a similarly involved process to Nepal, but a little clearer. I only needed to visit 2 desks – one to submit application/buy visa and then passport stamping. I got in with no problems. Grabbed a Grab (Uber of Asia) from the airport. I didn’t even notice for first few minutes, the driver was on the left side of the car (and right side of road). This almost felt backwards to me after 3 weeks of the opposite.

Antithetical to Southeast Asian backpacking, I had planned an aggressively quick itinerary. Where getting from place to place is time consuming and sometimes costly, this part of the world is one where foreigners come and take it slow and spend only a few dollars per day as they get to know a place and see where the wind will sweep them next. I was jealous. I was more researched for Europe and less about Asia, and had locked myself into an itinerary that made me miss some of the more remote attractions. Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t realize that Vietnam’s coastline is similar to that of the US, stretching from Seattle to LA. Traveling the whole thing by ground (as I had originally assumed I could) would have taken hours and hours in transit, and I’d be forced to ‘see it’ more than ‘experience it.’ So I restacked my plans to add a couple of days to Vietnam, cutting out the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. I’ll fly direct to Anngkor Wat, which will be my only destination in Cambodia (at least within December). I tried to keep my now 12 days in ‘nam open ended but had booked the first 5 nights: 2 in Hanoi, one on a boat in Halong Bay, one overnight train to Hue, and a night in a Hue hostel. This left some flexibility for Hoi An, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City.

When I arrived at my Hanoi hostel I learned that they served free beer every night. It was a Saturday and quite lively, with people from other hostels congregating there to make use of the liberal libations. Here I met a group of Spaniards and one Emirati woman. We all headed out to the night market where we got Banh Mi and did a small bar hop. They were kind of enough to speak English with some frequency to keep me included.

My one full day in Hanoi began with a walking tour provided by Jason (Goc is his Vietnamese name). His intent was to educate us more on North Vietnamese life rather than show us tourist attractions. We learned about love and marriage, death and funerals, food, and education, while seeing the Hoan Kiem Lake, the second longest bridge in the world (or so it was when construction completed 120 years ago), and a local market.

We also went to the original cafe to serve egg coffee. Basically like a coffee custard, this black Vietnamese Coffee was hidden beneath a layer of nacho cheese/queso appearing egg yolk mixed with sugar. Sounds gross but it was incredibly good.

After the tour I returned to the market (a more clothing oriented one than the food and bar – loaded night market) with Xavi (Xavier), one of the Spaniards from the night before who was also on the walking tour. We spent a lot of time checking out various stores and negotiating with shop owners that covered the gamut from pleasant to rude. We both wound up buying a couple of imitation North Face jackets (seemingly every jacket in Vietnam, whether for sale or being worn by locals, has a North Face logo).

I then headed off solo to walk through a fancy part of town, passing by the Opera House, to get to a restaurant I had read about.

I sought Bun Cha, where Obama and Bourdain had dined a few years earlier. The food was good, but the shrine to Obama was more interesting. They had preserved the table he ate at behind a glass case and had photos of him everywhere.

I thought about heading to touristy spots of Hanoi but it was getting late and I hopped into barbershop on a whim. In order to describe what I wanted them to do, shave my head and most of my beard, I showed them the below photo, and then I took it upon myself to complete this look:

The next morning after some goodbyes to new brief friends in the hostel I took a 4 hour bus ride to my two-day boat tour of Halong Bay. Hostel morning said some goodbyes. The ride was pleasant and pretty, through some fields and towns, with hills in the distance.

Approaching the ocean we passed through more towns in the flatlands alongside increasingly craggy small mountains in the distance. Those shapes got me excited for Halong Bay.

When we arrived at the harbor our guide, Harvey, explained that theres 450 boats that do a day tour and only 40 overnight, which would afford us a decent amount of seclusion on our route. The bay was stupendous and spectacular. Karst island cliffs and small green mountains jut out of the water in irregular shapes and patterns in every direction.

The boat was about half full. I booked it knowing it was a backpacker boat, but didn’t realize it billed itself as the premiere party boat of Halong Bay. This wasn’t my intent but also wasn’t a problem. The attendees were generally peers of mine, with lots of couples, while most singles were guys (el barco chorizo as the South Americans dubbed it). We had an amazing time amongst the utterly stunning scenery. Yoga, hot tubs, jumping from an 8 meter platform and swimming in the bay, kayaking, and a dance party. Our two “hosts” (an Englishman and Irish woman who had been at it for about 3 months) did well to keep peer pressure on for everyone to be drinking throughout the night.

In addition to about 40 western backpackers there was one Vietnamese group, mostly younger couples, and one older woman I dubbed “auntie” who really enjoyed dancing with me.

I was fortunate enough to wake up for sunrise before snapping a number of other photos on our morning trip back toward land.

Back in Hanoi I got dinner and went for a walk by the imperial citadel before heading to my overnight train. While Hanoi was extremely chaotic by American standards, it appeared to me as a busy tame place after seeing some more significant bedlam further west in Asia. More memorable than the traffic was the sidewalk cafes and restaurants, where plastic chairs and tables covered the sidewalks, sometimes empty and sometimes overflowing with patrons eating street food, drinking, and/or watching football (soccer).

I caught my overnight train to Hue with seconds to spare (whoops). My roommates were a Vietnamese tour guide and one french guy on his tour. A fourth guy showed up at a stop a couple of hours in, we never spoke. I slept pretty well on the 13-hour train ride. Spending the prior night on a “party boat” turned out to be a great strategy for this.

I got off at 8:30am in Hue, went to hostel where I had breakfast, and then out to do some sightseeing during my 24 hours here. It was cold and wet, and looked like the rain might let up around midday, so first, a massage to kill some time indoors. I then walked to the market, which was intense, narrow, geared toward locals, and reminded me of a miniature American flea market (not in overall scale, but in area per booth or aisle).

I got an overpriced but good lunch at a French restaurant near the Imperial Citadel walls, without ever actually entering the imperial site, where a palace and theater were the main attractions.

I then walked along the Perfume River for a few miles to get to the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist monastery site. This felt like one of the more spiritual places I had visited in a while, but the number of tourists were distracting.

After the pagoda I took a tourist boat back to cross the river and bypass walking the 3 miles again. I was able to drop the price from 250,000 duong (about $11) to 100,000, and still feel like I probably overpaid.

I had heard mixed feedback about hue being beautiful from some and boring from others. I now understood both. I’d probably lean to the boring side. I had also read that it had some of Vietnam’s best food, which I learned through some on-the-go research was because Hue the capital of two kingdoms in the 18th-20th centuries, chefs here were responsible for making varied dishes so the emperor/king could eat a different dish every day. Thus there are over 150 dishes that originated here. Many of the best are street food, or so it appeared online. After a phone charge and shower I headed back out for dinner. My street food research paid off. Banh trang trung was like a personal thin crust pizza, a fried crepe topped with egg, chili, scallions, and ground pork, dipped in a thin sweet sauce. Holy moly frijole, this one rivaled the Kathmandu chaat as best street food of the trip.

City had a lot of sculptures. Some tourism. In some ways reminded me of Aachen Germany. Hue is worth a stop if you’re passing thru, but otherwise not necessarily a destination. I picked it because 13 hours from Hanoi seemed long enough, and then i’d get to experience another place and have a relatively short ride to Hoi An, which everyone raved about and i was excited to see the following few days. Weather can no doubt dictate the experience of a place. My gray day in Hue didn’t blow me away, but maybe the green river would’ve felt more exotic under a blue sky. Walking around at night, where bright and colorful lights added a good deal of visual interest, I was more impressed.

I had heard rave reviews of the Hai Van pass, a Top Gear (TM) endorsed route as one of the most beautiful and best motorcycle rides in the world. Hai means sea and Van means mountain, and this is what the pass straddled. Vietnam built a series of three tunnels so vehicles could avoid the steep slopes and many switchbacks that comprised the pass, which left it as a near exclusive tourist route. I wasn’t too enthused with the prospect of helming a motorcycle, and had promised I wouldn’t, so I took an Easy Rider, where I rode as a passenger on a bike through this route (sorry Mom). We began at the lagoon and a fishing village.

I got to understand why the Hai Van (mountain ocean) name was fitting.

I saw the entrance to the new tunnel.

And made a final stop of the tour at the marble mountains before I was dropped at my Hoi An hostel. Each of the five marbles mountains is named for an element (wood, fire, water, stone, metal), but you can only go up water. The others all exclusively serve the marble industry.

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