Northern Vietnam – Hue, Hanoi and Halong Bay

I was pretty sad to leave Hoi An and was pretty sure I wouldn’t find anywhere in Vietnam I loved quite as much. I was right, although I did have some good times in Northern Vietnam. Our first stop was Hue which we found to be the least touristy place we’d been. Due to this fact it was a little difficult to find any attractions worth visiting and we weren’t a big fan of the place on the whole. It didn’t help that it rained a lot of time it was there. Personally, I welcomed the cold(er) weather after spending weeks struggling with the heat, but Jess was not impressed! It was funny to see everyone cover up from head to toe as soon as there was a bit of drizzle. We just powered through and walked through it – we’re from Wales for gods sake – it was just a bit of rain!

view of Hue roof tops (and an example of the weather)

view of Hue roof tops (and an example of the weather)

Unsure what to do in Hue, we opted for a day trip that had been recommended to Jess while we were in Hoi An. The tourist office told us there would be around 3.5 hours travel time to get there and the same to get back. It was to a national park and a ‘paradise caves’. I wasn’t that fussed on going myself, just because I’ve already seen some pretty amazing Limestone caves – once the last time I went to Laos and once in the USA, but I didn’t want to waste the day and so decided it couldn’t hurt to see one more. That was until I got on the (very uncomfortable and cramped) mini bus and realised the journey time would be an entire 5 hours there and 5 hours back, leaving around an hour and a half to actually look at the cave before you had to leave and drive back. We were ready for the bus at 6am (it was an hour late) and we arrived back at around 8pm.

This wouldn’t have been so bad if we could have stopped in what was an absolutely beautiful national park, but for some reason the tour bus didn’t feel the need to do that. So I frustratingly watched the scenery pass me by through the view of a dirty mini van window. After the amount of time I had spent on a bus lately, I was totally unimpressed that they hadn’t warned us of how much travel time was involved. There’s no doubt the cave was amazing, but for me it just was not worth 10 hours of discomfort on a mini bus. It also would have been a better experience if several Vietnamese people hadn’t felt the need to shout and scream at each other across the cave for most of our walk through it. It was extremely irritating!

cave entrance

cave entrance

I also experienced the frustration I had felt at Angkor Wat when people just walk straight in front of you when you’re about to take a photo, knowing full well that they’re doing it. Apparently it’s just too much to ask for them to wait that entire one second for you to press the shutter on your camera. It appears that only certain parts of the world possess basic manners when it comes to that. It’s one thing that makes me feel very homesick out here, it’s made me realise just how polite Brits are compared to other regions. Another lovely experience I had at this park was going to the toilet and being faced with what I can only describe as tarantula sized spiders. I bypassed the first toilet for that reason but after telling myself over and over that there wouldn’t be a toilet stop again for hours I braved the second. It had a massive spider on the wall opposite and I felt sick with fear but I managed it. I felt pretty traumatised for a good hour afterwards though!

Limestone formations that almost looked fake they were so strange

Limestone formations that almost looked fake they were so strange

Anyway so the only other thing we did in Hue was go on a hunt for some chocolate and a Sunday lunch (it was Easter Sunday). We failed on the chocolate front but managed to find a substitute for a roast in the form of chicken and mashed potatoes – not too bad but definitely no match for my mum’s! Our bus was at 5 so we had a few snacks before we got on. Of course by about 7pm we were starving and I wasn’t happy to realise that my Easter dinner had been two pots of yoghurt and a packet of crisps.

God was I jealous of everyone’s Sunday dinner facebook updates at that point! Luckily we stopped at a service station to have some delightful instant noodles with lumps of fat floating in it (I swear there was zero meat on that ‘chicken’). Feeling quite sick but not so hungry any more we got back on the bus and I began the horrible task of trying to sleep on a night bus. We had also acquired the worst seats on the bus which were in what I would describe as a cave at the back of the bus on the bottom level. But hey, at least my trousers weren’t covered in watered down piss this time.

We reached Hanoi in the morning after I had managed 2-3 hours sleep, not bad for me, and I was faced with one thing I had hated about Ho Chi Minh – hundreds of mopeds. There is nothing worse when you’re exhausted than dealing with mopeds driving into you, around you and crossing your path constantly. They will literally just pull up half a metre in front of you on the pavement as you walk, and I swear when you cross the road they swerve to make you think they’re going into you. Although I’m glad to have experienced it, it’s something I will definitely not miss about Vietnam. It wasn’t however, anywhere near as bad as Ho Chi Minh in terms of chaos. A few people had told us to expect that in Hanoi – they obviously hadn’t been to Ho Chi Minh yet!

mopeds in the rain

mopeds in the rain

Another thing I saw when I got off the bus was someone unload two poor ducks from the baggage area of the bus, wrapped in newspaper with their heads poking out. I find it so hard to understand their disrespect for animals in South East Asia and it makes me pretty sad.

wrapped up ducks

wrapped up ducks

Our hostel were lovely enough to give us breakfast and give us a room straight away at 9am where we immediately collapsed for a few hours and enjoyed the three American movie channels we had got to known on our lazy nights in Vietnam. When we surfaced it was strange to feel rain and, well, not cold, but not boiling hot for once. I actually loved the change. I could walk around and not sweat/worry about dehydrating – a welcome break.

We didn’t really do much in Hanoi itself and I don’t think there was much to see apart from a pretty lake in the centre and some temples. I found Hue and Hanoi quite similar and to be honest, would have been quite happy to have skipped them both if it wasn’t for our day trip to Halong Bay, probably the thing I was most excited about in Vietnam.

Although you can do 2 or 3 day trips to Halong Bay, we were on limited time (and I didn’t fancy sleeping on a boat due to seasickness last time I attempted that in Australia) and so opted for a day trip instead. Although the weather wasn’t great (until annoyingly, right as we started to leave) it was just as epic as I had imagined it would be.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

We ate a feast of Vietnamese food on the boat before stopping off at a floating village for some kayaking. Jess and I were quite apprehensive about this as we’re not the strongest girls and were worried our arms wouldn’t get us very far (we had decided it was a definite boyfriend activity!) but to our surprise it was fine. We were so happy we hadn’t opted for rowing boats and could kayak around the rocks, stopping where we wanted and taking our time. It was amazing just floating right in the middle of a cove, taking in the scenery. We did, however, get stuck in a few traffic jams and almost got hit on the head with a few paddles from passing rowing boats! we weren’t great at navigating our way around!

floating village

floating village

kayaking

kayaking

We made it back fine and had one stop in another limestone cave (much to my annoyance as it made the last 10 hour cave trip seem even more pointless, although it wasn’t anywhere near as nice) before we headed back to the shore and took our 3.5 hour mini bus ride home. This time the travel time was completely worth it. I loved just sitting at the top of the boat and watching these beautiful rocks pass by. A lot of people stayed overnight but I think we made the right choice. It was amazing but I can’t imagine on the second or third day of seeing the bay it would have quite the same effect. For us a day was fine.

The sun coming out

The sun coming out

Our last day in Vietnam was spent basically going on a hunt for a restaurant we had seen on the bus with a cheese board. I have to admit, as much as I love trying new dishes, Asian food doesn’t rate highly on my list of favourite food. I’m more of an Italian or Mexican kind of girl and I really love all types of cheese. That doesn’t include the plastic, processed kind you find in most restaurants in South East Asia, so I had been nursing a major cheese craving for weeks. Eventually we found it. It may have been a tiny portion and just half of it cost the same as a main meal but it was so worth it!

cheese feast

cheese feast

On the whole I found Northern Thailand that little bit more friendly than Southern Thailand but not as pretty. That might have been because of the weather but I found the landscapes prettier on the Southern Coast. The hotel staff were also more efficient and it was less touristy than places we’d been in the South. If I were to visit Vietnam again, however, I would skip Hue and go straight from Hoi An to Hanoi to do Halong Bay. Hue for me was a bit of a pointless stop and nothing I hadn’t seen before in Southern Vietnam.

Hanoi view

Hanoi view

After our last day in Hanoi it was time to board our 24 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang in Laos. Although the journey was bound to be horrendous I was excited about the idea of going back to a country I’d visited and loved before. I had enjoyed Vietnam but was happy to be leaving the chaos that had started to drive me a little bit crazy. Laos was also to be our fourth country in five weeks. Not bad going!

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