Tag Archives: Hanoi

SE Asia Trip Part 3: The Tourist Trap in Ha Long Bay

IMG_0124

Just to the east of Hanoi resides the pristine waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Maneuvering through hundreds of colossal rock islands, numerous small cruise ships jet through these waters giving tourists a look at Vietnamese floating fish villages, island-top views spanning overlooking miles of the bay, and a chance to hang around some monkeys.

The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.
The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.

Before arriving in Hanoi, I’d already booked a 3-day cruise in Ha Long Bay and was looking forward to kayaking, fishing, biking, cave-walking, and hiking throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day walking the streets of Hanoi, I found out that you can buy various cruise packages, in the 1,000s of travel agencies scattered throughout the backpacking area,  exploring these waters for much, much cheaper than what I purchased online, but oh well; I was still anticipating a great time.

In the morning, we were picked up from our hotel and on our way. Think of every terrible “Dad joke” you’ve ever heard.  Not the “it’s so bad, it’s good” kind.  I’m talking about the “I’m cringing because I can’t handle how awkwardly bad that joke was and now it’s really silent on the bus” jokes that you see in family vacation movies.  We endured that for 1-2 hours before arriving at the embarking location for our ship.

IMG_9439

IMG_9453

Now, I cannot remember where we booked our cruise from or what company it was, but I do remember specifically reading that we would be welcomed with a free beverage upon boarding. We were greeted with a 1/4 coffee cup of something that tasted pretty familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; more on that later.

After boarding the ship with 10 other unknowing travelers (4 of them turned out to be a family from Minnesota; small world) and finding that Zach and I had a pretty cool cabin for the night, the ship set sail for the first stop of the day.

IMG_0456

We arrived at a smallish island that held a beach and a stairway, leading you up to a beautiful top view of the surrounding area. Immediately upon disembarking, our crew was greeted with a sign warning about getting too close to the monkeys who had decided to come out to the area in a large group.  The group of monkeys postured on the main rock face and we just chalked it up as them being conditioned to sit there for food.  As we headed towards the beach and stairway, we looked towards the rock face from a different angle and I kid you not, there were manmade shoots leading out from cages planted in the back of the rock.  Zach and I began to have an inkling that we may have signed up for a tourist trap.

IMG_9580

The first destination did provide a fantastic view, a beach restaurant where everything was extremely overpriced, the chance to swim in the waters of Ha Long Bay, and I actually had a monkey jump onto my backpack and jump back up into a tree when I was trying to take a selfie with it.  I even captured the thrilling moment on film as it is in my Ha Long Bay video if you haven’t taken a look.

View from the top of the first island.
View from the top of the first island.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.

IMG_9848

The second destination was a visit to Surprise cave where there were hoards of other tourists to welcome our arrival.  While the cave itself was pretty cool, the walkway moved at a sluggish pace as it was pretty overcrowded.  Once you moved through the cave, you end up at an outlook point with a view of the entire bay harboring the cave.  Guess what was at the top as well… Another over-priced tourist stand with some lackluster handmade jewelry and a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit to Surprise Cave.

IMG_9942 IMG_9979 IMG_9994

I read the full rundown of our Ha Long Bay cruise before the trip so I was excited about the third item on the list: kayaking.  We stopped at the location and everyone hopped into their two-person kayaks.  All of us were a little surprised to find out that we were being given only 45 minutes to traverse the waters of Ha Long Bay; oh, and we couldn’t leave the kayaking bay. I understand that they have liability issues and there is safety hoopla, but from the description that I read on the website, it was going to be a much more exciting experience and we would get the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, but no.  We were able to aimlessly paddle in a small bay with the only semi-exciting aspect being drifting near the shores of the rock spires surrounding us.  I will admit that this cruise began to sour for me at this point and we were only on day 1 of 3. I guess we still had the night in the bay and the next day to look forward to.

IMG_0028 IMG_0029

IMG_0036

Once we were shuttled back to our ship, we were treated to a dinner of fried foods.  We were offered the opportunity to make our own Vietnamese spring rolls, which were delicious, but apparently the money all 12 of us on the ship had used to pay for this cruise only bought us enough meat to satisfy a goldfish; this was split among everyone.  Hooray. With the oily, fried food and one spring roll in my stomach, it was time to endure some more “Dad jokes” as our dinner entertainment.  They offered everyone the option for karaoke, but everyone single traveler chose to enjoy the mini-bar and enjoy the peacefulness of the night anchored in Ha Long Bay.

IMG_0041

Now it was time for another one of the things I’d been looking forward to: some squid fishin’.  Now anyone back home that fishes with me can tell you that I am not the most capable of fishermen (See: does not understand line allowance and rapola depths so his lure just drags off the bottom until it inevitably snags a rock and snaps off).  Thankfully this squid fishing was just bobbing a tri-hook and waiting for the squid to see it flash and attack it.  I bobbed for about an hour before I saw my first squid, but missed it. After about another hour–and 4 drinks later–I managed to snag one of those bastards.  With an excited whooping yell, I ripped that thing out of the water and onto the deck with ink flying everywhere.  I was also the only one to catch anything.  The crew said they would make calamari for me in the morning for breakfast, but I never saw my catch again.

I never said it was huge...
I never said it was huge…

After that, Zach and I talked with two Australian backpackers we befriende–Jack and Shanae(?)–to the tune of the ship crew belting out karaoke while we enjoyed a couple more drinks.  The wind blew both Zach’s and my empty glasses off where they were sitting and shattered them on the deck.  The crew must have thought we were pretty loaded although we really weren’t, but they didn’t believe us and just thought we dropped both of them.  Ok then.  After hanging out a little bit longer, we decided to hit the sack.

IMG_0042

The next morning, we were treated to a basic breakfast with no sign of my calamari (the crew never answered what they did with it) and we transferred ships to begin day two of the Ha Long Bay cruise. Little did we know that those broken glasses were $3 each (price gouging intensifies) and that Zach and I had spent about $30 a piece on drinks the night before.  Although I was told a different price at the time, the 2-fingers of Johnny Walker Red Label I enjoyed at dinner ended up being $8 and my White Russians $6 each.  These may not sound expensive, but for Vietnam this is highway robbery. We couldn’t transfer ships without paying the tab so we begrudgingly did so.  Twas’ not a great start to the morning.

IMG_0458

We were offered coffee on the next ship only later to find out it was $2 a cup although there was no mention of this when it was given to us and after paying that and the bar tab, we were on the spectrum between irritated and furious; the cruise had basically cost us $300 at this point.

The ship journeyed to our next location: a dingy oyster farm.  This stop showed us bags of oysters in bags floating in the water and a showing of how these farmers begin the pearl-making process (this was actually pretty cool, but very brief).  Our group was then led to a big display room featuring…and you guessed it, a bunch of overpriced “pearl” jewelry with prices being cheap at $100 and reaching upwards of $1,000s.  This had to be some type of joke.  This cruise was not what we had read about or even slightly anticipated. There were a few good things, but oh man.  I don’t even know how to describe our feelings at this point.  We still had two more things to do that day before reaching the hotel at Cat Ba Island.

IMG_0051

IMG_0048

The next activity was a bike ride around one of the bigger islands in the Ha Long Bay area.  Ok this could have some potential.  I remember sitting on top of the deck cruising towards the bike ride just laughing about the past 24 hours.  How could it get any worse?

The bike ride redeemed a large portion of the experience for me. It was a neat ride through mountain terrain (still on a paved path though), areas with dense vegetation, and a remote village surrounded by large mountains.  We cycled for a few hours through the island before heading back to the boat.  The bike ride had actually made me feel a lot better and calmed me a bit and I even got to witness the after party of a Vietnamese wedding at the village.  This was a taste of the scenic and cultural adventure I’d signed up for.

IMG_0134 IMG_0153 IMG_0173

IMG_0181

IMG_0229 IMG_0276

IMG_0321

IMG_0355

We then meandered to our 2nd to last destination at Monkey Island. About 8 monkeys hung around the beach area as we walked onto the beach.  Some were looking at us for food while others were play-fighting.  I witnessed a monkey snag a whole bag of fruit from a tourist’s hand and scurry away.  I even had a monkey hiss at me as I was climbing the rock trail that spilled over onto the hiking trails, but I wasn’t given much time to explore the forest areas of the island. Our group stayed here for about an hour before disembarking to end of the cruise experience and head to our hotel on Cat Ba Island.

IMG_0538 IMG_0497 IMG_0553

Top of Cat Ba Island
Top of Cat Ba Island

The past two days had deterred Zach and I from even thinking about partaking in something remotely similar to that tourist trap the rest of the trip.  When we arrived at Cat Ba Island, we asked our guide about night buses back to Hanoi because we just wanted to start our road trip down to Ho Chi Minh City.  The company was really concerned about us asking for a refund and didn’t care about our feedback about how disappointed we were with the cruise.  We just said screw it and bought bus tickets back to Hanoi for $20 each.  Six hour later, we were back Hanoi preparing for our road trip.

Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island

Overall, it was a pretty fun time being within touching proximity to monkeys, biking through a tranquil Vietnamese village, and catching a squid for the first time of my life.  Unfortunately it was the tourist-heavy events that sucked the soul out of the experience.  It just felt very generic, but I would still recommend visiting Ha Long Bay; just don’t buy the tickets online and don’t go into it with high expectations.  The views are incredible and it is a peaceful place to relax.

Oh and the welcome drink we were offered when we first boarded? Zach came to the conclusion that we had been given orange pop as the welcome drink and after reflecting on the taste, I realized it was most likely Fanta. We couldn’t help but laugh hard at this realization. What an experience.

Advertisements

SE Asia Pt. 2: Hanoi, Vietnam

My main goal of teaching in China right out of graduation was to use my holiday time to travel SE Asia.  An incredibly generous 5-week holiday—January 25th-March 1st—was given to me by the Nanjing No. 5 High School and I took full advantage of it.  After saving 70% of my paycheck every month for 5 months and a couple of unforeseen expenses, I had about $2,500 in my pocket and a rough itinerary of what I wanted to experience.  

IMG_9248

I paired up with a buddy who was also teaching English here in Nanjing at the time, planned to meet up with two other friends during the trip, and we headed out from the Nanjing train station with just our backpacks and a sense of adventure. After an hour train ride to Shanghai, another hour ride on the subway, a 20 minute lift on the Maglev train (a 186 mph heightened subway that rollercoasters through Shanghai), and a 3-4 1/2 hour flight from Shanghai to Hanoi, we had arrived.

Shanghai Maglev speed
Shanghai Maglev speed

Funny thing about Vietnam is only one type of visa available for tourists who do not live by a Vietnam consulate: visa on arrival.  The nearest Vietnam consulate to Nanjing is either Hong Kong or Beijing and we weren’t going to spend the money to travel there and back, so we opted for the visa on arrival which you can obtain online and only if you fly into Vietnam.  Unfortunate thing is that as soon as you land, you have to bring the visa approval letter, $45, and your passport to the processing area and wait until they call your name.  There is no method to the madness.  

The officials just hold up a processed passport and you collect it. The order and time you gave them your passport doesn’t matter.  I received my visa after an hour of waiting, receiving it before others who had definitely been there longer than me.

Just make sure you bring cash to pay the processing fee.  I ended up giving an Israeli guy $50 because his bank accounts were frozen and he had been at the visa processing center for about 2 hours and no one would help him, which was disheartening to see.  I don’t believe someone should be prevented from traveling for a minor reason like a visa fee and although he wanted my address to send the money back, I just told him to make the most out of the his trip. Maybe good karma for the trip (?), but it seriously pissed me off that no one would help him.

We paired up with a brother and sister (let’s name them Brian and Lily, both in their 30s) we had met in the visa processing line—Brian had travelled Vietnam numerous times—and hopped into a taxi from the airport.  The funny thing is that the tax driver wouldn’t reset the mileage ticker no matter how many times Brian yelled at him, and while this was our first red flag with the taxi, Brian just told us not to worry about it.

We finally arrived to the Hanoi city center except there was another problem that sprung red flag #2: the taxi driver kept driving.  The travel application I have on my phone showed that the taxi driver decided he was taking us north to drive around all of West Lake just to squeeze some more Vietnamese dong out of us (it’s the currency, get your mind out of the gutter). After some more awkward shouting from Brian, and me showing the taxi driver that I was tracking his route in relation to where our hostel was, he played dumb while bringing us back to the city center.

Traveling from the airport.
Traveling from the airport.

We arrived near our hostel and Brian told us to get our stuff out of the trunk and that he would pay for the taxi ride since he wasn’t going to give more than 200k dong (10$) compared to the 500k dong the taxi driver wanted. After an exhausting 13 hours of travel to start off the holiday, we were finally settled at our hotel in Hanoi.  Hoofta.

First night out wandering Hanoi
First night out wandering Hanoi

Besides the chaotic traffic (seriously, Vietnam traffic makes China’s traffic look organized), Hanoi is an old and pleasant city with a history that resonates through the neighborhoods you visit.  The smell of Phở wafts from local restaurants and whether we were in the backpacker’s area, the Old Quarter, or north of West Lake, Vietnamese coffee was a prevailing temptation. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but during our time here I swear I was drinking 3-5 cups of this heaven each day.  Now whenever I do go for coffee, I’m disappointed it isn’t drip coffee with chocolate mixed-in; this caffeinated heaven in a cup was our fuel to ingest on every stop during our road-trip and I am fully convinced I’ll never have better coffee.

Dat Pho doh
Zach and Dat Pho doh
Vietnamese coffee, ain't nothin' better.
Vietnamese coffee, ain’t nothin’ better.

Hanoi has everything to offer travelers.  From lush, green parks to historic attractions to unique Vietnamese food, Hanoi is a large city with much to explore.  

IMG_8799

Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Sweet and sour chicken
Sweet and sour chicken

One of the most popular attractions harbored in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature.  I thought of this place as taking an ancient Vietnamese college campus tour and the design of the place really sends you back a few centuries. The entire compound is ripe with historical information.  I personally found the old, scholarly tablets sitting upon awkwardly smiling turtles to be the coolest part of the visit and if the University of Minnesota hadn’t already stolen my heart, I totally would’ve enrolled here.  

Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature garden
Temple of Literature garden
Just past the first area
Just past the first area
2nd main area
2nd main area
Those smiles...
Those smiles…

IMG_8849

We also dropped by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the location where Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  I was a little uncomfortable walking around so many soldiers carrying AK-47’sI would hold and shoot one of these badboys later in my travels—but walking behind the monument in the gardens eased my mind. Besides the heavy military presence, it really is a tranquil area separated from the busy Hanoi streets.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

IMG_8997

Mausoleum Gardens
Mausoleum Gardens

Our visit to the Hoa Lo Prison was a more solemn experience. I found it appalling how many pro-Communist Vietnamese prisoners were held hear during their fight for independence and what they had to endure.  I actually didn’t know this prior to my visit, but learning about its use as an American POW camp was pretty brutal.  Sadness aside, as someone who enjoys learning about history, it was a great place to visit.

Just inside the entrance.  Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Just inside the entrance. Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Prison cells
Prison cells
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial

My absolute favorite place here is the Botanical Gardens located just behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  The park is a peaceful oasis from the city where many of the Vietnamese locals go to workout, play a variety of sports, and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The serene pond is surrounded by walking paths that take you through the profuse vegetation.  We talked with a few locals, strolled the park, and enjoyed watching a game of shuttlecock.

Shuttlecock.  Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Shuttlecock. Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Botanical Gardens Park center
Botanical Gardens Park center

IMG_9153

Zach and I decided to buy two motorbikes off two British travelers, in the Hanoi backpackers area, who just ended their road trip from Vietnam and the next day we decided to take our new bikes out for a ride through the city.  Cruising around the West Lake was an impressive trip that gave us even more views of Hanoi.  We also learned that if we can handle the traffic hell that is Hanoi, we would be just fine for the rest of the trip.  

North part of West Lake
North part of West Lake

IMG_9269

The Hanoi ultimate street shopping experience resides in the Old Quarter near Turtle Tower Park. Numerous times, random guys on bikes would pull up next to us wondering if we wanted prostitutes or drugs (I found this common in almost every place I visited during my SE Asia trip so you just get used to it), but thankfully once you tell them no, they don’t hassle you.  Otherwise you can find a great deal on shoes, trinkets, yummy food, and many other items in this area. There is a great bar scene as well and apparently the Vietnamese really like roller-blading in this area at night.

Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park
Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park

IMG_9233

Red Bridge at night
Red Bridge at night
IMG_9277
Turtle Tower beginning to light up
IMG_9280
Turtle Tower Park at night

I found the nightlife of Hanoi to be a bit tricky.  Due to government regulations, most places have to “close” at around 10.  Usually alcohol serving businesses just close their front shutter, but they won’t kick people out. Unfortunately, government officials and police came in and shut down a foreigner bar around 11:30pm when we had only been there for 15 min. The entire city turns into a borderline ghost town after 11pm.

Roller blading party before bedtime
Roller blading party before bedtime

Hanoi was my 2nd favorite place that I visited during my time in Vietnam. The city is exotic and the people are extremely friendly.  We kept busy for 3 packed days of exploring what Hanoi had to offer and I wouldn’t have minded staying a whole week if we had the time.  Day and night, the city and its people had me loving my vacation, and it had only just begun…

IMG_8812

Locations visited: Temple of Literature, Turtle Tower Park, Old Quarter, Botanical Gardens, West Lake, Hoa Lo Prison, Lenin Park, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Highlights: Motorbiking around West Lake was an awesome experience although Zach got in a minor accident during our roll.  I thought I saw his leg go under the bike of the person he collided with and proceeded to freak out, but he just yelled “GET THE F@%& OUT OF HERE,” and we peeled out.  An extreme adrenaline rush, a few scrapes and bruises on him were, a broken mirror, and some cosmetic damage to his bike were (thankfully) all that happened.

Favorite Food: Phở.  More Phở.  And Phở.  By the end of the first week, I was sick of eating it.

Snake wine.  Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions.  Needless to say I didn't try it.
Snake wine. Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions. Needless to say I didn’t try it.

What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return:

  • Get out of the Hanoi city center and explore the north area and east of area of the Hong River.

Total money spent: $200 ($400 including the bikes)

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk