Hanoi and Halong Bay, May 16-19

Hanoi, Vietnam is a jolt to the senses more on the scale of Morocco or India than of other Southeast Asia cities we've visited. Granted we experienced perhaps the greatest possible contrast by arriving in Hanoi from peaceful Luang Prabang, Laos, but there's no question that Hanoi -- at least its most interesting and popular neighborhood, the Old Quarter -- is true chaos. The streets are jam-packed with cars, motorbikes, bicycles, cyclo-cabs, and pedestrians, all going every which way without regard to rules of any type (photo 1). Pedestrians are on the street because the sidewalks, when not torn up, are occupied with vendors, makeshift food stalls and tables, parked motorbikes, and piles of goods in various states of delivery or discard (photo 2). Most glaring of all is the noise. Alex suggested it would be more efficient if Hanoi horns were by default in the "on" position -- drivers could press the horn on the rare occasion they wanted not to be honking.

Hanoi is well-known for tourist scams (some quite clever and elaborate), and for constant hassling of tourists using a variety of techniques to extract a bit of money one way or another. The guidebooks are so emphatic on this point that we were braced for the worst. As we've experienced before, the reality wasn't nearly so bad. Yes, walking down the street involves a steady stream of offers to buy this or that, eat here or there, stay in such and such a hotel, and answer the constant "Hello where are you from?". And there's a persistence that goes beyond the sellers in Vietnam's neighboring countries. (Overall, the Vietnamese people seem far more "hyper" than other Southeast Asians -- maybe they're drinking too much of their delicious coffee.) But by turning on the friendly yet firm denials -- sort of like the horns, permanently on except for brief pauses -- it's easy enough to thoroughly enjoy walking through the Old Quarter.

We've had only one full day in Hanoi so far, and we spent a good fraction of it gathering information and making some reservations for our remaining two weeks in Vietnam. We also enjoyed the landmark Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city, visited the Hoa Lo Prison better known to Americans familiar with the Vietnam War as the "Hanoi Hilton," inevitably browsed some souvenir shops, and most importantly made numerous stops in Hanoi's excellent Vietnamese/French bakeries, cafés, and restaurants. We'll have one more day to explore Hanoi later in our travels.

The #1 tourist activity in northern Vietnam -- probably in all of Vietnam -- is an overnight cruise on stunning Halong Bay, with its thousands of jutting limestone islands (photo 3). The way things are set up, a package van-boat-van tour from Hanoi is really the only reasonable way to see the bay. We were warned by our avid-traveler friend Mor Naaman (who, incidentally, also sent us to a superb evening-only sidewalk-occupying Banh Cuon stand) that for crowd-averse travelers the Halong Bay experience could be a real downer: 50 or more faux Chinese junks all following the same path, stopping at the same islands, and staying overnight in the same spot, with the lovely sounds of 20 after-dinner Karaoke parties wafting across the water. The tours are also famous for their huge variance in quality -- the cost of different tours varies by almost a factor of ten, though most travelers agree that if you're not scammed in some way or another, then you do pretty much get what you pay for. With all this in mind, we set off to book a tour the day before we intended to go. We had the good fortune to meet a family in our hotel who had just finished a tour they said evaded the crowds: the midrange-plus (our assessment) Columbus Travel Santa Maria boat, with special permission to follow a different itinerary than most of the others. After some shopping around, we went for it.

Halong Bay wasn't the transcendental experience for us that it is for some travelers, probably because we've spent so much time on boats, and because Thailand's Phang Nga Bay is a "junior" version of the same type of scenery. Nevertheless we were duly impressed, and the two-day trip was certainly worthwhile. We cruised among the islands (photos 4 & 5), went kayaking (photo 6), visited an amazing cave with the amazingly innovative name Amazing Cave (photo 7), and went swimming, which included leaps from the top of the three-story boat. (Admittedly only Tim did the leaping.) Our fellow passengers were three thirty-something couples traveling separately but coincidentally all from Melbourne, Australia, and three surgeons from New Zealand traveling with their wives after a conference. As always, our companions were well-traveled and interesting to talk with. The Santa Maria was indeed an excellent choice, and as promised we bucked the usual itinerary and spent most of our time as the sole boat on our route. As an added bonus, the cabins were comfy and the food truly excellent.

Emily has taken over nearly all of the travel-planning logistics from Jennifer at this point, and she's doing a superb job. Vietnam isn't an easy place for planning, with spotty and sometimes contradictory information, compounded by the fact that we're doing much of our planning last-minute. So far everything's gone as smoothly as we could have hoped, thanks to Emily's hard work.

Speaking of logistics, there's one aspect of Vietnam we never considered before arriving: unlike all the other Asian countries we've visited, written Vietnamese is based on the Latin alphabet. For us it's a considerable improvement when locating a specific shop or restaurant, or just finding our way around.

Next: Back in Hanoi after Halong Bay, we'll go straight to the station to catch the popular night sleeper train to Sapa. Sapa is in the mountainous north, where we plan to spend about 5 days before returning to Hanoi (again by night train). We'll then fly to Hué and Hoi An near the central coast, finishing up our time in Vietnam.

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