Ha Long City, Ha Long Bay

My brother and Tessa had been to Ha Long Bay, a very popular tourist destination. They did a multi day cruise based out of a tour from the city. Following their advice we didn’t book a tour from the city but instead only booked a bus for transportation to Ha Long city to figure it out from there. 

After getting a contrasting a couple places we booked a bus for $8 to Halong City.

Everyone else on our bus was on a tour and we were the only ones just booking the bus. The bus actually dropped us at a cruise terminal 3km from the city. Here lots of people were trying to hustle us to buy a cruise telling us that cruises only left at that time of the day. Rather than be pressured into making a bad mistake, we opted to instead take our time and stay in the city one night.

We walked the 3kms to the city and onto the main road where the hotels are, on D Vuon Dao.

Here we booked a hotel room for $10 a night with a beautiful view of the city.

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There were very few tourists in Ha Long City since most people opt for a tour straight from Hanoi. In hind site, I wish we had booked a trip straight to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi since this is supposed to be equally beautiful but less touristed and less polluted. But, if we were to do a trip to Ha Long Bay like we did, we should have just booked the tour straight from the city. So, basically we messed up. Happens.

As we were to find out, it is true that the boats only leave at noon each day. So we were basically stranded in Halong City for the day so we decided to walk around and explore.

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There was a nice promenade along the water so we strolled for a few miles.

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Everyone hustles in Vietnam, but it was more intense in Halong City as like I said there were very few tourists. We couldn’t walk 10 feet without someone trying to hustle us into their hotel room, give us a ride on their moped, stay at their hotel, etc. I think they see us as walking dollar signs. It was frustrating but we learned just to ignore them as they don’t take no for an answer if you try to politely decline.

We ended up grabbing lunch at a place with seafood (all the restaurants seem to serve the same thing). The food was excellent.

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We spent the rest of the day shopping around for a tour. We did our best not to get ripped off but it is difficult. Apparently there are three options for cruise boats: 5 star, 3 star, and Standard. We were advised not to take Standard as the boats were not up to par. So we booked a 3 star boat and paid $120 per person for a “two day” trip. This two day trip would turn out to be less than 24 hours, as they include the shuttle from Hanoi as part of the day as well as your drive between hotels picking up passengers. We would later find out we could have paid $95 for the same tour from another travel agency. We would also find out that the boat they sell you on would not be the boat we would take. They will say anything to sell you something and it is rare to find someone who speaks decent english so the language barrier is challenging.

The next day and noon we caught the bus to the cruise port. Apparently there is more than one since this is not the port were at the day previous.

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We had to wait around in the port for an hour or so until we met our tour guide. Although our boat could carry 16 guests, there was only us and an older couple from San Francisco.

The boat turned out to be very nice, had a lot of character.

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Can't complain about the view

Halong Bay is beautiful and one the the 7 natural wonders of the world. Although beautiful, there is garbage everywhere in the water which is a shame. The guide said most of it comes from the sea since it connects to the open ocean. Us humans are dirty.

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Apparently Jose and I were a couple on this trip as although there were 6 extra open rooms they made us share a room as well as Jose’s cold. All the food was served on shared plates and they were even kind enough to give us rose petals on our table for dinner.

The food was delicious, every meal plentiful and very good food.

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Everything on the cruise was very regimented. We were told Halong Bay management tracks each ship and tells them where they can dock and where they can go when. There are 2-300 ships in the water at any given time. We had a strict schedule to follow for everything. This place reminds me a little bit of the Galapagos in terms of the whole cruise experience, and a little bit of some kayak trips I went on in New Zealand.

Our first stop was a 45 minute stop at an island where we could swim in the garbage water and hike up some steep stairs for views of the bay.

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The hike up the stairs was pretty steep but only a 5 minute walk. Great views.

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Halfway up the stairs there were monkeys to entertain us on our break.

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I took a quick swim and we jumped back on the boat. Our next stop would be kayaking.

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There were only double kayaks available which made sense for Jose and I’s honeymoon. Kayaking was beautiful and we went through a couple caves.

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The kayaking lasted about the same amount of time. We reboarded our boat and docked for the night.

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At night we did some shrimp fishing but everyone quickly gave up since no one caught anything and lets face it, fishing sucks. Jose and I went to sleep in our cute little ocean view bedroom at 8pm.

The next morning we were woken up at 6:30am to start our day. The plan was to head to a cave then back to shore for noon to catch our shuttle back to Hanoi.

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We were the first ones in the cave since all the other tour groups had large groups. The older couple on our ship had departed to go on another ship (they were on the 3 day cruise agenda) so it was just Jose, myself, and our guide. The cave was impressive.

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It was about a 30 minute walk through paths throughout the cave.

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Once back on the ship we started our journey back to shore. We would be served one more lunch.
Along the way in the bay, the people do not stop trying to hustle us. They chased us down in a little boat and sold us some water and handed it up to us in a net.

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She sold big jugs of water for two bucks but on the ship all they sold was tiny bottles for a dollar that I would have drank twenty of in 2 days.

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Hanoi, Tam Dao, Ha Long City

The fight to Hanoi, Vietnam from Boston took about 36 hours door to door. I flew Boston to Chicago, Chicago to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Hanoi. The Old Quarter, where we were staying, was about an hour ride from the airport. Random enough, I ran across a girl in my high school graduating class in the Tokyo airport and then again in Hanoi city. I also met up with my Canadian travel buddy Jose in the Tokyo airport but this part was planned.

The plan was to meet Jose, possibly meet up with my brother and sister in law in Vietnam, then 3 weeks later meet up with our girlfriends and an third couple once in Bangkok for another 2 weeks. Outside of that we had open schedules.

Once in Hanoi we stayed at a hostel called Hanoi Rocks. This hostel was $6 a night for a dorm bed and included breakfast (omelette and toast with coffee) and free beer from 6-7 pm each day as well as free wifi and bottled water. Not a bad deal!

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Hanoi Rocks Hostel

We exchanged our money in the airport for Vietnamese Dong which was roughly 20,000 Dong = 1 USD. In the Lonely Planet, I read that we could catch a shuttle for round $3 USD to downtown or a taxi should cost us about $10-15.

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Vietnamese Dong

Given our long, miserable flight we opted for the taxi. The first taxi we saw I asked for the price and he mumbled in some horrible English, “meter” so we jumped in.

Once arriving at the hostel, the meter read about 382,000 Dong when at most it should have been 300,000.

Being obviously unfamiliar with the money, we were taking a while and he became increasingly frustrated. He gestured for us to hand him our money (which I would not have done) but Jose unthinkingly handed him his stack of dong. Once the hustle and bustle was over, we realized that he took about 500k dong or $25 and that was our first experience being ripped off in Hanoi 🙂

The first night we absolutely passed out. I had been sick the whole plane ride and we were completely jet lagged (12 hour time difference).

Before arriving, I read in the Lonely Planet that Vietnam is relatively safe and has a rapidly growing economy. So I was surprised to find how poor the majority of the people are. Although very poor, I was told they have very strict consequences for crime which keeps people honest. Whereas other countries I have been to you can feel uncomfortable and worry about someone snatching your camera or belongings, I don’t feel that vibe here.

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The city itself is pretty run down, exactly what you would expect from a third world country. What I noticed here more than other places I have been is that it seems this “wealth” from the “rapidly growing economy” is going to a select few people. I heard there are 60 million mopeds here- and out of those, I would guess there are about 50 mopeds for each car.

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Out of the cars that are here, there is a noticeably high ratio of expensive cars- a lot of Porsches, Mercedes, Range Rovers, saw several Bentleys. To have a Bentley in a place where meals cost $1.50 and hotels cost $5 a night you have to be seriously balling. So my feeling is that the people here are either “in” on this exploding economy or “out”, resulting in a seriously large separation of wealth.

What else was immediately evident was the lack of traffic. Although there an insane amount of people driving on the roads, they are all on mopeds which take up very little space.

These people drive like absolute MANIACS. It feels like you can’t cross the road without getting run over by 5 mopeds, a bicycle, and a car. After crossing a couple times, however, you see that they are accustomed to this craziness and they won’t run you over. Well, none of us have been run over yet anyway.

The first night, we met up with my brother and sister in law at a local restaurant and walked around the city a bit.

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They told us how they had gone up North already to Sapa (mountainous hiking area) and Ha Long Bay. They wanted to head South to Hoi An (small charming city) but this didn’t make much sense for us as we wanted to see the two places they had been before we headed South out of the Hanoi area.

So we ended up compromising and heading West on a day trip to Tam Dao national park. We were told it would be about 2 hours by moped.

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Jose on his moped in Hanoi

We paid $10 a day for the mopeds but were ripped off and should have only spent about 6. The guy at our hostel led us out of the city as the city is an absolute maze and with the nonstop fast paced traffic makes it near impossible to navigate. We learned that one ways are 100% optional, with about 70% of the people following the one way rules. Stop lights also agree with this, you can stop at the stop lights- or not. Also are the directions on the highway. You can drive with the traffic on the highway, or directly against it- your choice. Lanes in the roadways are for driving. Or parking. Or selling lighters. Or transporting your ducks.

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Passing trucks was downright scary, everyone constantly honking.

After a solid 2 hour ride we made it to Tam Dao. Luckily I had GPS on my phone and realized we were at the wrong place. We headed up a windy mountain road for 13 kms which was a blast until we ended up in the town of Tam Dao.

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Tam Dao

Here is where we lost my brother and Tessa, and we never found the entrance to the national park. But its about the journey not the destination, right?

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We waited at the bottom of the road as it was the only way they could return and what do you know we met up with him an hour or so later.

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The journey home was even more insane than the drive there. We were driving home at rush hour. We lost Daniel and Tessa to a flat tire we later found out. While they were on their own adventure dealing with their flat tire, we were attempting to navigate back to our hostel though all the winding streets, one ways, and chaotic traffic.

On the way into the city crossing a bridge I suddenly noticed we were the only mopeds on the bridge. Suddenly we go by a police stand they start yelling at us to pull over and tell us to go inside. They tell us we went the wrong way and we had to pay them 600,000 dong or they would keep our mopeds. I was afraid they would see my go pro on my helmet or confiscate my camera in my bag since we didn’t have the money. Luckily they settled for 80,000 dong or $4  and let us go 🙂

We were immediately thrown back in the chaos of millions of mopeds.

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Google maps was still working on my phone in terms of finding our location. So every time we’d get redirected because of speeding by a turn or redirected from a wrong way or bribing a cop, we’d have to reference our GPS to find our location. I don’t know how we would have made it home without it. Jose was uselessly asking for directions each time we stopped when I was looking at my GPS. Between the language barrier and enormous city, directions were mostly futile.

It was an extreme adrenaline experience, it felt like a high speed Grand Theft Auto video game chase trying to avoid pedestrians mopeds trucks cars and the cops.