Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay, and Cuc Phuong)

Sorry it’s been so long but I am really enjoying myself and just haven’t had time to sit down and write. The good news is I’m getting my laptop back soon and will be able to write while in transit. Thanks to everyone for your comments and well wishes. I really appreciate it and it’s making the journey even better.


After the debacle that ended our stay in Bangkok, the flight to Hanoi was short and we arrived in the early morning. We ran to the ATM to get some cash for the taxi and pulled out 100,000 dong each before realizing that was only about $8 each. From that point onwards, every time we visit an ATM we each pull out 2 million dollars, er, I mean dong. A guy can dream, can’t he?

Walking from the airport, I felt like a celebrity as ten taxi drivers, upon noticing the color of our skin, immediately started shouting and screaming to get us to come with them. We accepted one offer and away we went. Using our guidebook we directed the driver to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the original center of the city and a bustling, busy, and noisy hub of hotels, restaurants and pubs. Not to mention about a dozen small eateries per block containing my favorite dish of all time, Pho (pronounced fuh.) Once we checked into our hotel – which we found out later was not where we told the driver to take us – we immediately set out to find the delicious noodle soup of my dreams. It didn’t take long to find a place and we settled down – more like squatted down – onto our tiny stools and slurped to our bellies were full. Although Pho can be found 24/7, the Vietnamese tend to eat it for breakfast and next to a super spicy Bloody Mary, it is hands down the greatest hangover cure known to mankind. Much to my palettes pleasure, we would be spending the next 3 weeks indulging, sometimes twice a day, in the culinary legend of Vietnam.


I eat two bowls in the morning

I eat two bowls at night

I eat two bowls in the afternoon

It makes me feel alright

We spent two nights in Hanoi, basically chasing different food dishes that we hadn’t tried in the States. One night we had Cha Ca, a hot pot of fresh fish with veggies and noodles served on the side. Most restaurants only serve one or two types of dishes so ordering is sometimes unnecessary and also allows the restaurants to truly perfect their craft. During an afternoon adventure to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum we sat down at a little cafe and without saying a word had soup and sides in front of us within seconds. The dish is called Bun and you dip your veggies in the broth or allow them to cook in the broth and eat as a soup. Either way, it’s unbelievably delicious. I truly cannot get enough of the food here.

A side note though, I’ve lost ten pounds since starting the trip. I’m assuming it’s mostly muscle as the few workouts I do sneak in consist of pushups and situps in our hotel room. Sweating like a pig 20 hours out of the day probably helps as well.

Finding any location is nearly impossible and there are a few factors at play here: If you’re walking, streets change names roughly every two blocks and numbers are not intuitive, for example if you’re looking for 22 Le Loi, across the street from it could be 876 Le Loi. Not to mention you also get slashes and letters involved in addresses, such as 22A/25 Le Loi, which means it’s an alleyway off of Le Loi. Your other alternative is to take taxis or motorbikes, and believe me, you can’t walk more than three steps without being incessantly propositioned or honked at with shouts of “motobai, motobai?” The only struggle with this method to finding your destination is due to the Vietnamese business concept of “copycatting.” For example, if you were to open a restaurant called Jason’s Pizza and it became successful, gathering notoriety in guide books and magazines, all of the businesses around you would soon be named Jason Pizza, Pizza by Jason, Pizza Jason, Jayson’s Pizza, and Pizzeria Jaison and given the brilliant postal system they’d all share the same address.

Hanoi is dirty. Noise pollution is rampant, consisting of 4 Million motorbikes revving their way through the narrow streets, taxis speeding, and tourist buses driving crazier than anyone – not to mention they all have this obnoxious affinity towards blaring their horn at least once a second. While on a bus from Hanoi to Hai Phong, I created the Vietnamese Guide to Horn Blowing, a guide that must exist somewhere:

Honk when…

  1. Approaching other vehicles or pedestrians
  2. Passing
  3. After passing to remind them they’ve been passed
  4. To alert rider’s their bus has arrived
  5. Entering an intersection or roundabout
  6. Going slow
  7. Forced to brake
  8. You need to remind others that you’ve already honked and are prepared to continue
  9. Making turns or entering roundabouts as signalling is insufficient notification
  10. Passing busses full of tourists that have pulled off to the side of the highway for an embarrasing bathroom break amidst the rubber trees.

Roughly 18 bowls of Pho later, leaving Hanoi was easy as we were excited about heading east towards the UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long bay. After some research we decided the best starting point for a sailing adventure would be from Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba

The town is completely deserted and the weather is reminiscent of Philly in April: foggy and sporadically raining with a humidity of 110%. Cat Ba’s main street is crescent-shaped running adjacent to the water’s edge and the tall hotel building are each painted in beautiful, bright colors. It reminds me of a smaller version of the French Riviera. We nestled into an amazing hotel on the fourth floor with our own balcony overlooking the entire town not to mention a view of the bay. The price was an absurd $6 per night and the hotel manager was so excited to have some business that he let us take his motorbike around the island for free. Later in the afternoon we found ourselves in a small little village on the outskirts of Cat Ba National Park having a cup of coffee with the locals while they practiced their English. It seems that everyone in Vietnam, regardless of age, knows how to say “hello” and “where you from?” However, should you decide to answer they will embarrassingly run away or stare at you in amazement. Children and adolescents are especially fond of foreigners and as you zoom by they will smile, wave and scream”hello!” No matter how tired or decaffeinated I may be, this simple gesture always makes me feel on top of the world.

That evening we stopped at a Vegetarian restaurant where we met some Americans, Travis and Katie and a Canadian, Robin. Travis and Katie now live in Bangkok where Katie is an English teacher and Travis is a budding photographer. Erin and I had talked about possibly teaching English so we had a long night of question and answer. Robin is currently bicycling around Vietnam and covers about 60-70 miles per day. they had all met while teaching English in Northeast Thailand. Again, another one of our dreams is to complete a bicycle tour so we had plenty of questions for Robin too. It seems as though the more people we meet, the more we hear of amazing ideas for lifestyles and adventures. We had a few more drinks with our new friends and stopped back at our hotel to try and book our boat trip to Ha Long Bay the next morning. Unfortunately when we woke, the fog had settled in so thick that we scrapped our plan to head out to sea and returned back to the mainland where we caught another bus south to Ninh Binh, roughly 60km from our next destination, Cuc Phuong National Park.

Cuc Phuong National Park

There are travel agencies on nearly every block in Vietnam to entice you on where to go next. We enter them with the intention of stealing their itineraries and planning our own adventure, partly because we are broke backpackers but more so because we like to get off of the beaten path and see the countryside.

Arriving in Ninh Binh relatively late in the evening, we decided to just hit the sack and ended up catching up on plenty of lost sleep. The next afternoon we rented a motorbike and began our ride to the National Park in what ended up being an 80 mile round trip adventure. We spent most of the time being completely lost but eventually arrived after speeding through endless sleepy towns.

For the first hour we visited the monkey’s who are being bred at the park to save them from becoming endangered or extinct. All of the monkey’s here are rescued from hunter’s who either sell them to China or use them for food. Afterwards we hopped back on our motorbike for another 20km ride through the park where we stopped at a prehistoric cave. It was terribly boring and our headlamps were nearly out of battery so being the big babies we are when it comes to the dark, we retreated back to our bike. Continuing on, we took a two-and-a-half hour hike through the forest in the sweltering heat. The main attraction is a 1000 year old tree which carried about the same excitement as watching water boil. Finishing the hike, we decided to head home as the sun had already begun setting.

Halfway back to the main entrance to the park our motorbike started making a terrible noise near the rear wheel. We pulled over and by now it was completely dark. Luckily, a band of other motorbikes came along and had the necessary tools to help us remove our chain guard, which had somehow become bent and was rubbing on our rear wheel. It was nice to see firsthand what we had frequently read about in our guidebooks: the Vietnamese will help you out if you’re in trouble. There were roughly 10 of them assisting in the repair and all of them had their ideas of what was wrong. Erin spent the rest of the ride holding onto the greasy guard and as we left the park, our fearless mechanics were waiting to make sure we were able to continue.

By now it was completely dark and riding at night is quite the experience. As the driver, I was nearly blinded from all of the bugs and also realized why the usage and over-usage of horns is a complete necessity. Due to the wind you can’t really hear that well and side mirrors tend to shift and move from the bumps and vibrations of the bike. So, when buses are approaching you really don’t know they are there until they blare the horn behind you, sending every hair on your body to attention. As they pass they continue to honk and of course, once the pass is complete they give you a little reminder honk, as if to say “haha.”

Red-eyed, we arrived back at the hotel and the owner of the motorbike was a bit perturbed at the status of his chain guard and insisted we pay for the damage. I refused and told the manager of the hotel, who spoke perfect English, to grab me a pair of pliers and a wrench and I would fix it myself. He smiled and before long, there were six of us on our hands and knees banging and torquing the faulty guard back into place. The hotel manager allowed us to use his room and shower so we could change. We ate some dinner at their restaurant and an hour later, Erin and I were boarding our overnight bus to Hue, considered by many to be the culinary capital of Vietnam.

3 thoughts on “Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay, and Cuc Phuong)

  1. Aunt Sandy

    Jason, You should be come a writer. I really enjoy reading about all your wild adventures. you are so funny with the way you tell your storys. have fun be safe . give Erin a hug. love Aunt Sandy

  2. POP "E"

    Got your e-mail. yeah, send me the manzear. might need it in the near future. P.s. got tickets for the Netherlands. Let’s start making arrangements. Keep having a blast. Give Erin a kiss for us and let me know if she got my e-mail

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