Comprised of thousands of uniquely shaped limestone karsts and isles, each uniquely carved by wind and waves, Halong Bay is a popular tourist site in the Gulf of Tonkin. The chilly, misty weather imparted an ethereal air to the bay, but made staying on the boat’s decks a challenge. At least our ship mates, a chipper international crowd, kept things lively onboard! We made several kayaking trips and saw floating villages along the bay, as well as limestone cliffs and grottoes “up close and personal”.
One of the main attractions is Hang Sung Sot, a theatrically lit cave with imaginative names for the numerous limestone formations. The cave entrance is high above the ground and provides a great bird’s eye view of the bay.
Since its main claim to fame is an X-rated stalagmite in its caves, all the tour boats stop at Hang Sung Sot. The line to get through the cave is long and chaotic. As with most tourist caves, it is lit in Technicolor.
Hanoi was primarily a transit point on our way to Halong Bay, Sapa, and our flight home, but we managed to have our share of ice cream and local specialties, such as cha ca (barbequed fish with dill).
We went to Cha Ca La Vong which specializes in this dish. It’s a do-it-yourself affair, sautéing chunks of fish in lots of oil, dill, greens, and other seasonings, served with liberal amounts of herbs, condiments and peanuts over a bowl of rice noodles. Notwithstanding the laminate table, hole in the wall atmosphere, and well used cookware, cha ca is an addictively tasty dish!
We also got our only banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) in Hanoi. The crisp and airy Viet style baguette (with an amazingly light crackly crust at 4 pm on a hot & humid day) that was filled with mystery meat, cilantro, house mayo, pickled carrots, daikons, peppers and other “stuff” made a truly memorable experience.
We strolled around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake, a major scenic spot in the city. It is connected by a red bridge to a temple on an island in the lake.
We also saw the famous water puppet show at Thăng Long Puppet Theater in between stops at ice cream parlors. Water puppets are unique to northern Vietnam and an entertaining cultural experience.
It was when we went to take the sleeper train to Sapa, renowned for its variety of hill tribes and colorful markets, that we had our first negative experience in Vietnam – train station worker who “kindly” led us to our train carriage and helped us get some takeout ended up charging us a price that was several times what the food should cost, and demanded an exorbitant tip on top.To our dismay, our carriage was nothing like the pictures in the travel agent’s website (Lies, Lies, and more Lies!), and the rest room was downright abysmal – unless you consider a hole in the floor of a moving train “deluxe”…
After getting off the train at 6 am, it was another hour-long minibus ride to Sapa. The Hoang Lien Son mountain range is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas and dominates the area. The steep mountains with their many streams and rice paddies create a breathtaking landscape.
The town of Sapa is a wonderfully photogenic place, especially on market day when the Black and Blue H’mong, Red Zao, as well as Tay people come from miles around to trade. These hill tribes’ traditional attires create a visual potpourri that is both colorful and exotic.
Vietnam is a beautiful and friendly country. Although French and Chinese influences are evident in its architecture and cuisine, the results are still uniquely Vietnamese. Coupled with a wide range of options in dining, lodging, outdoor activities, and cultural experiences, it is a great destination for anyone seeking adventure travel.