Hanoi was cool. It’s a wildly interesting city were everything is simultaneously super fast paced and also very laid back. Of course traffic is the craziest thing to a new comer to Vietnamese cities, but after a day or two the at first madness due to complete and total lack of rules becomes a beautifully symbiotic dance. If you need to cross the street, just start walking and people will make their way around you. It’s arguably ALMOST better not to look in the direction of traffic because then they know you don’t see them. If you’re driving stay right and go your own speed, and dodge and weave. Of course I’d head about the liberal use of horns in Vietnam but the city is a literal symphony of horns of all types from bellowing truck horns, to incessant beeping scooters, to the glorious doppler effect busses that simply don’t care who’s in their way. And on top of all the auditory stimulation you’l suddenly see a motorbike fly past hauling 10 mattresses on the back being held on by maybe a bungee cord if you’re lucky. Needless to say it’s definitely a little different from Thailand and Laos. Unfortunately I was to preoccupied with staying intact to remember to take any pictures of the madness.
We spent the first couple days in Hanoi seeing some of the sights like Ho Chi Mihn’s mausoleum, the war museum, and Hoa Lao prison “the Hanoi Hilton”. While I could explain each of these day trips in detail I think its easier to let the photos do the talking.
One place definitely worth mentioning on its own is Hoa Loa Prison. At the time of its construction in 1886 it was the largest prison in the Asian continent. It was built by the French during their occupation of Vietnam to house political prisoners and revolutionaries. It tells an interesting story from the perspective of the Vietnamese prisoners, some of whom were able to escape, but many more of whom died from poor prison conditions or the “French Oppressors Guillotine”. Later during the Vietnam-American War it was used to house American POW pilots, including John McCain. The museum makes sure to portray how well kept the American Pilots were during their time there earning it the name “The Hanoi Hilton”.
In addition to sight seeing around town we spent some time near our hostel to explore the narrow streets of the old quarter indulging in delicious treats and on the hunt for motor bikes. Being backpacker central there are motorbike rental/ sale stores every block and numerous bikes with for sale listings on them parked in from of hostels.
In our strolls nothing was really jumping out at me until we were just walking down a street and I saw these three travelers on scooters with racks but no bags. I stopped and asked them what there plan was and that’s how I met Jason and his two late teenage kids, from Portland OR, who had just ridden up from Saigon (HCMC). Originally they had bought knock-off Honda Wins, the only real manual option, which I had very much wanted to do, but after breaking down more than 4 times in three days and loosing out on their vacation the scrapped them and got scooters that went the rest of the ride up without a hitch. I’ve always said it’s more about who you’re buying from than the actual bike because you can polish a turd and it’ll sparkle for 10 minutes. After a quick test ride and some planning we figured they wanted a few more days of travel around and we wanted to check out Sa Pa so I got his number and said if we didn’t find anything better in the next few days I’d message him and we could meet up after we got back from Sa Pa. (more on that awesome experience a different time) And that’s how it went down. The day after we got back to Hanoi they came by our hostel at 11am we exchanged blue cards for a remarkably fair price as they were leaving and were willing to help out some fellow PNWers and we were on the road.
We grabbed the last bits off our supplies list and hit the roads east towards Ha Long Bay. Athena did great for her first time on two wheels (with a motor). She was a little wobbly and overwhelmed at first by the Hanoi traffic but once we got on the “highway” it’s was smooth sailing into Ha Long. We missed the last ferry over to Cat Ba island so we stayed at a hostel in town and got some dinner. We explored around “sun world”, an amusement park with a view of the bay. It was dark so we missed the roller coasters but sill a cool place. There is an astounding amount of development going on in Ha Long and after the hustle of Hanoi it was nice to be somewhere that while still a bugger place wasn’t so energized.
The next morning we rode over and caught the ferry to Cat Ba. An hour long ferry ride through Ha Long Bay to get to the island was spectacular. We talked to another traveler on the ferry who said he had done a cruise the day before but preferred the ferry ride since it wasn’t as commercialized and overcrowded. On the ride over we decided the bikes needed names so keeping in spirit of my previous bikes Athena had the honors. Thus our steads became “foreign bae”, a running joke with all of my bikes, and “DON-KEY” (which must be pronounced like you’re in shrek).
Satisfied with their names our bikes took us across the island to Cat Ba town where we found a hostel, dropped our crap and headed to a beach for our first encounter with the Pacific Ocean in this side. And man the water was warm!! And the view wasn’t to bad either.
We stayed there till it started getting dark and we found a good spot to watch sunset over the limestone cliffs. We grabbed dinner, and in a last minute choice decided to book a climbing trip for the next day since Cat Ba has such amazing limestone climbing. All set to start at 8:30 the next day we headed off to bed.
We woke up the next morning to go do our safety check and headed to Hidden Valley, a crag which the climbing guide Mr. Zoom has set up himself 4 years ago so he could start a business and also benefit local climbers who can come for free if they have their own gear. I had said I could lead, which I used to be able to do, but now after some 2 years not actually leading a route I was a little nervous. But the routes themselves started pretty easy so I figured why not give it a shot. It all came back and we had a great day of climbing. By the end I’d lead a (semi sandbagged) 5.10- Not bad for a 2 year break. We had a great time chatting with our fellow climbers and enjoying the beauty of hidden valley from the top of the routes.
We didn’t get back to the town till about 2:30 so we grabbed lunch at a spot recommended by one of the guides and went to check out Hospital cave. This was a cave that had been turned into a bunker during the Vietnam-American war and was used as….surprise a field hospital. Pretty wild. We got back into town right at sunset and grabbed a beer from one of the bars overlooking the bay and saw another KILLER sunset. Vietnam is spoiling me.
After beers we headed back to the hotel and planned our route to 244km down Ninh Binh for the next day and hit the hey to wake up nice and early.