Our longest bus ride so far took us from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. It was a full 24 hours from start to finish, including time for the border crossing. When we arrived at the bus station, our receipt was taken and we were told to follow a man to board a particular bus. Our bags were stowed underneath and we were instructed to take seats all the way in the back corner. We insisted on seats near the middle, especially after the horrible bus ride from Rishikesh to Dharamsala in the last row, but the man in charge pointed voraciously and seemed to only know one English word: “No.” We were very early and only a couple seats were already taken. Why were we forced to take the worsts seats on the worst bus in the lot?! The bus itself was not what we were promised; no bathroom, standard, not deluxe, and shabbier than the pictures showed. Something didn’t seem right and we had a bad feeling about the situation. I tried to get our receipt back, but it was no use. When I went to get our bags out from the storage compartment, the door was locked. They didn’t want us leaving.
When you’re staring into the prospect of a 24-hour bus ride in a foreign country, comfort is a top priority. I especially wanted to make sure Gabriella would feel alright, but she was already regretting not flying. We had about 90 minutes until the bus actually left, so I walked around the station and found a few other buses that were also heading to Hanoi. There was a VIP bus that was exactly what we had in mind. After some negotiation, I was able to get us seats on the bus for only $22 each (the other bus was $25). Buying a second ticket wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t feel good about the original bus and there was no way we were getting our money back at this point. I had to drag our bags out through an adjacent door since the compartment was locked and we discreetly boarded the nicer bus. It was much more comfortable including a blanket, pillow, and bottle of water and we were able to sit in the middle, which made the ride much more bearable.
After an early morning crossing the border and 9 hours through Vietnam, we finally got off the bus around 6pm. Motorbikes dominate the streets of Hanoi. Zipping and weaving through every possible inch of concrete, even on the sidewalk sometimes, they are giant mosquitoes buzzing through the jungle of the city. Much like India, vehicles honk whenever they get near another object, which is constantly. Crossing the street took some getting used to, but you just have to keep walking and trust that everything else will move around you. If you hesitate, the oncoming driver won’t be able to anticipate your next move and that’s when accidents happen. Don’t try to play Frogger; just keep moving.
Despite the overwhelming presence of motor vehicles, Hanoi is actually a decent city. The Old Quarter is defined by its narrow streets and organic structure. Locals eat outside at tiny tables and chairs that look like they belong in a Kindergarten classroom. Stores draw in customers with custom clothing, cheap electronics, or old communist propaganda posters. This capital city is booming with history and cultural significance. They say communism is alive and well in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but it seems capitalism is the way of life these days.
Aside from roaming through the Old Quarter and around the lake in the center of the city, we visited the Temple of Literature (oldest University in Vietnam) and the Vietnam History Museum. However, the most interesting site was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. In case you didn’t know, the Vietnamese have preserved Uncle Ho’s body (against his wishes for cremation) by embalming him and keeping him on display for visitors. He died in 1969! Say it with me now: creeeeeepy. We woke up early on Saturday and joined the procession of people making their way to the entrance. It’s only open Tues-Thurs and Sat-Sun, from 8-11am. No cameras are allowed inside. Visitors maintain a steady flow through the frigid room around three sides of the display case with armed guards at each corner. The whole experience was less than a minute, but at least it’s free. It’s basically an open casket at a funeral, except this casket is a glass box and has been on display for 43 years! No matter how weird you think it is, it’s a must-see if you’re ever in Hanoi.
From Hanoi, we decided to head east to Ha Long Bay, recently named one of the 7 New Wonders of the Natural World. We opted for 2 nights on a house boat to explore the bay, and then planned to spend 2-3 nights on Cat Ba Island before heading back to Hanoi. Our first day, we ventured out to Sun Sot Cave, aka Surprise Cave. It has three sections that get more impressive and grandiose as you get further in. The rock formations, stalagmites, and stalactites were incredible! It didn’t even look real! I kept waiting to see the Bat-mobile somewhere. Our guide was a cute little Vietnamese girl who kept pointing out auspicious figures in the rock formations, although some were a bit of a stretch. Later, we explored the bay on kayaks. Then it was back to the boat for swimming and dinner. There was a perfect sunset that we enjoyed from the top deck, which made it all worthwhile.
That night, as we were sharing a bottle of wine with a friendly couple from Holland, the wind started to pick up and slammed a window closed. Soon after, it was a full blown storm that rocked the boat all night. The morning came with overcast skies and a light drizzle, which was disappointing, but added to the mysticism of the scenery. We boarded a smaller boat that took us to a different area of the bay for the day where we went kayaking and ate lunch. The rain was pretty light during the kayaking and a nice alternative to a blazing sun and humidity. The scenery was even more stunning than before as it towered overhead from our two-person kayak. We paddled through different caves and around massive rocks. After lunch, we were supposed to visit the beach, but the rain had picked up so we went to an oyster farm instead to see how pearls are made; quite an interesting process. Later, we went back to the big boat and met some new people who were about to spend their first night on the water.
Unfortunately, the rain never quite let up and got even worse the following day. We felt fortunate to at least have the first clear day with a nice sunset. Instead of heading to Cat Ba Island for a couple of nights, we went back to Hanoi to escape the rain. As we were boarding the mini-bus, we heard that some people who were just arriving at the dock were being turned away and that no more boats were allowed to go out on the water due to high winds. Can you imagine driving 3.5 hours from Hanoi just to be told you can’t go on the boat and then turn around to drive back to Hanoi!? Timing is everything.
We were back in Hanoi by 4:30pm and had some decisions to make. Head north to the hills and terraced rice fields of Sapa? Or head south to Hoi An in central Vietnam to relax near the beach? Both involved an overnight bus. We heard the rains were affecting all of northern Vietnam, so we chose to go south. All we wanted to do was relax on the beach for a few days in Cat Ba, but that wasn’t in the cards for us. Gabriella and I were both feeling a bit stressed from moving around every few days for the past couple of weeks, especially after going from the capital of Laos to the capital of Vietnam. We hopped on a bus heading south to Hoi An and have finally been relaxing in one spot. Things have been going great, aside from a trip to the hospital, but more on that later.