The shadowed outlines of Halong Bay’s famous limestone islands.
There’s an apparent ten month gap between my last trip, Nepal, and this one, but I actually went home to Toronto for a couple of weddings in June, 2010, and then I flew out to Singapore again in September. Sadly, in the intervening years, I’ve lost all my original photos from those trips. I also took an incredible twenty-four hour train ride from Hong Kong to Beijing in November, 2010, with two friends I met here in Hong Kong, and then a train from Beijing to Shanghai a few days later with a larger group of friends, but I didn’t take any pictures for reasons I can’t explain or fathom. So I’m skipping ahead to February, 2011, when I decided to fly out to Hanoi with Cora, my travel companion in Nepal, Justin, our mutual friend from university, and Lianne, his colleague in Beijing. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the original photos from this trip as well, so I grabbed some low quality copies off of Facebook instead.
Cora eagerly anticipating her first bowl of pho.
This street side setup is legit.
Simple but delicious bun cha meal.
Train tracks running through a Hanoi neighbourhood.
Cora, Justin, and I had been talking about traveling together for a while, as we had all ended up in Asia after university. Justin had moved out to Beijing to be a teacher only a few months after I had moved to Hong Kong, but he was in a long-distance relationship with his now-wife in Vancouver, and it seemed likely that he would move back to Canada in the near future, which ended up happening later that year. So with our time together dwindling down, we set aside the Chinese New Year holidays to explore Hanoi, sail in the incomparable Halong Bay, and eat plenty of pho.
Our scooter guy siphons out gasoline to fill up the vehicles we just rented from him.
Cora looks anxious as a four-lensed traveler looks on.
The scooter guy performing his last checks before letting us go.
Traces of French colonialism can be found all over Hanoi.
The beautiful Hanoi Opera House, built from 1901 to 1911 by the French.
Lianne and Cora survey the traffic before diving in.
The eerily lit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Man prepares bánh cuốn in his stall for late night appetites.
Good Morning, Vietnam
The city was quiet when we arrived, at the tail-end of Chinese New Year. Even during the daytime, there wasn’t much traffic on the streets, and the pace of life was worlds away from the frenetic energy of Hong Kong. We stayed in a hostel in the Old Quarter, though I have no recollection of what it was called or what it looked like. The cost of renting scooters was ludicrously cheap, maybe around 8 USD per day, and, as Justin and Leanne had experience with their own scooters in Beijing, Cora and I piggybacked on their vehicles all around Hanoi.
This bowl of pho ga is the greatest bowl of pho I’ve ever had in my life.
A crowd of helpful Hanoi residents helped us order this platter on the street.
Pho in Vietnam can’t be beat.
The food in Vietnam was a revelation. Having pho in Hanoi permanently altered the way I thought about Vietnamese food, especially Vietnamese food outside of the country. I don’t think I realized how heavy and oily overseas pho was, especially in Hong Kong. Even the vaunted Pho 88, one of the gold standards of pho among suburban Chinese kids in Toronto, fell short of the street-side magic being woven by old ladies reclining on red plastic chairs. One bowl is usually enough for me, but in Hanoi I had the stomach space to gulp down three to four bowls in a single sitting. Each bowl felt so light, healthy, and fresh – the personal cost of having another portion, both for my wallet and my appetite, was exceedingly low.
Halong Bay is full of old wooden junks ferrying tourists in and out of the islands.
A small structure sits at the summit of the limestone peak, overlooking the small harbour.
Our junk provided kayaks for us to paddle around and explore the bay.
Justin capturing the dream-like scene as we approached the heart of the bay.
The sun setting into the crook of the island in the distance.
In the evening, a beautiful rose and lavender light enveloped Halong Bay.
While we were in the Old Quarter, we booked a three-day trip to Halong Bay from one of the hostels. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the bay and its beautiful limestone karsts and islands have long been on my bucket list. After a bumpy three-hour bus ride, we boarded our rickety junk and set off into the deep blue yonder. A light fog persisted in the morning light, and as we sailed further and further into the bay, towering blue shadows emerged from out of the mist, slowly solidifying into verdant islands covered in lush vegetation. By the time we set anchor, the last of the fog had cleared, and we had beautiful blue skies the rest of the day. We spent the first night on the junk, the sleeping cabins smelling overwhelmingly like dried fish.
Backpackers alighting from our ferry to the private island.
We slept in these surprisingly comfortable open air bungalows at night.
We did some more kayaking from our island, heading out to nearby coves and beaches.
A woman harvesting the beach in the afternoon.
The view of the secluded beach, surrounded by tall limestone walls.
The Private Island
If I were to return to Halong Bay in the future, I would avoid booking through a hostel again. While the bay itself was beautiful, and I enjoyed the kayaking and caving activities available, the demographics of our fellow travelers skewed a bit young. The gap year kids and party circuit backpackers broke out in full force that first night on the boat, and we took refuge on the roof with the other old fogey travelers. The next day, we were dropped off at a private island with a handful of young backpackers, who drifted into a heap on the beach to sleep off the vapours from the night before. To be young again! The four of us went kayaking around the surrounding islands, and in the afternoon we rented out a motorboat to go tubing. That night we slept comfortably, and quietly, inside open-air bungalows on the beach. The weather finally took a turn the next day, bringing grey clouds and gloomy skies, and we sailed back to the docks on the mainland to catch our bus back to the city, and back to our real lives.
Fighter jet on display at the Vietnam Military History Museum.
Relics of the Vietnam War in the museum’s central courtyard.
An American military helicopter prominently displayed.
This morbid structure is made from downed American and French planes.
Last Days in Hanoi
We had a couple more days in Hanoi after Halong Bay, but by this point the Lunar New Year was over and the city was back in full force when we returned. We got our scooters back and almost made it through the trip without a traffic accident, until the girls got T-boned. It wasn’t a particularly nasty accident, but the other motorists raised a big fuss, and we ended up paying them off just to disperse the crowd and move on before the authorities arrived. This trip would be the first and only time Justin, Cora, and I traveled together, although I was able to attend Justin’s wedding in Vancouver the following year. I was back in Vancouver last summer for another friend’s wedding, and my wife, Ashley, and I were able to grab a few good hours together with Justin and his wife, Leanne. As for Cora, we’re both still here in Hong Kong, and we’d be traveling together again just a few months later.
Lianne, Cora, and Justin take their separate paths at the museum.