Hải Phòng, Hạ Long and Hà Nội

Ninh Bình is already quite close to my eventual destination, Hanoi, but I couldn’t really call my trip finished without a visit to the famous Hạ Long Bay. It’s what I’d been aiming at since the beginning of the journey and for that week the cruise was the only appointment that I had to make. Just the knowledge of my having to be in a particular place at a particular time in the near future gave me a hint of time-stress that I hadn’t felt in a while. I couldn’t think about the end, just yet.

On the way to Hải Phòng I had an experience that’s not all that odd, considering everything else that had happened that month, but it sticks with me. I stopped at a café for a bit of a break, and as I left I asked for the bill. I asked in Vietnamese so the man there gave me the price in Vietnamese. It was about 14 thousand VND and I had the exact change, so I gave it, and the man became very happy. He shook my hand firmly, with a huge smile and he said ‘cảm ơn’ a few times. I don’t really know enough to explain his sudden joy, but it might be my use of Vietnamese, as beginner-level as it was. If that’s the case, then it’s about the only time, before or since, that my Vietnamese has received such a positive reaction.

The city of Hải Phòng is one of Vietnam’s biggest, but it’s not a touristy place. It’s all about the port. Lots of coal and shipping and industrial things. I’d also heard about organised crime in the city, as well as shoes. Apparently it’s a cobbler city. Anyway, I was not expecting grand hotels, expat bars and international restaurants, and indeed I saw few of those things. My hotel happened to be near the only Indian restaurant, though, so I was happy. The hotel itself was pretty empty and had an hourly rate.

I stayed one night and in the morning I had the good fortune to be taken to breakfast by a friend of a friend, who showed me a chilli sauce that is native to Hải Phòng, and somewhat drier in flavour than southern chilli sauce. This might sound like trivial information but it’s really all I have to report from this place. I don’t mean to rag on this town. There’s just not a lot to say, despite its size.

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The next destination was Hạ Long city. This was only a few hours’ ride from Hải Phòng but I got mixed up on the road and ended up coming back and going the proper way. Finding a hotel in Hạ Long was surprisingly tricky because, as it turns out, not many people travel there. Tours all come directly from Hanoi straight onto the boats, with no time in the town itself. Along one of the main roads was a heap of dog- and cat-meat restaurants. And though I can read that in Vietnamese (‘thit cho’ and ‘thit meo’), I didn’t need to because they had helpful pictures of puppies and kittens. So Hạ Long city is not really set up for foreigners, unless they’re Chinese I guess. I hear there are plans to make it a destination, however.

Bai Chay Bridge in Orange DT 1200
Bãi Cháy bridge at Hạ Long city

The hotel I ended up at was on an island called Tuần Châu. There’s a narrow causeway to the island, which is where I think the Top Gear guys ended their road trip (before they went wandering around on the water). The hotel was also rather quiet and I may even have been the only guest at the time. Having arrived on Monday and with my cruise leaving on Wednesday, I had a day to relax and look around. The island is peaceful and green, and had a kind of overgrown and abandoned feeling. However there’s a lot of building going on at the south-east end, which faces the bay.

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The cruise I took was a two-nighter and I would be arriving back in Hạ Long on Friday. It was a bit confusing trying to find the proper office, and the people at the dock didn’t seem to know what was going on (or didn’t want to help), but after a couple of calls, one of the cruise people found me and all was well. They didn’t usually have people show up to the office on their own; every other customer was on the bus from Hanoi.

I was in a kayak when I took this, so you can keep your criticism to yourself.

This tour was not really cheap by Vietnamese standards, but the service was good and everything on the boat was clean and functional. The plans and procedures, as far as I could tell, were all followed.

Hạ Long bay has notoriously sullen weather. The sunny, tropical-looking weather that everybody wants doesn’t come all that often. Usually the hills look mysterious and grey, cloaked in fog. After all, this climate is sub-tropical, not tropical as you may expect. The first day of my trip we had a bit of sun. The following days were greyer, but I managed to get a couple good shots.

During the trip we did a lot of kayaking and swimming, visiting some of the islands that have beaches and caves, and the floating villages. The trip actually went out to Bái Tử Long bay, further from the city. Still, it was kind of busy, and not all that peaceful because sound carries so well in this kind of place. Rubbish also seems to get trapped in the waters here. There were a fair few fishing boats and other cruise ships around. This far out, I also couldn’t get internet very often. Still, it was pleasant and comfortable, as well as fascinating.

The whole trip was pretty solid – I can’t really think of anything to complain about. Perhaps one thing was the staff prompting me a bit to write a Tripadvisor review, but it was all in a friendly way. I would definitely do this again, but only with some company. Like Hội An, it’s mostly nice scenery to enliven your intercourse. By myself, I felt like I was missing a part of the experience, but I did chat a lot with some other folks on the boat. Everyone on this tour was more the “careful” type travellers though, not the hostel-dweller sort who you would come to know intimately on such a trip.

Since this cruise, I’ve also had the opportunity to visit the bay from Cát Bà, which was literally a hundred times cheaper. That trip was also fun and if you want to see the bay, I’d probably recommend a day trip from there. If you need a nice red while you gaze at the view, take the big-boat cruise.

Back when I arrived in Hạ Long, I had already begun devising yet another extension to my journey. On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to go see a place on Cát Bà island called Việt Hải. On that free Tuesday, I called my airline and re-booked my flight for Sunday, instead of Saturday. I also looked around Hạ Long for the ferry to Cát Bà. I wasn’t able to find it, unfortunately, which meant my Friday was going to be quite busy. I’m fairly sure the ferry does exist, by the way. I’m just not a committed looker.

The plan was this: Finish the cruise on Friday, check out of the hotel where I’d left my big bag, ride back down to Hải Phòng, get on the ferry to Cát Bà, cross the island, and get on another ferry which goes around the island to Việt Hải. Looking back on it, it feels like a bit of a miracle that everything worked out. In fact, I took the slow ferry from Hải Phòng which is actually two ferries with an island in between. It’s kind of an odd situation, because when the ferry lands on that island, which is about 6 kilometres long, everyone gets off and roars across it to get to the other ferry in time. I can only imagine what it’s like for the people who live on the island. For me, though, it took my ferry tally for the day up to three, if I don’t count the little boat that took me off the cruise ship.

As I just wrote, everything on that day went smoothly, even though I didn’t know where I was going for some of it. Cát Bà is a nice island to ride around – lovely winding roads and hills and seascapes. If I’m honest, I’m not all that fond of the people that I met in the town there. They’re just a little bit unfriendly and many of them badgered me to buy things and tried to rip me off when I was interested. I’m sure these types of people are either drawn to the island by the constant flow of backpacker types, or locals who are twisted by it. It seemed to me that there were few genuine people there, like those I’d met in many other parts of Vietnam.

At the far side of Cát Bà, I found the ferry to Việt Hải. I wouldn’t need my bike there I so entrusted it to some folks at the dock for a fee. I had arrived with less than half an hour to spare before the last departure. Being tired and having survived a lot that day, I felt cautious getting onto the boat. How much were they going to try and charge me, I wondered. But the trip up the western side of the island, through the hills, was spectacular and I soon forgot my suspicions. Cát Bà has quite pretty views, and this area is a highlight.

The place that I stayed at is called “Whisper Bungalow” and it was run by a young couple, with their daughter. I was shuttled from the dock in an electric buggy like you see at the zoo. The little village there is very rustic. At Whisper Bungalow the food is home-cooked and the shacks for sleeping are quite pleasant, but on that evening I was very ready to sleep, so I wasn’t feeling fussy anyway.

My stay was going to be short and sweet, as the only ferry left again the next morning at 7:00, or some ridiculous time like that. I still wanted to get a picture of the waterway near the dock, so I arranged to get up even earlier, and pedal a bike up the road to take the picture, while the buggy would bring my bag along at the proper time. It was a lot of work moving that bike up and down the hilly path, but I was happy to have the opportunity at any rate. You can see the picture directly below. I’ve since visited Việt Hải again, to climb the hills there, and the picture at the top of this post is the result. It looks north to Hạ Long city, across the bay.

It was Saturday and I had to get to Hanoi. I got off the ferry, collected my bike, trundled across the island, onto the next ferry (the fast one this time), and arrived in Hải Phòng at about 11. There is a little distance between Hải Phòng proper and the port, and I noticed that, after passing through that area the first time, my clothes had a layer of black soot of some sort – I assume coal. My skin was sticky, too. A bit unpleasant. Anyway, I stopped briefly in Hải Phòng for some chocolate and was then on the road to Hanoi, the final stop.

Cát Bà town looking mysterious

I was in Hanoi by early afternoon. It wasn’t easy to find a hotel, but it was done (I had some help) and after dropping my bags, I went to post my bike. By this I mean, find the train station and send the bike on a train back to Ho Chi Minh City. The cargo master was a cordial fellow and it was pretty easy once I found him. I did need some help to find him, however. The bike was done with by about 5pm, and afterwards I made my way to Pizza 4P’s, as a treat. It had been a tight couple of days.

The next day was the first of May, and I flew back to Ho Chi Minh. The flight took two hours. The bike arrived a few days later.

This journey was something I’d long wanted to do, and it’s an achievement I’m quite happy about. It was all my own initiative; no-one offered me the opportunity, and there was no shining light to guide the way. I just thought it up and did it. I look back on it and wonder about all the things that could have gone wrong, but I clearly remember feeling quite sure and confident out on the bike. Vietnam really is a great country to travel in, overall. I hope to do many more such trips in the future, in other places.

The bike itself rarely missed a beat, and only then because we were in a cloud, or being blasted with water from all sides. I fully expected it to be worn out by the trip’s end, and I would sell or ditch it in Hanoi and buy another in Ho Chi Minh. It was only when I was getting north that I realised I wanted to hang onto it a bit longer. Since that trip, I drove it to the southern coast, and also into Cambodia.

So that is the end of my great April trip of 2016. All earthly things have end, and to tell the truth, I was glad to be heading back to a stable abode. It was time for some regularity.

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