Days Thirty Five through Thirty Seven — A Tour of Northeast Vietnam (Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, Yen Duc Village, and Hanoi)
We left Hanoi early on Tuesday morning for the long drive east to Ha Long Bay. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, Ha Long Bay (and its sister body of water, Bai Tu Long Bay) runs south and east off the northeast coast of the country and is best known for its nearly 2,000 rock formations that rocket out of the water in random, beautiful patterns.
After three hours in a very comfortable van (with wifi!), we arrived in the city of Ha Long to meet our boat, the Dragon Legend 1, and our cruise directors Mr. Smiley and J.D. (They also told us their real names but everyone called them by nicknames so we forgot them.)
We got our safety briefing as the boat pulled away from the dock. Unlike our Myanmar cruise, this was just a 2-day, 1-night affair that took us through Ha Long and (primarily) Bai Tu Long Bay and back in a loop, with an excursion activity on each day.
After moving into our amazing room on the ship, we were served lunch on the deck to take in the scenery.
During the meal, J.D. filled us in on a little history and details about the area, which has been designated one of the new Wonders of the World.
Ha Long means “Descending Dragon” and the Bay takes its name from the legend of how the rock islands, or karsts, were formed. As the story goes, in ancient times Vietnam was consistently under attack by sea and so the Jade Emperor (God, basically) sent a Mother Dragon and her babies down to earth to help the people defend. The Mother Dragon and her children rained jewels and fire down on the bay to smite the invaders and, over time, those emeralds morphed into the islands that are here today. The Mother’s section of the bay is Ha Long Bay, and the childrens’ section is Bai Tu Long Bay (Baby Dragon’s Bay). (No word yet on where Khaleesi is, but we looked.)
Or, in the alternative, tectonic plate shifts over hundreds of millions of years created rock formations in the water. Take your pick. Like our federal government, this blog is now a science-optional place.
Once we were out of the harbor and into open water, it was time to prep for our activity for the day — a kayaking trip in the Vung Dang area of Bai Tu Long Bay (led by J.D.), followed by an open water swim.
Friends had told us the kayaking was a must-do — which is now 100% independently confirmed. While we wish it had been a sunny day (it was overcast for both days, which was too bad), we totally got the point. The water is very deep even close to the rock islands, so you can get quite close and feel their magnitude. They’re enormous and impressive and beautiful. We managed to keep the kayak upright too, although either because of the current or our rowing technique, we kept drifting right and having to compensate by making left turn after left turn. We sense a political metaphor lurking in this story.
After a little over an hour on the water, we made it back to the Dragon Legend and J.D. (who was an expert kayaker and had arrived a few minutes before our drifting selves) encouraged us to just hop off the boat into the water. We led the charge and were the first ones to dive in. Swimming in open water like that is something we hadn’t really done since our honeymoon, and is something we won’t soon forget.
After 30 minutes of playing like we were kids, we got out and dried off and tried to take in the sunset. The weather gods did not cooperate.
We sailed to a small inlet in Bai Tu Long Bay for the rest of the afternoon/evening, had dinner on the boat, and after the crew regaled us with a musical performance, turned in relatively early to end Day Thirty Five.
We tried again to get the perfect camera shot with a 5:45am alarm on Day Thirty Six but ended up with more fogrise than sunrise — beautiful in its own right, if extremely hard to capture.
Jill then did morning tai chi on the deck while Addisu didn’t, and after a breakfast of pho and eggs (this should be a thing in the US, btw), we left for our second day excursion to an island itself, this one with one of the more impressive caves in all of Bai Tu Long Bay.
J.D. (who insisted his name stood not for lawyer, but for Jack Daniels) was our leader again and told us about the naming conventions for the islands of the Bay, which are either named after the shape of the karsts, the ecology on them, or an event that occurred at or near them. Our island was named after the cave that we explored, Thien Canh Son, which lays at the top of an 100-stair climb in the middle of the huge limestone rock. The cave is…well, cavernous, despite the very modest opening. Years of water-on-limestone action can really produce some beautiful stuff.
The views from the cliff outside the entrance were still spectacular without the sun.
We were on the island and inside the cave for just over an hour, then ferried back to the boat for the cruise back to harbor.
All in all, a worthy trip — the highlight of which was definitely the kayaking and swimming — though we obviously wish the weather had been better. If it had, we probably would have liked another day on the water as there are more islands with beaches and the like to explore and more water activities to do. That said, the Bay lives up to the hype.
Indochina Junk, the company that operates the Dragon Legend, actually organized the second part of this trip out of town for us as well as part of a package. After coming back to Ha Long city, we transferred back to a van to head to a small village in the countryside called Yen Duc, where we spent the rest of the day and the following morning.
Yen Duc is in the middle of nowhere and felt like it. It has only one 4-room B&B hotel, at which we stayed, and no real tourism industry outside of the business that Indochina Junk refers it. We were the only people staying in the hotel and thus the only tourists in the village for 24 hours.
The village is really an archipelago of hamlets with a total of 5,000 residents, and most of the residents were from families that had been there for generations. 80% of people work in rice production in some fashion and the nearest market outside of the one in the village is 30 minutes away, so it’s fair to say it is pretty rural.
And we loved it. Completely loved it. A big part of that was Gi, our host and guide for the day(s) who had grown up in Yen Duc and come back after college in Hanoi. She was clearly so proud of her town and loved showing it to us, and had put together a great itinerary of activities that really gave us a sense of what it was like to live there. This felt less like vacation and more like we got to be cultural exchange students for a day, meeting people and trading stories about our lives and histories.
The visit got off to a great start as we hopped on a couple old school bicycles (the first place we’ve been in Asia where analog bikes outnumber motorized ones) and headed to the oldest house in the village, now inhabited by Mrs. Nguyen Thi Duong, a beautiful, proud, and regal woman who welcomed us into her home. She offered us voi tea (called skinny tea by the locals, we’re going to need more of this stuff) and sat us down at her table to talk to us. With Gi translating, of course.
The house itself is modest and lovely, especially the garden. It is 185 years old and has been in Mrs. Duong’s family through six generations. Or technically, her in-laws’ family as Mrs. Duong married into it. Her late husband’s great-grandfather is the patriarch of the family, and one of the highlights of the house is the family tree on the wall that details the over 800 descendants of this one man. We have learned that ancestry is exceedingly important in Vietnamese culture — this house, like others, has an altar to worship ancestors at which offerings are regularly left.
In another room of the house we see, like in any household, the family pictures — generations worth of photos including individual photos of all the eldest living generation. Holding a prized position on the wall was Mrs. Duong’s eldest brother-in-law, who was a member of Ho Chi Minh’s security detail until Ho’s death, and then served his successor. A picture of Ho with the eldest brother occupied a central place on the wall. In fact, government service appeared to run deep in this family, as an aunt had been a soldier in the war against the French years prior. We spent about an hour talking and sipping tea with Mrs. Duong and loved every minute of it.
After thanking Mrs. Duong for sharing her tea and time with us, we headed out with Gi to explore more of the town and earn our keep for the evening. Yes, we had a little work to do. Gi wanted to teach us about how the bulk of the town made its living and its food, so she took us to learn about rice production and fishing in the village, with the command that we help produce the rice and fish for that night’s dinner back at the house. Or as Gi out it more succinctly in both English and Vietnamese, “no rice, no fish, no dinner.” Challenge accepted.
We started with the rice, where we learned about the old school multi-step process to go from harvested rice stalks to ready-to-cook brown or white rice. To sum it up: its hard. Jill’s dance coordination paid off at points, but mostly we were both wimps compared to the local experts.
Next, we went to a fishing pond to learn how to fish with our hands. No, that’s not a typo. We were given wading pants to go into the waste-deep water, a basket to trap the fish, and gloves to use on the catching hand. As a bonus, the water is too muddy to actually see the fish, so you have to just keep plunging the basket into the water until you feel it trapping a fish, then you root around with your gloved hand to catch the thing. If this had been a timed exam, we would have failed. It took a lot of coaching and encouragement from Gi and our master fisherman before we each caught our first (and only) fish, and then we declared victory and got out of there.
After another short bike ride back to the house, we had our final “chores” of the evening: a short cooking lesson that culminated in preparing a salad (kohlrabi, carrot, fish-sauce, and assorted spices) and dessert (rice flour balls with mung bean and palm sugar) for our dinner. We are now cooking class pros, so of course we nailed it, especially if you’re grading on the day’s rice-and-fishing curve.
After some time to rest, we sat down for dinner. And wow, were we in for a treat. Despite the fact that we were the only 2 guests on the grounds, the chef prepared a multi-course meal for us with all the ingredients we had helped prepare (including our fish!) along with several dishes we had nothing to do with. The highlight was the fried spring rolls, the lightest, flakiest spring rolls we’ve ever eaten. To top it off, one of the women from the village, Mrs. Tuyet, stopped by to sing us a few traditional Vietnamese songs (she performs in the local water puppet theatre and has a beautiful voice). It doesn’t get much better than that.
On Thursday morning (Day Thirty Seven, we’re 3/4 done!), we started again with pho and eggs prepared by the amazing staff. The pho was almost as good as Pho 10, and was our first experience with pork-only pho. Won’t be our last.
For our final excursion, Gi took us to the local market that services the village and surrounding area. Much like the one we visited with Ben in Cambodia, we were the only foreigners around and a spectacle ourselves, one that the locals were very happy and amused to see. (In fact, when we pulled out our camera, some of the people were asking Gi if they would become famous from our pictures? They were joking, we think.) The market was significantly smaller and quieter than the ones we’d seen before and felt like a daily family reunion; we toured around for a half hour or so and Gi ran into and introduced us to several people she knew, including the mother of our waitress from the hotel. By the time we got there around 8:30am it was already starting to close up , and by the time we left it was pretty dead— the market runs from 3:00am to 9:30am and is where everyone gets what they need for the day, each day, so people get there early and often. It’s literally the only store in town.
We then took a short sightseeing bike tour through the parts of town we hadn’t seen yet, including the local cemetery (morbid, yes, but beautiful) and scenic hillside (complete with large houses with shards of broken glass as barbed-wire substitute).
We then tried our hand at broom-making by hand using only rice straw, which is how the family with whom we worked made their money for several years (the matriarch still manufactures them but the next generation has diversified their labor; the eldest son in fact works on the Dragon Legend). It was hard work! Especially for a duster-sized broom that would be sold at the market for about two dollars, maximum. It took us a full hour, together and with help, to make one; the professionals can make three per hour. They make brooms for every purpose and the larger, higher quality ones can take up to two days to complete.
We also were fortunate to meet the youngest member of the family, little 6-month old Su Su (nicknamed after a vegetable), who watched us make our brooms but seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.
Bidding adieu after making a broom that will never see the light of day, we were treated to a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show to conclude our time in Yen Duc. Like the marionette show on the boat in Myanmar, this was quite an impressive artistic feat, as eight people donned the same wading pants we had worn the day earlier and hid behind a screen in a pond while expertly manipulating puppets in the water. We saw four acts depicting various scenes from rural life, dramatized for our entertainment.
It was time to say goodbye to Gi and head back to Hanoi for a few hours before catching our train up to the north. We can’t say enough good things about her; the highlight may have been when she referred to a picture of Bill Clinton as “Clinton’s husband,” but the tour guide part was damn good too. The staff at the B&B was also so nice and welcoming; we didn’t deserve such hospitality. Thanks Gi and team for a fantastic time! We encourage all of you to do the Yen Duc Village Tour when in Vietnam.
Our train for North Vietnam boarded at 9:00pm but we arrived back in Hanoi just after 5, and made the most out of our 4 hours in town. After a little art shopping, we headed to our old friend Mam’s favorite and recommended coffee shop called Cafe Dinh in the Old Quarter. Coffee shop may be a misnomer for this place — it had the feel of a forbidden speakeasy. Located on the second floor of a building in the heart of the Quarter, getting there required navigating an alley and a narrow stairwell up which Addisu barely fit. At the top of the stairs to the right was a family’s apartment and to the left, across some ominous looking wooden planks, was the Cafe Dinh.
We walked in and immediately got “How did you find this place!?” looks from the locals. The place was almost completely full and cloudy with cigarette-smoke, but we confidently walked up to the bar and ordered two ca phe sua da — Vietnamese coffees with condensed milk that have become our favorite sweet treat while we’ve been here — plopped down on a couple plastic stools, and took in the scene.
Quite a place! Coffee shops in Hanoi seem to be like cocktail bars in the US — full of younger clientele — and as we saw last weekend, some actually turn into house music-thumping lounges (minus the dancing) in the evening.
We finished with eating of course, this time at an actual sit-down-at-non-plastic-tables in the Quarter restaurant called Madame Hien’s. We ordered spring rolls to compare them to Yen Duc’s (not as good, those things were amazing), a braised pork clay pot dish that was excellent and, of course, bun cha for one last time. Jill also finally got a nice glass of red wine at the right temperature, which pleased her greatly.
Our next and last stop in Vietnam is the mountain town of Sapa, way in the north of Vietnam near the Chinese border, which is supposed to have some of the best hiking in Southeast Asia and a totally different vibe from beachy Hoi An, urban Hanoi, rural Yen Duc, or majestic Ha Long Bay. More to come after the weekend!