After an unacceptably long time, I’m back! Apologies about the radio silence but as my job now requires me to write 20+ blogs per week, I struggle to motivate myself to create for Lemon in Cambodia. However, it appears Lemon in Vietnam had me inspired.
It was my birthday last week and this celebration, combined with the imminent departure of my closest flatmate and friend, Jordan, inspired a week long trip to Vietnam. Although Cambodia’s neighbour, I confess I have only spent two long weekends in this country so far: one in Ho Chi Minh City in 2009 and one on the island of Phu Quoc in 2015. I have just returned from an eight-day trip to the north of this sickle-shaped country with a few tales of our adventures and more than a few photographs.
We flew to Hanoi from Siem Reap because Phnom Penh’s fancy new ‘international’ airport is still struggling with some basic amenities, such as flights to nearby countries. Our first night in a hostel reminding both Jordan and myself how much we hate backpackers. After our noisy roommates left early in the morning, we took a little longer getting ready and it was nearing midday when we finally ventured out onto the streets. This is the point at which we realised Hanoi was hotter than Phnom Penh and instantly regretted our laziness. We walked around the Old Quarters of this beautiful, interesting and busy city in 40+ degrees Celsius and were forced to take refuge in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and St Joseph’s Cathedral along with several, less culturally significant cafes. Hanoi is a fun city to explore, despite the oppressive heat, and the streets are dotted with little pagodas, cyclo drivers complete with VietCong hats and food sellers.
The next day we embarked on the main trip of our holiday: Halong Bay. We’d chosen to go with a slightly more expensive tour company to avoid the backpackers and ended up on Rosa Cruise with the tagline “Romance, Roses and Love”. Luckily few people had taken that seriously and we weren’t surrounded by couples for the entire time. Halong Bay is incredible. It’s one of those awe-inspiring places you just look at and ask ‘how?’ These mega limestone rocks jut dramatically out of the blue-green water with a truly prehistoric feel. Our boat was delightful with a cute little cabin, lounge area where we were fed copious amounts of food three times a day and a large sun terrace from which you could watch the scenery glide by.
Halong Bay isn’t all about lying on top of a boat and getting a tan, however. We also went kayaking, during which Jordan and I discovered we work really well as a team but overestimated our energy levels and got immensely bored and tired on the paddle back to the boat. On that first day we visited a pearl farm which is far less interesting than it sounds and then watched the ‘sunset’. For some reason, our boat docked directly behind one of Halong Bay’s iconic formations. Beautiful, but inconvenient for sunset watching …
Our second day saw us and a couple from Singapore join a new group of people (most on our boat only did the one-night cruise). This day was led by a completely hilarious Vietnamese guy who was absolutely mental. Lovely, but mental. We first went to a cave where I sliced my food open climbing over rocks, Jordan dropped and broke her sunglasses and I dropped and broke my camera. Good half hour. And I don’t even have any photos of the cave. I was subsequently reliant on my iPhone camera which is good but has nothing on my beloved, currently-being-fixed Lumix FZ150. From the hazardous cave we moved onto more kayaking. This time Jordan and I, along with a few other people, paddled into a little cove, got out and just went swimming for half an hour. Upon returning to the boat we decided to jump off the top deck. Turns out that isn’t allowed and we got thoroughly scolded in Vietnamese. Oops. The day was fun overall, however, and we even got serenaded by our tour guide which was one of the most awkward and hilarious experiences of my life.
We finished our day with a hike up one of the islands. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life and I was seriously regretting not taking a bottle of water or a cold beer up with me but the views were totally worth the near-death energy requirement. We finally got back to Rosa to watch the ‘sunset’ from behind yet another rock. The following day we went to the ‘Surprising Cave’, so called because you can’t tell it’s there … much like all caves. To be fair, it was massive had some great stalactites and stalagmites. However, the entire space was filled with other tourists and we were just part of an endless queue snaking our way through and back out into the sweltering heat.
That was the end of Halong Bay and we returned to Hanoi in the midst of a monsoon. It was still drizzling the following morning but we hired a moto to visit some of the further sights including the Hoa Lo Prison Museum and the Temple of Literature.
That evening we rode over to Lotto Tower which is their equivalent of the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower. 65 storeys up and you find yourself with an incredible view of the city. They also have one of those glass floors which sticks out and after quite some time, I finally venture onto it. We then made our way to the rooftop bar and splashed the cash on a cocktail which we enjoyed overlooking the city at night. I considered it an early birthday present to myself.
On my actual birthday we took a day trip to Tam Coc. I say day trip; for most westerners, a 3-hour bus ride each way would not be considered a day trip. When we finally arrived we visited the ancient capital city, where a man who couldn’t pronounce the word temples (temple-les) showed us round lots of temples(les). After lunch we went for a short cycle ride through some stunning scenery. At the end of the ride we climbed into some questionable metal boats and set off down a small waterway, being paddled along by a woman … using her feet! It started to rain but we donned our sexy ponchos and continued despite the lightening and the metal-boat-in-water combination. The trip took us through two caves which were fun but smelt like bats and then we turned around and headed back (but not before all of the women pulled from nowhere bags of crappy souveniers for us to buy). We cycled back to the bus and then returned to Hanoi. My birthday dinner at a delicious seafood restaurant was a present from Jordan. Mmmm, thank you!
And that was it. Aside from walking around looking at art the following morning (and buying myself a beautiful piece for my new house – a subject for another blog), our time in Hanoi came to an end. I’m now back in Cambodia while Jordan continues to travel south, making her way to Ho Chi Minh City before returning to Phnom Penh. Here are a few more snaps of some of the food we ate during our adventures, including Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. Enjoy!