Eat in Hanoi, Awe in Halong
We do not have these limestone mountains in America. Ever since I got to South East Asia, this is what has shocked me the most. These island -rocks that violently eject from the ocean, spread out like if a god had broken a vase on the ocean.
Arriving in the Vietnamese capital I already knew that my main travel purpose would be to visit Halong Bay. It’s the most touristy thing possible in Vietnam, but it’s impossible not to go. I spent one afternoon and night in Hanoi though, enough to walk around the lake, see the Ngoc Son Pagoda, and sneak up through a shoddy stairwell to a coffee shop’s balcony overseeing the lake. I struck up a conversation with a lady sitting behind me, who told me that she worked in education. She said she knew about Colombia because Vietnamese education experts are trying to learn about rural schools that have to group different age groups and levels into the same classroom. Apparently Colombia is best practice! Who would have thought?
I showed her the restaurant I was going to, she said no that’s where all the tourists go, go here. So I walked into Cha Ca Long, the only foreigner in the entire establishment, and the only person eating alone.Cha ca is a unique specialty of Hanoi people: a street in Hanoi is called after it. The menu described the dish as ”
made from mudefish, snake-headed fish, or Ca Lang. (this is the one I ate) fish bone as removed to keep the meat only, seasoned, covered by banana leaves and grilled by coal heat. It’s served with roasted peanuts, rice noodle, spice vegetables (dill, spring onion, coriander, mint) and shrimp paste or fish sauce
Absolutely scrumptious! Expensive by Vietnamese standards, but worth it.
The next day I headed out. Halong Bay, or “dragon bay”, has about 1.900 islands and it’s as beautiful as it could be imagined. Some people say it is overrated, but I disagree. I don’t know what were their expectations, but it certainly exceeded mine.
The trick is picking the right boat tour to take you. They usually have boats with five to ten rooms, food included, with a deck for observation and possibly a karaoke machine. There are significant price ranges to chose from, but I had read so many hellish testimonies from the low-range options that I opted for mid-range. This was $65 USD per person, if you shared a room. They asked me if I wanted to share a room with another woman and I said yes, given that it would bring the price down about $15 USD from $80USD. Some other girls paid $89 USD each for the exact same thing, so watch out.
I was lucky that I shared the space with some very fun folks, and was able to enjoy the night on the boat. I met a fellow Colombian (!!!) and his lovely American fiancee. They live in Tokyo together and were the most sweet and lovely couple I have met in quite a long time. I shared the room with an American woman, Michelle, who is a scuba diving instructor in Guatemala. There were two brave Norwegian girls (the only ones who dared to swim in the cold Halong waters) and two Canadian guys on their way to becoming fruit pickers in Australia, amongst others.
The food was delicious (and a lot of it), and the rooms were quite comfy. We reached Halong Bay and went first to the Surprising Cave, quite beautiful and well illuminated. Still not sure if I understood the surprise. We then proceeded to Kayak around the bay, which was also pretty great. By the way Halong Bay is always dark and cloudy, gloomy. If you see sunny photos it’s maybe one day of the year or most likely, photoshop. The only issue we had with the boat tour was that I’m sure mine said rock climbing in the brochure, and one of the Canadians was sure they had promised fishing.we most certainly did not do either one of those things.
Boat tour: Fantasea adventures (aren’t they clever?) if you have time unlike I did stay two nights and sleep on Cat Bha islands. I’ve talked to a few travelers and they told me you can see much more of the bay without the massive junks that come in for the day tours.
Restaurant: Cha Ca long. It’s $8USD and includes a drink.
Also, Hanoi has amazing street food. If you haven’t had Pho at this point, do yourself a favor and put your behind on an undersized stool on the sidewalk and enjoy heaven for a dollar.
Stay: Tung Trang hotel-13 Tam Thuang St, Hoan Kiem district. (04) 38266267
– $14 USD a night. They booked the Halong Bay tour for me.