It’s about ten in the morning and the flavors of powdered coffee are loitering on my tongue as this update gets written.
Jack and I are in Ubud, Bali, a small town on a medium-sized island that belongs to Indonesia.
I’d like to talk about the weather and the happenings that are taking place over here, but that will be for a different day!
Returning to where the previous post left off, Jack and I recently concluded our stay in Hoi An, Vietnam. This was on February 10th, exactly three weeks ago. We christened our Anthony Bourdain culinary-inspired quest with an unfortunate fail on the first try, however, we knew that there’d be more opportunities to rebound in our next destination.
Welcome to a Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
The flavors that circle your palate during each meal are as varied as the visual sites you encounter while on the streets. After a shuttle to Da Nang, a flight to the Noi Bai International Airport, and a Grab ride to our Airbnb, we were already absorbed. Through the haze of either heavy mist or light smog, we felt an eery relation to the movie Blade Runner while we crossed the Nhat Tan Bridge at night. Engulfed in a swarm of motorbikes, none of which were obeying traffic laws, and an endless string of seemingly makeshift stores, I felt like I’d been transported to a future where this was the surviving colony after some grizzly apocalypse.
Hanoi feels like a place with no beginning or end. There exists a forest of buildings with French and various Asian design influences that stretches as far as one can see. The pinnacle of this tangle of streets is the Old Quarter, also considered to be the heart of Hanoi. Jack and I rented an Airbnb here. The traffic was intimidating so we opted to either walk or call a Grab between destinations.
The craziness and invasion of the senses make Hanoi a unique spectacle, and its lack of aesthetic beauty left me curiously enamored.
I could spend an entire blog post about Hanoi, but in order to save the headache and potential boredom, I’m going to mention three things that were pretty awesome about this city.
Following the guidance of ever-so influential Anthony Bourdain, Jack and I gained a lot of weight in Hanoi. We sat next to the famous table where he and Barack Obama had lunch at Bún chả Hương Liên. We ordered the “Obama Combo,” a popular choice for foreigners. On our final morning we ordered pork noodle soup at Bún Chửi 41 Ngô Sĩ Liên, also known as “Cussing Noodles” to Bourdain followers. The place was packed to the brim and we didn’t get cursed at by the chef (at least I think), but the experience was as authentic as we could have ever hoped.
Continuing with Bourdain’s travels in Hanoi, we became fans of an experience he shared during the filming of Parts Unknown called Bia Hoi. What is Bia Hoi you ask? Well, it’s simple. There are specific neighborhoods in Hanoi where locals and travelers mingle on the sidewalk, ordering keg beer that costs about twenty-five cents and sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs that could even reward a child a sore back. In certain places, a passerby can see hundreds of beer drinkers enjoying the water-like taste of beer in plastic cups.
These are either restaurants or bars that have taken over the sidewalk by illegally adding chairs onto the walkway for whoever wants to order something. Many of these establishments offer a wide range of local cuisine and the magic words here are “Bia Hoi” because this signals to the order taker that you want the cheap elixir. When the police do their rounds, the staff hastily orders everyone to evacuate as they stack all the chairs and hide them from sight. It’s like a sting in a speakeasy except it’s outside. You don’t have to be a beer fan to enjoy this activity, simply watching the thousands of people walking during a now chilled evening by is worth the visit.
The Friend Reunion:
It’s hard to say what was better than catching up with my good friend John. We met back in 2012 at a hostel in Quito, Ecuador and by a grand chance, he now lives in Hanoi. John’s an ESL dojo master and he had some time between classes to show me around Hanoi. I’m thankful for the existence of social media for these moments because if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t have been able to keep in touch. John’s a fantastic guy and I’m thankful that we got to catch up. Hopefully, our next reunion will happen sooner than later.
Halong Bay and Hanoi are similar to a perfect married couple; Halong is the Ying to Hanoi’s majestic Yang. Where Hanoi severely lacks in visual grandeur, Halong Bay picks up the slack with intense visuals of natural landscapes. Halong Bay is perhaps a culinary dungeon, one of the few destinations in Vietnam which can be given this title, so Hanoi balances the enigma by being a mecca for foodies. We didn’t take a four-hour bus to eat in Halong Bay, we wanted to cruise around the emerald waters and ponder life between towering islets.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and enjoys a tropical-style climate. “Ha Long” translates to “descending dragon” because according to Vietnamese lore an emperor unleashed a mother dragon and her children to repeal an invading force. The dragons spat fire, jewels, and jade into the waters, thus forming a natural barrier to defend against the outsiders. Today, Halong Bay spans one hundred and thirty square miles and consists of nearly two thousand islands. A common stopover for tourists in Vietnam is Halong Bay, and a few weeks ago two good-looking Americans joined the fray.
Our Airbnb was located in the town of Bia Chay, the nearest mainland town. A vacation hub with large apartment buildings and hotels, the appeal of this place isn’t its looks but its close proximity to the bay. Here are three highlights from our handful of days there:
Drivers in Vietnam, especially the ones who sport Vespas, Hondas, or any other brand of motorbike, are a curious case. The driving laws, once again, don’t exist in Vietnam so navigating here can feel like a scene from Death Proof. Halong Bay is sparsely populated, the roads are nearly all straight, and they continue until the horizon practically disappears. This is unfavorable for anyone who doesn’t have their personal method of transport, but a dream to someone who does. Jack and I wanted to be in the latter category and rented a pair of motorbikes at the horrible price of $5.50 a day.
Cat Ba Island
Tucked behind a maze of limestone rocks in Halong Bay sits Cat Ba Island, the largest of the archipelago which also is a Vietnamese National Park. Jack and I took a day-trip here, riding our bikes onto a ferry and taking them to the island to do our own personal tour. It’s too large of a place to explore only on foot, so bikes are a necessary travel tool. People can spend the night on the island, as bountiful numbers of hostels and hotels are located along the southern tip. We explored a cave that was converted into a hospital bunker for the North Vietnamese during the “American” War and hiked up to the viewpoint of the Cannon Fort. Other options for Cat Ba include kayaking, sunbathing, and traversing the diverse landscapes of the National Park.
Almost every single boat that one can spot in Halong Bay is most likely a part of a tour company offering cruises. Cruises can vary between a half-day, full-day, overnight, or multi-night experience. Part of the allure for Halong is watching the flow of boat traffic and see how small they are in comparison to the countless rocks that inhabit the area. Jack and I opted for a full-day cruise, getting picked up at 8:30 in the morning and not returning until about 4pm. Lunch was provided, along with pit-stops at Thien Cung Cave, Ti Top Island, the Kissing Rocks, and a tour of a pearl farm. A cruise through Ha Long is an obligatory activity, and it’s a nice site for any sort of traveler.
Ah well, here we go. Ninh Binh.
The only thing I can say to you is that Ninh Binh is a small town in central Vietnam.
It’s a point, on Google Maps, and it’s pretty fast to find.
It definitely wasn’t peaceful and by no means was it one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen before.
Everything else, well, I think you have to go there and find out for yourself. 🙂
A major perk of writing this blog is knowing that there are some wonderful people who read it, so thank you for your time. Even if you just skimmed this post, and missed the part where I talked about getting scurvy, it’s totally fine and I still appreciate you a lot.
Have a wonderful day and take good care. More updates are on the way! Until then, lots of love.