So after our great stay in Dalat, we were driven to Nha Trang which was a stunning 4 hour drive away. We'd had the same driver the day before on our Dalat tour so he was incredibly friendly and helpful on our drive to Nha Trang. He stopped at beautiful viewpoints for us to get out and take photos and pointed out interesting places and facts. The drive went up and through the mountains passing beautiful waterfalls and views of the valley below. However, arriving in Nha Trang wasn't so amazing.
Nha Trang is known as a top beach town in Vietnam and is a 'must stop' on your way up North, which is probably why Kav and I weren't fans. As we drove through it reminded us of Byron Bay in Australia, which we also didn't like. It's not that either of them weren't nice beach towns and I'm sure they would have been gorgeous years before the hordes of tourists hit, but they sort of lose their charm when thousands of twenty somethings are running around late at night getting drunk and hanging out in huge groups on the beach making their presence constantly known. Nha Trang does have a gorgeous beach, some great restautrants and a nice vibe to it though, so it can be enjoyable.
Our hotel was right by the beach which was great, and had a roof top bar with amazing views of the city and the sea at night. There isn't much to do except beach activities but with the weather being quite windy and cold, we decided not to take that chance. Instead, on our only day there we decided to head to Vinpearl Land, which is an all round adventure park with a water park, aquarium, shopping centre and hotel resort. To get there though you have to take a gondola over the sea to an island around 3 kilometers away which was an adventure in itself due to the high winds, which needless to say had me in a state of panic!
As a theme park, it's not that great I'm sorry to say but we had a fun day playing on the arcade games, having a delicious fish lunch down by the water's edge and viewing all the fish at the aquarium until the heavens opened and we got soaked by the rain on the way back to the gondola for another treacherous ride back to the mainland.
This was the start of the bad weather for us I'm afraid. For the next 2 weeks all we could see was cloud, rain and haze which is unfortunate because nothing has looked as good as it probably should or would have done in better weather, and poor Kav has had trouble getting any great photos, though he has found solace in the fact that he will return one day but at the right time of year!
After Nha Trang it was time to fly to the north for our next stop, Hanoi. When we first planned our trip we had booked our Halong Bay junk cruise for a specific 3 days and couldn't move it after we had decided to extend our trip, so we had to fly north to get there in time and then work our way back down south visiting the places that we missed in between.
Our flight up, with Vietnam airlines, was about an hour long and had a very bumpy last 15 minutes as we made our way back down through thick cloud and smog. Hanoi, and actually most of Vietnam, has this weird grey haze about it. The air is so polluted that you never see sunlight and we seem to have a constant sore throat and headache because of the smog. It's actually very different to Bangkok which is just very humid and sunny most of the time. I'm sure when it's the middle of summer the haze gets burned away and it's clearer and sunnier, but right now it's not very pleasant and it's amazing how much you can grow to despise it and really miss just good old sun and humidity.
We'd booked a room at the Hanoi Boutique hotel, which was so snugly nestled in between all the other tiny buildings, shops and stalls that you could barely see it. It was in the Old Quarter which is a maze of the tiniest streets you've ever seen, most with no street name signs and they all look exactly the same. Finding your way around is not easy and getting lost is inevitable, which we did one day and actually never found the museum we went out to look for. But it does give it somewhat of a different charm to it than we'd seen so far in Vietnam and Kav especially really loved it. There was a market in the middle of the Old Quarter with thousands of stalls all selling Lunar New Year paraphernalia, fruit and veg, clothing and mobile phones and very much for the locals but we strolled around for an hour or so taking in the sights. Although I have to say, it was probably one of the most difficult and dangerous places to 'look around'. Because the roads are so tiny there just isn't enough room for everyone and we found ourselves in the middle of rush hour, surrounded by thousands of mopeds and no pavement to walk on because they are all used by the street sellers and stalls. You are forced to walk on the road, weaving in between parked mopeds, people selling things, moving mopeds at high speed and other pedestrians. Not a comfortable or enjoyable experience, but an experience none the less!
The top thing you have to do when in Hanoi is go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh's body rests in a glass coffin. He of course is Vietnam's most loved figure and his face is everywhere, stillbeing praised and prayed to, and his preserved body lays within a huge mausoleum in the middle of the city. It's quite an experience and is taken extremely seriously by the Vietnamese. The whole process takes about 30 minutes, even though you only get about 30 seconds to walk, in single file, around the coffin. There's different queues for checking in bags, getting tickets (for the surrounding grounds which house other buildings to see), lining up, walking around the ground to the mausoleum and then led, in silence, into the building and around the coffin. It's weird being the only westerners in there because you feel like you are intruding on their time with him and demoralizing their beliefs, and it's also weird seeing a 50 year old dead body, but like I said, quite an experience. It clearly affects the Vietnamese who go to visit regularly to pay their respects and you see how much of an impact this one guy must have made on this country to still be such a hero to them.
That same night we had tickets to the Water Puppet Theatre in another part of town. This is a must see in Vietnam and dates back to the 18th century when farmers used to make puppets and perform with them when there was flooding, and they would sell the puppets at local markets. We were quite looking forward to it and managed to get the last 2 tickets left for that performance, but left very disappointed and in fits of giggles. It was actually quite boring, not performed very well and actually became very irritating by the end, so I wouldn't recommend it should you ever find yourself in Vietnam.
The next day we were picked up at 8am by a private car to take us to our junk boat in Halong Bay. When we arrived we were greeted by Fook, one of the staff on board and then led to a tiny speed boat along with an English family of 4 and a French couple which took us 100 feet to our junk boat. The junk was stunning, inside and out and only had 6 suites, therefore would only house a maximum of 12 guests, but had 18 staff. When we arrived we were shown to our room which was one of the most stunning rooms I've ever seen, and this was on a junk boat! It had a huge bed, a bathroom bigger than ours at home with a shower and a Jacuzzi bath, air conditioning, a desk and even a massive plasma screen with a hard drive of 100 movies, which strangely included Titanic, which I thought was odd but put it on anyway for background entertainment! The view was also incredible. We had huge windows on 2 sides of the suite and even a little balcony with 2 beds so that you could watch the world go by in private. The boat had a top deck with sunbeds, a beautiful eating area with bar downstairs, a gym with sauna and even a spa. It really was one of the mostwonderful 2 days. The only downside was the weather. Here we were in one of the world's most beautiful places and the sky was grey and the view hazy, but we weren't going to let that spoil our adventure. In the end I think we were actually glad because it meant that not only was our junk not full, but there was a fraction of boats out on the water that would normally be out in the bay during the summer. Kav got some pretty wonderful photos and even though I couldn't lay out on the deck and get some sun, I spent time in our gorgeous room just relaxing.
As soon as we all stepped on board we sat at our designated dining tables and taken through the itinerary for the next 2 days. Kav and I, and the French couple were on board for 2 nights and the English family just 1 night (thankfully because they had a 3 year old and a 1 year old and had a room next to ours!) and there were 2 other couples on board who we barely saw because of the way the boat is run. It's actually incredibly clever how it works but complicated so I won't try to explain but what I will say is that it makes the boat seem half empty for everyone even though it is full. After our itinerary debrief we had a delicious 4 course lunch which included a soup, salad, some fantastic sea bass in a tamarind sauce anddessert. Then we were given an hour or so to relax before boarding the tug boat which took us to a floating village where we boarded, per couple, a bamboo boat, rowed by a floating village resident, around the village and then it was back to the junk for cocktails while we sailed to our dinner destination. Dinner was just amazing and was inside a cave in one of the thousands of islands in the bay. When we arrived it was all lit up with fairy lights and as we walked up the steps to the entrance it just took our breath away. It was basically a restaurant but inside a cave, and after a quick walk around the stalagmites we sat down to our own little table (as did the other couples) and told to help ourselves to the buffet and BBQ. Unfortunately the food wasn't great, but it didn't matter because the whole experience was too incredible to be tainted. What made the night even nicer were the people on our junk who were all there too. There were of course the English parents, the French couple, an American couple and a gay Dutch couple and it just so happened to be the French woman's 50th birthday and her husband had ordered a cake and flowers to be presented to her and then ordered champagne which he invited us all to share to celebrate. So we all stood around for an hour or so in this cave, after dinner, sipping champagne and chatting away to all these lovely people about our trips so far, where we all live, what we do etc and it was great fun.
The next morning we were up for breakfast and then taken off for the day on the day boat to Cat Ba Island, which is also a National Park, to see Surprise Cave which was a huge cave, similar to Carslbad Cavern in the USA. We were in a group with the French couple and 2 other couples from other junks owned by the same company and took about an hour to walk all the way round the cave. After that we had a fantastic lunch on the boat which included fresh deep fried squid, steamed prawns, fried stuffed crab and sea bass, a few glasses of wine and then it was time for kayaking, which we decided not to do. It was too cold and with my phobia of being wet, it just didn't seem appealing enough. So we stayed on the boat with a lovely American couple from another boat and had a great time just chatting to them for a couple of hours. They had travelled and lived all over the world so we were all telling stories on where we'd been (all very similar actually) and about our trip this time and swapping tips.
When we returned, we had been given a different suite, this time with a 4-poster bed which was beautiful, had a shower and a few cocktails and then headed down for dinner. The next morning we were up early to pack and have breakfast and then there was a fun cooking class in the dining area where we learnt to make fresh spring rolls. Sadly it was then time to head back to the port for disembarking which was very sad. We had such a wonderful time that we didn't want to leave, and I would highly recommend the experience to anyone, but make sure you do it in luxury because I think it makes it even better!
We were then driven back to Hanoi where we stayed for 1 night and ended up just going for dinner around the corner to discuss our itinerary for the next couple of weeks and write lists of where we were going, what flights and hotels we needed to book and get an early night as we were being picked up at 8am again to be taken to Mai Chau. More about that in my next blog.
Love to you all xxx