After spending several weeks working my way through the mountains of Laos and North Vietnam, I suddenly found myself in the electric city of Hanoi. Although Hanoi remains to be the second largest city in Vietnam to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), it still maintains to be one of the fastest growing metropolises in the world.
An ancient charm weaves its way through much of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. What used to be a cluster of villages made up of huts on sticks, slowly transformed over time into the heart of the capital. At the turn of the 20th century the city was made up of just 36 streets, where each street would house merchants of a specific trade (e.g. silk, crafts etc.) These narrow streets are now known as the Old Quarter, and are lined with street food, hostels and bars, while bikes thread their way through the passing crowds. There’s still a claustrophobic feel to the Old Quarter, which is why some love it, and some hate it. I have to admit, after spending 10 weeks moving from small town to small town, it was quite a shock to the system. However, it was a good prospect to be in a big city again.
I spent a couple of days wondering through the city’s cluttered streets, through to the more modern districts which held tall skylines and open parks. There’s plenty of food to get your hands Hanoi too, and I made repeat visits to my favourite establishment. With only one item on the menu, a beef noodle soup with mint and coriander, it was always a delicious and safe bet.
The next stop was the island of Catba, which lay in the midst of Halong Bay. After three buses and a boat (all squeezed into a 5 hour journey), I had landed on the hot and humid pier of island. Despite expecting a subdued island with a sleepy town at the bay, I was surprised to find quite the opposite. Catba is a popular destination for Hanoi residents for a long weekend, so when I arrived the restaurants were alive with large groups who overflowed onto the main streets.
On the first night, I met a couple of Germans who suggested a night swim would be the best way to cool off from the heat of the day. We headed towards some beaches nearby, which were unfortunately closely guarded by the local beach police. “No swim after 7pm!” one of them barked at us as we approached the water, to which we replied “You can’t close the sea!” Stubbornly, they maintained their position.
Luckily the raised path that followed the curve of the beach had a blind spot, so that we could climb down unnoticed and silently move along the beach in the darkness to a spot sufficiently far away that they couldn’t see us. We hastily jumped into the water and swam out. One famous inhabitant of the seas around Halong Bay is the luminous plankton which glow when they are disturbed. When you waved your hands underwater or swam around, the water around you would light up. Smaller but intense sparks would appear when you clicked your fingers and made sharp movements. It was addictive to stand there in awe flailing your limbs to see if you could illuminate all the water around you.
The next day, we jumped on boat and toured the famous Halong Bay. The scenery of Halong bay is truly unique. Islands of steep rock bolt up from the turquoise waters with grey walls and topped with deep green plant life. Most of the islands fall straight into the water, although occasionally golden beaches sit at the base. It was an amazing place to be, although much of the bay was full of floating rubbish which tainted the experience somewhat. We cruised through much of the bay, stopping off to paddle through the caves in kayaks and enjoy the cool water where possible.
Although Catba was a beautiful place, it felt like quite a touristy excursion. After a couple of nights, I felt it was enough time and planned my next step – time to head south to the farming city of Ninh Binh.
If you replace the sea with rice paddies, the Ninh Binh province holds some very similar scenery to Halong Bay. The islands which rose out of the waters were now mountains rising from the sea of fields which surrounded them. Before we arrived at the city centre, we passed by the green and yellow rice fields, currently being harvested by hundreds of workers across the province. The rice straw, which is seen as useless, is burnt whilst the rest of the crop is harvested. Columns of smoke arise from the corners of the fields, as the rest of the crop is methodically harvested into the early evening light.
On arrival at the hostel, I sat down to enjoy a quick meal and a familiar face walked through the door. Randa, who I had travelled with for much of Laos and Sapa had coincidentally chosen to travel to Ninh Binh on the same day and to the same hostel. It never ceases to amaze me how small the world of backpacking really is. She was then travelling with a few guys from Birmingham, who I joined for the evening, and we shared beers and our backpacker tales into the early hours.
Despite being in the wet season now, The Sun still scorched Ninh Binh during the 3 days I was there. After building up the courage to leave the hostel into the heat, we all headed towards the Trang An grottoes. In the stunning landscape of the steep mountains, the river carved its way through the rock to form long caves along the way. Rice paddies lined either side of the river, baked in the midday heat. Our only respite from the overbearing Sun would be the cool shade of the caves that we drifted through.
At the end of the journey, a few women sat waiting for us in their boats selling snacks and drinks. Randa and I bought a couple of mangos, along with some beer and peanuts for our friendly boat guide.
I had heard about a viewpoint before going on the excursion, and asked our guide to let us stop and take a look. Fortunately our snack gift earlier was enough for him to provide a helping hand. I’ve always found you can go along way in Vietnam with beer and peanuts. We headed towards the base of the viewpoint before starting the climb upwards. Even after just 5 minutes of climbing in the Sun’s heat, the sweat rolled down our skin. The view, however, made it all worth it. Suddenly, you could see all of the rice paddies lit up against the striking backdrop of the boulder-like mountains behind.
The next day we decided to take rest from the heat and stayed indoors. I was more than happy to relax for 24 hours after a week of non-stop travel. We got to know our local restaurant, which served the largest portions in Vietnam (something that was very much appreciated!) It also held an inexplicable grudge against the restaurant on the opposite side of the road. Apparently they stole from them the font and colours for their sign…
The next day it was time to goodbye (again) to Randa and the others before continuing South. Before leaving the majestic landscape of North Vietnam, I made a quick journey to a viewpoint above the famous Mua caves. I rented a motorbike and made the 20 minute journey to the foot of the mountain. Despite my attempts to rise early, the Sun quickly caught up and the 500 steps to the top suddenly became more difficult than expected. Still, as always, it’s worth the reward at the top.