Vietnam part 2: Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi
Hoi An may be one of the most tourist-heavy places we visited in Vietnam (not definitely, but it’s close) but surprisingly it was a breath of fresh air for us.
We’d finished the Mekong Delta and we needed somewhere to really relax, and Hoi An (depending on what time of day it is), was a good place for that.
It’s absolutely picture perfect old town with its yellow-hues, multi-coloured lanterns and ancient Chinese houses was as beautiful as imagined, however, the sheer numbers of tourists congregated on its streets were off-putting, particularly at sunset.
We hired bikes to get from our homestay to the town and onto the beach. It was our first time “driving” on the roads of Vietnam and while the first evening’s cycle was extremely shaking and nerve-wracking, we soon got the hang of it and even worked out how to turn left at huge intersections. We had a few near misses but ultimately it was the best way to get around the city.
The beach and our beautiful homestay, which was located about a 15 min cycle from the old town, became our sanctuaries. We cycled in the unbearable heat of the sun and cooled off in the clear ocean and quiet beach or in our air-conditioned mahogany room and headed into town for the late evenings in the breezy Hoi An air.
When we took the bus to Hue the holiday seemed to be over. It was just as hot as Hoi An, but this time we appeared to be in a dense, grey city without much charm and nowhere to cool off. Don’t get me wrong, this first impression wasn’t entirely accurate and the ancient palace and other beautiful sites within the city were wonderful, but we had most certainly lost that easy holiday vibe and were back to the hustle of the city.
Hanoi however was a different story. We’d chosen a slightly more expensive homestay, with a lovely comfy bed and in a great location – a great type of accommodation.
Every day we’d brave the crazy streets and windy alleyways of the city to try its delicious local food and specialties, including Bun Cha, Hanoi spring rolls and our favourite chicken with lemongrass and chilli.
Sadly, the coastal region did experience a typhoon during this time. No one was hurt, but the boats to Halong Bay were postponed (including ours) and the city experienced heavy daily rain. This meant a lot of time in our cosy bedroom until we could board.
Halong Bay, like Hoi An, is another one of those Vietnam “hot spot” destinations. It’s overrun with tourists, all on huge cruise ships and fighting for a “tranquil” place in the bay. Our boat was lovely and we met some great people, however, you couldn’t help but notice the amount of rubbish in the water and clear lack of Vietnamese visitors. The tourism, like much of Vietnam, was either richer Asian countries or Westerners.
One of our highlights after a day on the boat was kayaking through the caves and into this lagoon, thankfully where we were the only tourists.
After paddling in the turquoise blue waters for a while we kept hearing this splashing noise and soon realised it was monkeys. There were well over 60 of them, babies, men and women, all swinging around on the vines and then crash landing into the water from great heights.
They were excellent swimmers, and as soon as they’d tumbled into the waters they’d scramble back out again onto the rocks, grab another vine and start the fun again. It was absolutely incredible to watch from our advantageous floating viewing platform.
Our evening was spent in great company with a group of young German and Austrian girls who had just finished volunteering in HCMC. We were taught how to make spring rolls and shared dinner together, before heading up to the top deck to watch the stars – including a shooting star.
While there were some key highlights, two days from Hanoi in Halong Bay isn’t enough time to relax. You spend a lot of your time on the boat and without any comfortable place to experience the surroundings, although the cabins were nice. Our group was also a good size, at 16, but you are constantly surrounded by other boats doing the same thing as you. It’s inevitable and it’s all part and parcel of mass tourism.
On the one hand, we now have access to this beautiful region at an affordable price (only for some though) but on the other hand we are all rapidly destroying it.