Hanoi, Vietnam – As much as I love Hanoi, sometimes I just need to get out of the city and away from the noise and congestion. The nice thing about living with 13 other people is that getting away doesn’t have to mean going it alone. So, on two separate weekends a group of us headed out of Hanoi on a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda and a weekend trip to Ha Long Bay. Both were excellent trips and nice escapes, but they were made better by the fact that you could share the experience with new found friends.
For those that don’t know, the Perfume Pagoda is a vast complex of Buddhist temples and shrines in the mountains Southwest of Hanoi, with the crown jewel being a temple carved into a cave at the top of a mountain. It’s not the easiest place to get to – it’s a two hour bus ride down small local, bumpy roads followed by a one hour boat ride, but the scenery is magnificent.
- The night before embarking on this trip, many in our group stayed out until somewhere between four and five in the morning. As a result, two girls in the group claimed they were sick when we woke up at 7 AM and didn’t go on the trip. One girl didn’t drink the night before and went back to the hostel early, the other was out drinking with the party group all night. I’ll leave it up to you whether to believe both, or not.
- Our one hour boat ride to the pagoda complex was quite the adventure. For starters, there was a hole in the bottom of the boat. Secondly, there was a crazy lady who kept rowing her boat up next to ours and yelling at us (in broken English) to buy cold drinks from her. We would tell her no, and she would say, “Okay, maybe later. But, you remember you buy from me.” Five minutes later the same exchange would take place again (and she continued to pop up throughout the day, too, and we’d have the same exchange every time). Thirdly, there were street signs galore along the river which made it seem like you were on a paved highway instead of the liquid variety. Of course, that’s all I need when tired and hung over: Traveling through a landscape that was different, yet just familiar enough to confuse me, with someone yelling at me in a shrill voice, while everyone in the boat gets paranoid over a little leak.
- The morning consisted of a quick walk and tour around a pagoda at the bottom of the mountain. While it was nice, let’s face it, we were all just biding time until we could get to the top of the mountain.
- In the afternoon we went to the top of the mountain to see the highlight of the trip, the pagoda in the cave. It was a quick cable car ride up, but it was quite the strenuous hike down – 30 minutes of profuse sweating (sweat was literally dripping off my hat, and I completely sweated through my shirt and backpack) and tender ankles from the uneven stone path. While definitely worth it, the cable car ride down may have been worth the extra three dollars.
- The boat ride back to the bus was no less exciting than the ride to the pagoda complex. Although, instead of being hung over, we were all now absolutely exhausted after our little hike down the mountain. So, the name of the game became falling asleep in the boat without falling in the river (made harder by the group of local women on the boat next to us who decided to yell at each the entire way). I tried to hunker down and put my head in both hands, but that only seemed to make my back open game for the driver to hit with the paddle. The one time I did doze off, I woke up in time to see my roommate wake up when he was within inches of falling over the side of the boat. That would have been a rude awakening.
Ha Long Bay
This was a trip I almost didn’t go on, but it turned into one of my favorite weekends since I left the US. Dubbed one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Ha Long Bay definitely lived up to its reputation. However, the combination of the scenery with the sun, water, sand, and people is what made this a truly special place and weekend.
- The trip itself was three days and two nights, all inclusive except for drinks. And, when I say all inclusive, I mean one night on a boat, one night in a secluded beach front bungalow, kayaking, cave exploration, hiking, and some of the best meals I’ve had while in Vietnam.
- The trip didn’t get off to the greatest of starts when one person in our group found out he couldn’t go due to passport and visa issues. As in, he didn’t have his passport because he was getting his visa extended. Our travel agent told him everything would be fine, so he made it all the way to Ha Long Bay (a 3.5 hour bus ride one way) before finding out he could either go on a one day trip or go back to Hanoi. Sucks for him, but, considering we were going to squeeze three dudes in a two person room, I guess lucky me.
- Only four of the twelve people on our boat weren’t with our group. While we enjoyed hanging out together, it was nice meeting new people. Especially when those new people include:
- Two Americans who introduced us to the line, “We’re going to Viet F***ing Nam,” (from the movie Platoon) which has since become our catch phrase
- A Belgian Astrophysicist who wowed us with a discussion on dark matter and other inter planetary musings. He excused himself to his room shortly after one of the girls told him he should never let his daughter go to a strip club in Toronto because all the guys that go there are slimy. Alcohol makes you say funny things sometimes.
- A Dutch shipping magnate, or so I believed after he kept buying us drinks and refusing our attempts to buy him a round, and he seemed to have traveled everywhere.
- The food on the boat, and the trip in general, was simply amazing. There was fresh catfish, squid, mussels, French fries, and some nice cinnamon water that tasted like Big Red chewing gum.
- Wondering what one does at night on a boat? Well, where there’s a bar, there’s always something to do. Or, in our case, where there are smuggled bottles of vodka, there’s fun to be had. The only downer was that the crew fell asleep before we could start karaoke, forcing us to instead hang out on the sun/moon deck all night. Then again, that was probably better for everyone’s ears.
- You can imagine how thrilled I was to go on a 45 minute hike to the top of a mountain the morning after drinking until 3 AM. Okay, it was a hill, but it was really steep, really hot, and unbearably humid. I think I sweated through every piece of clothing on my body within about 10 minutes (have I mentioned that I sweat a lot in Vietnam?). On the bright side, I sweated out my hangover and got to see an amazing view over Cat Ba Island. On the down side, a fifty year old woman (our guide) ran circles around me and continually fanned me because I looked like I was about to die.
- We took a 45 minute ferry to get to our bungalows. I say ferry, but it was really more of a dinghy that could only fit five people and roiled around in the waves and wakes of the larger boats. It seemed a little on the sketchy side, and our crazy driver did everything he could to reinforce this notion.
- Apparently there was something wrong with the engine (why am I always on the boat that has problems?), so he gave the rudder to one of the girls to steer while he rummaged around and fixed whatever needed to be fixed.
- He later asked if the girl steering and I were dating or sleeping together (he didn’t speak English, so we combined my limited Vietnamese language skills and his hand gestures to communicate). When I said no, he started yelling, laughing, and high fiving me. I wasn’t sure what was going on until he turned to the girl and asked if she would sleep with him. She said no.
- Considering we didn’t arrive to the beachside bungalows until late afternoon, we spent as much time as we could on the sugar white sands and in the warm, bath like water, but I wish we’d had more time. Although for one girl, it was more than enough time – she claimed to hate sand and preferred rocky beaches. I understand sand gets everywhere, but it’s so soft and easy to sleep on. I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.
- Our night at the bungalows featured:
- More smuggled vodka (that’s five bottles for five people over the course of two nights, if anyone is keeping score at home).
- Joining forces with a Vietnamese party to dance the Macarena and Chicken Dance
- Waking up the staff several times during the night to buy beer (for some reason they would only serve me and none of the girls).
- Being drunk enough that no one noticed getting cut up by all the sharp rocks in the bay that were suddenly exposed at low tide.
- One girl and I staying up late into the night and trying to talk Chinese to each other, or so we termed it, even though neither one of knew how to speak the language (alcohol was not a factor in this, I swear).
- All I remember from the next morning is my roommate flicking me in the foot and telling me to wake up if I wanted to catch the ferry back to the mainland. I think there was also some grumbling in there about how loud I snored during the night. Oops. As others can attest, I’m quite the loud drunk snorer. My bad.
- On a sad/sobering note, we witnessed a motorbike accident on the way back to Hanoi. I’m not certain what happened, all I know is I was trying to sleep when the next thing I knew I was trying to stop myself from flying out of my seat as the bus driver slammed on the breaks. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a motorbike flying end over end and the driver flying through the air after it. Amazingly, he seemed to get up and walk it off. However, there was another motorbike driver who was down and seemed to be much the worse for wear. Being Vietnam, once the bikes and participants were moved out of the road, everyone was back on their way (you also don’t really want to stick around for the cops to show up either), and one can only hope that everyone involved was okay.