Most cities in Vietnam are bustling with many colorful people, shops, and thousands of motorbikes… it can be quite hectic! That is exactly what we experienced as soon as we landed (on May 26th) in the northern part of the country in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
In the shuttle van from the Hanoi airport to our hotel, we faced an insane barrage of motorbikes all over the road, with anywhere from one to FIVE riders on each bike (including children and babies), weaving back and forth and around cars and buses, and riding less than one foot from each other. It was a pretty incredible “show” to watch with your own two eyes! And that’s just from INSIDE a vehicle: try walking along the sidewalk-less roads of Hanoi or trying to cross the street as a pedestrian. There was definitely a learning curve here, in regards to our manner of crossing the road.
We thought China was busy with so many motorbikes on the road, but Vietnam was a whole different ballgame. In China, you really needed to WATCH OUT, because the motorbikes and cars would run you over in a moment, no problem, no blinking… so you just waited FOREVER for a break in traffic and RAN! In Vietnam, however, there rarely was a break in traffic, and you simply had to hold your breath, say a little prayer, and step out into the middle of the insane traffic, keep moving at a constant pace, and watch as all the traffic fluidly zoomed around you. When you reached the middle of the road to face the oncoming traffic in the opposite direction, it was the same thing. In general, when crossing the road as a pedestrian in Vietnam, you are better off just GOING, rather than hesitating. The motorbikes pretty much all expect you to be confident about crossing the road, and they will, in turn, be confident about NOT running you over. It was quite an interesting dynamic that took a week or two to get used to, and to be a lot more confident about crossing the road and trusting that you wouldn’t be run down by a motorbike. It was like the video game “Frogger,” but in real life. [Click here to see a video of the crazy Hanoi traffic!]
Hanoi was an OK city, and we spent three days there… which was probably one day too long. To us, there weren’t many desirable activities to engage in, and it was basically just “a big city” and that was that. We did, however, take the time we were there to enjoy a fun and slightly silly “Water Puppet Show” at night, stroll along the Hoan Kiem Lake nearby, sample a few lovely Vietnamese dishes, visit the Hoa Lo Prison—which was used during the Vietnam War to house political prisoners and POWs (including John McCain), and marvel at old aircraft and tanks at the Vietnam Military History Museum. Oh yea, and we attempted to do a walking tour of the old quarter of Hanoi city—from a Lonely Planet guide—but that was pretty much a joke, as the street layout there is a complex myriad of interconnecting streets and was very confusing; we were lost like 90% of the time. AND it was like 95-105 degrees and we were soaked in sweat and exhausted. Fun! 🙂
So… it was a WELCOME change to head out of the hot and energetic city of Hanoi to a lovely little piece of relaxation: Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is located in the world renowned and GORGEOUS Halong Bay in Vietnam. Actually, most travelers who visit the northern part of Vietnam usually skip Hanoi and go directly to Halong Bay, and the majority of them often spend a night or two on a boat tour, floating around in the bay. Upon research and chatting with other travelers, we found that a LOT of these boat tours were quite disappointing, disorganized, overcrowded, and not really worth the money: well, UNLESS you drop a ton of cash on a “luxury” tour. Since we were in no position to spend that type of money and are now more “do it yourself” type of travelers, we took public transportation (bus to bus to ferry to bus) and made our way DIRECTLY to Cat Ba Island.
The bright and sunny afternoon we arrived on the Island (on May 29th), we immediately headed down to the main wharf area for sunset after we checked in to our hotel. As soon as we sat by the water, the bargaining began (as it does throughout most of Asia), and we haggled with the Vietnamese woman in the area to get our beers for $1 each, brilliant! It was truly a wonderful moment, sitting together by the water, sharing beers over meaningful conversation, and we both just soaked in the atmosphere and conversation and smiled.
The next few days were so lovely, as we spent most of the time jetting around the Island on a moped, relaxing on one of the three Cat Ba beaches, or enjoying time in and on the water. I think the one main thing we will both remember in such a reminiscent way about the Island, and Vietnam in general, is our time zooming around on the motorbike we rented… which, by the way, cost only $5 for the entire day! They didn’t ask for a driver’s license, we didn’t even fill out any forms, and we weren’t asked to leave a deposit. Heck, we didn’t even pay for the rental until we got back! Yea… we just got on and drove. Gotta love Vietnam! Of course, we took it easy in the beginning and practiced around the flat beach areas, especially since James has never actually driven a motorcycle or moped until now. But on the Island, there is a LOT less traffic than mainland, and you don’t really drive fast enough for anything major to happen. And in case it does: well, that’s why we have good, full-coverage international health insurance, right? 😉
Anyway, we coasted around Cat Ba Island, through the mountains, along the gorgeous coastline, past many lush green fields with workers farming the land, all adorned with the typical conical Vietnamese hats. We visited “Hospital Cave” one day, which was apparently used during war times to hide injured soldiers and such, and another day we visited the National Park and did a pretty difficult, hot, humid, and buggy hike up the mountain to a tower that provided some pretty gorgeous views of the surrounding forests. Occasionally, as we were driving around the Island, a car or bus would whizz by, and once in awhile we shared the road with other motorbikes, cows, goats, and sheep! I sat on the back of the bike with a huge smile across my face, taking it all in, hanging tightly around James’ waist, and just appreciating the amazing experience and the lovely views. Many times in the days we spent on the motorbike, James expressed how freeing, exciting, and wonderful the experience was for him as well:
“I tend to play it safe more often than not so I never understood the appeal of driving a motorcycle. However, after speeding around a few winding roads through the countryside and overlooking the beautiful Vietnam coastline (with a cute girl hanging around my waist)… Yea, I definitely saw the appeal.”
[Click here to see a cool video summary of one of our days around the Island on the motorbike.]
The three beaches on Cat Ba were small, although clean and inviting. We chose to spend most of our time on “Cat Ba 3” beach, as they actually had dancey-type music playing on the speaker system, and that’s definitely my type of beach hang out! The water was warm and the waves were large enough to body surf. Now… all I really needed was a tropical drink, and I’d be set!
We also took a one-day boat tour of Halong Bay, which is a MUST for any visitor to the area. We booked through “Cat Ba Ventures” and had a really wonderful experience! The day started out by slowly coasting past the beautiful rock formations that Halong Bay is recognized for, along with small fishing villages and floating villages as well. At one point, we stopped in an area and transferred to kayaks, and then spent a good hour kayaking around the bay, through cool caves, and into a beautiful cove where we watched hundreds of cool-looking jellyfish glide through the water beneath us. After a enjoyable lunch and a little swimming, we visited a cave and climbed up a slope of the mountain for some pretty breathtaking views of the bay, which was also ideal for some amazing photo opportunities. Next, the boat docked for awhile in another part of the bay, and we were able to swim a bit out to shore to a tiny deserted beach and we spent some time searching for beautiful sea shells. Lastly, we stopped at “Monkey Island” for a snack and more relaxing, and watched as some other tourists fed some of the wild monkeys that live on the Island. It was a very rewarding and wonderful day, and some of our best memories from the Island. [Click here to see a fun summary video of our whole day tour experience!]
Overall, our five days on Cat Ba Island was our favorite experience in Vietnam! Between the gorgeous ocean views, the relaxation on the beaches, and the freedom to jet around the Island on our own motorbike, it was a perfect little Island experience. It was also a nice ESCAPE that we both really needed at that point in our travels, and we thoroughly enjoyed and soaked it all in.
And it also was relaxation definitely needed, since the couple weeks ahead would be a lot busier, bouncing from one Vietnamese city to the next! To be continued in a future post . . .
Click here to see photos from our three days in Hanoi, Vietnam
Click here to see photos from Catba Island and Halong Bay.