(Laos) Vang Vieng >>> Vientiane >>> (Vietnam) Hanoi >>> Ha Long Bay
8/13- Bus down to Vientiane and Exploring the City
8/14- Flew to Hanoi, Vietnam and Walked through Old Quarter at Night
8/15- Visiting all the Top Sights in Hanoi on Foot
8/16- Water Puppet Show and Hanoi Food Tour!
8/17- Intricate Embroidering and Beginning our Tour of Ha Long Bay!
8/18- Cruising Ha Long Bay and Bus South to Ninh Binh
8/19- Scootering around Ninh Binh and Enjoying the Trang An Boat Tour
Bus down to Vientiane and Exploring the City
+ Today we had to leave Vang Vieng and head down to Vientiane, even though there was still a lot of cool stuff around we didn’t have time to visit. This was definitely a place we would come back to one day!
+ After packing up our bags, paying our bill, and eating breakfast, we got picked up in a truck to go to the bus station. Then we boarded the bus and had to sit around for another 20+ minutes for some unknown reason before the bus finally started driving South to Vientiane.
+ We wished we had gotten a minivan instead since they would make the trip much faster than the large bus would, but at least we were pretty comfortable.
+ Along the way, Liz went through pictures and wrote out posts for Instagram while Corey worked on this here blog. Writing this very sentence. Does that blow your mind!? Then he did research for Vietnam and Cambodia.
+ While driving, we also passed a funeral procession that was very interesting to see. Besides the long line of cars and motorbikes, there was a truck with an elaborately decorated coffin on the back and in front of the truck there were some women and a bunch of monks holding onto a rope and leading the truck. Very interesting.
+ Walked through town until we found a tourist shop and then rented a motorbike to explore the city.
+ Our first destination was the iconic symbol of Laos: Pha That Luang. We paid the small entry fee to get inside the wall and see the giant Golden Stupa. This Golden Stupa is on all the bills here in Laos! Then we visited the large reclining Buddha, wats and mosoleum in the complex surrounding the stupa.
+ Next up was the Patuxay Monument which was like the Arc de Triumph in Paris except even larger! We forced ourselves to climb to the top, despite the oppressive heat and claustrophobic staircase. Then we snapped a few photos of the city and relished the small breeze.
+ Siskatet Temple was the next place we drove our motorbike to and although most of it was closed, we enjoyed having the place all to ourselves. Except for the monks who stared at us like we were some type of exotic creatures.
+ Craving air conditioning, we drove over to Joma Coffee. This was a place Liz had wanted to try since Luang Prabang and while we cooled down and drank 8 gallons of water, Corey got a S’mores donut and Liz enjoyed some Laos iced coffee.
+ Sunset over the Mekong River was very pretty with the whole sky lighting up orange! Ir was cool to see Thailand right there on the other side of the river! We also did some walking through the giant night market just to look around.
+ For dinner we walked to Ai Capone, a highly reguarded Italian place. It was the most Italy-like pizza we’ve had since Naples! Although it was very tasty, Corey actually still prefers a pizza from Stevi B’s, or one of the fast food pizza joints back home!
+ Corey got a 2nd meal of a Kebab from a Turkish food stand and then we rode the motorbike back to the shop and returned it.
+ Before we returned to the hotel, we picked up some nice cold drinks from the minimart next door. Then we went to our room and discovered Indiana Jones was playing on our tv. In English! Woohoo!
+ We showered and played around online while Mission Impossible 3 played in the background. Then we watched some Brooklyn 99 episodes and didn’t go to sleep until almost 3 am! Woops!
Flew to Hanoi, Vietnam and Walked through Old Quarter at Night
+ Checked out of our room and stored our bags. Then we walked over to a Burger restaurant we had read was supposed to be fantastic. Upon entering we were stared at all wide-eyed from the 7 or so workers and people in the restaurant as if they had no idea why in the world we would be entering their restaurant.
+ After confirming they were indeed open for lunch, we ordered and took our seats and eventually ate our not-so-special burgers. Then we paid and left. It was just a really weird experience and we felt unwanted the whole time.
+ Picked up our bags and caught a tuk-tuk to the airport. We had to wait in a long line to check in for our flight and the airport apparently didn’t believe in air conditioning or fans because it was soooo friggin hot! We were both literally dripping with sweat by the time we’d finished check in and headed upstairs for immigration.
+ The gate was slightly cooler and we relaxed and read about Vietnam until it was time to board. Then we flew the 70 minutes from Vientiane to Hanoi, Vietnam where we paid a whole bunch of money for the visa and had to wait around for them to deem us worthy enough to visit their country. Then they took up a whole page and a half of our passport! We were now down to just a few spare pages left!
+ We were pretty hungry so we grabbed a quick snack from the airport and then ordered an Uber into the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The 45 minute ride was nice and we saw a lot of different styles of architecture and a funny mix of locals and animals on the road, like Cebu and goats!
+ In town, the traffic was crazy, even by SE Asian standards. We made it to our place called Eclipse Legend Hotel and then our driver even got out and helped us cross the street. So nice of him!
+ The hotel was nice and after our welcome drinks they excorted us to the honeymoon suite room they had upgraded us to!
+ After some brief time waiting for the rain to subside, we finally headed out to see the town at night and grab some dinner.
+ We spent an hour or so walking around through the Old Quarter and then grabbed some food before returning a different route back to the hotel.
+ The rest of the night was spent mapping out our route the next day and dealing with a leaky A/C.
Visiting all the Top Sights in Hanoi on Foot
+ We headed down to the first floor for the tasty breakfast buffet (it had bacon!) and then afterwards returned to our room where Liz took 2 of the greatest naps she’s ever had! Yes 2! While she was napping, Corey read sports articles and Game of Thrones reviews.
+ After some lunch, we set out on foot exploring the city. We walked many, many, many kilometers and passed a whole bunch of interesting stuff along the way.
+ We saw the prison infamously deeme the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POW’s (including John McCain), Phan Quan Su (a very pretty temple), and then headed over to the Temple of Literature. This place was very nice and had lots of interesting history and shrines.
+ Next up was the Ho Chi Minh museum where Corey somehow managed to inadvertently slip in to the museum with a large group of Chinese tourists while Liz was singled out and stopped at the entrance and asked to pay. Then we saw the underwhelming One-Pillar-Pagoda before walking the rest of the Ho Chi Minh complex grounds.
+ We barely missed seeing the Stilt House before it closed (and the mausoleum was closed this time of year) so to stifle our disappointment, we ducked into a tiny bubble tea shop- that had air conditioning! and Wifi!
+ This was such a hugely welcomed break from the oppressive humidity outside that it felt amazing! We hung out for about an hour letting ourselves cool down while sipping on our yummy drinks. We wish they were this cheap back home!
+ From there, we walked along the lake to the Tran Quoc pagoda and managed to see everything just in time before it closed. We even saw the tree where Confucius meditated!
+ Liz noticed so many Vietnamese women wear coordinating outfits with pants and shirt all in one print! Women of all ages!
+ Although an Uber was tempting, we walked back through town on foot so we could see more things and visit a few tour offices to get an idea for prices to Ha Long Bay.
+ Once we’d visited a few and collected a bunch of information, we headed back to our hotel so we could shower off and do some thinking about what we wanted to do and how long to visit. For dinner we ordered some Dominos pizza since we’d seen their sign for BOGO today!
+ Our room had a TV so while we worked on our devices and enjoyed some Vietnamese beer, we watched the movie “The Terminator” for the first time. Somehow neither of us had seen the whole thing before!
Water Puppet Show and Hanoi Food Tour!
+ With Liz still recovering from her cold, we chose to sleep in a little bit. Then a little after noon we exited our hotel and set off for our fun-packed day!
+ First up (after lunch of course) was a visit to the Water Puppet Theater. We watched the one hour performance that was really different and exceeded our expectations! The show was broken down into a series of 5 minute performances by the live orchestra and reenactments of various myths and stories from Vietnamese culture. Really unique and entertaining!
+ The puppets were wooden people and animals, most with flexible joints, that were attached to long bamboo poles. A small pool served as the stage. The puppeteers behind a curtain held the poles horizontal to the water and moved the puppets above and sometimes through the water. It was actually very entertaining!
+ After the show we spoke to a few more tour operators and finally decided on the tour and operator we wanted to go with to visit Ha long Bay. Before we could finish booking the tour however, it was time to go on another tour that we had already scheduled! (a food tour- so super important, obviously!) So we left the travel agency and promised to return afterwards to complete the booking.
+ This food tour ended up being really really fun and super exceeded our expectations for quantity of food! We had a fun time with our mixed group of 10 people and really fun and friendly tour guide. She not only was informative about all the food we were trying, but answered any and all questions we had about Vietnam and the people and culture in general. We learned a lot! In total, we got to try about 6 different food dishes, a dessert dish, and an egg coffee/egg chocolate! Plus a free beer! Totally worth it!
+ The tour was supposed to be 3 hours long but ended up lasting for over 4 hours probably because of the torrential rain storm we had to walk through. So the poor nice lady at the travel agency had to stay open extra long just for us. When we finally got back to her it was around 10:30 pm!
+ We spoke with her for a while and she kindly answered all of our questions and we booked everything we’d need transportation wise for the rest of Vietnam. Then we walked back to our hotel and got to our room at midnight!
+ Although we were already tired, we had to book accomodation for Ninh Binh and our flight to Cambodia, plus pack our bags and shower! We didn’t climb into our bed to sleep until after 3:30 am! Then we tried to manage a few hours of sleep before we had to wake up at 7:30. Phew!
Intricate Embroidering and Beginning our Tour of Ha Long Bay!
+ We were both completely exhausted and lamented the fact we booked the tour for today instead of giving ourselves an extra day of rest in Hanoi. Liz was especially tired since she had kept herself awake most of the night coughing. With limited time remaining in Southeast Asia however, we had to keep moving and see as much as we could. We could rest later!
+ Once we’d checked out of our rooms, we ate breakfast downstairs and waited for the bus to arrive. When it did pull up, we jumped on and settled into the 3-4 hour journey to the East coast. One thing to note is we hadn’t been in these type of cruiser vans since Central/South America!
+ Along the way, we made a pit stop at a different kind of tourist trap. Instead of being the usual shop with various trinckets and food/drinks, this one was a huge warehouse full of giant sculptures and extremely intricate arts and crafts.
+ Corey’s favorite was the crafts that involved a person hammering eggshells onto a platter into a design but Liz loved all the people embroidering!
+ There were rows after rows of people (many with various deformities and all of whom spoke via sign language to one another!) hand- embroidering beautiful scenes from Vietnam and Ha Long Bay! Some were extremely intricate and although we were interested in a few, the price was way too high for us simple backpacking folk! Liz has quite the eye for art however as each one that she pointed out as her favorites turned out to be the most expensive!
+ In the end we had to leave without buying any but hopefully we’ll return another day with more money. Back on the bus, Corey worked on the blog and watched Dragon Ball Super episodes while Liz tired her best to sleep despite the erratic driving and incessant honking.
+ When we finally arrived to the bay, we unloaded from the bus and followed our tour guide to the boat we’d be on for the next 24 hours or so. We had a pretty good group size and mix consisting of 13 people from different countries. Most of which were in their mid twenties (like us!).
+ After a brief description of the day ahead and getting our room assignments, we met back in the dining room for our lunch. We were pleasantly surprised at how much food was offered, the different choices we had, and the quality of the food and presentation! These were probably our fanciest meals in quite a while. I guess this is what 3 stars looks like!
+ Although the sky was still gray and the weather a bit dreary, we all hung out on the top deck as we sailed through the bay and eventually passed by a bunch of limestone karsts. The scenery was very pretty and it reminded us of a mix between Khao Sok in Thailand and Milford Sound in New Zealand.
+ Our first stop for the day was to Tippy Top Mountain, a little island literally crawling with tourists. We did the climb up to the top for the incredible views out and over the bay, but opted not to swim in the dirty water like some other people were.
+ Next we sailed over to a little harbor where we all hopped in some double kayaks and explored the area for an hour or so. It always amazes us how little kayaking/canoeing experience most people from around the world (outside of the U.S.) have. Having both grown up in Florida, we definitely take for granted the plethora of water sports activities available to us year round!
+ When that activity finished and we were back on board, the boat moved only a few hundred meters away before anchoring for the night. Then we all enjoyed some fake happy hour drinks (no real discounts) and hung out chatting until dinner, which was again impressive with the intricate presentation and multitude of options.
+ At night we tried our hand at squid fishing before quickly growing bored and watching the guides “cheat” by using a bucket, and net. Then we all gathered in a circle on the top deck and played the card game “Schwimmen”, aka 31, for way too long. But we still had fun chatting and laughing with everyone even after the game grew a bit boring. Plus, Corey was the only one not to lose a single game! A Fun day!
Cruising Ha Long Bay and Bus South to Ninh Binh
+ Our room on the boat was right next to the engine room which meant we woke up even earlier than our 6:45 am wake up call was scheduled for. We weren’t too upset though because all it took was a look out the window at the beautiful scenery to remind us of how lucky we were.
+ After a big breakfast we all hopped off the boat and followed our guide into the “Surprising Cave”. This was hugely touristy and built up enough to even feature a sidewalk almost the entire time, but still an impressive sight with huge caverns and stalactites.
+ Our guide did a great job explaining not only features of the cave (including funny names for rocks) but also beliefs in the Vietnamese culture about the possible different methods the 1,969 islands of the bay were formed and the significance behind each story.
+ When we’d finished our walk through of the lit up cave (we didn’t even need torches!) we climbed aboard again and set off for the North part of Cat Ba island. There we said goodbye to half of the people who were scheduled to do a 3 day tour and collected a bunch of other people also heading back to port.
+ Along the way, we were treated to a brief “cooking” demonstration where a crew member showed us how to roll our own spring rolls. Then we all got to roll a few and eat them. Thankfully a lot of the other people weren’t quite as hungry as we were (especially Corey) and so we got to eat a lot!
+ Much to our surprise, we were called downstairs for lunch immediately after that! We thought the spring rolls were our lunch but happily ate the other food plopped down in front of us.
+ When the ship pulled into port, along with the 50 other ships, the famous Southeast Asian confusion and disorganization/organization eventually worked itself out and we made it on to the correct bus that would take us South to Ninh Binh. We said goodbye to the rest of our new friends and settled in for the 4 hour journey.
+ On the bus, Corey watched some Dragon Ball Super episodes and Alien: Covenant and then worked on the blog while Liz napped and then served as the lookout for any interesting things we might pass by outside.
+ Once the shuttle pulled into TomCoc and dropped us off, we discovered our ride ended here instead of Ninh Binh proper like we’d been told. So we had to share a taxi over to our hotel with 2 Dutch girls. It was our fastest conversation about our trip ever. Within 20 seconds they asked how long we’d been gone, how TrustedHousesitters works, and about relocation deals!
+ After saying goodbye to our taxi mates, we checked in to our hotel Kinh Do Hotel. It was very historic looking and seemed to have antique furniture everywhere. But! The whole atmosphere was thrown off by the very scantily clad massage girls who worked in the back of the bottom floor! Reviews said you could even get a happy ending, lol. Our room was nice and clean so oh well!
+ For dinner we walked into town and decided on a western place named Chookies. We both got some yummy burgers.
Scootering around Ninh Binh and Enjoying the Trang An Boat Tour
+ After a tasty breakfast downstairs we lounged around in our room for a bit booking onward travel online.
+ Eventually we emerged from our cool chamber and back into the heat and humidity, which always seemed to smack us in the face whenever we opened the door. Ate lunch downstairs at the hotel where Liz had Pho and Corey had sauteed Goat, a specialty in Ninh Binh. He preferred beef or chicken which was less tough to chew.
+ Rented a motorbike and drove out West of the city along rice paddies with some gorgeous views of the limestone karsts jutting up out of seemingly nowhere.
+ Took the Trang An Boat tour where local women expertly paddle tourists through the caves on their boats. We paddled through 9 different caves and past some temples too. We shared our boat with 2 other tourists from Spain and spoke about our adventures in Spain (over a whole year ago!). We all stared in awe at the spectacular natural formations around us. We had seen a lot of caves but it was such a neat experience to paddle through them in one big loop!
+ The lady padding the boat was very good at steering, or as we called it “Vietnam Drifting” through the cave and avoiding all the rocks and stalagtites!
+ The 4 of us helped the lady paddle (we all had our own makeshift paddles made from bucket fragments strapped to wood) so she wasn’t solely responsible for all our weight. Plus it helped to not take forever getting back down the river to the end point.
+ Back on the motorbike, we drove past Ninh Binh and down to Tom Coc. On the way a giant dragonfly hit Corey in the face and got stuck in his helmet but he managed to wipe it away and not crash! Scary!
+ Found the Queen bus pickup location and booked our bus for the next day. Tam Coc was almost exclusively full of tourists. Very different feel than Ninh Binh.
+ Ate dinner at a restaurant called Father’s Cooking, which had rave reviews. Good food but horrible service! We had to basically beg for the bill. Could’ve walked away without paying and nobody would’ve noticed! Plus another fun discovery was the fact there were no ATM’s in Tam Coc (plus they don’t accept credit cards) but thankfully we had just enough money to pay the bill.
+ Drove back up North to our hotel on the motorbike at night. Lots of bugs in our faces made it a less pleasant experience driving, but we managed. The shocks were horrible on this bike. We hit one bump that almost sent Liz flying off the bike! Thankfully she had a ninja grip on Corey so she stayed on. Seriously though! She almost went right over the handle bars! Then we vowed to change bikes the next day for our exploring.
+ Corey walked around town and eventually found a supermarket that sold some drinks. Since there were just locals around everywhere, there weren’t a bunch of mini markets selling stuff like usual.
+ Hung out in the room and watched some Brooklyn 99 episodes until bed.