***Pictures will come later because my connection is crazy slow***
Leaving Hue bound for the DMZ, I asked my hotel where I would pick up my bus ticket. They assured me that my reciept from them was actually a bus ticket as well. Having seen, heard of and been a part of scams all over Asia I found that pretty doubtful. I asked again to make sure we were speaking the same broken english to each other, then had them call the bus company to ask again just to be sure. After the 3rd time hearing that this tiny little note was actually my bus ticket to the North, I decided that was about all I could do and loaded the bus to the DMZ. We had a great tour and spent the day learning all kinds of war info and seeing some really amazing things (in the last post). Around 4pm, the bus pulled over on its way through Dong Ha and dropped me off with the sketchy bus ticket and the instructions to walk through 2 sets of lights, take a left and find the cafe where my bus would find me at 7pm. I walked into a big room with tables (sort of a cafe) found a seat infront of a fan and waited. When 7pm came and went and no one had said a word I started to get a little doubtful that I was actually going to get to Hanoi. However, just after 7:30pm some westerners wandered in and told me that they were Hanoi bound and the the bus was out back of the cafe. I tracked down the driver who gave me a crazy look when I showed my ticket. Luckily, another bus pulled in and that driver seemed to be expecting me. What a massive relief his gruff annoyance and quick point to the sleeper bus was at the sight of my hotel reciept.
I chatted with another girl on the bus (Kasia from Poland) and quickly discovered that she was familiar with Hanoi, having already spent a number of days there. When we arrived, I latched on to her and ended up at the Hanoi Backpackers. For $6/night I had free breakfast, free internet, free games, free movies, tons of people, hot showers and a clean and comfortable bed! What a slice of heaven! Kasia and I spent the next few days roaming around Hanoi, getting to know each other and the city while having some really good food and coffee. It turns out that all the things I had heard about the Capital that had made me a little worried were completely true, but I actually liked them! The challenge of walking accross the street, the constant honking and massive amounts of traffic, the insistent people getting right in your face selling almost anything, the fanciness, the crappiness, the general chaos was all kind of exciting. I can’t say I would want to live here, but I certainly enjoyed my visit. I know it would have been a very different experience if I hadn’t met Kasia, which is one of the amazing things about traveling like this, you never have any idea what to expect. During our wanders around town, I asked in at a number of places how to get from Hanoi to Shanghai, which is where I am meeting Amy and Nathan. Planning this leg of the tripturned out to be quite a challenge, but I ended up sorting it out after about 3 days. I will be taking a bus across the border and then a train for 27 hours to Shanghai. It should be quite an adventure! Booking the train was the most difficult thing I have had to do since the start of this trip. However, I finally found an agent in Nanning who would buy the ticket for me and deliver it to my Nanning Hotel (at a somewhat reasonable rate too). I was very happy once I had sorted the details and was able to put my focus back on Hanoi. This included finding beer corner, where you can get Bia Hoi (homebrew) for 5000 dong (25 cents) while sitting on tiny plastic stools that eventually fill the road and chatting with travelers and locals alike. Beer corner became one of my favorite parts of Hanoi. Kasia had a flight booked for Sunday morning and I was very sad to see her go. We have already made plans to meet when I visit Warsaw.
While Kasia was packing for her flight, I met up with Louise and Steve, whom I had met in Hoi An and was happily reunited with in Hanoi. Their friend Iian was to arrive on Sunday morning, so we made plans to get together to explore and to sort out how to get to Halong Bay. For those who may not be familiar with Halong Bay, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest attractions in Vietnam. The bay is packed with limestone islands (almost 2000) that tower above the ocean, giving the area an immense sense of mystery and beauty that is unlike anything I have seen before. However, as it is such a major destination, the number of tours to the Bay is staggering. The Backpackers offered a reasonably priced tour, but it was a bit too booze-cruise for me (like Vang Vieng on a boat) so we wandered around investigating the other options before settling on a 3 day-2 night tour aboard the Aclass Junk (junk is the type of boat, but that led to some pretty obvious jokes and songs while we were there). The tour included cooking demonstrations (just how to roll spring rolls), kayaking, swiming, meals, a cave tour, and more scenery then you could possible imagine (as you can see in the many, many pictures). We left on Monday morning and had 3 amazing days out in the Bay. We arrived just after the rain, so the first views we had of the islands were shawdowy and kind of mystical. We headed off to see the cave and were under bright sunshine when we arrived. The cave started off very crowded, but evened out the further we got into it. Back on the boat, we ate, cruised around, lounged on the sun deck, and relaxed in luxury. The next day we headed to a very secluded inlet for some breathtaking kayaking and then to Monkey Island (swimming was good, but no monkeys…I think it was too hot). Each of our meals came in about 7 courses and was pretty delicious. However, they were almost all accompanied by a “Romantic Saxaphone” CD that could have easily lead to a mutiney. It was a fantastic tour with a great group of people.
After the tour, I had one day left in Hanoi before taking off to China so we made sure to visit beer corner and eat some super yummy food. The next day, while on the bus to the border, I had my last sights of Vietnam which were absolutely stunning. The landscape took on the look of a land-based Halong Bay with a mix of green fields in multiple levels climbing up the sides of the hills and the occasional person riding rickety old bikes on the paths between the crops. This really helped to reinforce my impression of Northern Vietnam as being one of the most stunning places I have been. However, I am off to China next, and who knows what I will see there. This traveling thing is turing out to be pretty amazing! 😉