There are a couple ways to get between the towns of Hue and Hoi An. You could take a scenic train ride, or crowd into a bus. But there’s a third option, one popularized by the show Top Gear: riding a motorcycle over the Hai Van Pass. I’ve never watched Top Gear, but I discovered these tours while researching Hue. Sam and I immediately knew this was something we had to do, so I shot off an email to Anh at Hue Motorbike Tours.
After leaving Cat Ba Island, we made our way back to Hanoi to catch a night train to Hue. The train was a lovely experience that I may return to, but let’s move straight to Hue. We spent four nights there, which most people will tell you is a lot of time for the city. They aren’t exactly wrong.
Tourists generally come to Hue for history. The city was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The centerpiece of Hue is the large Imperial City, and many royal tombs sit on the outskirts of town. We didn’t make it to any tombs this trip, but we did spend a morning in the Imperial City. The complex was heavily damaged by US bombing during the Tet Offensive, and the government is actively working to rebuild. As a result, the Imperial City is a strange mix of old buildings, construction, and new buildings made to look old. It’s tough to fully appreciate, especially without a guide.
As I mentioned previously, when researching Ha Long Bay Sam and I found that people recommend going instead to Lan Ha Bay, an area south of Ha Long proper with the same magnificent limestone karsts. Pretty much any guesthouse on Cat Ba Island can book you kayak trip into the bay. We ended up going with a company called Asia Outdoors, which was slightly more expensive than some other options but had glowing TripAdvisor reviews.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in northern Vietnam is Ha Long Bay, an area off the coast filled with thousands of towering limestone karsts. Tourists flock there in droves to spend a couple of nights on junk boats. While the bay is supposed to be beautiful, the experience of visiting is a mixed bag. It’s extremely crowded, and decent tours get expensive fast. In addition, it’s risky booking a tour in advance because of how unpredictable the weather is (it’s often rainy, or at least too foggy to really appreciate the karsts).
Sam and I knew there had to be a better way to see the area. After a little searching, we figured out that you can travel independently to Cat Ba, an island near the bay. From there it’s easy to book day trips into Lan Ha Bay, the less touristy (but just as majestic) southern portion of the bay.
There are worse places to spend a couple of nights…
The smog was suffocating and the incessant honking ate away at our sanity. We had to get out of Hanoi. So we found ourselves on a train heading towards Ninh Binh Province, an area a couple hours south of Hanoi that we knew almost nothing about.
Motorbike taxis are a common form of transportation in Hanoi. Drivers sit on their scooters through the day, waiting for tourists or other potential passengers.
Sam and I only lasted a few more days in Hanoi. The noise was driving us crazy, and the smog made me physically ill. After just over a week in Vietnam, we boarded a train out of the city. But before we get there, I have a few more days of photos to share with you. We explored more of the city in our last days, and ate plenty of good food. I’m going to get straight to the photos and spare you a play-by-play; if you want a more in-depth account of what Sam and I have been up to check out her blog, Little Plastic Stools.
Sam and I have been in Hanoi five nights. Or has it been a month already? Trouble with time will clearly be a theme of this trip.
It’s Sam’s first trip to Hanoi, but I’ve been once before and thought I had some idea of what to expect. As it turns out, two nights with a school group left me unprepared. This city is so much crazier than I remembered. The streets are packed with motorbikes, of course, but also cars. In the Old Quarter, just walking down the road feels harrowing (sidewalks are dominated by street food vendors and parked motorbikes). High inflation means that the prices I paid just a couple years ago have as much as doubled. And the smog, how could I forget that? On a bad day you can’t see across Hoan Kiem Lake. I’ve read that the air here is as polluted as it is in Beijing.
I don’t mean to sound negative, though; we’re having a great time. We came here to eat, and the food has largely lived up to our hopes: rich phở, smoky bún chả, slippery bánh cuốn, and much more(don’t worry, I’ll talk more about food later). Prices, while higher than I remember, are still low. The two of us can eat a filling meal on the street for less than $5. Bottles of beer cost just under a buck, but you can get a glass of bia hơi for 25 cents.