Sam and I didn’t actually go straight to Hoi An after leaving Hue; we stopped at the beach. Hoi An is a river town, but it’s just a couple minutes from the ocean by car. Tourists often stay at An Bang Beach, but we found a little guesthouse a mile up the coast on Ha My Beach. It was one of the more bizarre places we stayed in Vietnam. Sandwiched between two fancy resorts, Minh and Nhat had trouble finding it. Once we got there, we found the owner, his mother, a manager, and an aging Long Beach surfer who had lived in the hotel for the past year.
We loved and hated the guesthouse, which is called Ha My TT. It was very cheap compared to other options around Hoi An, and was on the beach. Not close to the beach, but directly on it – if you stepped out of the lobby you were on the sand. The water was a little chilly, but I had some fun playing in the waves. The beach itself was a great place to lie around. The guesthouse was virtually empty, which was both peaceful and slightly eerie.
What kept us from really enjoying Ha My was food, or the lack thereof. We had read that the guesthouse was flanked by cheap seafood restaurants, but these seem to have been razed to make room for new development. We were left with little more than one noodle soup vendor in the morning and a mediocre rice joint. The low point came one desperate evening when we finally found one woman selling hard-boiled eggs that ended up being fertilized eggs. We ate potato chips for dinner.
If there were more to eat, I think we could have been very happy at Ha My TT. If I could do it over again, I would go into Hoi An first, rent a motorbike, and take it to the hotel – with a bike, the area isn’t at all isolated. But the way the area is being cleared for development, I don’t know that I will have another chance to stay at this strange little guesthouse.
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.