Terrestrial and maritime Halong bay – 6 days – 1 metre above sea level

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To reach Ninh Binh, the gates of the terrestrial Halong Bay, we opted for the train. Quite cheap and  popular, it matched perfectly with the spirit of our travel. The adventure started from our entry at the central train station in Hanoï. Early in the morning, it was already full of people. We finally managed to reach the good platform and find our train. We took a seat in this old vehicle of the Vietnam Railways company. Once sat down, it was time for my favourite hobby in trains: looking through the window and letting my mind goes… This means of transport was quiet compared to our adventures in bus in Laos. We even enjoyed a breakfast with some biscuits and fruit juices. The journey was only of an hour with a few stops. First we stopped in the small stations around the capital before to stop in the ones lost in the countryside.

We arrived in the station of Ninh Binh, the place was empty. We lost the buzzing atmosphere of Hanoï. We called a “Grab”, a taxi, to reach the small city of Tam Coc. Just a  few kilometres further, this is the heart of the terrestrial Halong Bay. This glorious scenery holds its name from the Halong Bay which the scenery is similar but the rice fields are replaced by the sea. Huge rocks are between the rice fields over a length of 40 kilometres. This scenery was the one of famous Hollywood movies including the famous King Kong.

After getting our strengths back by enjoying delicious dishes spiced with coriander; we started a small walk in the middle of the rice fields, up to the bottom of the limestone peak where there is the Mua cave. Objectively, this one doesn’t have a massive interest compared to the 500 steps to reach the top of the Mua Peak. At the end of this ascension, we met the guardian of this place, a giant dragon statue. We had to go underneath the scales of the dragon to discover an amazing view on the terrestrial Halong Bay with the pitons in the middle of the rice fields.

The following morning was dedicated to a boat ride on one of the several streams of the terrestrial Halong Bay. The rowers have an unusual technic there. Their boat move forwards by pushing the oars with their feet. With our guide using this technic, we went between the rocks before to cross three caves. This place is very appreciated by the tourists. The river was highly frequented with many tourist traps to encourage spending money. Sadly, this removed some poetry during our stroll.

At noon, we met a friend of Florian and Elodie, Aurélien,  at the hostel. He was travelling in the South-Eastern part of Asia from a few months. He joined the team for our trip in Vietnam. For our last afternoon in Tam Coc, we rent seven scooters to explore a little bit more this unusual areal. We rode without a specific itinerary and just followed our feelings. We arrived at the bottom of the karstic peaks, we crossed picturesque villages and adventures on small paths between the rice fields. Arrived at the gates of this historic site of Hoa Lu, we decided to stop. There was not that much left of this ancient Vietnamese capital. Only two temples which have been refurbished recently. At dusk, we went back to Tam Coc. Our front beams were reflecting in the rice fields and the streams. The quietness of the countryside was disturbed, just an instant, by the noise of our mopeds.

After enjoying the terrestrial Halong Bay, we reached by bus the Cát Bà island, located on the South part of the Halong Bay. To reach it we crossed a strait, separating the island and the Hai Phong city, on an old rusty ferry. We went between the old container ships and the mining boats waiting, in the anchorage area, to go back on duty. The cloudy and grey sky was adding a sad touch to this industrial scenery.

However on Cát Bà island, it was a day of celebration. On the main avenue going along the sea, the red political flags were raised, the flowers were cut nicely and a wide stage was set up. There were dancers and singers wearing spangled and colourful costumes. For our lunch, we enjoyed a Banh Mi in front of the port. Under our eyes, there was a race of traditional pirogues. The members of each team wore a costume with the colours of their pirogue. There were five competitors, each one were representing a local community. After the signal of departure, the oars were going through the water at the same rhythm. The competition consisted of three return trips between two buoys. From the seawall at the port, the shape of the pirogues were looking like huge snakes on the water. The colourful show was a delight for the spectators supporting their favourite team.

The afternoon was dedicated to a stroll along the coastal path to reach the beaches located on the other side of the rock. Named Cat Co 1 and Cat Co 2, these wide sandy beaches were hidden under huge karstic rocks. Sadly, the Cat Co 3 beach was not anymore reachable since the launch of a construction site for a massive hotel. After a quick swim in this emerald water of the Chinese sea, a German backpacker offered us to play volleyball on the beach with her. This session evolved in a quick improvised “set”, once the line of the field were drawn, the rules have been adapted because of the lack of net. We went back to the city at dusk. We enjoyed the heat from the port which was full of life during the evening. A beer on a terrace before to have a fried rice for diner in a small Vietnamese canteen. A fireworks ended this day of celebration.

In spite of being very touristic, the Halong Bay is still one of these unique places on earth. We discovered the glorious surroundings of the Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay on a huge wooden boat. The ship was sailing between the rocks. In spite of the grey sky in the morning, the small islands were already magic. We did a stop in a small sheltered bay. The captain invited us to go on kayaks to reach the small spaces between the rocks, unreachable with the ship. During two hours, we wanted to move further away from the rest of the group, just to be on our own and to enjoy the strength of this mythic place. We went through a cave to reach a lagoon with clear waters with a touch of emerald colour.

The junk went in another cove of the Halong Bay, the time for us to dive from the upper deck. The next visit was the “Monkey Island”. We climbed on the rocks to be again isolated enough from the other tourists. This climb gave us a great panorama over the bay. We got the visit of a family of monkeys who were very interested by the Gopro. When we went back to the beach, we were sadden by the numerous tourists feeding the monkeys with chocolate bars, crisps and plastic packaging…

Before coming back to the harbor, we went through the floating village of Bon Beo where lives around a thousand of people. We crossed the fish farms connected by wooden pontoons haphazardly made. The overall was fixed by barrels floating on the water surface. This floating city doesn’t have a waste collect, everything goes to the ocean. The day ended again by a beer tasting and a delicious diner enjoyed on the rooftop of the Mona restaurant with guitar music notes and the voice of a young Scottish backpacker.

We rent scooters for our last day in Cát Bà. Only a few kilometres were necessary to feel the gap between the buzzing atmosphere of the port and the simple life of the small villages in the heart of the island. By following the inside road, we crossed glorious landscapes between palm tree forests and chalky rocks. On this winding road, the rice fields were replaced by the sea. After a last steep hill and a nice slope over several kilometres, we reached by midday the pier of Tuan Chay at the opposite side of the island. At the tip of a fjord, there was a wooden footbridge to reach a small Buddhist altar. We had lunch in a local place, just by the road, before to go back alongside the coast. Once arrived at the hotel, we returned our scooters before to go in the sleeping bus leading us to Sapa, a mountainous area at the North-West of the country.

Where to eat?

Mona Restaurant

We are not here in an authentic address, but more in a backpacker place. The ambiance is quite good and the rooftop offers a great view over the Cát Bà harbor. After sitting cross-legged around small tables, we enjoyed the dishes we ordered. Only a negative note, the price was higher than our usual canteens.

Hanoï – 4 days – 10 metres above sea level

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After some troubles with our Vietnamese visas, we left the airport with a “Grab”, the equivalent of a “Uber” in Vietnam. The young driver was sneaking between the other vehicles on the highway to reach the area of Quand An, near the town center of Hanoï. Elodie and Florian (Emilie’s brother) were waiting for us in the buzzing atmosphere of the city. Upon our arrival on the riversides of the Hô Tay Lake, we enjoyed spring rolls and beers with them, under the colourful fairy lights of a bar. The following day, we looked for a breakfast. For this, we walked in the small and narrow pedestrian streets. After avoiding to hit three scooters at the last second and felt going in circles, we finally chose the terrace of a coffee place. Once our stomachs full, we started to discover the Vietnamese capital.

Hanoï was very surprising. An historic city full of energy. The traffic was heavy with the permanent noise of the horns. After a few hours in this chaos, we learned how to enjoy and go from these impressive avenues to the quiet and green gardens.

We walked along the Hô Thay Lake (meaning the Western lake in Vietnamese) which has a circumference of 17 kilometres. This is the biggest lake of the town. With the mist, we were not able to see the other side of the lake. But with this scenery, we were in a specific atmosphere. Behind the mist, we saw the tip of the roof of a Buddhist temple. We continued to go around the lake and saw, after tens of metres, flames and a dragoon protecting the temple. The spirits were maybe trying to take control to bring us in the heart of the secrets of the town….

For lunch, we enjoyed our first banh-mi. This sandwich is a true speciality of the Vietnamese street-food that we can find at each corner of the streets. The success of this banh-mi is due to a perfect mix between the French and Vietnamese cuisine. Indeed, this sandwich is taking its origins at the time of the French Indochina. Bread and pâté were from this heritage. Coriander and grilled pork offered the Asian notes of these recipes (each chef bringing its own ingredients and mysterious spices). We enjoyed this banh-mi with a Tiger beer before to explore the historic quarter of the 36 corporations.

This was the most charming part of the town (but also the most touristic). The history of this old quarter was from the 15thcentury. At this time, each street was dedicated to a corporation of artisans. We saw the street of silk, the street of scrap merchants and the one of fashion designers. Today, the principle is the same but the specialities have evolved. There were the street of clockmakers, the street of shoes or the one of carpenters whose the bamboo stock was taking a wide part of the pavement. This labyrinth, full of life, objects and smells offers to the quarter a unique atmosphere.

In the street, there were many street vendors of fruits and veggies transported on wide flat baskets hold on their shoulders or on their bikes. By using their technic to go through the traffic between the several scooters, we managed to create a path on the pavements. But the pavements were also very busy by the plastic stools, meaning we needed to sneak between them. Terraces were busy at any time of the day, by the locals enjoying a coffee or a noodle soup. We familiarised ourselves in this urban jungle to discover its secrets. By walking and by luck, we discovered many surprising things. We walked in these streets and discovered a market of veggies and fish. At a crossroads, we also discovered a little alter with sticks of incense in front of an old colonial building. At the end of an avenue, we arrived in a public garden. On the right side, there was a hairdresser cutting the hair of a client sat down on an improvised chair in front of a tiny mirror hooked up to the wall of the park.

To start a second day in Hanoï, we entered in a bakery looking like a French one with a Vietnamese touch. We didn’t resist in front of the croissants and pains au chocolat. We enjoyed them in a family coffee place, just in front of the bakery. We ordered a Vietnamese black coffee served in a small perforated tin cup where the water go through the coffee and fall down in the cup, just placed below.

We visited the public garden going around the Hai Bà Trung Lake. We were surprised to see many Vietnamese people, young or not, doing their workout.

We crossed the old quarter and arrived in the main luxurious avenue of Hanoï to reach the Hoàn Kiem Lake (lake of the returned sword). Its name is coming from a legend. A magic sword would have been offered to the Emperor of Vietnam to fight against the Chinese invader. The peace being back, the emperor enjoyed sailing on a small boat on the lake. A giant turtle appeared suddenly and took the sword to go back in the depths of the lake.

On this end of afternoon, while the night started to cover the city with a nice deep blue coat, we enjoyed the reflections of the buildings over the dark water of the lake. This was the moment chosen by the « Red Bridge », inspired by the Japanese bridges, for sparkling. We crossed this colorful construction to reach the middle of the lake and to visit the Ngoc Son temple, situated on a small island.

At the end of the day, we took place along the railways where they cross Dieb Bien Phu Avenue to enjoy a new Tiger beer. Nowadays, this is one of the most famous attraction of the town, the various “streets of the train” around the Hanoï train station offer a great show when the train comes through the heart of this block, in the narrow streets of 4 or 5 meters wide. At 7:10pm and then at 8:15pm, we had to fold back our temporary terrace and to flatten against the wall. On its way, we can feel the breath of the blue train. It passed so closed to us! After that, we went back towards our rented place by walking on the railways. After a few meters, the rails continued on a bridge above the street. We carried on by expecting to get closer to our point of arrival. But finally this bridge was longer than we thought. There was no safe area if a train was coming through. So we decided to go back. Just a few seconds after being back on a true pavement, a train just passed on the railway! We were lucky for not having been on the railway at the same time as this train. 

Early in the morning, we took the train to go to Ninh Binh and the terrestrial Halong Bay. By leaving Hanoï, we were this time going through the narrow streets… 

Where to have a drink?  

RailwayStation Cafe
10 Điện Biên Phủ, Cửa Nam, Ba Đình, Hanoï

In spite of being the most touristic attraction, it’s nice to find a place to watch the arrival of the train in the middle of this narrow street. This is an experience not to be missed in Hanoï. 

Where to eat? 

Com Thô Restaurant
111k2 Ngõ 48, Tạ Quang Bửu, Bách Khoa , Hanoï

A little bit further away from the town centre. This is not a fancy place but we can enjoy nice stir-fried recipes served in cast iron dishes for a good price.