Vietnamese bathing

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Vietnam offers many opportunities to dive in one of the most beautiful bay of the world. Swimming in the China Sea is now on our international swimming list. A few days after our arrival on the grounds of the Dragoon of Asia, referring to the shape of the country, we headed to North-East of the country and its famous bay.

Cat Ba was our destination for our seaside trip. The island is the entry gate of the Halong bay and its 120 kilometres of coast. In the middle of this part of the China Sea, there are 1969 karstic islands. The sea was turquoise and the islands were full of a tropical vegetation. We went discovering this natural scenery with a junk and other tourists.

By midday, after sailing between the islands of the bay, the junk stopped in a little cove. The scenery was breathtaking and perfect for a little swim. The captain offered us to dive in the sea from the rail. Aurélien was the first volunteer. Without a second thought, I went just after him. But it was actually pretty high and it made me hesitate. My toes were holding the sort of diving board. Unlike the game played by pirates, there were no crocodiles in the sea but a beautiful blue sea attracting myself. The feeling of vertigo disappeared and after counting up to three, I jumped. The free fall last less than half of a second before to arrive in this huge pool. Once under the water, I watched the sky with the sunshine going through. Once my head was out of the water, I enjoyed looking the beautiful cliffs of this karstic rocks with an unusual shape.

Julien and Florian met me and we swam up to the beach of the little island next to us. Isolated, this little piece of ground would have everything to become a little corner of paradise. But the captain called us to go back. It was time to sail again.

A hundred of kilometres further down, we continued to discover the coast of the China Sea, in Hoi An. After leaving this nice charming city by scooters and crossing the small island of Tra Que, we arrived on the Cam An peninsula. Between the beaches of An Bang and Cua Daj, we turned on the left in a random street. Tens of metres further, the asphalt was replaced by sand.

We left our scooter against a barrier. This beach was looking like an usual beach in French Brittany. A small wooden path before to reach a wide beach by the ocean. The fine sandy beach was going as much as we can see, from North to South, surrounded by beautiful coconut trees towards West and the warm waters of the China Sea by East. At the end of the afternoon, the beach was almost deserted compared to the buzzing city life. The red sky was highlighting the lines of the Cu Lao Cham island further away.

Without a second thought, we run in the water. The temperature was close to the 25°C. A warm temperature reminding us the Caribbean Sea, six months ago. There were perfect little waves for a bodysurf session with Emilie. Watching the horizon to choose the good wave. Analysing the trajectory and running. Then, choosing the good position where the wave will break. Getting ready with the foot in the sand before to give the perfect impulsion to slide on the water as far as wan see. We did a little competition between both of us. During tens of minutes, like kids, we enjoyed sliding on the waves before to go back on our towels with the rest of the team, and to go back to Hoi An and its lanterns.

On the Vietnamese roads

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Our experience on the Vietnamese roads started in a bus. After a short trip with this means of transport, between the Halong bay and the Cat Ba island, our true first trip in a “night-bus” leaded us from Cat Ba island to the montainious area of Sa Pa. Kilometres of asphalt, curves and cols will last the 11 hours of journey to reach this city located nearby the Chinese border.

The sleeping-bus is an usual experience for the backpackers travelling in the South-Eastern part of Asia. The experience started in front of the bus. We even didn’t have the time to put our foot on the first step that the driver requested us to remove our shoes. He offered us slippers, if we wanted. To reach our bed, we went between the two alleys of the bus, guided by fluo neon lights. On the ground, there was a small mat made with a kind of red leather to amortise our steps. In each bed, there was a blanket.

It was 4pm when we sat down. Like the “bad guys”, we chose the back of the bus and had all the seats for us. But quickly, we were not feeling as the “kings” of the bus anymore. Indeed, a few minutes after we left, the bus stopped again. A Vietnamese passenger arrived and took the seat left between Marie and I.

A quick break around 8pm, the time to eat a noodle soup in a restaurant looking like the one in a highway rest area. The big building had a restaurant area and a shopping area with some snacks. At 3am, our bus arrived and parked on the bus station of Sa Pa. Some of the travelers went out of the bus. Some others, mainly tourists like us, stayed to get some rest. At 6am, the driver requested us to go out. It was time to find a place for breakfast.

We had a second “sleeping-bus” experience when we left Sa Pa. The departure for Hanoï was at 10pm, just behind the artificial lake of the city. This time, we chose the beds near the ground. There, the feeling of being in a box was even stronger. The bus was full, occupied mainly by backpackers but also some locals.

We arrived in the town-centre of Hanoï at 3:30am. Unlike our first sleeping bus trip, the driver didn’t let us in the bus to finish our night. We have been requested to leave the bus. We walked in the streets of the capitale, without knowing where to go, and we finally stopped in front of a Burger King. Some members of the team laid down to get some rest, and some other played cards. The night life of Hanoï stopped and the ones getting up early arrived. The partiers let the place to the employees and students. The street was animated by the street vendors.

The Vietnamese streets became busy again. On scooters, the drivers were like acrobats with a strong ability for anticipating. In spite of the hundreds scooters moving forward at each traffic light, the serious accidents are very rare. Their agility is their second main ability. This one was indeed revealed when we crossed by foot a little street market in the borough of the 36 Streets of Hanoï. Many times, we crossed the way of scooters but they managed to slalom between the stalls, without stopping at any time.

Inspired by this, we also chose to ride scooters. But the first metres didn’t went like we wanted. But the first meters didn’t go as expected. At the first junction, it was the accident (as a NDA has been signed, we won’t give the name of the pilot).

Luckily, nothing bad happened as the speed was very low. The result was only some bruises. The young Vietnamese pilot felt guilty even if it was not her fault. She apologised a few times before leaving. She was behaving with a great kindness even if it was our fault… After this bad start, we took the direction of the rice fields of Tam Coc in the middle of the terrestrial Halong Bay. But on the way back we have been unlucky again. 13km before the hotel, Julien’s scooter broke down. This mechanical issue didn’t let the machine start again. We left the scooter at the next service station, where the owner came to pick it up. We continued with 6 machines for 7 people. We took nice narrow paths in the middle of the rice fields.

During this travel with backpacks, the scooters were an excellent way to escape from the mass tourism and to discover a different Vietnam. We did it again on the island of Cat Ba, crossed by 20 kms of deserted and winding roads. The several turns between the mountains brought us to the pier of Tuan Chau, it offered a great view over the Halong Bay.

The last adventure with scooters, allowed us to enjoy the neighbourhood of Hoi An. From the water coconut tree reserve to the fine sand of the Chinese Sea. These were the final kilometres with the scooters on the Vietnamese lands, but also during our world trip. Because a few days later, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, we will met again our beloved 3-wheel machines. But that is another story!

Ben Tre and Ho Chi Minh – 6 days – 3 metres above the sea level

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After 1-hour flight from Dan Hang, the captain announced our arrival in Ho Chi Minh and the preparation of our landing. As soon the wheels of our little plane touched the ground, we jumped in a cab. We went straight away to the bus station at the West of the city. In the old building of the terminal, we looked for the correct desk to find tickets for our next destination. On the window of each desk, there were A4-sheets with the name of the cities of the different companies. Behind their little desks, it was hard to find someone speaking English. After saying the name Ben Tre, our future step, many vendors waved at us saying loudly “Ben Tre! Ben Tre! Ben Tre!”. We took the first bus ready to go.

After two hours of journey and 85 kilometres, we found a youth hostel at the outside of the city, lost in the middle of the jungle and nearby a small river flowing from the Mekong. Upon our arrival, the receptionist told us there was no floating market nearby. Visiting this floating market was the reason number one of our venue in this area.

But Ben Tre had many other treasures to show. Capital of the province of the same name, the city is located on the Delta of the Mekong. This province is composed of three main islands located between the rivers of Tien Giang, Co Chien and Ham Luong which are all of them going to the Mekong river being divided in several arms before to flow into the China Sea. The life of its inhabitants is around these constraints due this wide river and the important network of canals. The province of Ban Tre is considered like the “realm of coconut trees”. The coconut is taking a main place in the economics development of the city. 

We shared, at the end of the day, the first “Saigon” beer with a French young woman crossing the South-East part of Asia by bike. Then, we looked for dining. Around the hostel, the streets were very quiet. We went towards the town-centre. After walking two kilometres separating us from the first houses. We enjoyed a noodle soup in a canteen where families were meeting for the end of the day.

The following day, we went on the Mekong with a Samon, a long and narrow traditional boat with an engine. We started a cruise on the delta with the theme of discovering the economics of coconuts. The boats were colorful with eyes drawn on the front. I looked online and the ethnologist, Laura Bogani, was explaining: “In Vietnam and still today, boats were considered having a soul. After the caulking, the sailors draw round eyes or eyes with an almond shape, at the front of the boats meaning this spirituality.”

Thanks to this protection, we crossed without troubles one of the three main arms of the delta before to stop on a little island.

We saw on the main stream impressive and old wooden boats. Their holds were full of coconuts, up to the rails. They were taking care of the transport of these coconuts to the companies located alongside the river. It was under a warehouse, built with almost nothing, that the green shell was being separated from the rest of the fruit. The fiber of this shell was extracted to make cords and carpets. 

We took bicycles to explore alongside the Mekong. We used a small path under the canope to reach a family company where the elements of the coconuts were separated: juice, flesh and the two different shells of the fruit. One after another, we tried to cut and pealed the coconuts to keep the flesh which will be transformed in oil or candies. A tough job! The brown shell will be used to make charcoals or souvenirs. After crossing the island on our two wheels, we took a seat on our small boat.

The Mekong river, up to its Delta at the South of Vietnam, gave the tempo of our daily exploration since many days from our arrival in Laos. It was time to say goodbye to the Mekong. The separation with this huge natural symbol was marking also the end of our adventure with Aurélien. After a last beer with him, he will continue his adventure on his own and will head to Cambodia while we will head to Hô Chi Minh and its bus station at the West of the city. We did a two-hour bus journey.

Hô Chi Minh city, known as Saïgon until 1975, was the main city of Vietnam and was considered like its economics centre. Like the similar city at the North, this city is often considered being full of life for its traffic and the several horns going on. 

Our exploration of the city started by crossing the Ben Thanh market. The 3000 shops, packed in a massive warehouse without charm, are working form sunrise to sunset under a blazing heat. In the narrow aisles, vendors are exposing, on tiny shelves, Football shirts, shoes or food. 

After these emotions, we went to the street food market, a hipster place, showing the modernity of the city. Like all the street food places growing in the European cities, we found there a young and trendy ambiance, far away from the local restaurants. Nothing authentic, but it was still a good moment before restarting the exploration of the city. 

Our itinerary took us to the Notre-Dame Cathedral, one of the symbols of the city. Built by French catholic missionaries, this impressive building, made of bricks, could be considered as a Claude Nougaro’s work, as its architecture could be merging in Toulouse. Unfortunately in refurbishment, we could not visit the inside.

In front of this religious building, another remarkable monument stand in the big square. The central Post Office of Saïgon built by the French people at the end of the 19th century, combining the occidental architecture with the finest oriental details.

Slightly on the back of this historical place, we entered randomly in the narrow Nguyen Van Binh pedestrian street, usually called the “Books Street”. Genuine Oasis of peace in this busy city, the street offers (since its creation in 2016) a cultural break in the middle of the chaos of the megalopolis. More than dozen libraries exposing books, notebooks, post cards and spaces for chilling and reading.

The next day we started by a continental breakfast in the “Tous le jours” bakery, we coud not resist for a Caramel brioche with a coconut coffee, a Vietnamese speciality that we did not try before.

After quick tattoos by a talented Belgian artist, Elodie and Florian caught a flight back to France which ended their holidays with us. On our side we kept exploring the city and we went to the Vietnamese war museum. It shows the atrocity made by US during this period. Two rooms were exposing the disastrous impact of the Orange Agent (a herbicide poured by tons on the Vietnamese forests) and of napalm on the population. The exposed images were particularly hard to look at. The museum had also very good exhibits showing the work of excellent photographers during the war, dead on the field during the conflict. Even if the photos were statics, they were alive through the emotions they were showing. It honoured these fearless photographers who put their lives to report the atrocity of the war to the world.

For lighter thoughts, we took the direction of the Art Museum. This massive ochre building could easily find its place as a rich family house on a hill of French Provence. In its rooms, the paintings shown were not the most vibrants but its modern art floor was highlighting some beautiful and colourful artworks. Our exploration of the city ended in front of the city hall with the Ho Chi Minh statue.

The preparation of our rucksacks gave the pace of our last morning in South-East Asia. We took a cab to the airport. We sat down, not in an old style caravel, but in a brand new plain. After a stop in the modern city of Singapour, we flew direction the fresh spring of the North of Europe.

The talent of Khami.inkz

Belgian tattoo artist setup now in Brussel. During our visit of Ho Chi Minh, he was drawing on the skins at the “France Passion tattoo” studio.

Where to eat? 

“Tous les Jours” Bakery
Hô Chi Minh

Franchised French bakery placed in different corners of the city. A good choice, a bit pricy to compare to our usual noodle soups but very good to balance our lack of French pastries.

Quan An Dong Restaurant
Phường 6 District 4 –  Hô Chi Minh

Small traditional canteen for local people. They come for diner on the terrace in this busy street.

Sa Pa and Hoi An – 6 days – 1500 metres above sea level

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We arrived in Sa Pa early in the morning. Our night in a sleeping bus was not very quiet. To get some sleep, we forgave being stuck in our berth and all the curves of the road to reach this city at 1500m above the sea level.

Sa Pa is very touristic since the French colonial era. The French authorities built a station there before it became one of the most touristic places in North of Vietnam. This district of the Lao Cai province has a natural and unusual scenery with mountains, forests and rice field terraces.

It was 6am when we arrived by bus. We managed to avoid the rain and to arrive just in time in a little café for our breakfast. But when we left to find a hotel, it was heavily raining. The rain created impressive mudslides in the streets of the city. After running under the heavy rain to find a hotel, we finally found three rooms in the hostel of Manh.

Early in the afternoon, we decided to go through the bad weather to discover the city, but with no surprise, the city is not appealing for the several guesthouses, restaurants and hotels under construction. Visiting Sa Pa, it was also accepting to share the sidewalks with many other tourists.

However after a little narrow street, we opened the door of an intimate museum having an exhibition about the different ethnic groups of the city. We went though this door and it was like seeing a new universe full of authenticity. We discovered the cultural and traditional secrets of the area, far away from the touristic places mentioned earlier. The main ethnic group in Vietnam is the one of the Kinh. There are minor ethnic groups living in the surrounded mountains. They have their own culture, a different language and wear clothes with specific colours (for example, the H’Mong wear dark costumes).

Back to the hostel, we dedicated the end of the afternoon to cook Vietnamese dishes with Manh, the hotel owner. We began our cooking class by purchasing the ingredients at the market. Then we cooked and enjoyed the delicious feast we made.

The following day, we woke up slowly to be in good conditions for the hike of the day. A big sunshine and a nice blue sky replaced the rainy weather of the previous day. Ideal conditions for the discovery of the terrace fields. We discovered these landscapes without a guide, but with the previous advice of Manh. He recommended to go towards Ta Phin. Once we reached the artificial lake of Sa Pa, we went towards left on a small path through the mountains.

We walked up to the small village of Ma Tra. We met young H’Mong women who revealed their knowledge for making the intense indigo colour from plants which colours their fabric pieces. There were many other small villages between the beautiful terrace rice fields. The kids were at the entry of each one of them to say hi to us. Sadly, others were begging which highlighted the issues of the mass tourism. We explored the Ta Phin caves. We didn’t think about this activity so we didn’t have any lights with us. We explored the deep tunnels with the lights of our phones. The last kilometers of our hike were alongside the main road with a high traffic. The only bad point of this great hike under the sunshine.

Our stay in Sa Pa ended with a new night in a sleeping bus going to Hanoi. This journey was more epic as it ended at 3:30am in the middle of an avenue. Too late to find a hotel and too early to enjoy breakfast… So we “camped” in front of a Burger King in a small street. Some of us managed to get some sleep while some others were playing cards. When the sun was rising, we enjoyed a Banh-Mi for our breakfast. A new day began!

We took a “Grab”, a local taxi to go to the Hanoï airport. We sat down in a plane going to Dan Ang. Again, we used a local taxi to do the 40 kilometres between the airport and the Hoi An city. On this journey, the driver put the radio louder. We enjoyed a nice Vietnamese techno music. On our arrival, we chilled by the pool of the hotel. We ended this travelling day by a tasting a Cao Lao, the speciality of this city in a nice restaurant.

The following day, we decided to go between our hotel and the historic area of Hoi An by bikes. We parked our two wheels at the entry of the old city. Its access is possible only by foot of bicycling. Located by the Thu Bon river, the city is famous for its unique charm from the past. It has been registered at the UNESCO in 1999, for its multicultural heritage from its port history.

Quickly,  we had the feeling of going back to the past. We walked between the old houses with an ocher colour lighten up by the sunshine. Like a museum with an open sky, we loved the old houses of the traders with an architecture from the colonial period. We have been particularly impressed by the Cantonese assembly dedicated to the gods of the sea. Behind the altar, we discovered a garden with fig trees and a splendid fountain decorated with dragons.

We continued our walk alongside the river. Being by the old city, it’s the origin of the economics success of Hoi An. We followed the colourful and traditional boats to reach te old Japanese bridge which has over 400 years old.

Our discovery of the city center ended in the old theater. After unfolding the old velvet seat in the complete dark, the heavy red curtain opened and revealed 4 animals. Following folkloric Vietnamese songs, the dances gave life to them with poetic steps. A beautiful panther which, at the end of the afternoon, arrived and put us away from the modernisation.

At sunset, the city of thousands lanterns took its sense. Their warm lights were reflecting on the river. With the wind blowing, they were dancing under the bridges, in the trees and on the windows. The evening was focused on discovering the Night Market. Unfortunately, its wide busyness reduced its charm. Tasting a surprising coconut cake was the only good point of this market for us. On the river, the paper candles made in a lotus  shape were drifting with the current, escaping the wishes of their owners. This practice comes from a legend: “a young boy went on sea and never came back. His fiancée is still waiting and deposed every evening, on the river, a lantern to indicate the way back to him.”

At dawn, we started a new exploration around Hoi An, with mopeds, following randomly the various paths with a felling of freedom while traveling in the middle of the field and small villages.

We took the direction of Cam Thanh, a small place known as the “Coconut Tree Bay”. The water was brackish, which made the place appreciated by the water coconut trees (similar to the normal coconut tree, the only difference is they grow with the feet in the water. Arrived in the small village at the entrance of the bay, we parked our mopeds behind a house and went by foot exploring the small streets in the aim to find a sailor to bring us to the mangrove. It was on the isolated pier, we found our man. He called his friends for creating 4 crews. After paying the fees, we took places in a kind of a huge walnut shell (named basket boat) driven by the captains and their oars. Equipped with our Chinese hat made of bamboo, the sailors brought us in middle of the bay. They shown us they expertise by spinning the boat on itself at a high speed. To increase the folklore, they made rings in shape of shrimp with coconut tree leaves. They also invited us to fish crabs between the trees with bamboo fishing canne.

After this boat trip, the journey brought us to the village of Thanh Ha. Located on the Thu Bon river, this village is famous for the pottery. We created, one by one, vases, pots and bowls with clay before leaving with a nice whistle made of clay.

We kept going with a break on the island of Tra Que Herb. Its 40 hectares were dedicated to the culture of vegetables and aromatic herbs. We walked between the small organic gardens. We observed the work of the farmers who far away, from the modern technology, were irrigating the plants with a strange watering can held on their shoulders…

Hoi An was at 4km from the seafront. We enjoyed to go to the beach of An Bang, for the last stop of this day of discovery. The time to have a swim in the hot and clear water and enjoy the quietness and the peacefulness. The sign of a calm evening with an early night. The next morning, the alarm rang at 6am for an early flight from the small airport of Dan Ang. We flew in direction of Hô Chi Minh and the South of the country.

Where to sleep?

The hostel of Dang Trung
031 Cầu Mây, Muong Hoa Valley, Sa Pa

Even if it was difficult to find the place, this small auberge offers a nice patio with a nice view on the mountains. The rooms have a good standing for a reasonable price. Moreover, Mahn, the owner, is very nice.

Suburban hotel
1 Nguyễn Tri Phương, Hoi An

An hotel with a very good standing. A bit outside of the city center of Hoi An. They offer a sympathetic terrace with swimming pool. You can use their bikes for free.

Where to eat?

Ngo Mart Coffee
125 Nguyễn Tri Phương, Hoi An

A good address, still not very well known by tourists, maybe because this is not in the city center. We loved the design of the tables made of drums from washing machines and their delicious Cao Loa (a local dish).

Banh Mi Queen
115 Trần Cao Vân, Hoi an

Own by Ms. Khan, this small restaurant worths a visit. Its name is justified because the sandwiches are delicious and the prices are fair.

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.