Happy Times in Hanoi and Halong Bay

Trip Start Dec 30, 2008
Trip End Jan 22, 2009

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Entry Picture Link: http://picasaweb.google.com/threevagabonds2/HaNoiHaLongBayCapitalKayaking

After an amazing 2 weeks in South/Central Vietnam... we were ready to tackle the cold and craziness in the North! On Thursday, January 15 after a 14 hour overnight bus ride (gotta love them!) we arrived SOMEWHERE in the middle of Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi, at 6:45 a.m. We waited around in our delirium for about 15 minutes for our "free mini bus transfer" to Hanoi's Old Quarter where we wanted to stay until we realized that this "free bus" in no way, shape or form existed. Welcome to North Vietnam! After the normal harassment by motorbike drivers, we hopped in a taxi to Hanoi Backpackers (http://www.hanoibackpackershostel.com/).
We had not stayed in any other hostels in Vietnam since the guesthouses were all so cheap, but we had heard great things about Hanoi Backpackers so we thought we'd give it a shot. For $7.50 each, we stayed in a 10-person dorm room (eh)... but the hostel was AWESOME! It's run by a couple of Aussie guys and it's probably the best place we've ever stayed. The hostel organized everything for us and it had a great vibe... other travelers our ages... free breakfast and Internet... great happy hours... and awesome people! Perfect!
After checking in, eating breakfast and organizing with the Aussies our trip to Halong Bay, our trip to Sapa, our bus to the Laos/Vietnam border AND our Laos visas (big $$ but they took care of it all for us) it was already 10:30a.m.. We knew we wanted to see Ho Chi Minh's body in the mausoleum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh_Mausoleum)... but it closes at 11 a.m. for lunch! In a rush, the Aussies threw us on 2 motorbikes and the drivers whisked us over to the mausoleum dodging crazy Hanoi traffic in about 10 minutes flat. After checking our cameras at the front desk (no cameras allowed... major let down), we followed the crowds and the guards into Ho Chi's complex. It was a weird site to see... the former Vietnamese Communist leader preserved in a glass case in a dark room surrounded by about 9 guards (not to mention the dozens of guards outside and in the stairways). There was no talking... no pictures... no frills. Very methodical and to the point. Interesting to say the least!
After the mausoleum... we headed back to the Old Quarter of Hanoi via cyclo to do some shopping. It is A LOT colder in North Vietnam than the beaches down south... and we heard that Sapa where we'd be heading to in a few days was even colder. We needed warm clothes fast. The streets and markets in the Old Quarter are insane... every street has a name that matches what's sold on that street... shoe street.. fruit shake street... silk street... etc. Easy! We wandered around and found a FANCY "Chanel" jumper for Stacy and a mock turtleneck (classsssy) for Jamie. It would work!
Little did we know that this crazy day on NO sleep had just begun! We headed back to the hostel at 2 p.m. for our "Snake Village Tour" which we got to go on for free since we booked our Halong Bay and Sapa trips through the hostel (normally $15US). Although we have no interest in snakes.. it was free... so we figured... WHY NOT!? We innocently hopped into 2 taxis with a guide (Stacy, a boy from... England?? We forget!) and 6 boys all from the hostel.
After about a 20 minute cab drive across the river, we arrived at the "snake village." We walked into this weird room with a cage full of cobras and other snakes. A Vietnamese man started taking the snakes out of the cage one by one to show us. Stacy ran from the room immediately and Jamie kept her distance. You could "pet" the cobra if you wanted to... but we happily declined. After the weird welcoming, we walked down a dirt path to a room with a couple of set tables pushed together. If we didn't know any better, you'd think we were having a nice early dinner by a pond. But no, not at all. Stacy our guide asked us "Who wants to take a shot of a beating snake heart?" The 6 boys said yes, the 2 of us girls said no, so they killed 6 huge snakes in front of us!
First, they slit the skin around the heart, cut the vein and poured out the heart and blood into a glass with rice wine. Then, the Vietnamese guy moved down the body and slit another opening near its end to release the green bile which went into another glass. Somehow, the hearts are still beating when they're dropped into the glass with rice wine. Each boy lined up and took the shots with hearts while we tried not to throw up. GOTTA LOVE VIETNAM!! Supposedly the snake blood is somehow good for you and brings you good luck and fertility for the guys (which in turn, they say, is good for the girls). Once seated and with a Ha Noi Beer in hand, Jamie took a shot of the blood with the rice wine, too! The green bile was too much and almost all of the guys gagged on it, so Jamie and Stacy both passed on that. The blood actually wasn't THAT bad!
And then, the real craziness began. After we were all seated... more shots of blood and bile were passed around as they cooked up the snakes for us. NO part of the snake is wasted. We ate snake skin... snake spring rolls... snake rice... snake ribs... and other snake "dishes" we were too scared to ask about but ate anyway. Most importantly, however, we drank LOTS AND LOTS of snake infused Vietnamese rice wine. No joke, every 3 minutes, we were taking shots of this vile liquor... a horrible mixture between vodka and tequila with the same damaging effects. Needless to say, by 4:30, we HAD to be taken home. The cab ride is difficult to remember and many poor blokes were ill.
By 5 p.m... Jamie was passed out in bed and Stacy was at happy hour downstairs at the hostel! She woke Jamie up (somehow) around 7 p.m. to go to Finnegan's Bar with the rest of the hostel crew down the road. After a normal western chicken (not snake) sandwich, we had to get back to the hostel and pack. We had signed up for a 2 day/1 night tour of Halong Bay and had to drunkenly back for it! By 10:30 p.m., one of the longest and best days of the trip was over and we both passed out!
7 a.m. on Friday, January 16 came too quickly. We pulled ourselves together, checked out and were in the lobby by 8 a.m. for our departure for Halong Bay. Stacy, our guide for the Snake Village, was also our guide for Halong Bay. He was still wasted from the previous night but still managed to put 26 of us on buses for the 3 1/2 hour journey to Halong Bay. The bus ride out was LONG and crowded, so we were relieved when we arrived at the port in Halong City. We boarded our boat, Hoan Cao, and headed out into the Gulf of Tonkin. The top of the boat had a really nice deck where we spent most of our time chilling out and meeting the 24 other people on the boat - a solid mix of Australians, Irish, Canadians, English, Italians and a BUNCH of Americans! Probably the most Americans we had met in awhile! The scenery of Halong Bay is awesome... emerald green waters and hundreds of vegetation-covered islands full of countless caves to explore. It reminded us a lot of the Whitsundays in Australia.
After sailing for a few hours and an awesome Vietnamese seafood lunch, we all headed out in 2-person kayaks to check out the islands and waters. It was a beautiful tour of the islands and we got to get out at one and explore the cave... but we had to paddle for THREE hours! The last hour back to the boat was TOUGH, but we made it back in time for an amazing Halong Bay sunset. Once on board, we were SPENT and wet, so we were happy when it was time to assign rooms. The boat we were on could only hold about 18 people, so they pulled up another (and better) boat along side of the Hoan Cao for the 8 extra people to sleep on. We opted for the 2nd boat... much nicer and QUIETER!
After checking into our beautiful cabin and taking a hot shower, we all met on the main boat for another great Vietnamese family-style dinner. Once the plates were cleared away, the drinking began! Lots of drinking games, music, LIMBO (hadn't played that in about 15 years!) and dancing. Around 11:30 p.m. many of the boys had drank enough to go skinny-dipping in the murky waters. At that point, we called it a night and headed to bed! We were already sore from the 3-hour kayak trip.
Saturday, January 17 we awoke to a 7 a.m. breakfast and said goodbye to the loner boat that we slept on. Many of the people on our boat were doing a 3 day/2 night trip that involved Cat Ba Island, but we had to get back to Hanoi for bigger and better things! We dropped off the 3-day people and picked up the previous day 3-day people from the hostel and headed back to Halong City. After a last great meal on the boat, we got back onto a bus and headed back to Hanoi. The drive back took over 4 hours due to horrible Hanoi traffic and the coming of the Tet Holiday (New Years in Vietnam).
Once back at the hostel, we caught up on emails, checked into our rooms, and went out for a great Vietnamese dinner at Quan An Agon Restaurant with 3 other people from our Halong Bay trip. After dinner, Stacy eventually called it a night and Jamie went out for fresh "bia" (local Vietnamese beer) with a bunch of other guys and gals from the hostel and the Halong Bay trip. About 15 of us gathered around a small plastic stools on the side of the road/sidewalk with the locals and drank fresh beer for just 3,000 dong/glass... about 15 cents! Can't beat that! After they kicked us out, we walked to another bar for a few more beers til the police came in and shut the place down around 12:45. The police mean business and are strict about the 1 a.m. bar closing time! Goodnight!
Sunday, January 18 was a big catchup day for us. We had a lot of personal things to get settled, wanted to still explore more of the city, and had to leave on the 9:10 p.m. train for Sapa that night! Around 11 a.m. after checking out, we met up with our new friend Jessica from NYC and took a self-guided walking tour of the city recommended by Lonely Planet. We started from the hostel and walked towards Hoan Kiem Lake where we checked out Ngoc Son Temple and the Martyrs' Monument. From there we explored the amazing busy streets and markets of Hanoi. Once at the 3-story Dong Xuan Market, Jamie found a warm winter jacket for the Sapa trip and on Silk Street Stacy bought a scarf. We were ready for the cold!
After walking for hours and a great pho lunch, our last stop was Hoa Lo Prison Museum... better known as the Hanoi Hilton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanoi_Hilton). This is where Senator John McCain was a POW for 5+ years and many other American pilots were held during the Vietnam War. Before the war, the French used it as a prison to hold Vietnamese revolutionaries in the early 1900's. The museum focused on the time when the Vietnamese were held captive there by the French. They did have exhibits of the time when Americans were held there, but exhibits only showed the favorable conditions they gave Americans and had pictures of the prisoners smiling and playing basketball in the courtyard. An interesting one-sided story!
The walking tour and Hanoi Hilton wiped us out... so we were VERY ready for "Sunday Sessions" at the hostel.... free beer!  After the beer ran out at 5 p.m., we enjoyed another happy hour til 6 then headed out for dinner. We were back at the hostel by 8 p.m. to catch a taxi with other people from the hostel to the train station for the 9:10 p.m. overnight sleeper train to Sapa. While it was bittersweet to leave Hanoi... a place where we met so many FUN and diverse people... we were very excited for our next great adventure!
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