Hanoi, Cat Ba, Ninh Binh, Phong Nha

“It’s not about what you see, but about who you meet and what you end up experiencing as a result.” This might be one of the most prevalent traveler mantras you’ll hear anywhere you go, and as so often is the case with clichés, it’s absolutely true. Two people visiting the same city and seeing roughly the same things will often tell a completely different story about their stay. And when you are on a lengthy journey, you have the luxury of letting present experience determine your travel plans to a greater extent. If you like an environment you can keep extending and extending, or leave when things aren’t interesting any longer. Regardless, the best memories are almost always shaped by unexpected encounters.

I’m bringing this up because my first weekend in Hanoi was one of the highlights of my trip so far, and yet entirely unconventional. I couchsurfed at the home of an amazing group of expats living and teaching English in Hanoi, and celebrated my first ever Thanksgiving with them. We spent a whole day preparing an enormously delicious dinner, cooking together, playing tunes, drinking beers, and simply enjoying each other’s company. I helped out as best I could and by twilight we finally sat down to eat. After everyone around the table had said what they were thankful for, the culinary feast kicked off. The party extended well into the evening, in a very laid back and blissful manner. That day, and for the rest of my stay there I felt part of a little family. A family of people with very different backgrounds and stories, but all equally welcoming and kind. An environment without pretense or disingenuity, straightforward and open-minded. With the winter holidays and the year’s end approaching, the thought that I won’t be home with my family has been saddening me on occasion, and I found comfort in spending time with people who understand and share these feelings.

Hanoi is a mesmerizing city. It’s one of those few places on earth that draws you in and captures you in its buzz, leading you to utterly tranquil lakes, colonial quarters, vast bridges and local outskirts. Motorcycles swerve through the city streets like blood coursing through a vast network of urban arteries, their course purposeful yet seemingly utterly chaotic. Vietnam is without doubt the motorcycle epicenter of South East Asia, with six million bikes in Hanoi and over seven million in Saigon. As a backpacker, one of the quintessential Vietnam trips is driving up or down the coast between these two major cities on a purchased motorbike. I chose not to do this and instead spend more time in less places which I really wanted to see.

And so I went to Cat Ba, expecting to see a lot of cats and ending up seeing only a few. Obviously that’s not the English name. Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay, easily the most famous sight in the whole of Vietnam. It’s an island that has gained popularity in recent years, while the rest of Halong Bay had continued to suffer from overdevelopment and poorly regulated tourism. It’s very much being developed in a similar manner however, so its authentic character that I found so appealing might not remain for that much longer. Cat Ba is beautiful, full of hidden beaches and rough roads winding through valleys surrounded by towering jungle-clad mountains. I stayed in a tent on a beach, waking up every day to the sun rising over countless evergreen rocks in the sea. Motorbiking, hiking and swimming around by day, playing pool at the beach bar and skinny dipping with bioluminescent plankton at night. This being my first encounter with a beach since I got to South East Asia, I like to think I made the most of it.

And then there is Bia Hoi. I am always eager to learn about countries’ unique quirks and peculiarities, especially when they’re culinary in nature. Northern Vietnam’s Bia Hoi is the cheapest beer in the world by volume, and in Hanoi or Ninh Binh you can just sit on the side of the street on tiny plastic chairs next to a makeshift beer tap and have as much as you can afford. Which would be more than you could ever hope to consume at 5000 Dong a glass – 20 eurocents. That’s right, a single euro buys you over a liter of beer. Granted, it’s not very powerful, but that’s really beside the point in this price class. It’s so cheap that many of the hostels even have full on free beer happy hours. And when beer is free, there is no excuse not to have an ample amount of it, shouting Mot Hai Ba Yo (one two three cheers) with appropriate enthusiasm.

After a brief stint in Ninh Binh, I continued down to visit the natural park in Phong Nha, a region world-renowned for its exquisite karst formations and collection of gargantuan cave systems. The world’s largest cave is situated here, the massive Hang Son Doong, accessible only through a week-long jungle tour costing over 3000 dollars. Since that was just a little bit out of my budget, I visited two smaller, yet still enormous caves. Paradise cave is the largest dry cave in Asia, stretching over 37km underground, and filled with stalactite formations of staggering beauty. Formed over millions of years, the eerie atmosphere prevailing in the huge caverns was palpable. It might have been the most overwhelming natural sight I’ve seen in my life so far. Dark cave on the other hand was all about adventure. Ziplining, kayaking, swimming, and by far the coolest, mudbathing. Imagine a walled cavern in the heart of a mountain, filled waist high with gooey brown mud. The density was such that one could simply lie down on top of it and float, with a sensation of near-weightlessness.

The next few weeks will take me to the south of Vietnam, through Saigon and then onwards to Cambodia, celebrating Christmas in Bangkok and starting 2017 in the tropical setting of the Philippines.

Mot Hai Ba Yo!

December 9th 2016

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