Hanoi Side Trips
By Hun Ohm
There are a number of worthwhile side trips that can be made using Hanoi as your base. We opted to use Handspan Adventure Travel to help arrange our overnight journeys, and we were not disappointed. Here’s a brief recap of a few of our experiences:
Halong Bay is on nearly everyone’s list and is definitely a must-see in the north. From what we heard and read, it’s really not worth it to do Halong Bay "on your own." Arranged tours can take you there for roughly the same amount of money, and you will not have to contend with the hassle of getting to the bay from Hanoi or negotiating a ride on a boat to check out the limestone formations.
Heeding this advice, we visited Halong Bay on a three-day trip using Handspan Travel Agency (highly recommended, see separate Handspan review). Handspan seems to have the best boat (the Dragon’s Pearl) available for their Halong Bay tours, and it is well worth paying a little extra money (compared to other travel agencies) for such facilities. Our room was nicer than many of the hotel rooms we stayed in in Vietnam and was tastefully decorated. The dining room was well appointed and the food was equally good. The sun deck at the top was perfect for reclining and watching the scenery go by.
The main attraction of Halong Bay are numerous tiny to medium-sized limestone karsts/islands that rise dramatically from the water. They are partly covered by little trees and shrubs, and partly exposed limestone. The formations are so numerous that when you look at bay, you see many "layers" of islands, which fade as they recede in the distance. Also, there seems to be a fine haze most of the time, which adds to the sfumato effects.
The first day, we stopped cruising long enough to visit a large cave "grotto" inside one of the islands, which, while a bit gaudy in terms of lighting, was much bigger and more impressive than we expected it to be. After the cave, we cruised a bit more on the boat and were treated with a view of the setting sun that was peeking out from behind just enough cloud cover to allow you to gaze directly at it with minimal squint. The evening was capped off with a little swim just at sunset.
The next morning, we transferred to a small boat which took us to Cat Ba Island, the largest, which is surprisingly rather developed, with lots of little hotels and many fisherpeople (mostly they catch squid). We did a very good 2-3 hour hike which included refreshments at a local person's house, complete with photo of Ho Chi Minh over the alter, a couple of jars of snake wine, and a poster of Michael Jackson from his Bad days. The hike went over some harvested rice paddy fields, empty peanut fields, and some forested hills. At the end we had lunch at our local guide's house, which was quite delicious with the best spring rolls that we had in anywhere in Vietnam. We spent the rest of the afternoon at an adequate, if unspectacular, local beach.
The morning of our third day we boarded a boat (smaller than the Dragon’s Pearl) for the ride back to Halong City for lunch. Unfortunately it was a bit cool and foggy so the views weren't as good as the first day, but the beauty of the bay still astounded.
Overall cost: approximately $72 per person
Shorter excursions are available.
Cuc Phuong National Park
We also made a short overnight trip to Cuc Phuong National Park to visit the endangered primate center and have a short hike into the rainforest (a rather tame hike on a paved path, which we weren't expecting!). There are many international biologists at the center who are studying the primates and they have many different species that you can see. Some have been injured and are recuperating, and some have been bred there. It is very educational to see all the different types, not to mention quite fun to see them swinging like, well, primates, from branch to branch.
We stayed in rooms available on the national park premises. They are large huts with private bathroom and two large beds – perfectly functional, but nothing more. We ate dinner at the park restaurant. You might consider skipping Cuc Phuong unless you can do a more extended hike into the forest. But try not to go by yourself or leave the trails, as it would be very easy to get lost. At the time we were there, the officials were looking for a foreign couple who had abandoned their moped in the forest and were nowhere to be found! The next day, we headed to Kehn Ga.
Kehn Ga -- "the other Halong Bay on the rice paddies"
Most tourists go to Tam Coc to see the "Halong Bay on the rice paddies," but we had been told that that area is completely overrun with tourists and the enterprising vendors that are sure to accompany them. Thus, we opted for a leisurely boat ride on a river at Kehn Ga, which is a different part of the same region. The scenery was amazing, and we were the only travelers there for most of the morning.
The river snakes through limestone formations that soar out of the landscape in sometimes breathtaking fashion. Along the riverside, you can see people going about their daily life. Sadly, much of the business in the area is actually involved in destroying the limestone formations to use the stone industrially. Thus, you can see many rock formations half chipped away, their bottoms clouded in the dust that is raised by all the jackhammering. We also saw women gathering the riverweed for a delicious meal, kids dancing and playing, and a few graves built atop small formations in the water. Afterwards, we visited the old capital of Hoa Lu where there are a few well-preserved temples from the period just before the capital was moved to Hue. Along the way, our van was delayed for a few minutes as we waited for some workers to set off some dynamite charges, presumably as part of their ongoing quarrying efforts. It's difficult to predict what effect the continuing development of Vietnam will have on its natural beauty resources, but we are crossing our fingers that the country will be able to find an appropriate balance.
As noted above, we did the trip as part of a two-day excursion from Hanoi that included the first day at Cuc Phuong National Park. Although the Cuc Phuong portion was of minor interest, it enabled us to arrive at Kehn Ga early in the morning when boat traffic was very light.
Overall cost: approximately $88 per person