Monday, January 18, 2016

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is one of the most famous places to visit in Vietnam. With about 1,600 limestone islands, this area is one of the most scenic is Southeast Asia. When we were planning our trip to Vietnam we weren't sure if this excursion would even happen because August is the rainy season in Vietnam, and sometimes boats aren't even allowed out into the Bay during stormy periods. I also wasn't sure I wanted to waste time going all the way there if it was going to be rainy because the whole point of going to a place like this is to see the view, which you wouldn't really be able to do in rainy/foggy weather. With such a short amount of time to spend in Vietnam, I wasn't sure it would be worth the gamble.

Luckily, the people at our hotel planned things just perfectly for us, so we got to experience Ha Long Bay during a small window of sunny weather. Nearly all the tours were booked because so many had been canceled in the priors days due to weather, but we somehow got lucky and still ended up on a decent ship. I had heard a lot of nightmare stories about different trips to Ha Long Bay, so we made sure to pay a little more to have a better experience--"you get what you pay for" was the general advice I had heard about visiting Ha Long Bay.

As we got up nice and early and got ready to leave on our overnight tour to Ha Long Bay, I got an e-mail from one of the administrators at the school I worked at before I came to Korea. She told me something might be opening up and asking when I would be coming back. I frantically replied to the e-mail saying I was very interested in the position and minutes later I was on the bus, where I would spend the next two days without internet--talk about perfect timing and stressful beginning to the day!

We were among the last people to be picked up for the trip to Ha Long Bay, which means we got the squished seats right on the wheel of the bus. There wasn't a whole lot of room to move, but hey, bus rides in SE Asia aren't exactly known for their level of comfort.

It was about 2 1/2 hours into the ride before we made a stop, and let's just say I needed a bathroom about an hour into the trip. They kept telling us we would stop "soon" and before we knew it we were stopped to get a tire changed--never a good sign. At that point I was ready to run off the bus and use nature's bathroom, but I decided to wait. At long last we stopped at the typical touristy rest stop, before getting on the bus for another hour and a half trip.

On the bus ride there there was a decent amount of rain, so I had pretty low expectations for what we would see once we got to the Bay, but when we finally for there we somehow miraculously had perfectly blue skies.

Hello, Ha Long Bay! It looks a little cloudy in this picture, but it kept getting sunnier and sunnier all day. 

This is the rainy season?
Once we got on our boat we got assigned to our rooms and had lunch (and a beer) in the dining room upstairs.

Not a bad view for a beer! 
Our boat
After lunch we got to change, then we got on a smaller boat that took us to the place where we would do kayaking. Kayaking along Ha Long Bay was absolutely beautiful--I really wish I had had a waterproof camera to take with me while we were out. It was really calm and we had crystal clear weather--hard to believe we were actually in the middle of Vietnam's rainy season!

Amazing to kayak alongside all these small islands

After kayaking we made our next stop at a huge cave. It was really interesting to walk around the cave because it just keep going and going. It seemed like it was something right out of a movie!

Amazing view outside of the entrance to the cave

After the cave they took us to a beach where we could go swimming. I wasn't all that interested in swimming at that point, so instead I decided to go on a little hike with a woman from New Zealand, who was also on our tour. I'm actually really glad I decided to go on the hike instead of going swimming, because the 360 degree view was stunning. The sun was also starting to set, which was pretty much perfect timing.

Next up it was time to go back to our main boat. We had some time to shower before going back up to the main dining room, where we got to make spring rolls (yum!) Afterwards was dinner, where we met a super nice Vietnamese family. The couple now lives in America with their toddler daughter, but they were on the Ha Long Bay tour with the woman's parents. They were among some of the kindest people we met during the trip, and it was fascinating talking to them about their lives in Vietnam and America.

After dinner we had a few drinks and it was time for bed. We were completely exhausted and asleep by 10:30 that night!

Day 2

We had an early start to our second day, with breakfast served at 7:30. After breakfast they took us to an oyster farm, where they showed us how they get pearls. After they showed us a few things then dropped us off at a store-not my favorite part of the trip because it was obviously just an attempt to get us to buy stuff. However, this is somewhat expected when you take a trip to SE Asia, and I can't say I blame them for trying to make money off of the loads of tourists who flood into the country.

After the tour we went back to our main boat, where we packed up our things and checked out of our rooms. It was kind of a long trip back to the main dock where we would get back on the bus to go back to Hanoi, but the view was absolutely beautiful along the way.

We got back to the dock around 1:00, and from there we still had to wait for a while before we could get back on the bus. We were lucky on our drive back because we had a bigger, more comfortable bus. Unfortunately, our driver hit a car on the way out, so we had an hour where we were literally just sitting around before we even got on the road.

We finally got back to our hotel around 6:00, at which point we didn't have much time before we were on to our next adventure!

Overall, I enjoyed the trip to Ha Long Bay, and I'm glad I didn't miss it while in Vietnam. However, I was also glad that we only did a one night tour instead of a two night tour, because I felt like there's only so much you can see there. It was absolutely beautiful, but I felt like one night was enough-I think I would have been bored with a second full ay on the boat. I'm also so happy that the people at our hotel advised us to go right away. Turns out the week before we went had been stormy, and the storms returned shortly after we left. We were just incredibly lucky to get this small sunny window in the midst of the rainy season!

That time I went to Vietnam...

Why hello again faithful followers.

It's hard to believe that it's been five months since I left Korea. Being home has had its highs and lows, but that's not really the point of this post.

My last month abroad was nothing short of pure insanity due to the fact that in the midst of packing up my apartment I also traveled to Vietnam, got a job, and consequently had to reschedule my departure date to leave Korea earlier than anticipated. Because of all this craziness, I never got a change to write about my trip to Vietnam. It's something I've wanted to do since I've been home, but my new job takes up just about every ounce of my free time. I also got a new computer, which meant that before I could even start to write I needed to transfer my pictures from my old computer to my new one--quite a chore in itself.

It's vacation time for everyone in Korea right now, which means my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of people traveling to warm places. These posts have naturally made me nostalgic about my own travels, which has given me the motivation to finally start writing about my trip to Vietnam and finish off this blog. I'm extremely thankful that I kept a journal while I was traveling (the biggest piece of advice I could give anyone who is going to travel--make the time to journal WHILE you're there!) because otherwise I honestly probably wouldn't be able to keep track of all that we did in Vietnam. Even five months later, the trip feels buried under my life back home.

Luckily I have my journal to tell me that we left for Vietnam on August 5th after staying in Seoul the night before (one of the many details that I had already forgotten).  Usually it's smooth sailing at the Incheon Airport, but that morning we actually hit really long lines, which meant we didn't have much time to rest or eat before boarding our flight. However, we made it in time, which is all that matters in the long run.

The flight from Korea to Hanoi was about four hours. Once we arrived in the airport we had to wait about half an hour to get our visas. After we had our passports back, we made our way to the arrival hall where the driver from our hotel was supposed to meet us. We didn't see him there so we decided to get a sandwich to eat in the meantime. The people at the sandwich shop were INCREDIBLY friendly. They helped us call our hotel to figure out where our driver was, and before we knew it we were on our way to our hotel.

At the hotel we had another incredibly warm welcome and were greeted with drinks and bananas. We talked with one of the men at the hotel about the trips to Ha Long Bay and Sapa and they told us it was better to go to Ha Long Bay first because there might be a storm later in the week. Trusting his input, we booked our trips, dropped our stuff off in our rooms, and decided to do a little exploring.

Our hotel was right in the heart of the Old Quarter-Hanoi's tourist hot-spot. The old buildings are evidence of France's colonial past in Vietnam, and while the history behind that part in Vietnam's past is ugly, the blending of architecture is quite lovely.

Apart from the architecture, the other thing that immediately made an impression on me was the absurd number of motorbikes. The driving in Asia is crazy in general, but Vietnam takes the cake for absolute scariest driving. The motorbikes are constant and don't stop for anyone. Crossing the street is literally like a game of frogger.

We walked around for a while, and when we came to a lake we stopped for a beer. The weather was surprisingly cooler than it was in Korea, which was a welcome and refreshing surprise in the midst of Korea's oppressively hot summer.

After we finished our beer, we wandered for a little more until we settled on a place for dinner. The restaurant had some young people working there who were super eager to speak with us to practice English. They were absolutely adorable kids, and it seriously made me wish I could have them as students. For all the mixed things I had heard about Vietnam, I was very pleasantly surprised by the incredibly friendly people we were encountering in our first hours there.

We had some pho and spring rolls for dinner and they beyond delicious. Definitely the right way to start our time in Vietnam!