North to South

Although Halong Bay is the big draw to Vietnam for most tourists, there are plenty of other parts of the country that have a lot to offer. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are loaded with history, delicious food, and even a little bit of charm.

My time spent in Hanoi, before heading to Halong Bay, was accompanied by a typhoon, so I hid under my raincoat for a good portion of my visit. I stayed at the Essence Hotel, which I highly recommend to anyone visiting. This place has top notch service, a great location in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake, a killer breakfast spread, and is a steal at a mere $60/night. For those looking for a one or two night stop over before heading to Halong Bay, this is a great pick.

After Halong Bay, I headed down south to Ho Chi Minh City. I stayed at the Lotte Legend Saigon, which was very conveniently located, and I walked just about everywhere during my stay. After a good nights rest, my first stop was the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, which is one of the many architectural manifestations of the French influence in Vietnam.

After that, it was just a short walk to the Reunification Palace. I would definitely recommend taking one of the free tours that they offer at the main entrance. It lasts about an hour and the tour guide has a lot of interesting information, but may only be meaningful if you have a basic understanding of the history behind the war.

For a more thought provoking experience, I headed over the the War Remnants Museum. It is a bit emotional wandering through the halls looking at pictures of everything from the My Lai Massacre to the victims of Agent Orange. But, all in all, I think the experience helps put the culture and overall feeling of Vietnam in better perspective.

Almost everyday I was in Saigon I ate lunch at Quan An Ngon on Pasteur St. in District 1. The pho, vermicelli, and rice dumplings were some of my favorites, but everything was delicious and they have something on the menu for everyone. My dinner highlight would be my meal at Opera located in the Park Hyatt. While it’s not traditional Vietnamese cuisine, it’s still absolutely delicious and worth a visit.

Aside from the sites previously mentioned, there wasn’t too much to see within walking distance, or reachable by public transport. I think it is well worth it to hire a car for the day to see some of the sites 30-60 minutes outside of the city. If you prefer to just stay centrally located, make sure to schedule yourself a massage, eat some delicious street food, and treat yourself to a show at the Saigon Opera House.

Cruising in Halong Bay: Part II

After our amazing bike ride on Cat Ba Island, it was off to another set of small islands, in Ho Ba Ham, where we could swim up to a beautiful beach, go kayaking and jump off of the roof of the boat into the water. We were provided a delicious 5 course lunch with very traditional Vietnamese dishes, and there was also a full bar on the boat, at your convenience, if you felt like indulging with a mango lassi or something a little stronger.

The next morning I rallied before the daily tai chi class to check out the sunrise. A few other early birds joined me on the roof deck to catch the sun peaking over the landscape. Apparently, it is usually quite hazy in the mornings, so it is often hard to get a good shot, but after messing around with my camera settings for a while I captured some really pretty images.

Once the sun was up and I got a cup of tea (or four) and some croissants in me, it was off to another island for our final excursion before we headed back to shore. A small tender boat dropped us off at the beach and we climbed to the top of the mountain, well more like hill, to soak in the last few moments in Halong Bay.

After rinsing off in the bay, we got back on the junk boat where we were slowly brought back to the mainland. I really loved my stay in Halong Bay and I would recommend booking with Heritage Cruise Lines. They took amazing care of me and everyone else on board and made it an experience I won’t soon be forgetting.

Cruising in Halong Bay

Choosing a cruise in Halong Bay can be tough, especially when you’re on a budget. A two-day, one-night trip seemed really rushed to me, and I thought by staying two nights and three days, I would have the opportunity to explore and appreciate this amazing place. After researching available tour packages, I decided to go for broke; after all, this would be a once in a lifetime experience. That decision was worth every pretty penny.

I sailed on the Jasmine via Heritage Cruise Lines. Fair warning, this isn’t your typical backpacker party boat, so if that’s what you’re looking for, this company is not for you. Yes, the Heritage tour package is pricier than others, but you get great food, premium accommodations, top-notch service, and the day boat (for those who are staying two nights), which was absolutely amazing. Activities include biking, swimming and kayaking, and on the second day the number of people in the tour group dwindles. At any given time during day two, our group was a pleasant six to ten people. Definitely worth it!

The first night on the boat it was a bit drizzly and a little eerie floating through the bay. It almost felt like we were in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. Before the sun set, we managed to see a traditional fishing village, which was really interesting. It’s only within the past few years that the locals have been required to build houses on floating rafts. Before that, they simply lived out of their fishing boats. Aside from their catches of the day, the only other way they generate income is from tour groups, like ours. Make sure to carry some small money with you if you decide to go on a floating village tour (which you likely will), so you can tip your rowboat guide. 20,000 Dong, less than a dollar U.S., is plenty.

The next day, seven others and I took off on our day boat, while the Jasmine returned to homeport with the  passengers who had signed on for only the one night. It was great to see the sights with a smaller group of people. Our first stop was at a larger island (name?) where we biked about half an hour inland to the relatively large village (of?  Village name would be lovely). We saw a school, local hospital and a family living (with the most adorable little boy) in a very traditional home. Everyone was super friendly and we were very well received by all of the locals.

The rest of the day was filled with loads of other fun activities, and I have the pictures to match. But, instead of writing a massively long post for this cruise, keep your eyes peeled for ‘part two’ on Halong Bay coming soon!