Blog #6 - Feeling Hanoi'd? Why not take Ha Long weekend!

After our short but wonderful Nha Trang beach vacation had come to an end, it was back to business for us.  We had to get to Hanoi fast, in order to allow time for us to get our Indian visas. 

You see, in addition to our earlier lesson about the sometimes-enforced-requirement of “evidence of onward travel”, we have now also discovered another nitty-gritty fact: while on the road, it can be difficult to obtain some visas.  Some embassies only want to deal with their local residents.  To our dismay, we learned that the Indian embassies in both Malaysia and Singapore indicate that non-residents “have to obtain their visas in their home country”.  Ouch. 

Lucky for us, the Indian embassy in Hanoi is not as restrictive as its southern friends and would process our visa applications as Canadians for a small surcharge (of course).  Their turnaround time is “5 – 7 days” – not bad!   However we didn’t leave ourselves a lot of wiggle room, time-wise.  A while ago, we jumped on a seat sale, where we had booked an amazingly cheap flight from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur.  So this left us with a time crunch. 

We had to get to Hanoi! 

Now, taking a bus or train from Nha Trang to Hanoi would take 35 hours.  There was no way.  That was precious visa processing time!  As a hybrid solution, we found the last sleeper bus out of Nha Trang, to Danang, where we could catch a very reasonable $35 flight up to Hanoi later the next morning.  A great, cheap solution that would get us up north quickly (and a third of the cost of flying straight to Hanoi). Winning!

All that had to happen to make our plan work, was the bus had at arrive in Danang no later than 10:00am.  With the bus scheduled to arrive at 6:30am, this should be a breeze…right?!?

What could go wrong? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW5e9zqTNNQ

Yup you guessed it, the bus broke down, was 5 hours late, and we missed our flight. Losing!

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But everything happens for a reason.  We took the half-day fate had given us and quickly fell for the town of Hoi An, which is 30 minutes south of Danang.  It is small, and oozes of “cuter than anything” French colonial style.  Also, our hotel, which we found on Agoda from Vince’s iPhone while on the (broken down) bus, gave us the best and most attentive service we’ve had in Vietnam.  They helped us print flight tickets, format Word documents, and followed us basically everywhere we walked in the hotel.  We think it may have been run by a cult.  They were so nice, it was almost creepy -- to the point where they’d yell out both our names at the sight of our flip-flops coming down the stairs:  hello Stephen and Vincent!!  (yes, Steph took on the name of Stephen for the day: trust us, it was just easier that way).

The next day we were on a flight to Hanoi, so we were back on track.  Yippee!

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Hanoi is quite further north than Nha Trang or Hoi An, and it was gray, cold and chilly. Our beachwear in the airport got us a few smiles, and didn’t go unnoticed on the bus ride into town.  A very friendly older man seated next to Vince began to gesture toward his legs, laughing.  Then he pinched some leg hair.  Whether he was commenting on Vince’s shorts, or his Italian leg-dreadlocks, we will never know.

The very next morning we went straight to the Indian embassy with our applications filled out and ready to go.  It was Wednesday, and the projected “ready” date for our visas was Tuesday.  Perfect.  (A little too perfect for Vince’s appetite, but hey, that’s what buffer days are for! :))

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So we explored Hanoi for two days, saw the sites, watched water-puppets, experienced the amazing street food, and had the odd glass of Bia Hoi (which is fresh daily-brewed beer they serve for thirty-five cents a glass)!  Hanoi is a great city to explore and we really enjoyed it.  But being in a noisy city for a week straight can be a bit much, so we thought we’d skip town for the weekend. 

We had our sights set on Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay and its many islands is considered to be a natural wonder of the world.  From Hanoi you can book an overnight cruise for about $175 per person.  These cruises usually begin with a three-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay City, half a day cruising, one night on the boat, and then another half day cruising back, to hop back on the bus. 

Totally reasonable, but us being us and trying to ‘hack’ every place, we decided to figure out a way to do it better, and on our own. 

 So Vince spent a night researching and found a way to get us to the Ha Long bay island of “Cat Ba” for only ten dollars, per person, each way.  The journey was expected to take 4 – 5 hours.  One of the better known (…for being sketchy ;) bus companies offers a daily “bus-minibus-boat-bus” ticket from Hanoi to the Island of Cat Ba. Check out the route: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O6eKbEhPg4

Three buses, one boat, eh?  Now I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong!  We got there no problem!  And we stayed in a luxury, totally empty, $29 per-night hotel.  Since this was off-season, this was at least 50% off the normal room rate (but still about triple what other travellers were paying…).

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We were there for a total of three nights.  On our first day of our self-made long weekend, we took a day cruise into Ha Long Bay and kayaked into caves.  On our second day, we rented a scooter to boot around the island and explore, including to Cat Ba national park.   See:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGOl5fJHpds&feature=youtu.be

All for about half of what the all-in cruise would have cost, and better.  Winning again!

While we were in Cat Ba, we also met a very fun and adventurous 20-something couple from the U.S. named Mollie and Joe, who were full of laughter and great stories.  They were on the same bus as us, and were also ‘hacking’ Ha Long like us, however, they always seemed to be able to do it for one-third our cost!  Haha…ah well, maybe we’re too old to ‘really be’ roughing it. ;)

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We’re now back in Hanoi and just this morning we picked up our Indian visas.

As we book our taxi to the airport tomorrow morning, we’re a little emotional, sad to say goodbye to Vietnam.  This was a fantastic three weeks, and we will cherish every memory, from the beaches to the food, to the traffic.  And as a side-effect we’re now both superkeen to re-watch Vietnam war movies from years ago, and compare them to sights and stories we saw and heard here. 

We highly recommend Vietnam to anyone who wants something challenging but certainly rewarding in a vacation.  We’re signing off for now.  Goooooood Morning Malaysia, here we come!