This is gonna be a huge post, too many pictures (but I couldn't limit in a more effective way, or more precisely: I decided for all of those). Anyway, after a long journey (stopover in Doha in the middle of the night with almost all shops and restaurants closed) we finally arrived in Hanoi the next morning.
The airport itself was located kinda far outside the city center. Thus, we had to make a plan how to get to the hotel, and decided for grabbing a taxi. The driver didn't speak any English, hence we showed him a screenshot on the mobile phone, and while looking at the picture, he already got the car moving. I hardly believed where he was supposed to go. He took a different route than our offline navigation system said, but magically, we arrived at our destination, and we found a room reserved for us. Seemed to be the correct place then.
We then took a little tour around the blocks. Slowly, and carefully. Overwhelmed by traffic, people, the life there in general, and the first impressions. After a while, we stopped at a small street food restaurant. The chairs we tiny, it felt they were almost breaking, but somehow didn't. Apparently too small for Vietnamese, but we didn't find bigger ones anywhere else.
After a good sleep, we started to get around in Hanoi, had some things on our must-see-list, checked out a few temples and and stopped at street food restaurants every now and then.
When walking through cities all day long, feet start to hurt at some point. Thanks to a perfect mobile app, we could „Grab“ a private driver anytime. The app finds the nearest driver around you, just wait a little while, jump in and you will be brought anywhere you would like to go. Kinda convenient, and cheap too.
We then went to one spot which is stunning and dangerous at the same time. Right after long distance trains with destination Saigon (or vice versa) start their journey, the track runs through one very narrow street where houses are built that close, you could touch the walls when reaching out of the window.
Poor people living their, their houses must be shaking and it must be horribly loud every time a train passes. They try to make the most out of it, trying to earn some money by selling drinks, food and this and that to tourist. We didn't really know when a train arrives or departs, and all time tables pinned on the wall were telling different times.
We waited, walked up and down, and waited a little longer – in the end, luckily without getting in between train and the house walls. We left the whole scenario to our imagination.
We spent the evening at the hotel's roof top bar. For Vietnam, they served pricey cocktails there. But somehow worth it, feeling a little breeze and enjoying the lookout over the city. At least in a way the smog allowed.
We then headed north, and booked a 2 days 1 night boat cruise through the Halong Bay. Really amazing how many boats start every day (looks like an army commencing their march), they all obviously have the same route (predefined), and do pretty much similar things during the cruise, just the duration differs (there is the aim to limit the impact on the world heritage).
The landscape still is stunning and breathtaking. I tried to absorb as much as possible, stayed on deck until the sun and the heat made me to go back inside.
As the Halong Bay is a World Heritage, the government tries to limit the number of tourists and therefore, the amount of boats cruising around. And also the route itself seems to be settled.
So it happened that all boats, doesn't matter what size, anchored in the same bay - and it was pretty crowded. Meaning, you could see what the neighbour boat passengers had for dinner. Later that night we tried to catch our breakfast - huge light beams should get the squid to the surface. We tried with lots of effort, but didn't catch any. Hence, no breakfast for us.
After the boat cruise, we had a shuttle transfer back to Hanoi, were dropped off at the train station and took the train to Ninh Binh.
The Dry Halong Bay was not so dry, unfortunately. Rain from time to time, but still warm at least.
The funny thing was the 4 hour guided tour itself. Ok, guided, but without any explanations. But with a lot of power - our fifth person, the lady in the back, was our captain, steering and navigating.
At some point we had a bad conscience. We got two more paddles and helped her out a bit.
Another train ride was taking us to Hue - an 9 hour ride, on a small and very hard pallet. And nothing to be said about the noise level when people passing and doors flapping.
And rain again, kind of annoying without umbrellas. Luckily we still had those rainbow ponchos from the Dry Halong Bay.
Time for coffee break - Vietnamese iced coffee, picture follows later.
From Hue, we ordered a private driver, who stopped whenever we wanted, for how long we wanted and just waited for us until we returned from our excursions.
The Hải Vân Pass was one of those, followed by Da Nang and the Marble Mountains. Huge caves, hot like hell, and so freakin' humid - felt like more humidity than Chinese tourists, and those were a lot.
Hội An with its ancient town centre is cut through, and got diffent styles and impressions from elsewhere, like Chinese-designed shophouses and temples, French colonial buildings as well as Vietnamese architecture. The night markets are quite crazy, people everywhere and streetfood with all things imaginable.
Mỹ Sơn is just a short hop from Hội An. First we wanted to rent a motorbike, but finally didn't, as it seemed to be too risky at some point. The contracts and rent conditions didn't sound promising enough for a 100 km return ride. The private driver did a good job too, we were allowed to be our own DJ's while driving, and while the Mỹ Sơn walking tour, he just waited somewhere and did anything, but I believe not much.
Bridge and temple architecture under strict Chinese influence and impact - colourful and impressive.
And again, extra-ordinary food on every corner. We found one of the best Banh Mi restaurants, and went there twice. That tells a lot!
Flight do Saigon, Ho-Chi-Minh-City. Mega city! Not so much to offer, tourist attactions I mean, and basically one day was enough. On the market, we shot some bargains - an original Vietnamese coffee machine. An usuful souvenir for everyday normal use.
After all this, some quality time was needed. The idea: Spending some days in a resort in Mui Ne. At least the idea was perfect, the hotel itself was fine too. But the way to get there a bit tough. Everything startet with the bus transfer - we picked Hanh Cafe. Not the best choice afterwards. At least we booked the tickets up in front. But the busses were following their own time table, and not the one which could be found elsewhere. The staff, yeah well, the most unfriendly staff I was ever able to experience. Ever! We entered a bus, but were not sure where exactly we were going. But finally, it worked somehow.
The Blue Ocean Resort was nice, as all the other resorts would have been too. A neat garden, a lot of space to relax and good food. Unfortunately, the sand at the beach was washed away by the tide. And the local people struggled a bit to restore it.
Once back in Saigon, we took the next bus to Can Tho, to see the floating markets. Another experience which, in the end, was just fine the way it was. We stayed in a homestay appartment, i.e. the people who use to live in the apartment offer their rooms for you and sleep somewhere else. Under the staircase for example, right next to the grandma, the 3 children and 2 dogs. Really strange feeling.
Furthermore, we asked them to arrange a tour to the floating markets, which they did. Pickup at 5 am. Transfer to a backstreet where the tour was about to start. The taxi left right after drop off, and an older lady (never seen before and obviously in no relationship to the driver) insisted to get the money. We then walked through a very dark and small alley, still followed by her. We reached the river, and indeed, small wooden boats waited for their pessangers. The money was handed over (the lady was getting too annoying) and we entered one of the boats where we thought it could be the one for us. Maybe it was, maybe not. At the end, it turned out we were on that tour we tried to get. All good, but mixed with feelings being insecure.
Favourite drink and staple food for the time being in Vietnam - Vietnamese Coffee with sweetened condensed milk ...