We left the peaceful countryside for the bustling city of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. The booming population of Hanoi is immediately visible in the crowdedness of its streets, which are packed with a steady stream of motorbikes, rickshaws, tuk tuks and cars. Crossing the street is quiet a harrowing experience!
We spent most of our time in the Old Quarter, a labyrinth of narrow, meandering streets that are over a 1,000 years old. Hanoi once only contained 36 streets each dedicated and named after the goods that was specifically traded there. The streets typically sold one commodity, so they have names like Silver Street, Sugar Street, or Silk Street. Today, many of the streets still sell the their namesake products with others selling more modern items.
At the center of the Old Quarter, is the quiet oasis of Hoan Kiem Lake. According to a 15th Century legend, a giant turtle presented the Emperor with a magic sword so that he could defeat the Chinese invadors. After his victory, the Emperor returned the sword to the turtle and the lake was named Hoan Kiem, or “restored sword.” Today, endangered large soft-shell turtles still inhabit the lake, but are rarely seen.
Crossing a vibrant red bridge to an islet at the north end of the lake, is Ngoc Son Temple. Erected in the 18th century, the temple honors the 13th-century military leader.
From Hanoi, we headed east to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Ha Long Bay. The rugged island is mostly national park but a few roads provide spectacular vistas of the jungle-covered limestone hills.
The best way to explore Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay is via boat. We boarded a Vietnamese junk and cruised through and around dozens of the nearly 1,600 limestone islands and islets in the bays.
We dropped anchor in La Ha Bay and set off in search of sea caves and hidden bays by kayak. The end of the day was spent jumping off the the top of our junk into the warm, green waters of Lan Ha Bay.
Most of Cat Ba Island is protected as Cat Ba National Park, and it is home to the only population of Golden Headed Langurs. The park contains several hiking trails and we decided to climb Ngu Lam Peak and were rewarded with never-ending views of jungle-covered, misty mountain peaks.
During the Vietnam War, Cat Ba Island was used as a safe haven for the North Vietnamese army. Hospital Cave, a large limestone cave with three levels was used as a secret hospital and safe house. It was quite eerie inside!
After Cat Ba, we headed back to Hanoi before departing for Laos. We decided to skip the long lines at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and decided to go instead to the museum created in his honor. To say that the museum is bizarre is an understatement. The museum contained abstract art exhibitions that seemed dedicated to communist propaganda rather than an introduction of the life of Ho Chi Minh. With that said, the weirdness of the place was pretty entertaining, even if it was a bit self-contradictory at times.
We loved traveling in Vietnam. The people, the diverse and beautiful scenery, and the delicious food made this one of our favorite countries we have visited thus far. Sad to leave, we set off from Hanoi on a 28 hour bus ride (yep…28 hours..) to Luang Prabang, Laos.