Good Morning, Vietnam
“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam… everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”
Ha Long Bay was good to us. I knew it was going to be beautiful going in, of course, but pictures could never do it justice. We’d just come off from an intense time in Nepal, we spent our last few days there in the hospital, and were excited to be moving on from that chapter of the journey and explore our next country. Our red-eye flight in from Kathmandu was chaotic and disorganized, we landed in Hanoi exhausted and with only a few hours to spare before hopping onto a bus east towards the coast.
We met up with our friend Brian again, we’d seen him a couple months ago in South Korea, but since he’s out teaching in Da Nang he was able to fly in for a long weekend and hang out again in Ha Long. As usual, the first thing we did was to find a good hike somewhere in the city, we’d heard through the grapevine that Bài Thơ (Poem) Mountain was a beautiful trek, a secret viewpoint for the best views in Ha Long Bay, but that getting there was a little shady. We tried to research it online and it seemed like half the people who went there thought it was the best hike of their life, and the other half were convinced it was either too dangerous, or “unfortunately closed”. So naturally we had to go, determined to make it to the top.
We wandered down the little street where we heard the entrance was, but didn’t see anything close to what would resemble a trailhead. We approached a group of locals nearby to ask for directions, and they must have been used to a sight like us - group of foreigners, cameras slung around our necks, backpacks and hiking boots - we barely said two words before they smiled and pointed us to a cramped, dark alleyway between two buildings. I almost thought they were joking, but when I glanced back at them quizzically they just nodded enthusiastically and continued gesturing towards the small passage. After climbing a few twisting flights of stairs, we reached our first impasse - a locked metal gate blocking our way. We jostled it around a little, and it wasn’t long before a tiny old woman emerged from a nearby house brandishing a key in one hand, and holding her empty palm up for money with the other. We paid the questionable entrance fee, walked a few more flights of stairs, and reached our second predicament - another locked gate, this one complete with barbed wire, a big red sign reading Dangerous Area, Do Not Enter!, a pack of stray dogs, and a few other hopeful hikers unsure of how to get through.
It took all of us a few minutes of sheepishly kicking at the gate and trying to ask the little lady down the stairs if it’s really okay if we hop the fence before we just shrugged and pushed through. We managed to bend one of the metal bars and pull aside the barbed wire long enough for all of us to squeeze past the gate and over the concrete divider to the path. The hike was only about thirty minutes, but incredibly steep, with loose, slippery rocks - even the dogs stopped following us about halfway through. When we finally reached the top we were sweating buckets on that humid day, but from the clearing in the trees we could feel a cool breeze as the sun was setting. We sat at the peak and watched the junk boats sail through the calm blue water, we could see Ha Long stretched out on all sides, from the colorful rooftops in the city to the distant, tree-covered limestone islands.
The next day we went to the marina and booked a few seats on a junk boat; cruises aren’t generally my thing, but we knew we had to get on the water. We sailed for a few hours into the bay, coasting through the limestone islands and karsts while the captain told us which animals all the rock formations were supposed to look like (some seemed like a real stretch). Every so often we’d get out and explore - traverse a cave, go on a quick hike, relax on a beach or dip into the water. My favorite was when we went kayaking, cruising through the emerald waters, flanked on both sides by the lush, sprawling flora. We paddled to a smaller bay amongst the islands, surrounded by green and completely silent save for the echoing bird calls which engulfed us on all sides. We laid our backs down on the kayaks and listened to the chirps of the birds and the sound of the trees, feeling the sun on our closed eyelids.
Being out in the sun all day has a strange way of making you exhausted, even when you haven’t done much. We got off the boat that evening and headed back to our apartment, we washed the salt off our skin but the warmth from the afternoon lingered. After a while we got hungry, but it had gotten late and all of the small street cafes near us had closed. We finally found a place that was still open, a little Korean fried chicken joint nestled in an otherwise deserted strip. It wasn’t exactly the authentic Vietnamese cuisine we’d hoped for during our first few days in the country, but it was the only place that was open and we were famished. It’s funny - we’ve had fried chicken all over the world, in fancy restaurants and in dives, southern fried chicken in the South and Korean fried chicken in Korea. Who would have thought that the best we’ve ever had would be in an unassuming shop run by a Korean immigrant, that we stumbled upon by chance in Ha Long Bay? Moments like these are what we have come to love about travel. On the way back to the apartment we picked up a case of Ha Long beers and stayed up late, playing stupid drinking games while watching shitty horror movies on TV.