For the second half of our time in Vietnam we would be heading north and exploring sights around Hanoi, the capital city. Before Hanoi served as the capital city, the town of Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802–1945). As I mentioned in the last post, we took a scenic drive to Hue from Da Nang.
A major attraction of Hue is its vast, 19th-century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor's home; and a replica of the Royal Theater. Hue’s monuments are UNESCO World Heritage sites and include a number of tombs and palaces. Interestingly, many of the monuments surrounding the royal buildings were constructed in the early 19th century and were modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Day 14 – Hue. For our first full day in Hue, we slept in and had breakfast provided by the hotel. We went around the corner to a local shop for lunch and then made our way to the Hue Royal Palace which wasn't too far from our hotel. It was a nice walk across the river but it was still too hot and humid to really enjoy. Plus, it was starting to sprinkle so it made the stickiness even worse. It was 150,000 vnd pp for the entrance and it seemed like a very big complex. We started at one of the gates and soon enough got lost making our way through the various courtyards. It was a very nice open palace but resembles more Chinese architecture from when the Chinese ruled Vietnam. We spent a couple hours there and then made our way out because it was starting to rain harder. Unfortunately, we forgot our umbrella so we were both drenched walking back to the hotel. To dry ourselves, we ordered room service for dinner and chilled in the room.
Day 15 – Hue. The next morning, we arranged for a private driver to take us to some of the various tombs outside of the city. Since we booked it last minute, there wasn't a car available until 10:30 so we took our time with breakfast and chilled in our room until we were picked up. Our first stop was the tomb furthest away from the hotel and was called the tomb of Khai Dinh. It was extremely hot and humid out but the tomb was very nice so we took our time here trying to find as much shade as possible. Khai Dinh was the twelfth Emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty and what was special about this tomb was the rows of life sized statues outside the main tomb building. Inside the tomb the walls were decorated with some pretty elaborate porcelain art and the ceiling was decorated with nine intricate dragons.
For our next stop, we continued onto the Thien An Monastery. The grounds of the monastery were well groomed and had a very nice view of the countryside from the top of the steps. There was also a pagoda that we weren’t allowed to go up. All in all it wasn’t that great of a stop and I would recommend skipping it if you’re doing a day tour of Hue. The final stop of the tour was the tomb of Tu Duc. Emperor Tu Duc enjoyed the longest reign of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, ruling from 1848-83. However, he actually began construction of his tomb in 1860s. There’s a large pond/small lake running through most of the grounds and the buildings actually weren’t that impressive but it was pretty hot out and we didn’t feel too eager to explore every nook and cranny. Interestingly, despite all his planning and the amount of time Tu Duc spent here, he was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Hue. To keep the secret safe the 200 laborers who buried the king were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route. To this day, the real tomb of Tu Duc remains hidden. After the tour, we made it back to the hotel a little after 3pm and showered up. Then we walked around the corner to grab dinner and back to the hotel for the rest of the night.
Day 16 – Hue > Hanoi. Our flight to Hanoi wasn't until the afternoon so we spent the morning packing and enjoying breakfast. I wanted to shop for running shoes since my Skoras were falling apart, so we walked around the different shops along our street but couldn't find one that fit right so back to the hotel to finish packing and freshen up. We grabbed a quick lunch and then headed off to the airport. Our flight arrived in Hanoi around 3:30 PM and we were supposed to be picked up by our hotel but there was no one there. We waited over 2 hours and several phone calls later, we find out that he was waiting at the international terminal but we flew domestic. Luckily he stuck around and we finally made it to the hotel. Apparently we picked the right night to check-in because they were serving a free beer and free spring rolls during happy hour at the hotel so we just ate a bunch of rolls as dinner and washed them down with free beer. After that lovely meal, we went off to bed.
Day 17 – Hanoi > Halong Bay. Hanoi was technically our last stop in Vietnam but for the week we stayed there, we didn’t actually spend much time in the city. For the first 3 days, we booked a tour cruising along Halong Bay and for the rest of the time we’d be staying in the mountain town of Sapa before coming back to Hanoi. On our first morning we had breakfast and then our tour company, V-Spirit, picked us up at 8:30 AM for our Ha Long Bay cruise. It took over 5 hours to reach Ha Long Bay but we arrived around lunch time and they told us they would be serving us lunch soon. The boat itself was about the size of the riverboats along the Mississippi River in St. Louis. It was two stories and had a total of about 8 rooms for the guests. We checked into our room which was actually more spacious than I thought it would be but still pretty small. After we put our things down, the boat started moving and we were seated for a brief orientation and a 5 course lunch.
The food was delicious but the company at our table was a bit awkward. We sat next to a German couple that didn't seem to want to socialize with anyone at the table and a single Viet guy that was equally awkward to talk to. After lunch, we were free to relax before our first stop at the Sung Sot Cave. It was a bit chilly out and very cloudy but the area was still very beautiful. The Sung Sot Cave was very impressive and large, the pictures don’t do it justice. We spent over an hour in there with a butt load of other tourists but it was still fun and the lines of people moved pretty quickly.
We got back on the boat and sailed to our next spot, Titov Island. Here, we climbed about 300 steps to the top of a hill on the island where a lot of postcard pictures of Ha Long Bay are taken. The view was truly breathtaking and would have been even more grand if the sky was clearer. After we took our share of pictures and headed back down the hill, we still had plenty of time to chill on the beach so we took a few beach pictures too. The water was extremely cold so we didn't stay in too long. Later, we got back on the boat to freshen up. They served fruits and tea while we sailed to our resting spot for the night. They served dinner at 7:00 PM and it was another 5 course meal. It was delicious and there was plenty to go around. We actually tried getting different seats for dinner but they wouldn’t let us switch so we had another awkward meal. After dinner we went out to the balcony to enjoy the night. The tour also had some fishing poles out for squid fishing but we didn’t catch anything. It was pretty cool to see all the boats on the bay and some starts started making their way out from the clouds. We enjoyed the view for a bit and then went to our room for the rest of the night.
Day 18 – Halong Bay. One of the things I was excited about this tour was the free Tai Chi classes they offered each morning. Unfortunately, they started at 6:00 AM but I woke up early to try out it out. Tai Chi is sort of a moving meditation and I had never done it before so a lot of the class was me staring at the instructor and it wasn’t quite as relaxing as I had hoped. I’m sure with more practice it would be better. We had breakfast at 7am and then they whisked us away on a smaller boat at 9 AM for our day out on the bay. On today’s tour, we went to a remote cove where we were able to kayak. However, the weather didn’t really cooperate. It was cold and raining so we didn't spend long on the kayaks but it would have been really nice if the weather would have been better. The islands along Halong Bay really reminded of the islands outside of Phuket, Thailand and El Nido in the Philippines, gorgeous green rocky islands popping up from clear blue water. We joined the group lesson on net fishing an old school Vietnamese way where they put the net out and then make a lot of noise by banging oars against the boat to scare the fish into the net, but we didn't catch any fish.
Next, we had lunch and met some cool Americans from Maine. The cooks also made us a cute little swan out of radish for our honeymoon celebration. We sailed past the Cua Van fishing village and had a chance to take a nap and sip on some Viet coffee for a while. Then we stopped at a pearl farm where we learned how they cultivate pearls and make them so perfectly round and pretty. It was raining most of the day so we went back to the boat to freshen up. The crew served fruits and hot tea and also had happy hour so we bought a few beers to enjoy. Then dinner at 7:30pm. There was a new set of tourists on board but the same German couple remained and we had to sit with them because we were the only ones that had the 3D/2N package. Everyone else had the 2D/1N package, lucky us. We ate another awkward meal and went outside to try squid fishing before retiring to our rooms for the night.
Day 19 – Halong Bay > Sapa. The next morning, after breakfast there was an opportunity to kayak again but it was cold and raining again so we stayed in our rooms to pack and relax. Around 10:30 AM, there was a fruit carving demonstration and then we got to make our own springs rolls followed by an early lunch and we got back to the docks just before noon. We got off the boat and waited for our ride back to Hanoi. It was a very long wait for our bus and then a tiresome 5 hours back to the city. We were dropped off a few streets away from our hotel accidently but finally made it there to repack our bags and then off to the train station at 9 PM for our overnight train to Sapa. The train ride was bumpy but we had free tea, water, and a light snack.
Day 20 – Sapa. We arrived in Lao Cai train station a little after 5 AM and were picked up for our 1 hour bus ride into Sapa. We were dropped off at the Sapa Romance Hotel where we were given a free buffet breakfast that was actually not bad. They also offered rooms for us to shower but we didn't need it. Sapa is a quiet mountain town in Northern Vietnam near the border of China and has become a popular tourist spot for the hundreds of miles of trekking trails between and around the villages in the area. The trails let you see the beautiful scenery around the mountains of Sapa, including the spectacular terraced rice fields. Sapa also became a popular summer spot for the citizens of Hanoi to escape the heat. Luckily we bought warm waterproof coats in Hoi An because it was cold.
We started our trek around 8am. The town was still covered in mist so we couldn't see much of a view. We made our way down the mountain through town and it started to get muddy. There were a few village ladies following us and they helped hold our hands to walk through the mud. They were freakishly strong and walked the muddy trails with ease unlike us tourists stumbling around. It was getting colder and started raining more so the path got muddier. We walked a total of 12km to get to our homestay in Ta Van. At lunch the ladies walking with us tried selling us things and we wanted to buy something to thank them but they were selling things that were pretty expensive and we had no use for them, so we just gave them a tip. Our guide originally took us to a nice looking homestay but then later switched to a downgraded one and we weren't sure why. They said it was because the other one was dormitory style and we had a private room but the one we stayed at was also dormitory but with a wood plank for a wall. We had a lot of time to relax. Diem ordered some hot wine while I took a nap. We stayed with 2 European guys that were on the trek with us and we had a nice conversation with them. The host served dinner around 7 PM. The food was a variety of traditional local cuisine and pretty much exactly the same dishes that were served at lunch which was fine because there was plenty and it was good enough. After dinner, we ordered some beers and more wine and chatted for a little before bed.
Day 21 – Sapa > Hanoi. We started hiking around 9 AM and didn’t have much to hike today. The guide said there was another, tougher route but with all the rain last night, the trail was dangerous. It was a very leisurely 5k walk that took about 3 hours. We stopped at a waterfall for about 30 minutes and then went to lunch, which was pretty much the end of the tour. At lunch we saw the sun come out and there were really nice views. Too bad it wasn’t like that yesterday, but at least we got to see some sun. We got back to the hotel at 2 PM, showered up, then went shopping for new shoes. I had huge holes in my shoes and the trekking through the mud didn’t help them so I was really in desperate need of some new ones. While I wanted some pure running shoes, we still had 3 more months of travel and a lot more hiking so I settled on some Salomon running shoes that had some more grip. Diem did some good negotiating and we got two pairs of shoes (Salomon and North Face hiking shoes for Diem) for like $20 USD. The shoes are still going strong now that we’re back at home. We had dinner at the hotel at 4:30 PM and then caught the bus for the train station at 5:30 PM. Traffic was pretty bad and we got to the station around 7 PM and had to wait for 9:10 PM overnight train. We were both tired so we fell asleep right away.
Day 22 – Hanoi. The train arrived in Hanoi at 5 AM, then had to wait for a bit to be picked up and taken to the hotel. We paid to check-in early, then had breakfast and made it a rest day. For lunch, we ate at bahn mi stand which was really good. We saw a store next to the hotel that had taxis to the airport for $10 so we booked it. For dinner, we found a little restaurant next to the hotel and called it a night.
Day 23 – Hanoi > KL. Sadly, we were leaving Vietnam. We didn’t get to see much of the city but during our bus rides out of the city we saw that it was gigantic. We took a 6:30 AM taxi to the airport for our flight at 9:20 AM. Our flight arrived at Kuala Lumpur around 1 and it took a while to get through customs and passport control. We had lunch at the airport then took Uber to our hotel. The neighborhood around our place wasn't the greatest but it was the cheapest place close to the airport. In hindsight, we probably should've just stayed at the airport or booked a different flight. We didn't have cash to buy anything and no one accepted credit cards so we eventually had to change $5 usd for myr to buy groceries for dinner. We made dinner and then chilled in our room for the rest of the night.
Vietnam was a really special time for us and one of the places we will definitely return to visit. I didn’t realize just how big the country was and was pleasantly surprised on how cheap and delicious the food was. Next time, I’ll have to practice my Vietnamese so I can keep up with Diem.
See the full gallery of our second week and a half in Vietnam here: Vietnam Part 2.