The realisation that the Mekong River and the Cu Chi tunnels weren’t in Hanoi only came to me after we had booked and paid for our plane tickets. I was a little bummed about that, but Hanoi offered something equally meaningful instead.
Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Coron lookalike, is a mere three-hour bus ride from Hanoi. Sweet.
Pretty, ain’t it? I’ve never been to Coron, so I was really looking forward to this bit of the trip.
Since we didn’t have a lot of time in Vietnam, we just booked a one-day Ha Long Bay tour with The Sinh Tourist (formerly known as Sinh Cafe) since it’s touted as one of the best travel agencies in the country. I paid online via credit card and once the transaction was verified by Visa, the company sent us an email saying we had to confirm our booking at their office half an hour before the tour. We spent 600,000 VND (a little over Php1,250) per person.
Our friends and people on online travel forums warned us that there are many fake Sinh Tourist agencies in Hanoi. We confirmed this when we walked along Luong Ngoc Quyen Street looking for the agency we had a booking with. The branding was similar (blue and white colours, the fonts), and they all called themselves “The Sinh Tourist, formerly known as Sinh Cafe” – every one of them. It was peculiar. A lot of foreign tourists complain of being scammed by the fake ones. Pink receipts instead of the real white ones, long-haul buses without toilets, rude tour personnel, unexplained charges.
I wondered why the government hasn’t cracked down on the fake Sinh Tourist agencies. I didn’t dig deep, but some say Hanoi’s local government doesn’t register trade names for businesses that started in Ho Chi Minh. And I guess Sinh Cafe / Sinh Tourist started in Ho Chi Minh, if that’s the case. I don’t know if that’s the real reason why the fake Sinh Tourist agencies are still around, but if you’re considering a tour, the legit Sinh Tourist in Hanoi has two offices at 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street (+84.24.39261568), the branch we went to, and the other in 64 Tran Nhat Duat Street (+84.24.39290394). Their email address is email@example.com. They reply quickly. They also operate as a money changer, and their rates were better compared to hotels and the airport.
Our day started at 8:20am when we were picked up at our hotel. This service is free and must be arranged prior to the tour. Our bus passed through the French Quarter, where we saw the Hanoi Opera House, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, and a glimpse of Hoan Kiem Lake. From then on, it was straight to Ha Long Bay!
But hold up. I need to pee, guys.
I had been on enough tours to know we were going to stop at a place that sold expensive souvenirs. Most of the stuff on sale (bookmarks, prints, table runners) were made by handicapped people who were working by the entrance.
When we came out of the other side of the shop, an eerie garden full of sculptures was waiting for us. Apparently these are also on sale and can be shipped anywhere in the world. If you buy one, they’ll display your picture on a board somewhere in the garden.
Naturally I fell asleep on the bus along the way, but I stayed awake long enough to note that we passed through fields and factories where textiles, garments, footwear, and electronics—Vietnam’s main exports—are produced. We were coursing through the arteries that feed big cities like Hanoi and the whole of Vietnam.
After an hour and some change, we arrived at a wharf where all the boats were docked. Ang lamig. Buti na lang hindi kami nag-shorts.
The tour included lunch on the boat as we made our way through the bay. The experience reminded me of the Loboc River floating restaurants. The food was good! Fresh. Drinks were waaay overpriced, but I could really get used to dining on boats.
Just when lunch ended, we arrived at a part of Ha Long Bay where people could kayak and roam around the water.
I can’t remember the exact amount to go kayaking and or the assisted boat ride, but each activity shouldn’t cost over Php200 for a 30-minute ride.
Since it was cold and we didn’t want to get wet, we just stayed on the boat and claimed the top deck for ourselves.
Once everyone was back onboard, we set off towards Thien Cung Cave, also known as Heaven’s Grotto.
I read somewhere online that there weren’t as many of those iconic junk boats with the orange sails around, and yeah, there weren’t. Another bummer.
But Ha Long Bay still held its beauty despite the fog and absence of bright colours.
And by beauty, I mean us. Loljk.
To get to Thien Cung, our boat had to drop us off at a man-made dock. Since I’m not a very good photographer or blogger, I don’t have any pictures of that, but basically it’s just where you buy tickets and climb a stretch of stairs to get to the mouth of the cave. Our tour guide warned us that if we weren’t joining the cave group, we should stay on the boat because the boat would leave aforementioned dock and wait for us at another side of the island. It was cave or bust at that point.
After a climb that will made my lungs hate me for a minute, I saw this:
Brilliant stalactites and stalagmites.
A pretty impressive show of nature.
Thien Cung Cave is probably one of the cleanest caves I’ve ever seen. It was well-lighted. There’s a well-constructed path for visitors. It was cool, literally and figuratively.
I lagged behind our tour guide because I was taking pictures and having a moment basking in the wonders of Mother Earth, so I missed 90% of the tour guide’s spiel. Oops.
And because I’m writing this three months after the trip, I’ve forgotten the 10%, too. Really, such a good blogger!
But I’m happy to report that I only slipped once, and Alexa was the only one who seemed to notice. Because she’s an awesome friend, she waited for me to laugh at myself before laughing at me. Haha.
The end of the cave trail leads to a platform where you can take pictures of the dock. There was also a little shop of souvenirs there. Trinkets mostly.
We got some great footage of Jus for her boyfriend’s band’s video. Haha! #insidejoke
It started to rain again when we boarded the boat. I was really digging the fog.
Although our trip looked gloomy, Ha Long Bay was incredibly cool, and the experience was pretty unique. My expectation of Asian bays and islands is always one that involves the sun and heat, but this time it was about rolling clouds and pleasant chills and the warmth from having good friends to travel with.
On our way back to Hanoi, we passed by another souvenir place similar to the first one we stopped at. I’m not sure if it’s the same one, but the statues took on a different creepiness during a rainy night. These two didn’t want to go all the way back to the garden to humour me.
We got back around 8:30pm, STARVING. For dinner, we were determined to find the pho place Lily the receptionist recommended. It was still raining, and it was a bit of a long walk, but when we got there, oh, Lord, LORD, this bowl of pho is the best one I’ve ever had in my life so far.
A hole in the wall along Bat Dan (49 Bat Dan, to be specific), this pho place is the kind of joint Anthony Bourdain would eat at. A lady at the front was taking orders. Not a lick of English can be found on the menu secured on the wall. All sorts of unidentifiable meat were on display inside a glass shelf. And if you look far back behind the lady, inside a dark, damp, questionably hygienic room, a big vat of broth was boiling religiously, the steam pushing against the rain, telling passersby they were still open in a city that slept unbelievably early.
We all chose the most expensive pho on the menu worth around 50,000 VND. Dang, it was worth every dong. This heavenly bowl of pho warmed us up on our way back to our hotel and fuelled our hopes that the next day, our last day in Vietnam, would offer more surprises and awesome experiences.