If ever a capital city didn't feel like a capital city, it's Hanoi. The bus journey from Hoi An took about 16 hours but it was a sleeper bus so was basically a dormitory of bunk beds on wheels, pretty comfortable (despite the sub-zero temperatures of the air con) and I slept all the way.
Hanoi is a busy, cramped place where one street is hard to differentiate from another due to the old, run down nature of the buildings. It's a pretty big city too being divided (as most Vietnamese cities are) into districts - or Quarters as they're known here. I was staying in whats known as the 'Old Quarter' - it's the backpacking area in the middle of the city - but I think there was definitely more to explore. I say that because I only actually spent one full day in Hanoi because of how comparatively pushed for time I am in the North. Even so, I wouldn't say I fell in love with Hanoi, maybe if i'd spent a few more days exploring my opinion would have changed, but as it was I didnt feel there was much more to see. There was a good energy about Hanoi with lots of travellers and street side 'Bia Hoi' bars (serving 4,000 Dng beer - that's about 15p!) so it was a great city for meeting people. I was staying at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel where even though the dorm rooms were as much as single rooms elsewhere, you were really paying for the atmosphere and ease of meeting folks.
Anyway, so after one day I booked (through the hostel) to go on a 3 days/2 nights trip to Ha Long Bay, 3 hours West on the coast - was apparently in that Top Gear special. We spent the first day and night on a really nice boat cruising between the 2000 islands of the bay and also did some canoeing through some of the bays caves. There was about 24 of us and everyone got on well, we were somewhere between being a crazy 'jumping off the boat' party crowd and chilled out 'I wanna relax' crowd which everyone decided was a good thing. I was one of 2 people who spent the night sleeping on deck (even though the cabins were really nice) under the full moon and stars, surrounded by the silhouettes of pointy peninsulas because it seemed silly not to considering the location. The 5am sunrise got a thumbs up.
On the second day we went to an island called Cat Ba where we did a small trek up to a seriously rickety view point over the jungle, an easy task if not for the 37 degree heat and lack of shade. It was also not the best trek (if you can call it that) because half the climb was concrete stairs and the amount of people + the lack of any wildlife made it feel like a tourist trap. The view, not to sound dismissive, was one I felt I'd seen many times before, but I dont think they ever really get boring. The rest of the day was free time to either relax, chillout on the beach (with a million Vietnamese people) or to explore the island by bike. In the evening everyone rendezvoused for dinner and before sitting curbside at a few local bars. Was an ok day but a good night :)
The 3rd day was spent back on the boat travelling back to Ha Long City before getting the bus back to Hanoi which wasn't exactly activity overload, but cruising on the boat was always the best bit anyway. The only downside to a trip like this was how organised and planned everything was, sometimes feeling like a lazy package holiday which is something im totally not used to. Luckily the people I met made up for it so it turned out to be a pretty good trip, Ha Long Bay is indeed a very nice place. You should go.
So this is where i've been up until yesterday when I got a night bus North-West to Sa Pa (where I write this) right in the heart of the mountains. I dont have much to say about it yet except it seems really nice. It's a hub of minority villages so everywhere are colourful outfits and happy people, but it's also mixed with a good percentage of travellers and bars. Tomorrow 2 of the people I met on the Ha Long Bay trip are coming here so we're going to explore the mountains and villages on motorbikes for a few days.
Da Lat, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay & Sa Pa. Yes. X