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Solo Motorbiking Vietnam, Part 1: Landed in Hanoi, off to Ha Long Bay

I'll give a TL;DR of all my sections in a form of a starterpack.

Day 1: Landed In Hanoi!

Coming off the long, sleepless 15 hour flight from Zurich (with a stop in Bangkok), I was jet-lagged and ready to go to the hostel to get some sleep.

I had no real plans in Hanoi; again, I knew that I wanted to get to Ho Chi Minh City by motorbike (2400 kms/1500 miles away!) with a deadline in Early August (about 45 days) until I had to be back. I also knew how to get from the airport to the city and some rough ideas of what to do in different places from a friend, but other than that, nothing. This lack of planning would turn out to be one of the reasons why the trip would turn out as great as it did.

My complete plans, all on two pages :joy:

I got out of the airport and on the bus to the city as fast as I could, as I heard that backpackers are the prime target for SIM card and taxi scams at the airport. And I was pressured into both of them! I said no thank you as I made my way to the bus. I wasn’t so used to people being so pushy; I would have to learn to get used to it.

I step off the bus. Oh. My. Gosh. This place is like nothing that I’ve seen before! So many motorcycles! Carrying so many boxes! Going the wrong way down the road! This is no Switzerland; the drivers aren’t stopping at the crosswalks!

This would be the first of many times that I'd see people regularly going the wrong way down the street.

I had to carefully weave my way through everybody to get to the hostel; I read online before coming that walking confidently through the barrage was the only way to dream about getting to where you want to go. With all of my luggage, I made the first step on the street, and slowly but steadily, I trod forward, looking at oncoming traffic; everybody starts going around me! I managed to cross the street, and after a few more times doing this, I feel like a natural.

I managed to get to the hotel, jet-lagged and drenched in sweat. It was at this point that I realized how much the 36C (97F) heat and humidity was getting to me. Never before in my life have I sweat this much, and it would certainly not be the last time during this trip. At least the hotel had very nice AC, so it was here that I could take a nice long nap to recover.

I wake up, and after getting ready, this is when it hits me that I have nothing to do. Where was I supposed to go? Luckily, I had some tips from a friend back home, one of which was Ha Long Bay. I went to the hostel staff and went and asked about it, more specifically if I could stay overnight for one night on the boat. I heard that doing it all in one day is a bit too much, since you have to drive there and back, leaving you with barely any time there!

Ha Long Bay is an area in northern Vietnam known for its beautiful natural formations. Limestone rocks jut out of the bay, providing a unique landscape. It is a very popular tourist destination, as well as a UNESCO World Heratige Site.

The limestones coming out of the water are like nothing I've seen before! Source: Wikipedia

While asking about booking options, there was a group of travellers in the lobby talking to each other about a Ha Giang Motorcycle Loop.

Since I was looking for things to do, I went to them and asked their opinions. They told me how awesome it was and how it was the highlight of their entire trip (they were there for over 3 weeks!). Seeing as I had time, and that I should probably get some practice riding in a group before doing literally the whole country solo (I did not know what I was getting into at this point!), I booked a 3 night, 4 day tour (along with the Ha Long Bay tour), opting to rent my motorbike after getting back from the two tours.

I spent the rest of the day walking around the old town, seeing the delicious looking fruits that the merchants were selling at the market, drinking water, finding a place to get a SIM card, drinking even more water, seeing the beautiful lake in town, and finally finishing the rest of my water bottle. Wow, I did not expect it to be this hot! I didn’t manage to stay up too long before the jet-lag and heat forced me to go back and have an early night.

The night provided a bit of relief from the sweltering heat.
  • Recommendations from today: I had a great introduction to Vietnam in Tabalo Hostel.

Day 2: Spending the night in Ha Long Bay

I woke up early and got on the minibus to Ha Long Bay. There, I was greeted with the tour operator, who told us how Ha Long Bay used to be a small fishing village before it got popular, and how it means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese. He mentioned a lot of other cool facts about the bay. It was very nice to have a professional tell us about the bay (because otherwise I would just be looking at rocks).

We made it to the boat, four hours later, and we got to our rooms. There were only 5 of us on the boat. This really was not a lot, considering that the boat had room for 20. I heard that before COVID, these tours would be booked out for a long time in advance, so I was lucky to get such an empty boat!

Small and cozy.

After unpacking, we met again in the dining room and we went through the plans today. The main things on today’s agenda were swimming and kayaking. Awesome, I thought, I haven’t been in warm water in forever!

We boated through beautiful limestone rocks jutting out of the water. This was actually really marvelous, as I never saw anything like this before. However, as we got to the swimming point, this awe turned to disappointment.

Rocks! No seriously, I was still amazed to see something like this in real life.

First of all, there was one designated place in the whole bay to go swimming. The bay is huge, but unfortunately they shuttle everybody into this one beach due to strict regulations after several incidents where tourists died 10 years ago. Also, it was tiny. Meaning that if there were a lot of tourists, it will be crowded. Really crowded! And could you guess how many people came?

Is there anywhere left to swim?

The kayaking was not the best either. Again, it was in a small designated place, and while the views were absolutely stunning, it just felt really touristy due to all the people that were around.

I finished off the night with a good dinner. Afterwards, I sang karaoke with two others from the boat. I did not sing in a while, and my voice probably didn’t sound the best that night, but it was still fun. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay up too long, as we had to wake up bright and early at 7 to see a cave named Suprise Cave.

There was a party boat blasting music all through the night. I wonder if they woke up as early as we did?

Day 3: Caves, relaxing, then back to Hanoi

We woke up promptly at 7 to have breakfast and to get to the cave. When we arrived, there was nobody there, but maybe 2 minutes after we got on shore, it was immediately packed with tourists. In general, I felt that the whole bay has too many tourists, and they should be stricter with how many people they let in.

Were the caves meant to handle so many people?

We went in the cave, and it was immediately cool and refreshing inside. I was very impressed at how large it was; you couldn’t see anything from the outside!

It's huge!

The tour operator also pointed me to a particularly phallic rock, which he talked about for about two minutes.

I wonder if this was man-made, it doesn't look natural to me!

This was pretty much the end of the tour here. We relaxed for a while on the boat afterwards, got on the bus, and started on the journey back to Hanoi.

How did I like it in Ha Long Bay? I would say it was average. I really enjoyed the beautiful sights, and I actually didn’t mind the overcrowded beach and the sub-par kayaking too much. However, this was the first thing that I did after coming to Vietnam, and I expected to do something more active, and so the lack of activity (relaxing on the boat a bunch, being in large crowds) kind of dissapointed me. Luckily, I would be riding a motorbike for the next part, Ha Giang, so I was expecting it to be fun.

I made it back to back to the same hostel I left. I didn’t have much time here, since I had a bus to make in about 4 hours to Ha Giang, so I spent some time calling friends and family back home, and I got food with some friends I met here. I had to eat quickly, since I had to leave that night. Another man came like yesterday, who called to me and took me on the night bus. I had no clue what to expect, but I was going to be taken for a wild ride.