Three weeks into my trip I was lucky enough to reach northern Vietnam at the same time that Jeonghee had a few days of vacation, so we headed to Cat Ba Island, which borders on Ha Long Bay, one of the recently anointed Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
The four and a half hour bus and boat journey from Hanoi was beautiful, with the first views of the limestone karst mountain landscape and the ride along the Cat Ba coastline the absolutely gorgeous highlights. That afternoon we hiked up to the Canon Fort, with its interesting wartime cannon emplacements and sweeping views of the town, sandy beaches, and green karst islands in Lan Ha Bay below.
The second day we took a boat trip out into Lan Ha Bay and then onward into Ha Long, which is incredibly beautiful and impressive in how massive of a stretch it is, as compared to the smaller karst bays we saw in Thailand. However, that also works against it a bit, as after three hours your eyes are searching for more than oddly shaped rocks and calm water. Honestly, Iguazu is the only of the 7 Natural Wonders that I’ve seen that fully lives up to the title, but Ha Long is well worth the visit nonetheless.
We tried several activities on the tour, from kayaking around a few bays and islands to going on a cave tour, that was cool up to the point where the treacherous slickness and barely big enough to squeeze through passages sporadically lit by the guide started to wear on us. The lunch of fresh fish, fried seaweed, ever-present spring rolls, and oil-drenched squid salad was delicious, but the highlight of it all was swimming on a small sandbar lapped and nearly covered by gentle waves.
The green, warm water was world-class, which we also enjoyed the next day at Cat Co 1 beach, which rivaled Thailand for water and sand quality and sported an idyllic location, although Railay still reins supreme in the views department.
The trip back to Hanoi that night was interesting- that same beautiful boat and bus ride back but this time through and beside a silver, glistening sea with the red setting sun overhead.
However, when we reached the mainland, the bus just… stopped. We waited around for half an hour or so before the bus agent flagged down a cab and put us and another tourist couple in it. The ride back gave us quite the experience. In Vietnam, the left lane is the fast lane and instead of passing, you tailgate and honk until the slower vehicle moves over and lets you pass. The driver gave us some strange pear-like fruit with a gingery spice to it and played us a poorly dubbed Vietnamese Bruce Lee lullaby on his rearview mirror… which of course had a DVD player screen in it. It was magical…