Vietnam takes backpacking to a whole new level; it is literally a country that has mastered mass tourism thru solo-backpackers, and with visa free offers to 24 countries and a visa on arrival for some 46 countries means its accessible to travellers from all corners of the world. The price of things also makes it accessible for the poorest of tourists – a hostel costs €2 a night, and a meal with a drink, about the same. If you’ve got a more expandable budget, splurge on a $3 pedicure or a $5 massage, and you’ve still got leftover money to go on a pub crawl for $1 beers and free vodka or whiskey during happy hour.
I was feeling spendy and tried all sorts of more inexpensive things. I ate Pho from the popular chain Pho 10, with lean beef and lots of red chilli. I tried the Vang Ðo da lat wine, a locally made red wine which wasn´t terrible. I enjoyed egg coffee, an espresso shaken with condensed milk and egg white to create a sweet, frothy top. I tried some kinds of local vodkas and rice wines, which were hard to swallow, but they weren´t expensive and you definitely got what you paid for.
Hanoi was a charming city, built on one-tenth of the space a similar city with as many people and shops would take in North America. The narrowest buildings and tiniest spaces were built up for something, and the skinny streets had to fit buses, cars, scooters and pedestrians, because all of the sidewalks were parked up with scooters and motorbikes so tightly you couldn´t even squeeze past them.
I was surprised to see a few pet dogs, mostly tiny purse dogs but also some larger, long haired ones. They were all on leashes, and I didn´t see a single street dog, so I wonder where the dogs without leashes end up. I didn´t think about it too much but avoided unrecognizable meat, especially in soups.
The main destination wasn´t Hanoi, but Halong Bay. I spent 3 days, 2 nights, cruising around the limestone islands, mountains seemingly floating on the blue-green water. It was probably closer to a shade of brown-green, but it was cloudy most of the time and dozens and dozens of other leisure boats congested the bay so it was hard to be sure.
We, along with every other boat, visited some caves, hiked to some viewpoints, and watched monkeys steal whatever edible treats you would offer at Monkey Island. I was relieved to get to Cat Ba island, where the national park there actually offered some solitude in nature. It was the first time I hiked without someone directly infront and behind me, and reaching the peak made the fittest of fit break a sweat. Our guide made some excuse why he couldn´t hike with us, but ensured “Everything I do, I do it for you.” Tourism is the main industry on Cat Ba island, but he explained that Vietnamese believe in destiny, so they really don’t care too much about anything. But, when it´s time to get married, the engaged couple has to see a fortune teller to help them pick their wedding date, since that ‘lucky day’ can’t be left to fate.
Staying in the pleasant little town of Cat Ba was relaxing, and with a bit of rain came more quiet. I made friends with a French Canadian acro-yogi and a couple of professional photographers living in New Mexico, so I didn´t spend much time alone, but it was a relief to be away from the hordes of Chinese boat tourists.
Leaving Hanoi, I nearly missed my flight because of an accident on the bus route to the airport, but just made it in time to check-in. Going thru security and boarding my plane to Luang Prabang, I had to smile at all the sun-kissed tourists boarding the same flight – everyone was carrying their must-have tourist item, a Vietnamese rice hat, and it brought me back to Fall 2006 when I was last in Vietnam on Semester at Sea and literally 500 college students had done the same.