The Story

Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam Oct 5 -12







      7 DAYS

off road



Unexpected destination 

In order to extend our Chinese visa, we plan a short trip to Vietnam. When we arrive in HaNoi it’s love at first sight. The city is hot, dirty, loud and charming. Imagine 8 million people living in tiny old colonial style houses and 6 million motorbikes crowding the roads. They eat, live and move right in front of you. 

You become part of the incessant motion as soon as you set foot on the ground, unless you sit in one of the thousands coffee shop observing it. On weekends, kids all ages talk to foreigners to improve their English, street vendors try to rip off tourists and we become millionaires when we withdraw Vietnamese Dong at the ATM (VND 2,000,000 equals CAD $112). 

In the evening, we watch the passenger train to Sapa traversing the city while sipping a rice wine cocktail. Visiting Vietnam is a wonderful break from our bike touring in China. History is present everywhere, buildings and temples tell stories even though old and decrepit.

After visiting Hanoi, we book a cruise, yes, you hear well, for three days to Ha Long Bay. It’s a tiny ship with only 14 guests, and both of us enjoy being spoiled by eating delicious food and drinking cocktails. We kayak, visit grottoes and bike a bit too. The bay and its 300 limestone islands are enchanting, and the other guests on the ship are lovely. Going back to China will be hard.

I finish the story sipping a Vietnamese cold coffee with condensed milk with my now habitual observations and favourite gear.

 What I like in Vietnam:

  • People 

  • Street food 

  • Police flirting with young women in streets 

  • Military museum’s art

  • Offerings to the gods include beer

  • Beautiful places & nature 

  • Binh, our guide at Vega Travel

  • Kayaking & swimming in the warm South Chinese Sea

  • Pringles, Oreo and Ritz crackers can be found everywhere 

My favourite gear:

  • my Keen sandals - I even kept them on swimming 

  • my Arc’teryx shorts and Salawe t-shirt - washed in the evening they were dry in the morning

  • my black Icebreaker underwear - I wore them as bikini for swimming 

I missed not having a nice dress for the evening, and I’m a bit tired of wearing always the same clothes.

 In conclusion, we have to come back. Six days in Vietnam is way too short. I feel the country and it’s people are ‘vrai’ like my son would say, and there is much more to explore. I also learned a new lesson: I will not cut my hair myself anymore, it was a disaster before and worse after.


Surrounded by a full laundry load drying on whatever could be used to hang it, our chengdu hotel room looks like a luxury refugee camp. The 14 million people city has not shown that much of appealing that we are already working on figure out the itinerary on our way South.

Google earth is a great tool to have an idea of the scenery and photos posted by visitors help, sometimes, when they actually show something at the right location. We want to be and go everywhere. Obviously choices need to be done. One sure is clear the remaining days allowed on our 2 month visa won’t be enough. In order to extend it for another 2 months we need to cross the border and come back. 

2 fingers used to zoom out on the google earth screen and we need to pick a destination. Close, no time difference, cheap and with some interest. Good weather would be a bonus.

Quickly, Hanoi and the famous Ha Long Bay appear to be an evident choice. 

Larry from Natooke, a bike company based in Beijing and Chengdu, contacted few days before will tune up our bikes while we will take some “ vacations” in an exotic destination. 

With only a very light backpack we jumped in a plane for a 2 hours flight. Right away we felt somewhere else. Not only because of the 32c and 100%humidity but because we are surrounded by huge smiles and by people not surprised to see Caucasian’s. Feel strange to be “incognito”.

The Chinese driving is .... “Interesting”....the Hanoi driving is...”very interesting”. 

We made it alive to the Paradise Boutique hotel, right in the old quarter of Hanoi. We try to stay on the cheap mode. It is cheap and clean. After all, we use the room only to sleep, life is outside. But when we step out of the bus and walk down the street to the hotel we become concerned about how quiet the hotel room will be. Streets are narrow, yet,  Vietnamese are experts in the art to pack a maximum of pedestrians, scooters, cars, rickshaws, on ...the street. It can not be on the sidewalks as the sidewalks are used to park the 6 million scooters and if spaces are available, little plastic chairs are welcoming people to get together, share a home made coffee, a dinner or just to socialize. 

Moving in the street in Hanoi is like breaking a trail through a mass of many things and people. No rules, no traffic lights, no traffic rage....it works. We just need to move with the flow...if we hesitate or show some doubt about our chance to survive the junction, our action has implications hundreds meters away from us. Everything become chaos just because we do not trust the action.

Hanoi is charming....sexy. We love it.

Among the endless list of travel companies, we pick the one who offers tours for small groups. Vietnam is Asia and often in Asia the reality is very different than what has been detailed in the travel agency leaflet. Always excellent reasons given for any modification to the program but annoying as it is never an upgrade.

This time we have been really lucky. Vega Travel Hanoi has small boats with all comfort for maximum 16 people. 

Ha Long Bay is big but welcome 7millions visitors each year. We are off season and we managed to sign for a 2nights/3days trip leaving the very next morning. Perfect!

In the bus that will bring our group of 14 people ( 7 couples) we have a nice and fun introduction done by Binh, our excellent and funny guide. One night on the boat, one night in Cat Ba island, visits of caves, hikes, kayak, swim in the very warm Chinese sea. 

Average age around 35-40, sorry we screwed up that average by being definitely the oldest. Most of our companions are avid travellers, some on the road for few weeks, few months so all of us on the same travel mode.

After 2 hours we embarked on the wood boat. It feels like we are in the Agatha Christie novel. Murder on the Nile. The boat can not be better described.

The experience has been far above the best expectations. Sometimes documentaries, books, promotional and marketing propaganda give a false idea and the reality can be disappointing. The 3 days discovery have been the opposite. 

Photo 6 With the help of a great guide, a perfect organization that managed to keep us away from the crowd at all time, to be at the right place at the right time for sunset, sunrise, .... and the presence of really nice 12 other people it has been a real treat.

Ha Long Bay and Hanoi now behind, these 7 days gave us a taste of too little even the city of Hanoi. Which means a lot as I am not a fan of cities. There will be , for sure, another time in Vietnam. Photo 7

For now, with our new 2 month visa for China, and rejuvenated bikes, it is time to leave sea level and move on further south before heading West. Our Himalayan circumnavigation is back in action.


VietnamZenija Esmits