Traveling through Souheast Asia has frequently left me perplexed and confused. I find myself again and again asking, "why?" This was no different when I left Vientiane on another 24 hour journey to Hanoi, Vietnam. The bus itself, was the first of many confusing encounters during the journey. It was a double decker sleeper bus that had seats similar to a regular bus, but were perpetually semi-reclined position with your feet stretched out under the persons chair in front of you. Intersesting enough. But what added to the atmosphere was the neon lights that were flashing throughout the bus, and the thumping house music that our driver was blasting from his cellphone. Fortunately, a few hours into the ride the lights faded and the music disappeared.... only to be exchanged with a few hours of dubbed in Thai Japanese Samari films followed by what I can only imagine was the Thai equivalent of American Idol.
The border we crossed at was in the Mountains and I was surprised at how cool and temperate it was. The scenery for the next few hours before we made it to the bigger cities was some of the most beautiful I'd seen in Southeast Asia so far. Rolling hills collided with lush green rice paddies where Vietnamese labored in their traditional traingular dome hats. Little villages with victorianesque buildinds looked as if they were painted into the landscape in subtle and almost exotic pastels.
The serenity of the sceneray clashed violently with what awaited us all in Hanoi. Before you can even step off the bus you are bombarded with Taxi drivers aggressively offering you the best price to drive you to the city. As in any 24 hour journey, I became best friends with the person sitting next to me and we and his friends managed to negotiate the drivers best price down to one closer to ours before ventured into Hanoi's Old Quarter. The city was more alive and choatic than any I'd seen on my journey. Colors, and the constant flow of people, cars, and tuk-tuks flood the street at an overwhelming pace. The night was young, but the trip had been long so after booking ourselves into the hostel for the night we simply grabbed a bite to eat (I had my first authentic Pho which I was so pleased to try!), walked around the lake, and fell sound asleep.
The next morning I woke up early to wait for my sister who was flying in to meet me. We headed to the bus station and bought a trip ticket to Halong Bay. While we were waiting I found a stall selling fruit. We bought a few local kinds including persimmons which I was pleased to share with my sister as they reminded me of Tel Aviv. When we bit into them, our mouths instantly turned numb and a digusting coating covered our theeth and tongues. I later found out that persimmons are not immediately edible but must first either be soaked in water for 24 hours or in a tank of CO2 before that disgusting taste retreats. The things you learn!
After our unsavory fruit snack, Kristin and I began the bus, bus, boat, bus trip to Cat Ba Island, an area I'd heard shined in comparison to the hell hole that was supposed to be Halong City. If Cat Ba island is a glowing paradise in comparison, then I cannot even imagine the terribleness that is Halong City. Cat Ba itself was a disappointment, nearly empty of tourists (which in some cases is not such a good thing), but full of the aggressive Vietnamese vendors. The city is plopped right on a harbor, but somehow manages to destory much of the beauty cities on bays often have.
The highlight certainly came in the tour we booked for our second day. We went out with a local company from the Island that took you on a boat through the bay. Along the way were hundreds of little floating houses. I was told Cat Ba itself was populated by 8,000 people, and these floating villages had an additional 4,000. It was amazing to see people living, bathing, and working on these small floating shacks.
The next morning we caught the bus, boat, bus, bus back to Hanoi where my sister and I parted ways once more. As she took off for Bangkok, I wandered through the busy streets until it was time to catch the night train to Sapa, in the north of Vietnam.