Our first stop in northern Vietnam was in Hanoi, the country’s current capital and second largest city after Ho Chi Minh City. For me, the streets of Hanoi were especially memorable, adorned with colourful lanterns and decorative string banners—as if to celebrate a special occasion, which we later learned was indeed the case as Obama was soon visiting.
Much like Ho Chi Minh City, crossing the street in the dense, seemingly unending traffic took some getting used to and involved carefully jaywalking—a habit that I still haven’t shaken since returning to Canada.
Our time in Hanoi featured a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where he is embalmed inside. Unfortunately, sweating profusely from all of the walking, we had arrived too late in the day to visit. (His place of resting is only open before noon.) Devoted guards stand outside the building in blistering heat, enforcing that visitors stay behind a painted line out of respect.
From Hanoi, we embarked on a two-day one-night cruise to explore the karst landscape of Halong Bay. In 1994, it became a World Heritage Site and in decades since, tourism to the bay has grown exponentially. I found the scenery to be remarkably similar to that of Guilin, China.
On our cruise was a Vietnamese woman who had seen the bay 20 years prior and explained that back then fishermen in their boats gave tours. There were no dedicated tour boats back then, but these days during high season upwards of 1,000 tour boats litter the waters—it’s in fact hard to capture a photo without one even in low season. The bay is often so congested that boats will often scrape against one another, requiring the frequent repainting of exteriors.
Our visit to Halong Bay included a trek in Sung Sot Cave, where our tour guide demonstrated a much better sense of imagination than my own, pointing at stalagmites and stalactites and explaining what they resembled.
The cave was followed by a visit to a local pearl farm, where exotic pearls were cultivated in the bay’s waters.
The highlight of our time, however, was the spectacular sunset that day. With the sun making an appearance only a few days each month during the rainy season, we were extremely lucky to have witnessed an unforgettable sunset, a cherry to top off our experience cruising the bay.