After just one night in Hanoi we were already on the move. Because we had a time limit of two weeks this was a common occurrence, staying a maximum of two nights in one place to try and fit in as much as possible.
So getting up early after the heavy night before, we piled our way onto a small coach on route to Cat Ba Island. We soon discovered that you could get wifi literally anywhere in Vietnam, and it was fast.
If I had brought my laptop with me I could have easily traded every day. Though, with WiFi even available on the coach, I'm not sure how much trading I would have managed given that our coach driver thought streaming old episodes of Britain’s Got Talent was suitable entertainment while we circled Hanoi picking people up.
Once we had got out of Hanoi, the journey took two hours...then half an hour on a ferry...then another hour by bus to the small town of Cat Ba. Travelling through Vietnam, you get used to the long traveling times, so much so that by the end a five-hour bus ride feels a breeze.
We chose to stay on Cat Ba, an island just below the famous Halong Bay, because we were told it was a lot less touristy than Halong Bay itself. Which turned out to be a good call; the town had a certain charm to it, and although there were tourists, it didn't feel like it was overrun by them.
Along with several tourist attractions, national parks and viewpoints, the main draw to Cat Ba was the easy access to Halong Bay, with boat tours leaving the dock every morning. After we had raced around the island to these sites by moped we booked on a tour for a few hundred thousand Dong.
It took us around the bay, stopped so we could kayak to some lagoons, (which were only accessible by kayaking through caves), and after a lunch with freshly caught fish, we anchored in the water so we could go snorkelling (couldn't see anything) as well as jumping and diving off the boat.
It then took us to Monkey Island, which I thought was a bit poorly named. There was only around four of them, and each of them noticeably obese. For an island named after monkeys, you would expect more than a handful of overweight monkeys. Nevertheless, the hike up to the view point was good fun and provided stunning views across the bay.
It's worth saying here that if this route was back in the UK, it would surely have been fenced off, have huge warning signs of people falling off cliffs, and no entry written everywhere. Not for the first time, Vietnamese health and safety showed itself to be a lot more lax compared to home.
After a few fun nights meeting other travellers in the bar, it was on the move again. This time a five hour bus ride to Ninh Binh, a small city to the South of Hanoi.
Ninh Binh turned out to a fantastic stop over. We grabbed a few mopeds and shot out of our urban surroundings into the beautiful countryside.
Whilst whizzing through the countryside (no idea at what speed given every speedometer we had was broken), it wasn't uncommon to have to swerve around some sort of livestock, dogs and people. It was like the road was just an extension of the locals' backyards. One time on a bus journey, the bus came to a shuddering halt because a dog chilling in the middle of the road. After no amount of beeping or revving got him to move, the bus slowly navigated itself around the dog and the houses on the side of the street.
It was early afternoon so we were heading towards Bich Dong Pagoda, a small temple in the countryside hills. The scenery on the way was stunning; large open fields with those famous steep rocks jutting out of the ground. We arrived and, like most places we discovered, you had to pay to park your mopeds. Fortunately it was only 10,000 Dong (open your charts to the GBP/VND, you'll see it's about 30p).
Just be careful not to hand over a 100,000. For some reason, they made the note a very similar colour and sometimes on worn out notes its hard at a glance to see the dot depicting whether it is a 10,000 or 100,000. Fortunately I didn't make this mistake in my time in Vietnam (that I know of) but I heard many a story amongst travellers who had mistakenly handed over a 100 instead of a 10.
The temple at Bich Dong and the surrounding area made for a peaceful setting to do some exploring, and once it started to get dark we headed back to the city. Returning to our hotel, we saw a girl laid up on a sofa covered in blood and bandages down one side of her body.
It was an all-too-common sight among the travelling contingent here in Vietnam, the country proving to be a tricky baptism of fire for first-time moped riders. There was no such sign of any similar injuries on the locals though, who clearly had driving among controlled chaos down to a tee.
The next day saw us come across probably one of the most beautiful parts of the country that we visited. Once again jumping on the mopeds and navigating our way out of the city, we headed towards Tam Coc.
Tam Coc was a touristy destination where you could take a boat tour down the rivers. Instead, we made our way to Bich Dong, where a smaller, less busy place just down the road provided a peaceful trip down the river. The women who took us rowed the little boat with their feet, a feat even more impressive given the searing heat.
The sun and humidity made the next part of the day seem like we had stumbled into a steam room fully clothed. After the boat ride, we made our way down country lanes, cutting through the jagged landscape, towards Hang Mua. Hang Mua was a view point just outside Ninh Binh which isn't to be missed.
Granted, the 500 steep steps to the top resulted in the steam room like feeling, but it was well worth the effort. The views from the top were stunning and you could really see how the dramatic rock formations scalped the landscape that we had been racing though all day.
That evening, we had our first overnight bus lined up, or sleeper buses as they’re called. With a nine-hour journey to our next destination of Phong Nha, I was thankful for the reclined beds stacked on top of each other, in what looked like a moving hotel room.
Stay tuned for Part 3 - Phong Nha & Hue