Hanoi & Bai Tu Bay
The other amusing thing about pub street is when the Police decide to flex their muscles and bring their van down the small lane. This means all tables and chairs have to be cleared off the street and all food and drink items need to be inside a restaurant, this can be quite a problem if you are halfway through a large meal or if the restaurant doesn’t have an inside space! It generally happens a couple of times a night and although they don’t bring the van down at the weekend they still patrol on foot and only allow a couple of neat tables and stools out in the walkway.
The train tracks in parts of Hanoi carve straight through the busy streets and it’s not uncommon for houses or cafes to be right next to the tracks. The local residents use the tracks as a driveway for their bikes when going home or to have their small ceremonial fires - a Taoist memorial tradition.
The food has been great through most of our Vietnam trip but a special mention needs to go the Vietnamese BBQ that we had whilst here. We went to a placed called 'Bo Nurong Xuan Xuan' which is located near pub street but loads of restaurants offer it and I'm sure it's the same everywhere.
You perch on your little plastic stool with a large cooking stove / burner in front of you and on top is an iron skillet covered in tin foil. You then have a massive plate of meat and veg which you proceed to cook as fast or slow as you want to eat it.
You can get Banh Mi rolls to help mop up the juices or make sandwiches and every so often as the foil gets a bit to mucky they will come and change it for you. It's best to cook in batches and completely remove it once cooked as trying to keep track of half cooked or freshly added raw meat when it's time to change the foil is impossible. It was delicious and we could have sat there drinking cheap bottles of beer and ordering extra plates for or BBQ all night but we were stuffed after 1 large plate.
One of the things I really wanted to do whilst this end of Vietnam was visit Halong Bay, or the quieter Bai Tu bay, with all the hundreds of limestone karsts that jut out of the sea. We’d already looked and tentatively booked a 3 day, 2 night cruise with Indochina, which looked amazing but was a lot of money and we were beginning to wonder if it was worth it.
You could drive yourself insane looking up researching and comparing the cruises in this area, and most of them offer the same itineraries with the same style of cabin and the same food and drink offers but finally, after nearly going insane, we decided to go with Swan Cruises. They went to the preferred Bai Tu area but had slightly smaller live aboard boats (only 9 cabins), plus we could have a private balcony and all for a slightly cheaper price.
The price of $480 for 2 nights is still crazy expensive but it did include pickup / drop off in Hanoi, all meals, some water, private a/c room with balcony and all ‘activities’ whilst on board.
The water is by no means pristine, you can see crisp packets, bottles and larger nondescript items floating past you and it’s hard when looking out not to be able to see at least one bit of trash at any point, but the beauty of these karsts aren’t diminished by it. Another thing you notice in the water are a lot of these long tentacled jellyfish and we were warned that although not deadly they are very painful. Which is just what you want to hear before you head off for a swim!
Around 4pm we headed off in the little boat to a kayak station, we’d never kayaked before but were thinking how hard could it really be? Famous last words as it was now up to poor Daisy to try and control our group of 7 kayaks and direct us in the same direction towards the beach. We managed to get there by taking the most zigzagged route possible and realised it was a lot harder than we’d thought it would be. The water was so warm that although I’d said I wouldn’t swim because of the pollution and jellyfish we’d passed, we both ended up taking a small dip before wimping out on kayaking back and getting the boat to take us directly back to our big boat.
The boat then drifts further in and out of the limestone rocks before you are summoned to dinner – which is another 7 course meal! One of the courses for this dinner is their signature steamed prawns which they cook in front of you in rice wine and serve with a special dipping sauce.
Obviously, you can’t be expected to shell your own prawns, apply the right amount of sauce and feed yourselves, so this is done for you! A waiter in food prep plastic gloves comes to your table, deftly shells a large prawn before dipping it in the lime, salt and pepper sauce then hand feeds everyone at the table in turn.
If you try to take it or guide it into your own mouth he takes it back until you learn to just sit there waiting for him to feed you. It was the weirdest thing. We were all so bemused and freaked out by this we forgot to get any pictures of this madness. It was really, really tasty though.
After the meal Daisy does a few games where you can win free beer or you can try your hand at squid fishing. As we didn’t fancy doing any games we thought we’d try squid fishing, which just entailed holding a bamboo line with hook and lure over the edge of the boat and jiggling it.
Unsurprisingly and probably fortunately we didn’t get any interest from any squid but I did offend a large fish who decided to nibble the line and consequently sent the hook and lure sinking to the bottom of the sea. Probably for the best as I’m not sure I’d have wanted to snag anything anyway.
As we’d dropped anchor for the night and the only thing to see once the sun goes down is all the other twinkling lights from other boats, we retired to our cabin to read and chat before drifting off to sleep.
There is no way I can find him and as Paul is somehow managing to sleep through his repetitive song, the only thing to do is lie there for the next hour until he finally gives up calling his mates and goes quiet. By now it’s beginning to get light and I can hear the boat crew starting to wake up. It’s supposed to be Tai Chi on the upper deck at 6:15 am but as I can now also hear the wind and rain lashing down outside I’m quite happy to be snuggled in bed.
At 8am you are called for breakfast which was half buffet style with free flow bacon, pancakes, toast and fruit with a chef on hand to cook eggs any way you would like. I can’t believe I’d read some comments on trip advisor saying the cruise food was rubbish and they were always hungry, I’ve never eaten so much!
The day boat that you go on for the 2nd day is a large boat that would normally take about 48 people but on this occasion there was only 6 of us on it and as we went away from all other boats and into the quiet waters and islands, the only way to describe it was magical. We sailed around the islands and went on an hour long kayak to a deserted cave, visited sheltered beaches, had another huge lunch, went to a floating fishing village and even stopped at an oyster pearl farm before meeting up with the main boat again about 3pm.
Another free lemonade and nibbles on the top deck, followed by 7 dishes and we were set for bed.
I wish I’d got up for Tai Chi the next morning as apparently, they saw monkeys on one of the islands but after being woken by Cedric the Cicada again in the night I slept through til 7am.
The morning activities on the last day are pretty much food related as you have breakfast at 8am, then pack and check out of your cabin (this gives the staff time to clean and change bedding before we get back to the harbour), then it’s cooking demo where you make fresh spring rolls then another 5+ dishes for lunch! It’s a shame that you are back at the ugly harbour by the time lunch is served but I understand why because the new customers will be on board within a couple of hours and everything needs re-stocking and cleaning.
Link to Hanoi Photos
Link to Bai Tu Bay Photos
Link to Bai Tu Bay Video