Sabbatical Week 3 - Ninh Binh, Hanoi, and Ha Long Bay

Day 16: Van Long Nature Reserve and Bai Dinh Pagoda

On today’s agenda was visiting Van Long, a nature reserve that’s home to a massive variety of wildlife, including the endangered Delacour’s langur, a species of monkey. The langur is critically endangered, with only about 250 left on the planet. A very lucky few tourists get to see them, so we were hoping to be among them but expecting not to be.

We knew it was going to be a hot day, so we got an early start. We woke up at 5:30 am and the driver picked us up at 6 sharp. This put us at Van Long slightly early. We hung out on the hammocks in front of the ticket office until they opened a little after 7. She got tickets and I ordered us some cold coffee from the shop next door. As we left for the dock, the woman at the coffee shop smiled and said, “Good luck monkeys!” We were hopeful.

The dock was a short walk up the road. Our boat driver was so kind and friendly, and the early morning water was placid and peaceful. We saw several species of birds flying by and fishing in the water. As we rounded a corner, about 20 minutes into the ride, our driver pointed at the trees in the distance and whispered, “Monkeys!” They were far enough away that we had trouble spotting them at first, but I gradually noticed movement in the trees. As we got closer, I saw the distinctive black and white fur of the langurs. There were three of them in this spot, playing in the trees. We were completely gobsmacked by how lucky we were to see them.

Shortly thereafter, we saw two more langurs on a cliff. And then another one on a different cliff. We couldn’t believe our luck! The driver also took us into a couple beautiful caves, and we saw a man heading out to fish for the day. It was a wonderful morning. We left a generous tip. We were so grateful for the experience and for his eagle eyes in spotting the monkeys, and we also hoped he would be able to take the rest of the day off; it was supposed to be another scorcher, and being on the boat would mean being exposed to the sun all day.

We spent the rest of the morning touring Bai Dinh Pagoda for four hours. It’s the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. It was a massive place. At the top of the pagoda, there was a pretty incredible view that gave us a sense of the scale of the complex. The mercury cracked 102 degrees while we were here, and we were dragging by the end of it. And then we realized we were super lost. It took us a few attempts to find the exit, and we had to take several shuttles and walk through two different gift shops to finally get there. We spent the rest of the day taking a dip in the hotel pool and soaking in the room’s AC.

Once things cooled off, we grabbed happy hour drinks in town, a short walk from our hotel. On the way, the sun was setting over the rice fields, which made for a beautiful scene. In town, there were several karaoke buses. We were half tempted to stay out late and visit one, but we had another early morning planned to get ahead of the heat.

Day 17

We spent the day exploring Cuc Phuong National Park, which was about an hour and a half drive from Ninh Binh. A few highlights:

  • The Botanical Garden. We saw a massive variety of flora and fauna, including a 1,000 year old tree. There were so many varieties of insect species I’d previously only seen in zoos. Stick insects, wooly caterpillars, massive spiders with claws, giant millipedes.
  • Exploring the Cave of Prehistoric Man. There were human remains and tools here that date back to over 7,000 years ago.
  • The cave was full of bats, and in hindsight we probably shouldn’t have ventured in as far as we did. But nobody got rabies, so all’s well that ends well.
  • The Endangered Primate Rescue Center. We saw several species of monkeys and gibbons, including the Delacour’s langur, which we’d seen in the wild the day before. Given how much Vietnam’s primates have been affected by poaching, it was heartening to see the investment in conservation.
  • The Turtle Conservation Center. We saw several species of turtles. The center is working to breed them and release them back into the wild.
  • There were butterflies everywhere. Butterfly season lasts from April to mid-May, and it was in full swing. It was magical.

In the early afternoon, we caught a small tour bus to Hanoi, arriving around 5 pm. We checked into our hotel, a lovely, fancy place called Scent Premium in the heart of the Old Quarter. We spent some time wandering around the neighborhood. The traffic and crowds were a bit of a sensory overload from the relative quiet of Ninh Binh and Phong Nha where we’d spent the past week. We had dinner at a small restaurant in the Old Quarter, got a beer at Hanoi’s famous Bia Hoi (Beer Street), people-watched for a bit, then wandered back to the hotel. On the way back, I impulse-purchased a goofy banana-print outfit I’d seen several people wearing around Vietnam.

Day 18-21: Ha Long Bay Cruise

We booked a 3-day, 2-night cruise through a company called Dragon Legend. We’d done our homework and chosen that company because the reviews mentioned that their route was off the beaten path, and the boat was smaller than most of the others. This all bore out and we were really happy with our decision! The cruise was a highlight of the trip.

Coincidentally, some of the first people we met were a couple from Portland who had just gotten married in Hawaii and were on their honeymoon. The passengers were mostly couples, but there was one group of friends from Australia and a mom and her son from Florida. Everyone was super friendly and we had a great time getting to know each other over the course of the cruise.

The first day, we took a shuttle from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. We boarded the boat around noon and they had a delicious lunch prepared for us. Naturally, I wore my ridiculous banana-print outfit all day. I wanted to go for maximal tourist aesthetic.

After lunch, they took us on a tour of a floating village, which included a tour of a pearl farm. I found the whole thing pretty fascinating. I couldn’t imagine living a majority of my life on the water with all the logistics involved; to name a few challenges: procuring fresh water, getting food and electricity, dealing with trash, taking care of a family, and so on. Yet, there was an entire thriving ecosystem to support the village. A large boat made the rounds every day with fresh water from the mainland. Some of the houses had solar panels. Others were close enough to the mainland to have electricity from power lines that had been strung underwater (and hopefully well-insulated). A floating market supplied villagers with clothing and other goods.

I didn’t journal very much for the rest of the cruise, as we were busy enjoying the experience, but here are some highlights:

  • We had a beach day on a small karst. It started with a barbequeue lunch cooked fresh on the beach. Afterwards, we had a couple hours to swim. It was a great chance to mingle and talk with the other passengers.
  • We went kayaking, which was pretty magical. Ha Long Bay is stunning and it was nice to be able to explore it at our own pace and see the karsts up close.
  • The food was incredible, at every meal. We got several options to choose from at each meal, and never went wrong.
  • One of the workers performed some traditional Hmong songs for us one night. It was beautiful.
  • We had a cooking class and learned how to make Vietnamese pancakes.
  • Sunsets on the bay were stunning. Every night, we’d gather on the top deck and watch the sun go down with drinks in hand.

Day 21: Cat Ba Island

After getting back to the mainland, we decided to relocate to Cat Ba Island. That had been on our radar as it had been recommended as a place with a bunch of caves and active outdoor activities. The cruise company dropped us off in the Haiphong area. We caught a taxi to the nearest dock that had boats to Cat Ba. Originally, we were going to wait for the ferry, but opted for a speedboat since that would shave off a couple hours of travel time. We shared a boat with this sweet Vietnamese family. The daughter, who was probably 12 years old, had an old-school digital camera and showed me some pictures of her hamster, who she described as “very lazy.” The boat dropped us off at the north end of the island. We shared a 45-minute taxi with the family to Cat Ba Town.

We checked into our hotel, the Quiri, and then wandered around the town for a bit.