Thai Hoa to Ninh Binh to Cat Ba to Hanoi

I’m not sure if it’s actually been a while since my last update, but it feels that way. My sense of time here is pretty shoddy, and the last few days have been especially hectic. In short, we made a mad sprint to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, where I’ve spent most of the last week. Alas, though, I am in Hanoi, my final destination by motorbike. It feels good—but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Ninh Binh is an industrial city in the north, about 100 km south of Hanoi. Were it not for the surrounding landscape there would be nothing special about this place. There’s a national park on the outskirts of town, and the landscape there is often described as “the inland Halong Bay,” in the sense that there are swarms of steep, limestone mountains like those found in Phong Nha, all rising urgently from an otherwise flat earth. It’s a strange and beautiful landscape that seems to define most of northern Vietnam.

We spent two nights in a small backpackers village to the southwest of Ninh Binh called Tam Coc. On the way into town Andre suffered more bike trouble: His ignition coil burnt out, meaning he couldn’t start the engine, so we had to fasten a chain to my bike’s carriage. I towed him a mile through narrow, crowded streets to a mechanic; the whole time he was holding on like a cowboy to his bridle reins. That night we smoked a joint of shitty Vietnamese weed at a small dock and ate knockoff-brand Oreos. The next day we hiked one of the highest limestone peaks in the region and saw some mighty impressive views.

The region around Ninh Binh looks a bit like the Shire.
Ninh Binh
A view from a mountain in Tam Coc
Andre Into the Bush
Andre wanders into the bush (Tam Coc).

We set out to make Cat Ba Island in a single day, but Andre’s bike proved to be an especially cruel mistress. As it would turn out, the burnt ignition coil wasn’t the issue so much as the symptom. The vents in his shitty Chinese engine (which, by the way, adorn most Honda Wins in this country) had gotten clogged. That, coupled with some loose piston rings, allowed excess heat to enter the gear box and overheat the oil and, in turn, torch the ignition coil. Suffice it to say, Andre broke down once again about 30k outside of Ninh Binh, and I had to tow him, once again, stagecoach style, to another mechanic.

This was an all-around shitty experience, and the mechanics we were able to find only made it worse. Apart from being nearly impossible to communicate with, they seemed hardly interested in actually helping us. I think they represented a small sliver of unfriendly people here, but I couldn’t help note a major cultural shift between the south and the north—not merely in terms of friendliness (the south is way friendlier), but also in terms of their willingness to bargain with you. It inspired some words I wrote to a friend, which I’ll copy and paste here:

Vietnam, like any country, is complex, but I think its checkered past only makes it more so. I’ve always found it sort of trite the way people reflexively talk about a country’s population as being “so nice and friendly.” It’s a sweeping statement, and it shortchanges the inevitable disparity that exists between individuals in a society, especially in communal ones like those in Asia. It’s also a bit taboo—or at least politically incorrect—to criticize the culture of a developing nation. That’s why, for example, you’ll never see a lefty travel type bat an eye at the claim that French people are assholes or British people are stingy, even if only half-heartedly. But those same people would never abide the same rebuke against a West African or Southeast Asian nation. They will only say, “the people are so nice!” They find it off-putting to speak disparagingly of, say, the horrifically dangerous way people in Vietnam drive or the way some of them are willing to screw you over if you don’t comply with their little scam. That these experiences are isolated—and not at all characteristic of people as a whole—should go unsaid, but we always find ourselves reminding others, “well, not everyone is like this, but…”

Mountain Goat
A mountain goat in Tam Coc

Still, the claim that “the people are nice” is mostly true—for any given country, because most people are, well, nice. It’s doubly true for developing countries. I think scarcity has a way of reinforcing empathy and moral behavior: Do unto others as you would to them—that Buddhist sentiment, which is common here, of achieving contentment in the absence of material possessions. But, at the same time, I think it’s pretty reductive and nationalistic to generalize an entire people—be it with praise or condemnation. The Vietnamese people, to bring this full circle, are yin and yang. They’re good and bad, friendly and unfriendly, hot and cold, mostly lukewarm—just like Americans or Brits or Aussies. To broadly claim that they’re “all nice people,” I think, does as much of a disservice to the truth as claiming that they’re all “stingy swindlers.”

To give you an example, I met a former Buddhist monk who owns a vegetarian restaurant on Cat Ba island. I heard a story about him from a fellow American traveler, who claimed to have run into money problems after an ATM machine ate his bank card. The monk offered him 100.000 dong, a bed to sleep in, and meals whenever he needed them. He didn’t want any collateral or even a promise to be paid bank—his motive was purely selfless. Very Buddhist. And by the way, 100.000 dong is a lot of money in Vietnam, enough to buy two or three meals—four, if you’re frugal.

So that’s nice—amazing, really—but I’ve also met people who are willing to screw you over and condemn you to walk your motorbike two miles in the rain to another mechanic simply because you don’t want to pay a 200 percent markup (literally) on a replacement ignition coil.

That was the first mechanic we met on the ride from Ninh Binh to Cat Ba. He was a Grade-A prick. But the point is that people are people, and while some cultures may lend themselves to decency or good will more than others—for whatever reasons—there’s nothing about borders that can rewrite our genetic makeup or repurpose our sense of humanity. I guess I’d just like to see travelers speak with greater nuance when referring to entire populations. But, of course, I understand the pressure to be politically correct, too.

Ninh Binh
A view of Ninh Binh

Anyway, we eventually got (another) new ignition coil in Andre’s bike, knowing full well that we had merely spot-treated a deeper, engine-based problem. It quickly became clear that we would not make Cat Ba, so we set our sights on Hai Phong, a major city west of Halong Bay. We had to ride in short spurts at low speeds, periodically pulling over so Andre could douse his overheating engine with water.

We spent the night in Hai Phong, which is actually the fourth largest city in Vietnam, then set out for Cat Ba. Andre was still having trouble with his bike, having it checked by a number of mechanics until one was able to properly diagnose the problem (which I described above). Yuvey and I were sad to leave Andre behind, but he had to completely rebuild his engine, which would delay him another day, so we vowed to meet up again—the three of us—in Cat Ba the following day. And, of course, we did.

By the crow’s flight, the ride to Cat Ba was short, but we had to take two ferries to reach the island, and Vietnam is not known for its efficiency so there was a lot of waiting around. Then, once we reached the island, which is about the size of Nantucket (only very mountainous), we had to ride from the northwest port to the southern most tip, where Cat Ba town is located. This is where the tourists go, and it’s a much cheaper place to book tours through Halong Bay, which is why we came here in the first place.

Cat Ba and Halong Bay in general were great. I really loved this area. It was stunningly beautiful, with its profusion of limestone mountains that form as monolithic islands dotting the entire region. Halong Bay itself contains more than 1600 of them, many of which are no bigger than a city block. Our second full day in Cat Ba we booked a tour that took us through a good chunk of these beasts, kayaking through caves into small alcoves, swimming and jumping off the boat and feasting on local seafood for lunch. (They eat lots of squid in these parts.)

Cat Ba Town
The harbor in Cat Ba Town
Cat Ba Fishing Village
A Cat Ba fishing village

I spent a few more days in Cat Ba. The day after the tour we took a ride to a national park in the center of the island to hike one of the major peaks. From there we caught a pretty stunning glimpse of the island. Imagine the full expanse of Nantucket, only pocked with soaring limestone mountains that peak like gravestones strewn with verdant jungle.

Yuvey, Andre, and I split up the day before I left. Andre had planned to do some overnight camping in Cat Ba, then to head north for the mountains near the Chinese border. Yuvey had a similar plan, only without the camping, so he left a day earlier. What that meant for me was that I would finish my motorbike journey the way I started it: alone.

Top of Cat Ba
The view from the top of a mountain on Cat Ba island
Halong Bay from Cat Ba
Halong Bay from Cat Ba

The ride to Hanoi was nothing special. Yes, the ferry ride from Cat Ba to Halong town was beautiful, as it pierced the most impressive section of Halong Bay. But everything after that was pretty miserable: huge trucks and busses barreling through massive stretches of commercial filth and industrial hubbub. Gross.

That said, the arrival in Hanoi felt triumphant. I did it. I rode a motorbike 1300 miles through Vietnam from Saigon to Hanoi. I did it in roughly a month, and I didn’t get killed in the process. (Half-joking, here. It was pretty treacherous at times.) I also timed it pretty well, as I meet Ross on Saturday.

As for Hanoi, I’ve only seen a small part so far, but I think I already like it more than its companion city in the south, Ho Chi Minh. It’s still very big, but it somehow feels more quaint and charming than Saigon, which often seems like a rancid metropolis—rife with the refuse of 8 million people but without the cultural charm such density should produce.

Anyway, I’m rewarding myself with a hotel room, which I probably would have done anyways because I need a break from hostels. I’ll meet up with Ross on Saturday, then it’s off to Sapa, then to Laos, Thailand, and (hopefully) Cambodia—all within two weeks!

Hope all is well stateside.

Monkey on Monkey Island
A monkey on Monkey Island in Halong Bay. There are lots of monkeys on Monkey Island.
Sunset in Cat Ba
A sunset on Cat Ba Island
Halong Bay
Halong Bay
Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi
Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi
Hanoi Traffic
Hanoi traffic

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