I never thought jet lag was good for anything until I found myself wide awake at 5:30 in the morning on our second day in Vietnam. Melody and I had to board a van heading to Halong Bay at dawn, and soon we found ourselves with a group of travelers on the highway headed to the countryside. (I should mention that “highway” is a loose term here — semi-trailer trucks compete for space with crammed bicycles and even occasional livestock.)
The four hour journey took us through the northeastern tip of the country, a landscape dotted with intermittent rice paddies and real estate construction.
Once we arrived in Halong Bay, our group boarded our junk, the style of ship most common to Halong Bay and much of Southeast Asia. The Halong Bay I’d seen in postcards and movies was foggy and overcast, but not today. The sun shone brightly, and we retreated inside our junk for lunch.
Our communal lunch included shrimp-in-shell, cucumber salad, fried spring rolls, water spinach stir-fried with garlic, tofu and squid stir-fry, and mounds of steamed rice. It was all delicious but the water spinach and spring rolls were my favorite.
Halong Bay has over 2,000 limestone islets, and the narrow maze of rock formations seemed endless as our junk navigated the calm waters. Many of these islands are hollow, with enormous caves inside. We stopped at one to explore Tien Cung grotto, hiking through thick forest to enter the cave.
It was hot and humid inside the caves, and I was happy for some respite (and drinking water) by the time we re-boarded our junk.
Around dusk, our junk returned to Halong City and our van picked us up to return to Hanoi. In Hanoi, we grabbed dinner at Oc Vi Saigon, a packed neighborhood restaurant specializing in shellfish. We pointed at what looked good, took our seats, and a few minutes later, were served a plate of fried noodles and grilled squid.
The noodles were too sweet for my taste but the squid was fresh, charred just right, and faintly aromatic of basil.
We were exhausted after our long day at sea, but luckily for us, our hotel was just down the street. Too tired to explore the neighborhood, we fell asleep watching Korean dramas in our hotel room, with plans to explore more of Hanoi the next day.