Happy Honeymoon trip to us! Yes, it’s been over a year since Jay and I have been married, but we had yet to take a trip just for us, and Vietnam was the place. We love Vietnamese food (even had our reception at a Vietnamese restaurant!), and I heard the north was the place to be for nature and sights.

Ninh Binh

We had arranged a driver through our homestay in Trang An to pick us up from the Hanoi airport, and received a message through WhatsApp confirming that he was there. At first, I was a little confused, as I thought we had requested a bus, and he came in a sedan. Ah, we got lucky with a private car! I thought. Driving towards the city was eye-opening. I had heard of the infamous traffic with scooters going every which way and traffic lights merely being a suggestion, but witnessing it firsthand was something else.

In the middle of Hanoi, we pulled over, and the driver instructed us to board the limo bus. Interesting... but it seemed like the right one, so that’s what we did. The bus took us a couple hours to Ninh Binh before stopping in a dirt lot, where multiple cars and drivers were waiting. We split again.

During this time, the back of my American mind was tingling with the thoughts of, “Is this how we die? Are we getting kidnapped? How much are organs going for nowadays?” but we went ahead anyway. Fortunately, there was another passenger in the car who spoke a little bit of English and helped translate our destination to the third driver. In the end, it was fine! We were fine – A little razzled that we had to put so much faith in people in a country where we haven’t been to and don’t know the language, but clearly, we survived.

Unfortunately, we didn’t do as much as I had hoped in Trang An as we were fighting off a cold and spent much of our time sleeping so that the rest of our trip wouldn’t be a waste. However, we enjoyed our cute homestay, where the host even picked off fresh starfruit from their tree for me. For dinner, we had lemongrass chili goat, which was a bit tough (but so flavorful!) and an amazing chicken fried rice (the wok hei!!). Breakfast was some simple rice rolls, chicken pho, and coffee.

We borrowed a couple of bikes from our homestay and rode to the boat stop in Trang An. There was already quite a crowd, but the line moved fairly quickly. Each of the 3 tours cost the same, share some stops like the temples, and are roughly about 2-3 hours long. We picked Route 3, which includes the Dot Cave (the longest cave in the area). Beautiful limestone rocks tower the landscape and can be seen everywhere in the area, but the boat tours really give you a closer look at the scenery. It’s no wonder that they call this area “Ha Long Bay on land.”

Cat Ba

Another 4 hour bus ride later, we were in Cat Ba, which is pretty much Ha Long Bay but less touristy, or so we’re told. We had some pretty mediocre food and weak massages but also some decent coconut ice cream, banh mi, and THE BEST FRIED DUCK WINGS I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. They were roasted, then fried, with a salty spice mix (including some cinnamon?). We were absolutely blown away by this succulent, finger-licking dish.

Another day, another boat tour. We opted for a 1 day cruise via Cat Ba Ventures; frankly, because we don’t really consider ourselves “cruise” people, and taking a tour is really the only way to go out into the bay. Much of the scenery looks pretty similar, but I could not stop taking photos. It was too damn beautiful! Limestone rocks really are everywhere, but I didn’t get tired of the dreamy karst landscapes.

We visited a floating fishing village, swam by a secluded beach, and kayaked in the rain. Our guide, Jack, mentioned that COVID changed quite a few things in the area, including the fact that there are now a lot fewer boats allowed in the bay (a huge plus in my book).

Lunch on the boat was very homey, and there was more than enough food for everyone – I was impressed by how much they were able to cook in such a tiny kitchen! At the end of the cruise, the winds started picking up, and I was very thankful that we made it to land before anyone puked. Thanks to Jack and the captain for getting us through safely.

With many of our previous trips, I would pack our itinerary to maximize our time and cross off a bunch of things on our “to see” and “to eat” lists. This time was different as we intentionally created a very loose itinerary to have a more relaxed time on vacation. It definitely sucked to be sick while exploring part of Vietnam, but at least we weren’t missing out on too much. Plus, it’ll give us a reason to visit again!