We visited the Surprise Cave in Ha Long Bay and then our cruise returned us to Hanoi. From there we visited the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, the pleasant Temple of Literature, ate two dinners and then caught the sleeper train to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa.
It was very hard waking up at 6am today but we had to get ready for tai chi on the boat’s roof deck. We got there a few minutes late, Amandine and Laurent were already there.
The weather was still foggy but the scenery was beautiful nonetheless.
After tai chi we had a quick breakfast in the restaurant with just toast & jam, milk & cereal, yogurt and some pastries.
Then it was time to go for our visit of the Surprise Cave with our guide Tung. Our guide made dirty jokes but also managed to give some interesting explanations during our tour of this massive cave with three separate chambers.
The tour guide made us guess what this cave feature looks like. He finally answered it’s a cannon. He pointed to the trajectory of the cannon and in fact there was a hole in the ceiling that looked like cannon marks. Coincidence?
The cave is a popular stop for many tourist cruises and we felt rushed along its winding paths.
We left the cave and enjoyed a view of the spectacular karsts from shore.
After our visit of the wonderful cave we came back to the boat to check out of our rooms and have brunch. Once again, Maurice and I got special vegetarian dishes prepared specifically for us. Desserts were very good too with fruits, opera cakes and mango mousse that tasted like mango lassi.
We got back to the pier where we started less than 24 hours ago. We are going to miss Ha Long Bay.
We jumped in the shuttle for the four hour return trip to Hanoi. Again Laurent sat in the front while the rest of us stayed in a row. We stopped once at a souvenir shop just like on the way in yesterday.
When we arrived in Hanoi we asked the driver to drop us directly at the Hoa Lo Prison, which he did. Hoa Lo is ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots who were imprisoned there during the Vietnam War. We went through the prison. The prison was established by the French while they were ruling over Vietnam. It is small but has a lot of Vietnamese Communist propaganda that was funny at first but eventually became a little annoying. The museum was made up of several rooms dedicated to different periods of history. In the first building, we learned about the horrible ways Vietnamese prisoners were treated by the French guards from the early 1900s to Vietnam’s independence (a few of them eventually managed to escape the prison via a sewage entrance) whereas in the second one we were relieved to learn that the American POWs (including senator John McCain) were pampered by their Vietnamese captors. They played sports, learned about Vietnamese culture and even celebrated Christmas in Hoa Lo Prison. Obviously it’s all propaganda and after fact checking on Wikipedia we had a very different version.
Maurice took this candid photo of Amandine, Laurent and I planning the next steps of our day in Hanoi.
We left the museum to walk to the Temple of Literature. It was supposed to only take 17 minutes of walking according to Google Maps but due to the horrible sidewalks and crazy traffic it took us much longer, about 45 minutes. On our way there, a female street vendor literally blocked Amandine against the wall with her basket of bananas. It was super unexpected but also kind of funny. The woman let Amandine go with a smile but it made us think about how on average street vendors were a lot less pushy than we had anticipated, this one being an obvious outlier. We purchased tickets and entered via the beautiful gardens.
We all loved this temple. We explored the outside and inside of the temple. We saw a handful of couples taking engagement pictures there. There are stone turtles holding stone slabs all over the complex. The slabs contain the names of all those individuals who successfully passed the royal exams. We could see why this was a popular temple for students preparing for finals.
We were able to take another one of our “walking through the columns of a temple” videos. This is the third one after Mandalay’s and Vientiane’s and as usual you should make sure to watch until the end.
At first there were a lot of people at the temple (in particular big Asian tour groups) but towards the end of our visit we were almost alone, making it easy to take very nice pictures without strangers.
We left the temple a few minutes after the official closing time (I was actually the last person to exit the complex) and walked towards Lenin Park which was very close. At the foot of the unimpressive statue, guys were playing soccer or skateboarding. Next to them some girls were practicing dance moves of famous K pop songs. We were happy to see that between Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam has a strong youth culture.
For us, having skipped lunch, it was time to head for dinner. Laurent picked Bun Bo Nam Bo as he really wanted to try bun, a Vietnamese dish that consists of vermicelli rice soup usually paired with beef. The restaurant had a good mix of locals and foreigners so we figured it would be an authentic experience without exposing ourselves to the risk of getting food poisoning.
We all liked the food but decided that it would not be enough to keep us from getting hungry later at night when we travel by sleeper train to the Sapa region. Next we hunted for a banh mi place in the same neighborhood. We found Banh Mee. We ordered one sandwich each and they were good but not as good as My Banh Mi in Saigon (which Maurice and I went to three times).
At last we were full enough to go back to our hotel and repack. The hotel’s staff was still very nice despite us not being customers anymore. We were able to change and pack our daypacks for our trip to Sapa. We left the hotel after giving a generous tip to the staff.
We walked through town to the railway station. Once we got there, Amandine and Laurent purchased their own return ticket and we boarded the sleeper train. We loved sharing a cabin the four of us. Slumber party!
We chatted for a while before agreeing to go to bed around 11 PM, pretty tired from a very active day. The ride was a lot bumpier than our previous sleeper train between Hue and Hanoi so it took us some time to fall asleep.