Category: Vietnam


The Land That Time Forgot

The drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay took nearly four hours along mostly flat terrain dotted with rice paddies and criss-crossed by rivers.  After getting through the outskirts of Hanoi, the road converted to a one-laner, in theory, but in practice it felt like a multi-lane speedway game of chicken, with the numerous minivans hauling tourists to Halong Bay urgently laying on their horns and forcing every vehicle (man and machine-powered) to veer out of the way.  The concept of “passing distance” took on an entirely different meaning and I was thankful that our driver was cautious by Vietnamese standards.  As in Thailand, it was common to see families of four astride mopeds (the younger children often sleeping soundly despite the bleeping horns around them), or three students sharing a single bike.   Most of the children in the several towns we rode through pedaled alongside the busy road, decked out in blue and white track suits, some barely older than Zara.

As we approached the coast, the landscape rose up dramatically and we were provided our first glimpse of the limestone karsts that populate the entire bay.  We had booked a 3-day, 2-night excursion on the Prince III, a four cabin junk operated by Indochina Junk, which would take us to the less populated Bai Tu Long Bay also within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  As we met our guide, Tony, and boarded the Prince III, the clouds hung low and heavy and a cold front from the north had lowered temps dramatically and made the Hanoi heat of two days before a distant memory.  If anything, however, the swirling mist and damp air added to the atmosphere as we soaked in our first impressions of Halong Bay and the striking islands emerging from the sea all around us.

Upon boarding the boat, we found a cozy, wood-paneled cabin, with two large oval shaped windows that offered us an unobstructed view of the bay from our bed.  That first night, as I stared out the window unable to sleep, the dark shadows of the karst towers looked ominously beautiful.  The boat’s deck was furnished with lounge chairs for doing what is best done in Halong Bay–admiring the astonishing landscape in every direction.

After a couple of hours of sailing that first afternoon, we set anchor for the evening and it didn’t take Jonathan long to be the first to suggest jumping into the bay.  Besides 4-5 other tour boats, the only other activity in our section of the bay involved the small fishing boats owned by local fisherman who make their living on these waters.  On the second day, we had the opportunity to visit a local floating fishing village comprised of about 30 families who (until the village’s founding in 1982) had lived on their boats.

The rest of our time, we kayaked the warm waters, swam, ate and ate and ate (as evidenced by the 8-course beach barbecue), toured a cave, played cards on deck and, mostly just sat on deck mesmerized by the beauty surrounding us.

The photos from my IPhone camera don’t do it justice (although they provide compelling evidence to Santa that I could use a DSLR delivered to Yorkshire).  Bai Tu Long Bay truly felt like the land that time forgot and in today’s world, that is an increasingly rare gift.  I think it be the highlight of our journey so far.  Go see it if you get a chance.  You won’t regret it.

Soaking in the view

View from cabin bed

View from cabin bed

Captain Z

Captain Z

About to jump

About to jump

Man overboard

Man overboard

J&Zwithhats
On deck of junk

On deck of junk

Our cabin

Our cabin

The land that time forgot

The land that time forgot

Snuggledincabin

Cave exploring

Cave exploring

Vietnam – Hanoi Enchantment

We’re safely back “home” in Phuket after a magical 5 days in Vietnam.  It was our first time flying on Qatar Airlines and we were very impressed.  They offered a tasty meal on a 1.5 hour flight, USB ports on each seat and a SpongeBob gift pack for Z–only alcohol was conspicuously absent (although I think it was available, just not freely offered).  Warning though to be prepared about queuing protocol (or lack thereof) when flying to Vietnam–we almost got trampled by the mad rush of Vietnamese when they opened the gate, as men and women shoved us out of the way down the gate ramp and the plane aisle.  Once safely seated, I couldn’t stop laughing watching the flight attendants trying to corral the most intransigent of the bunch into their seats (typically, the senior citizens).

Highlights of Hanoi

The trip got off to an inauspicious start when we arrived at Hanoi Moment Hotel in the Old Quarter at 11pm only to have the smiling lobby clerk take our passports, offer us fresh mango juice and then inform us that there had been a double-booking of the family suite. We thought he was joking, especially since Z had already passed out on the lobby sofa from exhaustion.  Fortunately, they had a sister hotel a few short blocks away that had an available family suite and he escorted us there personally via cab.  Within 10 minutes, we were checked into a tidy room (complete with rose petals sprinkled on the bed comforters) at the Hanoi Moment II (quite creative with the names, huh?).

Lobby lounge at check-in after late flight

Old Quarter

Our hotel was  conveniently located in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which dates back to the 11th Century, when it was originally comprised of 36 streets that housed the various guilds.  Even today, the narrow, winding streets are identified by the wares they peddle (e.g., silk road, household goods road, Christmas decorations–Z’s favorite).   Hoan Kiem Lake lies adjacent to the Old Quarter and after arming ourselves with local SIMs, we headed over to Heritage House Cafe overlooking the lake to enjoy some top-notch Vietnamese coffee.  Getting there was a thrill in itself.  We quickly realized that waiting for a break in the constant crush of mopeds, bikes and cars would get us nowhere.  The roads converge at odd angles without stop signs or lights to govern traffic and with no apparent rules governing right of way.  Thus, the best strategy was to step into the road and walk purposefully across as traffic weaved and dodged around us and the continual cacophony of horns almost began to resemble an excited conversation.  Everywhere people are seated street side on preschool-sized plastic blue and red chairs or stools devouring  bowls of pho, grilled fish, veggies, grilled meats…  Women with conical woven bamboo hats walk up and down streets carrying veggies and fruits balanced like a weighing scale.  We all immediately fall in love with the energy of this city with its skinny French colonial buildings colorfully painted like SF’s Victorians, the vibrant street life centered around food, the constant bustle and the regular smiles and waves offered to Z from the people we walk by.

Streets of Old Quarter

Streets of Old Quarter

Heritage House drinks

Cyclo Ride –  A must through the Old Quarter and Z’s highlight of the day.  After checking various websites for tips on what was a reasonable rate (they start aggressively high), we negotiated with two drivers for a one hour cyclo ride around the lake, past the opera house and through the Old Quarter.   Zara excitedly oohed and ahhed the entire ride, while I tried not to focus on the lack of barrier and/or seat belt between us and the various vehicles in every shape and size barreling towards us.

Bamboo hat!

Bamboo hat!

Cyclo ride

Cyclo ride

Water Puppet Show – After a light snack and refreshing drinks at a lakeside restaurant, we headed to the water puppet show at the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre near the lake (but not before again fortifying ourselves with more of the excellent Vietnamese coffee).  The water puppet tradition originated in N. Vietnam in the 11th century and the puppets are operated in waist-deep water by hidden puppeteers.  The show was  comprised of interesting vignettes from Vietnamese folklore set against a backdrop of live music on original Vietnamese instruments.  The show was short enough to hold Zara’s attention and also interesting for the grown-ups!

Water Puppet Show

Thanksgiving Dinner – After the show we strolled up lake and headed to pre-Thanksgiving cocktails at the Bamboo Bar in the Metropole Hotel, which offered a welcome break from the heat and noise outside.  Although all of us were fading from the heat and sightseeing, we couldn’t skip a Thanksgiving meal so we headed to the highly recommended Indian restaurant, Namaste, for the least traditional Thanskgiving meal of my life, but one especially imbued with the spirit of thanks for the wonderful experiences we are blessed with this year.

Temple of Literature – Day 2 took us to the Temple of Literature- one of world’s oldest universities founded circa AD 1000.  The grounds are beautiful and filled with groups of young men and women celebrating their own graduations.

Temple of Literature

Shopping/Dinner – We later head back to the Old Quarter for a tasty lunch at 69 Restaurant on Ma May Street.  Z and I heed the siren call of Silk Road after lunch, while Jonathan begs off shopping for his cheaper vice of coffee.   Afterwards, Z successfully lobbies for another cyclo ride back to the hotel and I’m amused by how our driver is the fastest cyclo on the road since this ride is paid by distance rather than time.   Late afternoon Jonathan convinces us to hire a taxi for a drive around 18km long West lake so that we can get a better sense of some other Hanoi neighborhoods–was a lovely tour but one during which our daughter found herself incapable of being quiet for even 30 seconds.  Dinner that evening found us back in the heart of the Old Quarter where we splurge on a delicious French-influenced meal at Green Tangerine, housed on a colonial home.  Z had the pleasure of writing a little essay during dinner about how it is never appropriate to spit out food in a restaurant, while I thoroughly enjoyed a couple of glasses of some much-missed Syrah.

Silk Dress

Hoan Kiem Lake

Example of French colonial architecture

 

Bamboo hat!

Bamboo hat!

Halong Bay — Amazing experience!  Blog post coming soon!

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