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Monday, March 29, 2010

Ha'Long Bay day 3; Hanoi and return home

Our final morning in Ha'Long Bay started with touring The Surprise Cave. We forgot to being the camera, so no photos. This is the largest known cave in the islands of Ha'Long Bay. The park service has built stone steps and stone pathways throughout the cave. You are not allowed to step off the paths. The park service has done a good job of accommodating lots of tourists through this cave while preventing the normal resulting damage of so many visitors.

There are 137 stone steps up to the entrance to Surprise Cave. Then way more than that going up and down within the cave itself. And, of course, what goes up must come down. So by the end of the cave tour our legs were letting us know it was time to stop. This is a very large cave. But nothing truly impressive about it. It didn't compare with the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves in New Zealand.

Took a few photos on our last night aboard. The dining room was transformed for each meal with different chair coverings and tablecloths, etc. Each evening large gold bows were tied over white chair coverings. We had selected a window table for 2 during the first lunch aboard and had kept that table for the entire 3 days aboard the ship. The last night was clearer and made for romantic dinner ambiance.


While we guests were preparing to depart, the ship took on new fuel and water. These tour boats have created an entire services business, thus bringing about creation of trickle-down jobs to many people. The water boat tied up right outside our room. I opened the curtains so we could watch the proceedings while packing our bags for the trip back to Hanoi. The man on the water boat used a hand-crank to start the pump. The fuel for this pump was held in a plastic 2-liter Pepsi bottle with a hose stuffed into it. Look on the right side of the 2 tires in the photo at right. Work with what you have.

After the cave tour workout, it was time for breakfast. Then pay our bill for the boat charges while motoring through the very long channel back to the main harbor of Ha'Long Bay. This time we arrived at a higher stage of the tide and were able to dock at the facitilies for Indochina Sails rather than have to go to those steep stone steps at the main tourist point. Soon our bus arrived to transport back to Hanoi.

We returned to the Duc Thai Hotel on Hang Ga street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi for our final night in Vietnam. The Old Quarter has so many streets that sound and look the same. Hang Gai, Hang Ga, Hang Bo, Hang Boa -- you get the idea. One more Pho dinner in Hanoi but this time we went to a less expensive place and the Pho was more like a soup as is common in most parts of Vietnam. The Hanoi traditional Pho is far superior to the common soup Pho. Now that we had experienced both, I think it was worth the higher price for the real thing.

During the long ride to the airport the next morning we were passed repeatedly by police escorts and convoys of black cars with ASEAN license plates. The police used loud speakers to tell cars and motorcycles to clear the inner lane as they approached at rapid speed. This is the first time we have seen cars moving fast since we arrived in Vietnam. And, man, did the traffic clear for them to pass! Officials are obeyed instantly here.

I later looked up ASEAN and learned that ASEAN+3 is a group of SE Asian countries plus China, Korea and Japan. ASEAN+3 loans funds at low interest rates to SE Asian countries needing short term loans not exceeding 720 days. Sort of like an IMF for SE Asia. All the cars being escorted by the police were empty except for drivers. Guess they were headed to the airport to pick up a delegation of ASEAN representatives from the various countries for a meeting in Hanoi. About half of the cars in these convoys were black Camrys; the others half were Mercedes C class. In Ho Chi Minh City all the Mercedes were S class. Another example of the nation's capital not being as prosperous as old Saigon.

The flight from Hanoi to Singapore was calm and taking the subway and bus back to Malaysia was simple, even with our backpacks and rolling duffel bag. Back at the marina we found the boat to be covered in black carbon residue again. Must have rained a lot while we were gone. Bill has already talked with the marina staff and scheduled them to wash and wax the boat again. Looks like we will have them doing that task monthly.

We are glad to be home on the boat again. Two weeks seems to be the right amount of vacation time for us. Don't know how other people enjoy month-long tours.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ha'Long Bay day 2

Each morning there was a tai chi class on the upper deck at 0700. I loved doing tai chi when we lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1994; but knew better than to attempt this class. The master instructor had wonderful balance. I could just see me attempting to stand on one leg while holding the other leg up backwards up over my shoulder and bending forward 90 degrees at the waist. The class participants probably thought they were doing something similar to the instructor but it was a laugh watching them from the sidelines. I did not embarrass any of them by recording video of these classes. After tai chi breakfast was served buffet style. Western style foods were offered as well as traditional Vietnamese rice noodles with broth and usual leafy accompaniments and a variety of fruits and yogurt. Something for any taste.

After breakfast we motored to another beautiful spot for kayaking. Sorry, I have no idea of the names of the various locations or islands that we visited. The islands of Ha'Long Bay are so numerous and so similar that it is impossible to know where you are. Electronic charts would be a godsend. There are legends of how people could get lost in these islands or hide from authorities and never be found. Also stories of how people would get lost in the maze and die of thirst when they could not find a way out.

Kayaking was fun. Started out fine but soon Bill was critiquing my paddling. He should know better than that by now. So I sat in the forward Princess Seat and held my paddle out of the water until he wore himself out and decided it would be a good idea if I started paddling again without comments. We did not bring a waterproof camera on this trip, so have no photos of the kayaking trip. But the scenes were fabulous.

The tour director led us through several bays and even through a low 'cave' where there was barely sufficient water depth for a kayak to float. After an hour or so my knees and hips were hurting so much that we thought it best to return to the mother ship. Supposedly there were foothold places in the kayak, but I never found them. Bill found the rear footholds and was lounging back comfortably. But my legs were forced straight forward and could allow no bending and with my back straight up. Try sitting in a 90-degree position with any relief movement for a solid hour, not to mention the slight body twisting motion of paddling. This began to hurt terribly and I knew that if we didn't get back soon that I would have a terrible time getting out of that darn kayak. As soon as we left the group and paddled back to the mother ship, another couple of kayaks followed in our wake. Guess no one wanted to be the first one to give up. Heck, I'm not proud. Didn't mind being the first quitter. Glad I was able to do this at all.

We went up on the sun deck and enjoyed great bloody mary drinks and visited with the guests who had stayed aboard and watched the remaining kayakers as they paddled to a nearby beach before returning to the ship. This day was much less gray and dreary than the previous day; still not sunny, but a vast improvement. The views were simply spectacular in every direction.

Next was a 7-course lunch. Wow; does this company feed their guests well!

After lunch we motored to another location and visited a cave. Don't remember the name of this particular cave. Bill was too cold and opted to stay on the junk. It really was cold on the tender, but once ashore and out of the wind the temperature was comfortable. We walked up a lot of steps to the entrance to the cave. The cave entrance is the dark area in front of the boy wearing the dark jacket. Not exactly made for tall people! The first cavern room was relatively small and somewhat meandering. The cave path led upwards. I could see that the ceiling was very low ahead and would require 'duckwalking' to get through. I inquired and learned that this low section was only about 25 feet long and then it opened up into a large room. Uh, excuse me. I had asked about low ceilings inside the cave before we left the mother ship (guide info warned of this) and was told that ceiling height was all okay for normal height people.

Sorry, but I am not duckwalking 25 feet; 3 or 4 feet maybe, but not a length of 25 feet. My bad knees would never allow that. During the time we have been cruising I have injured both knees and neither will ever be normal again. The stress of walking in that position would hurt too much and cause weeks or months of recuperation. So I balked and told them I refused to go any further and would backtrack to the entrance and meet the group when they finished the rest of the cave. Another woman joined me. Her husband continued on with the group. Later he said we had made the right decision because not only did you have to duckwalk 25 feet to get into the second cave room, you also had to duckwalk 25 feet on the other side to get out of that room. And then you had to climb up a very steep rock wall pulling yourself up with a rope. Glad to missed out on that fun. Besides, we've seen a lot of caves and I figured there was no way this cave would compare to the Waitomo Glow Worm caves in New Zealand; so it wasn't a big loss.

Back to the junk and another couple hours of motoring to the anchorage for the night. It was dark when we arrived at the anchorage. It wasn't until the next morning that we realized we were back at the first place we had stopped.....at the 427 step observation place with the beach. That evening up on the top deck I counted 34 junks anchored nearby....and that was only within one bay. There were at least another dozen anchored on the other side of one of the islands.

After another great buffet dinner the movie entertainment for the evening was "Indochine" with Catherine Deneuve. We had not brought any books to read and the only other entertainment was to play board games, so we opted to watch the movie since it was too cold to stay on the upper deck and visit with other guests and the main saloon was being used for the movie. The movie for the first evening showed how the USA screwed Vietnam and the movie for the second evening showed how the French screwed Vietnam. Not sure which country was worse. video video

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ha'Long Bay

Ha'Long Bay is breathtakingly beautiful even on a dreary day as it was on our arrival. Filled with hundreds of tiny to small sized islands that raise straight up from the sea. The Vietnamese legends state that these islands were caused by a dragon spitting out towards the sea to deter attacking Chinese ships many centuries ago. The resulting islands were so numerous and so confusing that the Chinese ships could not penetrate the islands to arrive at the coast of mainland Vietnam.

Ha'Long Bay opens to the Gulf of Tonkin. This is very, very close to the border between China and Vietnam. The water is fairly shallow in the islands of Ha'Long Bay. Many places are less than one meter deep during mean low tide. It appeared that most of the area is now designated as a national park.

As I stated in a previous posting, we had booked a 3 day cruise with http://www.indochinasails.com/en/our-junks.html The small bus arrived at our hotel right on schedule at 0745 Thursday morning. We made the rounds of several other hotels in the Old Quarter of Hanoi picking up additional guests and soon were out of the city for the 3+ hour drive to Ha'Long Bay. There was a short stop half-way at a facitlity selling marble statues of varying sizes and all sorts of art works and goods manufactured by disabled persons. It appeared that there was housing on site for the disabled people. Probably the main reason we stopped there is that it appeared the bus drivers are provided with a free meal in exchange for bringing tourists to the shops. We weren't interested in purchasing any marble statues, but there were postings on the wall showing many large statues shipped to destinations all over the world.

The small bus arrived at Ha'Long Bay slightly before noon --- and right at low tide. The tide was so low that we were unable to board the tender at the normal Indochina Sails location, and had to go down to the large crowed main tourist debarkation point where there were steep stone steps down to the exposed sand where we boarded the barge-like tender.

There were literally hundreds of junks of all sizes in this huge bay. This is quite a tourist operation! We had no idea there were so many junks operating for tourist cruises. Some were for day trips only, but more than half were for overnight cruises. Soon we were on board the Indochina Sails junk we had booked. Never did learn the name or number of the particular Indochina Sails junk that we were assigned.

Our 3-level junk looked exactly as shown on the company website. We had booked a room with a double bed. Turned out that there were only 2 such rooms on this particular junk and both were on the lower main level at the bow of the boat. We could walk out of our cabin door and direct onto the deck at the bow, then up a flight of stairs to the dining room and bar, or up another flight of stairs to the top level sun deck. I liked the location of our room.

The window hangings were beautiful embroidered silk and the room was nicely decorated. The bathroom was extremely luxurious for a boat. There was even a ceramic vase with fresh roses in the bathroom. We have been on large cruise ships and those bathrooms were cramped and tiny. This bathroom had marble walls and floors and a very large shower with glass doors. The bathroom had a normal household toilet, not a marine toilet. It even flushed just like a normal household toilet rather than using an electric flush.

This cabin was like being in a hotel room rather than a boat. The room was very spacious. There was no feeling of movement whatsoever. You would never have known you were in a boat floating on water....except when another boat would pass close by and create a minute wake to cause our boat to quiver and rock once or twice ever so slightly......never enough to even upset the vase of flowers on the bathroom marble countertop. The room was equipped with its own air-conditioning and heating unit.

And were we ever glad to have that heating unit! A cold front had blown down from China the previous night and it felt cold to those of us more accustomed to living right on the equator. The sales info for this cruise had suggested packing a jacket because the weather in Ha'Long Bay can turn cold at any time, but we didn't want to lug around jackets for a couple of weeks just on the off-chance we might need them for 2 or 3 days. So we had no jackets. In fact, neither of us had anything with long sleeves to wear. Oh well, live with it. It only meant we might be cool for a couple of days.

There were a total of 20 guests on the junk for our cruise. Upon arrival we were escorted up to the dining room and served welcoming tea. Then a short description of what we would be doing for the rest of the day. And then we were served a 6-course lunch! This was a surprise. I had assumed the food served would be pretty basic considering where we were. Wow! What luxury! Each course was beautifully plated, adorned with flowers and decoratively cut vegetables. Very well done and everything tasted delicious. I told our waitress that I would love to know how they made the triple flowers out of carrots. She told me it was very easy: their chef just used a small knife. Well, glad that technique was cleared up. I just need to use a small knife and I too can make intricate triple flowers out of carrots.

The first anchor stop was at a gorgeous spot between many tiny islands. We were offered the option of either going to the pretty beach or to climp the 427 steps up to the observation point. Uh, thanks; but no thanks. Way too cold to go to any beach. And climbing 427 steps (with one rest point at 210 steps) for the opportunity of taking photos was a no-brainer. Let the more athletic tourists have their jaunt up those steps. The view was pretty enough down here. The tour guide also said we could go kayaking if we wanted to, but that there would be a much better opportunity for kayaking somewhere else the next day. Get in a kayak in this cold weather? Yeah; sure. We opted to stay on the boat and absorb the beautiful scenery.

Several other junks arrived and anchored nearby. Many of them raised their sails while at anchor. This created good photo opportunities. Obviously, this is the normal procedure with these junks and causes no problems to have raised sails while anchored because often there is absolutely zero wind here. It was very overcast and gray, but it was still beautiful.

Soon we were underway again. Next stop was the largest floating fishing village in Ha'Long Bay. These people live on tiny boats year round. The islands are inhospitable as they are just huge rocks covered with scant soil.....barely enough soil to support the sparse vegetation. No one lives on the islands. The only inhabitants of the islands are in the floating villages.

As soon as our barge-tender arrived several sampans bumped in the sides and held on while trying to sell us various things ranging from pearls to shells to oreos to warm beer or cokes. You almost wanted to buy things just to support the poor population, but we resisted. Last thing we need are pearls or shells, and the junk served so much food for lunch that we didn't want oreos or warm beer.

There was one very small boy sitting by himself in a small sampan. He looked about 2 years old. His older brother (looked about age 7) had paddled out. As soon as he reached our tender the older brother had stepped out of his sampan into another sampan right up against the tender, leaving the small boy all alone. He looked so cute and seemed so comfortable in the little boat all by himself. I wondered what would happen if he should fall into the water, but there were so many people around that he probably wasn't in any real danger. Notice how sure-footed he appears to be while standing on the seat of the sampan in the photo at left, taken in front of the floating village elementary school.

This floating village was tucked up into a deep bay and protected by high mountainous islands on 3 sides, with tall rock formations blocking the middle of the open end of the bay. This would be an ideal location for safety during a storm as they were totally protected from the open sea. A very beautiful spot. The guide said there was a fresh water source on one of the nearby islands. The 2-3 meter tidal range twice daily helped keep the water in the bay from becoming polluted from the waste of the village inhabitants. They had sampans going around with nets collecting any floating garbage in an effort to keep their waters clean.

We returned to the junk and motored to another anchorage for the night. Dinner was buffet style and just as delicious as the lunch. Later in the evening we watched the 2002 movie "The Quiet American" starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, which supposedly depicts how the USA became involved in Vietnam in 1954 with CIA support.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hanoi

It was a very long drive from the Hanoi airport to our little hotel in the Old Quarter. We are staying at the Duc Thai Hotel on Hang Ga street in the old section of Hanoi. This is a step-down from the hotels where we stayed in both Saigon and Hue, but it is adequate for the few nights we will be in Hanoi. The street noise is very noticeable but I think that would be the case in this city regardless of which hotel we were in. These people cannot drive without constantly honking their horns on both cars and motorcycles.

Our immediate impressions of Hanoi is that it is very dirty; there are many more old-fashioned bicycles than anywhere else we have see in Vietnam; the city is much less prosperous than Ho Chi Minh City; and the people of Hanoi must work much harder to attain a lower standard of living than in Ho Chi Minh City. This is surprising to us because Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam today. Here are a few views from our hotel window. One innovative thing new to us were the glass "domes" on top of some of the buildings with a ventilation fan on top. What a simple idea that it is funny that the South and Central Americans have not come up with something similar. The glass allows the sun to heat the air inside, and as heat rises, this causes the ventilation fan to turn, creating air flow up from the building below. Simply a sun powered ventilation fan. What a simple clever idea.

We had skipped lunch and were ready for an early dinner soon after arrival. The hotel clerk recommended a restaurant for Pho in the Hanoi style which was only about 6 blocks away. We found it with no problem and walked in. An older woman motioned us to go the very narrow stairs to the upper level. We walked into a room full of simple tables filled with local people who all turned to stare at us....we were the only non-Vietnamese people in the place so were a curiousity. The woman running this establishment motioned for us to sit at a table and handed us a card printed in English that stated: "We serve only one dish in our restaurant. We serve grilled fish for 120,000 dong." I tried to explain that we wanted Pho.

This will sound racist, but is what happened. Next thing we know this woman ladles up 4 saucers of cooked vermicelli rice noodles and places them on our table along with 4 small bowls and 4 sets of chopsticks. Whoops....wait a minute....we are only a party of 2 and we want to eat Pho. She repeats "four" only she says it like Eddie Murphy and his Ho on Saturday Night Live. No, no, no. We are not 'fo'--- we are only two people who want to eat Pho. She got the message and removed the other 2 settings from our table.

Soon another woman delivered what looked like a clay pot filled with burning charcoal wood pieces with a skillet sizzling on top. She placed this cooking skillet on a plate in the center of our table. The skillet contained a small amount of oil and tiny pieces of chicken. T he woman added a plate of fresh green leafy vegetables and stirred with chopsticks and then walked away. We watched the other patrons stirring their skillets. When the skillet contents looked cooked, they would use their chopsticks to pick up some of the green veggies and chicken pieces and put over the noodles in their small bowls. Then they would use chopsticks to pick up some fresh cilantro and tiny Thai basil leaves from another saucer and dip those into a clear liquid sauce in a small bowl and then place these on top of the noodles, chicken and veggies. Then stir it all thoroughly until the noodles were no longer sticky. Top with chopped peanuts and enjoy. Eating slippery noodles with chopsticks turned out to be easier than we had imagined. The combination of the various ingredients is tasty.

We saw people eating Pho in Saigon and Hue and it appeared to be more like a noodle soup; Pho in Hanoi apparently is all noodles and veggies with tiny bits of fried chicken, but no broth. It tastes good and we scarfed it down. However, we were not happy with the price of 260,000 dong for this simple meal. That is more than 4 times the price of Pho at any restaurant we visited in Hue or Saigon. I figured this place must be run by the aunt or mother of the hotel clerk who sent us here. Sort of pissed Bill off because it felt like a rip-off, but I figured it didn't matter and we had at last finally eaten Pho. After all, 260,000 dong is only about $12 USD so it wasn't all that much of a rip-off.

Today we walked quite a bit through the Old Quarter. Saw lots of different things and too many to list them all. The streets and shops are amazing and exactly what one might imagine in an ancient Asian city. (Hanoi will be have its 1,000 year birthday celebration in October of this year.) The shopkeepers use the entire sidewalks in front of their shops and place their goods and racks all the way out to the curb. So it is impossible to walk on the sidewalks and people are forced to walk in the streets with the thousands of motorcycles. Where the shops are not utilizing the sidewalks then the motorcycles are using the sidewalks for parking space. Either way, on many streets it is impossible to use the sidewalks and one must walk in the busy street traffic.

There were shops for virtually anything you can think of. Several shops had hundreds of used rebuilt pumps of all kinds. A couple of places were manually rewinding motors on pumps and other motors. There was just everything imaginable. Later, on the cruise of Ha'Long Bay, another American tourist said she had seen dog meat being sold by the sidewalk meat vendors. We walked by quite a few sidewalk meat vendors in Hanoi but we never saw any dog for sale. This photo of the train track shows hundreds of homes opening onto the tracks. You can see how close these dwellings are to the tracks. There are actively used train tracks. Can you imagine living that close as trains go rumbling by!

Eventually we found the Army Museum. It was closed during the lunch hour so we went to sit in the park across the street to wait until it reopened. And that is where we found a statue of Lenin. That is certainly something that I never thought to see. Lenin is considered a very bad person in the USA. He is revered here in Vietnam.

The Army Museum was probably more interesting to Bill than to me. I did not know what most of those items of military equipment were. Most of the signs were in Vietnamese, French and English. Bill kept reminding me that since the US walked away from this war then the Vietnamese have the right to say whatever they want about that war. Being reminded of this fact did not make it any easier for me to accept the blatantly one-sided and usually incorrect things that were written. One 'fact' was that it was an American war of aggression from 1954. One 'fact' that seems wrong is that the North Vietnamese claim to have shot down more than 33,000 American and South Vietnamese aircraft. That sounds like an awfully high number. (We checked later and learned that the actual number was something like 2,250 planes lost and that 543 of those were lost due to operational failures rather than being shot down.) The helmet shown here perfectly exemplifies the propaganda of this museum. The plaque said this helmet was proof that the French were unable to resist the overwhelmingly superior resistance army of the Vietnamese. Supposedly the helmet was worn by a French soldier who was gunned down in a foxhole. Look closely and you will see that at least 80% of the holes in this helmet have been made from the inside and were not caused by shells or fragments hitting the unfortunate soldier who was wearing it. There was a very large 'sculpture' made from various scraps of airplanes and pieces of artillery. It did not appear artistic. There were numerous SAMS, a la Jane Fonda in the famous photograph of her straddling one.

After a couple of hours walking around this museum and reading the plaques, we had enough and we left. Oh, almost forgot to mention the pricing of tickets to the Army Museum. They asked 20,000 dong (about $1.10 USD) per person plus 20,000 dong for each camera. First time I've seen tickets required for cameras. I held my camera in plain view when we purchased the tickets and Bill handed over a 100,000 dong bill. But they really did not charge for the camera and returned 60,000 dong change to him. Still, it was odd.

Walking the streets and looking at all the narrow alleyways and seeing how the people live is much more interesting than old military equipment and propaganda. The few Vietnamese we talked with in Hue had told us that most Vietnamese today don't care anything about politics; they only care about improving their economy and improving the quality of life in their country. This is scary to me because history has shown that when the citizens of a country don't pay attention to those in charge of their government, bad things can happen and freedoms can be lost.

None of the usual tourist attractions appealed to us....like the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, or the Ho Chi Minh Literature building, or the Ho Chi Minh etc, etc, etc. So rather than doing a regular city tour we just walked around on our own. The people and the city were so interesting. Bill found a tiny watch repair shop and bought a new watch band for his everyday watch. The family who operated the shop lived right there in the shop. This appeared to be fairly common throughout Hanoi.

It was a great day. For dinner we were to a new place on the corner from our hotel. It is called Com Ga. Com means rice and Ga means chicken. Oh boy! Bill gets his favorite meal of chicken and rice. Although there were about 10 different kinds of chicken and rice and we didn't recognize any of the names. We each ordered a different one and split the two. A very good dinner for about one-third the price of last night's Pho. Across the street was a bank in a narrow 4-storey building with doors opening onto the sidewalk. The customers would arrive on their motorcycles and bring their motorcycles into the building. The first level was apparently the 'parking garage' even though it looked like a normal first floor of any building.

One of the videos below illustrates how one crosses a street in Vietnam cities. The guide books provide instructions. You are supposed to just step out in the street and start walking without looking at the traffic and without changing your pace. The motorcycle drivers will avoid hitting you. But if you change your pace and try to wait for them to pass, you probably will get hit because they don't know what you are doing. So one simply steps into the busy street on blind faith alone. Somehow it works for them. Do this in Houston traffic and you will be dead!

Early tomorrow morning we head to the Ha'Long Bay for a 3-day cruise with http://www.indochinasails.com/en/halong-bay.html
Don't know which boat we will be on. Hope it is a nice one and also hope the weather gets better. It has been very cloudy and dreary since our arrival in Hanoi. video video video