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Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 6 – 10, 2013 - Hanoi and Halong Bay

Before leaving for this trip many of our friends who had been to Vietnam encouraged us to take the 2-night cruise of Halong Bay. We went online to check it out.  There were so many beautiful junks, and so many varying packages to sort through that it was difficult to even get through them all to choose a junk. When we finally found the one we preferred and tried to book the cruise we quickly became overwhelmed. Frank managed to locate a travel service that booked the trip for us. It turns out everything is owned by the government and using an agent was seamless. Our agent's name was Hang Moon. What a great name. She arranged our hotel in Hanoi at the front and back end of our cruise, our airport transfer, and the accommodation on the 2-night cruise for just over $700 USD (for the both of us). We had chosen a suite onboard because the rooms on the ship are tiny.
Arriving in Hanoi was exciting. There is a buzz to this city that fascinated us. It reminded me of the feeling I got the first time I went to NYC. As in Saigon, after we got checked into the hotel (very nice room, by the way), we went for a stroll. We had many opportunities to practice our "Saigon shuffle" here as the traffic was much more congested, and again consisted of 90% mopeds and motorbikes. Immediately we regretted not booking more time here. What were we thinking? It is a vivacious and modern city but hugely old-world at the same time, which we realized, as from one street to another we seemed to morph into an altogether different era. It is indescribable for me. We only had the evening to enjoy so we set about stopping at various cafes along the lake for quick refreshment and then moving on until we had visited several different venues before settling on dinner at a popular local restaurant called The Green Tangerine. The food in Vietnam is just so darn good, fresh and inexpensive; all we want to do here is eat! We passed many, many shops selling everything from beautiful glassworks to large quantities of textiles and goods, a theme that we had begun to see repeated throughout Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, so we figure a lot of this stuff is probably made in China. The North Face is everywhere. Seemingly made in Vietnam, you can find everything North Face. We were warned, however, that much of it is Authentic Knockoff. There is an absolutely thriving tourist industry here. Tiring of the onslaught of humanity and sales people vying for our money, we headed off to our room for a good night's sleep before our early 4:00 AM departure for Halong Bay.
The hotel stored our bags for us so that we could take a combined small rolling carry-on and our backpacks on the trip. We were loaded into a minivan/bus that seemed rather comfortable at first.  Little did we realize the thinly cushioned seats would soon feel like torture boxes as we bounced away on the long and pot-holed road to the bay. At about the 2-hour halfway point our minibus made the obligatory stop at the massive souvenir shop that sold everything from hand carved items to glassworks to hand painted and silk sewn pictures. We considered loading up for a future garage sale but remembered we lived on a boat and didn't have a garage. We grabbed a coffee and waited at the café for the rest of the group. They dropped us off at the front door and then picked us up at the back of the store 30 minutes later. Back into the torture chamber, we bounced down the road to the tour company's office at the waterfront to await more passengers' arrivals. The first thing that struck me was that there were no beautiful wooden junks. There was a harbor full of large whitewashed monstrosities anchored all about the bay that claimed to be our lovely cruise boats. We understood that the communist government had ordered it so.  The reason is unclear even to those who claim to know. Apparently you just don't ask.

We finally boarded the tenders to take us out to our junk. The inside was beautifully appointed and our little suite had a balcony off the back of the ship. Our neighbors in the other suite were a Russian couple that claimed to speak no English and yet seemed to understand most everything. After stowing our gear, the ship took off through the stunningly picturesque Halong Bay. Disappointingly, the skies were overcast and we were shrouded in mist and low-hanging fog, so the gorgeous view was obscured. Nonetheless, the mist gave off a sense of mysticism and intrigue.

We were served a delicious lunch while the boat was heading to our designated cruising area. The vistas were so beautiful that we didn't want to be inside but the misty rain was chilly, even on the wraparound verandah.

Preceding dinner there was a happy hour and welcome drink on the top deck and then we attended a cooking class where we learned to make vegetarian and meat spring rolls. Everyone had a great time playing with the food, especially the children on board. Most of the spring rolls turned out nicely but some of them looked like Rorschach disasters. Of course I had to try to make mine perfect and was excited about getting to eat it because I put all of my favorite ingredients into it. But after we finished constructing them, the chef whisked them away to cook in the galley. We didn't get to see them again until they were served in the buffet at dinner.  Of course the people who made the crummiest ones got in line first and dove for the best looking ones. Ha! The joke was on us. The dinner was fantastic. The centerpiece of the table was an edible delight!

Following dinner, we were invited to fish for squid off the back of the boat but Frank and I chose to relax in the salon for movie time.  Early the next morning, we were taken to a floating village and transferred into local boats in groups of four that were piloted by local floating villagers. Each home displayed their goods for sale. Everywhere you go in Viet Nam, someone has something to sell. We chose to just relax and enjoy the tour. It's fascinating that people can live like this. Afterward, the rest of the group was put back on the big junk while Frank and I along with the Russian couple were transferred to a beautiful smaller junk for the day. Apparently we were the only couples staying for two nights, and had a special itinerary with a separate guide.

By now the misting had turned into a light, chilly rain.  Our first stop was an absolutely beautiful beach area with hiking trails leading up to a high peak. Our guide led us up the trail. Did I mention that we had no idea what our itinerary was for the day, and that we were not wearing appropriate shoes and that Frank was in flip-flops?  We sucked it up and followed our guide up the muddy slippery path. At first it appeared that we would just stop at what we thought was the peak but that was deceiving from the ground. It actually seemed to go on forever and at times was a straight up climb using our hands and feet. I was fine going up but was getting worried about the return trip down. At the summit, we should have seen a breathtaking panoramic view of the bay and its myriad islands but were socked in by fog and mist. It was still lovely but the only breathtaking part for me was going back down the steep hill. I performed several not so ladylike butt-slides on the way. Some involuntary! Returning to the little junk we were wet and cold but met with hot tea and some kind of sweet snacks. Then came lunch. Wow! An artful bounty followed the most beautiful sculpted food arrangements. One comprised two doves carved from cucumbers and carrots served on top of a pineapple half, perched between grilled prawns. The presentations were so beautiful that we tried to take some photos before the food disappeared. The Russian couple had brought along a bottle of vodka and insisted on pouring shots for us. Frank kindly helped me with mine. During the meal we learned through hand signals and body language that the man had been associated with the Russian equivalent of the USA's FBI. He demonstrated on our little guide some ways to take a man down with one hand by hitting pressure points on his opponent. We were blown away and realized there was more to this guy than he appeared to be.

After our feast we were taken to a beautiful cave and given kayaks. Our guide led us into what in Thailand would be called a "Hong". We entered through a low hanging rock formation into an absolutely beautiful fairyland where the water was so clear we could see abundant sea life beneath us. It simply felt magical.  Back on board the little junk we were returned to the big boat, The Paloma, where the new group of arrivals were just starting their happy hour and cooking lesson.  We enjoyed yet another unbelievable feast and hit the sack early. We'd had a full day.

Next morning the Paloma took us over to a massive underground cave, larger than the Mammoth Cave that I'd seen in America. We toured inside for over an hour and then were sent back to the junk to pack for our return to Hanoi. I so dreaded the backbreaking ride in that minibus.

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