Vietnam #6 Ha Long Bay

We drove to the coast this morning from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. We were part of a steady stream of big and little buses carrying thousands of tourists to the boats in the bay. There is a ton of construction going on – hotels, golf courses, glad to be here before all that is finished. Halfway between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, we stopped for a half-hour break. We were to meet up on the other side of a huge, square block, maybe airplane-hanger size shopping store. It was filled with hundreds of tourists. The prices were double anywhere else. One section was filled with Vietnamese artisans maimed in the war – the one they call the “American War.” They were weaving, painting and sculpting art to sell to tourists. Emerging with our money intact on the other side, we found our bus and drove on.

Our cabin on V'Spirit

Our cabin on V’Spirit

By 1:00 pm we were on our boat, the V’Spirit. Thankfully we were warned that the first day, the bay is like a parking lot. Scores of boats, all heading for the caves, then a man-made sand beach. We are a group of 17 on the boat, Australians, French, Czech, a Canadian, four girls from Amsterdam… We had lunch with the Czech couple who lived in So Cal for a few years. They are going back to the Czech Republic to open a Bed and Breakfast. This afternoon, we walked through the largest cave in the area. They consider Ha Long Bay one of the seven Natural Wonders of The World, along with Iguazu Falls, the Amazon Rain Forest and can’t remember the rest…

View from the hike

View from the hike

View from the hike

View from the hike

Sunset on the hike

Sunset on the hike

The hike

The hike

Then on to the beach and a hike up about 450 stone steps to an outlook at the top of the hill.

We had dinner with the young Canadian guy and the Australian man. Good food, good company. After dinner, I spoke to a French woman with knee problems. In my attempt to help her, I used every French word I knew, 2 years of high school French, Ballet, and food French. It was fun to be on the other end of the language spectrum. This time I was the one who spoke another language! Whatever we accomplished, we did a lot of laughing.

Vietnam #5 Full day in Communist Hanoi

Hanoi city tour

We boarded the bus this morning and our guide for the day gave us the Party Line speech. All of a sudden, it was clear we were in a communist country. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and all things Uncle Ho. We were expected to dress conservatively, keep an even double line as we slowly moved forward, listening to nationalistic music. That lasted about an hour. According to our new acquaintances, Valentina and Dina, two fabulous irreverent Russian women who live in Switzerland, it’s a cheap imitation of Red Square. Once we entered the structure, it was no talking, no hands in pockets, no arms crossed (and it was freezing in there). Then, there he was lying there, surrounded by guards. To further confuse things he is often taken to Moscow and put on display there. So we really don’t know if his remains were there or it was a mask and dummy.

Uncle Ho

Uncle Ho

French Villa

French Villa

The Masoleum

The Masoleum

The grounds and the crowds

The grounds and the crowds

The procession

The bleak procession

As we exited the very Soviet, bunker-like building (ranked 6th most ugly building in the world by CNN), we entered the complex where he lived for a few years. It was a series of French Colonial buildings taken over after the defeat of the French. I’ll skip my commentary and just tell you that brochure blurb informed us that he started out living in the big house, then moved to smaller and simpler quarters in order to live more like the people. We saw his 3 cars, French and Russian.

Eventually, like everywhere in the world, we were herded into the gift shop area. One chocolate ice cream later, we were on our way to a nearby village to learn about pottery making. I have always liked watching potters at work, fantasies of Patrick Swazy not withstanding.

Refining a cup

Refining a cup

Vietnamese pottery is highly prized and still collected in Japan and throughout Asia.

We had lunch in a hotel restaurant, and though it was a traditional Hanoi meal, it would have been fun to eat street food. After lunch, we walked down a food alley – maybe return another time to eat.

We spent the early afternoon at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam), Vietnam’s first university. As we are beginning to see, all landscaped gardens are filled with bonsi.

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Gardens

Gardens

flowers

flowers

Turned out it was graduation day, so lots of lovely girls on caps and gowns, over traditional dresses and heels. I took tons of pictures, grateful that I did not have to sit through the ceremony.

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Girls with monk

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Girls without monk

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Done with heels

 

20150321_143608At the back of the property, we learned a bit of traditional Vietnamese prayer and visited the temple dedicated to Confucius. Here’s what the online Hanoi Local Guide site had to say:

“In the past, Van Mieu was held in great reverence not only as a major centre of Confucian thought and study, but also for its status as the apogee of learning in Vietnam and the only route to becoming a mandarin….

Today, the quiet queues of worshippers and acolytes have given way to tourist coaches that disgorge noisy tourists in their hundreds several times a day. Nevertheless, we recommend a visit, but arrange it to coincide with off-peak periods so that our visitors can experience the remarkable qualities of a place steeped the echoes of thousands of long dead scholars steeped in the pursuit of enlightenment.”

The last part of our day was the Water Puppet Performance. Beautiful, enjoyable and thankfully relatively short. We were happy to get back to the hotel, clean up and enjoy the luxuries of a beautiful room, big bathtub, perfect mattresses and clean white sheets. Before turning in, we went out to find some of that great street food. Somehow, we fell short. We were given an English menu and thought we were ordering spring rolls and a soup dish. Turned out we were good with the spring rolls, but got fried stuff instead of soup. We kept saying Pho, but evidently, not clearly enough. Next time we’ll take pictures of food with us…

Vietnam #4 Trekking, or not

Vietnam #4

Day three trekking – or not

At the river

At the river

Louis at the river

Louis at the river

We woke to the roosters in Ban Ho, news blasting from speakers mounted throughout the village, sore muscles and blisters. Counting our blessings that we were not part of a larger group, we wussed out and skipped the third day of trekking. Like the past two days, it was in the 90s. So, instead, we hiked down to the river, soaked our tired feet and practiced our meditation and yoga on the rocks.

It was a perfect morning. Eventually, we went back for our backpacks, said our goodbyes and took a minivan back to Sapa.

Rachelle at the river

Rachelle at the river

The drive was not pretty. The road conditions are miserable. Don’t know how our French friends did it on the backs of motorbikes… Our driver was terrific, avoiding the bikes, people, pigs and oxen, but there was nothing to be done about the ruts and washed out pavement. After an hour, we made it back to Sapa and were treated to lunch by Louis and his girlfriend. She has a one room place in town, and prepared a lovely, three course meal for us. I am continually impressed what one can do with one burner and a rice cooker.

Our lunch as guests of Louis and his girlfriend

Our lunch as guests of Louis and his girlfriend

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Our terrific lunch – and Louis

Cooking for us

Cooking for us

Somewhere along the way, I realized we did not have the name and address of our Hanoi hotel. Louis tracked it down, wrote it out, and saved us from a “Lost in Translation” experience.

With a few hours left before the bus to Lao Cai and the overnight train to Hanoi, we found a place for an herbal soak and massage. I’m still learning to be very clear on what services are offered for what price and for how long… My masseuse was very good, and though the 90 minutes were up in an hour, I felt restored.

…Until the bus ride back to Lao Cai, that was hell. The driver somehow decided to get us down the mountain 10 minutes faster than scheduled. In the process, making us all miserable, and risking our lives.  I’ve been on lots of busses on steep windy mountain roads in lots of countries. I was pretty convinced this might have been my last. When we finally got back, I thought the guy next to me was going to punch out the driver. Rachelle almost lost her lunch. I took pictures of the bus number just in case I ever decide to complain.

Relieved, we waited for the guy who was to meet us, show us around …., suggest a place for dinner and get us to the train. He never showed, which did not matter, except that we spent the time waiting instead of walking around. Still, we were looking forward to our sweet little cabin on the train. Turns out, we had been downgraded on the return. Disappointed, but making the best of it, we settled in for the night ride back to Hanoi. We spent the night laughing at our predicament and not really sleeping.

When we got off the train at 4am, I remembered to bargain for a cab and paid the proper fare back to La Belle Vie Hotel where there was no room available for early check-in! Our problem was that we were set to go on a day tour of the city at 8am, and we had not showered. Our plan was to commandeer the lobby bathroom and wash our hair in the sink.

We hung out in the lobby until 6:30AM, then went down for breakfast. We shared a table with two women from Bangkok and shamelessly told them of our predicament, hoping they would let us use their shower. They had already turned in their key so we thanked them and I went back to the desk to see if anything had changed. A minute later,  Rachelle came running up with their key. They got it back for us, let us into the room, and saved us. We call them our Thai Angels. Twenty minutes later, we were clean and much, much happier.

Vietnam #3 Still Trekking

Friends along the way

Friends along the way

The spa

The spa

Transporting Bamboo

Transporting Bamboo

 

 

 

 


 

Our morning hike was up the mountain. Families were working, clearing terraced rice fields. Oxen were taking mud baths. We watched men on motorbikes dragging scores of long bamboo poles. We visited a pre-school where I could finally take pictures of children.

 

On a bridge, over a dry riverbed, Louis explained the purpose of a split-log bench. I’m too tired now to remember the specifics, but when a child is ill, he or she is placed on the bench and the spirits creating the disease are drained down, through the split wood and into the river. I remember the three of us talking about similar customs in other cultures.

Lunch was in a town on a main road. We briefly met two more French women. They left, and our French friends from last night showed up. Louis cooked for us and we all had lunch together, then they took off (very apprehensively) as passengers on motorbikes back to Sapa.

Rachelle and Louis

Rachelle and Louis

Yoga before lunch

Yoga before lunch

Red Zhau woman and Rachelle

Red Dzao woman and Rachelle

We resumed our walk, this time down a steep gully. A few times, we had to get out of the way of children herding oxen. One little boy threw his arm around a baby ox as if they were best buddies. The landscape was beautiful, but I was so intent on protecting my knees, it was hard to appreciate the view. Eventually, I asked that we get back on the road. Between my knees and Rachelle’s blister, it was the smart thing to do.

Back on the big road, it got really hot. Once we got closer to Ban Ho Village, we could see the hydroelectric project. There were hot springs not too long ago. Now we saw a huge pipe and heard the steady, shrill sound of the water pressure. The mountain above the pipe is sheared like a huge scar. Everyone living nearby was relocated, only the foundations of their houses remain.

A few steps on, we found beautiful spacious homes of lacquered wood. We walked through the town, over a suspension bridge to our homestay. The two French women we briefly encountered at lunch are also there. The Homestay family, of Red Dzao origin, have a beautiful vegetable garden, pigs, chickens and a hammock.

We found our sleeping spaces upstairs, similar set up to the previous homestay. Then we hung-out until dinner. We talked a bit with our host. He worked in the tourist industry as a driver for over 20 years, a few of them in Germany. The two French women go trekking all over the world.

It’s 5am now and I’m in the hammock listening to the town awaken. Roosters, barking dogs and motorbikes competing for my ears. The crickets win hands down. We are near the river and they never stop. Something too large to be anything but a bat just flew by. At 6am, the entire village is treated to government-sponsored news by loudspeakers placed everywhere.

In Town

In Town

Town

Town

Town

Town

The Kitchen

The Kitchen

And Fireplace

And Fireplace

Our home for the night

Our home for the night

Hammock sleeping

Hammock sleeping

Hammock sleeping

Hammock sleeping

Hammock Yoga

Hammock Yoga