Vietnam #8 The Hungry ATM in Hanoi

Evening on the boat

Evening on the boat

Today is our last day in Ha Long Bay. We had breakfast with a couple from Norway. Both tall, blond and gorgeous. She hates the water and won’t get near a kayak. We left them and kayaked in a sweet, very clean bay, and though the wind picked up this morning, it was calm and beautiful in the bay.

Back in the boat, we packed up our stuff, then met to make spring rolls.  Over assembling our rolls, we got conflicting advice for our free evening in Hanoi. This afternoon, we have the long bus ride back. On the way back we already knew the drill. 1/2 way back, the 30 minute stop for the driver to have a meal. No mention of the fact that we are again herded through the monster shopping barn. It must be standard  tourist industry guide instruction. Our guide is too smart to think we don’t get it. This time we were smarter and headed right for the cafe in the back, where we had a perfectly wonderful bowl of pho.

By the time we returned to our hotel in Hanoi, it was pouring. It was so good to see a familiar face at the front desk. Our new friend, Dang, gave us a great room. We ventured out in pouring rain to the ATM which promptly ate my bank card… Then we went to dinner at a place that took credit cards. So we could have eaten on the street for $2.00, but instead went to a fancy restaurant and spent $20.00. Somehow it made me feel better, and dinner was excellent. Years ago, there was a restaurant on South Fairfax called Saigon Flavor. I went there often with my friend, Henri, and we always had minced pork on sugarcane. I saw it on the menu here and it was as good as I remembered. It sucks that I can’t reminisce with him. Dessert was also memorable; it was warm banana in a warm coconut sauce.

Vietnam #7 Ha Long Bay day 2

Still on the V’Spirit, we had breakfast with our Czech friends, Martin and Jana, and exchanged Facebook info. Will have to go to Prague and visit Their B and B one day. Another boat came by and picked us up for a morning of kayaking. Very mixed emotions here. The islands, about 2000, are stunningly beautiful, rising out of the sea on every side. But the bay is filled with trash – plastic, styrofoam, bags, cups, packaging of every kind. One beach was so dirty, the captain decided not to stop. Kayaking, we saw a huge jellyfish float by, an eagle standing above a cave, and a couple of young monkeys eating in the trees just on the edge of the shore. There were beautiful areas, with lots of photo ops…

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Which pic, this or the next?

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This or the previous?

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Beauty and calm

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Living on the bay

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No matter that there was no sun

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Fishing boat

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Fishing boat leaving…

Our guide for the day was rather ambivalent about his job, so we hung out with the guide for one of the French tourists and he answered all our questions. Regarding the trash, he said it mostly came from the villagers. The government has moved most of them inland to make room for the scores of tourist boats, who also pollute the bay. If this is to be any kind of wonder of the world, they really need to clean it up.

Back on the boat, we had a great lunch and thought about taking out the kayaks again, but we all took naps instead. I got the French woman with the bad back to stretch with me, then Rachelle and I practiced on the deck.

Pearl Farm

Pearl Farm

The pearl

The pearl

By mid-afternoon, we were at a pearl farm, which turned out to be really interesting. We watched them implant the oysters with a bit of membrane and a seed of shell. They grow in the water for 5-6 years. 30% of them produce pearls and 10% of those are jewelry quality. They farm 3 kinds of pearls here…. And sell them of course. I was asked to point to an oyster and our guide opened it for me – there was a perfect pearl. So then I had to buy one!  We were two Americans with 3 French couples, one couple around 70, the others around 80. They were having a great time shopping, so we joined in. Turns out shopping is an international language.

We helped choose, then approve each other’s purchases, then returned to the boat where a whole new set of tourists had boarded. We met a great English couple who lived in Croatia and had dinner with two American sisters from Boston and North Carolina. We listened to amazing stories about trekking in the Southern Himalayas in the 80s, and a family in Boston who fostered children of American vet fathers and Vietnamese mothers.

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.