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…

20150323_115456

Which pic, this or the next?

20150323_115540

This or the previous?

20150323_115134

Beauty and calm

20150323_113445

Living on the bay

20150323_094348

No matter that there was no sun

20150323_092717

Fishing boat

20150323_090309

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.

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.

20150321_142325

Girls with monk

20150321_142614

Girls without monk

20150321_142710

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…