Kingdoms of Indochina 2014 travel blog

Ha Long Bay



Tai chi





check out the red rock



Fresh fish

Two chicken sing to each other

The crash


Grape fruit martini

nice day

Ho Chi Minh tomb

Presidential palace

HCM House on Stilts



Two pillar pagoda

buddha temple

This morning we are off to Ha Long Bay, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. It is also Ellen’s 75th birthday and Gail and I have arranged for one of the fold out cards with every ones wishes as a surprise. Not that we wouldn’t know it was her birthday as she has announced it to everyone. Tuan, our guide, teaches us how to say Happy Birthday in Vietnamese.

Our trip today is about 4 hours and we leave under overcast skies and a light drizzle, not the optimal weather to see the area. It is Saturday and the fields are full of farmers working in their rice paddies. The views are much more what we expected with the women in the traditional conical hats. The women do most of the planting as it takes plenty of patience.

During the rainy season of course they cannot plant as it is too wet. The level of the lakes in Hanoi can be so high that they can open their doors and let the water flow it. Close the doors and let it seep out under the door and leave behind the fish on the floor.

Along route we pass again by the incredibly skinny houses called matchbox houses. With each level the size of a matchbox. The bottom levels tend to be a little longer as it houses the shop with the staircase behind the shop up to the home.

Each home house one family, sometimes 3 or4 generations. In Vietnam you are only allowed 2 children. The punishment for more is either being fired or losing rank in the government. Children attend school from September through May but only half days and similar to us attend until 18. At 18 the boys are required to serve in the military for 2 years.

We stop at a lovely shop halfway for happy place, snack and of course more purchases. Gail finally gets the silk print picture that she has been searching for and it a beautiful picture of a woman in the traditional dress and her bike. Here at this shop we can actually watch the young girls delicately making the beautiful prints of local scenes.

After a bumpy ride due to roadwork near Ha Long Bay we arrive at the port. There are over 400 tourist boats here on any given day and that is obvious when we get out of the harbour. Ha means descending and Long – dragon. There are 1969 islands in the bay of various shapes and sizes many that have been named due to the visions they give. In December 1994 this was declared a World Heritage site due to the limestone rock formations and the ecology, such as the rare orchids that grow here.

We are late leaving due the fog and mist and so unfortunately we are going to miss our sampan ride to the little fishing village. To make up for it the Bhaya III opens up the bar for an extra-long Happy Hour and we all take good advantage. While the scenery is not the bright sunshine we had hoped for it is still fairly warm, even on the water, and the mist makes for a mysterious eerie picture taking experience.

Gail and I opt for ½ hour massages just before Happy Hour and what a treat. It is different from at home but just as wonderful and pretty cheap. There are only 5 other people on our boat not with our group so it seems like we have it to ourselves. They give a cooking demonstration that we all get to try and guess what …we make spring rolls. We should all be pros by the time we get back. Dinner is more a western style but the Beef Tenderloin is well cooked although a little chewier that what we get back home. After dinner a few folks try squid fishing off the back of the boat with lights. Pretty much sticking a hook on a bamboo pole into the water and hoping for the best.

The next morning we awake to brighter skies and start the morning off at 6:15 with Tai chi class. Thank goodness there are some great photo ops as I am definitely not coordinated enough for this form of exercise even if the movements are done incredibly slow.

Mark teaches the simple way to remember Tai Chi and its movements. I take the watermelon (hands spread apart), I cut it in half (Slow chop with one hand), I give half to you , I give half to you (slow slide of hands to one side and then the other) and then I don’t get any, I don’t need any (cross hands one way and then the other).

With the skies clears you can really see the stunning beauty and magnificence of the islands in Ha Long Bay. Our morning excursion has us tendering to Surprise Cave found in 1901 and opened to tourists in 1994. There are 1250 sq. m of cave to explore and they have done a great job of creating paths to route you through. Various formations give the vision of the ancient spiritual animals (turtle, dragon, phoenix and unicorn)

As we head back in to end our cruise I spot what looks like a dangerous maneuver off to one side. We are in the commercial shipping lane and a big tourist boat looks like it is coming dangerously close to a small cargo boat. Sure enough 2 seconds later there is a crash and the sounds of wood and steel crunching. Things topple over on the top of the cargo ship but luckily no one looks hurt but the little boat cannot restart its engine.

Our captain had made a sharp turn just before to avoid collision so the other tourist boat must not have been paying any attention. Sounds like the tourist boat should have given way. An exciting but tense finish to our cruise which of course the men all discussed for the rest of the day and evening all giving their account of the event and opinion on which boat was in the wrong !

Back on the bus for the same trip back. This time we see two interesting phenomena of life in Vietnam. The first is two pigs strapped on the back of a scooter. They must bring the animals, pigs, chickens even water buffalo, to market alive or they cannot sell them.

The second is the local bus which races down the road, honking and passing like a madman to pick up anywhere, anytime. They race to try and be the first local bus to get to the people. It is a frightening sight as they pass no matter what is coming and how little space there is… glad we are on our bus. The local saying here is “local bus go very fast but closer to cemetery”.

The discussion with Tuan and Mark on the way back centres on Buddhism which is based on everything is one and don’t sweat the small stuff. There are many forms of the Buddha but here in Vietnam they worship the big Buddha the ‘Happy Buddha’. They believe that awakening comes from one’s own experience. Any every hand gesture means something different.

Tuan also shares the complexity of the Vietnamese language. Where you call yourself (or our ‘I’ and ‘me’) depends on who you are talking to, what age they are and what relationship they have with you. It is a very tonal language and the word Ma ..depending on what tone you use, flat, up, down or up and down for example can mean horse, mother, ghost etc

We are back to our Hanoi hotel and a group of us decide to skip the night food tour and head to the Sofitel Metropole, the oldest fine hotel in Hanoi dating back to 1901. It does not disappoint and is a great old work hotel with teak and bamboo everywhere..right out of Casablanca. The hotel has a secret bomb shelter from the war and hide famous people like Joan Baez when she was here protesting the war in 1972.

We all order martinis ….as you would. Michael wants vodka, no olive but grapefruit on the side..but if he can get grapefruit than an olive. It must have repeated grapefruit on the side 3 times but this stands as one of our first ‘lost in translation moments’. What arrives back is a vodka martini with a grape on a little skewer instead of an olive ..really it is a grape fruit inside but close. Turns out it was a tasty treat… it might be a new Hanoi Martini.

We have decide believe or not on Italian by the hotel so hop in cabs for the less than a $2 ride. Ron, Lynda and Gail get in the last cab and quickly realize none of them remember the name of our hotel. Luckily Lynda remembers the M, as Gail starts the ‘Moven’ and Ron digs for his room key hoping it says the name just as Gail says Movenpick and they break into laughter including the driver.

The Italian is surprising excellent and it is nice to have a change to food we recognize and a break from springs rolls and sticky rice. I am sure by the time the trip is over it will be awhile before I have sticky rice as it is a staple for all 3 meals a day. The manager was so excited to have us that we get our picture taken for their wall.

Our morning before the airport starts at Bo Dinh Square which is the home to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the original palace and his home. The buildings were all built during the French occupation and have that look and feel. The palace from Royal times has been government building since HCM took over as he refused to live in such a place as he was just a regular Vietnamese man. Instead he lived in 3 simple rooms, dining, sleeping and study in the old French stables.

The people ultimately built HCM a home on stilts with meeting area underneath and two rooms above bedroom and study. Beside it was another bedroom that he would go to when bombing was nearby as it had an emergency bomb shelter underneath.

His tomb contains apparently 4 versions of his embalmed body only one of which is real. He wished to be cremated and his ashes spread in the 3 regions to unite the people. But his government refused and instead made sure that his tomb was built with items from all regions instead.

During the war nothing was bombed here because of course the French had built this and the other palaces and had sided with the Americans. The people and especially the children loved HCM and so he was called Uncle Ho as Uncle is the most respected name in Vietnam, more than even father. Of course that prompts Ross to make some comment about Michael Jackson…which I will leave at that!

The gardens here are absolutely lovely with Mango road where HCM would stroll daily and 79 bonsai trees that have since been planted to symbolize the 79 springs of his life. The Vietnamese do not say how old you are but how many seasons have you had.

Finally we visit the One Pillar Pagoda built during the Ly Dynasty in 1049. The next ‘Lost in Translation’ happens here when Mark tells Tuan ‘ you are very funny today’ to which Tuan asks with a puzzled tone ‘ why you think I funny’. Thus ends our 12 days and 11 nights in Vietnam… Laos here we come.

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