Friday, April 2, 2010

Halong Bay

Even though Jaya did not go to Halong Bay, I (Marti) wanted to finish my part of the blog by telling you about my trip to this amazing area, a UNESCO protected site. The bay is made up of a group of islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. At the end of the last ice age when the glaciers melted, the seas rose leaving the hilltops as islands, floating between the sky and the water, like a mystical kingdom. It is truly a beautiful place -- in the misty, hazy weather the rugged, karst rocks appeared mysterious and etherial as we slowly passed by on our flat-bottomed, wooden boat. We visited a huge cave, climbing up the path to enter a spectacular cavern of stalagtites and stalagmites, rock pillars and a running stream. Despite the hordes of tourists there, it was well worth the visit. It was also amazing to watch our captain manoeuver our boat away from the dozens of other boats tied up to the rocks! Later we stopped at a fish farm, which is really a floating fishing village. We paddled around in kayaks, getting under the overhanging rocks for close-up views of the islands and sea life. Anchoring for the night among many other boats, we were like a village on the water, with the lights twinkling in the darkness, but it was so quiet and calm.
Our group was an interesting one, made up of an Israeli woman, some young Germans, a Spanish-Thai couple, a Korean family and three 19-year-old British guys. What do you do on boats? Yes, we played cards and magic tricks, told stories and drank beer. My cabin was very cute, all panelled in wood, and I slept soundly.
The next morning we sailed to Cat Ba island and went trekking in the national park. It was quite a climb, but the view from the top was spectacular. Unfortunately, we didn't see the endangered languars (monkeys). We spent the night in the town. Nearby was a lovely, white-sand beach on a perfect, little bay. Not a soul was there (it was too cold for swimming) but it must be crowded in the summer (there was a resort, complete with water slide).
We boarded another boat in the morning for a liesurely trip through the islands back to the mainland. Again, the weather was cloudy, but the scenery was stunning. At every turn there was a fantastic view and everyone was busy snapping photos.
It was a great place to end my holiday (Jaya would have loved it, as it is a hotspot for artists) but I still had 2 days to spend in crazy Hanoi!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


It was the worst of our sleeping bus experiences. The seats were torn and the bus was pretty rundown, quite unacceptable for a 14-hour journey! But what can you do? You buy a ticket from an agent and you never know what you'll end up with. One couple got out in the middle of nowhere (actually it was just outside Vinh, Ho Chi Minh's hometown) at 2 in the morning. Apparently they were going to take another bus into Laos.

We went through a pretty sketchy neighbourhood on the way into Hanoi and I do believe we saw dog meat for sale in front of some shops!

Marti and I spent our last few days together, wandering the streets, strolling along the lake, trying to avoid the motorcycles, rickshaw drivers and travel agents who are everywhere. The weather has turned quite cool and we are wearing jeans for the first time. The old city is amazing. There are small lanes dedicated to various trades and products since ancient times, so you have a street where only shoes are sold, others for hardware, lanterns, cloth, pots and pans, bedding and mattresses, tiles and pottery, coffins, incense, etc. Women wearing conical hats carry baskets, balanced on the shoulder, loaded with fruits, fresh meat, plastic things, tofu -- right beside the motorcycles roaring by spuing diesel fumes! There are also some impressive art galleries featuring Vietnamese artists, as well as the propaganda poster shops. And the vestiges of French colonialism are evident in some of the buildings, especially the Opera House.

We took in a performance of the famous water puppets. Puppeteers stand in water up to their thighs behind a screen and manipulate beautiful human, animal and mythical characters who perform their stories on the surface of the water to the sound of live music played by musicians on traditional instruments on the side. The costumes and sets were so colourful and authentic.

My visa is up so I am going back to Cambodia and Marti will have a few days on her own, visiting Halong Bay. We've had a great month together and will miss each other. Despite the inevitable disagreements, we travel well together and have memories to treasure.

Marti has been ghost-writing these blogs for me, so I guess I'll have to do them myself soon and try to post some of the hundreds of photos I've taken!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Imperial Town of Hue

We left the charming town of Hoi An with some sadness, since it was such a lovely place. Took a short (4 hours) bus ride to the old imperial town of Hue, passing through Danang, known as the place where 2 U.S. marine battalions landed in 1965, the first of many that would land on the beaches and airfields of South Vietnam over the next years.

Arrived in Hue on a quiet Sunday afternoon and went to visit the imperial palace, modeled on Beijing's Forbidden City. The site originally covered the area of 8 villages and is enclosed by thick walls and surrounded by moats and canals. Much of it was destroyed during the 1968 Tet offensive but UNESCO is now restoring some of the pavilions and buildings that housed the emperor's family, concubines, eunuchs and servants. The throne room was quite lavish. We also saw our first elephants, who left huge droppings on the square!

Monday was our last day with Nathan, so we rented bicycles to go to the beach, some 12 km away, and were pleasantly surprised to reach a beautiful, undeveloped beach with only a few tourists, locals and fishermen with their boats. The sea was quiet rough, but it was great to be by the South China Sea again, drinking cold beer and relaxing.

Nathan flew off to Ho Chi Minh City and on to Phuket to make his way to Koh Pangang for the full-moon party.

Marti and I then had an awesome day cycling 14 km to the tomb of Emperor Minh Mang. However, it was not flat like the road to the beach, but very hilly! We didn't have a map, the heat was unbearable, but we made it, riding along the river, avoiding the trucks and buses and motorbikes, passing beside rice fields and banana plantations and entering a pine forest. Arriving in the late afternoon, we stepped through the gate into another world. There were few tourists around so we had the place practically to ourselves. It was so still, only the sound of birds chirping and crickets. The site has a perfect symmetry, with ponds, statues and gardens lining the sides of each courtyard and pavilion. I wonder if Minh Mang is resting in peace in such a quiet place? We certainly found it restful after our epic bike ride and the noise and flurry of the city.

Taking a day to recover from heat exhaustion before another (our last) overnight sleeping bus. Enjoying the coffee and the French legacy of pain au chocolat!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Motorcycles and Crossing the Street

You would all like to hear about the motorcycles, right? There are literally millions of them here. Marti describes them as battalions, advancing or retreating down the streets, 10 or more abreast, row after row after row in both directions! A guide told us that in Saigon (population 7 million), one out of every 2 people has a motorbike! They are all sizes and brands -- Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Vespa, Kawasaki and some we don't know (no Harleys so far)! Some are new, bright and shiny, others are rusty and have parts tied together with wire or string. They transport everything. The most people we saw were 5 (parents, baby, child, grandma) on a bike in Cambodia 2 years ago, but 4 is quite normal. They carry tables and chairs and other furniture, long bamboo stalks, trees (including the soil and roots), baskets of vegetables with leafy greens spilling over the sides, 50-lb bags of rice, cement or other construction material, pots and pans, trays of baguettes heading to the bakery to be baked, pigs, chickens, fish, piles of clothing, all sorts of plastic things, balloons and toys, karaoke machines, incense sticks, and on and on. Also, here, most people wear helmets, but not the babies and kids!
And of course there is the noise (constant honking and motors revving) and the fumes. A lot of people wear face masks to try to keep the pollution, dust and germs out (or in) and the women to protect their skin.
Now, how about crossing the street? Well, you take your life in your hands (or feet) since there are few traffic lights. As the relentless traffic continues, you step into the road with a glance to the right and left, then looking straight ahead make your way between the motorcycles, buses, trucks, rickshaws, bicycles and cars that weave around you. For some reason it seems to work, although we have seen a few spills!
It's all about surviving in Vietnam and following the locals (when in Rome...)!

Small World

Everyone has a small world story. Ours was in Hoi An, the heritage town that thousands of tourists visit. We were sitting in a cafe when Marti noticed a woman who looked familiar but couldn't place her. She decided to approach her, and immediately Heloise recognized her from their brief time working together at the Governor General's! After racking up overtime at Health Canada, Heloise and her partner were spending a few months travelling in Asia and Australia.
The women chatted about travel, the Canadian government, etc. It's so weird to meet someone you don't expect in a faraway place and talk about home, friends in common and other experiences!

Monday, March 22, 2010

UNESCO Heritage Town

Another all-night sleeping bus experience. This time, there was only one level of double beds. However, we had the luck (?) to get the 5 seats at the back, which we shared with another traveller. At least we could stretch out.
The UNESCO town of Hoi An is a gem. It is diminutive (2-storey buildings, narrow lanes), compared to other Vietnamese cities. A historic trading centre on the Thu Bon River, it is full of old Chinese clan assembly halls, merchant houses and temples. Some of the streets are, mercifully, restricted to bicycles and pedestrians only! It was a pleasure to stroll along the river, visit some of the elaborately decorated temples and stop for a drink in one of the many, chic-type restaurants. However, Hoi An is a mecca for tourists. Not just backpackers, but bus loads of tours who come for the shopping and "authentic" experience. Known for its tailors, it is saturated with shops selling cloth, especially silk. Nathan had 2 suits made and Marti got a dress (cotton). But, frankly, it was shopping overload for us.
The art galleries were a different story. I was particularly impressed by the laquer paintings of a young man, Ang, and spent some time with him, talking about art and drinking beer by the river. He is extremely talented and was recognized by the government a few years ago as one of Vietnam's top emerging artists. I think he could make a fortune in New York, but here his paintings sell for about $200! He originally studied architecture and we visited his house, which he designed. It is beautiful. He took into consideration the light and the climate, and it is bright and breezy, with balconies off the rooms and a lovely garden with a waterfall that slips over the rock wall with a soothing trickle. I bought a diptych from him and we celebrated our last evening with him and his wife in a riverside restaurant.
Another treasure is the My Son ruins of the Cham empire, 45 km west. Similar to Angkor Wat (evidence of Indian influence rather than Chinese), little is known about the culture and much of the site was destroyed over the centuries, most recently during the American war. There are huge bomb craters and most of the towers have toppled. However, UNESCO is slowly restoring some of the monuments. There are still some exquisite carvings on the walls. Despite the tourists roaming over the site, My Son was fairly tranquil and it was lovely to walk under the cool jungle canopy, out of the sun.

Hoi An's other attraction is the nearby beach -- some 30 kilmetres of white sand, palm trees and the warm waters of the South China Sea. We bicycled there (4 km) almost every day. Although there are some resorts, there is plenty of space for those seeking a quiet spot to relax, read, swim and eat. Yes, the Vietnamese women would set up their portable restaurants in the shade with tiny plastic chairs and haul out their soup pots over a small charcoal fire, assemble the noodles and all the toppings and serve you!
With modern technology (Internet and cell phones) we got together with a Dutch-German couple who I met in Luang Prabang, Laos, then again in Saigon. Had an interesting dinner with them at Cafe des Amis by the river, under the tutelage of Mr. Kim, who worked as a chef in Europe.
We have become comfortable here, but unfortunately time is running out, so we will soon make our way further north to Hue.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Beach at Nha Trang

Now we have experienced the all-night sleeping bus. Have never seen anything like it -- 2 rows of 3 lounge-type seats, a small blanket and pillow. We had seats (beds?) over the wheels, so needless to say, it was a bumpy 10-hour trip!
On arriving at 7 in the morning, Marti walked over to the beach and said, "This is not the place for me." But I love it. Being Asian, I love to watch the locals, what they're selling, what they're doing, what they're eating.
Anyway, the beach was convenient, basically in the centre of the town, and the longer we stayed, Marti got to like it. Although there were some huge hotels and resorts, we found a nice strip of shade under the palm trees and enjoyed the South China Sea. A few days were quite stormy, but we played in the waves and enjoyed the sun. Stayed in a great hotel 2 streets back from the beach ($8 a night), very friendly family. Lots of restaurants around, chocolate croissants, seafood, beer, ice-cream. What more could you want for a few dollars a day! But the motorbikes are still roaring around.
Nha Trang is known for diving and there were shops everywhere offering courses and trips out to the nearby islands. There were also lots of Russians around and there were often signs in Russian, so Russian tourists are now joining the rest of us on the travel circuit.
Visited a few pagodas, but the temples are nothing like those in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
It's been good to get out of the big city, but Marti is still searching for tranquility. Apparently the heritage town of Hoi An, our next stop, is much quieter. We'll see.