Northern Vietnam, November 7-15, 2009

Hanoi, November 7-8

The taxi ride from Noi Bai International airport give us a good impression what Vietnam will be like; it is so different in so many ways from any place we have been before --- at least, the northern Vietnam from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and to Sa Pa. There are few cars on the road but hundreds and hundreds of scooters and motorbikes swarming around and constantly honking. Some of the bikes are ridden by a guy and his girlfriend, but some of them have whole families on: the mother, the father and from two to three children. If anyone is wearing a helmet, it is the driving adult, but never the children.
In general, the bikes do not obey traffic lights or respect right-of-ways, and those that do start turning as soon as the light turns green, blocking the intersections completely. This video of Reynold's boids gives you an idea how the traffic is --- just imagine triple the number of vehicles and loud honking in the background. Walking in the city is nerve-breaking, even if it does not take long to brave the traffic: fortunately the speeds are not high and the riders have very good reaction times. The sidewalks are either full of parked bikes, and where they are not, full of people sitting on low stools cooking and/or eating. Hanoi's air is hot and foggy. Most of the women and some men are wearing face masks, not only bikers but also pedestrians.
The people in Hanoi don't look much different from Singaporeans, but from their outfits we can definitely tell we are not in Singapore. Ok, the Singapore's fashion look is pretty much from 80's, but Hanoi's is from Eastern European 80's, plus the older people wear their pajamas in public.
On our first day we stroll the streets of Old Quarter. Next morning we go out for a run around Hoan Kiem Lake. The sidewalks are free of bicycles, and traffic is quite light, except at the lake. Tens of people are already there exercising in their pajamas; some have even set up a makeshift gym, some others badminton nets. Older people play without a net.
After the run, we have breakfast at our hotel Astoria: baguette --- a Vietnamese staple --- with fried eggs, fruit, and Vietnamese coffee. The first stop on our sightseeing tour is a visit to the Temple of Literature. Then we pass Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and a long queue of visitor waiting outside to enter, and head further North to West Lake.
The entry to the Tran Quoc Pagoda by the lakeside is denied without any further explanation. We walk around Truc Bach Lake and return to the whereabouts of Old Quarter. We have an interesting lunch experience at Ho Don Restaurant (sorry about missing all the accents and tone marks). We order a whole fish which is baked with chilies and lemongrass. Then at our table, the server rolls the fish into rice paper with noodles and herbs to make spring rolls. Together with rolls we have three different dipping sauces: soy, chili, and dill. Simple and so delicious!
We continue our adventure to French Quarter, but we never really find it. We end up at Bay Mau Lake, which is dry now. We head out to French Quarter again for dinner, and this time we find a place called Pane e Vino, to our surprise at quite a different location that our guide book tells.
Anyway, we have some great wine with salad and bruschetta before continuing our search for a dinner venue.

We are not too lucky: we end up dining at another Italian place called Gelato Mondo: salad and pizza with Tuscan Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon. Not impressive at all. Besides, people are smoking around us. We probably did not mention that almost all Vietnamese men smoke, and many women, especially older. In principle, the restaurants have non-smoking sections, but you know how that works ...

In case you are wondering what the numbers painted on the wall are: we don't know. They are everywhere. Another trivia about Hanoi: shopping streets or districts are by themes: on some streets you can buy only mannequins, on another only paint, still on another only fabric, or furniture, or drugs, or second hand clothing (there are tens of blocks for these).

Today we walked about 10 hours. Tomorrow we are going to change the landscape to Ha Long Bay, and do more kayaking than walking for the next four days. Yay!

Ha Long Bay, November 9-12

The ride to Ha Long Bay is frightening: the way the cars pass, both our taxi and vehicles coming up, is daredevil, and we don't have working seatbelts on. No wonder we sleep the whole way, and luckily wake up alive at Ha Long Bay. At halfway we stop at a tourist resort selling huge stone sculptures. It is partly cloudy, but still the scene of mostly white stones hurts our eyes.
The next four days are wonderful. The schedule basically is:
  • Breakfast: Toast with eggs, fruit, coffee and tea
  • Morning: Three hours of kayaking
  • Lunch: Baked fish with cucumber salad, cooked or blackened shrimp, fried or ceviche style calamari, vegetable rolls, steamed or stir-fried greens, and rice. Fruit for dessert.
  • Afternoon: One to two hours of kayaking
  • Dinner: Cucumber salad, shrimp, squid, tofu, mussels, and various steamed greens or vegetables, with rice and fruit for dessert. And some wine.
We think this is a true luxury vacation: we are the only guests on the junk boat. The boat crew consists of five members, who take care of navigation and food (fishing and cooking for us). On our kayaking trips we are accompanied by our guide, Hoang Bien Cuong. With the exception of the first afternoon, on our whole kayaking trip we don't see anyone else but local fishermen.
On our first day we visit one easy access lagoon, and the Drum Cave, which offers a gorgeous venue for parties and concerts, but we are a bit turned down by the amount of trash and electric wiring in there. Before returning to the escort boat muddy and salty, we visit one final cave that requires some climbing.
On our second day we visit many peaceful lagoons that are accessible only through narrow or low tunnels. The tide is high, so we need to pass the tunnels lying down on our backs on the top-sitters. As our guide explains, this is something that cannot be done in regular sit-in kayaks. Eventually, we have to return to the escort boat at the edge of the Ha Long Bay archipelago. While we spent quality time in peaceful lagoons, the wind has grown stronger in the open sea, and with the wind the waters have gotten quite rough.
Fortunately, the balancing quality of our kayak is quite remarkable, or is it just our core muscles trained by Pilates, that makes us to manage the boat and not flip it over. And even if we did, we are comforted with the fact that the water is very warm. However, the excitement is not over yet.
The junk boat takes us through boiling water to a tranquil bay to have our lunch at. We are hungry, but the appetite is spoiled, at least momentarily, by a bumpy ride. After the lunch we wait for quite a while the tide go down. The afternoon trip is again challenging since we need to go through some very narrow or low tunnels, mostly lying on our backs on the canoe, and instead of paddling, steering by pulling and pushing with hands on the rock.
It takes some coordination so that neither of us, or at least not both, hit our heads or knees to the rocks. On our way back to the escort ship we paddle through fishfarms. These farms are villages on floating platforms. To our knowledge, these farms are the only "permanent" human residencies in Ha Long Bay.
By 5pm we are back on the escort boat for dinner. This time we get, in addition to the regular dishes, something that is supposedly seafood, and has no flavor and feels gummy. We left most of it untouched. In general the food has been really good and fresh, liberally flavored with garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and chili, plus the chef is not shy on soy sauce and msg.
Ha Long Bay literally means The Bay of Descending Dragons, and according to the legend it consists of an area, where the mother dragon landed and the area where her children landed. So far we've been with the mother dragon. Today it is time to move with the babies.
Why are these islands called children? They are smaller than the mother, and so are the lagoons, and the tunnels leading to the lagoons are definitely tighter. The water is equally clear and beautifully turquoise. However, when back in the open sea, the waves are equally high and treacherous.
We try to go through one more tunnel, but the waves are so strong that we give up. Surprisingly, it is much easier to paddle up from the tunnel against the stream than get into the tunnel, since the retreating waves keep drawing us back, and no matter how hard we paddle, we can't beat the force of the waves. We return to the boat for lunch. This time we have, in addition to regular items, something that looks and tastes like scallops wrapped in bacon, and some really flavorful omelette with onions. If something surprises me of South-East Asian cooking is the prevalence of eggs in any dish.
After lunch we wait quite a while to be escorted to our next kayaking destination, which is again at the mother's side. We paddle a long way in a dark and complex tunnel. It leads us to a lagoon that supposedly no one but our guide knows. At least it is out of reach of mass tourism.
This is our third and the last night in the Ha Long Bay and we return to the bay in which tens of junk boats reside. This is the place where most tourist come to "see" Ha Long Bay (picture on right). Today's dinner features some new dishes, such as roasted corn kernels, crab legs, and chicken with vegetables. Sad to say that Tomi's appetite has been really low because of his flu, and Tei just can't finish everything. Fortunately, the crew members do not waste our leftovers :)
In our last morning in Ha Long Bay we get some rain. We leave the crowded bay and, visit a lagoon full of mangrove. Our guide has only visited the place once before.

Back in Hanoi, November 12

After another nightmarish ride, this time in a more modern car with working seatbelts, we are back in Hanoi just for few hours before leaving Sa Pa by night train. We leave our laundry and luggage for daycare at the hotel, and spend these few hours in Old Quarter. Again, we find a Mediterranean place for dinner: we have salad and pasta, accompanied by authentic Italian music by Jethro Tull.

Sa Pa, November 13-15

After a sleepless night, we are in Lao Cai at five thirty in the morning, and after a couple of more hours in foggy Sa Pa. The visibility is just few meters, and it is chilly. We did not plan this twist to our Vietnam trip, so we are totally unprepared for the newly arrived winter weather. Our expectations regarding the tours, meals, and the accommodation we paid for are not quite met, either.
Upon arrival to the Royal View hotel we are not given a room with shower as promised, but directed to the dining hall for breakfast, instead. It is only seven o'clock in the morning but the contents of the buffet are already devoured, and we don't see much activity to replenish it. Next we find ourselves waiting in the line to the ladies' restroom for shower.
At 9am arrives the guide, and takes us to the Sa Pa market. On the lower level we see a variety of vegetables, and all possible parts of dead animals: pigs, ducks, chicken as well as dogs. On the upper level one can find fabrics and clothing, proudly featuring eighties' color scheme and materials. The tour ends early, and we have two hours for lunch and to shop for warmer clothes, which we don't find, and need, as it turns out.
The afternoon tour takes us to Cat Cat Village, named after a French word meaning a small waterfall. We visit age traditional village where we are introduced to a Black Hmong home, indigo dying, and water powered rice grinding.
One interesting observation of today's trip is that, while men are nowhere to be seen, and little boys play ball, girls are with women begging or selling handicrafts to tourists.

In the photo on left: our guide and one of the three Singaporean students that joined us to the tour.

Unfortunately, the fog is so thick we can't really enjoy much of the scenery. It is going to be like this for the whole winter here. Anyway, we are about 1700 meters above the sea level. After the hike, we have a couple of beers and a chat with an owner of a British pub, which carries absolutely no British beers.
Next morning opens ... foggy, and the breakfast buffet ... empty. Unlike promised, we are required to check out from our room before going to the day's tour. We are taken by a bus to a middle of nowhere where we start our long and muddy hike down to villages.
A group of, at best nearly ten, Black Hmong women with their daughters intimately follow us, and constantly ask questions like "Where are you from?", "How old are you?", and "How many children/daughters do you have?" They walk so close to us that it is rather intimidating.
Even if we have descended most of the way, we are still quite high up in the mountains, and it starts getting chilly in the cool and humid conditions. Halfway through our hike we stop for lunch at a local house. For two of us the meal belongs to the package price, and we get baguette and a cold omelette with some fruit. Others choose their own meals, white rice with meat and vegetables. Another disappointment to us.
The remaining hike is getting challenging: we go up and down terraced hills on a steep and muddy trail. We try hard not to slip, not because we are scared of falling or getting our clothes dirty, but to avoid the women, who are still increasing in number, eagerly trying to lend their helping hand, just to gain an excuse to get us buy their handicrafts to reciprocate. One of the negative highlights of the day is the dog slaying we witness: a guy hunts down a stray dog with a spear, puts it in cage on the back of his motorbike, and the dog being still (barely) alive, rides away as if nothing had happened. We all are standing there two meters away, stunned. The Singaporean guys try to snatch photos.

The Hmong girls are still trying to get us buy their bracelets when we are waiting for a bus back to town: "Buy this for me. It's diffreeent!"

The return trip, first by taxi to Lao Cai and by train to Hanoi, is uneventful. When in Lao Cai, we are handed dinner coupons: first time we get something substantial for our money in this Sa Pa tour. With the coupons we get two set meals at the railway station restaurant, but the bottle of wine is on us.

Leaving Vietnam

The last adventure happens early in the morning when we are back in Hanoi, and try to negotiate a taxi ride to the hotel. None of the drivers wants to take a metered ride. However, our hotel will be paying, so we know they know what the charge should be. Anyway, we leave it to the taxi driver that takes us all around the Old Quarter before getting to the hotel. Our final fun and frustration is to watch prematurely awakened hotel receptionist and the taxi driver to "negotiate" over the acceptable fee. That's not all, though. We still need to get the room we were promised, and that requires another fifty minutes of negotiation and waiting for us. Once it is solved, we have cozy room in the neighboring hotel to shower, snooze for a couple of hours, and have breakfast before leaving to the airport.
What a great trip! Hanoi is busy and noisy, but its people look upbeat and happy. The kayaking in Ha Long Bay was well worth every dollar we paid for it. We warm heartedly recommend John Gray's Sea Canoe to anyone adventurous. Sa Pa was a slight disappointment, not because the place was not worth visiting, but we paid a lot of money for almost nothing. And of course, the weather could have been nicer.