Overnight in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

6 01 2017

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No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to the emerald waters of Ha Long Bay. For many, their only familiarity with it comes from the silver screen. Ha Long Bay has been depicted in “Pan,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Indochine,” “The Quiet American,” and the soon to be released “Kong: Skull Island.”

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The many “junks” carrying visitors.

A World Heritage Site since 1994, Ha Long Bay is some 2,000 limestone islets, most rising vertically from the sea topped with rain forest. They are eroded through countless eons into fantastical shapes. This archipelago forms the most popular tourism attraction in northern Vietnam.  The islets have been taking shape for 500 million years.These islands are literally like giant rocks rising from the sea. Some of them have big caves and grottos.

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While most are uninhabited, there are a few with beaches and residents. It is beautiful. And ethereal. I felt like I was on another planet altogether. There are activities, rock climbing, snorkel and scuba, cave viewing, hiking, kayaking and beach combing.

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The best way to view the islets is by kayak!

Although there are day trips one can book, Ha Long Bay is best visited as a complete overnight. This allows for some activities but also to see the light bathing the islets at different angles. There are all sorts of overnight “junks” one can take. Most have very good dining.

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As  you can see, everyone is BUSY chowing down! Fried whole fish, steamed shrimp, and stuffed crab were on the menu.

Some are only 10 guest rooms, others are 4-decked monsters with pop-out stern docks from which inflatable skiffs and kayaks can be launched.

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My room was plenty big.

Thankfully, the beauty was never spoiled by the noise and smell of wave runners or jet skis. And in the evening none of the party boats had loud karaoke playing. And the stars came out.

 

We were really looking forward to some time on the water. Not long after our boat launched, we took advantage of the roof top lounging area!

It is true Ha Long Bay is popular with tourists. Don’t expect to have it all to your boat. Your boat will share with dozens of others. But it’s still worth a trip. For a more intimate experience with the limestone islets, book a two-day trip to Bai Tu Long Bay. You’ll spend more, but the extra Dong will buy you more solitude.





Hoi An, Vietnam: City of Lanterns

28 12 2016

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Our Vietnam trip began with big cities, and we were in need of relief. Saigon, with over 10 million population, biblical traffic congestion and pollution was becoming exhausting. It made us yearn for something more intimate. But up the coast, what we imagined to be a peaceful seaside town, Nha Trang, turned out to be more like Atlantic City New Jersey, its beach lined with 40-story hotels and booming boardwalk. Hoi An would be the antidote we needed.

Hoi An was once one of SE Asia’s most visited ports. Its docks hosted ships from as far away as India and Europe. The architecture has roots in Japan. If its river had not shallowed due to silting after a major flooding event in the 1800s, Hoi An would no doubt still be an industrial magnet. Once the river became too shallow for big ships, other ports took up the trade and Hoi An’s economy collapsed. But its historical significance and beauty caused both sides in the Vietnam War to agree to declare the city off limits to fighting. As such, it retained its character until the 1990s, when Vietnam opened up again. It’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourism  opportunities were realized, and Hoi An Town was declared a walking-only district. Today, one can stroll the streets free from choking, honking motorbikes and cars. Of course, that means the tourists come in throngs. Nevertheless, especially in the morning, Hoi An can be quite relaxing and charming.

We lodged at the Hoi An Lantern Hotel, conveniently situated walking distance from the vehicle-free zone.

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Its rooms surround a nice pool. And I availed myself of its cool waters twice. One day, we had monsoon-like downpours which came without notice, completely drenching us on a bike ride. I returned soaked, and simply jumped in the pool!

In Hoi An, there are a number of top activities. Walking has to be numero uno. Just strolling around taking it slow is a good way to spend time.

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Along a canal

Renting a bike is another, and I’ll cover that is the next blog post. It’s easily pedaled. Sampling the cuisine, and taking cooking classes are not to be missed. Seafood, especially crab and dumplings are specialties. Some opt for a sampan ride. And of course the tailors. Supposedly Hoi An has 600+ tailors. So, if tailored clothing is your thing, you’ll love Hoi An. I don’t have much need for tailored clothing, and shopping is not my cup of tea. And frankly, the goods to buy in Hoi An are repeated over and over again all over the city. So walking early in the day, and just people watching were enough – plus some nice food!

I walked and walked, hunting for a crab lunch and boy did I find it! Two crabs with lots of to die for veggies. I risked a total stomach melt down on that lunch but it went well. There was no penalty for all those veggies! In SE Asia, you take risks when eating fresh veggies. You never know what might happen a few hours later!

A famous sight in Hoi An is the Japanese covered bridge. Reminded me of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, with lots of tourists, and an exhibit inside. There, I was treated to some Vietnamese hospitality. I had an extra large umbrella from my hotel, and when I saw a friend, I dueled him with it. After some conversation, we were walking about two blocks away and I realized I didn’t have my umbrella! I headed back to the bridge, where I asked two police hoping to find it. Guess what? They actually had it for me!

There are some 800 designated historical buildings in Hoi An. Some are Buddhist temples of Chinese architecture, and entry to these is partially covered by a ticket folks must purchase to enter the vehicle-free zone. They’re worth exploring.

I kept walking back alleys, across the canal, to the part of the city nearer the sea. I was hoping to find a kayak rental facility, but when I got there, all that remained was a shell of an old boat. So, I stopped in for a hair cut.

 

$5 later, I was on my way. If you’re in Vietnam, I’d say you’ve got to visit Hoi An!





The Coracle: A Vietnamese Fishing Boat and Handy Dinghy

28 12 2016
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Paddling a coracle. The paddle is held on with a rope.

Along the Vietnamese coast and waterways, I couldn’t help but notice people paddling round basket boats. I’d heard about these boats and couldn’t remember what they were called. I thought they were found mostly in Europe, but here they were!  And I’d never seen one in person. Hot damn. I came to learn they are coracles. Not the most efficient craft for sure, but somehow, these craft have endured for centuries, so there must be positives for them to persist.

Some research reveals coracles have been used since the Bronze Age and apparently Julius Caesar’s army made use of them. Since then, the round boats have spread all the way to India and Southeast Asia. In Ireland, they are called Curragh, and in Tibet, Kowa. Traditionally a coracle is like a woven basket, with a layer of waterproofing on the outside. The waterproofing might be resin and tar, for example. Today such boats still ply the waters, though fiberglass and polyethylene versions are common.

My favorite memory of Vietnam was stopping by a fishing village where coracles were the primary means to get to the quarry. We walked through the village, and its inhabitants were not used to seeing Westerners at all. They looked at us with a bit of trepidation. We learned they were concerned we might be prospective real estate buyers. As if we might buy their whole village. There has been so much development on the Vietnamese coast that their way of life is endangered. No, we were just tourists having a look. Children squealed with excitement to have visitors, though, lining up to high-five us. And then we had offers of food and fish.

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Net repair

Walking through, we saw life as they live it. Cooking meals over coal-fired stoves. Knitting or repairing clothing. Kids playing.

 

 

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Some coracles had motors

Out on the beach there were dozens of coracles plus some larger boats lined up. Folks were mostly immersed in maintenance tasks.

Some were fixing nets, some working on motors. Others were caulking the older style basket coracles.

I could have spent a whole day working with these people. Just to get a glimpse on their way of life would be fulfilling.

 

 

 





SE Asia: Before You Go

24 12 2016

I have been to Southeast Asia eight times – to Bali, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. I’ve visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Denpasar, Hanoi, Pakse, Phnom Penh, Saigon, and even Hong Kong. And, well, from all those experiences, there are some common things everyone should know before they go.

People Are Warm

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In every country, every city I’ve been to, I’ve found the people warm and hospitable. Whenever I need help, or ask for directions, someone is able to guide me to the right place. People will go out of their way to ensure I am taken care of – and this is something that keeps me returning time after time. Even people in uniform one might be anxious asking – army personnel, police or security are usually willing to help. Sometimes, I’ve found folks seem to take an active interest in ensuring I’m on the right path. Examples of compassion and hospitality from my experience – In Bhutan, we got robbed on the trail. The King learned of it, and went out of his way to have us cared for and compensated. In Cambodia, when I was part of a volunteer crew building WCs for a village out in the rice paddies, the elders met and had all of us to the communal kitchen for dinner as thanks. In Bangkok, I had dropped my passport on a taxi seat. The driver chased me down to return it! And recently, in Vietnam, my friend Laura was sick. She found her hosts had made her special soup so she felt better.

English Is Spoken

If traveling in SE Asia, don’t be too concerned that nobody will understand your English. I’ve found pretty much everywhere I can find someone with some understanding of my language. If you can pick up a few phrases of the local language, you get bonus points! But locals won’t get upset if you cannot speak their tongue, for they understand their tonal languages are very challenging for outsiders! I’ve been to English classes for grade school kids on the River Kwai in Thailand, and outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve been approached by children just dying to try out their English on me!

Try To Save Face

Status and appearances are important. So if you discover your meal is not what you ordered, your hotel room isn’t quite right, or the Website you’re working on with someone in SE Asia isn’t in correct English, try to approach the situation diplomatically. Don’t berate a subordinate in front of their boss. Try not to raise your voice when pointing out something is wrong. Instead, gently approach the topic from their side, and use a win-win strategy. Raising voices and pumping fists won’t get you anywhere.

Transportation Is Adventurous – You’ll Need Understanding and Flexibility

Whether walking, taking a bus, a ferry, taxi, tuk tuk or motorbike, Westerners will find getting around an adventure! Traffic congestion can reach biblical proportions, road manners seem chaotic to Westerners, safety standards appear non-existant, and keeping a tight schedule might seem confounding. You’ve got to take it all in stride. At times, getting around seems like a scene from “Mad Max!”

 

The motorbike is the most ubiquitous mode by far. Especially in Vietnam and Cambodia, they swarm like locusts seemingly navigating in unison like schools of fish. They will often filter through cars and trucks to the front at a stop light. In Saigon at rush hour, they spill over onto the sidewalks. Got an appointment at 11:00 sharp? Your late arrival won’t be an insult; rather, an expected part of everyday life.

Pedestrian Strategies – How to cross the street in this seeming madness? The idea is to make up your mind where you want to cross, and cross slowly and deliberately. Believe it or not, the fish will swarm right around you. Even on the sidewalk. Keep going in one direction. Hesitation or quick changes in direction invite disaster.

For us Westerners, visiting SE Asia is fascinating. There is a lot of eye candy – everything from street food vendors, 4 people on bikes, to monks passing by. It is easy to get caught up in all the activity, watching. But when on the sidewalk, mind what’s immediately in front of you, because it might be a hole. This condition pretty much applies everywhere. And I also advise shoes with toe protection just in case.

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Just be careful!

Boats

If your destination lies on a river, hiring a long-tail boat is one fun way to get there. But don’t expect the standards of safety you’re accustomed to at home! You will likely inhale some diesel fumes, get splashed by river water, and feel lucky if the boat has life preservers. And some captains are more interested in haste than simply arriving in one piece. Here, we’re heading from Cambodia into Laos when the Mekong was flooding. Helmet schmelmet.

Renting a motorbike – this is a fun way to get around. Or foolish, depending. Keep in mind that if you get in an accident, you may be required to pay the full cost for damage immediately. Better to try your luck in a rural setting than getting into the melee in a big city!

Pollution and Garbage

Air quality standards seem non existent. In the big, smoky, humid cities, exhaust and smoke can get stifling. Some can be seen wearing dust masks as an everyday affair. It’s part of life over there.

Garbage is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, the thin, black plastic bag is seen blowing around, clinging to whatever it can catch. Then, there are those whose idea of emptying the garbage is just dump the can over the nearest wall. Somehow, this needs to be changed. In Bali, setting out “disposable” offerings several times daily leads to epic “offering piles” of refuse.

In Bhutan, not part of SE Asia, the King has stepped in to circumvent the garbage plague. There, plastic bags are banned entirely. Instead, reusable bags have been used for years.

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The Authorities Might Be Out for Themselves

Cops, customs officers and immigration officials are paid paltry wages, and often make up for this at your expense. Literally. So don’t be surprised if you wind up being asked to pay for something you KNOW you shouldn’t have to. I was in a friend’s car in Bangkok when we encountered a traffic stop run by cops. When asked for his license, my friend couldn’t produce. The cop asked, “You can pay me now and I’ll let you go, or we’ll have to deal with this at the police station.” My friend paid on the spot. After when I asked about it, he said simply, “Oh that happens all the time.” In Cambodia I watched as a cop was trying to ticket an Australian on a rented motorbike with a Cambodian girl on the back. She got into this argument with the cop, and in the end, she convinced him to let them go for a price. And in Bali, where we were traveling on a 30-day visa, we were leaving on day 29. The customs officer says to my friend, eye brows raised, “Your visa is expired. It costs $20 to renew.” My friend began arguing, to no avail. She simply paid up. And on the Cambodia – Laos border, I was in this village where there was only one fisherman authorized to stamp my passport, and there was no fee required, according to the Laotian Website. I already had a government issued visa. But oh no. I had to pay him the extra $15 to get my “stamp.” So don’t be surprised if you need to shell out some extra to keep your trip going smoothly once in a while.

Things Might Not Be As They Appear

Fancy looking hotels, new developments, and sparkling restaurants are often not as they appear at first glance. Construction doesn’t seem to be on par with Western standards. A quick look at window casings even on late model buildings often reveals cracks or caulking to band-aid mistaken construction. A look out back behind the restaurant might reveal standards uncomfortable for the Western visitor. It all needs to be taken in stride. Highways may have less-than-smooth surfaces, necessitating slower travel speeds over bumpy pavement.

Have Fun! Miracles Happen, Magic Awaits, Things Work Out

For all the differences, a visit to SE Asia is worth the effort. Even when difficulties do arise, something magical always seems to happen to make up for it. And those unforseen challenges and successes make memories that last a lifetime.