Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Vietnam 2007’ Category

Last day in Saigon, Wednesday October 4th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

We hadn’t planned to spend our last day in Saigon shopping but the lure of an air-conditioned department store was too hard to resist. Tim had developed a minor obsession with finding some jade cufflinks so we mooched around the jewellery stalls to no avail, but then had more luck with a place that sold men’s shirts & silk pyjamas in size huge for westerners. I had a rush of blood to the head and bought four handbags (I, who use *one* ‘investment’ handbag for years on end!), a black silk shirt and some ornamental bits and pieces, including a frog for Glenda’s collection as a thank you for looking after the dogs for us at home.
Back at the hotel for a rest, I found myself having to defrost the fridge! I’d put some damp hand towels in the freezer to use as a cool pack for Tim’s foot rash – and forgotten about them. They were welded to the freezer, and I had to boil up water in the kettle and shove a hot towel in there with them to get them loose. Not exactly how I had planned to spend my afternoon…
In the evening there was a farewell dinner at a restaurant called Vietnamese House with Long and then it was time to pack for Cambodia!

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Mekong Delta, Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

We began with a long drive down to the Mekong Delta, and then a somewhat alarming boat ride, followed by an even more alarming transfer into a sampan which took us up a narrow winding stream to Coconut Island. In the oppressive heat and with the ever-present threat of mosquitoes, it felt a little like the voyage of the African Queen – though the vegetation was different, and alas, nobody on board looked like Humphrey Bogart…
On Coconut Island we were shown a lot of tropical plants we’d seen before (in places like Safeway), had a morning tea of fruit and tea, and then watched coconuts being hand-made into coconut sweets – outdoors on trestle tables, along with flies and the occasional dog – but these relaxed hygiene standards seemed not to bother anyone much and trade was brisk. Tim then went to inspect some beehives while I and my allergy to bees kept well away. Then there was a silly photo shoot with a python kept miserably in a cage, followed by lunch and the trip back up the river. It was not really much fun, but our hosts tried so hard, and it seemed best to put it down to our good deed for the day and tried to buy pointless souvenirs to help the local economy whenever we could.
 Back in Saigon we stopped at a brilliant Chinese temple that featured enchanting little carved figures all around the topmost walls, and then a too-quick tour through the wholesale market. We followed Long single-file into a rabbit warren of tiny stalls, where – had we had time – we might have bought dear little dresses, hats and tiny little shoes for my just-born grand-niece Ariella. It was a wonderful treasure-trove of sights and scents, but alas, night was falling. Long had already been more than generous with his time – and he had not yet finished his day…
Once before in the topics, in Bali, Tim had got a nasty rash on his feet and by this time into our Vietnam trip, the rash was back with a vengeance. So (with Long’s help to find it) we made an unscheduled visit to the International Clinic where anti-histamines were prescribed and we learned that it was probably an allergic reaction to the unrestricted use of chemicals in agriculture.
 This somewhat alarming news did not discourage us from venturing out for dinner – to the Continental, where Graham Greene used to stay. (I had a Daiquiri in his honour). Our entrees and main courses weren’t especially memorable, but we had a wonderfully theatrical performance by the head waiter who made our crepes Suzette for the edification of his young understudy. A splendid cognac finished the meal off nicely and we made our way back to the hotel feeling much better!

Posted in LitLovers pilgrimage, Mekong Delta 2007, SE Asia, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants Museum, and the Presidential Palace, Sunday, October 1st, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

The Cu Chi Tunnels are about 70k from Saigon, and stretch for about 250k from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to form an underground guerilla escape network that flummoxed the Americans entirely during the war. With camouflaged entrances just big enough to admit a small Vietnamese frame, these tunnels were on three levels, complete with kitchens, hospitals and escape routes. According to our guide, Long, and the prevailing propaganda, these tunnels were built in response to carpet bombing by B52s and the use of napalm/Agent Orange by local peasant villagers with no engineering background. Who knows? It seems an astonishing engineering feat for uneducated people…
The booby traps we were shown on this tour were certainly primitive in conception if not in design. Made with great skill out of recycled bombs, scrap metal and rubber these gruesome things were deliberately designed to capture but not to kill, so that victims could be interrogated, but they were also intended to inflict terrible injuries. We saw an adaptation of a tiger trap with bamboo stakes to impale anyone who stumbled into it, and a door trap deliberately designed to emasculate and disembowel the victim. It is quite confronting to see these things displayed alongside massive American B52 bomb craters, especially since the Vietnamese seem to present them with pride in their own ingenuity. I thought they were revolting, providing further evidence that war brutalises all sides so that the participants become indifferent to atrocities they would otherwise abhor.
These days some of the tunnels have been widened for Western waistlines so that tourists can venture down for a look, and there is also a shooting range where they can play about with AK47s so that the tourist experience is enhanced by the ear-splitting sound of machine gun fire – but such activities seem grotesque to me. The unspoken truth about Cu Chi is that it is an unmarked graveyard, and it seems to me that it should be treated with the same respect that Australians demand for Gallipoli. I don’t blame the Vietnamese for turning it into a tourist attraction: they are poor, the tourist dollar is vital for their economy and few people would visit if it were otherwise – but it was a place that made me feel very uncomfortable.
I was glad to go back to Saigon, and glad to be out of the jungle where they say there is still unexploded ordnance once off the beaten track. After lunch, however, there were more horrors to come. We visited the War Remnants Museum, also very confronting, especially to the former GIs who were wandering about the displays in silence that was utterly unlike the usual noisy behaviour of Americans Abroad. Outside in the sunshine there were captured American planes and the detritus of armaments, and it seemed rather banal, but inside there were graphic photos of gruesome deaths, wholesale destruction of homes, and atrocities such as the massacres at My Son and My Lai. Equally ghastly was the collection of malformed foetuses preserved in formaldehyde and the photos of deformed children who had been affected by Agent Orange. The most revolting of all was a photo of a GI tossing around the shredded remnants of a Vietnamese man, still recognisable as a human being despite his horrific injuries. I could not bear to look at much of it, and felt ashamed that my country had followed the Americans so blindly into this stupid, pointless and cruel war.
From there, to more pleasant things – a tour of the Presidential Palace. We posed in front of the gates that the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through so spectacularly in 1975, passed by the gardens where American helicopters had scooped up those fleeing the victors and checked out the interior. It was less opulent than I had expected, indeed quite Spartan in a 60s minimalist kind of way, (which ought to be a lesson to anyone else trying to build something splendid in an era of architectural barbarism).
From there we had a quick look through Notre Dame Cathedral, which is somewhat faded but still has very impressive stained glass windows – and also the Post Office, built by the French with materials brought entirely from France. These French colonial buildings inspired us to seek out a good French restaurant called Camarque where we had a truly splendid meal to restore our spirits after a rather sombre day!

Posted in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) 2007, SE Asia, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Saigon, Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

Its official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone still calls it Saigon. We flew in from Hoi An, trouble free, and checked in at The Grand Hotel, which despite its imposing front desk, isn’t grand at all. Our view was downright ugly – a construction site, complete with a crane and concrete blocks, which for some bizarre reason needed to be moved about, noisily, late at night. Not the hotel’s fault, admittedly, but the indifferent service certainly was, and we would not recommend this hotel.

The BBQ dinner at the 3T Restaurant was not for the faint-hearted. We followed Long across a maze of streets, and upstairs onto a roof terrace which was packed with diners, mostly Vietnamese. They made a space for us and we sat down to barbecue our dinners on a burner at the table. The waiters brought out successive plates of this and that, which Tim expertly turned over with his chopsticks, aided and abetted by Ken with the basting spoon. All was well until they brought out the prawns, which were skewered, but still alive! It seemed best to put them out of their misery by cooking them as quickly as possible, but the more squeamish among us could not make ourselves eat them…

Long, an excellent guide who made the whole tour a pleasure, then took us downstairs to Fanny’s, which sells the most astonishing ice-creams! We had expected him to want to spend his first night back at home in Saigon with his girlfriend, but no, he set this night up on his own initiative so that we would have some fun on our first night in his home town. I had a sorbet called The Colonel (lemon sherbet and vodka) and Tim had a Havana (rum and raisin with bacardi and coconut). Very refreshing!

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Hoi An Old Town, Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

Our guide, Long, met us at nine and we took a walk through the Old Town, where mercifully there are no cars or motorbikes allowed and it was uncharacteristically peaceful and quiet. Here we saw the prettiest temple of our tour (at the Assembly Hall), a ‘Japanese’ bridge, and the oldest house in Hoi An. It was over 200 years old, and had survived regular flooding in the monsoon by having marble bases to its supporting columns which prevented them from rotting. There was also a trapdoor from the upper storey so that precious items could be hauled up during the floods, which sometimes reach 1.5 metres during the wet season. I was especially taken with the three household gods, with a baby for happiness, a hat and a ‘happy belly’ for prosperity, and a walking stick for longevity. Although the house is open to visitors it is still in use, and upstairs a seamstress does the most beautiful silk embroidery by hand, presumably for long hours each day. I bought some lovely tablecloths and matching table napkins which I shall treasure, for I know how poorly my attempts at needlework compare with the work of this charming young woman.
We had a refreshing cup of Chinese tea, and then everyone else went off to buy shoes while Tim and I took a stroll along the riverfront instead. It was very pleasant exploring this less frequented area, and we were left in peace to enjoy it. Although we’d made a booking for dinner at the Morning Glory restaurant, we couldn’t resist a snack beforehand, so we went back and sampled little dumplings and corn pancakes. Our route back to the hotel took us back past Hoi An’s most famous landmark, the covered Japanese bridge, built in the 16th century, though possibly not by the Japanese. There are statues of two dogs at one end, and two monkeys at the other, probably representing points of the compass and not, as commonly believed, the Year of the Dog and the Year of the Monkey because that would mean that it took two years to build the bridge, which seems unlikely. After loafing about with a book and a snooze at the hotel, we took lunch at Miss Ly’s Cafeteria 22 (where we had another lesson in folding spring rolls), and then discovered the market. The rain was very heavy but we splashed along quite happily and plunged into the undercover part where we marvelled at the range of goods for sale, crammed into every available scrap of space. (I finally managed to buy a moon cake here, but I forgot about it afterwards, and had to throw it out – what a waste!)
Our dinner at the Morning Glory Restaurant was every bit as good as the previous night. We had Three Brothers crispy noodle pancakes (chicken wrapped around a stick of lemon grass, like an icy pole on a stick), some fried spring rolls, stuffed squid for Tim and Long’s recommendation, Cam Lan, which is noodles with pork and nuts. We love the crisp/silky contrasts of texture and taste in Vietnamese cuisine!

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Hue to Hoi An, Friday, September 28th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

We spent the day travelling by bus to Hoi An – only a short distance, but we stopped at a number of interesting places en route…
First we travelled up and over the Hai Van Pass through spectacular scenery overlooking the South China Sea. At the very top of the mountain there’s a sort of plaza where we were assailed by street vendors determined to be our friends (and sell us souvenirs).
One young lady named Vuong attached herself to us so enthusiastically that after we had inspected the gun turrets, we gave in and allowed ourselves to be escorted to her stall – where I purchased some bracelets I shall never wear and some possibly genuine Vietnamese pearls and a shell necklace probably made of plastic. (Why else would our notoriously tough Australian customs have let me bring them back home, eh?)
From the pass we went to the Cham museum at Da Nang. Records of the Cham Kingdom begin in the 2nd century, and by the 9th century they ruled the central area of Vietnam and westward into Cambodia. They are now a minority group in Vietnam, but have quite a large population in Cambodia, where they are mostly Muslims. In their heyday, however, the Cham were Hindu, and their sculptures are fantastic. They’re mostly carved in sandstone, and are in remarkably good condition considering the humidity, which is breathtaking. At the museum shop I did my bit to support the restoration appeal by buying a jade bracelet and a book about Vietnam’s World Heritage sites.
Then it was on to China Beach, famous as an R & R base for American servicemen from nearby Da Nang during the war. It was a pretty beach and some of our group went swimming while the rest of us loafed at a local cafe. From there we went into the Marble Mountains where we climbed 500 steps to the top to enjoy a spectacular view. There was also a superb Buddhist temple complex with a truly beautiful one in Wedgewood blue – an amazing accomplishment to build these glorious buildings in such an inaccessible place, up so high. Here Tim got to pat a Happy Buddha, one which clearly shows why Western men are often given the nickname! There were caves there too, including one that the South Vietnamese had used as a hospital during the war, but once again I couldn’t risk going down the steps with my dodgy ankle so Tim went down on his own. Alas, the camera wouldn’t work in the dim light, so we don’t have any photos…From there we went on to visit a marble factory where they make most beautiful things but, mindful of the weight of our luggage, Tim just bought a small tortoise. Then it was back on the bus to the small town of Hoi An…
Much of the old part of Hoi An maintains features of Southeast Asian trading ports of the 15th-19th centuries, and so it was declared to be World Heritage by UNESCO in 1999. There are no cars allowed within its boundaries, so after checking in at the Hoi An Hotel we walked down to the Morning Glory Restaurant – for a lesson in Vietnamese cooking. We began by slicing white eggplants and moved on to learning the art of folding spring roll wrappers, much to general hilarity. We sampled a variety of Vietnamese herbs, all of which apparently will cure every digestive ailment known to man. While some of these herbs were familiar, others such as the anise basil and the wild watercress were new to us and will necessitate a trip to the Springvale markets at home if Tim is to replicate the authentic flavour of the cold spring rolls. After most of us had managed to construct a somewhat flimsy but tasty roll, they took pity on us and took over the cooking. We tucked into a splendid meal, cooked by experts. There was a lovely curry vegetable soup, and the fish and mango sauce was scrumptious. Tim was very impressed by Madame Vy – who is not yet 40 and owns four such restaurants and a hotel. A fine example of the entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnam under ‘Đổi mới’ indeed.
After dinner, Long took us to a tailoring shop where most of the group settled down to some serious retail therapy, but we sloped off to the hotel where we had cocktails by the pool and I christened my new bathers. The room was like a sauna when we finally went to bed, but with the aircon on full blast it eventually cooled down and we got a sound night’s sleep after all.

Posted in Hoi An 2007, Hue 2007, SE Asia, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Temple Crawling, Thursday September 27th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 17, 2007

Morning is the best time to go for a walk in Vietnam, so before breakfast, we braved crossing the road and took a stroll across the Trang Tien Bridge which spans the Perfume (Huong Giang)River, so called because traders used it to ferry sandalwood downstream, and there were also beautiful scented tropical flora on its banks. There were shops of all sorts on the other side of the road, but we’d run out of courage by then and stuck to the riverside. We walked through a lovely park and discovered this dance class learning the cha-cha in one of the open spaces. One of the young ladies offered Tim a free lesson, but he gracefully declined…
 After breakfast we set off with the tour group for the Citadel and the Forbidden City. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 and its major tourist attraction is the remnants of its imperial city. Naturally, there were fortifications and gun emplacements to protect it, so at the entrance there are cannon – four on one side representing north, south, east and west, and five on the other representing the five elements: earth, air, water, fire and wood. Unfortunately, both the French and the Americans failed to be deterred by these fortifications…the French burned and looted the Imperial City in 1885, forcing Vietnam into becoming a protectorate of France, and thousands died during the Tet Offensive – which also wrecked most of the rest of the buildings. The Communists neglected it for quite some time after 1975, until they realised its tourist potential and in 1993 UNESCO declared the whole complex a heritage site and is gradually restoring it.
Once you walk in through the main gate, you can see why. It is extraordinarily beautiful, in a gently faded way. There’s a splendid moat, and a succession of lovely temples. In the Temple of Generations there are ten funerary tablets honouring the Imperial rulers, each one with a picture of the Emperor, and a couple of grey-green to-die-for porcelain vases and other ornaments. At the back behind the altar were two shrines, one for each of the Emperor’s parents. (We had to take our shoes off to go into this part of the complex, and it wasn’t easy to get them back on again in the heat!) Most things – columns, walls and the roof – were painted red and gold (for luck), and outside there is a courtyard for the supplicants, who had to line up in order of rank on a sort of grid, flanked on both sides by statues of an elephant, a horse and four impressive Confucian gents. One can only feel sympathy for any supplicant at the end of the queue on a busy day because it must have been sheer torture standing on this concrete courtyard in the humidity and heat!
From the gates to the temples,it was the intricate carvings and mosaics which took our breath away, and even with tourists crawling all over the complex there was an atmosphere of peace and serenity in the beautifully landscaped courtyards and gardens.

From the citadel and the Forbidden City, we went to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda which the emperor dedicated to a deity he had seen in a dream. She advised him where to build the citadel so that there would be peace in Vietnam, but she obviously didn’t foresee the dreadful warfare that took place at the citadel in the Tet Offensive in 1968. 30,000 civilians died when first the North Vietnamese Army took it, and then the Americans and the South Vietnamese military under Marshall Ky tried to get it back. Now there is nothing to show that there was ever warfare here but much of the complex was destroyed and although there are ambitions to restore it, it’s going to take a vast amount of money to do it. Given the sad history of this place, I suspect that the Americans – who have been extraordinarily generous with funds to support restorations in Europe, everywhere from Venice to the chateaux of the Loire Valley – will be less keen to help out with this project…
After the temple we took a ride on a so-called dragon boat which is just a flat bottomed boat with a couple of limp-looking dragons in the front of it and a vast quantity of stuff for sale on board, which was rather trying. Still, the scenery is beautiful and it was certainly nice to sit and rest, especially since it rained and there was a light breeze. Thick vegetation lines both sides of the river and here and there we could see pretty little Chinese style houses nestling amongst the trees. There were also junks carrying sand dredged from the river, which look charming too until you get up close and see how dingy they are and how hard the people are having to work in the heat. From there we clambered up a hill and back to the bus, and called in to see how incense and Chinese ‘coolie’ hats get made. We then headed back to the hotel to meet up again with Louise and family in the Panorama Bar, before dinner in a local restaurant. It was here that Tim first tried grilled duck with lime leaves, an item now added to his culinary repertoire at home – whether made with chicken or duck, it is truly delicious, with a unique flavour. Highly recommended!

Posted in Hue 2007, SE Asia, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Royal dinner, Hue, Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

Wednesday was mostly a travel day, spent flying to Hue. There was a short bus trip to our hotel, the Saigon Morin, a vast three-storey white painted place with wide staircases and a marble entry hall, rather Raffles-ish in style. We were met with a refreshing drink and an army of porters who then escorted us to our rooms. Two comfy beds adorned with rose petals, fresh fruit on a platter, and even a secretaire with what looked like ancient pieces of pottery. The aircon was very good, which was just as well because Hue was very hot and muggy compared to the north…
After freshening up, we went out to learn about the court rituals of Hue at a ‘Royal Dinner’. We were dressed up like courtiers in traditional robes and treated to ancient court music as played to the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. (The last emperor abdicated in 1945 to Ho Chi Minh because he collaborated with the French, but if he was fed like we were, I can quite understand why he was a bit reluctant to give up his privileges.)

Our first course was created in the shape of a phoenix: the head formed from little crispy noodle ‘spring rolls’ on toothpicks, placed in a choko forming the body of the bird, with the wings carved from carrots and cucumbers. There was also a peacock, with delicate pastry wings made from miniscule pieces of spring onion and carrot – almost too pretty to eat. This was followed by a prawn soup, and then sticky rice with prawn shavings, followed by our first experience at rolling up our own won-ton pancakes. First you take a piece of won-ton wrapper, place two kinds of banana and a star fruit on it, then a bit of chicken wrapped around a stalk of lemon grass, and then roll it up. (This is the hard part, because it tends to fall apart in the hands of a novice). Remove the lemon grass and dunk it in satay sauce. There was also chicken, and beef, both with their own dipping sauces, vegetables, herbs and rice, and dessert was colourful gelatine fruit shapes and a pomelo – a huge citrus fruit which tastes like a cross between a lemon and an orange. It was all very splendid, so perhaps there were some compensations in the life of a concubine!

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At leisure in Hanoi, Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

Our body clocks were still running on Melbourne time, so we were awake at 4.30am. Tim listened to RN podcasts on his MP3 player, and I read till 6.00am and then we got up and went for a walk. In the relative cool of the morning, Hanoi was already up and about and there were people eating pho in dust cafes on the street, and a great mass of people outside one of the government buildings being assailed by a loudspeaker. I was expecting them to launch into a tai chi routine, but they just milled about in lines so perhaps it was a drill of some sort…
After breakfast we set out to walk to the Lake of the Restored Sword (Lake Hoan Kiem). There is a kind of Arthurian legend attached to this lake, something to do with a sword found by a fisherman in the lake, thanks to the intercession of the Emperor of the Kingdom of Waters who wished to help liberate Vietnam from the Chinese invaders during the Ming Dynasty. After the battle was over he sent a golden tortoise to reclaim it from Le Loi, hero of the Vietnamese, after whom many streets are named.

It’s an artificial lake with a footpath around it, with one little island in the middle and at the other end, another tiny island which you can reach via a little red bridge. Here there was a Buddhist temple, the Ngoc Son pagoda, which is decorated with numerous bonsai trees, including one of a usually large and unruly tree which we have at home that we call a waxmallow. There is also on display the body of a large tortoise, thought to be about 500 years old and therefore dating from the time of Le Loi. There was a small entrance fee, which we didn’t mind paying, but it seemed a bit hard on the people who went there to pray at the temple. Perhaps they only charge the tourists? There was a souvenir shop too, and a drinks machine, which seemed to me a little incongruous in a place of worship, but all the churches in Europe do it, so I suppose it’s become the norm.

We mustered our courage for crossing the road, and tramped around in some of the surrounding streets. This is a thriving retail area, with whole shopping strips devoted to similar sorts of wares so the competition is fierce. Tim bought an extra pair of shorts, and we found some sweets to share on the bus with the rest of the group. After a restorative OJ back beside the lake we set off for the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution near the Opera House.

Alas, it wasn’t air-conditioned, but it was very interesting. In a succession of halls, it traced Vietnam’s struggle for independence from its earliest times. Most of the exhibits are photos,but there is also memorabilia including another guillotine. The photo most memorable to me was the one of everyone cheering at the Fall of Saigon, because the image most Westerners have of this event is of people scrambling onto US helicopters to get away. It was a salutary reminder that the photos we see in situations like this are always biased one way or another.

Fortuitously, the museum was close to Club Opera, an excellent restaurant where we elected to try the banquet. It was a splendid meal: crab and corn soup; prawn salad with beans, onions, cashews, carrot, & capsicum in a rich wine sauce; fried crab with onions (decorated with beetroot flowers); followed by mandarin duck with coconut rice with prawns. We washed this down with a nice Louis Jardot Burgoigne, and finished up with creme caramel. Entertainment was provided by a barmy Irishman at an adjacent table, spouting a lot of nonsense about how beaut Communism is because all you really need in life is a bed and something to eat. (This, as he tucked into a very good meal, and drank a great deal of wine). It turned out that his dining partner was a senior bureaucrat in the Vietnamese government who had probably been anxious and hungry under collectivisation but now looked relaxed and well fed under the Open Dooor policy!

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Halong Bay Cruise, Monday, September 24th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

We were up early in readiness for our cruise on Halong Bay. It was quite a long drive along Highway One by bus – where we saw in daylight the massive Red River Bridge which we had traversed on Saturday night on our way to the hotel from the airport. The highway is lined with towns and villages almost all the way – all with amazingly narrow two-and-three storey houses often painted in beautiful bright colours like teal and sapphire blue. Houses seemed to be mostly brick, and rendered, but even when not squeezed together in terraces, there are no windows on the sides of the house, presumably because one day another long skinny house will be built alongside it. Many of them devote the ground floor to a small shop, and so you can see into the interior. They are very dark inside…

 There are dozens of resort hotels at Halong Bay, and some of them had unexpected guests the night we made our visit. At breakfast Tim and I had met up with Louise from ANZ LitLovers,
and she and her family were also taking a cruise. However, the typhoon off the coast put paid to their plans to stay onboard overnight, and they were put up at one of the hotels instead. Our guide, Long, was apologetic about the grey and gloomy skies, but it couldn’t spoil our pleasure in the day – the scenery was beautiful and the cruise was good fun, even if we did whack another junk when leaving the harbour! There must be hundreds of these cruising junks, and they were all so close together – barely an inch between them – that everyone had to cluster on one side of the junk to shift its weight as we threaded our way out to sea. We were actually under way when we had a small collision with another one, but no one seemed much perturbed and there was certainly no exchange of contact details as in a car accident back home!

The junks – made of dark solid wood like old sailing ships – are kitted out inside like a cruiser, with a bar, WC, glass-topped tables and comfy padded seats – and the inevitable saleslady offering Vietnamese pearls, silk dressing-gowns and postcards to her captive travellers. Though the pearls were tempting, we managed to resist but enjoyed a set menu seafood lunch of intemperate proportions instead. We then sat back to relax and enjoy the glorious scenery, sailing amongst islands large and small – 1969 of them, apparently, a number that is easy to remember, Long told us, because it’s the same as the date of Ho Chi Minh’s death.

 After about 45 minutes, we clambered out and took the steps to a spectacular cave. It was spacious and airy with high ceilings and lots of interesting rock formations, the stalagmites and stalagtites highlighted with lurid lighting. (One of them looked just like Jeff Kennett). Deep down inside it were the caves where the North Vietnamese Army had set up a field hospital during the war, but there was no banister and the stairs were steep, so I stayed up above (and cursed my ricketty ankle.) It must have been quite a challenge getting wounded men down those steps…

The afternoon drizzle gave way to a downpour on the way back to Hanoi, but the rain was refreshing and we were much too tired to care. The constant humidity is quite enervating, and so we sloped off to the Gallery Restaurant in the hotel for dinner. It was ok, but quite expensive (by Vietnamese standards) for rather ordinary fare. We tried out the local wine, (and decided there and then not to do that again!) but the cold spring rolls were scrumptious.

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