March 13: Hoi An to Danang Airport –Hanoi
Have my usual breakfast at Ving Hung3 hotel, fried eggs over easy, fried rice, salami, fresh sliced tomatoes drizzled with fish sauce (a typical Filipino breakfast), coffee & orange juice. My hubby always order omelets. Our flight to Hanoi is at 12:35pm, and the pick up for airport transport to Danang is at 11:30am, so we squeeze some time for shopping. The stall owner of North Face jackets is glad to see us and offer to give me very good price being the 1st customer of the day. She agrees to give me $5 usd discount if I purchase four jackets ($20 usd each). However, when I changed my initial color selections she wants to charge more. What the heck, they are same jackets why do I have to pay more? This upsets me and I end up buying only 2 jackets. We definitely have to buy more once we get to Sapa, more stories on this later.
My shopping experience in Vietnam is not so pleasant. Stall owners are very aggressive in getting you into their store to look. They keep bringing stuff to show you if nothing interests you or if you try to leave. When I do find something I like, offer the highest price I’m willing to pay for, they get very upset if I won’t budge and offer more. When I try to leave, they say something in Vietnamese, I’m guessing for sure is not pleasant and they get angry. This made me very uncomfortable, and consequently, did not do much shopping unless I have to. In fairness, I dealt with some who give me their lowest price instead of going thru the process of negotiations back and forth. I buy only if I think the price is fair, or lower than I would pay for a similar item in the States. For the most part, I do not intend to purchase unique or expensive items to bring back to US unless it is something I fall in love with and must have.
We arrived at Noi Bai International airport in Hanoi twenty minutes late due to delayed departure, again, of Vietnam airlines. It takes 20 minutes from the airport to the Hotel Elegance Diamond. It’s a very nice and newer hotel, built only 2 or 3 years ago. Our room is on 11th floor, a superior double; just the right size with enough space for our entire luggage and has a small window with partial view of Hoem Kien lake. There is a laptop with free internet access right in our room. Bathroom is very nice & clean with fake pebbled floors. My favorite is our bed, so comfortable just the way I like it, neither too hard nor too soft. Most of the beds in Vietnam are too hard. It’s location is very convenient, a short walk to the lake, Water puppet theater and the Old Quarter.
I have pre-arranged a tour of Old Quarter with Hanoi kids from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. The club sends, Lam (a guy) and Moa (a gal) who arrived late due to traffic. They both took the bus to meet with us at our hotel. I suggest we go have dinner first, then later have a walk around the Old Quarter. We take a taxi to go to Quan An Ngo Restaurant. The place is crowded and we waited about 20 minutes to get seated. It’s a casual restaurant with tables & chairs under a big tent; and surrounded by many cooking stations offering typical Vietnamese foods. I let the kids order and choose the dishes, and all taste good and reasonably priced. costing about $30 usd with 7 or 8 courses, drinks & desserts for two.
Unfortunately, there is no time to go to the Old Quarter for it is already 8:30pm by the time we finished dinner. We take the taxi back to our hotel, handed gifts to Hanoi kids, have photos with them and said our thank you and good-bye.
March 14: Halong Bay
Halong Bay, northeast of Vietnam became popular in 1994 when declared by UNESCO as natural Heritage. The area covers 1,553 square km and consists of 1,969 islands mainly made of limestone and Karst formations, concentrated in 2 main areas: the southeast part of Bai Tu Long bay and southwest part of Halong bay.
We get up early this morning, have breakfast, check out from our hotel and arranged to store rest of our luggage with them. We packed light for our 3D/2N cruise on Halong Bay, carrying only a backpack and a small bag. Other passengers carry big luggage, which is not a good idea as the cabins in our boat are small. The drive to Halong city takes 3 ½ hours including a 20-minute restroom and/or shopping stop.
When we arrived at Halong City, we waited in an area designated for the passengers of Indochina Dragon Pearl 1 junk boat to wait for the rest of our group. Our guide, Tony, tells us there are 16 of us going on the same boat. We have a nice mix of people in our group; John & Yasuko from Japan who ended up being our dinner mates during our cruise; a couple from Italy; Mike & Nadine, a couple in their 40’s from California, on their journey to travel around the world for the entire year of 2012; Cora & Sharon who are friends from New Zealand; and 3 girls who are best friends from the US Navy stationed in Singapore.
Dragon Pearl 1 is a beautiful wooden junk boat with 16 total cabins, 4 are located on the 2nd floor and the rest on the 1st floor. Ours is cabin #302 on 2nd floor where the dining room & bar are located. The deck for sunbathing and just relaxing is on the third level with plenty of lounging chairs. As soon as we come on-board, they serve us welcome drinks. Then Tony, our guide, explains our agenda for the next two and a half days. Everyone is given keys to their cabin, and 15 min to settle down then we all meet at the dining room for lunch.
A superb lunch is served with four people to a table sharing the meal. For our 1st course, we have pumpkin soup; followed by two appetizers, fried prawns & mussels cooked in lemongrass, ginger; for main course, fried oysters and steamed fish; sautéed mixed veggies and steam rice and a simple dessert of fresh fruits presented artfully like flowers. Boy, do they feed us well serving at least 7 courses for every lunch and dinner except for the lunch a-la-carte on our last day on-board. Our meal usually consist of soup, 2 appetizers, 2 main courses, a vegetable dish served with steamed rice; and sliced fresh fruits. There is always seafood; prawns, fish, oysters or squid; and a variety of meats, chicken, pork or beef Need I wonder why I need extra-large size when buying clothes in Vietnam?
Located in Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay occupies ¾ of the total bay’s area. According to local legends, this is where the Baby Dragons remained after they had helped the Viet people fight off invaders in the country’s early years. Whether you believe the legend or not, this place is so serene and magical it gives you a sense of peace and contentment. Stone mountains in various forms and shapes, caves, small sandy beaches and trees on the islands provide surroundings so enchanting, they captivate your heart and soul. Indochina Junk who owns Dragon Pearl is the only company allowed to cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay, so you’ll hardly see any other boats except one or two own by this same company. When you’re up on the deck looking at the tranquil emerald waters, and listening to the sounds of silence you’re on your own world, your own paradise. You may even think you’ve died and gone to heaven!
After lunch, we have an hour to rest before we engage in one of the activities planned for us, kayaking. Unlike other boat companies price for kayaking is already included. Almost everyone in our group likes to participate, including me but not my husband. I’m not sure I would have the strength or stamina to paddle for an hour around the bay so I ask Tony, if I can ride with him. We go kayaking around the island, and while I ‘m busy taking lots of photos, enjoying breath-taking views, Tony is busy paddling our boat. This is definitely one of the most pleasant, relaxing, memorable and once in a lifetime experience for me!
My poor hubby, left alone and lonely in the big boat, is so happy to see us back . We all go back to our cabins to rest, I even fell asleep. Later, absent any activity, entertainment or TV, we went to the top deck and enjoy the stunning beauty of nature that surrounds us. I spot Nicole, in one corner, doing water-color painting of Halong Bay. We talk to the Vietnamese couple, but for a very short time as they hardly speak English.
We sure luck out with a good weather in Halong Bay. It’s foggy, cloudy and cool in the morning, which gives a mystical effect, then it warms up in the afternoon, sky clears up and you get a clear view of the surroundings, see the emerald color of the water; totally two different looks and feel. However, we never see the sun out and the clear blue skies. On our last day, it is drizzling and very cloudy. We later found out, there is a storm coming which eventually led to cancellation of all cruises to Halong Bay in the next 2 or 3 days. What a pity for those who spent over three hours to get to Halong Bay, and have no choice but return to Hanoi, the very same day. I feel so sorry for those who travelled overseas to see Halong Bay, and did not have the chance. We feel so blessed and fortunate!
Dinner is served and as usual we have multi-course meal. By this time our dinner mate, Yasuko , wife of John, from Japan has warmed up to us and is talking more. We talk about tipping and suggest we should give tips to the crew for their good service. They concur, but somehow express they don’t like American way of giving tips forcing others who’s tipping is not part of their culture to follow suit. In their opinion, we set bad examples.
Tony wants us to leave the dining room so the crew can clean up and set the tables for our next meal. So he announce, “I’m going fishing” anybody wants to join me or watch? We all got up and head to the 1st floor. A few in our group grab a fishing pole and the rest of us watch for moral support. To see many flourescing fish swimming, darting in the dark waters is just as exciting when Tony pulls his pole with a catch. For some reason, many squids are biting his bait but not the others. He shows them the technique, and still, his pole is the only one making a catch. Soon, others give up and retired to their cabins, but not Nicole who’s determined to catch one. Later, many heard a loud scream when she finally caught one. In total, five squids are caught by the group. Guess who’s showing up for lunch tomorrow?
March 15: Bai Tu Long Bay
After breakfast, Tony explains this morning we are going to visit Cong Dam. It is a floating fishing village occupied by 32 families and a total of 160 people living. We wait for the small boats that will transport us (2 passengers per boat) to their village. Eight boats arrive, all being paddled by young women. The chief of the village welcome our group with big smiles and hot tea. We take a tour and get inside their tight living quarters (300 to 350 square feet), see their kitchen, the fishing farm and their school. The teachers come to the village for a week, and on weekends go back to Hanoi where they live. It’s heartbreaking and humbling to see how little these people have, yet they seem happy.
Back to our home (the boat) and we have another wonderful meal for lunch. Then Tony tells us to relax, take a nap or do whatever for about 1 ½ hours. Do you detect a pattern of our “hard” life here on the boat? Eat a heavy meal then take a siesta, no wonder we all are very happy, relaxed and getting heavier. Our group is given the option to go kayaking for 40 minutes to get to the beach or just stay on the Dragon boat to take us to the beach. Well, this time only 5 people went kayaking with Tony. We get to the small sandy beach where chairs are provided. The water is too cold for swimming so we just walked on the sand, chat to get acquainted with others in our group, while Tony and the boat crew played soccer. On this same beach is located the cave we’re having dinner tonight. Tony asks we don’t go there for now, it will be a surprise. We head back to Dragon Pearl to relax, take shower and get ready for dinner set at 7:30PM.
Canh Son cave is the setting for dinner tonight. Early on, the crew carried the foods the Chef will cook in the kitchen set up by the cave; the dinner plates, glass wares, table wares and pre-ordered drinks & wine. We are tendered by a small boat to the beach we where earlier this afternoon; now very dark, illuminated only by flashlight as we get off the boat. We then climb up the steps on a very steep hill with lighted pathway so we see can see the steps. With two rest stops, my hubby and I reach the top and entrance to the cave.
The cave is 700,000 years old, and discovered by a fisherman, only recently. There are two chambers inside the cave. We take few steps down, careful not to bump our heads, then we reach the 1st chamber and see stalactites, stalagmites, unusual formations, nooks and corners highlighted by spotlights.
We proceed walking towards the 2nd chamber, dark at first, then emerge a walkway illuminated with tea lights leading to the dinner tables in formal setting with white tablecloths & napkins ,sparkling glass wines & silver wares. Meanwhile, all the Staff are lined up along the walkway, clapping their hands as they welcome and greet us. What a pleasant surprise! We can’t believe our eyes, how romantic, special and unique the whole ambience is. Then there’s soft, romantic Vietnamese song playing in the background, a center table adorned with rose petals in the shape of a heart. Even if you’re not with someone special it’s hard not to be in loved and feel romantic (as some of the women in our group are)!
Wine is poured and dinner starts with each course brought 1st to the center table for staging as they are presented with carvings made from fruits and vegetables. We respond with OOhh’s and AAhh’s everytime they bring out a dish. Then everyone takes pictures before the course is served to us. The 1st course is papaya salad, followed by prawns presented with a carving of an “Eagle”. Then grilled squid (uhmm, could this be the “catch” the night before?), adorned with “Deer”; barbecued chicken wings with a “House”; and for the grand finale, skewered fillet of fish with the most beautiful, exquisite carving….a replica of the “Dragon Pearl junk boat”. And to complete our meal, fried rice and grilled sweet potato (this is so good) and sliced fresh pineapple and pear for dessert.
But wait there’s more, Tony our multi-talented guide played guitar and serenaded us with two romantic Vietnamese songs. Our lovely and very memorable evening ended with the Chef and all the crew come out and the Captain makes a speech thanking our group for choosing Indochina Junk company. We thank them back, returned their gratitude with loud and big applause to show appreciation and enjoyment for everything they’ve done for us. The Staff then perform a song, while we the guests provide the chorus, “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh”. If you want to best experience this natural wonder of the world, spend 2 nights and go to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Goodnight and sweet dreams everyone.
March 16: Halong Bay to Hanoi
Today is our last day on Dragon Pearl, and I don’t want it to end. But as the saying goes, “All good things must come to end”. We are given a menu to choose two entrees that will be served for lunch before we disembark. We settle our accounts to pay for any drinks (wine and soda) ordered during our cruise. As we are saying our final goodbye, to one another and to the Staff, we hand to the Captain our gratuities that will be divided among the crew.
It’s nice that when we return to Hanoi late in the afternoon and check into HE Diamond hotel, our luggage are already in our room. We rest for a little bit, take shower, prepare overnight bags to take to Sapa Mountains when we leave tomorrow night to spend 3 days. Once again, we will leave the bulk of our luggage to store at the hotel.
We have tickets to see Water Puppet show tonight at 21:15. The theater is only 5 to 7 minutes walk from the hotel so we decide to have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant on top floor, ordered two appetizers and pho, quite good and satisfying. The Water Puppet theater is full to capacity, has no air-conditioned so it’s very warm and uncomfortable. The show starts with few solo and group instruments playing Vietnamese songs, then the water puppets come out to perform. It’s a good idea to read the brochure before they turn out the lights to get an idea of the stories being played out. It’s kind of boring at the beginning, and then get more animated, a bit interesting towards the end. It’s an OK show and good to see at least once if you have time, but you won’t miss out much if you are pressed for time and can’t go.
We have another date with Hanoi kids at 9:00am to give us half day tour of Hanoi. The club sends us two students, a boy and a girl. This time around, the girl is more talkative than the boy while it’s the reversed with the 1st pair the club sent. We find out they are “Newbie’s”, just like the 1st pair of kids, and they get send a lot as guides to gain more experience. It is obvious they have not been touring much around Hanoi for they don’t know and have not heard of Highway 4 restaurant where we want to go for lunch. It’s the same response, when I ask where we can try out weasel coffee. They kept calling other Hanoi kids or the office to find out about our request and eventually got to them. The Highway 4 restaurant is nothing to rave about, their food is mediocre, pricey and portions are small; and some very salty. It costs me 900,000 VND for lunch for four people. Don’t bother going to this place, it’s not worth it!
I’m excited and anxious to taste what’s so special about the weasel coffee as one TA contributor mentioned that is the most expensive item she purchased in Vietnam, What’s unique about this coffee is that the beans are swallowed by weasels and as they go thru their digestive system it takes out the acidity, the beans come out on their other end, collected and processed for drinking. We order it cold with cream and sugar (they used condense milk they put at the bottom of the glass) as it’s been a hot day. It tastes good, refreshing but nothing extraordinary to me. However, I’m not an expert coffee drinker. While sipping our coffee, two ladies visiting from Spain purchased two bags (I think it costs $25 usd per kg?) who are crazy about this coffee.
Back to Hanoi kids, I have to say, despite their lack of experience I find it comforting to have them with us to avoid scams when taking taxi. They also give us background info on attractions we are visiting, and first is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We learn how much the people of Vietnam loved him. In his honor they built the Mausoleum from donations of materials and free labor by the people; which took ten years to finish after his death.
We walk around the compound which is very nice, well maintained and includes the Palace, HCM Museum, a lake, Ho Chi Minh residence since he refused to live inside the Palace. And see the One Pillar Pagoda.
Next, we take another taxi to visit the Temple of Literature. Being a Saturday, both places are crowded with tourist, locals and children. Admissions are free for HanoiKids, so we pay only for two. HanoiKids are not allowed to take money as your guide. They join the club so they can volunteer as tour guides, in return, they get the chance to practice and honed in their skills in speaking English. In appreciation, you can give them gifts or souvenirs from the country you come from such as T-shirts, pens, chocolates, etc.
After lunch, we walk around Old Quarter which did not impress me much. It’s like a typical Asian market with lots of items, food and merchandise for sale. The quality and style of clothing looks ordinary and cheap. The place is so crowded, we just walk and observe many interesting things around; an old man sketching a portrait, a vendor balancing her goods on a bicycle. A very typical narrow multi-story home we’ve seen all over Vietnam. Land is very expensive so homes are built at least 3 story-high.
However, I enjoy the many varieties and styles of shoes available here and ended up buying two pairs for me. As much as the HanoiKids still want to hang around with us as we do more “window shopping”, we send them away and assure them we’ll be OK. Very nice kids. It’s time to go back to our hotel. We pack our luggage with new items we picked up from the Old Quarter, and organize the overnight bags we are taking to Sapa when we leave tonight.
Last destination of our two weeks trip in Vietnam is Sapa.