Vietnam – Hoi An

The train dropped us off in Da Nang.

During the 60’s, Da Nang was used as a major US airbase. The airport at that time was one of the busiest in the world. Today the Da Nang International Airport sits on the site of the old military airstrip. Some of the old reinforced concrete quanset hut hangers are still being used to house fighter jets. Da Nang has grown up a lot since the sixties and is quite modern with new glass and steel high rises. A river runs through town and six different bridges have been built over the water including one that looks like a dragon. At night this bridge changes color and each Saturday at 8:30 PM crowds come to watch the “Dragon” blow smoke, fire, and water. Da Nang hugs the coast and is home to one of Vietnam’s most picturesque beaches, a white sandy 21 mile stretch of beach nick-named China Beach by the American troops. Today it goes by Da Nang Beach or Non Nuoc Beach or My Khe Beach. High end resorts have sprouted up along the shore as well as spas, restaurants and golf courses. Very little is left to remind one of the days this beach was used for R & R for the troops.

Our destination is the lovely city of Hoi An. We stayed at Anantara resort, right on the river. We booked riverview rooms and they were exquisite. We all made afternoon plans…Heidi, Nanci and Gregg wanted massages, Jamie chose to lay by the pool, and I went exploring.

Anantara Resort

Hoi An
Hoi An is simply a jewel. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this ancient city is so well preserved. The “old part” of town is free of cars and scooters, walking and biking only. Tailor shops are EVERYWHERE. Heidi was measured for a dress in the morning and it was done that evening. They are masters at sewing. I do believe Heidi came away with several skirts, some funky pants, and the dress. Jamie chose jewelry and tops. I got art work. And we all selected several silk lanterns. Hoi An is famous for their beautifully crafted bamboo and silk lanterns. Shops are everywhere and the colors mind boggling. We actually had to purchase another suitcase to bring them home. Great places to eat. Art galleries. Museums. A vibrant farmers market. A jewel of a city.

Faces of Hoi An

Lanterns

The Market

Free Hoi An bicycle tour
Jamie stayed by the pool but Heidi, Gregg, Nanci and myself signed up for a free bicycle tour of nearby Kim Bong Island. Led by college students trying to perfect their English, the tour gave us a chance to see some local life. Hanh was our guide, a 21 year old student majoring in English. She was adorable, smart, witty, and took her job seriously. She led us through the streets and traffic to the dock and our ferry to the island. Once on the island we stopped at a boat making shop, a wood carving shop, a school, a temple, a noodle making shop, and a home where they make sleeping mats. The trip is advertised as free but we did pay a an amount to present to the people we visited. For all the wonders we found in Hoi An, the reality is it is situated in one of the poorest provinces in the country. Apart from the glamour of the tourism-enriching little town, there is much poverty.

Lantern Festival
We arrived on a full moon so we were able to partake in the lantern lighting festival. You purchase these candles in a basket and set them into the river after making a wish. Very lovely!!

Hoi An Misc.

We all fell in love with Hoi An. One guidebook described Hoi An as “Warm-hearted and welcoming” We couldn’t agree more. Truly a gem!!!!

Vietnam – Halong Bay

Next morning, bright and early we board a bus to Halong Bay. We will be traveling on the V-Spirit for a two night cruise.

Ha Long Bay is located in the Quang Ninh province of Vietnam and since 1994 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name means, “Descending Dragon Bay” and is a very popular tourist destination. The bay features over 1600 islets or “Karsts” as they are called….limestone islands rising out of the sea, all different in size and eroded over the years by the sea and elements. Many have caves and lakes, some have tunnels you can kayak through only to end up in fairy-tale lagoons. Most of the islands are uninhabited and left pretty much in their natural state.

Our boat was one of many that make the one night journey. We booked three cabins, all with a small balcony, Jamie got a room all to herself and a small cockroach. We shared the boat with a great group of people, twenty all together. They all seemed to love to travel and marveled at the beauty of the bay.

The first day we cruised into the bay for about two hours before anchoring for the night. There was an opportunity to visit a cave, to swim and to climb one of the Karsts (one with a pagoda at the top) The evening brings a nice dinner and jigging for squid. In between we got to know our companions (a mother and daughter from Germany, two young American women whose military husbands are based in Japan, a middle aged couple from Australia (he celebrated his birthday on board), a group of five from Melbourne (there used to be six in this bunch but one husband recently passed away…first trip without him), a Swiss couple and our favorites, Richard and Cecile from Provence, France.

The next morning, the five of us plus Richard and Cecile boarded a smaller sister boat and took off deeper into the bay. The rest only signed up for one night and will return to the docks after kayaking and spring roll making lessons. Tomorrow we will meet the boat at the same spot but with a whole new group of people on board.

We loved the second day. We left the touristy area where all the boats anchor. It seemed like just us and the islands…peace and quiet. We stopped for some kayaking. Went through these cool caves and entered turquoise blue lagoons. One cave was so long all was black…couldn’t see where we were paddling. Went around a bend and presto, another lagoon. AMAZING !!!!

We then motored to an island sporting a calm bay. This was to be a two hour stop to swim and relax. We all wanted to swim but the water looked cold. We heard it was cold. And the deck was warm and comfortable. Then Gregg decided to do a perfect dive off the top deck. The dam was broken and the rest of us committed. Yes, it was cold but not Lake Chelan cold. Actually refreshing but salty, really salty. We are all so glad we made the plunge.

Next up was a trip to a Pearl Farm…educational for sure, but at the end you “get to” go through the gift shop. We did not buy. Finally rendezvoused with the mother ship and met our new mates. Completely different group…a large group of thirteen from Taiwan celebrating one of their group’s birthday (not sure how many bottles of whiskey they brought on board), a couple from New York and two women from Australia. That evening we sat on the top deck with Richard and Cecile drinking wine and playing SPOOF, a game Richard taught us. When we were finally ready for bed, the group of 13 took our spot and partied til 1:30. What a difference a day makes!!!

We enjoyed our trip, made new friends, and saw a wonder of the world. We are worried about this bay. Motoring out to the outer islands we saw just an immense amount of trash. Not sure where it is coming from but the sea was filled with all sorts of garbage. I hope the concept of a clean environment makes it to Vietnam and SE Asia.

That night we boarded a train to make our way overnight to Da Nang. We bought five tickets in a “soft” sleeping car. There were only four bunks to a room so I volunteered to go “single”. First in my berth I patiently waited for my bunk mates. First came a 20 something French girl. She was also in a group of 5 and drew the short straw. Next came a Canadian girl, on vacation from teaching English in a Korean Hagwon. And finally, my last companion for the evening ride, a Spanish woman from the Basque area of Spain traveling around the world. I do believe she lost her deodorant somewhere back in South America. The doors closed. The odors trapped inside…me, three women and no escape!!!! The “soft” mattress was just a little more comfortable than a plank of wood. The car rocked and rolled. This was going to be a long night!!!! Next door, the air conditioner kept Gregg and Jamie in the top bunks nice and cool but never made it down to the lower berths so Heidi and Nanci sweated like pigs. It was going to be a long night. But we did it for the experience, not the comfort. We are really missing the Sofitel Metropole!!!!

Around 8:00 the train stops at the ancient city of Hue and my three bunkmates depart. I air out the cabin and lie down hoping to get three hours of fresh air and perhaps a bit of shut-eye. But then the door opens and in plops a young Vietnamese man. The body odor wasn’t quite as bad as my Basque friend but it was close. Remember, we did this for the experience!!!

As we neared Da Nang, the train climbed a small pass. Down below we could see the ocean and empty sandy beaches hugging the shore. Made it to Da Nang at 11:30 am. Time to catch a taxi to Hoi an, our last destination.

Vietnam – Hanoi

Vietnam….everyone tells us Vietnam is the place to go…for friendly people, for delicious cruisine and coffee, for culture, for amazing sites….go to Vietnam.

So Saturday at 3:00 am in the morning we pile into the taxi and off to KLIA 2 to catch the 6:10 am Air Asia flight to Hanoi. Nanci and Gregg, Jamie, Heidi and myself settled into seats 1 B,C,D,E,& F respectively and jet to Hanoi. Now prior to the trip I obtained on-line VISA’s for our stay. You complete a mess of paperwork, submit, and then you receive your applications for entry and exit to Vietnam. You have to affix a special size photo to each form. Our photographer must have used a carnival lens for all our photos were hideous. Heidi NEVER wanted to see hers again. You then take these forms with you, along with the official acceptance letter to the VISA upon-arrival desk in the Hanoi Airport, along with your $45.00 USD per person. Guess who forgot the letter? Yep…but we put on a sad face and they took pity upon us, told us to sit down and wait while they processes everything. About 10 minutes later we hear Heidi’s name called over the loud speaker and there on a big screen TV is her “beautiful” photo…you know, the one she never wanted to see again!!!! Not only did she get to see it again but so did the entire waiting room full of people. We paid our fees, collected our passports and went through the passport check…..we are now in Vietnam!!!!

The airport is brand spanking new…just beautiful. We loaded everything into a nice van and off we tooled to the Hanoi Sofitel Metropole Legend…the nicest hotel in Hanoi.

The morning was cool and rather foggy…a welcome relief from the heat of KL. Along the median of the highway were scores of workers weeding the gardens all by hand, all of them wearing the famous Vietnamese conical hats. As we entered the city we are surrounded by motor scooters…everywhere were motor scooters. Hanoi has a population of approximately 6.5 million, Vietnam about 89 million and there are almost 40 million scooters!!!! Another thing you notice, NO STOP SIGNS!!! Absolutely NO stop signs. You come to an intersection and everyone just takes turns and somehow it all works out. There is a constant beep, beep, beep as people in cars want the scooters to move over, or the scooters want the bicycle riders to move over or the bicycle riders want the walkers to move over. AMAZING. What was even more amazing than watching the traffic was trying to cross the streets on foot. We were told, “Find a little opening (as in a space between cars) and then just start walking”. The cycles all just weave around you, you stop for a car, you walk again and before you know it you are on the other side. It actually became fun. Jamie was a natural !!! Heidi needed a little hand holding but soon became a seasoned street walker. (not that kind!!!!)

The Sofitel Metropole Legend
Oh what a hotel !!! Opened in 1901 it has be the chosen hotel for Kings, Presidents, entertainers and sports stars visiting Hanoi….John Denver, Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie, Stephen Hawkins, Joan Baez, Jane Fonda and the list goes on and on and on. The rooms are exquisite, the service over the top!!!! We were soooo pampered. We really didn’t want to leave. See here for their website: http://www.sofitel-legend.com/hanoi/en/

Hanoi
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is in a constant contradictory state. Its tree-lined streets hold a blend of colonial French architecture and traditional Vietnamese buildings mixed with modern and chic. The town has a charming chaos to everything, yet at the same time there is an element of grace and elegance. The streets are packed with people, the sidewalks extensions to the business and home, the streets alive with vehicles. The people extroverted and friendly.

We spent the day trying to get lost in the Old Quarters. This maze-like neighborhood is organized by product. One street may specialize by selling only bamboo ladders…all the shops on the street sell ladders. Turn the corner and the next street everyone sells tombstones. Another street; women make-up and perfume. Another; rope or tin works or flowers. You never know what is around the next corner. The only thing you can be sure of is you will be surprised.

Most of the shops keep their doors open and everyone spills out onto the sidewalk. People pull up little plastic stools, they eat their lunches and dinners, they babysit their kids. They practice their English with you. At night, the sidewalks and parks are the place to be. We saw break dancing, badmitton, hacky sack sharing, families walking about, people playing cards, drinking beer, roller blading. The streets are the meeting place, the living room for the masses.

No where and at no time did we ever feel any ill-will toward us as Americans. We were welcomed and treated with the utmost respect. As you saw on the old bomb shelter, the words: REMEMBER FORGIVE FOREVER echo the feelings of the majority. Like most Asian countries, the Vietnamese would rather look forward and not dwell on the past. You must remember there are different perspectives to any event. Here in Vietnam, the Vietnam War is known as “The American War”. One person we talked to said they of course remember as there are still many innocent people who suffered the effects of Agent Orange and the brutalities only war can bring. But that chapter is closed in their book. They have forgiven. They have moved on. They look toward brighter days.

Everywhere we went there were brides and grooms getting their pictures taken. We must have seen 75 different photo shoots around the city, and this isn’t even the “wedding season”. They seem to have a lot of fun finding unique and interesting locales for their photos.

The food…OMG, the food is amazing. Jamie and I grabbed a bowl of noodle soup. This sweet woman made up our bowl in a matter of seconds….freshly made noodles, hot broth, beef, egg and vegetables. We sat on the little red plastic stools and perfected our chop stick skills!!!!

We all loved Hanoi. Gregg and Nanci are wonderful travel companions. They are fearless, flexible, willing to go with the flow, and open to the wonders of travel. It was so much fun having them with us to share this new experience.

Parting Note: Some signs on billboards or advertisements we came across. Pronounced phonetically may give you cause to wonder:

Phat Dong
Duc Phuc
Hot Coc
Dat Ho
Dung Laundry
(Gregg suggested their motto: We clean the crap out of your clothes)
Hon Bich

Perhentian Island Revisited

We are heading to Vietnam next week, gonna give Jamie her fill of culture. So in order to balance out her trip we took a short father-daughter trip to Perhentian Island for some sun and surf. For you blog followers, you will remember an earlier stay Heidi and I made at Bubu’s resort.

Well, Jamie and I stayed at the same spot. We went snorkeling to the Baby Islands but the seas were so rough we didn’t get to the second island where the sharks and sting rays live. Jamie did get to see several rays, a couple of cuttlefish (looked like they were trying to mate), lots of “Nemo” clown fish, anemones, coral, sponges and fish galore. Water still a little cooler than bath water.

In the evening we hiked up the mountain with On, a local guide who took a liking to us. At the top are two large windmills built by the government to provide electricity for the island. Of course they have never worked. Next to the windmills is a large collection of solar panels, of course they have never worked. And then there is this amazing network of stairs leading down to the water. Of course the dock washed away years ago and has never been replaced. The whole area remind you of the “Dharma Initiative” from the series LOST. Pretty funny.

We also hiked across the island to Coral Bay. Coral Bay is a beautiful bay on the leeward side of the island….it is more of a backpackers haven and home to several dive shops.

On our day home the waves were so fierce the boat couldn’t dock at the Bubu side of the island and we had to hike across to Coral Bay for our morning pick-up. Jamie had quite an adventure and came away with a respectable tan.