Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hazy Days in Halong and Ninh Binh

We departed Hanoi at 8am and arrived at Halong Bay at noon.  From an Asian perspective that seems to be very leisurely.  We are told they tend to arrive in Hanoi at midnight & then board a bus for Halong Bay, arriving here at 4am.  We hope they then get a room for a few hours sleep, but that seems unlikely…

After waiting around for roughly 45 minutes we had approval to board the Victory Star 6 and depart for our tour.  We are on a 3 day, two night tour and along the way we discovered various stops for "approval".  It seems each stop requires a payment. And it seems unlikely that these are official fees.

While we were at Tioman Island, it seemed like nothing else could be so idyllic.  But having a private luxury junk tour of Halong Bay is pretty much right up there.  While we tend to get bored easily, just surround us with amazing scenery in balmy weather, with access to wine & good food, …well, it's just irresistible. As we entered our vessel, our lunch table decked out in white table cloth with wine glasses and decoratively folded napkins faced us.  Little did we know what a feast awaited us.  So exquisite. So delicious. The freshest and best prepared seafood you could hope for.  Later, for dinner we had small, sweet steamed clams.  Bill simply does not eat steamed clams.  It comes from growing up in Maine where the clams had strong flavored bellies.  Pat loves them (if the bellies aren't too large)…But these tiny clams were so sweet and so small, even Bill enjoyed them.   

But we really came here for the scenery.  Halong Bay is one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World.  The others include Iguazu Falls in South America on the border of Argentina, Brazil & Paraguay (where we visited a year ago) and Table Mountain in South Africa (which we visited in March 2000.)  Halong Bay features thousands of limestone karst upthrusts rising hundreds of feet vertically from the water.  For those of you familiar with Guilin China, think of it on steroids and with fewer (still a lot) tour boats.  The great thing about Halong Bay is that it is so vast that you can find yourself "alone" despite the thousands of other tourists. 

We were worried that the fog (magical mist?) would be too heavy to see the monoliths and that we wouldn't have warm enough clothes.  The sun peeped out now and again, enough to enable decent views and to be comfy warm.  To visit the area in sun with blue skies, come in summer but the rest of the country is way too hot then so maybe the best time to visit is September or October.  

Day 1, we visited a floating fishing village.  It was different from expectations.  Instead of being a floating compound, it features a number of individual floating buildings that resemble resort cabins.  Of course, while each is the size of a good hotel room, they accommodate a small family.  We had a boat tour of the village and then moved on to the "floating city", one of four approved overnight stops for the tour boats.  Interestingly enough, we "parked" back to back with another Victory Star 4-person boat which was parked next to a larger (30-50 passenger?boat).  The reason?  We "luxury" boats plugged into the larger boat & had no need to run the noisy generators over night. Day 2 we floated leisurely through the islands, stopping to visit a large cave, to climb 400+ steps to the Tito pagoda (built to celebrate the visit between Tito & Ho Chi Minh) and to kayak through a cave/tunnel to a lovely enclosed bay (along the way we passed over oyster beds and coral).  

We are now in Ninh Binh, south of Hanoi.  This is the inland version of Halong Bay. We haven't had a chance to tour yet but the photos on the wall look like what we imagine Guilin China to have been years ago prior to the tourist invasion. They are working to attract more tourists though.  Apparently they are building what is expected to be the largest temple in SE Asia with the largest Buddha in SE Asia. They hope that the combination will attract hoards of visitors.  In the meantime, Western visitors are still rare enough that everyone greets you with a big smile & a cheery "Hello".  

We are in the countryside but there is so much development here, it won't be countryside for more than a few years.  However we walked out around the rice fields and through a small village. As we walked the children were returning home from school. It was a constant stream of greetings and smiles.  

Tonight we are off by train to the far north of Vietnam to visit the weekend markets which are frequented by the local ethnic groups\, often decked out in tradition costume.  (There are 56 or so ethnic groups in Vietnam.  We're likely to see folks from maybe 5 or 6 groups.)  Again we expect to be without internet access for most of this weekend trip.  We'll be back in high-tech land (Singapore) on Monday.

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