Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Magical Lanterns for the Super Moon

Raining again. We hired a private car and driver to take us on the four hour drive to Hoi An with stops along the way.

We turned off the highway and drove awhile down some dirt roads to Elephant Springs waterfall where people go swimming during better weather. It was a bit of a slippery walk over mud and rocks to get there from where the car was parked. It was more of a river with big rocks than a waterfall but it’s probably more impressive with better weather.

Our next stop was the beach. It would be stunning in warm weather.

The next time we turned off the highway was to check out oyster farms in a lagoon. They use old motorbike tires for the oysters to grow on.

We started driving up a mountain and stopped for a wonderful view of where the lagoon meets the sea.

Continuing our climb, we reached Hai Van pass for a great view of Da Nang which is the third largest city in Vietnam. Da Nang is a more modern city than Saigon or Hanoi.

In Da Nang, we stopped at the Marble Mountain. We took the elevator up and climbed even more steps to explore the caves, temples, statues and pagodas at the top. 

Around 3pm we arrived in Hoi An at our accommodation the Moon Villa Homestay. It is a lovely place; pretty, clean and has a friendly staff. You need to take your shoes off in the lobby where they provide slippers. The slippers are sized for the smaller Asian foot...John’s heels hang off the end.

It was to be a super moon that night, a lunar occurance that happens only every 150  years or so. The night before in Hue we noticed that people we setting tables with candy and incense in front of their stores and were lighting fires in cans. We thought they were burning garbage but were told that they were burning paper and fake money for the gods during the full moon.

In the daylight old town Hoi An is lovely, prettiest place we have seen in Vietnam. We sat at the front of a restaurant at the riverside for a supper of traditional Hoi An food.

As soon as night set in, it became magical. Lanterns blazed all around, boats with lanterns glided up and down the river and people floated paper lanterns with candles down the river...unfortunately the wind was fairly quick to blow them out.

The lovely Japanese style bridge was lit up as were some dragons and mythical creatures at the rivers edge. Live music played from restaurants and the streets were filled with performers and people.

This was the most beautiful night of our trip.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Tombs of the Kings

Another dull and drizzly day. We hired a car and driver to take us to the tombs of the past kings which are a bit outside of the city.

Partway there our car was stopped at a police checkpoint. Our driver apparently didn’t have the correct paperwork and was fined 1,000,000 dong (about $55 Canadian).

Our first stop was to the tomb of Minh Mang. The tomb is actually a whole area of buildings. It took us an hour to visit.

The next was the Khai Dinh tomb. It was on a hillside and had a gothic feel to it. The inside was the most spectacular of the local kings tombs. 

The final tomb of Tu Duc had the loveliest gardens.

Our next stop was a pagoda that is a distinguishing landmark of Hue.

Of course we couldn’t visit Hue without checking out the chicken statues at the side of the river. These figures were erected for the year of the rooster.

We had a late lunch at Les Jardins de La Carambole. The food was delicious and so beautifully displayed.

We rested at the hotel before heading out to supper. We ate at Family Home Restaurant; great service, friendly owner and good food.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Hue and the Forbidden Purple City

We arrived into Hue about 11:30am. John had a driver waiting at the station who took us to the Jade Hotel. This is our cheapest accommodation on the trip at $21 CAD per room per night including breakfast. The staff are super friendly offering fresh juice and fruit when we arrived. After a quick clean, we were ready to see the sights.

Unfortunately it was raining, but still we headed towards the Citadel, stopping for lunch along the way. There were some interesting store displays along the way.

The motorbikes were out in full force, drivers all clad in rain ponchos, specifically designed for motorbikers. The ponchos are worn and the front is thrown over the bike. There is an area of clear plastic at the front so the motorbikes headlight can still shine through, The back of the poncho is either sat on or thrown over the head and body of any passengers behind the driver. 

After lunch we explored the walled and moated Citadel including the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City. The Citadel was occupied by a series of kings as part of the Nguyen dynasty. It was all so exquisite but the rain did put a damper on walking around the complex which is quite large.

After the Citadel we were feeling chilly so we stopped for Vietnamese coffee and ginger tea before heading to Hanh’s Restaurant, which was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and is frequented by both locals and tourists. The place was packed despite the weather. With everyone sitting on long tables. Our meals including a can of the local beer called Huda was $3.00 CAD each. We then returned to our hotel.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Water Puppets, Egg Coffee and the Hanoi Hilton

It was dull and cool (high of 13 degrees) with a little drizzle today.

Our first stop on our walk was the lake area. On our way to St. Joseph’s Cathedral I discovered an amazing artisan ceramics shop which was filled with beautiful blue and white pieces....I couldn’t resist. I love blue and white ceramics.

I am still amazed by the everyday (for here) things that I see on the streets. Especially the things carried on bicycles and motorbikes. It’s nothing unusual to see a few chickens roosting on a hectic street. 

The cathedral was a French design by Eiffel. Inside, French services were in progress.

John next lead us to Hoa Lo Prison (nick named by the POW American pilots as the “Hanoi Hilton”). It was a prison run by the French during their occupation and then a prison run by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. John McCain was one of the pilots imprisoned here. The museum tells a very different story than we were told. They showed many happy pictures of the American prisoners having a good time playing volleyball and basketball and celebrating Christmas with all the fixings, all smiling and happy. I wonder if John McCain and the other pilots remember it the same way...I’ll have to check out his book.

We next walked around the French quarter and checked out the Opera House and the Hanoi Stock Exchange.

On pedestrian areas they had tiny electric cars and tanks that you could rent for toddlers. Those kiddies were zipping all  over the place.i had a close call.  It would have been ironic if after surviving Hanoi’s chaotic traffic, I was run over by a four year old in a fast moving mini tank.

We stopped to watch people film a music video.

I noticed a table set for a formal dinner on the street. The crowning centrepiece was a dead, plucked chicken with head and flowers coming out of its beak.

We asked at a number of cafes if they served the famous Vietnamese Egg Coffee. A few of them said yes and then when you sat down with the menu they didn’t have it. We learned to check the menu first because most people’s first response is yes whether they have it or not.

We stopped at McDonalds (to use the washrooms). It was crowded with people and children. At that point I was tired and felt like taking out my umbrella and hacking my way to a table...don’t worry, I didn’t cause it’s not the Canadian way.

In a better mood after resting, we continued around the lake and visited the pagoda set on an island and accessed by a bridge.m

Some students stopped John and I and asked if we could help them with a school assignment. We said yes, they asked us where we were from and then asked to take a picture with us. Not sure what their assignment was but the same thing happened to me yesterday when an older woman asked me to pose in a picture with her. John said they must find me either very attractive or very strange. Hmmm.

We finally found an egg coffee place and it was worth the wait; a whipped egg, vanilla and coffee mix over the strong and slightly bitter Vietnamese coffee.

Those of you who know me know that I rarely drink coffee. Within 40 minutes, I was vibrating. At one point I had a brief dizzy spell and almost fell into a store...weird.

We bought some of the Weasel Coffee. Apparently weasels eat only the best coffee beans but they can’t digest them and they poop them out whole. The beans are then sanitized. I also bought a special Vietnamese coffee filter. Making Vietnamese coffee takes longer than normal coffee.

A Water Puppet Show was our next stop. We had ordered tickets a few days before. The puppet show is on the surface of an indoor pool (the stick controls are under the water and controlled from behind the curtain) with the music performed live on both sides of the stage...very cool.

We stopped for supper at Trip Advisors #1 restaurant for 2017 before returning to our hotel to wait for our ride to the train station. We will travel in a sleeper car for twelve hours to Hue.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Rainy Day in Hanoi

It was a rainy day in Hanoi. We braved the insane traffic and walked to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Uncle Ho as he was known to the people helped lead the revolution against the French colonial rulers and was the first president of Vietnam after they gained independence. We stood in line for a while before shuffling past his preserved body.

We next visited the Pagoda located in the mausoleum complex. In the pagoda area they had signs describing many versions of if you do such and such in this life, what will happen in the next life.

Our next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There were so many school groups there (on a Saturday?) that it was difficult to see much.

We left the mausoleum area and went to the Citadel where we saw a mix of ancient buildings and artifacts as well as buildings from the French inhabitation. They also had displays from the American (Vietnam) war. We went down into the bunkers used by the Viet Công army command. 

We left the Citadel area and started walking towards the lake. We noticed more and more Vietnam flags, headbands, hats, tshirts and horns and there was a mood of excitement. We found out that the AFC (Asian Football Championships) finals were on at 3:00pm between Vietnam and Uzbekistan. People were going crazy.

We found a table in a restaurant with a big tv. We were the only foreigners. The place was packed.

The game was taking place somewhere in northern China. It was snowing there....a lot. Uzbekistan got the first goal...dead silence in our restaurant. Ecstatic screams would erupt any time Vietnam came close to getting a goal. Finally Vietnam gets a goal to tie the game and the restaurant goes wild; screaming, jumping, clapping. Horns beeping on the street.

Everyone was ordering large plates of sunflower seeds in their shells and so did we.

The game went into overtime. People cheered every time Vietnam got the ball. Unfortunately, during the injury time in overtime, Uzbekistan scored. The place went dead quiet.

It was dark after the game so we walked around the old quarter. People started driving around waving flags again. If they had won the place would have been bedlam. Traffic was crazy and I’m sure there had been a lot of drinking during the game so we decided to go back to the hotel.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Ha Long Bay

The overnight train going back to Hanoi was a lot more comfortable than the one going to Lao Cai. This time I slept on the top bunk. It was a real challenge for me to get up into it, John captured it all on video and thinks it has the potential to go viral on the internet.

We arrived in Hanoi at about 4:30am and then went back to the L’Heritage Hotelwhere we had an area to clean up and wait until breakfast opened up at 6:30am.

My legs were stiff and sore from all the trekking the day before.

At 8:15am we were picked up by a coach that took us to Ha Long Bay to catch our two day cruise in the bay. There were 24 people on our cruise. It was a four and a half hour drive to get there on a coach designed for smaller Asian people.

There were 24 people on our cruise from Argentina, Korea, France, USA, and Pakistan. Our boat was intimate with amazing views of the famous Karst land formations of Ha Long Bay.

I noticed that at one point our captain was driving with his feet.

Once we were checked into our rooms, had lunch (large and delicious) and traveled into the bay the captain stopped the boat. It was cool out, but we still all changed into our bathing suits (with jackets overtop) and went kayaking in the bay.

We landed on a quiet beach. Unfortunately, I got stuck in my kayak and had to be hauled out by John and one of the other guys.

The water was cool but I got in with the rest of the group....ok, I only got in up to my waist and only stayed long enough for the obligatory picture. John went in all the way and had a short swim.

Back on the boat, we had ginger tea, shrimp chips and fresh fruit before consuming a very large supper.

We were all pretty tired so we went back to our rooms and let the boat rock us to sleep.

Cora and I joined some of the group for a Tai Chi class at 6:30am. Breakfast was at 7:00am and by 8:00am we were on a tender heading to some caves. At the landing, a lone female dog walked up to people and stared at them with the saddest eyes. She was quick to jump back if you came too close to her.

We walked up and up some steep steps into a cave. The inside was quite dramatic with one rock formation that looked like a dragon coming out of the roof.

We walked through to the other side where there was a wonderful view and on the return, checked out the beach. Dramatic scenery everywhere you looked.

Back at the boat we had a seminar on how to cut veggies into a flower bouquet. I’m going to have to try doing that when I get home.

We then learned how to make fresh spring rolls. I am getting quite good at it with all the practice.

After lunch we headed back to the dock and boarded the bus for our 4.5 hour drive back to Hanoi.

We went to Hong Hoai’s Restaurant for the Hanoi specialty of fried pork with fresh herb leaves and bean sprouts wrapped in lettuce leaves. Delicious. And a bottle of Vietnamese wine...not quite so delicious.

To walk off the food we went to the night market near the lake which was blessedly blocked off to the chaotic Vietnamese vehicle traffic on weekends.

I tried on one of the traditional Vietnamese dresses which are obviously designed for the tiny Asian figure. Suffice it to say, it was not a good look.

The area around the lake was packed with activity; dance classes, skipping, bamboo rod jumping, pavement board games, hacky sac games and vocal performances.

Walking back to the hotel was scary with the crazy drivers, endless motor bikes and honking horns.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Trekking Around Sapa

The view of the misted valley was stunning. We left to do the 12km trek with steep inclines and declines. Dong forgot the walking poles (which Cora had reminded him of twice the night before and once in the morning. He ran back and got a couple. And boy was I glad that we had them on the trek.

We were quickly followed by an entourage of local women. I guess they help tourists stay on their feet in hopes of tips.

The paths to the valley were narrow, sometimes steep and muddy. The views of terraced fields were gorgeous. Pigs, water buffalo, geese, dogs and chickens were everywhere.

It wasn’t easy going but we did surprisingly well. We noticed a number of tourists along the way that had fallen into the mud. Fortunately, Dong took pity on us and took a shorter and less strenuous route.

Finally we descended the mountain and crossed a suspension bridge into the small Black Meung village of Lao Chải where we had lunch. They asked us if we wanted some happy water (rice wine) or to try a bong (with tobacco) but we declined.

Dong didn’t need to ask, a car was waiting after lunch to take us back to the hotel.

It was a white knuckle ride up the mountain with its many hairpin turns, shear drop off and narrow road with two way traffic. I was happy when we arrived at the hotel.

Cora and John stayed at the hotel and I did a bit of shopping then returned and cleaned myself up.

We were picked up and taken to Lao Cai city where the train station is. It was also a bit hair raising with curving narrow roads, two way traffic and more drop offs. Our driver liked to pass other cars and trucks.

It was arranged to drop us off at a restaurant next to the train station. We walked around town a bit before going back to the restaurant for supper. 

We then caught another overnight train back to Hanoi. I had a real challenge getting up to the top bunk so I stayed there all night until we arrived. The beds were much more comfortable than the ones we had going to Sapa.

Cat Cat Village

We upgraded to the soft beds on the overnight train. I did manage to sleep despite it being the hardest mattress that I have ever slept on.

The train arrived at the Lao Cai station about 5:30am where a driver was waiting for us. It was still dark so I closed my eyes as our car maneuvered turn after turn after turn, climbing the mountain.

It was cold enough to wear my down jacket when we arrived into Sapa. We were dropped off at The Unique Hotel for breakfast and to wait for a guide. We could have showered there but the room was quite cool and didn’t have a bench or place to put down your stuff while washing up so we decided to wait till we got into our hotel. When our local guide, Dung arrived, he informed us that  our hotel wouldn’t be available until the afternoon. 

We left our luggage at the Unique Hotel and started our walk into the valley and Cat Cat Town. Dung told us that Black Meung people live there. He referred to them as the minority people. The local culture is very different from what we have experienced in Vietnam so far.
There seems to be a mongol influence.

We then went walking down and down into the valley...I worried that that meant we would be walking up and up and up later.

We visited the house of a village family. It is so different from what we are used. Many many people live in a small space.
They also store corn and rice, heat and cook with wood, sometimes inside. We were told that the men die young, 40s and 50s. There are real concerns about polluted water from the hotels running into the valley. Also smoke in the house causes breathing problems. 

Despite being warned by Dung to duck in the low beamed houses going through the doors, John ran into one. I later noticed that he had a big round scrape in the middle of his forehead.

We were told about many of the “Happy New Year” traditions. Many Asian countries celebrate their New Year in February.

We then visited a local essential oil, soap and tea place. They soaked our feet in scented salts and gave us some happy opium tea. They said it was from the leaves and we wouldn’t get high. If the rest of the day had been a blank, I would know why. It turned out to be ok.

We next went down into the main village with its gorgeous waterfalls, bamboo walkways, water wheels and stage building where we watched the ethnic dancers.

Then we started the rocky hike to more waterfalls and swimming places, then up, up, up. We passed many water buffalo, pigs, geese, chickens and goats. I definitely need to get into better shape. I was winded but the views were worth it.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant for a Vietnamese chicken noodle soup and beer. Dung was talking about walking totally to the top, but we noticed that the itinerary included a ride to the top.

We moved into our hotel, the Sapa Diamond to rest up, reorganize our bags and do some laundry (much of which we hung on the railing indent of our large sliding glass doors). Our room was spacious and clean and our view overlooking the valley is gorgeous. 

Cora complained about people yelling and running up and down her hallway. A little later, we heard people a little lower in the valley screaming and yelling. It turned out that the Asian Football 2018 Championships were going on and Vietnam (thought to be the underdog) was playing against Qatar (who hadn’t lost yet in the series). Vietnam ended up winning and the whole town went wild.

We walked around the town which was a lot bigger than we thought and went for supper at the Little Vietnam Restaurant. Just after ordering, we heard a racket outside. Everyone ran out to the street to see a huge parade of celebrating fans walking, driving cars and riding motorcycles while waving flags.

Back in the restaurant, the electricity went out all over the city for about 10 minutes. It had also gone out earlier in the afternoon when we were back at the hotel.

This area is known for hiking and mountain climbing. I spent the rest of the evening preparing for our 12 km hike. I’m not sure how I’ll do with that.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Feet Rowing on the River

Good morning Vietnam! 

We hopped on a tour bus at 8am. I am always hypnotized by the traffic. A little old lady with a cane slowly wandered out into the hectic traffic. Everyone veered around her. She walked as though alone in a field.

Hanoi has 7 million people and 5 million motorbikes.

It’s a 2 1/2 hour drive to Ninh Binh Province. On the way there we pass many rice fields and thousands upon thousands of white geese. Looks like they might be a dietary staple.

Our first stop was Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s first and now ancient capital. The countryside is beautiful; rounded mountains, rice fields with farmers, geese, water buffalo and goats. 

John and I biked with some of the group to the temples and through the countryside while Cora took the bus with the rest of the group and went to the temples. The bikes were a tad rickety and I wished we would have stopped a bit more often to take pictures. Biking was the perfect way to see the area.

Our lunch consisted of many dishes local to the area including goat. We ate family style with a couple of Swedish brothers who were also on our tour.

Our next stop was Tam Coc river where the three of us boarded a row boat rowed by one older woman. It took us a while before we realized that she was rowing with her feet and legs. Most of the other rowers were doing it the same way which left their hand free. Most just crossed their arms across their chests as they rowed but then there was the efficient achiever who was doing her mending while she rowed or the king of chill who was having a beer and cigarette while he rowed.

The scenery was gorgeous and the light mist gave it an other worldly feel. We passed geese, pigs and goats that were walking up the mountain. We also passed small family cemeteries and graves beside the river. 

The river ran right through and under three limesone mountains by low caves where we had to watch that we didn’t bump our heads. It was an enchanting afternoon.

Then back on the bus for the 2 1/2 hour ride back to Hanoi. The traffic was horrendous.

I did see some more interesting signage at the temple:

John was not feeling well so we looked for a restaurant that served something light. We found a place that served soup. We didn’t realize until we got in that they only served dessert soups...who’d have thought? They were very different and surprisingly good. I had sweet banana soup.

We then waited for our ride to take us to our overnight sleeper train to Sapa.