Vietnam Diaries 6…The Last Leg- Hanoi and Halong Bay…
We took a flight from Hue to Hanoi after bidding farewell to our guide Lucky. At Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, David was waiting for us. David was our guide in the Capital city and rightly so- he was flexible, informative and extremely fluent in English. Hanoi, like all places in Vietnam had wide, good roads but had much lesser traffic than Ho Chi Minh. The weather was amazingly pleasant- neither hot and humid like Ho Chi Minh nor rainy and wet like Danang. We were certainly happy to get rid of our rain coats.
Our first stop was for Lunch- not that we were hungry but Vietnamese believe in eating on time- 12.30- 1.00 p.m. lunch, 6.00- 7.00 p.m. dinner; which was a little challenging for us with our bad eating habits. However, 10 days in Vietnam and we started the year on the right note- eating at the right time, green teas and reduction of sugar in the diet.
After lunch, we visited Ho Chi Minh memorial. The body of the great leader has been embalmed and retained. Every day of the week, the body is available for those who want to pay their respects except for 15 days in the year when it is closed for necessary treatment. Every Vietnamese child is taken to the memorial when he/ she enters school to see the great leader thereby instilling in every child a love for the man who gave them freedom. That is the strength of Vietnam- that they are all bound together in a strong link.
The area around the memorial is cordoned off after visiting hours by strict security who stand guard 24×7.
From the memorial we went to the place where the late leader Ho Chi Minh once lived. The area housed the Presidential palace once used by the French ( hence the French architecture), later on to be Ho Chi Minh’s residence. However, He opted for a more spartan accommodation ( as shown above)and the Palace was used for daily workings of the Parliament.
Within the complex is also a lake and a house overlooking the lake in which Ho Chi Minh stayed after he stopped working, until his last day. There was a secret passage way from the house to the bunker beneath because the country was still under war during this time. President Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and the country became free in 1975.
A quick visit to the one- pillar pagoda and the Temple of Literature where every University student goes to before their exam to take the blessings of the Holy Tortoise. The temple was dedicated to Confucious in 1070 and is an oasis of peace. It houses a huge courtyard, a pond “Well of Heavenly Clarity”. In the old days it was open only to nobility but later on commoners with a high intellect were also allowed.
After a visit to the Temple of Literature, the tour had booked a seat for us at the water puppet show depicting folk tales. The seating arrangements were good with a view from the top but the puppet show itself really isn’t anything great. Considering that we had not had much time to shop earlier, we sat for a little while and then then sneaked out, much to the chagrin of our guide as we were supposed to be there for an hour and a half.
The rest of the evening was free for shopping in the old quarters which houses little Chinese shops selling a lot of different things. There is a stark difference between the Chinese and the Vietnamese quarters; the latter being much more cleaner than the former.
Tip:Shopping anywhere in Vietnam is fun. You simply need to bargain if you are buying stuff like scarves, souvenirs, paintings, bags, shoes etc ( don’t go for Intl. Brands).For other items, prices are fixed but are much cheaper than anywhere else.
Dinner was at a French styled fine dining restaurant opposite which was a Chinese ghetto. That’s why you need to go plan a holiday in Vietnam with a tour operator. Vietnam has the most chic restaurants in the middle of nowhere, which only a local can take you to.
The next day we had to head to Halong Bay for a night on the cruise. Everybody else was super excited while I was slightly apprehensive since I like my feet on the ground (land). Not so much of an air or water person.
We reached Halong Bay after a 4 hour journey passing coal mines and rugged mountains and it definitely took us by surprise. Totally touristy, it’s a perfect place to chill and spend 2 or 3 days in. Certainly worth another visit!
A day on Victory Cruise
It was my first time on a cruise and I am so glad I took it in Vietnam. It’s only got me, wanting more. We got off at the pier and awaited a small boat- the boat which was to take us to our cruise. As we got off our motor boat and entered the cruise, we were welcomed with drum beats, a hot towel and a glass of iced-tea, all of which spelt ‘fun’. While we sipped our tea and took our seats, the Cruise Manager took us through the itenary for the rest of the day and the next morning. There were around 60 people on the cruise and for that 1 night we were all one big family.
We had 30 minutes to check out our rooms, ensure our luggage was in and get ready for the first activity on the itenary -which was to visit one of the 1969 caves along the Halong bay to see the Stalactites and Stalagmites. . The rooms were spacious with a queen size bed, a dressing table, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers on which sat a television that did not work.and each had a balcony. The washrooms were cozy with wooden flooring, small wash basins and a yellow lantern.
A visit to the cave
At the specified time there was an announcement for all those who wished to visit the limestone cave. Again from the cruise, we had to get into the little boat which took us to an island with a white, sandy beach. Getting off the boat we climbed a flight of 50 steps made on the cliff and entered a cave- the kids got a taste of all the Enid Blyton adventure stories they had read . It was high enough to be able to walk straight except at the entrance where we had to bend a little. Stalactites of all sizes and shapes grew from ceilings. There was one that looked like the Mother Dragon who Vietnamese believed descended here in Vietnam and stayed there ever since.
In 1 year a stalactite grows 0.03 mm! So, these limestone cliffs were over a million years old.
Half an hour in the cave and on the white sandy beach and we were headed back to our cruise where we were welcomed with a warm,wet towel and lotus tea.
The kayaks were waiting for all those who had opted to go kayaking. Honestly, I had no heart to do it for the simple reason that I can’t swim; at-least not in the sea. My last experience, when I tried scuba diving in Thailand (Phi-Phi island), was quite an eye-opener. I jumped bravely into the ocean with my life-jacket on, only to realize that it’s not as easy. I was stuck to the life-guard and refused to let go of the poor guy, for dear life.
It was 2 per kayak so I had no option but to go or else one of the girls’ would never have forgiven me.They looked at me like little pups, like it was the only thing they really wanted so bad. So, it was decided that it would be the elder one and me. I remembered all the quotes on courage and a life well-lived.
So on 30th December 2016, I gave up my fear (at-least for a while) and went kayaking for the very first time.Was I scared? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t. But I had to do it. With a determined heart and a solemn face and with all the instructions going over and over in my head, I put my foot into the kayak which bobbed on the waters as the helpers on the cruise held onto it. Stretching my legs in, I held the paddle, while my daughter got in at the back and we began our journey away from the cruise- slowly and steadily…all the time keeping our eyes on the cruise. While I had taken the plunge, I wasn’t going anywhere where they couldn’t see me or hear me. I was still me, right?
As we kayaked away, towards the sunset, it was a liberating experience minus the fear. Just when we thought we had got the knack for it, I heard a scream, “look out you’re going towards a cruise” and in a moment, I froze. All the instructions of how to turn back or turn around were gone and we seemed to be heading towards another cruise when thankfully someone in another kayak came around and veered us around and away. Kayaking is an amazing team-building exercise. Put 2 people who have an issue in 1 kayak and if they come back together, you know they can manage to work together! There in the middle of the ocean, I was trying to get my teen to synchronize with me. It was a great accomplishment for her not to have jumped into the waters and swim away from me. I sensed it and for that one moment I wished she would hold her horses and stick around and stick around we did. :).
It’s great arm exercise. Never having done it before, our arms ached like crazy. The thing is even if you stop kayaking, the kayak moves, thanks to the waves. 50 minutes later, we were still alive and back on the cruise and boy, were we proud of having done something different. That gave us a resolution for 2017 – to learn swimming.
The rest of the evening was free until 6.30 p.m., when it was time for a cooking course on Vietnamese cuisine. We learnt to make green bean cake dumplings. The kids had a ball of a time making the dough and little dumplings, except theirs were gigantic!
We spent a little time on the deck before dinner, looking out into the dark waters and other cruise liners anchored for the night, little lights here and there brightening up the otherwise black night. The sea was peaceful and had none of the fury that it’s capable of.
Dinner on the cruise was pumpkin soup, mussels, sticky rice, shrimps, papaya and raw mango salad along with entertainment by the crew. Seriously, they could have taken part in Vietnam’s got Talent, if there’s a show like that. They were really good. We ended the night with dancing to a song from Boney M and ABBA. Just before we retired for the night we did a little bit of squid fishing which is more of a test of patience- wait endlessly with the fishing rod in the water and think nothing…more of an activity that suits men I guess, than women.
That night, we slept like logs in our cabin. Did not know, the waters were as stable as land- no rocking or shaking and thank God, no Titanic like experience.
Next morning, there was no beautiful sun-rise. The sky just lit up and the water shined like diamonds. The sea was calm and in the calm and quiet, we attended a session of Tai Chi. Slow, controlled, we moved in rhythm, with all around us. Matching our feet and our breath with the still sky, the waters and the air, it was the most awesome experience.
After a Tai-chi session on the deck and cookies and tea, we were to visit a fishing village in the sea- houses built on stilts with fishing nets below. An entire civilization had lived like that for years until 2001 when the government decided to give them a home on land and an education.
On returning, we had brunch which was cakes (with barely any sugar), cookies, bread, Vietnamese breakfast, fruits and tea and coffee. We lazed around until it was time to say good-bye and return to shore. The most amazing experience and the perfect way to end a holiday.
Our flight from Halong Bay to Ho Chi Minh was in the evening. We stopped for lunch on the way and visited a Pearl Farm. That was an opportunity to Gift myself a pair of natural pearl earrings. Now I was good to return;).
We reached Ho Chi Minh at night. The city was totally lit up for New Year’s eve and the roads were blocked. Parties had begun. We opted for a quiet New Year’s eve with family, a glass of wine, cheese and bread. It was simple and perfect and with it came an end to our holiday in Vietnam.