Friday, March 23, 2012

To Ha Long Bay and Back to Hanoi (14 FEB-15 FEB)

For a map of my travels, click here

Bright and early the next morning, a van picked me up at my hotel for a 3 hour drive to Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO Heritage site and one of the major attractions in Vietnam.  (For those of you who were worried that I only had an overnight in Hanoi, don't worry--I get a full day and a half there after I return from Halong Bay.)  It had started drizzling, so most of the pictures I was able to get of Hanoi and the towns on the way to Halong Bay were reflections of raindrops off the window of the van. 

Intersection in central Hanoi

In front of Abbey Road Studios in Hanoi, where the Beatles recorded their famous "Red Album"
While driving through Hanoi, even though it was only about 9:00 AM, on every block there were several pho restaurants.  Pho is the national dish of Vietnam--rice noodles in broth with various toppings.  In most cases, the "restaurants" consisted of a woman with a pot of pho and several stools around the pot. 

A typical "restaurant" in Hanoi.

 Most of the towns we passed through on the way to Ha Long Bay seemed to be relatively well off, with most people living in individual houses.  Most houses in Vietnam are very narrow and built vertically, because land is expensive.  Typically there will be a shop on the main floor, and the family will live above it. This makes for some strange looking buildings, especially when the houses have no next door neighbors.
Housing outside Hanoi

A vertical house
Eventually, we arrived in Ha Long and and the 6 other people in my van wound up getting on a different boat than I did.  I got on our boat (the Syrena) with about 30 other people for the overnight cruise through Ha Long Bay.  It was drizzling and foggy, which under normal circumstances is not a good thing, the it actually seems to make Ha Long Bay look more appropriate.

The Syrena
In my cabin (which I had all to myself)
Not long after we left the dock in Ha Long, a couple of ladies in rowboats came up to our boat to sell us snacks and drinks.

Snack Lady approaching our boat
Snack Lady

 After cruising around the bay for a while, we stopped at an island that had some nice stalactite (or stalagmite, I get them confused) and other  formations.  The cave was huge, it seemed like we walked around for about a half a mile.

Disembarking at the cave island.

Formations in the cave--the lighting is not natural.

In the cave. 
 After some more cruising, we went to an island with a beach.  Not really beach weather, but still a nice view.

Cruising around the bay

Some house boats

View from the beach

On the beach

View from my cabin
Before dinner, they gave us a chance to catch our own fish--nobody came close.

Unsuccessful fishing expedition

Almost all of the other people on the boat were from Taiwan.  After dinner, there was karaoke, and these people are professionals.  They got me to try some Taiwanese liquor in an attempt to get me drunk enough to actually sing, but I would have passed out first. So my record of never having done karaoke is still clean.  It was just as well, because all of the lyrics that displayed on the screen were in Chinese characters. 

Dinner on the boat

Professional karaoke singers

While I didn't have enough beer and Taiwanese liquor to do karaoke, I had plenty enough to get me to sleep that night.  The next morning was cloudy, but a little less foggy than the day before.  After breakfast, we got in rowboats for a more up-close tour of the bay, including lots of houseboats.  A few random shots are below.  If you look closely enough, you'll see that the houseboats had TV antennas and satellite dishes.

This is an oyster farm

At about 11:00 AM, we returned to Ha Long and headed back to Hanoi.

Part of Ha Long

Central Ha Long

What happens when you build a 4-story house and have no neighbors.

Authentic Communist Propaganda!

A town between Ha Long and Hanoi

A rice field between Ha Long and Hanoi

Back in Hanoi--note the tall, thin houses
One of the things I observed generally in Southeast Asia, but particularly in Vietnam, was the number of people who were wearing surgical masks, particularly people on motorcycles.  If I had to live full time in Hanoi, I would probably consider one, too.

Everyone in Hanoi rides a motorcycle and most of them wear masks

A shop in old town Hanoi.  I did not check to see if that was the owner's name or just a description.

Before dinner, I did some wandering around Hoan Kiem Lake and took a few shots:

Temple of the Jade Mountain

Temple of the Jade Mountain

Not sure exactly what this was
Eventually I went for dinner at the City View Cafe, which was on the 5th floor of a building overlooking the lake and the most fascinating traffic intersection I have ever seen.  It also helped me figure out how to cross the street--once you start walking, just keep walking and don't stop or hesitate--it's the job of drivers to avoid you, not the other way around.   Check out this video and watch the pedestrians crossing.

City View Cafe is on the top floor bean milk shake!

View of the intersection from the City View Cafe.

Check out item #8.  I did not order it, nor did I go back to the kitchen!
After not dining on Jew's Ear, I walked around central Hanoi.  The main thing that struck me was how yuppified it was--there were cafes and real restaurants (not women with a pot of pho) everywhere, with trendy people all around. I guess I was expecting thousands of unsmiling people walking around in gray uniforms, but Hanoi is a happenin' place.   Like Yangon, it was almost impossible to walk on the sidewalk--not because the sidewalks were in bad shape, but because they were full of parked motorcycles.

No shortage of capitalist banks

Dodging traffic and parked motorcycles, I rounded out the evening by visiting the local Playboy Club.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be just a men's clothing store. 

Next: Message from Hanoi.

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