Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam. _______________________________________________________________________
We had spent a delightful late afternoon and evening in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and were eagerly anticipating our three day/two night cruise on Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our Canadian expatriate friends related that their cruise on the bay had been the highlight of their time in Vietnam, and remarks and photos on tourist internet sites seemed to reinforce this notion. I decided, ultimately, to have the very capable staff of the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, our “home base” while in Vietnam, assist us in making arrangements for our Halong Bay cruise, as well as our overnight train travel to the mountain town of Sapa. This arrangement helped to provide a higher level of transparency to our planning, as the hotel tied in the ancillaries like hiring a private car to take us to, and from, our boarding locations, and such. We had been in Hanoi a mere 14 hours; time enough, though, for an evening out in the bustling yet charming city, an exquisite meal featuring bánh xèo (Vietnamese fried pancakes), and a delectable breakfast of western omelets, carrot juice and traditional noodle soup following an early morning wake-up call (5:15 AM). A porter and two receptionists scrambled to ensure our luggage was transported expeditiously from the alleyway of our hotel to the waiting car on an adjoining side street, all the while attempting to halt traffic for us as we dodged scooters, pole vendors, and pedestrians. The receptionists attentively opened the passenger doors for us, wished us a wonderful cruise, and off we went on a three and a half hour car ride to the very popular Halong Bay, 146 km (91 miles) due east of Hanoi. The quaint alleyways of the Old Quarter gradually morphed into the urbanized landscape of Hanoi’s city proper, a short span of highway driving and finally local two-lane roads that linked small towns and villages. Like the Old Quarter of Hanoi, scooters were ever-present, alongside small trucks and Kia cars, as were the unusually tall slim buildings with multiple balconies and wrought iron railings, often covered with an abundance of colorful flowers.
Before reaching Tuan Chau Island on Halong Bay, we stopped for a scheduled bathroom break that integrated a requisite visit to a handicraft shop and a hurried lunch of spring rolls, and pork coupled with noodles. In time, our driver signaled that we needed to leave, so we clambered into the car and within an hour we were at the bay. We were booked on the Paradise cruise lines, and were led to the Paradise café and waiting area, which brandished a mini-buffet, coffee and tea. A short time later, an announcement was made about boarding our cruise ship, and a cruise lines’ representative escorted us all to the boat, where a “welcome briefing” and safety exercise (with life jackets, et al) were underway in the dining room. We were provided a key to our cabin, which sported dark hardwood floors, a most comfortable bed with red flower petals scattered about (seemed to be a theme in Vietnam), a modern bathroom, balcony, and a document containing an itinerary of activities.
We soon set sail, and savored sea breezes from the balcony, as well as intriguing views of diverse limestone structures covered with lush vegetation protruding from the bay and an amalgam of ships of all sizes and styles, each flying the Vietnamese flag. Traditional junk ships with corrugated brown sails, pontoons, smaller day and fishing boats, and more contemporary boats, such as ours, all shared the waters. At one point, a rowboat carrying a vendor with an assortment of wares disturbed our serenity by soliciting us unrelentingly about buying a string of pearls, which she dangled over our balcony in a small net at the end of a wooden rod. While initially intrigued, we eventually retreated to the safety of our cabin and shut the blinds. The bay’s history, itself, is quite rich and storied, as research indicates ancient cultures occupied the Halong Bay area as early as 18,000 BC, with the name Ha Long (“descending dragon”) deriving from the gods dispatching dragons spewing jewels that formed islands and stone mountains throughout the bay, thwarting the attacks of potential invaders.
At 12:55 PM, a pronouncement was made over the loudspeaker alerting us that lunch would be served at 1:00 PM. Lunch tables were set for individual families, and substantial aluminum buffet containers overflowed with pork, rice, noodles, and chicken, all flavored with Vietnamese spices such as lemongrass, mint, cilantro, ginger and cinnamon. Ronald, our cruise director, made the rounds to ensure everyone was happily sated, and fully aware of upcoming activities. Soon after our meal, ensconced in our cabin and nodding off, another announcement jolted us out of our reverie conveying that we would depart for Surprise Cave (Hang Sung Sot), a massive and celebrated grotto on Bo Hon Island, at 2:30 PM. Lifejackets were placed over our heads and buckled in place by the cabin crew as we loaded onto a smaller boat with several rows of benches. Within a short interval, we were on the wharf of Bo Hon Island being greeted by the necessitous merchants at the ready to sell visitors souvenirs and trinkets. After a steep climb of uneven stone stairs we arrived at the grotto’s imposing entrance.
Several chambers within the cave housed haunting stalagmites and stalactites and kaleidoscopic lighting that displayed ostensible shapes of creatures, like dragons, turtles, and elephants. Exiting the grotto, we were rewarded with a splendorous and expansive view of Halong Bay as we cautiously descended the stairs to the dock.
By late afternoon, we were assisted, hand by hand, from the transport boat to our cruise ship, offered lightly scented moist cloth towels and a refreshing citrus drink, before resuming our cruise through the beguiling limestone archipelago. Shortly after, we docked near Ti Top Island where guests could enjoy swimming, kayaking, climbing several hundred steps to the summit of the limestone structure figured prominently on the island, or simply lazing on the beach. We chose the latter alternative, as the step climbing to and from the grotto had left our muscles crying out for a break.
At 5:30 PM, we were on the cruise liners’ top deck learning how to make Vietnamese spring rolls with other cruise guests while the ship’s chef, cruise director, and cabin crew looked on, offering words of encouragement, while the sun set over the bay. We were the last up showcasing or skills at pasting fish sauce on rice patties, folding up the ingredients (shrimp, mint leaves, cilantro, basil, garlic, lettuce, and lime juice) into the patty and tucking the edges back into the wrapper. Within the first several seconds of our demonstration, the chef’s hats placed on our heads by the cruise director only moments ago were whisked away by the sea breezes; we were truly big-headed. The cooking exercise was complemented with “Happy Hour” festivities, including a “two for one” offer and complimentary rice wine, a potent drink of choice for Vietnamese.
Our dinner began with the dispensing of “Cooking Class” certificates, followed by a five-course Vietnamese meal (similar in composition to our lunch buffet), and ended with the showing of the film, “The Quiet American” starring Michael Cain; a movie that focuses on Vietnam’s conflict with the French in 1952 along with events leading up to America’s war in Vietnam, all amidst a nefarious love triangle.
We slept peacefully overnight, and although we had the opportunity to participate in a Tai Chi session at the break of dawn on the sundeck, we determined the extra hours of sleep were an extravagance we did not want to miss. Of course, we did not opt out of breakfast served, buffet-style, at 8:50 AM, boasting exotic fruits, Vietnamese pastries, “made to order” omelets, and alluring views of distinct limestone formations through oversized windows of the dining area. Keeping to the activities schedule, at 8:30 AM, we were boarded onto a day cruiser to visit Viet Hai Village on Cat Ba Island. A two hour trek by motor boat afforded us added views of the elaborate and picturesque chain of limestone isles, sparkling azure waters, and a captivating network of floating fishing villages. Roughly 1,000 people live in dwellings on these floating villages where the occupants support themselves through fishing and aquaculture. Currently, concerns are growing around residents’ safety due to recent powerful storms, as well as the continued sustainability of vulnerable ecosystems. Our Cat Ba Island guide divulged that he spent his formative years in one of these villages, and his family may be required to leave due to the ever-increasing destruction from storms.
Arriving on Cat Ba Island, Bishara, with a heavy backpack containing our essentials and an inherent lack of balance, made an attempt to jump from our cruiser to a smaller boat, with two young Vietnamese men assuring they would assist in a safe dismount, that resulted in a slippery landing, a twitching boat, and Bishara and the two assistants flat on their backs. Despite my angst, Bishara jumped up, laughing, while grabbing each of the young men by an arm and pulling them upright. After determining that all was fine, we were given the option of hopping on the back of a scooter or riding a bike into the village of Viet Hai. We elected for the latter alternative, and were pointed in the direction of some rather rickety-looking bikes. Undaunted, I jumped on the first bike I sampled, and was off. Close behind were Bishara, two young couples, and our guide. We traveled along a concrete path with flourishing greenery bordering our route and blanketing the surrounding stone forms.
Within forty minutes, the silhouettes of single story structures appeared at the base of a rocky ridge. Biking to the edge of town, our guide pointed out a small medical office, as well as a grade school and nursery school.
We were all preoccupied, however, with a prepossessing 95 year-old woman, matriarch of the village, who inhabited an austere dwelling with a sliding glass door, and slept on a straw mat atop a wooden box propped up with bricks beside a plastic tarp sheltering a nearby wall. The village people, we were told, took care of this matron’s every want; including making provisions for cooking and medical needs. Oh, the stories locked behind the faded and seasoned eyes of this aged beauty.
After a glorious ride back to the dock and re-boarding the Paradise Cruiser, we were served a sumptuous multi-course lunch on an open air deck, and ultimately anchored at the Dark and Light Caves. While some kayaked, we embarked on a small power boat with new friends and indulged in the allure of the surrounding setting. We were aboard our main cruise ship by late afternoon, and the next morning docked at Tuan Chau Island, the origin point of our cruise. After an enchanting trip, we looked forward to returning to lively Hanoi for a couple of days before traveling by overnight train to the mountain town of Sapa.