Final days in Hanoi

I shared the night train from Sa Pa to Hanoi with an English guy. While talking we discovered that last November he had been to the caves and the same hotel where I was headed. He told me it had been his best experience during his month in Vietnam. Sounded really good to me!

We only stayed the two of us for the first minute of the train ride. Once the train moved our compartment door opened and five people stood in the door. Not for long though because the grandmother and the oldest soon were sitting already on my bunk before I could say hello. The mother with the youngest on her arm and the middle one next to her kept standing but asked in halting English if we could move up so that the she and kids could stay on the lower bunks.

Of course we acquiesced in the move, what else was there to do? Once on the upper bed though I noticed that the AC was so cold that I got a brain freeze just from lying underneath it. I had to move my pillow from the window to the door with the result that I now had the light in my eyes. But it was at least less cold in my face. The mother apparently felt cold too and got the conductor to fix the problem. This was done by taping some paper over the AC outlet. The conductor though must have also done something else because within 10 minutes the compartment had sauna temperatures.

We removed the paper from the AC again but with no success, the heat wave continued. The little one didn’t like it either and started crying which she did continually during the short night. The AC finally decided to work again about 30 minutes before our arrival in Hanoi. Then it was again on frost modus.

The night from hell ended at 4:30 in the morning with our arrival. I couldn’t have been happier than when I saw the face of the bell boy who had also accompanied me to the train station. He put me in a taxi and I was back in no time at the Golden Sun Suites Hotel, installed in a room that had been vacated sometimes during the night and fast asleep.

I missed breakfast that morning but this was also managed in grace by the hotel. I left the room with all my luggage after 10am and the staff got me some coffee and fruits while I waited for my room to be ready.

While sitting in the extended breakfast area/lobby I met Dudley again, a South African I had seen and talked to shortly before going up to Sa Pa. He basically followed in my footsteps and was going there this evening.

We started talking about good places to see in Vietnam (I find this is the easiest way to decide on where to go. Talk to other travelers if you are as lazy as me and don’t want to read the guide book). He had a couple of suggestions, later even brought his notebook down, showed me the pictures and provided me with contacts. So when my room was ready we had agreed on a dinner date before his departure to Sa Pa.

I spent most of my day in my room and just loved it. With the AC on low it was cool but not cold while outside the heat and humidity made tourists look like puddles of sweat. I worked on the blog and restored some pictures on posts from Nepal (I had a lot of trouble with the blog on my trip so far) and while there are still pictures missing on some posts from China, I am getting there. I also uploaded a couple of new posts, all in all a very productive though lazy day.

Around 5pm I eventually left the hotel; it’s really bad if one doesn’t get outside at all, and strolled around a bit. I was unsure if I wanted to buy something; I had been eyeing some loose pants but in the end I decided against it. I really had enough stuff with me already, there was no point in adding more.

Shortly after 6pm I met Dudley and we settled on the highest building around the lake to have a great view with the dinner. I chose Bo Luc Lac, a dish I knew from Vienna. What came then had nothing to do with the dish I knew and also nothing with the original (at least according to Google). Again I had landed in a tourist trap around the lake. At least it tasted good, that was already more than at the last place.

  

For the next morning I had booked a city tour, again very lazy of me since the afternoon program was around the Hoàn Kiém Lake and the Literature Temple. Both things I have seen. But the morning was at the other end of the city, at the West lake and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. As it turned out it was a brilliant idea after all since I met some Indian guys who had great tips for Saigon and Cambodia.

We started at the West Lake with the Tran Quoc Pagoda. In front of the entrance you could buy small turtles to let them free in the lake.

  

After a short visit to the temple inside and a closer look upon the pagoda we left for the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Not only can you visit the mausoleum but also, his house on stilts, his cars, the One Pillar Pagoda and the president’s palace. All for the price of one ticket and a line up for only 45 minutes. Inside the mausoleum there was no lingering allowed, one had to be quiet and respectful and just move along. No pictures were allowed of the great man.


Our guide let us line up alone but waited for us after the mausoleum. The rest of the complex was done in group modus again.

I missed the president’s palace while I was talking to the Indians but at the garage we caught up with the group. The cars in his garage were all gifts from communist countries I think.

 Moving further into the complex we passed the house on stilts and the pagoda.

Next stop after the Ho Chi Minh complex was a 20 minutes halt at a handicapped workshop right across the street. It really annoyed me that we went there, it was the same as at the tour to Ha Long Bay. After 10 minutes I was bored and asked to be taken to the bus. I rather wanted to sit down there and read my book. Almost all other passengers followed my lead and eventually we left earlier. (Maybe I should start a revolution?)

After this unscheduled stop we went to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups and a lot of them were introduced here. The museum had also a large outdoor facility where the different housing structures could be visited.

                

Then it was already time for lunch which we had somewhere in the old quarter and was again not great. After the meal I said goodbye to my group, lots of valuable information in hand. I spent the rest of my last day wandering around in the sweltering heat, hopping in between in cool cafes for a refreshment stop.

My train south left shortly after 8pm and sometime in the early morning I would arrive at Dong Hoi. I was praying for a quiet night and no kids in my compartment. Yours, Pollybert

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Bac Ha market

My last day in the Sa Pa region was a Sunday. And the reason I stayed the extra night was a big local market in Bac Ha. Pick up was suddenly way earlier and at 7:30 After I had my usual Pho for breakfast

 I was downstairs waiting for the guide. I met Marsha from the long trek in front of the hotel and the off we went, collecting other tourists along the way.

It was a three-hour ride to get to the market and once we arrived at Bac Ha it was clear that it was very popular.

Our guide led us through a side street to the market and walking there we passed the horses and the birds.

    In this busy side street was our restaurant for lunch and from here on we explored the market by ourselves.

Marsha and I walked around together and we had our first stop after two minutes to a bean drink/dessert. It’s basically ice with red beans and then all kinds of jelly, shredded and toasted coconut, peanuts and more, topped with bean juice. Very tasty!


Other impressions from the market.

                

Look at this variety of greens/herbs.

  

When we passed the fish market we saw a customer choosing a fish. So if you’re squeamish please look away.

                    

And here is one who got away. I didn’t know if we should say something but then I could see that the sales lady had already noticed the runaway. When we left the stall it was still alive.

At this market you get everything from buffalo to your next dress.

                     I tried one of these fried balls, it was not overly sweet and filled with a yellow bean paste. Yummy!

And other food stuff I didn’t try (so far).

  

Then we went back for lunch which was boring and bland after everything that we had seen at the market. So let’s just forget about it.

After lunch we stopped at a local minority village to see how the tribal families lived in the area. The house that we visited had one room, the sleeping area was quartered off by curtains but the rest was one big space in which they worked and watched tv. There was a small table, probably for the meals and homework, but only one chair.

 

 

Here child safety was not an issue.           

A short bus ride later we got off at the Hang A Tuong Palace just north of the market in Bac Ha. It was swarming with the tourists but you still see the beauty of the building. Designed by a French and Chinese architect and built according to Feng Shui guidelines, the palace was the home of the ‘Kings of the north’. Father and son from a Tay ethnic people ruled the north with a 70% H’mong share. They exploited what the could but at least the palace is still left, now for everyone to see.

      

There was a small shop in the palace where I saw an old woman weaving.

Back on the bus we made our way to Lao Cai to catch the train. One last stop in Lao Cai for all though. What I hadn’t realized when I had arrived here three days ago was how close the Chinese border was. It was just across the river.

  

After the last stop three other girls and I got off at a small hotel near the train station, shared dinner and then took the night train back to Hanoi. Yours, Pollybert

PS: The food tasted how it looked, boring and bland again.

More trekking around Sa Pa

I was excited for my second day of trekking; planned was a much longer tour than yesterday and we would start again at 9:30. When I arrived for breakfast at 9am all the Pho had already been eaten. What a disappointment, the soup had become my staple breakfast here in Vietnam. So I had some eggs and fruits instead.

For the trek Mù told me to wear different shoes. I had left my trekking boots in Hanoi since I was told that sneakers would be enough. But Mù said it would be slippery, therefore I had to get a pair of rain boots on her recommendation. They wouldn’t have been my first choice at all, but I bowed to her greater wisdom.

Our group got bigger today with two Australian sisters and the boyfriend of one, plus a girl from Croatia who taught English in Hanoi. Then again the two ladies from Singapore decided to stay in Sa Pa and have a relaxed day. Before we started Mù asked if we wanted to do the long (12km) or the short (8km) trek. The Australians were all for the long version and Randi didn’t look very happy about it. But it was agreed and finally we started.

In my boots I felt hot and sweaty already when we passed the local market. Check out what can go onto a scooter!

  

Then Randi fixed my boots and once they were half-boots I felt better. We began the trek with a very steep incline and after about 5 minutes in, Randi decided to turn around. As it turned out she made a very wise decision.

The view on the first two kilometers was limited due to a lot of mist.

Then we passed a tea plantation in the woods.

  

And just so that you get an idea about the trail we were on, this was definitely not the same as yesterday.

We had our first real break after about an hour into the trek. The view was a lot better and very beautiful.

      

And up we went again after only a short nursing stop for Mù and her boy. Today we were not only accompanied by the mother but five more women, all in bathroom sandals.

We saw a couple of children on the way up and I noticed how dirty they all looked. Happy but very dirty. The region is one of the poorest or maybe here I got closer at the locals than anywhere else. But nowhere else had I seen toddlers run around with no pants because the parents had no money (that’s what Mù told us).

Just a bit more up and then we had another break watching the mist weave in and out.

              

And everywhere we went were animals, Kul would have called all of them mountain animals.

      

From here on we descended downhill into the mist and since it was already noon Mù wanted to know if we preferred to take the long way along a road or a shortcut to our lunch destination. Everyone was for the shortcut. And already on the first couple of meters we had the first fall. It was really interesting to see. All others except for me were falling left and right and needed the hands-on support from our local companions, the women who were walking these slopes with bathroom slippers. I don’t know if it were the rain boots or my Austrian mountain goat genes that kept me from falling, but I was the only one with a pristine butt in the end.

              

How we had made it down there without broken bones I really don’t know. But our arrival on the paved path didn’t mean we had done it, no we had to walk another 45 minutes to reach our lunch destination.

      And then finally we were in the village of Lao Chai where we had our lunch. All the women who had trudged with us and helped us on the trail packed out their wares and wanted to make business or better ‘make happy’. That was really annoying but with the poverty we saw on the way, I felt obliged to buy something. One has to see it as local development aid. And here is my favorite vendor, same age as me and so tiny I felt like a giant elephant next to her.

Lunch was “same, same but different” as the day before. It was plentiful and we were all starving. By now it was about 2pm and we had had a very challenging trek with a couple of “near-death experiences” for the others.

After lunch and after all business was concluded we thought that that was the end of it. But far from it, we had another long walk through this valley to get to the Ta Van village.

            

Here we had our last stop and then it was back on the bus to the hotel. All of our group went back to Hanoi on the night train except for the Croatian girl Marsha (I probably spell her totally wrong but this is how it sounded) and me.

  

Back at the hotel I needed a shower first and another power nap. I had already decided that I wouldn’t have dinner again in the hotel. Last night was just not great and since I was eating alone I wanted to try something new. So around 6pm I left the hotel refreshed and ready to explore another part of the city. It was Saturday and there was a plant market right in front of the hotel. Do you see that the plants are not in a plastic container? Very resourceful!

  After exploring the shopping street and deciding against any impulse buy, I settled on BBQ for dinner.

      

The stuffed green thing was bitter melon. It was the only skewer I didn’t finish. It was even for me too bitter. Then after this delicious meal I went for a foot massage and was surprised when he started with my head. It was so good I almost fell asleep.

45 minutes later the relaxation was over and I walked back to the main square where I stopped to watch the evening entertainment. But the local singer who howled more like a dog than anything else made me leave the premises and prefer my bed. Yours, Pollybert

Cruising around Ha Long Bay

A wonderful sunny morning greeted me when I took my shower. Imagine waking up to such a view every morning…

Most people onboard had booked the two-day – one night tour in Ha Long Bay. Since I had time and wanted to relax I had booked the 3 day tour. An Australian couple and I were the only ones who stayed on board after everyone else left for the morning program. While waiting for our day ship to pick us up, I went on the observatory deck and took some pictures.

      

The day ship would be our “home” until the late afternoon. We met our lovely guide and started with an excursion to a pearl farm. She showed us the different types of oysters used for farming with the Akoya being the smallest and the most common.

 Since they die when the pearl is removed they also breed them.

From the breeding station we walked to the “operating room” where they implant a small ball made from mother-of-pearl with a piece of membrane into the oyster. After five weeks the oysters get checked if they survived the operation. The success rate lies by 70%.

    

Before going into the customary shop she opened one oyster ready to be harvested and voilà:

The pearls can develop different colors depending on the mother-of-pearl inside the oyster.

The rest of the day was spent with relaxing. We went to one cove for swimming in the morning then spent the time until lunch reading or sleeping. Lunch was wonderful again and after that more sleeping, reading, swimming.

Mid afternoon we went kayaking where I noticed that I have no hand for it. I shared the kayak with the guide and she was definitely drenched by the time we returned. Nonetheless she abode with me and we went through a cave to an inlet where we saw lots of jellyfish. They just stayed in the inlet and didn’t go out in the ocean. I touched a couple and they felt very slippery. Also when you took them out of the water they dropped their long tentacles. But when you put them back into the water they could still swim. So no harm done.

On the way back to day boat we saw monkeys climbing overhead and jumping from tree to tree. I felt a bit like in a documentary. Such near contact to wildlife is usually not part of my daily life.

Upon our return to the cruise ship we found it empty. All the newcomers must be swimming at the beach. At dinner that evening I shared the table with the Australian couple but later I couldn’t be bothered with squid fishing. I already knew it would not be successful.

The next morning I woke early and got ready. We had a cave visit on our program at around 8am. The Surprise Cave was just a short boat ride away.

  Since most cruise ships were stopping here before heading back it was slow going to the cave entrance. But the view remedied it.

  

Once inside the cave I couldn’t stop taking pictures. It was divided into three chambers with the first one being the smallest one, getting ever bigger along the walk. The cave was set up for a one way visit with another view over the bay waiting at the end. Also a very clever thing with the amount of visitors here daily.

              

  

Back on board of our ship we had to check out of the room and get ready for a cooking class of fried spring rolls. The ones we were doing were filled with minced pork, onions, spring onions, coriander and a bit of chilies (probably more ingredients went in, but I can’t remember anymore). The chef was mixing the filling and we had to roll them tight, glueing the end with egg white to fix the paper in place.

While waiting for the chef to finish lunch I took my last pictures of the bay.

      

Shortly afterwards we had lunch and then we were back in the harbor, getting on mini bus that was packed to the last seat (here some of the smaller buses have an aisle in the middle which can be closed in case of necessity with an extra seat).

We had another stop at a shop with a bathroom on the way back to Hanoi where I saw this fruit vendor in the back. They sliced the fruits freshly in front of you and you got them in a small bag with a large wooden pick to eat.

Finally we were back in Hanoi on the way to the hotel.

I had time to re-pack my small backpack and look for some dinner. I decided on noodles with beef and herbs.

  

For dessert I had a plum lemon tea which had some jelly at the bottom.

I had just enough time left to take a shower, update the blog a bit and was then already on the way to the train station. Tonight I was going to Sa Pa. Yours, Pollybert

Going to Ha Long Bay

On my first day I had booked tours for Ha Long Bay and Sapa. So Ha Long Bay was where I was going today. Pickup was again at 8:30 and with one bathroom stop at a store/workshop that sold products made by handicapped people (who sat inside and worked) we arrived at our destination. You know I always wondered how these “workshops” financed the bathrooms etc. But there are an amazing number of people who buy overpriced and mostly ugly stuff there. Later on my trip I met a couple who bought a very expensive jewelry painting at one of these stops.

At around 12:30 we boarded a small boat to get shipped to the cruise boat the Legend.

    

After a short intervention from my side I got eventually settled in a cabin on the upper deck (my first one was on the lower deck next to the machines; what up with this treatment of single travelers as second class customers?) and a few minutes later we all went to lunch.

Our first stop on the cruise was a floating village (now almost abandoned) to which we could either kayak or get rowed. I decided on the latter which was a wise decision as I would see the next day.

                

Next up was a swim stop at a beach with a small pagoda on top and while going there we had lots to see again.

  

Vendors could even be found at sea. With the long fishnet she would pass her goods up for inspection and if you wanted to buy something you put your money in for her to take it down.

Again with the little boat (always wearing life jackets!) we went to the small island and first up I headed on top of the pagoda to get it done and then enjoy a swim after. We were lucky with the weather, the view was quite alright.

   As always there were steps and more steps to reach the top.

 But the halfway point made it already worthwhile.

    

And then the view from the top was breathtaking.

      

The swim after this short excursion was refreshing and well deserved. This was actually my first swim on the trip so far. You can imagine how much I loved it.

With the little boat we went back to our cruise ship where already drinks and fruits awaited us.

      

Dinner on the cruise was an excellent affair and I am sorry to say that I took only one picture. So here we go, please enjoy the shrimps.

After dinner we tried our hands at squid fishing but with no luck. The season for them was about  months earlier or so. Still it was fun to be on deck, sipping a cool drink and talking to other guests. Sometime later I went to my cabin to get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow we would be off early again. Yours, Pollybert