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     Halong Bay

October 22 continued ...

Vinh, our  Trails of Indochina guide, was waiting in the lobby. We quickly checked out of the Green Park Hotel (we would be returning tomorrow). 

Za, our driver, worked the car through the now active Hanoi streets as we headed out of town towards Halong Bay.  He was most thoughtful and pulled to the side of the road when he saw that we wanted to take pictures of field workers.

It is rice harvest time and the fields are busy as rice is cut with a sickle and gathered handful by handful.  Another worker fills his/her arms with the cut stalks and carries them to a thresher ... if they are fortunate enough to have the "modern" machine.  Stalks were spread out for drying on any part of ground or structure that was dry ~ shoulders of the road, pathways between paddy fields, roof tops of farm buildings as well as driveways and side streets. Piles of harvested rice were also placed on the freeway shoulders, driveways and side streets while the owners kept a watchful eye on the weather.

 

With the threat of rain, the rice has to be swept up and brought inside.  Meanwhile free range chickens help themselves to the piled rice kernels and we saw a cat making its way into a pile, perhaps not for the rice itself but maybe a mouse who had the same desire as the chickens.

Vinh had Za stop the car at a tourist shopping opportunity. This area is home to a large population suffering the effects of Agent Orange during the "American War" (called the Vietnam War by Americans). This horrific defoliating chemical caused many deaths and deformities in the children born afterwards.  The Vietnamese petitioned the US government for aid to assist in the care of these most innocent victims but the US government declined. 

Many of the disabled children of this area were taught crafts and it is through their own efforts tourists are brought here to appreciate and buy their art which includes ceramics, jewellery and silk artwork stitched so fine it is often mistaken for a painting.

We purchased a silk stitched "painting" and asked if we might meet the artist who had done the work (each piece of work is signed).  We were introduced to My (pronounced "Mee") and she graciously consented to be photographed.
Our tour itinerary called for us to take a five hour cruise on a private junk. "Private junk", we thought, simply meant it is owned by someone and we envisioned a ferry style boat crammed with tourists taking turns at the railing for photo opportunities.  Imagine our surprise when we were led to a junk to find that we, along with Vinh, would be the only ones aboard with a crew of five to take care of our needs -- captain, first mate, cook, hostess and waiter. We thought having a personal guide was exceptional -- this was over the top. 

Once on board we were served green tea and then offered cold refreshments.

We visited with Vinh (Za had stayed behind with the car and our bags) and took pictures before being told that lunch was ready.  As we cruised passed many of the 2,000+ limestone islands which rise sharply out of Halong Bay, we dined at a table covered with linen and supporting dishes of large shrimp, french fries (a dish to make North Americans feel comfortable), squid (oh so tasty), steamed rice, spring rolls, mustard greens, a whole butterfly fish and an apple for desert.

A bottle of Vietnamese red wine was purchased.  It was difficult to stop eating. Being full was a disappointment as we wanted to continue to savour the tastes. 

In a large bay off one of the islands, our captain manoeuvred the junk to a crowded dock and we disembarked to climb up to a cave. [Our boat's bow at centre-left in photo below.]
At the cave entrance we descended stairs and were delighted to see an area of about 30 feet by 30 feet looking into an inner cave with limestone (oh dear, what are they're called ... stag ... something ... drips from ceiling and builds up from the floor ... ahh !? ... it will come to me later ... later ... stalactite form from the ceiling and stalagmites form from the ground ... got it.) and a pond of fresh water.  Vinh shared the history of the cave's finding and said, "Although there are many caves on the islands, this is the most beautiful."

"It's lovely," we said and to ourselves thought we have seen other caves certainly as nice. 

"Now we go this way" Vinh said and took us up a flight of stairs which had been carved out of the limestone.  The stairs led us through a narrow corridor and began to descend. It was then that we saw the large inner cave. Looking up high, we could see "windows" in the rock letting in natural light. It was really amazing.  Then Vinh motioned to us again. "We do not go back the way we came," he said and led us to another set of stairs. We were not prepared to see what opened up before us. A cave so large it could house Vancouver's GM Place.   Lights have been placed in other alcoves beyond this gigantic room and the tall limestone pillars gave it the feeling of a cathedral, complete with pulpit.

On the junk again, we headed back to the dock where we started.

Again we passed fishing villages floating in island bays.  We wondered what our grandchildren, Tavis and Tyler, would think of going to a floating school or how Tracey would like to teach in a one room school house rocked by the wake of passing junks.  

We saw children less than ten years of age climbing on the straight walled islands with their boat bobbing in the water beneath. A young man was working along the water's edge selecting mussels ... perhaps for the family's dinner.  Ladies in a boat propelled by a motor caught up with ours to see if we wanted to buy any bananas or other fruit. 

The sun set as we finished our Halong Bay voyage. 

Vinh must have text messaged Za because he was there waiting with the car. The cool air conditioned interior had been sprayed with a delicate sweet perfume.  It was only a short drive to the Halong Bay Hotel (Trip Advisor - not direct hotel link) in Ha Long City. 

Before we even reached the front desk (following the porter who had taking our two backpacks from the car) we were greeted by a beautiful lady (so many Vietnamese ladies are stunningly beautiful) holding a tray of neatly rolled cool damp clothes to wipe off the dust and cool our brows. Immediately behind her another beauty came with a tray of refreshing orange drinks. We made it to the desk and checked in. 

Our room on the 3rd floor overlooked the Royal Amusement Park and Halong Bay.  The only reason we knew it was an amusement park is because that's what the sign said (later that evening we would hear loud music coming from the park.) In the distance a series of freighters waited to be loaded with coal. 

Still full from lunch we watched CNN for an update on world news and crawled into bed ... only slightly softer than yesterday's. 

October 23

The sun rose through the smog.  We don't believe this is what was meant when someone wrote "seeing the world through rose coloured glasses".

We have only stayed at two different hotels since our arrival in Vietnam two days ago and will be repeating the first (the Green Park Hotel in Hanoi) tonight.  The rooms, comfortable but not posh by Western standards, excel in the amenities offered.  Along with the traditional shampoos and soaps, these hotels also supply combs, cotton swabs, shoe shine and sewing kits, shower caps, razor (at the Green Park) and toothbrushes ... plus there is a mini-bar with items to purchase. 

Terry used the tooth brush and bottled water and his own tooth paste yesterday morning and was astonished to see his mouth turn black.  We could not think what might have caused such an event. This morning, Sherrie, using her own toothbrush, bottled water and toothpaste (different from Terry's) experienced the same.  Black. When she looked at her tongue she found it to be black as coal ... that gave a hint to a possibility. Northern Vietnam is coal mining country. Carts in Hanoi are pushed by men dressed in black (or were they once white) selling coal.  Here in Ha Long, freighters are lined up to be loaded with coal and flat scows cross the bay with smaller loads.  On our way from Hanoi to Halong Bay Vinh had pointed out in the smoggy distance the tall smokestacks of power generating plants run on coal. The smog is certainly thick and we are supposing (until corrected) our black mouths are a result of this human induced problem.

Marlene (Tracey's mom) solved the Black Tongue Mystery when she wrote " Are you taking Pepto-Bismol a few times a day? I had the chewable kind and it gave me a black tongue."

Again we followed Vietnamese custom of having noodle soup (this time with beef) for breakfast along with fruit.

Tried Dragon Fruit for the first time. It has soft white flesh dotted throughout with soft black seeds. The taste was rather bland. Still prefer the crispy oriental pear.

  
click here to continue October 23 and tour from Halong Bay to Hai Phong to Hanoi ...
     

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