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October 21
On the morning of Oct 19 we rose from our bed excited, perhaps a little nervous, but anxious for the adventure to begin.  It would be over 48 hours before we would put our bodies back into a bed. The only "sleep" within those 48 hours would be a few very short cat naps on the 13 hr 40 min flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong.  At the Hong Kong Airport we, along with two other couples from Vancouver, were guided through a maze of hallways and rooms, custom and security checks, up an elevator and a zig-zag of corridors to our flight gate and aboard the Vietnam Airline plane which would be flying us to Hanoi, Vietnam. 
Emerging from security where our papers were checked twice, we stepped out into the waiting throngs at the Hanoi Airport and met Vinh who was holding up a paper bearing our names.  Surprised we did not have more luggage to pick up, he escorted us to the curbside where a Toyota 4 door sedan pulled up and they put our 2 backpacks in the trunk. Za (spelt Giang but pronounced Za ... so that's the way I will refer to him) wove us through traffic along the "freeway" which would be our 40 minute route into the city of Hanoi. When we say wove, we mean that literally.
Any sleepiness we may have been feeling disappeared with the driving methods of the locals and the sights we were seeing, along with the sounds of honking horns.  A written description could not properly describe the sight of trucks and motor scooters, cars, buses and pedal bikes which moved in some chaotic ballet. Most pedal bikes did not just carry their driver, whose wide cone-shaped hat was held down by a tie or scarf that often went across their face, but also carried what seemed like an impossible load of goods stacked and straddling and somehow balanced around the rear fender.  On one, numerous crates of chickens, another piled high and wide with plastic milk-crate-style containers filled with bottles of beer. Similar transport was being done on motor scooters.  We tried to take a picture of one loaded with eggs but only caught the driver and the first stack behind his back.
What might be two lanes of traffic moving in one direction in Canada was a massive flow of humanity and machinery ... each flowing in accordance to their size and speed, much like you might see if you spilt a bucket of varying sized wood chips into a stream. When one vehicle wants to pass another they blink their lights and honk their horn.  The front vehicle moves over -- when they can and how far they can - perhaps the width of a lane, perhaps the width of a car, sometimes more, sometimes less.  Pedal bikes stay close to the side, sometimes; and motor scooters - many motor scooters with their helmetless riders (sometimes one, sometimes a family of 4) took up the spaces in-between the larger moving vehicles.  How they would laugh at the misuse of our freeways!!

The horn honking, which is a continuous melody in the city, is not "Get out of my way" kind of honking but rather a "wanting to let you know I'm here" kind of honking, and "you are about to be over taken". We had a couple of hours in our room at the Green Park Hotel, but we dared not lie down, so used the time to refresh ourselves, change and rinse out a couple of items.  Vinh and Za picked us up and off we went to see the sights of Hanoi.

 

They took us to the Temple of Literature where large slabs of carved stone rest upon the backs of stone turtles (a symbol of strength and longevity).         
The slabs are engraved with the names of those who have showed themselves to be the highest scholars.

Here, we also enjoyed a short concert on ancient-style instruments.

                                 
A visit to the Museum of Fine Arts was followed by a stop at one of the many lakes in Hanoi where fishermen cast their lines for carp; the One Pillar Pagoda among other pagodas and temples and the Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh (although the inside is closed for renovations).

On our way to the Museum we walked across a busy main street. "Walk" is the wrong word.  A string of 5 of us stood shoulder to shoulder and took half baby steps while cars, trucks, buses and motor scooters whizzed behind and in front of us causing the hairs on our arms to stand up.  A whole new version of extreme sports. Vinh told us that marked crosswalks (which we were in) were very dangerous because it gave those not in the know a false sense of security. Pedestrians in Vietnam have no rights!

           
Although the museums and temples are fascinating and pleasant, it is the daily style of living on the streets of Hanoi that capture our attention the most. 
Narrow shops below narrow living quarters. These narrow shops overflow with goods to sell from TVs and air conditioners to hub caps and Barbie dolls. 
Throngs of people on the streets, on the sidewalk, in shops (although most shops are so full of product that the merchant is on the sidewalk with more merchandise).
 

Ladies with long split bamboo poles over their shoulder balance large baskets filled with all kinds of food goods from apples piled high to donuts on a stick.

There doesn't seem to be any regulations regarding cooking or serving food.  Corners seem to be a favourite to set up a hibachi style flame (fueled by coal). It was difficult to know if the people sitting around on their hunches partaking in the cooked fare were family members gathered together or customers. 

Nowhere is merchandise stacked higher than in the Old Quarter.  In much of the Old Quarter shops are set up in the same manner as a century ago where the names of the streets are named for the products they sell.  For example, the street whose name in English is Chrome Street, will sell chromed plated products from muffler pipes to pots and pans.

We finished off the evening tour by seeing the Thang Long Puppet Theatre .. a water puppet show with many short stories and accompanied by an orchestra playing classic Vietnamese instruments. 
We were now reaching the 48 hour mark since we had last been horizontal. We had not eaten since the plane, so a quick light bowl of soup or a plate of rice was in order. We went up to the top floor of the hotel where we had what we wanted and witnessed a birthday party at the same time.  A number of people got up to make speeches ... what they were saying about the 4 year old boy, we do not know, but often after the speech, the speech maker would sing a song ... and the rest of the party would join in on the chorus.   The only song we did understand was when a teenaged girl sang "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands." We clapped and smiled. 

The bed looked so inviting even if it was almost as firm as the carpeted floor. 

October 22

At 2:00 am a view of the once bustling street outside our window found it empty and oh so quiet. The only person visible was a gentleman sitting on a straight-back chair outside one of the closed shops. A peaceful quiet time. Perfect for doing some journaling. By 6:00am Hanoi began to wake. A few horns beeped as early drivers made their way to work. 

Across the street a shop owner raised the metal "garage-style" door on the front of his business. On the sidewalk in front, the carcass of a small cow was laid out on a square mat as four women butchered it.  (Head and insides were already gone ... they were just cutting carcass). One woman carried two legs down a narrow walkway between the buildings and reemerged quickly to make another deliver of another cut of the meat.  A lady passing by picked her selection, money was exchanged, her cut was placed in a clear plastic bag and she went on her way down the street while the butcher lady returned her attention to carving.  A motor scooter stopped to look over their dinner options. We stopped watching, groomed and packed. 

We would be checking out of the hotel for one night.

We made our way up to the top floor restaurant where we had witnessed the birthday party the night before.

It was tempting to select the North American standard of bacon and eggs, but when traveling we like to emerge ourselves in the experience of other cultures so breakfast this morning was "Tang-quality" orange juice; pieces of papaya, pineapple and oriental pear (delicious); followed by a small bowl of noodles, chicken, green onions and a squeeze of lime covered by stock.  It is eaten (following the example of a Vietnamese lady) with chopsticks and a ceramic spoon. Noodles are selected from the bowl and placed in the spoon, topped by a piece of chicken and green onion. The spoon is then taken to the mouth.  We learned later many Vietnamese use chopsticks to go straight from bowl to mouth. Both ways acceptable. This dish was followed by some rice, a small piece of chicken and a shrimp.  

In the wake of the Avian flu in birds, chicken has become quite expensive as flocks have been destroyed. Beef is also a comparably expensive meat, so pork has become the popular current choice.

Vinh was waiting in the lobby. We quickly checked out and posted some postcards before getting into the car and saying good morning to Za. Making our way through the now active city, we headed out of town towards Halong Bay.

Our itinerary was going to change slightly over the next two days.  Za 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 shafts and carries them to a thresher ... if they are fortunate enough to have the "modern" machine.  Many stocks were spread out for drying on any part of ground or structure that was dry ~ the shoulders of the road, the 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.  Meantime free range chickens helped 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 desires 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.  The many disabled children of this area were taught crafts and it is through their own efforts that tourists are brought to appreciate and buy their art which includes ceramics, jewelry and silk artwork stitched so fine that it is mistaken for paintings.
Our tour itinerary planned for us to take a five hour cruise on a private junk. "Private" junk, we thought, simply means it is owned by someone and envisioned a ferry style boat crammed with tourists taking turns at the railing for photo opportunities.  Imagine our surprise when we were lead to the 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 3,000+ 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 and 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 savor the tastes. 
In a large bay off one of the islands, our captain maneuvered the junk to a crowded dock and we disembarked to climb up to a cave.
When we arrived we descended some 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 called ... stag ... something ... drips from the ceiling and the build up from the floor ... stag ??? ... it will come to me later) and a pond of fresh water. We stood while Vinh shared the history of its 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 lead us through a narrow level corridor and began to descend. It was then that we say 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. [Our boat's bow is at the centre point in the picture above.]
On the way, we again passed fishing villages floating in some 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 our hotel 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 they 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 of what might have caused such an event. This morning, Sherrie, while using her own toothbrush, bottled water and toothpaste (different from Terry's) experienced the same. Black. Scrubbing harder just provided more black.  When she looked at her tongue she found it to be black as coal ... that gave a hint to a possibility. Northern Vietnam has coal mining. Carts in Hanoi are pushed by men dressed in black (or were they once white) selling coal to neighbourhoods.  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. I know blowing your nose will identify all the pollution in the air also."

 

                     
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.

We left the hotel at 8:30am. Although we would return to Hanoi tonight we would not be taking the same route back - we would be returning via Hai Phong. Za first drove us to a Catholic cathedral. About 10% of Vietnam's 82 million population are Catholic and 70% Buddhist. Sunday service was taking place. We could not understand the words being spoken but when the congregation joined their voices in song, we were very thankful for the opportunity to be there.

Our next stop was at Hang Kenh Buddhist Temple where we walked in the garden. The path followed a round pond were koi broke the surface with noisy splashes. On the outside of the path, beautiful alabaster-white Buddhist statues in different poses were evenly spaced between a golden sitting Buddha on one side of the pond and a fat happy Buddha on the opposite side.
    
Our day continued with visits to pagodas, temples and communal houses where founders of the village are honoured. The communal houses also serve as a gathering place for the residents of the community as they each have a large court yard. It was at one of these houses we met up with John and Linda from Vancouver. We had met John during our flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong. They are also on a Tour East tour, not exactly, but similar to ours. Tomorrow they take the cruise in Halong Bay and we hope have as memorable a journey as we did.

                                 

In the city of Hai Phong, we saw the same bustling activities as we had seen in Hanoi. Always something new to experience like seeing, among the other food stall offerings, bar-b-qued dog. Vihn asked if we wanted to sample ~ in unison we answered with an emphatic "no"!

The temples and pagoda's and "tourist sites" are lovely to see, but the most memorable sights are those of everyday life  -- from fields in the country to city streets Asia pulsates with life.   For us the sights were unusual.  Most sights were common to our guides, but even they see unusual sights from time to time.   

On this drive we were amazed while passing a couple on a motorbike carrying a live water buffalo.    
We were going to head back to Hanoi in earnest now since our itinerary gave us only a half day with our driver and guide. It was a two hour drive back to Hanoi. 

Vinh asked if we wanted to stop for lunch or drive straight through. We said we would do whatever they wanted. If they were hungry we could stop and buy them lunch ... but ... if they wanted to push through, so they could spend the rest of the afternoon with their families, we could do that too. They did not respond and we assumed we were pushing through to Hanoi.  

After a half hour of enjoying the many wonderful sights along the way Vinh pointed out some buildings coming up on the right and told us we would stop at the Temple of Literature for this province. Ted got out and stretched his stuffing (Laurie and Tyler will be pleased). We were the only ones there so lots of photo opportunities.

 

Further down the road we stopped at a tourist shopping place (and "public" toilets). Za disappeared to a neighbouring café for some noodle soup ... while Vinh shared some food samples with us of what they sold. There was a large selection of Snake wine on offer; small bottles, medium-sized bottles and large jugs. Each clear bottle contained a real snake; cobras, vipers, etc.. Something along the line of the worm in Tequila - gross!

Vinh said he would like to take us to meet his aunt and uncle in a small village just a short distance from the "freeway". It is the village where his mother lived as a small girl. "An old traditional village," Vinh explained, "with bamboo and plaster houses." We grinned from ear to ear. This is just the kind of experience we value so highly. Vinh explained a couple of years ago, he took some Australians to meet his uncle and aunt; both parties had enjoyed the visit.

We pulled off the freeway and wove the car through narrow laneways; home to the villagers going about their daily tasks. Za stopped the car down one narrow lane where two oxen were pulling a cart towards us.

"We will get out here," said Vinh. We followed him down the lane and turned left onto another which seemed only slightly wider that our sidewalks. He located the green metal gate he was looking for and gave an enthusiastic greeting to a gentleman inside who was working with others planting trees into wide shallow pots. We waited outside until invited in.

We were greeted warmly with two-handed handshakes and wide warm smiles. Hopefully they felt the "thanks for your hospitality" that we were trying to convey to them.

They invited us inside and told not to remove our shoes since the house was under construction. Indeed it was. We sat inside the new building and shared tea in the room which would become the livingroom with bedrooms upstairs. A separate building (most likely the original dwelling location) will be the kitchen and eating area. We sat in child-size blue plastic chairs (not uncommon seating for these petite people) while uncle put more tea in the tiny stained pot and filled it with hot water from a big thermos below the table. (We had one of these in our room last night and have seen them in restaurants). 
Vinh's aunt and uncle are farmers. They grow rice (a high percentage goes to the government for taxes), raise pigs from a very large sow, chickens and Vietnamese dogs. We asked them about the construction of their new home. Brick covered with plaster, tile floors, windows without glass, just bars and wooden shutters with additional ventilation holes above the windows (about the size of our furnace grates in the floor at home). They were so nice and we communicated through Vinh, hand gestures and shared laughter. Vinh's aunt, like most Vietnamese women, is beautiful. They have a daughter and a son. We saw the son (about 9 years old) through the barred window but he was too shy to come in.

After saying good bye to the aunt and uncle, we turned back onto the lane and continued deeper into the village until we reached the entrance to the pagoda.

"Hello," we heard behind us in very clear English. We turned to see a boy of about sixteen years old pushing his bike loaded with rice straw.

"Hello," we answered back with smiles.

"Where are you from?"

"Canada. Vancouver Canada."

It would have been great to talk with him longer but we did not want to be the cause of holding up Vinh getting back to Hanoi and his family.

 

The pagoda inside was the same upside down "T" layout we had seen in the others just a little more humble and in need of some repairs. An old lady came in. She cares for the pagoda and we're sure she was making sure these foreigners were being respectful. Her face, stature and poor teeth showed many years of toiling, making do and going without, but when she smiled in welcoming hospitality, her eyes lit up, wrinkles became laugh lines and we caught a glimpse of her youthful beauty.

Continuing down the lane to the communal house, we exchanged "hello"s with the villagers. Some of the elders giggled afterwards as though they were thinking "I said a foreign word and it was understood!"

At the Communal House rice had been spread to dry in the court yard. It would all be swept up in a short while and then spread out again in the morning (if there wasn't rain).

Returning up the lane one of the older ladies that had said "hello" stood up as Sherrie was passing and "introduced" a child she held in her arms. She had the look of a proud grandparent. She held up two fingers.

"Two years old" Sherrie said holding up two of her fingers. "Big boy" Sherrie said stretching her hands apart to about the child's height. 

               
The lady beamed and nodded her head in agreement. Sherrie looked down the lane. Vinh and Terry were a good city block away and the car was not in sight. In the daybag, now in the car, were balloons and peppermints, ideal gifts for a time like this. She could only say "bye bye" waving the motion with the fingers of a raised hand and making a slight bow to the grandmother. 
"Bye bye", the grandmother repeated and helped her grandson with the gesture. Sherrie began her walk to catch up -- with a larger wave and a hearty "goodbye" to the five residents who had been an audience to their "conversation".

Returning to the car, Sherrie took two balloons and two peppermints from the day bag and put them in her pocket, hoping that another similar situation might occur but this time with her being prepared.

                      
We said good night to Za and Vinh at the Green Park Hotel's front door, took our daybag up to the room and returned to the hotel lobby bar for a drink. The hustle and bustle of the street was such a strong invitation so we went out to become part of it.
                
As we had witnessed in Naples, Italy, sidewalks are for more than just walking; they are for parking motor bikes, sitting and visiting with friends and family, an extension of shops, eating and drinking, selling goods whether from small tables or mobile baskets, and in the case of Hanoi, also a place to cook and show off your fighting cocks (though now illegal to have them fight). Walking itself can be adventurous ~ crossing streets, dodging parked scooters, maneuvering uneven pavement, curbs that may or may not have any ground below them, and disheveled cobblestones. At one jewelry shop, while we looked into a glass case, a motorbike came right into the shop with the space so narrow that the handle bars brushed our backsides.

  

Dinner at the top of the hotel overlooking part of Hanoi was lovely -- even when the power went out .... then on .... then off again .... (romantic dining by the lights of the city) ... and on again.

  

continued on October 24 - 26, 2005

                                                                                         

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