Tuesday, 28 July 2015

'ruising and canoeing HALONG BAY

One of the musts of being in the north of Vietnam is visiting the stunner which is Halong Bay. Gorgeous natural beauty, an ancient bay full of, erm, little tree-covered mountains ('towering limestone islands topped with rainforests', describes google a bit more poetically) popping out from the sea. The name translates as 'where the dragon descends into the sea'.

Apparently the simplest and best way is to do a two-day tour of it - a few hours in the bus from Ha Noi to Halong City, then you get on the cruise boaty thing, cruise along Halong for about 24h, then come back to Halong City, and bus back to Ha Noi.

The bus rides were pretty uneventful, except I spent an amusing/horrific half hour counting the amount of dog meat restaurants I saw on the side of the road. Thit chó. I got bored of counting at eleven. Especially in more rural northern Vietnam, dog meat is Da Meat2Eat. Most places also had a handy little picture of a cute dog on their food advertising sign, just in case you were doubtful. A few places offered the tempting extra of 'thit mèo', cat meat.

Once we got to the bay, we clambered into a little wooden boat, were given life jackets, and set off to find our cruise boat. The life jackets had to be returned before getting off the boat and, as Paul pointed out, it was pretty ironic that you were given a life jacket for the safest leg of the trip. It's highly unlikely you would suddenly drown whilst on the boat -  death by water would be much more probable while trying to jump on or off the rickety boat.  
The little boat was tied to our cruise boat for most of the time
Our cruise boat was “Lemon Cruise”, most commonly pronounced “Lemon Roo-ee”, sometimes “Roo-eez” if you were lucky. Our guide was this adorable young man, very enthusiastic and keen and very clearly on his, if not first, then max. second shift of this job.

So, what did the Lemon Rooee itself entail...

  • LOTS OF GOOD FOOD. When you're on a budget tour, you don't expect the food to be massively amazing or interesting. With Lemon Rooee, however, you are wrong. Every single meal included a million different courses, different Vietnamese foods, salads, fruits, everything. So good.

Ah-MAZING spring rolls
  • Visiting the 'Surprising Cave' which was, surprisingly, surprising. 
View from Surprising Cave

It's this huge cave inside one of the islands. Not something I had put on my top priority list of things to do, but it was actually really cool, and when you fell back from the group you could get quite a nice set of photos.

Be careful though if you have the elderly hypertensive heart disease!!

Our guide was being fun and cute pointing out different funky rock formations, asking us what shape we thought they were. Dragon or dinosaur or cow etc.?? Yes, well for the first five it was fun and cute, and then it started getting a bit tedious. Especially when, boosted by the giggles from the otherwise rather timid group, he spent a whole awkward five minutes trying to keep our attention on this unfortunately shaped rock which, according to him, was a giant forefinger pointing upwards. I'm sure, dear guide, you will learn, in the future, that jokes are best left alone after you share them once.

Note the forefinger on the left. Courtesy of Steffy.
  • Canoeing!! Which was perhaps the most awesome moments. Canoeing on the Halong Bay. We had an hour when we could canoe wherever we wanted. The freedom – and the caneoing – was pretty exhilirating. It was one of those reality check moments - am I actually in a canoe, going round the crazy limestone islands topped with rainforests of Halong Bay, Vietnam!? It was amazing.

Courtesy of Steffy and Hayzy (all the canoe pics)
  • Climbing to the top of the Russian Beach. The views were the ones you see on all the postcards, absolutely beautiful!!! Definitely one of the most picturesque places I've been to. The steps were a killer though. 
They managed well
Courtesy of Steffy 

Hello Halong!!!!
  • Swimming at Russian Beach. Named that by myself, because there were many Russians. Also, I think, in a nice non-racist way, 'Russian' describes a certain type of tourist in Vietnam – the kind that is into beaches and drinking, like most you find at the very Russian-populated Nha Trang. So, Russian Beach on Halong Bay was a very clearly artificial beach, with many Russians drinking many drinks. We had a fun ten minutes paddling in the water taking underwater pics with Paul's awesome underwater cam, until Mr Tour Guide came up to us, hassling us back into our boat where all the other tour members were sat waiting for us. * sigh * *Soz guys * but at the same time, I really do not like being pressurised for time when you're on holiday. Especially since the main reason we were in a 'hurry' was...
  • Cooking class. Yes, sounds good, right!? You learn how to cook a Vietnamese dish, what spices to put, probably you'll get to cut, cook, mix, whatever you do when you cook!? No. We were hustled into the dining area of the boat, where we were gonna learn how to 'cook' spring rolls. Well, we got to roll the insides into the spring rolls. That's it. The veggies had been cut and prepared, the rice paper had been prepared – all we did was that some lucky volunteers got to stick some cut veggies into a rice paper and roll it up. The end.
Ok, it was cool, don't get me wrong
  • Illegal little boat-buyings: When we got back to Lemon Rooee after our excursion, we were greeted by a little lady on a little boat selling drinks, snacks etc, the kind of stuff you'd get from little boats on the Mekong Delta. We looked at some of the stuff with interest. I knew that we weren't allowed to consume anything not bought on the boat. (We got free food, but any drinks cost money. A lot of money.) I also knew, forgive me, that the Vietnamese are not famed for being direct about saying stuff. So – don't ask, and you won't be refused, right?
Mr Tour Guide was eyeing us warily, and when the kiwi couple who were in the next door cabin seemed actually intent on buying from the lady, he came towards us, and 'recommended' we didn't buy from her. “Oh, why?” the kiwis were genuinely concerned. Mr Tour Guide explained how it's probably “low quality”, that the seals on the cans, for example, were not 'good quality'.

 “Oh, really?” said the kiwis, genuinely confused. “But they look the same as all the others...?” “Oh yes, low quality, low quality,” assured Mr Tour Guide. The kiwis looked apprehensive but not convinced. “Oh,” understood Paul, “do you just not want us to buy?” Exactly the question not to ask. “Yes,” said Mr Tour Guide, relieved.

Well, he left, and we were naughty, and bought anyways.

  • Squid fishing. Not something I wanted to partake in, but it was exciting watching it happen though. Squids like it at night, so it happened in the evening. You had something at the end of a fishing stick, and you could see the glow-in-the-dark (sort of) squids circling them.
  • Oyster farming. This happened early the next morning. The main thing it taught me, future husband take note, is that I never, ever, ever want real pearls.

The girl on the right's expression describes it all...
  • A lot of hanging out on the deck. Which was fun. The four of us played loads of card games, had lots of good chats and just enjoyed the Halong Bay-ey ambiance. 
Courtesy of Steffy
Halong Bay was beautiful. A gorgeous, incredible natural wonder and it was a really enjoyable trip. I think, maybe, I had super high expectations for it since it is, for a good reason, one of the top places to visit in Vietnam.

However, you did feel very much that you were on a very, erm, touristy trip. It was quite disappointing when we realised that, despite this being a 'cruise', we literally were just in the same area the whole time. You could see the bridge of the mainland from every point where we were at. We just essentially circled Russian Beach island.
Courtesy of Steffy
But, well, saying that, I'd still definitely recommend Halong Bay. And if you want to see more of Halong Bay, there are plenty of tours that go further afield. If you have the money, maybe splurge on a more... atypical trip. But, well, even this typical tourist trip was a beauty. The food was amazing, the deck of the boat awesome, the scenery magnificent, the experience... unique. (I'm running out of adjectives...) 

Well, that's the HCMC-Hanoi done and dusted. I have a million and eight drafts/ideas for future blog posts, so can't wait to see what the next blog entry'll be...

Hẹn gặp lại,

Goodbye Halong Bay </3

Monday, 27 July 2015

Hanoi, the turtle and the donuts

Xin chào mes amis!!

Yes, yes, long time no see. That shall be rectified today...

So, HANOI. :)

I wasn't quite sure how I felt about Hanoi before going there. When first thinking about moving to Vietnam, I had half-heartedly considered moving there, but then the simplicity of travelling from Saigon, the apparent curfew in Hanoi, and the apparent conservativeness of Hanoi made me decide I wanted to be situated in the south of the country.
'Congratulations 40 years Release the south' , courtesy of Steffy 
Anyways, it was still a must to see, the capital of Vietnam We were told we should stay in the Old Quarter, and I was looking forward to seeing this historical area and all its sights, experiences and smells. (Smells were an important part of my expectations, all guide books seemed to mention all the food and spice smells you get in Hanoi...)
Exploring the streets of Hanoi was a bit of an anti-climax. I couldn't really believe we were in the famous Old Quarter – all there was were small streets which meant many, many close shaves with speeding motorbikes whose consideration skills were significantly weaker and horn volume significantly louder, I swear, than in the Saigon area... The little stalls were quaint, the smell was indeed spicy, but it was nothing massively special.

However, after a few days we all agreed that Hanoi had definitely grown on us. The Old Quarter was fascinating, Hoan Kiem lake very pretty, and the cafés and restaurants scrumptious and very interesting.
Courtesy of Steffy
Courtesy of Steffy
Top moments:

  • Hoan Kiem Lake, Lake of the Returned Sword, home to the Huge Turtle. According to the legend, the Giant Tortoise, Kim Qui, once surfaced and asked emperor Le Loi (also a famous street in Saigon) for his magic sword, and Le Loi then changed the name of the lake to its current name. A very endangered species of turtle lives in Hoan Kiem Lake. The Vietnamese, especially the Hanoi-eans like their turtles. Turtles symbolise long life. 
Courtesy of Steffy
Hoan Kiem Park

Prepping for a selfie, courtesy of Steffy

Turtle Island in the middle of the lake, courtesy of Steffy
Also, Hoan Kiem Lake is home to the most photographed bridge of Hanoi (or Vietnam?), Huc Bridge.
In our matching Hoi An-dresses with the famous bridge behind us, courtesy of Steffy

  • Hong Kong waffle and Thai tea (ESPECIALLY Thai tea) at some streetside café.

  • Vietnamese hotpot at 'Linh's kitchen'. A lovely, lovely mix of traditional Vietnamese yet atmospheric. I find often the thing with Vietnamese food here is that it's hard to find somewhere that you consider very Vietnamese yet with an ambiance. The places that do the best Vietnamese food are more like quick lunch places (at least for me), not the kind you'd like to spend a chilled meal at. But Linh's kitchen was different. Super atmospheric, and between us (excluding myself) we managed to cook the meats on the hotpots and, ah, twas lovely.

One of my fave pics <3 , courtesy of Steffy
One of the chefs
It even had lanterns Hoi An-style!

  • The Café View restaurant. The only thing magnificent about their food and drinks were the price, but the view completely made up for it. You could see the lake, many buildings and the everchanging roundabout. A lovely evening.

At around 8pm
At around 10pm

  • Going round in this electric car thing (Vietnam like their elecic cars!) (Edit: Two of my adult students did an amazing sales presentation about electric cars, beginning with them asking the audience for the pros and cons of motorbikes and cars. Then, they introduced the electric car: Take the pros of motorbikes, add the pros of cars, = electric car. Brilliant.) 
A view from the elecic car

  • Bun Cha at a quaint little balcony-restaurant. Bun Cha, barbecued pork with rice noodles, is Hanoi's traditional dish and it was scrumptious, thanks for the recommendation! :) 
Bun Cha

  • AH YES. (I am writing this, erm, over two months after the trip, so my memory is not serving me too well, but luckily I wrote the BEST THING in my journal...) I bought a bag. It was and still is beautiful. Well, I bought two bags actually. The first one's first zip broke the day after I bought it, and the second zip broke the day after. So I was on the look out for a new bag in Hanoi. We found ourselves in one of these normal souvenir-shops, and I was looking at a stunning turquoise bag the shop girl was telling me came from the mountains of Sapa. She had pretty good English. I expressed my concern about the quality of the zip, and showed her my previous bag. She reassured me that I shouldn't worry. “Jeep have good music,” she told me, demonstrating by pulling the “Jeep” (on the bag she was selling) backwards and forwards. (Edit: In case you are confused... Jeep = Vietnamese pronunciation of 'zip'. And Music = Sound)
And, well, points to her. Day in, day out I've been using that same bag, and the Jeeps are still in perfect working order. :) Loved her!


There were some of the best moments. Hanoi is also well-known for its scams, so, a few questionable moments as well...

  • Well, the scammy taxi driver. Yes, he overcharged us, but not as much as the other dude had tried to. And we had quite an amusing 'heated' bargaining sesh half-way through the journey when I decided to finally point out that we were aware that his meter was slightly mentally unstable. Bless him, he was quite young and seemed pretty new to this scammy business, and immediately stopped the cab at the side of the road when he realised there were complications - clearly following advice of his Fellow Senior Taxi Scammer Drivers. He was clearly nervous. 
For example, we were told to change taxis, and magically our new taxi had a much higher start-up and km price...  

  • And, the scammy donut lady. We were harassed by this lady selling donuts in a basket. We ignored her and walked on, but then Hayzybobzykins and I looked at each other, and we thought the same thing – the donuts looked really good. So we went back to her, attempted to buy one of each (there were three types), but she gave us three of the big ones each, and nine of the little ones. Oh well, we'll feed some to the boys... She charged us 50,000 which was very expensive, but, well, I've heard people try and charge worse, and they did look delicious... So we paid up, I got a photo of her (she is very cute, isn't she!), and were on our way.
Do not buy from her 
How were they? Well, I'm sure they were very nice about two weeks previous. Inedible.

The amount of these donut ladies there were around. I can't vouch for the quality of the other ones, but later I researched them, and found a lot of unpleasant scammy stories about them, for example giving donuts to children to make their parents buy. But no one mentioned the fact that they were ancient... maybe it was just our bad luck.

Later, I bought similar donuts from a lady on the side of the road – happily making them, not shouting to tourists. She was very happy when I ordered in Vietnamese, and they were 3,000 a piece.


Well, Hanoi. Was cool, was beautiful. A very different air to Ho Chi Minh City, a lot more 'traditional' and, well, as they say, less Westernised. I still prefer HCMC and its craziness (and, surprisingly, the quietness of the horns in comparison to Hanoi, true story!!), but Hanoi was definitely a lovely experience. 

Next: Halong Bay. <3