Friday, December 30, 2011

Ha Long Bay

Before I get to our fabulous day and night in Ha Long Bay, first some additional details concerning the water puppet show in Hanoi.

We went up two flights of stairs to the auditorium. There was a large rectangular pond where a stage would normally be, with a small platform stage right and a wall with a shrine on top of it, stage middle in the back. There was a distinct mildew odor in the air.

The show began with performers in the small platform, playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, accompanied by two singers. After an instrumental number and some singing, the puppetry began. The "wall" partially opened on the sides to allow the puppets to come out. These were various figures who seemed to float on the water and were controlled by means of a long underwater wooden pole. This pole allowed the puppeteers to move the puppets, but also had enough complexity to allow them to move their hands. In one case, a puppet "swam," both freestyle and back stroke.

Given that I was dozing off during the performance, it's hard to give a complete description of each element, but there were several elaborate numbers involving fish, snakes, fishermen, and the finale including the tale of how the carp became a dragon.

Thursday morning we had the long drive to Ha Long Bay. Outside Hanoi, we drove past long stretches of rice paddies. In the north, they plant rice after the lunar new year when the spring rains come (in about a month). Now, they are turning the soil, and burning the old rice stalks to fertilize the grounds. We saw water buffalo being used with plows, as well as peasants in conical hats burning straw.

In some towns, the streets were black from coal dust, used in the thermal power plants. As in Hanoi, most houses were unique; each one was decorated differently, and even when there was space, they were thin, tall, and long. Dad noted that they are only painted on the front and wondered why. I suggested because they often had neighboring houses built right next to them, so why paint what no one will see?

We learned that Vietnamese do keep dogs for pets (we could see several from the bus), but that in Hanoi, dog owners keep them locked up to avoid theft. We also learned that Hanoi was badly damaged by U.S. bombardment during the war.

After two hours, we stopped at a tourist trap where we had the opportunity to buy various items. I bought some bamboo place mats to supplement the ones I already own, but then learned about how much the material was marked up. So be it. I looked around, trying to find ideas for possible gifts to buy when I'm in Saigon. There were two cafes: one for the tourists and one for the Vietnamese guides. The latter was very smoky. After a jasmine tea, we got back on the bus for another hour and a half to reach Ha Long Bay.

When we got on the bus in Hanoi, dad and I got the first seat in the front, which gave us a great view of the chaotic traffic and the vista ahead of us. This was a mixed blessing. The metal pole made sitting a little uncomfortable; but on the bright side, it made Frau Fabissiner (as I've called her) a little more sour. When we got on in Hanoi, I heard her screaming at the driver "no! no! no!" when he tried to put her carry on bag under the bus. She always seems to have a rather curdled expression.

The morning was overcast and hazy, but the sun began to appear when we reached the bay. We took the tender to the junk and it (the junk) was gorgeous. Dark wood shuttered windows, with dark wood trim. Our room was on the lowest level and dad though the bathroom, with its marble walls and walk-in shower, was nicer than the one we had at the Sofitel in Hanoi. The beds were very comfortable, though a little high for dad's taste.

We met in the galley for lunch and the guide told us that this would be our table for our time on the junk. That meant we ended up sitting at a mostly Jewish table. Needless to say, there was much confusion over all the special orders: gluten free, shellfish free, meat and pork free, etc. As it happens, the meal was so-so. Dad thought it was the weakest part of the trip in Vietnam.

After lunch we sailed through Ha Long Bay, which has hundreds of craggy limestone outcroppings, rising out of the hazy, green sea. The air was definitely a surprise: clear, clean, and fresh, but not salty. Perhaps it was only in comparison to the diesel fumes of Hanoi, but it was delightful. I took dozens of photos of each particular outcropping as it came into view.

Eventually we reached the harbor for the largest cave in the bay. After a stern warning about the large number of steps we would be climbing, the heartiest (and heart healthy) travelers got in the tender to shore. It was a mere 138 steps to the entrance to the cave, but it also gave us a beautiful view of the harbor full of junks and small ships. The cave complex is quite large and is brightly and fancifully lit inside. There are all sorts of shapes formed by rain water eroding the limestone. Dad kept up well, though at times on the steepest climbs we needed to stop for a rest. I still think, though, that the view from the trail was nicer than the views in the cave.

We headed back to the junk and then in late evening, we visited one of the floating fishing villages in the bay. Originally, we were scheduled only to do the floating village on one day, and the cave the next, but they needed to shift plans when Vietnam Air moved up the time of our departure to Cambodia.

From the tender, we boarded a small skiff, holding four people and a rower. She then proceeded to row us around the village (which was laid out like a giant "U" in the shelter of a large bay. We saw various fishing boats and clam harvesting platforms. I noticed that in many of the houses, I could see a large mirror opposite the front door. This was for fung shui. We also saw some dogs, including one running across the bamboo poles of a clam platform as if it were flat wood. We saw many young children and a school before we headed back to the tender and the junk.

Back on board we had a brief rest before dinner. Some people went to see the fruit carving lesson, but I stayed up on the upper deck chatting. Dinner was buffet and so-so. After dinner I tried to stay up, but ended up going to bed a little before 9 pm.

In our bathroom, I noticed something plugged into the wall socket. I thought it was a nightlight, but when I pushed the light button it started flashing various odd colors. It turned out to be some kind of Glade plug in freshner. When I went to the bathroom at 4 am, I was trying to discretely turn on the light, but accidentally hit plug in button, but instead of the lights flashing, I hit the music button and it started to play some ring tone. I frantically hit it to turn it off before it woke up dad.

I was up around 6 am, and went up on deck to watch the mountains rising from the morning sea. Around 7 am, they had a tai chi lesson, so I decided to try it. I'm not the most coordinated, so this was rather a challenge. After about 15 minutes I decided I had had enough, so when the instructor had his back turned, I slipped away. 1 minute later he ended the lesson, so I had quit for nothing.

Breakfast was again so-so, with the pastries tasting as if they had been frozen and defrosted. The best food was the pho, which was hot, fresh and tasty. After that we packed up to go to the airport.

After two hours on the road, we stopped for lunch at a very fashionable golf course. Dad and I had the pho again. Then we continued to the airport. There, our guide instructed us to make sure that customs did not stamp our visa "used" as this would invalidate our return visa for a week or so from now. Dad and I made sure to get behind Frau Fabissiner as she was sure to raise a ruckus if they made a mistake. Thankfully, there were no problems.

Our flight to Cambodia ended up being delayed for an hour, which gave us more than enough time to chat with the passengers on the "yellow" team. We were all divided into two teams: green and yellow. Each team gets a different bus and guide, and we were on different junks last night. We began to hear from some of the "yellow" team that there was a "problem" passenger in their group that we needed to take care of. We're not sure yet who the passenger is, but I suspect that it's the guy from Texas who kept trying to start political debates with dad and me.

It was rather warm and humid when we got to Cambodia. No problems with customs and AMA handled all the paperwork for our visas (though we haven't gotten our passports back yet). Because of the delay, we had to rush to our rooms and then back to the buffet dinner. The rooms are gorgeous, with a tub and a shower, two large beds, a desk, and other amenities. To get to them, we went along a lit walkway over water (it's rather dark, so I won't be sure until morning). It's very beautiful.

The dinner was buffet, and I particularly liked the chicken curry, skewered beef in khmer sauce, and cashew chicken (the last being quite spicy). While we ate, some Cambodian dancers performed elaborate and intricate dances.

Tomorrow morning, we leave for the temples at 8:30 am, so that means a 7 am wake up. I'm going back to the room in a little bit to unpack. I'm going to try to stay up until 10, in order to get my body back on a more normal schedule.

No comments: