Saturday, February 27, 2010

Halong Bay Cruise

When you visit Hanoi, the most popular side trip is to Halong Bay.
First designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1994, it has been reclassified to include it's geological and geomorphological value in 2000.
Halong Bay encompasses an area of roughly 1553 square kilometers with some 2000 limestone karsts and islands of various sizes and shapes jetting high above the surface of the water. An incredible sight to say the least.

When we first visited Hanoi in 1998, we didn't make the trip to Halong Bay. When we returned home, we heard plenty of "you didn't go to Halong Bay?". Not sure if it's the same as "you went to Paris and didn't go to the Eiffel Tower?" but we didn't actually decide on Halong until we were persuaded by our hosts here in Hanoi.
It's all pretty structured. A few hundred cars, minivans, and buses shuttle back and forth between Hanoi and Halong Bay daily. There are roughly 25 tour operators and somewhere around 150 to 250 small cruise boats, depending on who you talk to, cruising in the bay.

We stopped at one of the many fishing villages on the Bay. Fishing, shrimping, oyster farming are still a big part of life for the people here, but I suspect shuttleing tourists around the bay can be just a lucretive.

Pollution is a pretty big problem in the bay as evidenced by the amount of garbage floating around.
Not sure where most of it comes from but at least in the small fishing village we visited the people shuttleing us around were constantly netting up debris from the water.

No, I'm not part of the crew. Stop asking me for a coffee refill.
But I get this frequently. In Thailand, we rented an apartment, and the very first day we were there someone approached me and told me that the light fixture in his apartment was not working and demanded that I fix it. When I gave him a puzzled look, he just threw up his arms and walked away. I guess he though I couldn't understand English.

Cooking class (above) and morning Tai Chi (below).

Kayaking is another popular activity in the bay.

She sells sea shells.

Fishing boats all lined-up.

We opted for 0ne of the higher end tours on the bay.
The staff on board were incredible. The food was so so.
We would recommend them though. They have six boats in their fleet. One for day cruising, Three Classics, and two high end Legends.

Sails Up!

Although the sails are mostly decorative, in a moderate breeze they actually do some good.

*When you go:

-You can generally book a cruise a day or two in advance out of Hanoi. All the tour operators have offices in the central tourist area, or Old Town of Hanoi. There are also numerous private tour operators throughout the city.

-The two day, one night cruise is the most popular way to see Halong Bay. A second night will cost you about 40% more. We opted for the Bhaya 2day/1night cruise ($159 promotional price) which included the three hour shuttle to and from Hanoi.

-Check the weather reports for a "good weather day". It can be cold, foggy, and gloomy even during the mild high tourist season.

-Pack light for the overnight stay. It could get chilly at night so bring a sweater or light jacket.

-If you want to kayak or swim (probably not recommended as the water is pretty murkey) bring appropiate clothing.

*Halong Bay time:

Monday, February 22, 2010


We've been cold ever since we arrived here in Hanoi, although it's not really that cold.

After three months in Thailand, the last five weeks on the beach on Phuket, we arrived in the northern capital city to more weather shock than anything else.

It's been overcast since we arrived four days ago but the day time highs are beginning to reach into the mid-seventies. There's even a forecast for some mid-eighties by the middle of next week.

Hanoi has a vastly different feel than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south. At times it feels like a completely separate country.
One thing it does have in common with Saigon is the street noise. Motorbikes are the most noticable things on the streets here. Maybe not as much as in Saigon but still an overwelming presence. Cars and trucks are becoming increasingly afforadable so their numbers are adding to the traffic on the often narrow roads.
Horns from cars, trucks, and buses are used to alert motorbikes of their presence.

Street life is always interesting - mostly because it's so different from what we experience back home.
Above are people snacking on snails on the street.

The street markets are pretty much as they are throughout Southeast Asia.

Plenty of fresh vegetables, fish, and meat.

Fresh baked baguettes, along with delicious coffee, are two things the Vietnamese have mastered from their French colonial days.

Wine in jugs on display outside a local wine bar. Yes, those are starfish.

The historic Old Quarter is one of the top destinations in Hanoi.

The streets are lined with shops and historic old buildings. You can shop, stroll, or just relax on the street cafes enjoying a cup of coffee or tea.

A woman carrying around a portable Pho stand.

Motorbikes congesting the sidewalks. There are often parking attendants hired by the local merchants tending to the parking. Sidewalks are not really for walking here in Vietnam.
In the cities they're often used for parking motorbikes or for merchants setting up their tea or food stands.

We're staying in an apartment on the top floor of this building housing a trendy bar/restaurant called Daluva serving everyting from tapas to pho, and all kinds of interesting cocktails.

Daluva is located in the trendy, up and coming Tay Ho District on the West Lake. It's away from the hustle and bustle of the Hoan Kiem District and the Old Quarter but just a ten minute taxi ride away (about $3.00).

And here's the best thing about Daluva, aside from the wonderful staff and friendly guests. Breakfast of French Crepes with bananas and Passion Fruit sauce. Yummy!

Hanoi is celebrating it's 1000th year anniversary in 2010 and they expect up to two million foreign visitors and eight million domestic visitors this year. The city, with it's limited capacity, will be pushed to its limits. The official anniversary date is 10 October 2010.

Sounds on the street.
Crossing the street can be a bit tricky to a novice streetwalker here.
You could spend hours waiting for the traffic to stop, but it won't until late at night.
Do as the Vietnamese do and start inching your way across a busy road. You'll be surprised as the traffic parts, like the Red Sea, flowing smoothly in front or behind you. Whatever you do, don't make any unpredictable movements. Freeze if you have to but never lunge forward.

You pat my back...
* When you go:
-Dollars are welcome in most higher end establishments but the Vietnamese Dong cannot be refused by law. Exhange rates are currently in the 18,800 to one USD range. Change $100 USD and you'll be carrying around almost two million Dong. A cup of coffee will run you about 18,000 Dong on the street.
-ATM machines are available throughout the city.
-Exchange dollars at hotels or banks. Traveler's checques at banks only.
-Bring smaller US notes for small purchases.
-A taxi from the airport into town will cost around $16 USD including the tolls.
-Tipping is not required but becoming more common in the large cities of Hanoi and HCMC, and almost expected at high end restaurants.
Hanoi time:

Tet in Hanoi

TET is being celebrated here in Hanoi. The Lunar New Year brings in the Year of the Tiger (not sure what's going to happen when there are no more Tigers).
We arrived here shortly after the New Year and the celebrations were well under way.

Potted Peach Blossoms adorn practically all the shops and businesses.
We made our way to the temples along with thousands of others.

TET NGUYEN DAN can be interpreted as "Feast of the First Morning" or "Dawning Period" of a Lunar New Year.
The Chinese Zodiac puts 2010 as the Year of the Tiger.
Tigers are well liked and have charming personalities. They often seek approval from family and peers but do not find worth in money or power. Tigers always land on their feet and are ready for their next actions, pursuing it with vigorous energy.

Tigers are also incorrigibly competitive and can rarely pass up a challenge. They're unpredictable but never underestimate their reactions. Known to to intelligent and alert, they're always ready to deal with their problems.
Tiger time in Hanoi:

Nai Harn Beach - Phuket

Back on Nai Harn Beach on the southern tip of the island of Phuket.
We spent a little over five weeks here this year and I only missed one day at the beach. Alan spent every third day back at the apartment catching up on his writing projects.
Not much has changed since we were here a little less than a year ago. The beach itself is probably one of the nicest tourist beaches on the island. The water is crystal clear, especially on the eastern end of the beach, with plenty of fish for the snorkelers.
It's high, high season and the beach is near capacity a little past mid-day.
Mostly Europeans (especially Italians) and some Russians. Not many Americans.

A seven year old boy was dragged from the surf unconcious. We believe he survived.

Monks on the move.
Nai Harn beach and the area surrounding it is owned by the buddists. Building in the area has been restricted although more and more of the area is being developed.

Tatoos are the big thing here now. And not just on the body building bunch, who generally overdo it for attention or whatever, but even on young women.

The temple at Nai Harn. Totally re-done with the help of some tsunami money.

A man and his dog? Who says that dogs resemble their owners?

If you go to Phuket, consider Nai Harn Beach. If only to hang out at during the day. It's a fair drive from the hustle and bustle of Patong Beach (about 400THB ($12) each way for a taxi).

The water is cleaner on Nai Harn than any of the other tourist beaches on the island. You can swim and snorkel freely here as there are no jet skis, or other power boats in the water.