More Hanoi – same-same but different

“Same-same but different” is a phrase that is ubiquitous in SE Asia, and its meanings vary depending upon the speaker. A vendor trying to convince you that the North Face jacket is not a fake, or a chef trying to explain the taste of a tropical fruit you can’t find at home – same-same.

In my case, same-same but different means this posting about Hanoi will be similar to the last one – more stories and images about people and places that have touched our hearts. Hanoi is a city we can’t get enough of and yet it is so exhausting and all-consuming we are finally ready to head home.

The next two photos tell a sad story – legions of young and middle-aged men who seem to have little to do. We see them gathering in groups like this or sitting on their motorbikes, checking their phones. What becomes of a country that is emerging into a new level of prosperity if so many are left behind?

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This game is popular – we see it on street corners and in parks, being played by men at all hours of the day. We noticed money exchanging hands with this game.

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These little kids are Vietnam’s hope for the future.  Rock, paper, scissors is apparently an international favourite.

IMG_1241A young man playing the violin in the park by the lake. There are not a lot of buskers, which we found surprising.

IMG_0789The dancers, on the other hand, are out most nights. There are traditional dances and small performances and then there is the dance-off. It seems to be open to anyone who wants to get up and twirl around. The kids were certainly up for it, and there were a few couples who appear to have had some practice. Smiling not allowed.

The lake is quite close to our hotel and is a magnet for night-time entertainment. There is a gorgeous restaurant that offers outdoor lakeside seating, and as is the strange case of so many restaurants of its ilk, it has a great view and mediocre Western food – soggy pizza and limp fries. We snagged one of the front row seats and ordered (expensive warmish) beer.

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Speaking of food, we had an exceptional meal at Don’s Bistro, situated on West Lake, a much larger lake just north of the Old Quarter. Don is an expat chef who happens to be a dear friend of a friend, and so we popped by for lunch, a visit and a bike ride round the lake.  Don’s Bistro has been around for a number of years and is the go-to place for locals and tourists alike when they want a bit of a treat meal, as it overlooks the lake, has stunning decor, flawless service and is still very affordable.  As is often the case when I have beautiful food put in front of me, I get so excited I forget to take photos. I did remember to take a shot of our desserts.

Passionfruit creme brûlée ( served in scoured-out passionfruit halves), and vanilla bean ice-cream in chocolate cup.

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After lunch, we borrowed two of Don’s vintage Japanese postman bikes and rode around the lake – about 17 km.  The first part of the ride was through ex-pat neighbourhoods and nicer homes. This is one of the few places in Hanoi you can ride a bicycle and not encounter much traffic.

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And now for some random shots of buildings. There are many really gorgeous buildings in Hanoi, but they are often partially blocked by high fences. I was able to take several unobstructed shots of very interesting buildings and homes in Hanoi, and initially they will appear to be shabby, but they are the heart of the city.

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This is an example of a Vietnamese and a French colonial roofline. The French (on the right) has high windows and carved embellishments. The Vietnamese has a low roof and tiny window. Apparently, this style developed because citizens were not allowed to look at the King when he passed by, so they built these tiny windows so they could sneak a peek without being detected.

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Many buildings are narrow and tall – built that way to avoid paying higher taxes (smaller footprint); resulting in some fanciful structures. We’re wondering – one flat to a floor? Two? I would love to go on a house tour in Hanoi, if there are such things. As is the case with so many densely populated cities, so much is hidden from sight and drab doors open up to reveal surprising beauty.

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Not a lot surprising beauty here, I wouldn’t think.

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A banyan tree, common to SE Asia, among other countries. So beautiful.

IMG_1267 We took a walking tour of the Old Quarter with two students who were practicing their English. The Old Quarter began as the merchant area (still is), with 36 guilds. Over time, the guilds have changed, but the streets are still representative of certain trades and services, which makes shopping very practical.

On Tin Street, our guides told us about the furnace-type objects sitting on the ground. They are used to burn fake money to send to their deceased loved ones. This will help them out in the afterlife.

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The students were very sweet and tried very hard, but English was still as struggle for them. It didn’t matter – they pointed out a number of things we wouldn’t have known about, including the herbal medicine street. It used to be run by Chinese, but when they fled after the war, the Vietnamese took over. Fascinating, although I could not find anyone who spoke English, so buying a big bag of herbs would be out of the question.

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The fruit vendors ride around on bicycles and carve pineapple right in front of you. A whole pineapple for just over a dollar,  and carved in a spiral in about a minute.

Pay close attention to the size of this street – it has to do with the next photo.

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Let’s pretend you own a Bentley. You know, the car so exclusive it goes by one initial. If you owned a Bentley, would you honestly drive it through the tiny streets of The Old Quarter, with hundreds of motorbikes, bicycles, cars, delivery trucks and grubby tourists brushing by it? Well, if you had a Bentley it probably comes with a driver, but still… So you can imagine our surprise when we turned a corner and came upon this sight.
At first we thought, “must be a knock-off”. I don’t think so – even the Vietnamese aren’t this talented. So why is a Bentley parked in the Old Quarter? Another imponderable.

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Still in the Old Quarter, we came upon this funny little bar – Hang-Over. Aptly named, I’m sure, as this is the ‘hood for 50 cent beer, but the mother in me reacted right away. “Young people, do not get a tattoo or piercing in a bar called Hang-Over. That approach to over-drinking may extend to the tattoo “artist” and you’ll be sorry.”

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Weddings here can be elaborate affairs that require pre-wedding photos, well in advance of the actual date. Today, we saw not one, but two pre-weddings – one of them photo-bombed by a little kid on a bike.

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Our trip is over. So many more stories and photos left on the cutting-room floor, but it is time to go now. At least for the next few weeks. We’re flying out tomorrow, and will spend the next five or six weeks in B.C.,  seeing dear family and friends again. After that, we’re on the road again – driving across the country in search of big Canadian 150th birthday stories, and hoping that not every campsite and motel room has already been booked. I’m sure we’re not the only ones with the same idea.

We’ll see you back on the blog mid-May, and hopefully see many of you face-to-face over the next several months.

Thank you so much for coming along with us, and for your emails and blog comments. It meant the world to us. See you soon!

How to do nothing in Hanoi

By the time we leave for Canada on April 16, we will have spent a total of 10 days in Hanoi, interrupted by two trips away – one to Halong Bay and one to Sapa. We are halfway through our final week and the best advice we received was from a Travelfish article called, “Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi.”

Of all the places we have visited over the past few months, Hanoi is one of our top contenders for “most favourite.” Parts of the city are 1000 years old. The streets are narrow and chaotic, with alleyways leading to what? Opium dens? Are there even such things as opium dens any more? Hanoi feels slightly seedy and illicit in parts – we may not partake, but it’s fun to know it’s there.

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We have been to a few museums, but we think you’ve had enough of the guided tours. We know we have – we want to stick to the street theatre.

In Hanoi, the action is all in the street. Most people live in small places, so the sidewalks and parks become an extension of their homes. We’re close to Hoan Kiem Lake; a city treasure that is encircled by trees, gardens and benches. If I was so inclined, I would get up at 6:00 am to join the tai chi exercises on the lake, but I’m not, to we have enjoyed our afternoon and evening strolls and people-watching instead.

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It is very common to see people of all ages wearing pyjamas at all hours of the day and night. Women wear loose two-piece outfits, usually in a small floral print. They may call them something else, but they’re jammies.  The older gents can’t be bothered to pretend.

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You don’t often see Asian men with long white hair. Cell phones, on the other hand, are everywhere. The poorest vendor will be texting while waiting for business.

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No need to be stuck away in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time.

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Also a common sight – a tiny matriarch guarding her turf. This woman was barking out stern instructions to a young man trying to park his scooter. He listened.

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Why not make a joyful noise at 9:30 in the morning? Karaoke rules in Vietnam – we’ve often run across wannabe singers in stores and markets.

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Dogs rule in Vietnam as well. Most of the cats we’ve seen look starved and matted, but some of the dogs live at least as well as their owners. They ride on scooters, they eat yummy leftovers and they get their hair done.

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There is no shyness around private ablutions and personal grooming right on the street. We’ve seen many men peeing, small children squatting down in parks, and our favourite – the public cleaning of  teeth with toothpicks. I think it gives the men something to do – sit on a park bench for hours and pick their teeth, punctuated by spitting on the ground.

Picking lice out of hair is another thing we often see – one woman bent over another woman’s head, carefully picking through with tweezers. It makes sense – quarters are cramped, buildings are old, it is hot and humid, and bugs thrive.

With few exceptions, the Vietnamese people have lovely feet. Their heels are smooth, their toes are uniform and their nails are well-tended.

A travelling pedicurist, complete with a small fan for the customer’s comfort.

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If you were walking down the street, and suddenly realized your hair needed a trim, you’d be in luck. There are plenty of barbershops and hair salons, but you have to admire the resourcefulness of anyone who sets up a chair and mirror on the sidewalk. (And the bravery of their clients.)

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Shopping in Hanoi is mind-blowing. There are day markets, night markets and street vendors. There are gift shops and fake North Face stores by the hundreds. Luxury boutiques showcase tiny perfect dresses in their windows.

Even the vendors tend to specialize. If you want feather dusters, this lady has you covered.

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The Old Quarter in Hanoi has a section called “36 Streets” – a carry-over from the old guild days where specific trades and crafts had designated streets. You can go to the shoe street, the silk street, the basket street, etc. – a very logical shopping process. Or, you can come across a business that mixes it up a bit. This men’s clothing store also sells rice by the pound.
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The war may be over, but you never know when a hankering for camo will strike.  Don’t- mess-around gear, or fun outfits for the whole family – your choice.

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We stumbled upon a mannequin street. At least a dozen stores devoted to the sale of mannequins, which prompted us to wonder about the business plan of setting up such a shop. How many mannequins does one need to sell to pay the rent, and what is the demand?

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It’s not all low-brow fun though. We passed by a very fancy white and gold shopping centre, complete with uniformed doormen, shiny tile floors and  elegant brass trimmings.

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Home to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Cartier, this was a look-don’t-touch excursion for us. We’re pretty sure these precious items are not knock-offs. The mall was almost empty, but possibly 8:30 pm on a Monday is not the optimum time to shop for a $2,000 handbag.

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It was a pleasant change to escape the traffic and heat and stroll through air-conditioned luxury for a few minutes, and I did spritz my wrist with j’adore on the way out.

Hanoi is also all about the food and street food is everywhere. A lot of the typical Vietnamese eating happens on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalks.  There is usually just one selection, so you squat down and eat what’s put in front of you. You will also need to change your attitude about hygienic conditions, but it’s best to stick to places that are crowded.

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On the other hand, you want to keep a few standards – what works for a Vietnamese tummy might not work for you.We would not eat anything that came out of this little hole-in-the-wall. It’s probably fine, but I can’t help but wonder where the rats are. Btw, I saw my first city rat last night – running down the lane leading to our hotel. I discovered a talent for high jumping I never knew I possessed.

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Last September, Anthony Bourdain took President Obama out for dinner in Hanoi to one of his favourite no-frills restaurants – Bun Cha Huong Lien. By all accounts, the locals were beside themselves. Obama is a hero to many Vietnamese and the fact that he sat on a plastic chair and slurped soup in a working-class neighbourhood joint was beyond.

Naturally, we made the pilgrimage. This is a place that could best be described as “modest.” See the four items pictured on their sign? That’s the menu. The restaurant was well-known before for their bun cha – the Hanoi speciality of fragrant broth, slivers of tender grilled pork, tiny seasoned pork patties, and noodles, served with a heaping plate of buttery lettuce and fresh herbs. But Barack and Bourdain have made them famous and now they’re packed every night.

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This is not date night – service is brusque, turnover is quick, the tables are sticky and the floor is dirty. Walls are unadorned except for a few photos of Obama.  In less than an hour we had finished our dinner of bun cha, a skewer of grilled meat and a couple of seafood rolls.  The food was outstanding and set us back $10, including two beers.

“I’ll have what Obama had” – no doubt the first time the girls heard that from a tourist.

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Banh Mi is another Vietnamese staple, and there are a number of variations. This one was a baguette served warm and crusty, spread with rich pate, then filled with thinly sliced grilled pork, an egg omelet, cilantro, cucumber, shredded carrots, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and chili sauce. Washed down with icy beer.

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Hanoi  coffee culture is a huge deal – cafes  are on every corner and four to a street. They all have their own atmosphere, but what they have in common is exceptional coffee.

Coffee drips from a metal press into a small cup – it takes about 2 or 3 minutes, but is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da)  is served cold, in a glass filled with ice, a 1/2 inch layer of condensed milk and topped with strong coffee – highly addictive. Neither of us ever take sugar in our coffee – this has changed everything.

Hanoi has a few other coffee specialities – coffee with whipped egg white on top (like drinking creme brûlée), coffee with frozen yogurt on top, and my new favourite – coconut coffee. Coffee with condensed milk and coconut milk mixed into a slushy on top. Oh, you have no idea how delicious that is – coffee and dessert rolled into one.

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I thought I would leave you with something sweet! I will get another quick blog posting out to you in a couple of days. There are so many more images and small stories to tell.

Mountains, mist and H’Mong: the ethereal appeal of Sapa

Sapa town was founded by the French in 1922 as a hill station and colonial holiday spot. This view from the lake is serene. Possibly this is how Sapa looked almost 100 years ago.

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This is how Sapa looks today.

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Like most of Vietnam, growth in Sapa is an unstoppable force, especially with the construction of new hotels. Roads are ripped up to install updated sewers, and every block has some sort of reno or rebuild. Two doors down from our hotel is an old-school construction, complete with workers in flip flops and ball caps.

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We knew Sapa was not a sleepy alpine town, but we were surprised by the number of tourists and the accompanying hubbub.  The main part of town is quite small, very walkable and crammed with hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and stores selling minority handicrafts and fake North Face products. Restaurants are mainly mediocre and same-same. Someone must have taken a survey about Western preferences and come up with spaghetti, chicken cordon bleu and T-bone steaks; those stalwarts of the ’70s appear on almost every menu in town.

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Ethnic minority tribes, mainly the Hmong and the Red Dao, live in villages around Sapa and walk into town to sell their wares. Their villages are part of the attraction of Sapa – the backbone of the trekking excursions that take tourists out of town and into the countryside.

We booked a one-day, 13-km. hike through our hotel, led by a Hmong woman, Mei. She picked us and a young German couple up at the hotel and we set off, followed by another three Hmong women who joined us along the way. Through town, down a side street and down, down, down, until we were surrounded by fields of vegetables and herbs.
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The massive mountain range, of which Mount Fansipan is the highest in Indochina at over 3000 metres, is almost always at least partially covered by fog this time of year. While we never got clear skies, we were rewarded with tantalizing views through the mist and comfortable walking temperatures.

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Now I don’t want to blame my (almost worn-out) Keens on my struggles to stay upright, but I was having a few challenges finding steady footing on the narrow, slippery red-clay steps and rocks. The young Germans skipped ahead like the nimble gazelles they are and Stephen was doing just fine but I was lagging, so one of the women took it upon herself to rescue me. I grabbed her dry, cracked little hand and safely made it down. All the women kept an eye out for me. At one point Stephen fell down on his backside and they didn’t even look back. It’s a woman’s world out there.

Mei, our guide in green, (who walked 7 km. from her village to Sapa before we began our trek), and her buddies. The lady second from the right was my trekking assistant – have a look at her footwear. These women just walk and walk, sure-footed and uncomplaining.

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The famous and photogenic rice paddies are a marvel of human construction. Mei didn’t know a lot about them, other than to say that the area families built them a long time ago.  It is impossible to fully appreciate what a feat that must have been, as each step looks to be about three to four feet high , and the surrounding terrain is unforgiving.

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The rice paddies are punctuated by stands of massive bamboo, which for some reason inspired Stephen to strike a beefcake pose.

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Strolling along the trail.

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We left the trail and hit a paved road to come to our first village. As we turned the corner, a stonemason’s home was perched right on the edge of the road.

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Further down, a mama and her chicks.

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We met up with some other trekkers on the way to the village.

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A typical village home. The minority tribes are very poor. They grow vegetables and rice and raise animals for food, but for better or worse they have come to depend upon tourism dollars to supplement their incomes. (more on that later).

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One of the shops featured what appeared to be authentic hand-made textiles. The hills are filled with indigo plants – the natural dye used in many of the fabrics. This lady was busy sewing when we walked through and displayed none of the mercenary sales tactics of her fellow Hmong in Sapa. She barely looked up.

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Mei pointed out a marijuana plant as we walked along. There are fields of hemp plants for much of the cloth that is used here for clothing and blankets, and most definitely marijuana plants as well, although we have no idea on what scale they are grown. The woman selling water and coke at our rest stop also had “happy tea”, which we declined. I figured I needed all my wits about me just to keep walking.

Back on the trail and heading for our second village for lunch. See the basket on that woman’s back? Oh yes – you guessed it, the hard-core sales pressure was coming.

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Once we reached our lunch stop, Mei told us the women were leaving and it was “time to shop”. Out of the baskets came pillow covers, small bags, scarves and bracelets and rings.

We suspected all along that these three women were not walking for three hours just to enjoy our company, but the transformation from our laughing trekking pals to hard-sell street vendors was astonishing.  Not buying was not an option.

Nothing in their baskets appealed to us, plus it was all over-priced. The other couple bought two pillow covers and out of desperation we bought a small bag and a little purse. The little lady who had helped me down the hill was now very angry with me for being so cheap and I’m quite sure we were roundly sworn at in Vietnamese. It was upsetting as the whole point of our trip to Sapa was to trek and enjoy the scenery, not be coerced into buying factory-made junk.

Anyway, on our way to the restaurant, our attention was diverted by the strenuous efforts of several men and the frantic squealing of a pig. I thought we were about to witness a slaughter, but Mei told us they were holding the pig down to pierce his nose.

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This was the one trekking day we had but there were a number of options. We could have stayed in a homestay in one of the villages and signed on for 2 or 3-day treks, but we were unsure about what that entailed. We walked by the homestays and saw that  many of them were purpose-built for Westerners. We had imagined living in a rustic home and sleeping in the family’s only bed (which I’m sure is also available), but homestays have turned into a small industry now. Maybe next time.

A final shot of us on the trail.

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While the mountainous countryside around Sapa is its raison d’être for tourists, the town itself is pretty and is worth alloting some  extra time to explore.

One of the attractions is the Ham Rong Mountain Park, which is accessed by a series of stone stairs leading up to several viewpoints along the way.

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Stunning gardens throughout the park.

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One of the shops rented ethnic costumes for photo ops.

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Which brings us to the complicated side of Sapa’s exploding popularity with tourists – the unintended consequences this may have brought to the ethnic minority people.

What happens when people are regarded as a tourist attraction? There is no denying the appeal of the colourful clothing and head dresses, especially when worn by an adorable four-year-old. But that four-year-old is no longer spending her days in her village; she is now carrying her baby sister in a sling on her back while tourists snap photos. She is spending hours squatting down in front of a blanket of trinkets – identical scarves and bags and toys that are being sold by the next vendor and the next and the next. When she is a bit older, she is taught to hassle tourists with toss-off lines,” Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? Buy from me?” She is taught not to take no for an answer and to pursue tourists, even as they try to walk away.

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The Vietnamese children we have seen in the rest of the country are bright and happy and curious; these children are dead-eyed and sad. The older ones are hard-looking and cynical. It might be said that tourist dollars have brought them a revenue stream they didn’t have before, but I don’t buy that. Their lives were poor before but they’re still poor, only now they are captive to the lure of money that only trickles down in a meaningful way to a few.

Government signs are posted throughout the town with “Rules of conduct” for visitors – asking us not to buy from street vendors, but there does not appear to be any enforcement and certainly the tourists aren’t paying attention.

We suspect we are regarded by the Sapa town residents and the ethnic minorities as a necessary evil. We strolled though a number of stores looking for North Face jackets – almost every store carries the identical products, so competition is fierce. One woman called out to me as we entered her store and when I replied I wanted to look, she spit out, “Madam looking. Madam just looking” with such venom it felt like a slap.

The scenery around Sapa is so magnificent that it is worth making the trip. Being on the trails is like no place I’ve ever visited before; it is an essential part of the Vietnamese landscape.  But I do wonder if our interest and curiosity has created a monster.

The Blessing and the Curse of Halong Bay

Halong Bay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 for good reason. There are just a handful of places in the world that have such extensive karst formations and the ever-changing sky and temperature make it a moody and romantic destination. Our photos won’t do it justice, but you’ll get the idea.

We began our adventure with an early pick-up in Hanoi, a 4-hour minivan drive to Halong Bay, and a quick transfer to our boat, Paloma.

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We had arrived in Hanoi and immediately booked a tour through our hotel. We had certain criteria – we wanted to plan our trip based on weather forecasts (we are about a month too early for dependable weather in that area). We read about the budget boats that were barely seaworthy booze cruises with rats running on deck and substandard food. Big pass on the substandard food.  We wanted a mid-range boat with good amenities and a small number of cabins and civilized fellow passengers.

We found them – our tablemates Emma and Jacob from Australia (at the head of the table) and Tom and Ellen from Denmark (across from Stephen and me). They really helped to make our cruise a lot of fun, but we got to know everyone on board, since we had just 27 guests. We lucked out on all counts – a great group of people, excellent staff and good weather.

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The dining room view from the other end:

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Our boat had an Agatha Christie feel to it – all dark wood and polished surfaces. Our room was cozy and spotless. We slept like babies, with our wooden windows opened wide to the cool sea air.

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Service was exceptional – all staff spoke some English, and our guides were knowledgable and so attentive. Jimmy (on my left) lives in one of the fishing villages we visited, while Justin lives near Hanoi. They were both so sweet and as you can see, Jimmy is about 85 pounds soaking wet and as friendly as a retriever pup.  Everyone loved him – one of the Aussies even picked him up and carried him around. Justin is a bit older and a bit more reserved. We had quite a chat in the minivan from Hanoi to Halong Bay. He was open about his contempt for Trump and had a few things to say about his own country. Most people here are very careful about what they say and to whom, so it was interesting to get his perspective.

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They work 16 days straight, get one day off and do it all over again. I wondered about them – both so young, working so hard, with no opportunity to have friends or a romantic involvement or a life of any kind beyond work. How do they do it and keep their positive energy?

So…to back up just a bit before I tell you about our experience. When we were researching Halong Bay, it was becoming quite depressing to read about the masses of tourists and hundreds of boats with music blaring into the wee hours and the bay filled with garbage. We so wanted to see the karsts, but didn’t want to spend all that time and money to get grumpy and annoyed if things were as bad as we had heard.

We read about Bai Tu Long Bay which is in the same body of water, with the same landscape but northeast of Halong Bay and at this point, far less tourist-y. Perfect – that made our decision easy and it turned out to be exactly as we had hoped. When our ship dropped anchor for the night, there were just 13 other boats in the very large sheltered bay. We saw the odd plastic bottle in the water, but there was almost no garbage.  We have no idea how it might have been had we sailed into Halong Bay, so I will have to leave that to someone else to report on.  We were surrounded by dramatic views; this one taken from our lower deck.

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Once onboard, our guides welcomed us with a quick briefing about our itinerary and we had our first meal – a delicious multi-course lunch – before heading back down to the lower level to climb on our small boat for our first outing – to a nearby cave and beach.
The cave was fine, nothing special (said the jaded one who has seen some spectacular caves), but the sail around opened up whole other vistas for us.

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Another ship who anchored near us for the night.

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Back to the mother ship by 4:30, and we were invited to go for a swim, jumping off the back of the boat at the lower level. A number of guests took advantage of this, including you-know-who.

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Those of you who have spent any time with me at Clark Bay will know that I’m a water chicken – the temperature has to be just right. So I won’t make excuses but I have to admit – all the bobbing heads in the water did make me feel like I was missing out.

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Up to the top deck  for a sunset party – we were treated to a little spread of fruit and crackers with some outrageously priced cocktails. I loved the table decorations – masterpieces carved from carrots.

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And an ambitiously endowed fisherman:

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We enjoyed a delicious multi-course dinner in the dining room, but we all agreed that the beverage prices were unreasonably high. We all would have ordered bottles of wine if they had been more fairly priced.

The next day, we were up at 6:45 for breakfast and then off on our little boat for a full morning.  First stop was a floating fishing village. There used to be over 1000 people living and fishing on their boats, but the numbers have dropped to 300 and the village was moved by the government to a location away from the tourist route, which means they have a much longer trip back to port with their catch.

As we approached the main dock area, we passed by some boat homes.

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And some floating homes:

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Jimmy was telling us there used to be a school, but it is gone now after the move, so if there are children in this area, they do not receive an education. How can that be?  To travel through the less-accessible areas, we all transferred onto small boats, rowed by women. Our tourist dollars have changed their lives – some of them have become a taxi service, and I wonder how they feel about that. Have they entered a trap from which there is no escape?

Gorgeous views along the way:

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If you’ve seen photos of Halong Bay before, you’ve likely seen images like this, with tourists kayaking underneath. As of April 1, 2017 (just days before our trip) the government pulled the plug on all kayaking in the bay. This represents hundreds, if not thousands of kayaks that are now up on shore. Tourists are disappointed, as kayaking was a big part of the trip and tour operators are frustrated but it is impossible to find out the reasons for this decision.  If our guides knew they were being tight-lipped about it and a Google search just showed a Vietnamese document stating the decision had been made.

Next stop was an oyster farm where pearls are cultivated. It was interesting – a pearl takes about three years to develop and it is quite a process. Our guide pulled up a number of racks out of the water holding various kinds of oysters – this held some of the largest variety.

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Back to our ship for one final activity – learning how to make spring rolls. After a demonstration, we all leaned in to make our roll – take a piece of rice paper, add a spoonful of filling and roll. How hard can that be, you ask? Well, my roll came out with about an inch or rice paper on either side – more like a Christmas cracker than a spring roll. Must be time for me to get back in a kitchen again.

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And that was it – our cruise was over and time to get back on the bus for Hanoi.

Was it worth it? Absolutely – a trip to Halong Bay, no matter where you sail to, should not be missed.