Travels with John Smith
Chapter 51 year 8 (2019)
Chinese New Year with Pat and Lyle
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay
-learning to survive the motorbikes
-Old Quarter and it’s sights
-King Roti bun discovery
-cousins in the market
-Vietnam’s New Year
-Fireworks above the big square
-Floating on Ha Long Bay
-Lord of the Ring cave
- fishing hut on the beach
-floating fishing village ride
-South China sea currant
-Salt water Pearls
-Hanoi Puppet show on water
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 51 year 8 (2019)
Chinese New Year with Pat and Lyle
Hanoi and Halong Bay
We step onto the little cobblestone street in front of our hotel and a loud horn beeps. A bike speeds past, missing us by a hair. We jump. There are 5 people on the bike. Dad, 2 kids and mom with a sleeping baby. This is normal. We are in Hanoi. The difference with China is here, they wear helmets. Well, at least the drivers do.
I am hyper aware now, looking both ways before taking even one step and we edge along the street, looking for a good place to eat. We come to a cross street and it is impossible to cross as there is literally no let up in the traffic of mostly, speeding motorbikes and scooters. The sheer number of motorbikes is certainly something we remember from when we visited Ho Chi Min city a couple years ago. I would guess that Vietnam is the country with the most motorbikes in the world.
Any stoplight here will have a crowd of them and when the light turns green, they look like an army moving forward, criss crossing and driving around each other without incident, like orchestrated chaos.
We are told that if we want to cross the street successfully, we should walk steadily, at the same speed, to keep moving no matter what is coming and they will avoid us. This is what everyone else appears to be doing but it does take a level of trust. I feel like I personally, would need to close my eyes to be able to do this but I guess that might be counter productive too.
We do some exploring of the ‘Old Quarter’, which is where our hotel is and it seems like every time we go anywhere, we get lost in the labyrinth of shops, markets, small streets and alleyways and it is quite a production to find our way back.
The streets here are like most in South East Asia. Apart from the thousands of motorbikes with an average of 3-4 people on each bike, there are fruit venders, some sit on the side of the road, like a mini market, others carry 2 baskets, one on each side like weights attached to a pole across their shoulders.
There are bicycles carrying piles of their wares perched on the back and barbers on the side of the road with a chair, small mirror and scissors to work their trade.
On the roads, it is busy and noisy, with people going places and others trying to attract the tourists to buy their products. Outside our hotel there is a little old man, sitting beside a portable stove and a glass case with Chinese Buns called Baozi inside. Down the street there is a row of jewellery stalls, another street with snack shops, etc.
Looking up there is a tangle of wires, like black spaghetti spilling off the poles, or thick unruly braids that someone has attempted to tame, unsuccessfully. They are a combination of electricity, telephone and internet and it boggles the mind how it can work or how anyone would find the wire they need if they need to fix it.
We have dinner in a place on one of these streets and now we are just wandering, looking for something that will be our desert and we see a huge lineup in front of a fast food restaurant called King Roti. I always thought a Roti was a Caribbean crepe with chicken in it but as we approach, we see that everyone here is eating something that looks like a large bun. On the menu we can choose what they call ‘coffee buns’ with chocolate, vanilla, matcha, coffee or cheese. We are making them as fast as they can serve them so we each order one and they arrive hot, soft and extremely yummy. They are so good, we want another but luckily the combination of the long line up and being very full, deters us.
We are back in our room and I look it up on the internet. I find loads of reviews about King Roti, all saying it is a ‘must’ in Hanoi. I guess we have a nose for finding these places!
We are walking single file, as there are loads of people and traffic coming from every direction on this crowded market street. Suddenly, John points at a man walking by and shouts his name. The man and his friend look surprised, then with huge smiles walk over and hug him and Lyle. Introductions are made and he is their cousin! They haven’t seen him for something like 10 years, and what are the odds of being here in Hanoi at the same time, walking down the same street at the same time! We chat for a bit and make plans to meet later for drinks.
Vietnam celebrates their New Year’s at the same time as China does, possibly because of the many times China invaded and ruled over Vietnam in history. Vietnam has certainly taken on many other cultural aspects such as techniques, language, art and a way of life.
We hear there will be a New Year’s Eve firework display above the main square so we start to make our way towards the square to hopefully eat dinner early and get a good spot to watch from.
We pass many men and women dressed in traditional dress, the ao dai, which is a silk tunic with a high collar and trousers under it. It is very similar to the Chinese qipao which is the same thing without the trousers.
As we approach the square, it becomes clear that it will be a long and uncomfortable wait for the fireworks with no where to sit so we decide to eat something in one of the restaurants that look on to it, preferably one that is high enough up that we can see everything.
As we move through the already massive amounts of people migrating to the centre, we see a guy we work with. Another small world moment! He is with his family who, he says are originally from Vietnam. They are also looking to find a spot to watch the fireworks so after being introduced, we move along.
Most of the restaurants we try to get into are already booked and not cheap. We find one that is on the top floor and settle in for the night. The food is not great but we are grateful to have a seat.
We watch out the window as the square below us keeps filling until it looks as if it will burst and we are happy to be high above it. The fireworks explode into the night sky. There is a TV in the corner of the room that is showing the exact same scenes we are seeing live . On the TV they say there are a million people in the square so we are again, grateful to be safe up here.
The boat glides through the water like a swan, as we move past karst limestone mountains that jut out of the water every 50 to 100 feet. We are in Ha Long Bay, sitting on the small balcony attached to our cabin on a small cruise ship.
We have just enough room to sit on our straight backed wooden chairs, feet up on the railing, to watch the golden sun slip beneath the horizon. The air is warm and apart from the low hum of the boat’s engines, it is perfectly quiet, like floating in a dream.
We have a corner cabin, the room is clad in lovely dark wood, with windows on the side and front so with the curtains open, the view is been spectacular even from the inside of our room. We are staying overnight in this elegant old fashioned boat and have 2 days onboard. Meals are served onboard and the first one we have already eaten was delicious.
The name Hạ Long means "descending dragon”. There are thousands of limestone karsts and islands in this World Heritage site and they have found evidence of ancient cultures from as long ago as 18,000 BC.
The boat lets us off to explore an Island that has a large cave on it. We climb up a ways to get to the entrance and inside there are more steps carved from the rock and openings that lead to a huge cave with stalactites and stalagmites. Being inside is like being in the movie, ‘Lord of the Rings’. It’s grand, spooky, dark and beautiful. We come out the other side and outside, we climb down to a beach. Despite it only being around 17 degrees C, the water is fairly warm so I remove my flip flops and walk in the water.
The sand is soft and our backdrop is the bizarre shaped but beautiful limestone mountains. We turn a corner and there is a small blue beach hut under an overhang of rock. A dog sleeps in the sand in front of some fishing netting which doubles as a fence and there is laundry hanging straight on a line beside the hut.
Behind the fence is a sign that says FOR INDOCHINA GUESTS ONLY and behind that, what appears to be a row of lockers. The windows have shutters but no glass and we can see inside. It looks cosy with a bunk bed, a little wood burning stove and a TV. There is a man sitting out front selling shells and renting kayaks. We are not sure if he lives here all the time or if they are workers working shifts but it looks like it would be a cool place to be for a while.
We take another side trip to a floating fishing village where we can either rent a canoe to paddle or we could be paddled about on a large flat boat in and around a cove. We choose the latter and ask how much it would cost. The guide says it is included in the tour but we could give a tip.
The woman who is doing the paddling for our boat is young but quite small, especially compared to us and there are 4 of us. She is incredibly strong and looks like she has no problem but we feel a little guilty that she drew the short straw with us. She takes us to a large rock with an archway through it, like an open cave on the water.
Before we set off, we were told not to go through the archway, as there are strong currants and winds on the open South China Sea on the other side.
It is a stunning picture op though so our driver takes a rest while we snap our cameras and watch some of the braver kayakers take their chances.
We are now on a ‘pearl farm’ where we are taught how long it takes for pearls to grow and see the cultivation process. We learn how long this process takes and find out these salt water pearls last hundreds of years, compared to clear water pearls who only last 30 years or so. There are some gorgeous high quality pearls for sale here. The seller sees me coming from a mile away and tries to grab my attention, showing me a beautiful strand of grey pearls. I try them on, which is usually a bad idea and I am tempted but when I hear the price and have no problem resisting.
We are in an old fashioned theatre listening to a live traditional orchestra, who are set up on either side of a small pond which is in the middle, at the front of the room. . There are puppets dancing on the water performing a skit in Vietnamese. Even though we can’t understand a word, the show is is very entertaining. We are in The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi. The puppets are on the end of long wooden sticks and the puppeteers are hidden behind the curtain controlling them. The musicians are excellent and the singing quite beautiful and this type of show dates back to the 11th century when rice paddy fields were flooded and villagers would stand waist-deep in water with the puppets performing over the water. The puppeteers come out at the end of the show and take a bow. They are indeed up to their waists in water. Even though I wasn’t that excited about the idea of coming to see this show, I am so happy we came as it is very good and a good way to finish up our time here in Vietnam. Next stop…Penang, Malaysia.