Bay of the Descending Dragon

The entire time I had this playing in my head “Ha Long, Ha Long must we sing this song”. You know – the famous U2 song …

We spent three days in Hanoi, three days so tightly packed and filled with new sights, smells and tastes that they felt more like three weeks; we were lucky enough to spend them in the company of two very experienced backpacker friends, the Murftastic Maria and Brian (http://murphtasticvoyage.wordpress.com/) who had been traveling for almost a year and covering three (or four?) continents. Our Hanoi experience culminated and ended with a lovely dinner at Ly Club, an upscale restaurant in a restored French colonial house, where everything was pitch-perfect: the food, the atmosphere and, last but not least, the perfectly preserved  century-old Citroen in the courtyard.

Of course we took advantage to pose a la roaring '20s, complete with khakis and Birkenstocks

Of course we took advantage to pose a la roaring ’20s, complete with khakis and Birkenstocks

Early next morning we said our goodbyes to the Murftastics and headed out to Ha Long Bay: a three hour bus ride followed by a fifteen minute trip in a dingy and finally boarding the ship that was our home for the nightHa Long Bay doesn’t require much explanation or description: its eerie karst landscape  of over 1500 limestone pillars, some large enough to be home to thousands, but most uninhabited, stretches for almost 2000 km.

The bay seen from Ti Top island; one of the few with a  sliver of beach

The bay seen from Ti Top island; one of the few with a sliver of beach

Arches, caves, hidden coves, spectacular inverted pyramids of stone were all created by sea invasion, regression and re-invasion over millennia; but by far the more interesting version of the story comes not from geologists or the UNESCO  but from the Vietnamese people themselves. According to the legend, in Vietnam’s earliest days as a country, fierce invaders descended from the North through the sea. Ever watchful, the Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her children in the ancient Vietnamese’s defense and Mother Dragon and her army incinerated the invaders on the spot with “divine fire and giant emeralds”. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall, which, after thousands of years, turned into island and islets of different sizes and shapes. (Apparently even the mighty dragons are not immune to water’s erosive abilities...)

Possibly our favorite rock in the bay : we baptised this one Roca Bruja in honor of another rock (surfers will know why) and also because it seems to defy the laws of physics

Possibly our favorite rock in the bay : we baptised this one Roca Bruja in honor of another rock (surfers will know why) and also because it seems to defy the laws of physics

Ha Long is also home to several tens of floating villages, where an entire family, sometimes three generations live all in a boat together and make a living out of fishing; according to our guide, the Vietnamese government is planning to move all of them by the end of 2014, a UNESCO requirement which I’m sure won’t sit well with many of these free-spirited fishermen and women.

The floating villages of Ha Long are picturesque enough but you can also trace the human debris right back to them; so in the name of nature preservation they will all be gone in a few years

The floating villages of Ha Long are picturesque enough but you can also trace the human debris right back to them; so in the name of nature preservation they will all be gone in a few years

Often 3 generations in a single boat, the floating villagers seem to enjoy their lives amongst the karst islands notwithstanding the dangers of the sea and lack of access to schools for their children

Often 3 generations in a single boat, the floating villagers seem to enjoy their lives amongst the karst islands notwithstanding the dangers of the sea and lack of access to schools for their children

The women - and this was a common theme in Vietnam - often do the fishing, rowing, selling, haggling and money management, on top of their day jobs of cooking and child-rearing

The women – and this was a common theme in Vietnam – often do the fishing, rowing, selling, haggling and money management, on top of their day jobs of cooking and child-rearing

We spent three days and two nights sailing through the bay, kayaking to hidden beaches and coves, hiking up some of the larger karst islands and spotting all kinds of wildlife and enjoying some of the most peaceful and beautiful moments of our lives. It didn’t hurt that the sun came out so we braved the 70s in short sleeves even though the locals were bundled up in their warmest parkas.

A typically modest meal on the boat - just a few tens of dishes and every single one was polished clean by the end

A typically modest meal on the boat – just a few tens of dishes and every single one was polished clean by the end

This is what they should put in the dictionary next to "hole-in-the-wall" LITERALLY this bar ROCKS

This is what they should put in the dictionary next to “hole-in-the-wall” LITERALLY this bar ROCKS

The cruise ended with a hike up to Surprise cave, a fairly large cavern way above sea level, chock-full of enormous stalactites and stalagmites and the requisite legends to accompany them. I’ve never been to Disneyland but I was told that was a plus in this instance as my slate was clean of man-made wonders – so I liked the cave quite a bit.

Speaking of very large caves: a few years ago the largest cave in the world was discovered - guess where? In central Vietnam; As much as we would have loved to see it, that particular cave is open only to visitors who are willing to shell out $3000 - on our shoe-string budget, Surprise cave it was!

Speaking of very large caves: a few years ago the largest cave in the world was discovered – guess where? In central Vietnam; As much as we would have loved to see it, that particular cave is open only to visitors who are willing to shell out $3000 – on our shoe-string budget, Surprise cave it was!

We loved Ha Long so much that we decided to spend another few days on Cat Ba island – the largest in the bay – hiking the national park, scooting up and down the island like the locals did, enjoying killer coffee and pancakes and taking in some of the best sunsets in Vietnam.

To enjoy this beautiful sunset Ed had a beer and I had a fresh passionfruit and ants juice; I hadn’t signed up for the latter but they were pleasantly tangy – Ha!

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Sardines drying on the side of the road and getting seasoned with dust and motorcycle exhaust Mmmmmm

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The karsts – they are everywhere

It was sad to say goodbye to the bay (it seems we are always saying goodbye to beautiful bays…) but we had to do it – new adventures awaited.

So long Ha Long!

So long Ha Long!

Hanoi: First Impressions of the City Between Two Rivers

Hanoi happened upon us like a maelstrom in a a field of unsuspecting daisies.

Birdcages (for good luck) everywhere in Hanoi; early in the morning they’re still covered by little blankets

 We landed very early in the morning and spent a ridiculous amount of time in the customs, eventually leaving the airport in a taxi drained, spent and irritable. As we drove towards the city, a thick mist covered the fields and we were introduced for the first time to the ubiquitous Vietnamese motos/scooters and their fully covered riders: helmets atop face masks seemingly made of bedsheets or tableclothes extended like bibs over their throats, making them look like ragtag bandits from an Asian Mad Max remake. In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense: the combination of dust and smog is more than anyone lung or face can take on a daily basis

 My naive notions of Hanoi, developed through watching Indochine and Scent of Green Papaya too many times, were quickly shattered: far from a romantic, exotic city of quiet inner gardens and graceful architecture, Hanoi comes at you with the full force of a bustling marketplace where everything is for sale and everyone is selling something – a service, a meal, a scarf, a paper clip. This first overwhelming impression of Hanoi may have something to do with the fact that we were staying in the Old Quarter, a neighborhood incredibly tightly packed with backpacker hostels and hotels, street merchants, food vendors, shops and, of course, motorcycles.

The old and the new blend almost seamlessly in this crazy city

The old and the new blend almost seamlessly in this crazy city

Three things shocked me the most about the city, although, in hindsight, this may also be a result of my inexperience with Asian cities in general:

  1.  The traffic – It’s impossible to describe exactly what the traffic on the streets of Hanoi looks like, but imagine an anaconda of motorycles (up to four riders on each) bikes, cycles and the occasional car, so close together that drivers could high-five each other on both sides, at all times of the day except peak hours, when they would be too tightly packed to extend their elbows. Like bikes in Amsterdam, motorcycles litter ever empty square inch of sidewalk, every causeway, every shopfront, often forcing us, mere pedestrians, to use the streets and walk alongside the traffic. I won’t even begin to explain the noise – take New York’s Time Square and add a million or so blaring motorcycle horns and you’ll get the picture…

    Impromptu barber shops pop up on every street corner; much like impromptu restaurants and cafes

    Impromptu barber shops pop up on every street corner; much like impromptu restaurants and cafes

  2. The industriousness – Wherever a square inch of sidewalk was miraculously free of merchandise or parked scooters, an old lady will take out a diminutive charcoal stove and she will cook up a storm: grilled meats, grilled corn, cold noodles and many other unidentifiable fare – out in the open, footsteps away from the traffic. On kindergarten-sized plastic chairs, workers and backpackers alike enjoy the bliss of pho ga and other noodle dishes, rightfully oblivious to the noises and smells that the city emanates. If not cooking or serving (often both at the same time, under the gaze of their husbands who lounge, throwing back strong vietnamese coffee and taking tokes of tobacco from giant bamboo bongs) women roam the streets wearing traditional conical hats and carrying poles with baskets heavy with fruit, vegetables or fried balls of sweet dough. And, perhaps most shockingly, at the end of the day, which in Hanoi comes early as everyone is hard-core morning people, the wares, the garbage, the screaming babies and errant dogs, the stalls, the charcoal, the styrofoam cups – they all vanish. All of a sudden, you come out of a restaurant after dinner and find yourself in another city, swept clean of human debris where all the chaos and madness seem like a pipe dream – until around 5:00 AM next morning.

    Our friends Brian and Maria (of Smurftastic Voyage fame) demonstrating how the kindergarten restaurant works in practice

    Our friends Brian and Maria (of Smurftastic Voyage fame) demonstrating how the kindergarten restaurant works in practice

  3. The crowds – Vietnam, unlike neighboring Cambodia who just recently managed to surpass its pre-Pol Pot population numbers, has had a policy of encouraging family growth and succeeded tremendously, at its own peril. Over 90 million people are squeezed together in this sliver of a country and 8 million of them in Hanoi, slightly more than a hamlet by Asian standards but maddeningly tight by our spoiled low-density Bay Area ones. Privacy is a meaningless word, as people live, cook, study, sell food and raise their children on the tight streets of the Old Quarters.

    Sleep happens where it happens

    Sleep happens where it happens

According to a yet unverified source the education system is so overwhelmed that a system of shifts had to be put in place to deal with the great numbers of young pupils. At peak hour when the schools let out rivers of children run into traffic deftly identifying and climbing on a parent’s motorbike. Said parent will most often do grocery shopping from the bike barely stopping.

We experienced this first hand – bumbling giants towering over a sea of small heads bobbing and weaving between our legs towards their parents, patiently waiting on motorbikes. It was a sight to behold…