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A short flight on the very efficient, and surprisingly cheap, Vietnamese Airlines brings us to the capital city, Hanoi.  We check into the comfortable Especen Hotel in the warren of narrow streets near the Cathedral and scoot out to find dinner.
Hanoi is congested and busy.  The streets in the old quarter are narrow and crowded with people.  The shops spill their merchandise out onto the sidewalks and the traffic is incomprehensible.  The narrow alleys  are fascinating.
This is actually a small alley


It is also very common here in the north to see restaurants advertising thit cho (dog meat) on their signs.  Some restaurants also offer thit miaou.  We leave that translation to you.

Some menus offer curious entrees:

It seems to be wedding season and we watch several bridal parties.  The custom is for bride and groom to get dressed up in their wedding finery and have pictures taken several weeks before the actual event.

Bob gets a shoe shine -- and a lesson in Hanoi-style capitalism! 
A whole new level of meaning to "value added"!

Because land values and property taxes are determined by frontage, typical building are very narrow.  It is not uncommon to see a six-story building that is barely ten feet wide. 


They always say:  "if you want good food, eat where the locals eat!"  Unfortunately, for us senior westerners, the locals prefer to sit on tiny little plastic chairs, in what looks to us more like a back alley than a restaurant.  This downscale little place serves my favourite Vietnamese dish:  pho (noodle soup) in either bo (beef) or ga (chicken) flavours.


One of the more appealing features of Hanoi is bia hoi.  It is fresh draft beer, brewed each morning and drunk the same day.  The kegs are rushed out from the brewery to the little bars in the early morning and it is traditional for working men to consume gallons of it during the day.  By late afternoon, if it is sold out, there is nothing to do but wait for the next day's batch.
We hike to a Hanoi landmark called Bia Hoi Corner which has a bar on each corner of the intersection.  We perch on the inevitable tiny chairs and toss back a couple of mugs.  It is delicious!  And best of all, very cheap!


5000 dong is 31 cents


Not every ATM likes my Credit Union debit card,
but Sacombank is always reliable


Sa Pa

Our hotel is very efficient at booking tours and it takes only a few minutes for us to be booked for two-nights, three-days in Sa Pa.  Sa Pa is a small mountain town in the extreme north of Vietnam.  In fact, it is less than 20 miles from the Chinese border.  The French built Sa Pa as a hill station, where they could go during the summer to escape the intense heat.

Until about a year ago, the only practical way to get to the mountain town of Sa Pa was by overnight train to Lao Cai, but the brand-new Korean-built highway now whisks us there by bus in six hours.   

The switchback road from Lao Cai in the valley up to Sa Pa at 1800 meters is the most spectacular drive we have ever experienced.  Although it is better not to look out the front window to see how the driver is handling the narrow road, the hairpin corners, the scooters and tractor-trailers, the views out the side windows are jaw-dropping.  Across the valley are tiers of rice paddy terraces rising hundreds of metres up the mountainside.  How wet rice can be cultivated on a tiny patch of land that it is barely possible to climb to is beyond our understanding.
Wow!  Sa Pa and the surrounding villages are amazing!   It is cold, foggy and rainy but we wouldn't have missed it for the world.  We visit Lao Chai, a Black Hmong traditional village and then Ta Van, a second Hmong village.  The walk is uphill in all directions through acres of terraced rice fields dating back hundreds of years.  We admire many gardens and fields of rice, inspect the functionality of the many water mills and chat with the colourful Black Hmong ladies who walk with us in the clear hope we will be "shopping me" before our hike is completed. "Madame, you like buy somet'ing?"

Ladies of the Black Hmong minority group


Tho, our congenial and entertaining guide

We do a home stay in a village heat, and the temperature drops to 2 degrees during the night.  We meet the hen that is invited for supper as she arrives on a scooter! Shortly thereafter, there is a "squaawwkk...." from the kitchen and we know dinner preparations underway.

The kitchen is pretty primitive

The sink isn't very convenient
 The owners, a young couple who are planning to marry in a few weeks, have some unexpected guests from Hanoi to celebrate the impending event and it turns into quite a party.  We are introduced to Happy Water!  Normally, we are highly suspicious of tiny glasses of clear spirit, but we allow our arms to be twisted enough to consume several shots, without apparent harm.
The food is fine
Happy Water flows like...well... water!
Dinner is the  aforementioned chicken -- boiled, along with steamed vegetables and fresh bamboo shoots, fried fish  and local mushroom soup and, of course, rice.  The house is not just a "little bit cold" as Tho, our guide, warned -- it is a LOT cold!  Fortunately, the bed is warm and we survive the night, cuddled together under two heavy comforters -- at least until the roosters start to crow about 4:00am.

The setting and scenery are stunning!  The house sits on the bank of a mountain river, rushing madly over smooth marble and limestone rocks.  The old and new bridges, suitable for pedestrians or bikes only, span the river and a mountain waterfall just to the left, adds music to the night!  We  enjoy a crepe, banana and local honey breakfast!  What an experience!

Our second day takes us down, down hundreds of stone steps, through the traditional village of Cat Cat, where we admire the hand-made products of talented master craftsmen and craftswomen.  All the products are very beautiful and some are complex and intricate.  The silver jewelry, the stone, wood and marble sculptures, as well as the many colourful scarves, handbags, skirts, blouses from local hand-spun and woven cloth are all most tempting. The treasure at the bottom is the Waterfall.  It is simply beautiful! 


Near the waterfall is a small hydro generating station built by the French in the 1920s.

Inside the hydro station is a stage where we watch traditional Hmong dancing.

We have the afternoon free and we climb under our comforters...this hotel doesn't seem to have any heat read, nap, write notes and catch up with the world.  At dinner time, we find a table near a heater and persuade the staff to turn it on.  We invite Karen and Chris, who arrived on the morning train, to join us for wine and conversation.  Very enjoyable!


We join our new guide at 9:30 for the trek up Dragonhead mountain.  It is still quite foggy, so while the views are spectacular, the fog and the distance diminish the opportunities for good photos.  The mountain and gardens themselves are delightful and the rock formations are intriguing.  Unfortunately, the clouds obscure our view of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam.

Back down to Sa Pa for lunch, then we board the bus about 2:30 for Hanoi!  The weather is starting to clear and the views as we switchback down the mountain, are spectacular.  It also seems to be butcher day!  There are men chopping meat into hunks, large whole water buffalo carcasses and a couple of fresh kills, all on the shoulder of the road.  We also note groups of men eating and drinking beer on the roadside while their women work the rice paddies below!

Back in Hanoi, we return to our hotel room, which is beginning to feel like home and go out for supper at a nearby restaurant.


Halong Bay -- one of the world's most beautiful places!

What an absolutely idyllic place to spend a couple of days! The waters are a rich, deep green and the scenery: hundreds of limestone rock formations, rising sheer from the water, is breathtaking.  We board our boat and are shown our cabin, then to the dining room.  While our boat casts off and motors into the bay, we enjoy our excellent lunch and get to know our travelling companions. We have a family of three from Korea, a young Japanese man, three Italian men, and three other couples originating from Scotland, Chile and Canada.
Our boat is the one on the right

Our first activity is kayaking.  Neither of us have ever been in a kayak, but we decide we are game to try.  Shortly, we are helped aboard and are on our way.  Other than the cool water dripping off the paddle down our arms and into our laps, we decide we like it.  We give a strong showing, keeping up with the leaders:  Javier and Francesca from Chile and Aaron and Ishbel from Scotland.  Aaron is an experienced kayaker and has participated in competitions in Europe.  He is kind enough not to show us up.  We make our way across the bay and through a broad limestone tunnel before winding through a narrow darker one to emerge into another beautiful bay.  The tunnels are awesome!  My camera is not waterproof so I did not bring it but Aaron and Ishbel kindly promise to send us a couple of their photos.  Back at the dock, Francesca and Javier are interviewed for a Vietnamese promotional video and then a handful of us brave the chilly waters for a swim.  Susan is the only female in the water.

Back on board we clean up and get warm and then enjoy a small Sunset Welcome Party!  Fresh fruit, shrimp crisps and Da Lat wine!  We learn how to toast each other the Vietnamese way:  Mot! Hai! Ba! -- Zao! (One! Two! Three! -- Go!).  It is loud and enthusiastic, just as it was while drinking Happy Water at the homestay in Sa Pa.  This was followed by an excellent and prettily-presented dinner, after which some had massages, some tried jigging for squid and some of us went to bed!

We are up and on our way to the Surprise Cave very early this morning!  It is a surprise indeed!  This is by far the largest cave system we have ever been in, with three large chambers, one of which could rival a football field, though it is full of stalactites and stalagmites!  We wind our way around as our tour guide, Hieu, highlights every rock formation that slightly resembles  a hawk, or a dragon, or a Buddha, or a turtle; in fact anything to do with Buddhist religious beliefs.  I notice all the other tour guides doing the same.  We think they have overactive imaginations!
Some very strange rock formations.  You don't need much imagination for this one!

After the cave visit, we transfer to a smaller day boat, since we are staying out to enjoy a second night on the bay.   The big boat returns to shore to exchange passengers, who are on a two-day, one-night itinerary.  As we are the only ones on the two-night cruise, we have the entire boat to ourselves along with our own personal guide.  It feels a bit strange to be the only passengers and we wonder how the company is making any money with this business model.

Our own personal tour boat for the day

We are taken to a Pearl Farm and spend an interesting hour or two learning about the production of cultured pearls.


It is quite fascinating, as we watch oysters precisely implanted with a base particle.  They are then carefully tended until the pearls should be ready:  eighteen months for an Akoya Pearl oyster (white pearls), 3 years for a Lipped Pearl oyster (gold or silver pearls) and 6 years for the Black Pearl oyster.  Of the oysters that are implanted, only 50 percent will survive; only 30 percent will make a pearl.   Of these, only 10 percent will be jewellery grade.

Implanting the base particle with the skill of a surgeon



We are presented with a tray-full of mature Akoya oysters and asked to choose one to see if it contains a pearl or not.  We figure the chances are slim, but play along.  To our delight, our choice has a beautifully-formed and quite sizeable jewellery-grade pearl.   
A beautiful, jewellery-grade pearl
Sadly, we don't get to keep it -- even though we "found" it!


We admire the many pieces of beautiful (and breath-takingly expensive) pearl jewellery for sale in the shop before we depart.  The afternoon is spent kayaking and soaking in the bits of sun that poke through the clouds. There is a light wind today and it is too cold  to there is, sadly, a fair bit of garbage in the water.
Unfortunately for us, the morning activity on our third day is the same visit to Surprise Cave as the day before, since it is Day 2 for the second group.  It is suggested that we "relax on the boat" instead.  While it doesn't spoil the trip, we do express our disappointment and wonder if our choice of the two-night itinerary was worthwhile.  Despite that, we spend the time sitting in the sun and chatting with Regina and Badroon from Germany.  They are a delightful and interesting couple and their company makes the time pass quickly.
While the boat is taking us back to harbour, we have a lovely lunch.  Our bus is waiting to take us on the three-hour ride back to Ha Noi.


The long journey home

We get up at 6:00am on March 2 and taxi to the Hanoi airport.  Thirty-three hours later we land in Winnipeg, just after midnight on the same day.

We connect to Air Canada in Hong Kong with a seven-hour layover.  A few months earlier, I signed up for a membership in the Priority Pass lounge program.  The membership card allows us entry into lounges in most major airports world-wide.  It is a bit expensive, especially so since the charges are in US$, but worth every penny on a trip like this.

The lounge has soft chairs, free food and beverages (including a Heineken draft beer tap) good wifi, and best of all, peace and quiet.

It was the best vacation we have ever had and we could have easily stayed another month.  Southeast Asia is a wonderful place to travel.   Good weather, friendly people, excellent tourist infrastructure and very safe.  We never once felt insecure or worried about crime.  And it is cheap!

We are planning to go back next year to visit Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). 

We can hardly wait!

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