Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Halong Bay

I should rename this blog “lazy viet”…. Anyway, this week-end I - finally - went for my first real touristic trip since I'm in Hanoi - I went to Halong bay. And I think I chose right for a first. Of course, it's famous, everyone has already seen a picture of it, but once there, as usual, all becomes different.
The place is wonderful, not only for it's scenery, but also for it's magic, a land of dragons and fabulous creatures, a journey in old Asia,
Nothing much to say about the travel to the seaside – we left Hanoi in the morning in one of those small tourist buses like you see everywhere, drove on the “highway” (there are 2 x 2 lanes, but packed with bikes, horses, trucks, usual stuff) passed HaiPhong and ended in some kind of harbour were all the other buses joined us – Halong bay is a major touristic attraction.
And there it began. The harbour was full of boats, all made of wood, with this particular junk look. They’re modernized and all have engines, but many of them still have sails which they set – I’m sure they don’t help much, but the look is great! There were boats everywhere, like you have motorbikes in Hanoi, and they were maneuvering all at the same time, while small paddy boats were sneaking around trying to sell some goods – exactly like in the old imagery.
Our boat was one of these big junks, 2 stories and a “terrace” on the top.
On board with us was our Vietnamese guide (Duc, not sure about the spelling), a crew of 4 including the captain, and the passengers.
I have to say some word about them, because I met some really nice people. We were 15 all together, and it was a lucky number. There was a group of 4, living in Montgomery, Alabama (yes, I remember) Jacob (Jack) was from a family originated from Poprad, Slovakia (any Slovakian reader?), while the others were from Vietnamese origin. Then there were 2 guys from Spain, one was brave enough to paddle with me during the kayak tour – I guess his butt still hurts, but blame the kayak, not me! Then a young couple, the lad from Scotland (sorry I said England…), a cool Scottish guy (they’re all cool in Scotland!), and his girldfiend (who thinks I have a French accent) from Sweden.

And then there were Mick and Kylie from Australia, and Nancy and Claudia from Germany. I mention them in a row because we spent most of our time together, and they all played a part in my trip being so good.
Kylie (notice she bears the same first name as who-you-know) is a very friendly, easy-to-speak with and smiling person, but I didn’t fully get what she’s doing for a living (apart from going to Mongolia and riding horses, which is why she doesn’t eat them) and Mick is a professional photographer with a huge Nikon camera. As a photographer, he covered the Sidney Olympics, shot adds for Tiger Beer in Singapore and Lindt in Sidney. I believe he took great pictures from the trip, and I hope I’ll have the occasion to see them. Anyway, that’s only a cover-up, because he’s doing much more than that, and you can check it here: http://www.gekkoimages.com/
He also enjoys sharing a beer with other passengers – it ended up being me, I wonder why...
Claudia and Nancy come from the Schwarzwald region in Germany, and they know about the Feldberg ski resort (but no, Denis, they don’t know Isabelle). I didn’t have much occasion the talk to Claudia, but I had good time with Nancy, she likes adventure, always ready for going off tracks. We chatted a lot about all her trips and crazy things she did (like getting lost in sort of Australian desert..)
We spent the first day cruising around in the bay, and visited one of the many many caves they have there. They all bear a name, I don’t remember which was ours. Anyway, I visited already many caves in Belgium and in Czech Rep, and all caves being “created” the same way, they all look pretty much the same: Stalagmites and stalagtites… But there were some nice ones, with weird shapes, like a Buddha, a monkey, a turtle, and a “surprise” – if I tell you it was made of a stalagmite, and that they have very big ones, you should get what it was.
After the caves we went to a “fish market”, which is actually an assembly of “floating houses”, that is, really floating houses – check the pictures, it gives a better idea. The fish market was just a few basins with a fish or 2 swimming around, I didn’t dare to buy one or I would have emptied their stock. From the fish market we started kayaking in the bay, the goal was paddling along the cliffs until we find a “tunnel” under one of them – a 45 minutes round trip according to the guide. Nice trip, enjoying the scenery while trying to avoid the big junks and still keeping afloat, a bit like riding around buses in Hanoi – I have some practice already, piece of cake. But people who did kayaking know it, it’s quickly boring and tiring. We paddled about 30 minutes with no tunnel in sight, until we spotted some hole in a cliff at least another paddling hour away… We’re used to consider Vietnamese indications as approximate – to say the best – but that was a bit too much. Most of us resigned, but you know Spanish people, they never give up… so we carried on, and finally found the right one – actually very near.
Back to the junk, we moved a bit to reach our “night spot” where we had dinner. The evening was cool, we were sipping beers on the deck, surrounded by the other junks. They had some karaoke in 2 junks next to us, so we could hear the talented voices of the drunk Englishmen singing Robbie Williams on the left junk, and the mixed choir of Chinese (drunk) singing whatever-it-could-have-been on the right. Being right in the middle, we all promised to ourselves never to participate in open air Karaoke ever.
We had a nice chat, cuddling the friendly boat kitty (meant to chase the rats, but they were probably twice bigger than him), staring at the stars. Nancy suggested we should go swimming the day after, as I already had a few beers I couldn’t say else than “count me in! Actually, we should go now!” - but we agreed for the morning after.
Rest of the night was quiet, I slept wonderfully (alone) – I always sleep well on boats, in a way you can see them as waterbeds.
We got up (Actually, I was first on the deck) to enjoy the sunrise. And get ready for the swim. Mick said he would go too, so the 3 of us dressed swimsuits, and jumped from the boat deck, in the fresh and polluted waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. We spent the rest of the day cruising again in the bay, the weather was great, and it was a wonderful moment. As was the whole trip, a good corner stone in my Vietnamese time…

Pictures are here and here

Sunday, February 17, 2008


With a bit of a delay - but it's the time I needed to learn it - I wish you a great Lunar New Year. And as I forgot so many people for the "classic" New Year wishes, here's an opportunity to catch up... Lunar New Year, or Tet, is the most important time of the year in Vietnam, it's altogether Christmas, New Year and many things. Wishing Happy New Year - Chuc Mung Nam Moi (with diacritic accents, but I don't have them) - to everyone you meet during this period is well appreciated.

Speaking of time, as you know I had it tough at the beginning, fortunately my neighbours in the appartment above have a rooster which very gently starts crowing at 5 am to make sure I'll be on time for work. My neighbours below, on the other hand, understand the importance of traditions, and very much enjoy burning papers on their doorsteps - as Ha explained me, the spirit of our ancestor are flying around us, and burning papers that symbolize money - or sometimes money itself - pleases them and brings luck to their poor mortal survivors. I saw many people doing that on the streets, but wasn't aware this was an inside habit as well, until yesterday, when I was alarmed by a strong smoke smell in the appartment. I checked outside, and saw the hall covered with thisk smoke, which made me immediately fear that the buidling was on fire! I quickly packed my important belongings, went down to see the guard - I used the lift, and scary images of a burning lift falling down with me inside very helpfully came to my mind - who didn't seem to realize at all that lives were at stake and who looked at me like I was some kind of stupid westerner (which I actually am - anyway, I have some personal issue with that man, but I'll explain that in another post). I called Ha who explained me what all that was about, and I went back to the appartment, with opposite feelings of relief and embarrassement...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Didn't do much today - I still live in Brno time, so I got up around noon (I see the smiles, but that's 6 AM in Brno, not too bad...) and continued preparing the training. Went for a walk again around Truc Bach lake and took some pics - had an interesting time crossing the 4-lanes road, I tried to record it but I was too busy avoiding the traffic so only my hand could be seen. Bought some mistery fruit yesterday (I liked the color, but didn't try it yet...) It looks a bit like a monstruous creature from a video game - if anyone tells me it's name he'll get a rice hat when I'm back. I found this interesting blog http://preyanka.com/2005/03/you-know-you-live-in-hanoi-when.html I recommed it's reading. About my blog, I don't like too much blogspot, not enough customize options, pictures take ages to upoad, and I'd like to have the first post appear first... And the English grammar corrector is not available :-)))
Feb 5 2008
Ok, Hanoi, here we go...
Flight was fine, not much to say about, except that flight attendants are nicer on Thai that on Austrian.. but you may have guessed. At the arrival, I go to the passport check - they're all dressed in military uniforms, I guess common in those countries. The guy tells me I have to go to Visa request desk first. There, I need to fill a Visa application form, on which I have to stamp a picture - which of course I don't have as no one told me I had to. I wonder 10 secs if I'm going to try without it, but decide that no, not here, not now. Luckily (as I then think), another soldier tells me he's going to take a picture of me with is digital camera. Off we go, the guy takes his picture and asks me for 2$ - and it's a digital camera! Ok I don't bargain in such a place, so I pay and proceed. After another five min, my Visa is ready and next to it I see my application form without any pic on it - the guy probably doesn't have the printer to go with the camera, and all this pic stuff is a scam. Actually it makes me smile, 2$ is not too much for such a funny trick and my first Vietnamese swindle.
I collect my luggage - all there, and unharmed - and proceed to the customs "nothing to declare" There I wait 10 min in a queue due to some guy who apparently had something to declare but didn't bother to go the the proper customs. I show my passport and get my clearance, and finally leave to the airport exit.
Ha is there waiting for me, after a quick greeting we head for the cab. We try several ones, the one who was meant to wait for us had taken someone else, so we called a next one who also changed his mind, and after the third attempt we were finally on the road to Hanoi.
First feeling of the legendary Hanoi traffic, but as Ha said, pretty quiet compared to usual due to the Tet holiday.
We land at the appartment, I must say pretty impressive, more room that I can handle, and more bathrooms as well - And a room with a view!

After a quick refreshing, we go for some HotPot (English translation, can't recall the Viet name yet), the mix one - octopus, shrimps, meat, clamps, pretty much everything. And pretty good. All that with some very good "wine" (made of rice and quite strong, like most of the "wines" in Asia) which I alternatively change for Coke as I don't want to start my first day with a headache.
BTW, what do you do in Vietnam with your shrimp shells, clamp shells etc.. when you're done? well, just drop them on the floor, no need to worry.

Feb 6 2008

Wednesday morning, we meet with Tung and Ha in the appartment - this is my "office" until the end of Tet holiday - and joined by Mia after a while. These people are great, sense of hospitality is a reality here. They bought me all I needed to survive my first days, and more: European food, dongs (Viet money), slippers etc. We talk for an hour about Vietnam and the job, and leave for a sightseeing tour of the city - on Tung's moped. Great time, driving around like a real Vietnamese, 1 hand on the horn and the other on the break.

Quick break for lunch on a sidewalk restaurant - streets are covered with them - where I have some pig soup with bamboo - real vietnamese stuff, but I preferred the HotPot.
This evening, we're meeting most of the test team for the New Year's fireworks at Hoan Kiem Lake. Firework is great - lasted more than 15 min, Ha owes me a breakfast now ;-) but unfortunately our location could have been better (we were just behind a tree, so missed the big show). After that we go for a beer and home, that is this time I AM driving the moped in the streets of Hanoi (ok, the quiet ones) and am having great fun doing so (I guess Ha had enjoyed it less, but I think I did quite well for a first). The quiet streets quickly become the busy ones, and I have to manage the horn, gas, gears and traffic light simultaneously -no harm, so I guess I'm ready now.
Back at my place, the building wardens offer me a drink (Vodka, Russian import) for chuc mung nam moi (happy new year) and I talk with one of my neighbours, cool guy.

Feb 7 2008

Today meeting with Ha, planning the Halong bay trip this W-E. I get up quite late, because I fell asleep quite late - Didn't manage to sleep before 4.30 AM, I guess time zone difference is to blame (expecting some comments on this one... ). I work in the "morning" then go for a walk around the closest lake (Truc Bach lake), beautiful sightseeing in the early evening. I try my first Bia Ha Noi and enjoy the view. Ha & his girlfiend (who's name is Ha too, good luck) pick me up in the appartment for a dinner in town. We go for some Chinese restaurant (I mean, sidewalk restaurant, but they offer great food).

Food is great, unfortunately the staff has it tough to remember our order, so after 2 crab cakes, 3 bread plates and 1/2 a skewer we decide to move on. On the way, we pick-up Ha's aunt (young aunt) who speaks a bit of French, and try a couple of other places in the center, fanous for their foreigner attendance. There I learn some new Vietnamese expressions, such as "Bia", beer (actually, biere with a Vietnamese accent), "peng mi" (bread, or "pain de mie" with the same accent), jam bon (not sure about the spelling, but the French speakers will get it quickly) and the like.

Feb 8 2008

Today, work. Business as usual, not much to say about... In the evening, Ha picks me up again (Ha, I owe you a breakfast but you too, don't forget!) and we go to visit Tung for dinner. On the way, I bought some flowers for Ha's mother, and we stop at his place. He made me visit his family altar.. I was vey impressed, to say the least, but I can't tell much more about it here.
Then we went to Tung's place for some dinner with his family (by family, here it means mother, father, sibblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grand parents, cousin friends etc.. These people really have a sense of family). Dinner was wonderful, Tung's wife is a great cook and I tried everything I could (including wine and beer ;-)). We ended with an enlighting chat with Tung, this guy has quite an experience already, and I had great time talking with him - more to come... Posted some pictures here