Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Final Days in Vietnam

Wow! I just realized how far behind I am on my blog. Sorry about slacking these last few days. I am alive and well. No accidents with motorbikes or falling off bicycles. Whew!

I spent my second day in DaLat wondering and enjoying the city. I started with a beautiful walk around the lake. Everyone seemed to be staring at me. I checked to make sure my skirt was covering my bum and all seemed fine. I was just the attraction. I walked to the café by the lake and started out the morning with traditional Vietnamese breakfast of pho (soup with BBQ pork, rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs).

DaLat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. It was a beautiful morning, the air was fresh and I was ready to be active. I had decided to walk out and explore the botanical gardens.  It was nice but a little kitschy like Disneyland.

I had to laugh at this structure. I thought it was a left over Christmas tree but it turns out it was a tree made of wine bottles. Someone had fun drinking all that wine!

I wandered back to town and looked for lunch. I happened upon an art restaurant (Art Café) and went in. I ordered another favorite, shrimp with lemongrass and chili's and a garden salad. As I waited, I wandered the restaurant looking at the artwork. I happened to ask a question to the owner/artist (Vo Trihn Bien) and he offered to demonstrate his finger-painting technique for me. He mixed ink and wine together and started painting. We had a fun conversation and I loved the simplicity of his artwork. I was also amazed that he was able to do it with his fingers. He signed and offered me the painting.
After a few hours of shopping in town, I returned to the hotel but realized it was St. Patrick's Day. How could I not celebrate? I changed into jeans and a jacket and went out for a St Patrick's Day beer and a light dinner. Being alone, I was quickly adopted by three Russian men. They refused to let me sit and enjoy a quiet beer alone on St Patrick's Day. I joined them and they started ordering shots. Bad decision! I  realized I could not hang with them after a few drinks. I wished them a Happy St. Patrick's Day and goodnight but they insisted that I get an escort back to my hotel. We laughed when we realized we were at the same hotel. So, I stayed while they finished there drinks and then we all walked back to the Pink House Villa singing Irish drinking songs! I still laugh as I think of singing Danny Boy with the Russians! A priceless memory!  It was late, I was tipsy and tired. I was getting up early for a walk around the lake before leaving for Hanoi.
Cristina Cruise HaLong Bay
I arrived in Hanoi and was thankful I had a car arranged to the hotel. I was still tired and it had been a long day. I was just spending the night and then I was headed to Ha Long Bay at 8am.
I was excited as I waited for the bus to arrive to take me from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. I had seen the photos of the bay with the large spires rising out of the blue-green sea. The brown junkets with the beautiful bamboo sails. This was the picture Le showed me as she talked to me about the 2 day/1 night cruise to Ha Long Bay. I could not wait to see the beautiful boats with their sails.
The trip to HaLong Bay was 3.5 hours. I had learned that traffic was very slow in Vietnam but I was amazed that it was going to take that long to go 90 miles. When I finally arrived in HaLong Bay, our guide had tickets and we quickly boarded a small boat to take us to our junket (boat). I was disappointed to see all the boats are now painted white. The government made it a requirement. We were given a welcome tea and then the key to our cabins. I was prepared for the worse but was pleasantly surprised. It was nicer than I had expected. We were given 15 minutes to put on our swimsuits and be back at the dinning area for lunch. I quickly remembered why I hate organized tours...the crazy time schedules and rules. Ugh! But this was the only way to experience HaLong Bay. Lunch was served and we all devoured it. Then we were off to see the bay. Our first stop was the Sung Sot Cave. It was larger than I had expected and a nice hike on the island.
Sung Sot Cave, HaLong Bay

We emerged from the cave hoping the afternoon sun was shining only to find the marine layer was still hanging on. Bummer. It is still beautiful. I must admit, the heavy marine layer gives a mystique to the area.
The next stop was swimming or hiking and then kayaking. I was told the hike was just some steps up to the pagoda and since I had seen a few pagodas, I decided to relax at the beach have a beer and enjoy the sights. The area is a tourist attraction and was named one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. I watched as boats arrived one after another with tourists. I counted 50 boats in the bay.   As I watched, I started to wonder what Vietnam was going to do to protect this beautiful attraction. The smell of the diesel from the boats is strong and you notice a film on the bay. I can't imagine that they will not have to do something at some point. It is beautiful and must be protected.
Sun, my kayaking partner
Kayaking was fun. Since I was alone, a lucky Malaysian girl became my partner. Her first question was "Do you know how to swim?" I told her I could row really well and I can swim. She would be fine as long as I can get in and out of the boat. I am not use to getting into a kayak in the water. The guy told me to step in middle and sit down slowly. Whew! Success! We were off and paddling the beautiful bay. We went into little caves and around the large rocks. It was a wonderful experience and one I will always remember. We were told to be back at the dock in an hour. Getting out of the boat was as scary as getting into it. I put my hands on the edges, pushed up and prayed that I would not tip us over into the bay.  I slowly stood up and stepped to the dock. Thank goodness I had been doing yoga and working on my balance these last 2 years! I made it to the dock without falling into the bay! Yippee!

Everyone returned and filed one by one onto the longboat to return to the Cristina where we were looking forward to showers and dinner. We were all in our life jackets waiting to go when we slowly understood there was a problem with the boat. It would not start. Five men gathered around the motor looking at it. Then they grabbed a rope, wrapped it around the motor and 1,2,3....pull! The boat would not start. This was repeated several times and a piece of the rope broke each time. They would tie it back together and try again...and again. No luck. Our guide looked at us and said "I hope you are good swimmers. If you want dinner and a bed we will need to swim 3 km to the boat." My kayak buddy, Sun, looked at me and grabbed my hand. "You help me swim?"  I smiled and laughed and told her he was joking. The color came back into her face as she realized she was going to be ok. The captain called a larger boat that towed us back. Yeah, we would have showers and dinner soon! The shower felt great after a long humid day on the bay. We had 30 minutes to get cleaned up and to dinner. It was delicious. We had spring rolls, french fries, cucumber salad, chicken, morning glory with garlic, squid with onions and peppers and rice. Followed up with fresh pineapple for dessert. And of course, cocktails. Everyone talked and shared travel stories. I was the only American so it was fun to listen to the different languages and then they would translate what they had just talked about. As the evening continued, the guide told us the evening activities were squid fishing or karaoke. The Asian people enjoyed the karaoke while the westerners all headed to squid fishing so they would not have to sing. Obviously, I went and watched the fishing. It was boring. They shine a light and bob a fishing pole waiting for something to bite.  No luck catching anything. I finally called it a night at 10:00 PM. I returned to my room, opened my windows and enjoyed the fresh air. I was rocked to sleep by the calm sea.
I awoke and looked up and saw the beautiful spires rising from the sea. This was worth the cost of the trip. The marine layer was still heavy but the view was beautiful and mysterious. After a quick breakfast and checking out of my room, I went on top of the boat and enjoyed the view
The morning was a quick sail around the bay and we dropped a few people off at Cat Ba Island. I was short on time since my visa was expiring soon, I was headed back to Hanoi today. I sat on the top deck and just enjoyed the view as I talked to the other tourists. I love the tourists and the things that I have learned as I have traveled. I laughed as I sat listening to two brothers teasing their mom about her packing style. She has a huge book and she tears out each chapter as she finished reading then throws it away. Why? To lighten up her load! Only a traveler would do that! RIGHT? I talked to them a while and they invited me to go to the Snake Farm with them outside of Hanoi. Seems you can go and pick out snake that you want to eat. I hate snakes and there is no way you will get me to a farm with snakes...even if I was going to eat them! I thanked her and told her I would pass. I was going to explore Hanoi. 

I returned to my hotel in time for a dinner and then to bed. I was tired and needed to get a good workout in the morning. My plan was to explore the Hoan Kiem Lake area and get a workout with the locals. I was up and left my hotel at 6 am. It was a quiet and quick walk to the lake. When I arrived, I was amazed at the number of people up and exercising before work. It was locals and very few tourists. The park was full of people walking, doing calisthenics, tai chi, meditating, zumba, karate, badminton and ballroom dancing. I loved it! I felt at home as I did my workout. I was even happier that I had grabbed my iPhone for a few photos.   

I love this old woman who walked in with two canes and then stood and did tai chi while I walked around the lake three times. Other women were meditating. It was an oasis away from the busy Hanoi city traffic. No lights, everyone just goes and you find your way. I found I got use to this and I became really good at weaving my way through the traffic.
I was walking across town to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I passed the Flag Tower at the War Remnants Museum. While crossing the road I met 2 Danish guys that were headed in the same direction but did not have a map. We decided to walk together and ended up spending the day exploring the city.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. We were told it opened at 2 pm only to find out it didn't. Sorry Uncle Ho, I did not get to pay my respects.
 The school children on a field trip were interested in 2 blondes traveling together. They would stop and stare at us and wanted their picture taken. I love the children! They are so adorable. They greet you and love to use their English. We continued on to the Hoan Kiem Lake and met a group of teenagers that were walking around practicing their English with the tourists.
We were serenaded by a tribal flute. Thomas was very good and loved American English better than proper English! It was a wonderful day. I was hot and tired and ready to call it a day. We said our goodbyes and I went back to the hotel to pack for my departure.

I stopped at the hotel desk and asked about a spa appointment for the morning.  They gave me information and told me to make an appointment in the morning. So, when 2 American guys were sitting at breakfast and started raving about the massages, I told them they had convinced me. I was getting a massage before I flew to Laos. I inquired about an appointment and was told they had one free space. I took it! I was ushered back to the room. There were 4 beds and one was empty for me. The others had my 2 American friends and another man. All were covered with towels and lying face down. The woman held up a sheet and said to take off my clothes. I was a little confused. There were men in here. I decided to remove my clothes but leave my bra and underwear on. The woman started to yell at me. "No! All clothes off! No clothes!" I must have looked shocked because another woman came over and started removing my bra. What?!? I said, "No. Men in here. Keep." The lady looked at me and got angry and pulled my bra. She said "must be no clothes!" I decided I did not want to have a tug-o-war over my bra. What the hell. I didn't want to make a scene. I took off everything and wrapped the towel around me. The women giggled. I quickly laid down on the bed as she draped a sheet over me and took my towel. The massage started and I relaxed and enjoyed it. I needed this. She held up the sheet and told me to turn over. I did. She started massaging my back. I was relaxed. Enjoying the experience. I was drifting to sleep. I remember hearing the American guys get up and leave.  I did not think anything about it. I enjoyed the massage. Afterwards, I showered and got ready for my flight to Laos. I enjoyed a beer as I was waiting for the taxi. Up walked my American friends. They saw me and started to laugh. They wanted to know how I liked my massage. They had all they could do from laughing when I was fighting with the women about removing all my clothes. It seems they had the same fight as there were 2 women in the room on their first day. We all laughed and then they said "by the way, nice tat. We enjoyed the show." It seems I was not well-covered when they left the room. Oh well. I am sure it was nothing they had not seen before! Ha ha! They were not the first to see it!

I loved my time in Vietnam but I am ready to move onward to Laos.  Goodbye Vietnam! I enjoyed the journey!  

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