HALONG BAY BY BOAT; HANOI ON FOOT AND BY CYCLO

Howdy. This is RC here, back again for another guest blog on my excursion with MightyDin to Halong Bay and Hanoi. Forty years ago, as an American baby boomer, I never would have thought that one day I would visit what had been North Vietnam, a country at war with the United States. Well, for a day and a half, I did just that.

imageOur cruise ship pulled into the misty harbor of Halong Bay shortly after noon, gliding by massive hunks of limestone rising a hundred feet or so above the water at odd angles. Later, our tour guide related a tale of a dragon that had helped the people living around the bay to win an important battle. I’m not sure if the rock formations were the remnants of the dragon or were created by it, but either way, it’s easy to see why they might be seen as having a supernatural origin.

Soon we were back on the bay on a smaller tour boat, on our way to a most impressive limestone cave. But first our navigator had to squeeze our boat in between two others in order to dock. Then we joined a throng of people of many different nationalities in tramping through a most impressive underground world of stalactites and other fantastical formations.image That was followed by touring more of Halong Bay, including a small village of bright green and blue floating houses where fishermen and their families live on the water.

The next day, we got up very early to take a 3.5 hour ride to Hanoi where we visited the Temple of Literature and watched a performance by some traditional musicians and singers. imageNext, we crossed the street to get to the restaurant where we were to eat lunch. There is an art to crossing a street in a city in Vietnam. Whether you cross at a crosswalk, or jaywalk, the process is pretty much the same and nothing at all like crossing a street in the United States. A herd of motor scooters, bicycles, a few cars, large busses, pedicabs and who knows what other vehicles will be coming from all directions, barely missing each other and coming closer to pedestrians than is usually comfortable. Thank goodness that MightyDin knew what to do and had coached me in advance. You have to wait until there is a little bit of a gap. (If you wait until it’s all clear, you’ll be waiting until midnight!) Anyway, you start across and keep going in the same direction and at the same speed regardless of what is coming at you. Stopping suddenly and changing course are dangerous. It sounds crazy, but somehow it seems to work out. The key for me was not trying this on my own, but rather hanging on to the arm of someone I knew while crossing the street.

imageAfter visiting an ornate pagoda where people still worship in the traditional way, we tried another method of transportation – the cyclo. This is a small three-wheeled vehicle. You sit in the front and a man sitting on a bicyle-like seat behind you pedals. The cars, motor scooters, trucks, and pedestrians all flow around you. It was a wonderful way to see the old quarter of the city, going up and down streets and passing a vast array of shops: one might sell bamboo ladders, the next fine silks, then electronics, then lanterns, then small birds chirping in their cages. Men rode by on scooters peddling flowering plants, others had reams of computer paper tied to their motorcycles. We passed several people cooking food over small grills with customers sitting on low stools on the sidewalks. The cyclo pedaler took us fearlessly through all manner of intersections where all sorts of vehicles merged and emerged unscathed.

All too soon, it was time for the 3.5 hour bus trip back to Halong Bay. It takes that long mainly because the road is quite rough in numerous places, and turns into the main street of the small towns through which it passes. But eventually, we reached our destination, where we stopped off for some shopping at the Night Market. I was fortunate to be in the company of a couple of expert hagglers, including MightyDin. One can obtain clothing, textiles, pearls, jade, other jewelry, laquer-ware, carvings, sandals, and many other things for very little money.

What a remarkable country Vietnam is. I’m ever so pleased to have paid it a brief visit.

Let the shopping begin

Hoi An is my favorite place in Vietnam and I was looking forward to this stop on the cruise. Our tour guide was relatively young and seemed eager to practice his English. Throughout the tour, he asked me the English word for various things, for example mermaid. I hope I did not mess up his vocabulary.
Hoi An has not changed much since my last visit – it’s a charming town that successfully retained its roots as a 15th century trading port. Due to the time constraints of having to be back on our ship by 5:00 pm, we did not get a chance to see Hoi An at its best which I think is late afternoon into the evening when the streets are lit up by the hundreds of lanterns strung above and the river is alive with illuminated floats and small lanterns carrying wishes of those who placed on the river.
We did explore the streets in the morning and haggled with shopkeepers for souvenirs. Since prices are still cheap, you’re arguing over a few dollars at most but it’s a game that shopkeepers like to play and allows tourists to feel that they really scored a bargain.

The famous Japanese Bridge but as our tour guide said, there's really nothing Japanese about it.
The famous Japanese Bridge but as our tour guide said, there’s really nothing Japanese about it.

 

Bridge into Ancient Hoi An town.
Bridge into Ancient Hoi An town.
RC rocking the local look.
RC rocking the local look.

 

 

 

Spa Break

The cruise had only one day at port in Phu My, the gateway to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) which was about 1.5 hours away. Given the short time there (and how long it takes to drive to interesting areas such as Mekong Delta), we decided to spend the day in HCMC and make it spa day. We booked appointments at Spa Tropic which was recommended me to me by a cousin.

Getting to the spa involved a couple of obstacles: avoid getting scammed by our driver ( he wanted $8 but I insisted that he use his meter which ended costing $3); and we needed to cross streets which made RC nervous. Her baptism by fire was a six lane road at the edge of a traffic circle with no traffic light or pedestrian crosswalk. She conquered the street without any squeals and quickly became a pro.

The spa was wonderful costing about a third of the price back home. Feeling sufficiently pampered, we explored Dong Khoi, one of the main shopping street in HCMC. RC bought some greeting cards. We didn’t haggle much because they were so cheap to begin with and we felt better when the vendor quoted a price twice as much to a Chinese couple who came up after us.

ELEPHANTS AND TIGERS AND BRIDGES, OH MY

RC here, guest-blogging about my too-brief visit to Thailand with Mightydin at the beginning of Feb. 2014. Where to start? It was the first time either of us had been to this remarkable country, and our excursion may not have been particularly typical. We came via cruise ship and never actually set foot in Bangkok. However, our guide and driver (Bangkok Day Tours) did take us through this remarkable city of numerous high-rises where 11 million people live and work. While we drove through the city, our guide talked about the protesters who have been demonstrating in Bangkok for the last two months. I thought he was exaggerating when he said there were millions of demonstrators in the streets, until he showed me pictures on his cell phone of people filling the streets shoulder-to-shoulder for many blocks. In fact, our guide was one of the demonstrators. They have been protesting the prime minister’s policies as to payments to rice farmers.

Bridge over the River Kwai
Bridge over the River Kwai but not the one from the movie

Our first stop was in a western province of Thailand, at the bridge over the River Kwai, the site of some of the terrible events of World War Two. The Japanese forced prisoners of war from England, Australia, Malaysia, and elsewhere, including some Americans, to build a railroad bridge through malaria-infested jungles to serve as part of their supply line. Many, many POWs lost their lives due to malaria, starvation, the dangers of the work, or the brutality of the guards. Many who escaped perished in the jungle. Today, you can walk on the bridge, and look at some of the original bridge abutments, which were subject to multiple bombings by Allied Forces. It’s an incredibly moving place, albeit surrounded by a small town and agricultural fields.

 

The monk distracts the tiger while Mightydin sneaks behind to pet it.
The monk distracts the tiger while Mightydin sneaks behind to pet it.

After lunch, we went on to the Tiger Temple. This is a wildlife sanctuary where Buddhist monks care for tigers, water buffaloes, deer, a bear, wild pigs and other animals. The remarkable thing about it is that a volunteer will escort visitors, one by one, into the area where the well-fed tigers are sprawled in the hot afternoon sun. The guide will show you where to pose and take your picture with the tiger. They encourage you to pet the tigers!

 

OK, so in the first picture, I am not smiling and my hand is hovering about an inch above the black-and-orange stripes of the tiger’s fur. In the second picture, I did manage to stroke the tiger’s fur, which felt just like the fur of a short-haired house cat. It wasn’t until we got to the third or fourth tiger that I’m not only petting the tiger, but also smiling. However, my pulse did not return to normal until at least five minutes after we left “Tiger Canyon.”

Then it was on to the elephant compound, where we began with a ride on an elephant’s back. We sat on a seat and an elephant handler sat on the beast’s neck and guided it around. Our elephant was hungry, so the handler let it eat a bunch of long grass during the ride. Also, we watched as one elephant fed grass to another one. Lastly, it was time for “elephant bathing.” The guide helped me to sit directly on the neck of the elephant, with him sitting behind me. You hang on by clutching the beast with your legs and placing your hands on its head. It takes some getting used to, and is not as easy as it looks. Plus, you are considerably higher off the ground than if you were riding a horse. So it isn’t for someone who is afraid of heights or doesn’t have good balance. The elephants were guided down a steep bank to the river, then into the river. The muddy water came up to mid-thigh level on me, until the elephant submerged everything except its head. Also, the handlers encouraged the elephants to spray water on me and on my traveling companion. You can also sit on the elephant’s trunk, but I opted not to do that.

 

That evening, we stayed at a local hotel. We were up, had finished breakfast, and on the road by 7:30 a.m. to go to the Floating Market. Along the way, we saw many trucks carrying sugar cane to the sugar refineries. Some of the trucks were painted in beautiful and elaborate designs.

Traffic jam at the floating market.
Traffic jam at the floating market.

Upon reaching the network of canals that form the Floating Market, we climbed into a paddle boat. The boatman sat in the back and paddled along the canal where grocers sold their produce from other boats, and others sold foods that they had cooked right on their boats. We passed many stalls selling every imaginable type of tourist item. The merchants were eager to bargain in either Thai baht or US dollars.

 

Our tour concluded with lunch along the highway that led back to another part of Bangkok and thence to the port.

Bon Voyage

imageAfter a few busy, fun days in Singapore, we boarded our ship, the Celebrity Millennium, for a tour of Southeast Asia. It’s an older, large (but not mega) ship with several restaurants and pools.

imageOur stateroom is decent-sized for a cruise ship and has a nice, large balcony.

 

 

 

After checking out the room, we headed to the pool deck for a last glimpse of Singapore before we sailed off into the sunset.

Traveling with family
Traveling with family

Modern Gardens

Having been to the traditional botanical garden, we decided to head to the new Gardens by the Bay with a modern take on floral and plant presentation.  One example is the Super Trees – gigantic man-made trees, though not at the heights of California redwoods.  You can take an elevator up on of the trees and walk a narrow skyway to another tree.  From that vantage point, you can get a sweeping view of the Singapore skyline with a few of the Super Trees in the foreground. image

 

 

 

 

 

 

imageOne of my favorite foods in Singapore is the crab in black pepper sauce which I think is better than the one with chili sauce.  I’ve been raving about the crab to RC since we decided to take this trip.  We ran out time for us to go to the container ship dock or anywhere else for that matter to get the crab, so we settled on getting it at the Majestic Restaurant in the Gardens by the Bay.  The dish is a jumbo crab from Sri Lanka smothers in the sauce.  The one we had was about 2.5 lbs. I was afraid that I overhyped the crab to RC especially since we were at a restaurant that I had never gone to.  I did not have to worry.  RC savored every bite with an expression of pure gastronomical bliss on her face.

Ethnic Enclaves

Singapore has several ethnic areas and we visited three of them – Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street.  Since it was just after Lunar New Year, Chinatown was very festive with the streets and buildings adorned with Year of the Horse decorations.  We visited a Buddhist temple called the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which was bustling with worshipers praying for a prosperous new year and tourists.  RC noticed that the two sets of visitors appear to mix well – the worshipers tolerated the tourist presence and the tourists were respectful of worshipers.

Several years ago, a friend who served in the Navy for 27 years insisted that I visited a hawker center, uniquely Singapore institutions.  These centers contain fool stalls that served just a few specialties and for very reasonable prices – basically street food in buildings with decent food safety handling.  Chinatown’s hawker center is Maxwell’s and I dragged RC there despite not being particularly hungry.  For $3 (US), we got a plate of rice with roasted pork and BBQ pork.  Delicious with an unexpected lion dance performance!

RC at Maxwell's
RC at Maxwell’s

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Of the three ethnic areas we visited, Little India was probably the most ethnic in the sense that its shops and services (temples, etc.) are geared towards serving the Indian community and not tourists.  The area is crowded where you could probably find most things you would want from India especially food, clothing, and gold jewelry.  My parents went to Little India the day after I went to buy some mysteriously item they can only get there.  They did not say what and I figured it best that I did not know.

We found Arab Street charming with shops catering to the tourist crowd and magnificent mosques.  Unfortunately, I was so tired and jet lagged at this point that I did not take pictures of either Little India or Arab Street.

Food and Flowers

imageAfter meeting RC in Tokyo, we flew to Singapore getting in the early hours of the morning. When we arrived at Raffles Hotel, a very nice man met our car and whisked us to our rooms, leaving the bell staff to deal with our luggage. That set the tone for our 2 day stay – discreet pampering. The hotel was beautiful with wonderful wood paneling and had a very distinct colonial feel, not surprising since it was built in the 19th century when Singapore was a British colony. Raffles gave us a whole bunch of goodies including a tray of sweets and seeds in celebration of the lunar new year and.

One of the things I love about staying at an Asian hotel is the breakfast. Not only is the buffet spread overflowing but the variety is impressive. Their menu shows that they know how to cater to the ethnic diversity d their guests. There are your standard western items (eggs and I let’s cooked to order, countless types of pastries and breads, cold cuts, cereal, yogurt, etc.) but more interesting, dim sum, sushi, congee, bento boxes, and local favorites. For example, in Vietnam, the hotels always serve a noodle soup.
Raffles did not disappoint and their menu reflected the distinct flavors of Singapore.

And this was just a fourth of the breakfast spread at Raffles.
And this was just a fourth of the breakfast spread at Raffles.

 

 

 

 

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Prehistoric trees that would make great Halloween decorations.
Prehistoric trees that would make great Halloween decorations.

 

RC and I started the day at the Botanic Gardens which is one of best I’ve ever been. We were there for 3 hours and covered only half of it. One section of the garden covered the evolution of plant life. RC got lots of inspiration for her writing – she likes to send people back in time to prehistoric age to see what they can do.

 

DSCN0059Singapore is obsessed with orchids and you get that as soon as you get off the plane. Changi Airport is adorn with numerous plant/floral displays featuring various orchids making it one of the most beautiful airports in the world. Naturally, the highlight of the botanic gardens is the National Orchid Garden. Not only was it orchid overload, we were able to see some rare orchids.

We decided to reward our 10,000 steps with high tea at the Regent Hotel. Former British colonies know how to put on a tea service and Singapore takes to new heights. High tea is not only tea sandwiches, scones, and pastries. At the Regent, it was filets of Wagyu beef, pâté, variety of garden and seafood salads, dim sum, and many other dishes. Here some I turns though I admit I ate a few plates and forgot to take pictures of them. I did manage to restraint myself by not going back for seconds on any of them.

Tea sandwiches and scones.
Tea sandwiches and scones.
Salad course
Salad course
Build your own crepe
Build your own crepe