Chuck Hillig's Travel Blog

Well, I'm going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next 6-7 months so I thought that I'd better re-activate my travel blog. The last time I posted anything here was way back in 2006 when I was traveling through SE Asia. Feel free to read my entries back then about my earlier adventures through India,Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines and Hong Kong. This time (at least for the next six weeks), I'll be traveling through Greece and Turkey.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hanging around Hanoi...

On Monday, I took a tour out to Ha Long Bay to see the famous islands. This is an extraordinarily beautiful meeting of land and sea that's about 3.5 hours east of the city. On the way to the Bay, we drove through miles of rice paddies, and saw a lot of people in their traditional conical hats working alongside their water buffaloes. Ha Long Bay itself has over 2000 islands that rise almost vertically out of the ocean. Some are nothing more than a few hundred square feet while other are quite large. I'd guess that 99% of them are uninhabited because of their inaccessibility from the sea. For example, many of them have sheer rock walls and are topped with shrubbery and trees. However, there are a few unspoiled small beaches that are nestled among some of these islands. The islands are, (I'm just guessing here) about 200-300 hundred feet high. At the Bay, there are probably a hundred tour boats that are available for the travelers. For a reasonable price, you can cruise among these unique islands for as short as a few hours or stay for several days. For example, including everything (four meals, overnight on the boat, kayaking, seeing the cave, the trip to and from the Bay, etc.) was only US$80. Some people, like myself, chose to sleep on the boat while others landed in Cat Ba, a small town on one of the islands that actually boasts a 2-star hotel. It provides access to Cat Ba National Park. On the boat, the crew served us a traditional Vietnames lunch before we landed at one of the larger islands and toured a rather impressive cave. After that, we cruised to a small village and kayaked for an hour among rocks. Finally, our boat chugged into Cat Ba itself. Some of our passengers went off to the hotel while the rest of us anchored a few miles away and watched the nearly-full moon reflected off the nearby islands. A truly magical night. Surrounding Cat Ba "city" and snaking around these islands are many hundreds of floating shacks...some standing alone, some linked together..that provide housing for many many families. Traditionally, these people make their living from the sea and, obviously, spend the vast majority of their time on the water. Interestingly, some of them had TV antennas. The size of these shacks is probably around 12 X 15 feet...if that. Lots of them have one or two dogs, kids and the adults appeared to be very friendly to the visitors. This is such a unique area that I can only imagine how it will change over the next ten years as it becomes increasingly popular with the tourists. Already, there is some water polution and, of course, the ongoing exhaust from the engines of these hundred tour boats is becoming apparent. Nonetheless, if you ever make it to Hanoi, you absolutely MUST check out the beauty of Ha Long Bay. Some other impressions as I walked around the city: 1) at night, a lot of people sit on the sidewalk on small stools that are about one foot square and a foot high. Either that, or they're sitting in what appears to be under-sized plastic lawn chairs. Commonly, the people who own the shops literally cook and eat their meals right on the sidewalk very close to the never-ending rush of motorbikes, horn-honking and exhaust fumes. 2) Speaking of traffic, you have to develop nerves of steel to handle the traffic in Vietnam. Crossing the street through an unbroken stream of motorbikes, cars and buses can be very daunting. After watching the locals, you'll see that you have to bravely step out into the stream itself and, magically, the traffic accommodates your presence. They adapt to your body being in the street and simply flow around you as would water flow around a "rock" that was crossing a stream. The key is "Don't run!" If they can guage your steady progress, they will adjust their own speed and direction to avoid hitting you. 3) The electric power wires that are strung between the poles around the city are amazing. They're all twisted up and attached to the poles with little regard for either safety or order. Imagine a pole with several hundred black wires all converging together within a few feet of each other. I don't know how it all works but, apparently, it does. I'm taking a day off and mellowing out around the nearby lake here in the Old Quarter. Tonight, I'm taking an overnight train to a beautiful area northwest of Hanoi called So Pa. More later...

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