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Just back from an 11 day trip to Northern Vietnam

Just back from an 11 day trip to Northern Vietnam

Old Jan 3rd, 2012, 01:43 PM
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Hi dgunbug - I'm glad you enjoyed your time with the women. I did too, with the one woman who walked with us without pressuring us to buy, but not with any of the others. I felt like the women smiled at us and came to talk only to ask if we wanted to buy something. Most of them only knew the same couple of phrases, so we couldn't interact much after that. I think local guides employed by the tour companies probably speak better English so you can have a more meaningful interaction with them. In Mai Chau, while none of the locals in the village spoke English, they all smiled, waved to you and said Sin Chao without any expectations, and so our interaction, while limited, felt more genuine.

Having grown up in India, it's the same difference between a rural area versus a small village or town with a big tourist draw that is suddenly seeing a big influx of tourists. It's not a matter of right or wrong (in my mind at least) given that these people live in poverty, hence the conundrum.

When I see kids off chasing tourists to make money instead of being in school, it saddens me. We saw a lot of this in Siem Reap in Cambodia, but not in Battambang or some of the other rural areas we visited.

Hope this gives you some context around my earlier opinions.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2012, 01:48 PM
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Thanks aprillilacs! I was hoping our experience with Fanxipan was an exception, but it looks like you guys had similar issues. They really should have a counter somewhere with a proper sign like all the other companies do.

I'll be back with more on the trip report later tonight.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2012, 04:33 PM
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<b><u>Back in Ha Noi and it's mostly about the food:</b></u>

We're up at 4 am this morning after a restful night's sleep. The train arrives in Hanoi at 5 am and we go looking for a taxi. The staff at Hanoi Elegance had told us earlier that the early morning taxi rates to the hotel shouldn't exceed 50K d, but we end up only bargaining down to 60K from 100K. With no traffic on the streets, we are at the hotel in less than 5 minutes. A couple of the staff at the hotel are asleep in the lobby; they wake up when we arrive and get us settled with some water and towels so we can freshen up in the lounge area upstairs. Our room will be ready only around 9 am, which is fine with us since our plan is to walk down to the lake and walk around the old quarter and markets. We walk down Hang Gai, and watch the city slowly come to life. Down by the banks of the lake, there are groups of people, mostly older and clad in tracksuits, doing synchronized Tai Chi, their slow and graceful movements set to soothing music (sounds like counting) playing on small stereos. There are people stretching, exercising/ massaging their neck and face while catching up with friends, jogging, and a small group of women doing fan dancing. It's really fun to see how exercise can be such a communal activity - reminds us of the evening group aerobics set to techno music in Battambang (Cambodia). Across from the northern end of the lake, there are people playing badminton and the more serious version of da cau (or foot shuttlecock) using the badminton court/net. All this keeps us entertained until about 7, after which we get some breakfast - tea and sticky rice with sausage - at a cafe across from the lake. We then walk towards Hang Be market, but to our surprise we see cops walking about and an empty street! It appears that the street side stalls are illegal and the vendors disappear as soon as they see cops. Thinking about this later, I think we may have missed the actual Hang Be market altogether! Oh well! We buy some custard apple that we pay a ridiculous amount for (20k d each, but worth it since we don't get this in the US), walk around the streets some more until we are hungry again, and decide to go back to the same banh cuon stall that we ate at a few days ago. We hadn't taken the address down, but are able to retrace our steps and find the place at #41 Hang Buom. The woman recognizes us right away, smiles and offers us a table. A few minutes later, we are enjoying another plate of scrumptious banh cuon each - can it get any better than this? We revisit the other markets, put away the map and zig zag our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets and make our way back to the hotel to check in.

For the next couple of hours we relax in our room, check emails, download pictures from our camera, enjoy the sweet custard apple along with the other fruits provided by the hotel. We also drop off a large load of laundry at the front desk. Since we hadn't eaten in a couple of hours , our next stop is lunch, of course. Off to Cha Ca La Vong at #14 Cha Ca street, a Hanoi institution that serves it's namesake dish - slices of delicate white fish grilled with turmeric, scallions and dill and served with bun, herbs, nouc cham and peanuts. Ajit loves fish and is most excited about this dish. Now, we did end up at a place on Cha Ca street with a sign up front that said Cha Ca La Vong along with other signage and posters that seemed to corroborate the fact that this was the original restaurant, but based on our experience with the food and having googled the restaurant on our return, we were definitely in the fake restaurant. We weren't aware that a rip off of this restaurant even existed, so beware of this. Anyway, back to the food. We are the only ones in the restaurant, but given that it is before noon, we don't think much of it. We are seated on the ground floor and are handed the menus. The prices are high compared to some of the other food we have had so far - I think it was about $8 per plate. They bring over the bun and other sides/condiments and cook the grilled fish on an electric stove right at the table. By the way, the electric stove is a dead giveaway, had we known, since the original uses charcoal stoves. For the exorbitant price (by Vietnamese standards), there is barely four small slices of fish per person. While the food tastes good, we pay close to $20 for the meal including 2 fruit shakes. Crazy! Underwhelmed and very disappointed, we decide to go back to Bun Cha Dac Kim for a second lunch. This time, we share a plate of bun cha and enjoy every morsel. At the hotel, we tell the staff about our experience at Cha Ca La Vong, but no one mentions the fake location. I'm surprised that such a venerable restaurant would allow a rip off to exist. But, it's time to move on!

We ask the hotel staff to book us tickets for the water puppet show tomorrow. They try to get us into the evening shows, but they are all sold out, so we end up with tickets to the 3:30pm show. We also decide to attend a cooking class in the morning and having dome some research earlier, settle on Hidden Hanoi. The staff offers to call and reserve us a spot in the class. Wonderful! We can head over to the theatre when the class ends, so it's perfect. I have the names of a few art galleries on Hang Gai that I want to check out, so for the next hour, we browse these galleries looking for an interesting painting to buy. While there are a few really fine pieces, unfortunately none grab our attention nor will they work with our decor back home. We go back to our room for some more R&R, and around 3, we ask the staff to call us a cab to go to the Ho Chi Minh memorial. We stroll through the complex taking a peek at the one pillar pagoda, the memorial and the presidential palace. While we are outside the palace, the Canadian Governor General arrives on a state visit and we watch (as much as we can see through the gates that is) the ceremony honoring him. Afterwards, we decide to head to the lake for some evening refreshments, and opt to take a cyclo instead of a cab. The negotiation routine is hilarious - we start at 60K, he starts at 100K, we meet him in the middle with 80K and he says no, 70K. We're a little flummoxed, but get in anyway. It takes him a couple of minutes to realize his mistake and he starts yelling 80K, 80K and we all burst out laughing! This area of Hanoi is home to several embassies and is a posh neighborhood. It takes us about 15 minutes to reach the lake, but it is hard work for the driver, especially with two of us in the seat. He is an older guy too, so we give him 100K and he flashes us a big smile. We go to a lake side cafe, and enjoy cold beers and a papaya shake as the sun sets and day turns to night. For dinner, we want to try Nha Hang Ngon, which is famous for serving street foods from all over Vietnam. Given we are not traveling to central and south Vietnam, this seems to be a good place to try some of their specialties. Before we leave the hotel, we ask one of the staff to point us in the right direction. This restaurant is on their map of Hanoi and they mark it for us. So, off we go walking through the French Quarter towards the spot on the map, to the south and quite west of the lake. It takes us about 15-20 minutes to get to Tran Hung Dao, but when we do, the street numbers are in the nineties, while we need to be at #26. We start walking east, and it takes us another 15 minutes to get to the restaurant, which is actually south east of the lake. Argh! We should have just googled the location before we left! The restaurant looks lovely and we sit in the courtyard surrounded by several open kitchens, each representing a different region. The menu is a few hundred pages long (I'm kidding, but it is extensive). Ajit has grilled mackerel with chilli, and we share chicken wings and a fried dumpling that they call a samosa (we order this just because we are curious, turns out to be our least favorite dish). We are a little cranky and tired though and don't appreciate the food as much as we should have. Exhausted, we hail a cab to take us back to the hotel and we tuck in for the night.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2012, 04:42 PM
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The cooking class doesn't start until 10, so we sleep in a little and have a leisurely breakfast. We pretty much order the same breakfast everyday, it's so yummy. A taxi arrives at 9:30 to take us to the Tay Ho neighborhood (near West Lake). One of the hotel staff tells the taxi driver where to take us (we feel so pampered here!). It's a 20 minute drive and the taxi driver drops us off on a very busy road (more like a highway with lots of cars and larger vehicles). Well, Hidden Hanoi is on the other side of this road, so what do we do? We stand around for a few minutes waiting for a clear break in traffic so we can cross. When this doesn't seem likely, we go down the steps of the elevated road to a side street and look for an underpass that we can walk across. No such luck. We ask around in the shops, but no one understands us. Finally at the risk of being late for our class, we decide to brave the traffic and cross the road - it's only when we make it to the other side that we breathe again. Whew! Hidden Hanoi is an oasis of tranquility - with a lovely courtyard dotted with fruit trees and a beautiful bungalow where the class is held. A few minutes later, a couple of Australian girls arrive - we are the only ones who have signed up for the market tour before the cooking class. The four of us head out to a few local markets with our guide, as she explains how locals shop for their food (fresh is key), the various types of markets (local, moving and frog/illegal) and the concept of communal cooking/eating that is so intrinsic to Vietnamese food. We pass by a few homes where women cook over a small charcoal grill on the street outside while conversing with a neighbor doing the same. She talks about the important ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine and picks up a few things for our cooking class. She also buys some sticky rice and Vietnamese sausage that we will snack on later. Walking through the markets with a local definitely adds to the experience and is a lot of fun. Back at Hidden Hanoi, the other class participants have arrived - an Australian couple who have been touring through south/central Vietnam and a Spanish couple. We have some hot tea and munch on the sticky rice snack that is yummy, while we introduce ourselves to each other. It seems like a fun group of people, although the Spanish couple barely speaks any English. Anh, the proprieter, is a lovely woman (and beautiful!, she also teaches salsa). She talks to us about Vietnamese cuisine, the importance of yin and yang (the contrast of flavors, temperatures and textures) and the regional nuances. In talking about the importance of fresh food, she tells us how when her parents bought their first refrigerator, it was displayed in the living room as a sign of prosperity, with nothing in it but water! Anh leaves after this and introduces Ling who takes over the class from her. We are going to be cooking the monsoon menu that includes fresh spring rolls with prawns, banana flower salad, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced pork and mushrooms, caramelized chicken cooked in a claypot with lotus seeds and wasabi leaf soup. We learn that a typical home cooked meal has to always have at least 3 components not including rice. Vegetables (and only the green kind), meat (always a little salty to limit the quantity consumed), and a broth to slurp (without making the sound!) at the end. For dessert, it is almost always fresh fruits. We split into pairs and each make a dish (Ajit and I make the cabbage rolls) and finally, we all make the spring rolls together. We also learn how to carve a rose from a tomato, which I must say I sucked at. Ajit's rose was outstanding however! The class is a lot of fun and Ling is outgoing and engaging, and while we do get help from a few sous chefs in the kitchen, we do most of the chopping and cooking ourselves. At about 1pm, we sit down at the table to enjoy the meal, and it is outstanding, if I may say so myself! The class with the market tour costs $50 per person, which is expensive (it was $8 pp in Battambang with fewer dishes), but well worth it. We sit around in the courtyard chatting and nibble on pomelos for dessert, by which time the taxi arrives to take us to the Thang Long water puppet theatre.

We theatre is packed with large tour groups (no wonder they sell out so quickly), and we have seats in the fifth row. The show begins with a traditional orchestra playing folk songs. One of the women has a beautiful voice and the music with the traditional instruments in haunting. Then the puppets rise out of the water with the puppeteers standing behind a curtain, and for the next 45 minutes, we are thoroughly entertained. First performed in the 11th century on the surface of paddy fields in Vietnam's Red River Delta, water puppetry is the artistic expression of farmers who spent their days in flooded rice fields. The puppets enact several stories - of daily life in the village, the harvest, fishing, water buffalo fights and festivals - with the orchestra providing background music and dialogue. There are some scenes that are clearly humorous and the singers can't seem to control their laughter. This is a good way to spend an afternoon. After the show, we go up to the Highlands Coffee location that's next door with a great view of the busy intersection. A few beers for Ajit and a fresh coconut for me, and we sit down to enjoy the chaos below - traffic in several different directions all at once, people casually crossing the street, kids on cycles going home back from school, motorcycles transporting all kinds of heavy loads, a just married couple posing for photographs. It is a fabulous place for a drink.

We go back to the hotel (stopping on the way to get sugarcane juice at our usual place) and freshen up for dinner at Green Tangerine, which is to be our one splurge dinner on this trip. Green Tangerine is a French Vietnamese restaurant in the Old Quarter at #48 Hang Be. As we walk through the Old Quarter with its many street side stalls spilling on to the streets bustling with locals enjoying their dinner, and the tantalizing delectable smells drifting through the air, we are really tempted to sit down and get a bite...but we don't. Green Tangerine is set in a beautiful colonial villa with a courtyard (and a world apart from the food stalls outside), but since we didn't make reservations, we are seated upstairs. We get a half bottle of wine and start with the trio of soups and scallop carpaccio with beets and pineapple (laid out in an interesting pattern), both of which are lovely. For the main course, Ajit gets steamed fish with a passion fruit sauce and risotto and I get duck in a tamarind sauce, and we finish it all off with a caramel lemongrass cake for dessert - delicious! The meal is, relatively, quite expensive at about $90; I must say that I didn't enjoy it more than the $6 Vietnamese meals we have had so far, but the food and service are great for a special night out. We enjoy the walk back to the hotel after our eating binge today. Tomorrow, we will check out of the hotel for the second time for our 2 day trip to Mai Chau. Our guide, Vinh, calls us at the hotel around 10 pm to let us know that we'll start an hour later at 8am instead of 7, which works well for us.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 05:42 AM
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Seemaskt - I participated in a cooking school in Thailand but sadly never used my newly acquired culinary skills. Just curious if you have cooked any of the dishes you learned to make since you returned from your trip.

We also went to Cha Ca La Vong, but noticed that there were another by the same name directly across the street. As we had the address on hand, we chose the correct one with the charcoal grill. IMO you did not miss out on much. While the experience was fun, the food was rather bland and not as good as other meals we had in VN. We enjoyed the Green Tangerine for a change of pace, but as you said, the food was far more expensive than most of the fare we ate. My favorite restaurant was still the hole in the wall "Bun Bo Nam Bo"!

Looking forward to the rest of your report.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 09:17 AM
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No, I haven't yet made anything from the cooking class; have been busy during the holidays and trying to get the trip report completed and photos uploaded. Hope to make them soon though. I made all the dishes we learnt in the cooking class in Cambodia and they turned out great, so hoping for the same outcome with these dishes.

Someone on the TA forums (where I've posted this report) also said the same thing about the original Cha Ca La Vong. We were quite bummed initially to learn that we were in the fake restaurant, but feeling less bummed now. lol.

Thanks for still reading along, dgunbug. Doesn't seem to be as much interest here as there is over on TA. But, I'll finish up the report in a couple of days - that's the goal.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 11:16 AM
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I'm still reading, too!

I was addicted to pomelo while there. Wish we could get it here.

We also took a cooking class in Hanoi - same price, different place. Loved the market tour. The cooking was fun, and the other two people in the class were very nice, so lunch was enjoyable. I haven't made anything we cooked, and I don't intend to (but I am still on a quest for the best bun cha in the Bay Area!!)
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 11:19 AM
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OMG, I just googled it, and I CAN get pomelo in California -- I guess just not in the regular supermarket!

http://www.pearsonranch.com/pomelos.html
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 01:35 PM
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Seemaskt - don't fret. Likely
more people than you realize are reading along. It's always discouraging though to put such effort into a report and not get any feedback. please continue. Your report is wonderful.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 02:01 PM
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I'm following your report and enjoying it immensely. Looking forward to hearing about Mai Chau where we wanted to go but couldn't because of the weather.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 03:10 PM
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Oh, you guys are the best! Thanks for the encouragement. Really!

sf, please tell me if you find a Bun Cha place that comes even close to the ones in Hanoi. If so, I'll definitely add it to my list for the next time we visit the bay area. I've been trying to find a place in NY that serves banh cuon, only found one but they don't get very good reviews. I looked up the recipe thinking I'll try to make it, but it's way too complicated for my tiny NYC kitchen. It's such a pity that most of the restaurants in the US (and I'm told in Australia as well) serve south Vietnamese food predominantly. I guess it all depends on where most of the immigrants are from.

How exciting to be able to buy locally grown pomelos! We usually get our fix of tropical fruits in Chinatown, though I still crave for mangoes and custard apples. Have to check if they have pomelos here.

shelleyk - Thanks! I am posting the Mai Chau portion now.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 03:16 PM
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<b><u>Trekking to unspoilt and scenic Kho Muong:</b></u>

We're up, finish breakfast and check out by 8am, when Vinh arrives to pick us up. He is in his mid twenties and seems friendly. As we drive out of the city, we pass the newer areas of Hanoi where many offices are located. The traffic is heavy at this time of day with the morning commuters. Hanoi has been gradually expanding into surrounding areas to accommodate its growing population and recently acquired another province. The drive to Mai Chau takes about 3.5 hours with some spectacular karst scenery along the way. We stop at a roadside vendor at one point to snack on sticky rice in bamboo dipped in sesame seeds. Pretty good, but I prefer the sweeter variety in Cambodia. We also notice several Thit Cho (or dog meat) restaurants along the way. We ask Vinh if he's had dog meat and he says yes and that it tastes good.

The Mai Chau region is home to the White Thai ethnic minority (originally from Thailand and Laos) and they live in stilted huts. They don't wear their traditional dress anymore except for special occasions. We arrive at Poom Coom village around 11:30 and stop for lunch. There are homestays here, but it feels like a very touristy setup; we're glad we are staying elsewhere for the night. Lunch, however, is an amazing spread with rice, broth, morning glory sauteed in garlic, omlette, chicken, pork and fruits. Too full to move after lunch, I relax in a hammock while Ajit plays with the local dog (Ajit calls him Thit Cho; bad Ajit!). We are soon joined by a woman from the nearby Lac village - she doesn't speak any English but will be our local guide for the hike to our homestay. We drive for about 40 minutes to a point in Pu Luong nature reserve from where we start trekking; the driver drops us off and will pick us up after our trek tomorrow. For the first couple of hours, we walk along a road being built through the reserve to facililate the transport of people and goods from the small villages scattered across this area to the larger towns. The views along the way are beautiful with high mountain peaks and golden terraced paddy fields sprinkled with stilted homes. It gets really warm as we walk and we peel away our layers, but our local guide wears a jacket and carries an umbrella to keep from getting tanned! For the last hour, we get off this road and walk on narrow paths up and around the hills until we see the sign to Kho Moung village, which is where we will be staying the night. It's another 2 kms downhill walk from here, we have trekked about 14 kms in all today.

As we descend the final stretch to the village, we marvel at its spectacular location, cradled between steep karst peaks with rice fields and stilted homes in the valley. We first walk to our hut to leave our bags and freshen up. The eco homestays in this village have been setup in conjunction with an international NGO and are done nicely - they're what the villagers live in, simple stilted huts that are basic but clean with a shower, sink and western style toilet outside to accommodate the guests. We are welcomed by our hosts and enjoy some hot tea and tangerines picked off a tree, before we take a walk through the village and fields.It's almost dusk, so the light is beautiful and we observe the villagers finishing up in the fields for the day before heading back home. Each family owns a plot of land for farming, which they are responsible for. This region has 2 rice harvests a year and we watch as some of the last fields are being harvested, while others are being plowed using water buffaloes for the next season. The wooden bells on the buffaloes make a lovely sound as they walk up and down the same path that we are on. The setting is magical! The villagers are also very friendly and we say Sin Chao (or Hello) to each other as we pass by. As dusk turns to darkness, we walk back to our hut and find a group of eight Brits who have just arrived on their mountain bikes. They will be staying in the homestay right across from us. Our local guide's husband has also arrived and has brought with him ingredients for our dinner tonight. We sit at a table, rub mosquito repellent all over our exposed skin, sip cokes and watch as our hosts go about getting our dinner ready, which includes a rooster being killed in front of us. Around 7pm, our dinner is ready and it is an incredible array of food turned out by such a modest kitchen - there's rice, vegetable broth, sauteed vegetables (looks like chinese celery), delicious fried fish, moist tender chicken in fragrant lime leaves (there is something to be said for the freshest ingredients!) and beef wrapped in betel leaves. We eat every last bit of every dish! Our guide's husband comes around with a plastic bottle filled with a clear liquid - it's potent tapioca wine - and he wants us to do a shot with him. We follow his lead and shout out "Cheers" in Vietnamese and gulp down the alcohol. It's good but really strong and we politely decline a second shot. He then walks over to the Brits and does a round of shots with them as well. Vinh brings over fruits for dessert and we chat with him for a little while, before retiring for the night. The first level of the hut has 3 mattresses, pillows, blankets and mosquito nets for us. There is a cooking area on the other side which is where the family would typically cook their meals. After the long day, we're both asleep in a matter of minutes and sleep through the night.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 03:24 PM
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We're up at 4:30 to the sound of roosters crowing and pigs grunting. The flock of animals right below us are very active as well. Vinh is still asleep, but Ajit and I take a walk through the village as the sun rises and bathes the fields in the soft golden glow of dawn. Families - old and young alike - are back in the fields for another day of hard work. At about 6, we head back and pack up. For breakfast, we have a baguette, jam and eggs with ca phe sua; there is a small pot of condensed milk on the table and I can't help but add a few dollops on my plate and lick it up. Yumm. By 7:30, we thank our hosts, wave goodbye to the Brits and are ready to leave. We will trek another 12-14 kms along a different route to a town from where our driver will pick us up. It is much cooler this morning, and trekking is pleasant. As we turn around the hill, we keep looking back to catch our last glimpse of this lovely village. The Brits pass by on their bikes a short while later. We pass through multiple villages along the way, waving to women and kids and saying Sin Chao a few hundred times; everyone seems incredibly friendly and welcoming here as opposed to Sapa, where our experience was very different. At one village, a group of kids come running to me with big smiles on their faces. I show them how to high five and soon we are all high five'ing each other without actually saying the words, until one of the older kids yells out "High Five!". Looks like I am not the first tourist who's shown them how to do this. They want their pictures taken, so I oblige, and watch as they look at themselves in the LCD display and make fun of each other. It's very cute. We keep walking until we reach another village that Vinh tells us is funded by an NGO that also brings over kids from American schools to help the community. Tapioca wine is very popular in this area and we see a whole lot of tapioca drying on the side of the road.

At around 10, we reach the main road in a bigger town (we are early), and wait by the roadside outside a butcher shop for our driver to pick us up. Our local guide stays back as her husband will pick her up shortly. Our next stop is the Cam Luong spring in Thanh Hoa province. The stream originates in the mountain, flows out through a small cave and contains thousands of fish jostling in the narrow spring. The locals (Muong ethnic minority) believe that unfortunate events will befall those who endanger the fish, so they do not catch them. In recent years, this place has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, more so for visiting Vietnamese than foreign tourists. We see several groups of them taking pictures and feeding the fish. Our driver brings over 4 ears of corn, so we can all feed the fish as well (even though there are signs indicating the fish are not to be fed). With all this constant food and freedom, the fish are huge. They are also wierd looking with big pink lips. Our driver is clearly enjoying this, so we have to persuade him to leave after awhile. Outside, where the car is parked is a stall selling cut sugar cane, which I am so excited to see, so we buy a bag. As we drive to our lunch stop, Vinh and I chew on the lusciously sweet cane (I lost my first milk tooth to a sugar cane, but it has been years since I've had them raw). For lunch, we stop at a road side restaurant in another town. Here, we run into the Brit group again. The food they bring out here is similar to what we had for lunch yesterday, and very good as well. A glass of tea later, we are on our way back to Hanoi. For a part of the way, we drive on the Ho Chi Minh highway that roughly follows the legendary HCM trail used during the war. The drive back seems longer and we sleep for most of the way, until we get closer to Hanoi. We are back at the hotel by 4 and check in again for another short stay. We stayed in room 402 the first time, #202 the second and this time we get #502.

We are feeling pretty fresh after our nap in the car, so we head out after a hot shower. We walk back to the lake and get a balcony table at Highlands coffee. But they appear to be short staffed today and after we wait 15 minutes for someone to take our order, we get up and leave. We go back to the other lake side cafe we had been to earlier and spend the evening there. There are colorful lights and lanterns around the lake which we hadn't seen on prior nights, very pretty! For dinner, we decide to have our last Bun Bo at Bun Bo Nam Bo. We can't go wrong here - it's another delicious meal. We finish our dinner with sugar cane juice next door. As we sip our drink, several people stop on their motorbikes and get their juices to go in little plastic bags. There is a small road side stall in front of the sugar cane place that has some delectable looking sweet treats laid out. We memorize the sign "Banh Troi Tau Nong" and ask about it later at the hotel. Doan, the receptionist, tells us that they are glutinous rice cakes filled with a sweet bean paste. We are too full today, but plan to try it when we get back from Halong Bay, which is where we are headed to tomorrow for a 2 day/ 1 night trip. We pack our things for the trip, download and enjoy our pictures of Mai Chau, and it's time for bed.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 07:30 PM
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All that trekking sounds a bit much for the likes of these old knees, but I am enjoying hearing about it. I hope you will be posting pictures.
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Old Jan 4th, 2012, 10:57 PM
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I'm following closely too and really enjoying your report. I'm noting down lots for the future!
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Old Jan 5th, 2012, 03:25 PM
  #36  
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Here's the final installment. dgunbug, I'll post the link to the pictures tomorrow. Still deleting so we have a resonable number posted on our website.

<b><u>Cruising the waters of Bai Tu Long Bay:</b></u>

This mornining, we check out once again for our 2 day 1 night cruise aboard the Red Dragon operated by Indochina Junk. This is a smaller boat and sails in Bai Tu Long Bay which is far less frequented by all the boats, hence our decision to go with them. Our driver arrives at 8:30 - we are the last people to be picked up (there are 7 others in the van) - and we are on our way. The drive to Halong Bay, to the east of Hanoi, takes about 3.5 hours with nothing much to see along the way (the drive to Mai Chau was so much more scenic). We stop for 20 minutes at a tourist rest stop with massive marble sculptures (do tourists even buy these?), art, handicrafts and food items for sale. We end up getting a small ceramic sculpture here as the price seems to be decent. We arrive at the Indochina offices around noon, sign in and wait to board the boat. We run into the Mike and Gail, the Canadian couple from our hotel (they just finished a 3 day cruise with the same operator), and the mountain bikers from Kho Moung (they are doing a 2 day cruise but on another boat)! There are only five others on our boat - a British couple and a French couple with their daughter - a small and nice group. The junks are docked away from shore, so we set off in a smaller boat to embark the Red Dragon 2. This is a lovely boat, named and modeled after an authentic Chinese fishing junk that traversed the waters of the Far East many years ago. It is ornate with traditional woodwork. There are only 5 cabins on board; ours is a corner room, large, and has an en suite bath. We drop our bags off and meet back up in the sun deck as we set sail towards our destination.

Bai Tu Long Bay is located to the northeast of the Halong Bay area, a UNESCO world heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin. The bay features thousands of monolithic limestone karsts and isles of various sizes and shapes rising dramatically from the ocean. Many of these are topped with thick vegetation. The biodiversity in this area is tremendous, hence the recognition by UNESCO. The afternoon sun is bright and the views hazy, but we enjoy the calm and gentle breeze as we sail. Our guide arrives to give us an overview of our itinerary and specific plans for the afternoon. His command of English is not very good and he tends to repeat things multiple times and keep talking (which he does before each activity and meal!); a sweet fellow though and very eager to please. At around 1:30, an elaborate lunch is served out on the deck - there's soup, spring rolls, jumbo shrimp, grilled squid, fish, beef and I'm sure I am missing a few courses. During lunch, we get to know our fellow passengers - they are an interesting and fun group. Later, we take our beers out on the deck and enjoy the views as the boat meanders its way through the sheer cliffs. Meanwhile, a passenger realized she was missing one of her backpacks just as we set sail, but a few calls are made and it arrives on a smaller boat some time after lunch. Awesome, only in Asia! At about 3:30, we arrive at an island with a small white sandy beach and dismbark. Indochina Junk is the only operator with the rights to bring tourists to this island and so the 4 Indochina boats are the only ones to anchor here. We first go up to a large cave in the limestone karst with lovely stalactites and stalagmites. We get a nice birds eye view of this corner of the bay from up here. Then, we go down to the beach for kayaking. There are two of us to a kayak and we start paddling around these massive rocks. The wind gets stronger, the water rougher, so paddling gets harder as well. Many of the karst formations have caves and grottoes in them and the perspective at water level is interesting. When we get back to the beach, the others go off for a swim while Ajit and I stay on the beach (the water's too cold for us!). As the setting sun dips behind the horizon, it casts a shimmering light on the water, boats and cliffs.

We head back to the boat, and get cleaned up while the boat makes it way to the spot where it will anchor for the night. Afterwards, we sit out on the deck with a couple of beers. It is a little chilly at this time of night, and I'm glad I've brought along a cardigan. Oh, and Ajit finally has Halida beer on the boat - this was the only local brew listed on the menus in Hanoi and Sapa that they never had in stock, so he is thrilled to be able to drink it. Dinner is out on the deck and it's another wonderful meal, primarily seafood based. Given the nip in the air, we order a bottle of red wine for dinner. The other couples each order a bottle of white - the wine is not chilled however so they resort to adding a cube of ice to their wine - holy moly, did the French couple just add ice to their wine?? Wonders will never cease! The staff also brings out a few surprises - a beautiful bird carved out of radishes and carrots and a replica of the Red Dragon carved out of watermelon - remarkable! During dinner, we have a light hearted yet spirited discussion regarding genuflecting to the Queen of England, brought on by the recent incident with the Australian prime minister. Needless to say, it is the 4 of us versus the British couple. After dinner, we try squid fishing for a while, but when we have had no luck for several minutes, Ajit and I go back to our rooms for the night.
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Old Jan 5th, 2012, 03:35 PM
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The gentle bobbing of the boat in the water rocks us to sleep and we sleep well. I'm up earlier than Ajit and go up to the deck to catch the sunrise. Being the only one out on the deck, I enjoy the solitude and calm with some piping hot tea. Ajit joins me shortly while the others show up much later. A breakfast of Pho and baguette and omlette is served at 7 am, after which we sail to Vong Vieng fishing village, which is our next stop for the day. We arrive at the floating village, one of four in the bay, around 8:30 where there are several row boats waiting to take us around the village. With the men off fishing and the kids in school, the boats are all rowed by women. The government and some of the tour operators like Indochina Junks support these fishing villages (with electricity, fresh water, home/ school construction etc.) and also create a tourist infrastructure, providing these families with supplemental income. This village has about 50 families. The haze has disappeared and the sky is a clear blue now and the water a pretty bluish green. We row past colorful wooden homes floating on barrels set against the backdrop of the karst scenery, vendors in rowboats selling fruits and vegetables, and fisherman in their boats with the catch of the day. We stop by the local floating school where kids are busy studying math, and also visit the pearl farm where you can see the process of harvesting a pearl. They also have a gift shop with jewelery ranging in price from moderate to very expensive. On our way back to the boat, we row under a massive rock with a wide arch at the base - very nice! As we near our boat, we see a group of kids and their parents diving off the deck of the Dragon Pearl into the water - they look like they're having a lot of fun. Lunch is served early and a la carte - no more ten course meals! We then check out of our rooms and relax on the deck as we make our way back to the harbor. After we disembark, we wait for the van to pick us up and take us back to Hanoi. We stop at a different location on the way (where we pick up some banana candy and jackfruit chips), and reach our hotel around 5. It's so nice to see the beaming faces of the staff and being greeted with "Welcome back Ms. Seema and Mr. Ajit" when we arrive.

We're back in room #402 for our final night in Hanoi and Vietnam. We pick up our laundry, check email, freshen up and head out. Our first stop - a fresh drink and dessert. Sugar cane juice followed by the banh troi that we had been eyeing a couple of nights ago. Since we don't know what to ask for, we mime and point to a bunch of things set out on her table. We end up with a plate of warm miniature banh troi with sprinkles of toasted black sesame seeds, a large bowl of hot sweet syrupy ginger broth with two rice dumplings filled with the same sweet paste floating in it and topped with shredded coconut, and finally, as if this were not enough, a bowl of sticky rice and sweetened mung beans with some of the same broth. Just delicious! We ask her how much all this costs, and she actually pulls out several notes adding up to 20k d, so we can figure it out. Cute. We then walk towards the lake hoping to go back to our favorite haunt but Highlands Coffee appears to be closed tonight. So, we settle into the cafe across on the other side of the busy intersection and people watch as we drink our beer and fresh coconut. For dinner, we make our way to Highway 4, a popular restaurant with a location in the eastern end of the Old Quarter. We are taken to a room upstairs, asked to take off our shoes and seated at a low communal table. There is one other couple at the table and we are soon joined by two guys. We get the green mango with chilli powder (yumm), bitter melon with dried pork (just ok), special fried catfish spring rolls (it is good, but the rice paper is too dry; we eat it all, but both groups next to us leave the wrappers), the spicy grilled squid (that is good but very spicy!), and a chicken grilled in lemon leaves (very good). Ajit has a beer while I try the apricot flavored rice wine, which is very strong. The meal costs us about $20 in all. As we get up to leave, Ajit notices that his flip flops are missing. He looks around, asks the staff but no one can find them. The staff looks perplexed while Ajit gets a little agitated and insists that he can't leave without them. This goes on for several minutes, at which point, one of the guys at our table asks Ajit if he was wearing flip flops. When Ajit says yes, he sheepishly pulls his feet out from under the table and proceeds to hand Ajit his flip flops. He thought that the flip flops were provided by the restaurant to customers to wear when taking off their shoes. It's hilarious and we laugh all the way back to the hotel.

Our flight to Hong Kong leaves at 10:50 am, so we have time to enjoy our last breakfast at the hotel and say our goodbyes to the wonderful staff who feel like old friends. The car arrives at 8 to take us to airport. It takes us an hour to get there and soon we are on our way to Hong Kong. We have thoroughly enjoyed our stay in northern Vietnam - the uniquely Vietnamese and chaotic capital, the manic traffic, the quiet picturesque rural areas, the colorful hill tribes, the friendly people and of course the taste bud tingling food.
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Old Jan 5th, 2012, 05:16 PM
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Glad you enjoyed your trip so much. Wasn't that chili mango fantastic! We found a street vendor selling some and I bought it on the way back to the hotel. I enjoyed it so much that the next day (our last day in Hanoi) I went back to search for it again, but could not find the vendor. When I returned to the hotel, I mentioned it to the staff and they actually went out looking for my mango. When they couldn't find the vendor, the hotel staff concocted a similar version with apples. (Not anywhere as tasty) The Elegance staff could not do enough for us. Nowhere in all my travels did I enjoy a hotel visit like I did the one there.

I'm looking forward to seeing your pictures. Not an easy task to cull through pictures upon your return from a trip. We returned in October from India with approx 6000 pictures from a 3 1/2 week trip and we are still attempting to sort through them!

Thank you so much for the effort you put into writing such a good trip report.
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Old Jan 5th, 2012, 07:20 PM
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I've really enjoyed your report. Thanks. We are planning our second trip to Vietnam.
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Old Jan 6th, 2012, 05:16 AM
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Sounds like you had a wonderful trip. You were very lucky to have had such great weather. We were in VN for 3 weeks in late Feb. early March and the weather in Halong Bay was misty and drizzly, but we still had a good time on the one night cruise. For us it was bt was better to have seen it in the mist, than to have skipped Halong Bay altogether. Do you have any desire to return to VN and see the rest of the country?
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