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Trip report Vietnam (northern half) - 2 weeks, so much variety

Trip report Vietnam (northern half) - 2 weeks, so much variety

Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 04:31 PM
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Trip report Vietnam (northern half) - 2 weeks, so much variety

This is a very long report - the running journal I kept during our trip. Please excuse the errors - it is pretty much the way I jotted it on the go.
Background: We were in Vietnam for 2 weeks at the end of October, early November. Our itinerary was Hanoi - Sapa - Halong Bay (Bai Tu Long), Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi.
We are 63 and 66 and traveled on our own with help from Tonkin Travel in Hanoi. This is our 20th overseas trip together in the last 20 years but first to SEA. Most of our travel has been in Italy and southern Europe plus one or two trips to Croatia, Turkey, and India, all independent. This is the first time we've worked with a travel agent and we loved it. Oh, I should add that P was in the southern part of Vietnam during the Vietnam War and this trip and connecting with the Vietnamese people meant a great deal to him.

Oct 26-27 Hanoi, Hotel Golden Sun Legend ($45)
Oct 29-30 Sapa, Boutique Hotel Sapa ($45)
Nov 2-3 Halong Bay (Bai Tu Long), Dragon’s Pearl 2
Nov 4 Hanoi Airport, Hotel Gai Vinh (?) ($30)
Nov 5 Hue, Hotel Orchid ($42)
Nov 6-8 Hoi An, Vinh Hung Resort ($72)
Nov 9 Hanoi, Hotel Goldn Sun Legend


October 26 Arrival in HANOI

Almost in Hanoi. It feels like an accomplishment although all we have been doing these past 18 hours is sitting in a plane – except for an hour and a half in Seoul airport. The flight from Seattle to Seoul was as nice as 12 hours could be – very comfortable plane with lots of legroom and an empty seat on one side and P across the aisle. The most notable thing is the beautiful, young, patient, kind, quietly friendly, and efficient flight attendants – and meticulously groomed. They move so elegantly and are so helpful and polite. It is really a striking contrast to Western service (which can also be fine – just different). The plane we are on now is very different – so cramped and uncomfortable, but still the service is excellent. I’ve been sleeping off and on but feel tired and disoriented. It is about 10 PM so we’ll be going to bed as soon as possible. We’ve had 3 complete dinners (not so good), a steamed bun snack, a banana, and juice every couple of hours. Door to door this will be about 24 hours – not bad.


Thursday, October 27 HANOI

We are very happily ensconced in a beautiful outdoor terrace at Madam Hien’s Restaurant on Chan Cam Street. We are trying to have an easy day of it as we are quite exhausted by our trip – especially me, since my back kept me awake (hard bed) in spite of the sleeping pill, so I’ve only had four hours of sleep. We were met at the airport by a driver from our hotel – Gold Sun Legend, very highly rated by TripAdvisor (#5/300) but we were taken to the Golden Sun Sunrise a few blocks away. It was midnight, we were exhausted, the hotel man was pleasant, but it was clear that we would have to stay there last night. Probably nothing really wrong with it except it was shoddy and just not really nice – not what we were expecting. For instance, the plastic bathtub just perched in the middle of the floor, not attached to the floor, water went all over of course, and there was an odd futon mattress blocking the balcony door. We didn’t get a good explanation (which of course had to be overbooking – and we were last to arrive). I was awake at 5:30 and the banging and jack hammering on the floor above us started at 7:00! Breakfast was hearty and good – served on the 9th floor overlooking Hoan Kien Lake – boiled eggs, baguette for me: Vietnamese fried rice and meat for P. We were intercepted after breakfast by a Mrs. Moon who said that we now had a room at the Legend, upgraded, free late checkout tomorrow, and they would accompany us there in a taxi. GS Legend is so nice – very well kept, upscale – our room is completely in a different class than the Sunrise – lovely bathroom, such nice people, everything it was cracked up to be.

Got settled, then took cab ride to Tonkin Travel and met Huong who arranged a lot of the trip. She was very friendly and nice and gave us a little gift of bamboo placemats. Saw quite a bit of the city – up to West Lake area.

Mme. Hiens perfect lunch, walk around the hotel area to the Cathedral and over to H.K. Lake. Too much to see – can’t write it all. Total life out on the street, very intense, traffic very challenging.

Mme Hiens – total $25
Me: Pho (beef); rice pancake with pork, lemon grass tea, tamarind sorbet
P: Mixed dim sum, fish on greens with fried banana leaf, pancakes with orange liqueur and chocolate; beer, jasmine tea.
All beautifully presented on lovely pottery.

Room is so comfortable – slept 1-1/2 hours and felt so much better. Walked over to lake and down back streets and found a sort of Vietnamese trattoria which was just what we wanted – fresh beer and spring rolls and a salad – big plates - $12 total.

Walked along HK Lake which is very popular in the evening and lovely. Surrounded by lights changing colors and reflecting on trees and water (and lovers on benches). Loud romantic music. Just very hard to cross the road because there are no lights and constant heavy traffic (mostly motor cycles) and it can take me a long time to find a gap and nerve.


Friday, October 29 HANOI

Slept 9-1/2 hours last night and feel like a new person. Fabulous breakfast in 9th floor dining room with wide view over the city. Cooked breakfast to order plus all the usuals plus fresh croissants and fresh squeezed juice and fabulous coffee. Banana pancakes for me – so light and rich. Fried rice for P – not the best choice.

Met our guide Phuong and driver Mr. Binh at 10:00 and had an excellent informative day and saw such really interesting places I knew nothing about – Quan Thanh Temple, Temple of Literature, Museum of Ethnology with fascinating structures from many of the country’s ethnic groups – many very old. Incredible workmanship.

We had a set lunch arranged at No Do which was very good: spring rolls, fried wonton, fish-raw veg salad with coconut poppy seed dressing, white rice, sautéed veg and herbs, sautéed chicken with different veg, fresh fruit salad, beer, hot lemon grass ginger tea.

Driving all over town was like being in a video game and endlessly interesting. People are going in all directions on their motorbikes/cycles and the roads are jammed. We saw many young women on large motor cycles with helmets and masks on faces, hair flying. We were on a one way road at one point and a woman with a child on the back of her motorcycle was going the other way right down the middle of the crowded street. (I’m not writing about the sights because we have lots of pictures and I don’t have enough time). It is really a treat to have a guide but also tiring because I have to focus hard to understand him because of his accent. He is very well informed though and speaks English well
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 04:33 PM
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Sunday, October 31 SAPA

Well, I missed a day of writing and we have had such adventures it will be impossible to catch up. So I will be brief – but we have lots of pictures.

Friday evening Phuong picked us up and took us to the Water Puppet Theater for a wonderful show – folk art at its best really, with traditional music by a group sitting next to the stage and 17 water scenes with elaborate puppets and amazing animation.

A quick bowl of pho in a grungy “joint” across from the train station, then onto the train and our small 4 berth (ie shelf) compartment which we shared with a young Singaporan couple. Toilet at end of car and sink in hallway. They were early sleepers too and we all went to bed about 9:00 after the train left for Lao Cai in the mountains on the Chinese border. Very rough, jolting ride but I slept about 5 hours with my sleeping pill and dozed a little more. Awakened by conductor at 4:30 but the train didn’t get in until 5:30. We were met by our guide “Tiger” and masterful driver Mr. Diu. We had a lackluster breakfast at a nearby hotel (where I thought I was putting apricot jam on my baguette but it was hot sauce!). Delicious coffee, thank heavens.

Then we set out for one of the most adventurous days ever. Very lush, beautiful scenery kept us mesmerized – first through mostly level agricultural area and small villages with fascinating glimpses of street life. Then on a curving mountain road that rivals the Great Dolomite Road in carsick terms. Steep climb, constant sharp curves and fabulous mountain scenery. Maybe an hour to Bac Ha where the really adventurous driving began. 20 km further to Can Cau which took at least an hour – horrible road – mostly unpaved with landslides being cleared, big stretches of wet red clay with deep tracks. One lane, straight drop offs of a least 1000 feet or more, some with incredibly terraced slopes. Unimaginable how those tiny terraces get farmed. Passing the occasional vehicle going the other direction on this tiny road with drop offs. Bone jarring ride like jumping beans and around and round. Craziest ride of my life and I appreciate Mr. Diu’s skill so much! And little children out in the road – small boy (maybe 6?) herding water buffalo; 2 and 3 year olds walking hand in hand alone…. Finally got to Can Cau market where the Flower Hmong gather every week. Very , very colorful and intense and interesting and few Westerners. Many stalls with their elaborate, colorful, embroidered clothes and silver jewelry, plus livestock and food and eating stalls. We stopped and got sticky rice fritters which were delicious. Also bought a small embroidered bag, a silver neck ring, and earrings – after feeble bargaining. Unforgettable to be immersed in such a place! I’m not writing much because our pictures will tell the story of this amazing place.

Then another hair raising hour back to Bac Ha with the most splendid verdant mountain scenery and vistas imaginable and large green views of steep valleys and mountains.

Quite a generous lunch at a Bac Ha hotel: chicken-veg soup, fried spring rolls, rice, chicken curry, grilled meat and veg kabobs, cooked salad, bananas. My stomach was a little unsettled from the violent road trip (only way to describe it) but I was able to eat a bit. Then back in the jeep, more serious mountain driving for about ½ hour, then boat ride for ¾ hour down the “Flowing River” in a long (30’) very narrow, shallow boat a la African Queen. Beautiful and very peaceful through amazing green tropical vegetation with high green mountains all around. Walked short distance to a very small (40 family) Tay (ethnic minority) village and walked all through the village on dirt paths to see village life and the stilt homes. People harvesting and threshing the rice and spreading it out to dry on large mats. Whole families working so hard. We’ve seen worlds today that are so different from ours and I am so struck by how hard people have to work physically to make a living. The children appear to be on their own helping with family work from maybe 3 or 4, squatting right next to the road or walking down it alone. The parents are working too hard to be hovering like we do in the US. Striking contrast.

Back on the boat for peaceful cruise, then about 1-1/2 hours more of jolting, swaying mountain driving on steep curving roads with long, long vistas down terraced mountainsides to further mountains. Brief stop in Lao Cai to see Chinese border station. Tiny woman and young man hauling large, obviously very heavy sacks up a steep staircase from the river and onto a motorcycle.

I was seriously fighting car sickness by the time we arrived in Sapa and we were both so exhausted we could only croak instead of talk. We were somewhat disappointed at first by our room at the Sapa Boutique Hotel and had a bad evening and were too tired to eat dinner. Room has a little terrace and amazing view, though. But it was quite dark and freezing cold (no heat source! And it is cold – maybe 40 degrees); bathroom with shower head in the wall in the middle of the room with no curtain so floods the entire room. They said we could get a heater for $8/day (never charged) but didn’t bring it and kept saying they would – and then it was half broken. The room didn’t warm up until the middle of the night. We got around with our headlamps in the cold. Cookies and bananas for dinner. P asleep at 7:00. Bed so hard my back kept me awake in the night so hard to get the rest I need.

Today, Sunday, everything is better in the morning and we are rested, especially after a very good breakfast – omelettes cooked to order, bacon, baguettes, cake and honey, fruit (passion fruit) and good coffee- with full view down the valley.

Very intense morning walk around the Sapa market with hordes of visiting Black Hmong and Red Dao minorities and very few Westerners. Very, very colorful and interesting. The women are very friendly and insistent sales people. There are the stalls and the covered market but also the women with baskets on their back selling from the street – “You buy from me!” “Where you from?” “What your name?”. It all seemed good natured and we accepted that there would always be someone accompanying us and persistently wanting us to buy. We were happy to spend such little money on the local crafts – probably terrible bargainers, but really we didn’t much care. We want to leave money behind. And then I always asked for a picture and got some great ones. And we had lots of friendly conversations and laughs. One tiny old woman (60 years old, half my size, no front teeth) followed us for blocks after we bought a small thing. My purchases: small indigo purse; indigo embroidered and tasseled child’s hat (folk art really), 4 “silver” bracelets; “silver” hoop earrings; 2 little stuffed ornaments bought from small children, one folk art instrument – and one little “telephone” bag given as a “gift” from a stallholder. P: book of 10 postcards, Chinese hat, small bottles of Sapa and Bac Ha moonshine.

Stopped for a Vietnamese coffee – very slow drip from a metal pot over glass cup with small amount of condensed milk – 15 minutes at least. Like sweet rich coffee syrup and very delicious.

We are back in the room and sitting on our balcony with the splendid view of rice terraces dropping hundreds of feet and humpy green mountains receding into the haze.

Now we are having lunch at the Bellavista Restaurant (part of hotel) and sitting in the window with the same view. Soup and baguette sandwich and ginger tea and beer.

4:00 Sitting in front of hotel while room being made up. P is taking a little walk. We went back to the market and I bought 3 bags and another “folk” hat from a seller I saw this morning - $5. Walked around a residential area, and then back on our street we got unpleasantly mobbed by a big group of Black Hmong women. I had talked to one this morning and said “Maybe later”. She walks here 2-3 times a week from her village 2 hours away, has 4 children, works on family rice land, and embroiders at night. So I bought a little bag; then took pity on an old woman with baby on back and indigo hands and bought something else; then saw a nice embroidered cumberbund. By this time a screaming crowd had gathered and P was mobbed and paid too much for a headband. So we ran for the hotel close by and hid out for awhile.


Monday, Nov. 1 SAPA

The hotel gave me an extra duvet which I doubled up and put on the mattress and it made so much difference to my back. Could take a rest in the afternoon yesterday and was comfortable all night.

We had a good dinner last night in the hotel’s Bella Vista Restaurant which looks very elegant and welcoming but is not expensive at all by our standards.

-Apple wine (a local specialty made with perfect apples from a specific small area and fermented/distilled (?) for 2 years) – lovely
-Vegetable curry for me
- Duck stir fry and veg stir fry for P

Wonderful mountain air with wood smoke smell and crisp and cool air.

Today, another excellent buffet breakfast in the restaurant Bella Vista with truly a fabulous vista (same as our room) way down the terraced mountainside.
-fresh squeezed orange juice you could chew
-boiled egg, crepes, fab. coffee for me
-omelet, crepes, fruit, bacon, juice, coffee, etc. for P

Tiger and Mr. Diu met us at 10 for the very short drive to Cat Cat Village – beautiful clear day and just amazing, gorgeous views at all times. Walked through the village – slowly, about an hour and a half. The village of about 40 families runs down the side of a steep hillside with a very steep path and dozens of steps. We were able to go into the houses and also see the traditional ways of life – harvesting, washing rice in a sort of water lever, growing indigo (use for clothes), weaving hemp, dying with indigo. Little stalls periodically but no hard sell. Bought another bracelet and earrings to support the economy. Walked down many stone steps to a river rushing under a simple suspension bridge. Waterfall of about 200 feet dropping into the river. Lush vegetation, multitude of greens. On the other side of the bridge was a refreshment stall where we ordered the local apple wine – not the fine wine of last night, but more of a very sweet, slightly alcoholic apple syrup which I really didn’t need. More gradual climb up on the other side of the river to the road where we met Mr. Diu and the car. It was a fabulous excursion but my knee took quite a beating.

Back to Sapa and an upscale restaurant and the set menu that was arranged for us – not something we would have chosen to do right then. Soup, spring rolls, chicken/pork, cabbage, rice, sweet roll – not particularly good. Back to hotel for a short time then drove a few miles to the village of Loa Chai where P and Tiger got out to hike to Tai Van where I would meet them. P was mobbed by a frenzy of tiny Hmong women – which I got a picture of.

Amazingly beautiful road with views hundreds of feet down and far into the distance. Vistas full of steep terraced slopes and high green mountains. Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam at 10,300 ft. It oddly feels a little South Tyrolean alpine with the deep drops down the valley and the surrounding mountains. The road was very narrow and in bad condition and a no barrier drop of at least a thousand feet.

I knew I wouldn’t be lonely in Tai Van, a small village in the valley. I’m glad I had a lot of practice with the Hmong yesterday so knew what to expect. I was quickly “picked up” by a very sweet 19 year old girl, Ku, who asked if I wanted to buy something. “Not now”; she and several friends walked along with me chatting about children, age, etc. She has an 8 month old baby. I stopped and sat on a wall for a while. More women gathered. I showed them my little photo album of extended family. Then I asked Ku what she was selling (not much), but bought yet another “silver” bracelet and some postcards from a friend, so felt I had made at least a minimum contribution for an excellent experience. Ku and I walked on and I found out about marriage and family customs and her tiny village on the mountainside and the history surrounding her new gold tooth. At the far end of the village we med P and Tiger coming down the trail. My camera had run out of charge which was terrible shame (!) but at least P got a picture with me and Ku.

Beautiful cliff hanging ride on narrow road back to Sapa, tea at hotel, then one hour car ride to Lao Cai for the train.

We loved Sapa and the whole experience and it worked so well for us to have a car and driver – but sometimes I felt like such a huge, lazy, spoiled baby being carted around in comfort through such a hard working, hard living culture – where people haul huge loads on bicycles because that is all they have. The scenery around Sapa and Bac Ha-Can Cau must be among the most beautiful we have ever seen. These 3 days will be in my dreams.


Sunday, October 31 SAPA

Well, I missed a day of writing and we have had such adventures it will be impossible to catch up. So I will be brief – but we have lots of pictures.

Friday evening Phuong picked us up and took us to the Water Puppet Theater for a wonderful show – folk art at its best really, with traditional music by a group sitting next to the stage and 17 water scenes with elaborate puppets and amazing animation.

A quick bowl of pho in a grungy “joint” across from the train station, then onto the train and our small 4 berth (ie shelf) compartment which we shared with a young Singaporan couple. Toilet at end of car and sink in hallway. They were early sleepers too and we all went to bed about 9:00 after the train left for Lao Cai in the mountains on the Chinese border. Very rough, jolting ride but I slept about 5 hours with my sleeping pill and dozed a little more. Awakened by conductor at 4:30 but the train didn’t get in until 5:30. We were met by our guide “Tiger” and masterful driver Mr. Diu. We had a lackluster breakfast at a nearby hotel (where I thought I was putting apricot jam on my baguette but it was hot sauce!). Delicious coffee, thank heavens.

Then we set out for one of the most adventurous days ever. Very lush, beautiful scenery kept us mesmerized – first through mostly level agricultural area and small villages with fascinating glimpses of street life. Then on a curving mountain road that rivals the Great Dolomite Road in carsick terms. Steep climb, constant sharp curves and fabulous mountain scenery. Maybe an hour to Bac Ha where the really adventurous driving began. 20 km further to Can Cau which took at least an hour – horrible road – mostly unpaved with landslides being cleared, big stretches of wet red clay with deep tracks. One lane, straight drop offs of a least 1000 feet or more, some with incredibly terraced slopes. Unimaginable how those tiny terraces get farmed. Passing the occasional vehicle going the other direction on this tiny road with drop offs. Bone jarring ride like jumping beans and around and round. Craziest ride of my life and I appreciate Mr. Diu’s skill so much! And little children out in the road – small boy (maybe 6?) herding water buffalo; 2 and 3 year olds walking hand in hand alone…. Finally got to Can Cau market where the Flower Hmong gather every week. Very , very colorful and intense and interesting and few Westerners. Many stalls with their elaborate, colorful, embroidered clothes and silver jewelry, plus livestock and food and eating stalls. We stopped and got sticky rice fritters which were delicious. Also bought a small embroidered bag, a silver neck ring, and earrings – after feeble bargaining. Unforgettable to be immersed in such a place! I’m not writing much because our pictures will tell the story of this amazing place.

Then another hair raising hour back to Bac Ha with the most splendid verdant mountain scenery and vistas imaginable and large green views of steep valleys and mountains.

Quite a generous lunch at a Bac Ha hotel: chicken-veg soup, fried spring rolls, rice, chicken curry, grilled meat and veg kabobs, cooked salad, bananas. My stomach was a little unsettled from the violent road trip (only way to describe it) but I was able to eat a bit. Then back in the jeep, more serious mountain driving for about ½ hour, then boat ride for ¾ hour down the “Flowing River” in a long (30’) very narrow, shallow boat a la African Queen. Beautiful and very peaceful through amazing green tropical vegetation with high green mountains all around. Walked short distance to a very small (40 family) Tay (ethnic minority) village and walked all through the village on dirt paths to see village life and the stilt homes. People harvesting and threshing the rice and spreading it out to dry on large mats. Whole families working so hard. We’ve seen worlds today that are so different from ours and I am so struck by how hard people have to work physically to make a living. The children appear to be on their own helping with family work from maybe 3 or 4, squatting right next to the road or walking down it alone. The parents are working too hard to be hovering like we do in the US. Striking contrast.

Back on the boat for peaceful cruise, then about 1-1/2 hours more of jolting, swaying mountain driving on steep curving roads with long, long vistas down terraced mountainsides to further mountains. Brief stop in Lao Cai to see Chinese border station. Tiny woman and young man hauling large, obviously very heavy sacks up a steep staircase from the river and onto a motorcycle.

I was seriously fighting car sickness by the time we arrived in Sapa and we were both so exhausted we could only croak instead of talk. We were somewhat disappointed at first by our room at the Sapa Boutique Hotel and had a bad evening and were too tired to eat dinner. Room has a little terrace and amazing view, though. But it was quite dark and freezing cold (no heat source! And it is cold – maybe 40 degrees); bathroom with shower head in the wall in the middle of the room with no curtain so floods the entire room. They said we could get a heater for $8/day (never charged) but didn’t bring it and kept saying they would – and then it was half broken. The room didn’t warm up until the middle of the night. We got around with our headlamps in the cold. Cookies and bananas for dinner. P asleep at 7:00. Bed so hard my back kept me awake in the night so hard to get the rest I need.

Today, Sunday, everything is better in the morning and we are rested, especially after a very good breakfast – omelettes cooked to order, bacon, baguettes, cake and honey, fruit (passion fruit) and good coffee- with full view down the valley.

Very intense morning walk around the Sapa market with hordes of visiting Black Hmong and Red Dao minorities and very few Westerners. Very, very colorful and interesting. The women are very friendly and insistent sales people. There are the stalls and the covered market but also the women with baskets on their back selling from the street – “You buy from me!” “Where you from?” “What your name?”. It all seemed good natured and we accepted that there would always be someone accompanying us and persistently wanting us to buy. We were happy to spend such little money on the local crafts – probably terrible bargainers, but really we didn’t much care. We want to leave money behind. And then I always asked for a picture and got some great ones. And we had lots of friendly conversations and laughs. One tiny old woman (60 years old, half my size, no front teeth) followed us for blocks after we bought a small thing. My purchases: small indigo purse; indigo embroidered and tasseled child’s hat (folk art really), 4 “silver” bracelets; “silver” hoop earrings; 2 little stuffed ornaments bought from small children, one folk art instrument – and one little “telephone” bag given as a “gift” from a stallholder. P: book of 10 postcards, Chinese hat, small bottles of Sapa and Bac Ha moonshine.

Stopped for a Vietnamese coffee – very slow drip from a metal pot over glass cup with small amount of condensed milk – 15 minutes at least. Like sweet rich coffee syrup and very delicious.

We are back in the room and sitting on our balcony with the splendid view of rice terraces dropping hundreds of feet and humpy green mountains receding into the haze.

Now we are having lunch at the Bellavista Restaurant (part of hotel) and sitting in the window with the same view. Soup and baguette sandwich and ginger tea and beer.

4:00 Sitting in front of hotel while room being made up. P is taking a little walk. We went back to the market and I bought 3 bags and another “folk” hat from a seller I saw this morning - $5. Walked around a residential area, and then back on our street we got unpleasantly mobbed by a big group of Black Hmong women. I had talked to one this morning and said “Maybe later”. She walks here 2-3 times a week from her village 2 hours away, has 4 children, works on family rice land, and embroiders at night. So I bought a little bag; then took pity on an old woman with baby on back and indigo hands and bought something else; then saw a nice embroidered cumberbund. By this time a screaming crowd had gathered and P was mobbed and paid too much for a headband. So we ran for the hotel close by and hid out for awhile.


Monday, Nov. 1 SAPA

The hotel gave me an extra duvet which I doubled up and put on the mattress and it made so much difference to my back. Could take a rest in the afternoon yesterday and was comfortable all night.

We had a good dinner last night in the hotel’s Bella Vista Restaurant which looks very elegant and welcoming but is not expensive at all by our standards.

-Apple wine (a local specialty made with perfect apples from a specific small area and fermented/distilled (?) for 2 years) – lovely
-Vegetable curry for me
- Duck stir fry and veg stir fry for P

Wonderful mountain air with wood smoke smell and crisp and cool air.

Today, another excellent buffet breakfast in the restaurant Bella Vista with truly a fabulous vista (same as our room) way down the terraced mountainside.
-fresh squeezed orange juice you could chew
-boiled egg, crepes, fab. coffee for me
-omelet, crepes, fruit, bacon, juice, coffee, etc. for P

Tiger and Mr. Diu met us at 10 for the very short drive to Cat Cat Village – beautiful clear day and just amazing, gorgeous views at all times. Walked through the village – slowly, about an hour and a half. The village of about 40 families runs down the side of a steep hillside with a very steep path and dozens of steps. We were able to go into the houses and also see the traditional ways of life – harvesting, washing rice in a sort of water lever, growing indigo (use for clothes), weaving hemp, dying with indigo. Little stalls periodically but no hard sell. Bought another bracelet and earrings to support the economy. Walked down many stone steps to a river rushing under a simple suspension bridge. Waterfall of about 200 feet dropping into the river. Lush vegetation, multitude of greens. On the other side of the bridge was a refreshment stall where we ordered the local apple wine – not the fine wine of last night, but more of a very sweet, slightly alcoholic apple syrup which I really didn’t need. More gradual climb up on the other side of the river to the road where we met Mr. Diu and the car. It was a fabulous excursion but my knee took quite a beating.

Back to Sapa and an upscale restaurant and the set menu that was arranged for us – not something we would have chosen to do right then. Soup, spring rolls, chicken/pork, cabbage, rice, sweet roll – not particularly good. Back to hotel for a short time then drove a few miles to the village of Loa Chai where P and Tiger got out to hike to Tai Van where I would meet them. P was mobbed by a frenzy of tiny Hmong women – which I got a picture of.

Amazingly beautiful road with views hundreds of feet down and far into the distance. Vistas full of steep terraced slopes and high green mountains. Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam at 10,300 ft. It oddly feels a little South Tyrolean alpine with the deep drops down the valley and the surrounding mountains. The road was very narrow and in bad condition and a no barrier drop of at least a thousand feet.

I knew I wouldn’t be lonely in Tai Van, a small village in the valley. I’m glad I had a lot of practice with the Hmong yesterday so knew what to expect. I was quickly “picked up” by a very sweet 19 year old girl, Ku, who asked if I wanted to buy something. “Not now”; she and several friends walked along with me chatting about children, age, etc. She has an 8 month old baby. I stopped and sat on a wall for a while. More women gathered. I showed them my little photo album of extended family. Then I asked Ku what she was selling (not much), but bought yet another “silver” bracelet and some postcards from a friend, so felt I had made at least a minimum contribution for an excellent experience. Ku and I walked on and I found out about marriage and family customs and her tiny village on the mountainside and the history surrounding her new gold tooth. At the far end of the village we med P and Tiger coming down the trail. My camera had run out of charge which was terrible shame (!) but at least P got a picture with me and Ku.

Beautiful cliff hanging ride on narrow road back to Sapa, tea at hotel, then one hour car ride to Lao Cai for the train.

We loved Sapa and the whole experience and it worked so well for us to have a car and driver – but sometimes I felt like such a huge, lazy, spoiled baby being carted around in comfort through such a hard working, hard living culture – where people haul huge loads on bicycles because that is all they have. The scenery around Sapa and Bac Ha-Can Cau must be among the most beautiful we have ever seen. These 3 days will be in my dreams.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 04:35 PM
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Night train to HANOI Nov. 1

Our berthmates in the tiny compartment were a middleaged Italian couple. The woman spoke excellent English and we had an enjoyable travel chat for awhile across the lower berths. Took a sleeping pill and slept most of the night until awakened by the conductor at 4:00. BUT P later told me I snored like a bear for hours – way above the noise of the train and you could hear me way down the corridor! As far as I know, I don’t snore – so strange. And embarrassingly I had just told the Italian woman a “funny” story about being in a 6 person couchette with 5 snoring men!


Tuesday Nov. 2 HANOI to HALONG BAY

A bit of a madhouse at the Hanoi train station trying to sort out a taxi. Warnings online from other travelers and very firmly from our hotel about unscrupulous taxi drivers who can rob you, ransom your luggage, take you someplace else, etc…. We were only to take a green and white Mai Linh (?) taxi with meter from the station. Not so easy. A fake Mai Linh taxi driver grabbed my bag and raced down the platform to fake Mai Linh taxi. We grabbed the suitcase and ran back. Asking for a meter was fruitless so we agreed to 100,000 dong ($5) – about 5 times too much really. Then driving through dark, empty, shuttered streets with no way of getting our bearing. Driver seemed uncertain. Trip seemed to take too long, but we did end up on our pitch dark street, could barely see hotel front. Peering around for a doorbell with flashlight. Shutters opened – hotel men who were sleeping on mats in the lobby had heard us talking. They gave us a room to clean up in (for free), then a fabulous breakfast (also free) of fresh orange juice, eggs, banana pancakes and coffee. Can’t say enough for the Golden Sun Legend.

Oh my gosh, we have gone to Heaven! Right now we are on the Dragon Pearl 2 of Indochina Junks, launched just 2 months ago, in the middle of Halong Bay headed to Bai Tu Long. Humpy basalt islands covered with green ferny vegetation rising from a placid green bay. It is truly an indescribable, ethereal landscape for which pictures do not do justice. Nothing prepared me for this. On top of that, the boat is gorgeous too. There are 16 of us aboard, 10 cabins, an elegant dining room surrounded by picture windows; an outdoor dining area, a sun deck with a couple of levels on top with padded adjustable lounge beds for all; our beautiful stateroom has crisp, white embroidered linens, polished wood, two huge picture windows (than open!), enough lights, 2 silk Chinese robes in the closet, a large bathroom with glass enclosed big shower and pebbled glass porthole that swings open for views while showering or on the throne! And on top of all this there is a master chef. We arrived from Hanoi about 1:00 and sat down in the dining room around 2:00 for a 10 course lunch. Each course was small and perfect (and no I can’t name all 10).
- chicken mushroom soup
- salad of mixed raw veg with rice wine dressing and chopped nuts
- fried shrimp with shells you could eat
- steamed rice
- chopped oysters in a hot sauce
- steamed fish
- steamed bright green bok choy
- sliced papaya with lime (incredible), watermelon, dragon fruit

Most of the other passengers are 30 – 40ish and from various English speaking countries from around the world – 2 other Americans and Europeans.

There is quite an active “schedule” – most of which is physically too much for me, but I am so happy sitting here on the top of the boat by myself in this unbelievable grandeur. Like the Sapa mountains, this brings tears to my eyes.

P and others are off right now kayaking to a cave. He is with the guide who said P could take all the pictures he wants and not to worry about paddling. I’m really happy for him.

Our 3 day/2 night cruise will take us through Ha Long Bay to a much quieter area that only smaller boats (and only from the Indochina Junks) can go to. We will rarely see more than another boat or two. Now I can see 2 small Chinese junks, a fishing boat, and a floating fishing village.

Campari soda before dinner served on the deck with while linens – 10 delicious courses!
- raw veg salad with dressing
- crayfish
- spring rolls with dipping sauce
- whole steamed crab
- marinated roasted chicken piece
- mackerel with orange sauce
- rice
- steamed green squash serrated slices
- delicious strange fresh fruit slices.
We ate with 3 young couples – Scottish, English, and Australian – educated, lively, interesting and good senses of humor.

Lay on deck in lounge chairs and looked at the brilliant stars.


Wednesday, Nov. 3 HALONG BAY

7:30 I am on the deck in a lounge chair drinking early coffee. So amazingly other worldly. Kites (birds) soaring and diving. And there are 4 readers on the deck!

Breakfast at 8:30 on the outside dining deck – chicken pho, bright orange poached egg, toast, coffee.

Later – a once in a lifetime excursion! We cruised down Bai Tu Long Bay to the Cong Dam floating fishing village, transferring to the launch to get to the village itself. It is the smallest of Ha Long Bay’s floating villages with 40 families in very colorful little houses. There is a school/community open sided building where we sat for a welcome ceremony of short speech by the mayor and little cups of delicious green tea, then walked on narrow plank path to visit a small home and to see the communal fish farm. Then into the basket boats – 2 people in each with the rower at the back of the boat gondola style. Boats are woven and covered with a tarry substance. All of us are wearing woven conical hats. I thought we’d have a little row around the village but it was so much more! We were out well over an hour and went into two amazing tropical grottos – water and straight sides up hundreds of feet covered with various delicate green vegetation. Incredibly peaceful and beautiful. Lots of pictures.

Lunch back on the ship with white linens and wonderful service. They put the napkins in your lap..
- orange squash soup **
- cucumber tomato salad
- crayfish
- marinated cube steaks
- sautéed fish in sauce
- rice
- stuffed squid
- meaty pork ribs
- sautéed greens
- fresh melon pieces

Afternoon kayaking for P and others while the launch took me to the little white sand beach on Tay (?) Island. This island is leased to the Indochina Junk Co. and they have upgraded the beach and made the fabulous huge cave accessible by 90 steep uneven rock stairs climbing the sheer side of the karst island. Kayakers arrived for swimming and soccer on the beach, then back to Dragon’s Pearl for a rest.

Gathered at 7:00 to go in the launch back to the island and climb up to the cave. Path and stairs lined with small candles. Then up and down the path through to the cave to a huge room with swirly stalagtites and stalagmites, all lit by little candles and also some electric lights (generator).

Fabulous banquet in cave along with presentation of elaborately carved sculpture from food: small fish from squash, peacock from watermelon, eagle from pumpkin, Dragon’s Pearl from pumpkin, squash, and carrots - all lit from within by candles.
- jicama salad
- grilled crayfish
- pork ribs
- skewered fish
- grilled chicken
- squid
- sweet potato
- fried rice
- fruit plate
- birthday cake

Speeches, songs from staff and guests, lots of good cheer. We are with a very fun group. The stairs were a huge challenge for me even with a cane because so steep and uneven and shadows from the little lights, but I am so glad I could actually do it!


Thursday, Nov. 4 HA LONG to HUE ( well, not quite there)


Another gorgeous day waking up among these astounding rocky islands. Breakfast on the deck at 8:00 – eggs, sausage, toast and coffee, eating with a couple we have enjoyed eating with before. Beautiful cruise out of Bai Tu Long to the much more crowded and less remote Ha Long Bay while eating a good “one plate” lunch. All in all an incredible luxurious trip, top quality, comfort, food and service and incomparable surroundings.

Bouncing, cramped four hour drive in van back to the hideous traffic of Hanoi along nondescript highway through industrial/agricultural area – not too much to see of interest. Late arrival but in time for our airport pickup. Another hour in a comfortable car through masses of rush hour traffic with death defying displays on motorcycles and on foot.

Arrived at the airport to huge line and confusion at the Hue check in window. Terrible weather in Hue. After about an hour the flight was cancelled and we were handed a sheet of paper with instructions to apply at the office in Hanoi the next day in person or by phone to rebook! I went downstairs to the Tourism Office which I had seen on an earlier foray and found an absolute angel of a young woman. She couldn’t believe the unhelpful information she we had been given. She took charge, found us a flight at 6:55 AM tomorrow (which I had to battle for in a huge mass of disgruntled travelers), called Huong at Tonkin to change our Hue arrangements, booked us a hotel near the airport. In an hour we were sorted and on our way to the “airport hotel”.

The “airport hotel” didn’t look bad on the outside really until we got to the room – although the carpeted stairs were filthy and frayed. Room smelt like chemicals and was clearly not clean, the sheets and duvet were used, the bed like sheetrock, odd wood paneled walls, and a window with no glass – only shutters. Well we were exhausted and hungry so went for a bite at the restaurant “in the back”. It was a little open shed on a deck which we were soon to discover was located over a pond/lake? (couldn’t see in the dark) and the mosquitos descended (or rather ascended). I found a Deet wipe for exposed areas but we probably still got bitten before we could scarf down our soup and beer (not bad and less than $5 dinner). Back to the room and reluctantly ready for bed when I spotted a HUGE flying insect that looked like a 2” wasp with long descending stinger….and then another one. P captured one in a filthy glass covered with book and I took it to the man and girl at reception. I made gestures about “biting” and they nodded. Then killed the bug and handed me the disgusting glass. I gestured that there were more. Very frustrating time trying to get them to understand we needed a new room. The girl telephoned an English speaking friend, I explained, friend talked to girl, girl smiled sweetly and blankly. This went on for awhile. P came down and went through the whole routine again. Nothing. I admitted defeat after a while and said I’d sleep with a towel on my head. We walked away but P fed up – back to desk, holding our ground and eventually we got another room offer. I think the problem may have been that we were in the “best” category room and there wasn’t another, so they said nothing. We must have said at some point we would take ANY other room. The new room was smaller, also dirty with used sheets, but this one smelled of old pee instead of chemicals. Exhausted, took pill and slept 6 hours.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 04:38 PM
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I realize I forgot to mention I have a bum knee so I can't be on my feet as much as I would like. I just have to get enough nerve for the knee replacement I need. But it does affect the way we travel.

To continue with the report:
Friday, Nov. 5 HANOI to HUE

A new day! Out of that awful room at 5:45, short smooth flight to Hue and we were eating an excellent breakfast in our hotel at 8:45. The Orchid Hotel is fabulous! We were upgraded to a huge family room – beautifully furnished, spotlessly clean , our own computer, wide flat screen for DVDs, seating area by the glass bay window leading to our own balcony overlooking the city. Rose petals on bed! Great service, cheerful people.

It is pouring rain, but we had a wonderful wander around the Forbidden City of the Citadel and it was so gorgeous in the rain – somehow the colors were so intense and it was so atmospheric. Visitors (like me) dressed in hooded ponchos looked like colorful monks. P took lots of pictures as usual. I am constantly humbled by how little I know about the history and rich culture of this area.

Then Sir and Madame had a cyclo ride across town to the big market, Sir in first then Madame in his lap with poncho flying.

Late lunch of a couple of Hue specialties in a café near the hotel – Bahn Koiah ( delicious), the other weird. Now holing up and using the computer and reading and looking out at the city in the rain. A complimentary snack of fruit and cookies appears in the late afternoon.

Dinner at La Carambole just around the corner – very lively, cosy French-Vietnamese bistro sort of place. Started with glasses of JW Red Label which really hit the spot on this wet cool evening. Our “outside” clothes are still wet but we have to wear them anyway.

2x glasses Scotch
2 x glasses house French wine
2 x 10 course smallish dishes of local specialties
Total - $25

A note on the bed wishing us “cloudless dreams” as well as chocolate and special embroidered pillowslips! How things change!



Saturday, Nov. 6 HUE to HOI AN

Another really wonderful breakfast at the Orchid Hotel – eggs to order, many cut up fresh fruits, whole passion fruit to eat with spoon, various pastries including delicious small cream puffs, baguettes, Vietnamese coffee… This hotel is unbelievable for $42 a night. So many special touches like the snack yesterday afternoon, the special night pillow cases, and this morning a package of 2 waters and wipes for our drive.

Still pouring. Driver Binh picked us up at 9:00 for the drive to Hoi An. Unfortunately the weather is so bad that we didn’t go over the much anticipated Hai Van Pass. We stopped at the Cham Museum in Danang to see the wonderful Cham era (1100-1400 AD?) sandstone sculpture from temples. Really beautiful pieces and we were happily surprised to find such a treasure. Brief stop at Marble Mountain shop – beautifully carved items but not our kind of thing really.

We arrived at beautiful VinhHung Resort in Hoi An around 1:00 and spent some time admiring our huge room and very attractive surroundings. Unfortunately there is such heavy rain that we will have to be content on the balcony looking over the pool and gardens. Out in my poncho to the old town (5 minutes walk through neighborhood on island). We think it is really lovely and so attractive even in the down pour. We are eating a late lunch at the Cargo Club on a 2nd floor balcony overlooking the river and looking at the tiled roofed houses on the other side. I had chicken corn soup again because my stomach is a bit off. P had a seafood soup with rice noodles that is delicious.

Walked around the pedestrian streets of the old city in a deluge, soaked except for the poncho but everything wet because of 95% humidity. In and out of a few shops, leaving poncho on hook, but still dripping – so really hard to be very enthusiastic although some lovely things. Back to the hotel in the late afternoon by cyclo (2 of them this time), dried off, rested, but did not feel like walking to town again in the downpour. We ate in the hotel riverside restaurant – local specialties but not particularly well prepared. Crème caramel came with diced watermelon which wrecked the sauce. P couldn’t eat his heavy banana pancake with chocolate sauce.


Sunday, Nov. 7 HOI AN

Very heavy rain pounding in the night but only a light drizzle this morning and a couple of short deluges, then clearing! Amazing breakfast spread – many Asian dishes plus the usual Western, plus egg/omelet station, plus a couple dozen pastries, plus many cut up tropical fruits. P has completely forgotten his diet.

Took the little hotel covered river launch to the center of town – short ride but saved us a ½ mile of walking. We visited the -------Pagoda where P took many atmospheric pictures. Then a walk though the market (which we didn’t really want to do – so crowded and beseeching). Over the Japanese covered Bridge (charming!) and into a very quiet, beautiful tree lined pedestrian street lined with the old multicolored, tiled roofed houses.

Lunch on the outside “porch” of Morning Glory Restaurant – best food we have had in Vietnam. Bahn xeo (?) for me. Crisp rice pancake with bits of pork, layer on cucumbers and banana flower slices, mustard green, fresh cilantro and other herbs, roll in rice paper and dip in peanut sauce and nan nuoc sauce. P – wonderful bahn mi with pork. Lunch with 2 large beers - $6.50.

After lunch P took a long walk for photos and I took a one hour cyclo tour around town. It was so much fun – just what I have dreamed of. Sightseeing at an up close level with no walking. Beautiful streets and buildings and temples and ancient houses and river and colorful boats. The driver pedaled around the backside of “our” little island through little mud lanes and shack houses and chickens and children – all living along the river. So interesting and a very nice man.

We walked into town for dinner and so delighted to find the town lit up with Chinese lanterns, especially on the bridge and along the river. And the whimsical fish and dragon sculpture in the river were all lit up, too.

We found an outside table again at Morning Glory and had another delicious meal:
- appetizer: roll-ups in rice paper with grilled pork, herbs, peanut sauce
- me: Cau Lao – local dish of noodles and pork
- P: spicy shrimp and noodle soup
- Dessert – “waffle” with homemade icecream.

Plus 2 Scotches and one beer – C. $20

We strolled along the street after dinner in lovely, beautifully lit, relaxed atmosphere. Spotted a very handsome silk jacket in a shop and 45 minutes late I have bought a silk suit to be made to my measurements and picked up tomorrow . So unlike me.


Monday, Nov. 8 HOI AN

Terribly sick in the night – cramping diarrhea, clammy sweats, very faint, but feel fine this morning. The breakfast buffet in incredibly abundant but I am just eating boiled eggs, banana, bread and tea.

We took the launch again into town after breakfast. We had a very enjoyable day with a morning Vietnamese (slow drip) coffee, visits to the Ceramic Trade Museum and the …….Assembly Hall (both very interesting and the Assembly Hall very extensive and ornate. We went on a one hour trip in a 20’ wooden boat up and down the Thu Bon River into a lush tropical palmy landscape with interesting views of the local fishermen in small wooden rowing boats. ($5 – maybe best travel value ever – and we didn’t bargain – it was just too reasonable). In fact we are not good bargainers. We usually get a little off but don’t have the heart to argue over pennies.

Shopping in a sort of odd curio shop and found some different things – small ceramic incense burner, bone comb, sticks for the hair with shell animals, large metal gong (!) that has a wonderful tone – very simple hammered metal – as well as chopsticks. Fitting on my suit. Another lunch streetside at Morning Glory Restaurant.
- for me – Chicken Pho, Vietnamese tea with ginger
- for P – Bahn mi pork sandwich and beer
$7.50. Obviously we really like this restaurant.

Long rest in the hotel and then back to town for yet another meal at “our” table at Morning Glory. It is just hard not to go there since the food is so well prepared.
- P : stuffed squid
- Me: chicken veg. curry
- Profiterole with chocolate sauce
- 2 scotches plus water plus beer. Total: $15!

The suit needs more alteration – pants still tight.

Tuesday, Nov. 9 HOI AN to HANOI

We’ve loved the beautiful town and easy pace of Hoi An but we’re ready to move on. We went into town after our huge breakfast to pick up the suit. I also bought 2 pair of sweet earrings – jade/silver and silver “long life” symbols. Stopped at a café on the river for a Vietnamese style “white coffee” – very sweet and rich.

The Tonkin driver was very prompt and we are now in a meager café at the DaNang airport waiting for our flight to Hanoi. Beer and baguette with a processed cheese slice. The only other choice in the airport is a powdered plastic soup bowl which I can’t face. Plus boxes of sweets available.

Another crazy ride through rush hour Hanoi traffic. I tried to film a video because it is hard to believe. Ventured (that is the right word) out into the wild night for dinner. Ate at La Place on the Cathedral square. Well recommended but not so good, especially after the Morning Glory in Hoi An.
- P- shrimp with cashews (not good)
- C- chicken mango – ok
- 2 Red Labels, 1 beer Total: $15

After dinner we walked to Fanny’s Ice Cream across from H.K. Lake. Famous icecream spot. I had a fabulous salted caramel cone. P had run raisin and mango. By good fortune one of the few traffic lights in Hanoi was nearby so we could cross to the lake. We walked along the lake to the north end passing young couples on benches, groups of old ladies, a few exercisers and tai chi-ers. The lights of last week were gone. We managed one tricky crossing at the top of the lake and a few crowded, noisy blocks back to the relatively quiet Chan Cam St. and our comfy beds.


Wednesday, Nov. 10 HANOI

A lovely breakfast in the 9th floor breakfast room overlooking the city. Best banana pancakes of the trip and good strong coffee.

Took a taxi to Bach Ma Temple in the middle of the Old Quarter to start our rambling. Interesting temple with features we are now fairly familiar with. Wandered for about 3 hours before emerging near our hotel – more than enough for me. Very noisy and very crowded and hard to walk since no room on the sidewalks (motorcycles parked there – or street kitchens) and streets full of speeding traffic. Terrible pollution so wore a face mask (as did many others). Still it was a fascinating experience with so much to see – very intense.

We very happily recovered at Mme. Hien’s lovely peaceful courtyard restaurant on our relatively quiet street.
- P: giant prawn and red seaweed soup
- Me: Chicken pho
- Homemade mint ice cream *
- Lemon grass tea/ beer c. $17

We spent a restful afternoon in our very comfortable room, resting and packing. We agreed to leave the room at 5:30 (instead of 8:30) and they won’t charge us for the day ($45). We have a reservation at Mme. Hien’s for 6:30 and an airport transfer at 8:30. We are so lucky to have this restaurant across the street as rush hour traffic is so horrible it precludes waking (for us anyway).

Very good and most expensive dinner yet, but lovely surroundings and well worth it.
- Mixed grilled hor d’oeuvres: spring rolls, beef wrapped in seaweed; grilled prawn cakes; shrimp wrapped around sugar cane, etc – big plate
- P: fish braised in clay pot
- C: sea bass braised in lotus leaf with tamarind and steamed bok choi *
- Glenfiddich 12 yr. old Scotch
- Ruou (rice spirits)
- Beer
- Total: $30 plus tip

Now we are waiting in Hanoi Airport thinking about how to spend a final 120,000 dong ($6)


Thursday, Nov. 11 SEOUL to SEATTLE

We arrived in Seoul at 5:45 after a 3-1/2 hour flight from Hanoi (2 hour time change). Slept on the plane but very groggy on arrival. We had booked a room for 6 hours at the Airport Transit Hotel and it was worth every penny of the $70. Small but comfortable room with big windows and big bath and shower. We both slept very soundly for 4-5 hours and feel quite normal.

We’re having lunch in a food court – series of stalls really. We ordered from the picture menu and most everything looked a little disgusting to me. I’m ready for a pizza. My spicy pork and rice was ok, but not the accompaniments. P was not happy with his spicy beef soup although he did eat it all. I don’t think I could get crazy about Korean cuisine.

Smooth flight home – only 9 hours this direction. Korean Air is very comfortable with lots of leg room and good movie choices.

Taxis/transfers 15
All day car/jeeps 3
Cyclos 3
Boats 3 plus many with the Halong Bay cruise

The last trip is always the best trip, but at the least, this is one of the very best.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 04:44 PM
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I need to apologize for a rather long double posting of the Sapa days - don't know how it happened.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 05:56 PM
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Great reporting. Enjoyed your descriptions. Will you be posting pictures?
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 08:19 PM
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great report....isn't korean air fab....

we had rain most of the time in hoi an too...

loved the cargo club and morning glory but secret garden was the best food in town... hidden down an alley...

our plane was cancelled to hue too.... tonkin sent us to that same hotel but we would not stay there...went back into hanoi and decided to bag hue and spend a few more days in hanoi...
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Old Jan 3rd, 2011, 05:30 AM
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Sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I too am a big fan of Korean Air. We've had the best service and the most comfortable flights to Thailand and China on Korean Air. We are off to VN Feb. and I am looking forward to the culture, architecture and warm climate of VN.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2011, 07:54 AM
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I'm glad to read this report (and rhkkmk's response ) so I know what NOT to do if our flight from Hanoi to Hue gets cancelled (NOT stay at that disgusting-sounding hotel )

rhkkmk, were you able to cancel your hotel in Hue and get a refund? Rebook your air to Danang instead of Hue?
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Old Jan 3rd, 2011, 03:47 PM
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I've really enjoyed the reports by dgunbug and rhkkmk so it's fun to hear from you. I'll post some pictures soon.
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 03:49 AM
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One more person adding thanks for this great report. We,re about to do the same route Rranged by Tonkin too. So glad to hear you enjoyed both sap a and halong. We're just starting our two month sea trip. We'll be in Vietnam in feb. Hoping for less rain then . But these days who knows
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 06:39 AM
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Very interesting and informative report. I admire how intrepid you are about dealing with setbacks.
Our trip in March will cover many of the same places in northern Vietnam such as Hue and Hoi An, and 2 nights at each of Sapa and Halong Bay. We too will be staying at the Orchid Hotel and Vinh Hung Resort (4 nts each). Your report about Halong Bay with Dragon's Pearl was great to read, as I had been wondering if 2 nights was one too many (now I see it's not), as some people said. And I was hoping that it's true that their boats get into more remote or quieter locations.
I'm curious about how much of the trip was arranged through Tonkin Travel and how much of it was DIY. Did you feel they let you down at points, e.g., with transfer from Hanoi Stn back to hotel after Sapa, or with transfer to airport for Hue flight and subsequent problems (e.g., was it Tonkin who booked you into the airport hotel?)?
Many thanks for this.
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 08:55 AM
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Yes, it is a fascinating report, obligatory reading for anyone considering both Vietnam and Tonkin. What shines through is the personality of the OP. Linawood is a good woman, full of love.

But, like WillJame, I'm interested in just what Tonkin Travel's role was in all this. Will, I can see you are reading this very carefully. If I were about to travel with that agency, I'd be going through it line by line. Caveat Viet-emptor, eh? There are a number of things in this trip that really shouldn't have happened... but, until we know just what role Tonkin had in the proceedings, a conclusion is impossible.

Linawood, I can only applaud your resilience, your sweet innocence and determination to look on the bright side. I'm not sure I would have been able to maintain that under some of the circumstances you detail.
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 11:14 AM
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Yes, Dogster, line by line, even though I'm not travelling with Tonkin. My itinerary is being arranged beginning to end by V'Explore Travel who came with high recommendations from other users elsewhere--tho' Tonkin seems preferred on this board. See the latest version on my thread at http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...rary-maybe.cfm
Mostly, I'm curious to know what to expect from a tour company, what they promise, and how much they deliver. On return from Sapa, e.g., there's supposed to be car and driver picking us up at the station in Hanoi. If it turns out to be just a taxi voucher, well then...
You're right on about the spirit of Linawood. The world needs more travellers like her.
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 11:38 AM
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The trick is to get it ALL in writing in advance, Will. Inch by tedious inch.

One trick: make sure your TA doesn't just dump you at the airport and leave. Demand a guide to take you IN, wait in line [amazing how short that line will get], get your seats and be there if any drama ensues. The saga of dear Linwood with the cancelled flight and the airport hotel is unforgivable.

Best I check your thread and continue this there.
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 01:51 PM
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Yes, my thoughts too, Dogster, esp as I wonder how Tonkin could not know about the situation in Hue and these cancelled flights. Notice (above) that the same thing happened to Rhkkmk at the hands of Tonkin while at Hanoi airport with a cancelled flight to Hue. It's referred to briefly about 10 posts above and fully detailed in his trip report at http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...etnam-trip.cfm
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 02:30 PM
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I'm sorry if Tonkin is appearing at fault because everything they handled went well. They didn't book us into the airport hotel - it was the woman at the airport tourist information desk and she was the one who quickly found us the early morning flight. Tonkin was called by the woman at the airport (we had no phone so I appreciated her help) and Tonkin rearranged our ongoing arrangements. All of the transfers with Tonkin went just fine. We could have asked for the transfer to the hotel after Sapa but traveling a short distance by cab didn't seem like much. On the whole we thought this trip went amazingly smoothly because we have never had help on the ground before. The hotel was another story - really pretty awful, but I don't blame Tonkin. We could have left , but given that we really wanted to go to Hue very early the next day, we just put up with it and in retrospect it was the right choice for us. It was quickly behind us. We were really happy overall with Tonkin and their service exceded our expectations.

Here is a link to some of our pictures. We have a problem right now with a computer and most of the Hanoi ones are not available.
http://picasaweb.google.com/linawood...eat=directlink

Hope this works.
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Old Jan 4th, 2011, 07:36 PM
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To answer WillJame's Dogster's questions about how much was arranged by Tonkin - the Sapa trains, driver, guide, hotel for Sapa trip; the transfers and Dragon Pearl cruise; flights, flight transfers, and Orchid Hotel in Hue, and Vinh Hung Resort in HoiAn plus transfer between Hue and HoiAn. We booked the Golden Sun Legend in Hanoi (before we worked with Tonkin) but Tonkin arranged the one day tour in Hanoi. Tonkin got us a refund for the night we missed at Orchid Hotel because of flight cancellation. We had pretty much priced everything separately before we asked for a quote from Tonkin. Some things would have been slightly cheaper to do on our own, but it was very easy to have it all arranged. Plus, they suggested the Sapa Boutique Hotel (which we really did like and would stay there again - we were just tired the first night and it was unseasonably cold); the Dragon Pearl 2 (we had thought about another cruise that wouldn't have been as good) and the Vinh Hung Resort (we aren't resort people but we really liked it here). So Tonkin really did make a difference because of their suggestions. Trip planning is my hobby (entertains me all year) and we did lots of research ahead so I felt we were really part of the process and little glitches just happen on all of our trips. And some provide us with some good laughs in retrospect.

Re Tonkin and the flight cancellation, they had put it in the contract that they would do what is possible to help in the event of a cancellation but wouldn't be responsible. Apparently flights are not infrequently cancelled because of weather at certain times of the year.
linawood is offline  
Old Jan 4th, 2011, 07:50 PM
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i have no fault with tonkin at all...none...

we knew weather could be a problem with hue flights and we took our chances... they responded perfectly when called by us.... we had no phone either... plus it was dinner time when the s--- hit the fan.... they were closed but had someone on call...

i rate tonkin 125%.
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Old Jan 5th, 2011, 05:17 AM
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That speaks well for Tonkin--two more than satisfied clients. Hope I'm as happy with V'Explore Travel.
Like you, Linawood, I have always enjoyed doing this trip planning on my own, and taking some chances as to hits and misses. This time, after some initial itineraries entirely generated by the company, I'm making most of the decisions as to places and timing, and seeing what they can do for me in brining it together. I see one of the big advantages to be not having to contact six or more hotels, pay deposits, etc. After several frustrating email exchanges on my own with Hanoi Elegance Hotels, who seemed not to understand exactly what I wanted, I let the agent do the negotiating. He has excellent English and always gets back to me within 24 hours. I'd have to say that V'Explore has been great so far in substituting my preferred hotels for the ones initially offered.
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