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Hanoi-Friends abroad

the best way to enrich your travel experience


We've had great days here in Hanoi, but the most precious of those involve reconnecting with local friends. What a treat it's been to visit with Gerry (go to the Cine Cafe and the Hanoi Cinematheque- a true oasis in the city!), and to spend time with Hung and to meet his wife and baby for the first time. I can't believe I've known Gerry and Hung for nine years! They look the same to me. Hung and his wife, Phuong, took us to a nearby bun cha place. L got her first taste of the bacony-noodley concoction and loved it. Afterwards we got a cheap sim card for the cell phone we'd brought from the States. The next night, Hung, L and I went in search of my favorite- Cha Ca La Vong. There's a newer, larger location (the original is still there). After much driving around (me on the back of a xe om -the back of a driver's motorbike for hire; L on the back of Hung's motorbike), we found a cha ca restaurant. When Hung went in, he learned it was a different place than the La Vong business. We thought that might be acceptable, since we'd just spent fifteen minutes weaving in and out of Old Quarter traffic while the night market was being set up.

My xe om driver asked another driver where La Vong was, and it turned out to be just down the block. Back on the bikes for a quick ride, then into the restaurant. Just as we were sitting down at our table, Hung said "it's Mr. Chau!" And to my amazement, my old friend (and gifted painter and scenic designer) was seated at the table next to ours! His eyes about popped out his head to see me, too- I had sent emails announcing my pending arrival, but the tides of communication flow strangely in Vietnam, and he hadn't gotten word. He was seated with a few people from the BBC, and we had a great time catching up, eating the best cha ca in Vietnam!cha_ca_closeup.jpgSteph_and_Mr_Chau2.jpg
We made plans to visit upon our return from Ha Long Bay. In the meantime, Hung was helping us connect with my friends in the Tuong Theatre, Vietnam's formal traditional theatrical form. I'd successfully reached one of the musicians, and his grown son sent me a text message- we would be guests at his father's house and then would attend a Tuong performance at a venue I know very well- we rehearsed at the Hong Ha for about a week prior to our Midsummer Night's Dream opening night back in 2000. Here's where the enriching experience comes in: there's nothing that shows the distinction between being a tourist and a traveler than being welcomed into someone's home. There, you the traveler can get a true sense of the country, the town, the village you're visiting. The silly difficulty of trying to hold a conversation when you don't speak the other's language can be handled with more grace and humor than when you're out and about trying to negotiate a tour package or simply buy a nail clipper. We were greeted at Mr. But's home with warmth, joy and an amazing spread that his wife and daughter had prepared for us. The family lives in the performers' compound for the National Tuong Theatre. The taxi driver had a hell of a time finding the right entrance- I kept passing my cell phone to him so he could be talked in by a family friend. When we reached the gates, I saw familiar faces right away: the actress Minh Gai, actor Quang Cuong and musician Van But. We went down an exterior corridor, into a stairwell where we removed our shoes, and climbed two flights of steep spiral stairs to the family living room. Nine of us sat at the table- some with a little English, me with a little Vietnamese language, all of us with a sense of adventure. After a kingly amount of food (every time L or I would turn around, someone was placing another morsel in our bowls!), Mr. But broke out the local booze- some light colored concoction that had been poured into an old Hennessy bottle. Rice wine, I think he said, more like whiskey! It is rude to not toast and drink when someone offers a toast, and there were many toasts! There was great joy around the table with the excitement of our arrival and the introduction of new friends and family. When we couldn't possibly eat another bite we all retired to the sitting area and they fed us tea and mung bean cakes then plied us with gifts of food, tea, coffee and fruit. We left with the promise to see a performance at the Tuong Theatre that same night. Tuong_Fox_..torious.jpgMr__But_and_dan_bau.jpg
Afterwards, Ms. Gai (one of the leading actresses of Tuong), But and Cuong (who played the drunk prince) took us to a little pho place just down the street. This was a typical Hanoi street stall, with tiny plastic stools, funky little folding tables and extraordinarily fresh food- suffice it to say there were chickens wandering around right where we were seated.

With a student actor as translator, we had a lot of laughs, shared a couple of cold beers with our late night noodle soup into which we dunked something like a frybread made of rice flour. Tuong_Lions_and_cub.jpgAnother stop at Cafe 53 for a smooth, strong cup of coffee, and L & I said our goodbyes and headed over to the Cinematheque. You really can't do better than to hang out with the locals, have them share their family time with you- this gets you closer to an authentic experience of the place to which you have travelled. We felt fortunate to have enjoyed the company of our our hosts.

Posted by Chi-Xep 04:32 Archived in Vietnam Tagged educational Comments (0)

Ha Long Bay - Part Three

kayaking and good company


On our final day in Ha Long Bay we awoke to the same gray haze, but perhaps a little less thick. morning_on..ng_Bay3.jpgIt was extremely quiet and the water as still as glass. The color of the bay is as turquoise as it appears in the photos! An occasional fishing boat equipped with a motor would scurry past and the boats would gently rock in the tiny wake, then go still again. At 7:00am the engines on the little Nina roared to life and S. and I, already awake and packed, hopped aboard the Pinta. As soon as our feet had touched the deck our "bedroom" pulled up anchor and sailed off. Breakfast was served with the same grace and skill as the meals the day before. Omelette, bacon, warm slices of bread, cheese, fresh pineapple, banana, orange, asian pear, and coffee or tea. We were motoring off to a local fishing village to pick up some kayaks and do a bit of paddling. The village had several hundred people and one school that is supported by the government and provides free education to the children. S. was still unsteady on her sprained ankle, so she stayed on the Pinta with a few other passengers. She said they had great conversations about politics, education and the fragility of the Ha Long ecosystem.

The majority of us paired up, donned life vests and carefully climbed aboard the kayaks while dangling from a ladder off the starboard side of the boat. Once in Kiem led the way across the harbor, between two towering peaks, across a channel and between two more cliffs. Kayaking.jpgWe discovered starfish starfish.jpgand jellyfish along the way and too much trash to mention. But the scenery was spectacular. The tide was out further then normal, apparently an extremely low tide, so as we paddled through tunnels Kayaking_s.._tunnel.jpginto more harbors and coves we would often scrape and get stuck on rock outcroppings just below the surface. We were headed towards a cave with an interior lake, but the tide was too low to get into the cave with our kayaks. We had all climbed into our boats barefoot so Kiem did not advise us to walk into the cave because of the sharp shell fish clinging to the rock surfaces. We took a brief rest and took our time getting back to the ship, taking numerous pictures and getting stuck on rocks again. It's very wet business paddling a kayak and we all climbed out soaking wet, or at least the bottom halves of us. The weather, though grey, was warm and no one complained, we all just laughed about it. Kiem, having done this plenty of times before, emerged bone dry. Once again, things moved quickly and the kayaks were taken away and we set off on our return to Ha Long Harbor where lunch was served and a birthday cake and sparkling wine was presented to us in honor of a guest who's special occasion it was. A very nice touch!
All in all I have to say that the tour was a wonderful success. A truly nice experience with the tour company. I just hope that the trash can be handled more efficiently and effectively. I would hate to see this amazing and lovely sight get ruined to the point of destruction.

~ L

Posted by Chi-Xep 04:30 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruises Comments (0)

Ha Long Bay - Part Two

a room of one's own


We set sail very quickly. There was no wasting time. The day was overcast and very hazy but remarkably you could make out the towering rock formations of the bay through the grey. There appeared to be some kind of main entrance into the labyrinth of islands because it seemed every boat in the bay was heading for one particular point. We enter into the thick of islands and get our first up close look at these remarkable peaks. There are altars carved into the sides of many of them, with crumbling steps that lead to narrow landings. Small fishing boats chug along large junks as the passage narrows. Along the bottoms of the islands the sea has cut into the limestone rock as the ageless tides have ebbed and flowed with the moon and bamboo and other greenery cling to the steep sides finding purchase in crevasses and holes. Not long after we enter into the thick of the islands we come across a port in a harbor Bay_from_cavern.jpgwhere many boats are bobbing along in the water or tied up to a pier waiting patiently for passengers. This is our first stop, Hoen Thien Cung caverns. You have to climb up over 160 stairs to reach the entrance to the first room and a three room maze of limestone tunnels and stalactites. limestone_..anorama.jpgEach room gets bigger and more impressive. Unfortunately, the mass of humans passing through over the years has destroyed (inadvertently and purposefully) much of the original glory of this geological wonder. Centuries of water dripping through the limestone and eating it away is ruined by continuous human touch. Many stalactites have been broken off and kept as souvenirs by early century visitors. Millions of oily hands have dulled the luster from the closest of formations as people touch the ancient stones. Still it was impressive and worth the easy climb. The tour only took about an hour and a half. We made out way down another set of steps and onto a thatch roofed pier cove_in_bay2.jpgwhere our junk waited to retrieve us. We quickly set sail again as we head to a secluded harbor where we will drop anchor for the night. The Columbus Cruise boats are away from the multitude of sketchier looking boats. We paid a bit more for this trip, partly because the food reviews were so good! You can pay more and get an even posher trip (see Bhaya Cruises for posh!), but that was beyond our range, especially for an overnight trip. Because the two of us volunteered to sleep on the sister ship, the Nina, we haven't had a cabin to visit yet. The Nina was supposed to meet us at the pier outside the caverns, but the tide of communication works in mysterious ways, and the boat was waiting for us at the anchorage point. It was small, and didn't have its sails up, so from the outside it wasn't nearly as appealing...we were wondering if we'd made a mistake by being good sports. Our_room_on_the_Bay.jpgKiem assured us it was very roomy inside- only one cabin, so it was really meant to be the honeymoon cruise. They piloted in so the decks were right next to each other, and we stepped on to the little Nina to check out our quarters. There was a sitting room with a bar, all in varnished dark mahogany, and the room was surrounded by drapes- sheers underneath floor length copper silk curtains. You opened a second group of curtains, and there was a king size bed with plenty of room to walk around. The adjacent head was ample in terms of a bathroom/shower on a boat! In the bedroom, you could open French doors and have a magnificent and private bay view!view_from_..te_room.jpgI guess we did alright after all.

Posted by Chi-Xep 09:09 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruises Comments (0)

Ha Long Bay- Part One

The Pinta, the Nina...Santa Maria must be in dry dock


The tour bus was to pick us up at our hotel between 8.30 and 9.00AM, and they were right on time. In fact, we were the first on the bus. We got settled in (very comfortable coach), and the driver made several more hotel stops until we had a full bus, all of us scheduled for the same cruise. L & I had opted for Columbus Cruise's "Pinta" for a 2 day/1 night visit to Viet Nam's stunning Ha Long Bay. It's approximately 3 hours to drive to Ha Long City, so we had a stretch of time to view the Red River (very low this time of year), rice paddies immediately off the highway (including within the unpaved area of a roundabout), morning glory fields (the greens are harvested), a coal town with streets and buildings black with soot. The whole way out, the sky was grey, and occasionally it would drizzle. We were all hoping the skies would magically clear for us. On the road, our tour guide had a little 'splainin' to do when a party of six learned that they would not all be sleeping on the same junk. The women were upset because it was a family trip, and two of them would now have to sleep on a smaller boat that would reconnoiter with the Pinta later in the afternoon. After a lot of discussion, L & I volunteered to take the room on board the Nina, which would be anchored right next to the Pinta. The gals were thankful, and L & I crossed our fingers (figuratively, not literally- it means something else entirely in VN!) that we wouldn't regret speaking up. About 2 hours into the trip, our bus stopped at a tourist center - it was "conveniently" located far from village centers, so if we wanted to purchase water or beer, we had to pay twice as much as in town . The plus side of this tourist trap was clean restrooms. In comparison to other locations (ye olde hole in the floor), it's worth a little more! We got to the dock, where we walked down a steep flight of narrow concrete steps to get on a covered runner boat which would deliver us to our junk. we dieseled our way through the moored junks until we reached the Pinta, which looked inviting with its persimmon sails!

Once aboard, we were ushered to the dining deck, which was quite comfortable with couches, armchairs, a bar and white linen covered tables. Pinta_dining_room.jpgWe toasted with a watermelon smoothie and got underway. Despite the grey of the day, several of us went topside to the open sundeck (at this point, I use the term loosely).Pinta_lounge_deck.jpg The temperature was moderate, and we could already make out some of the rock formations studding the bay. Ha_Long_Bay.jpgMore to come...

Posted by Chi-Xep 04:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruises Comments (0)

Good Morning Hanoi

Laura's POV


Don't know if it's truly jet lag or just the fact that I crashed so much earlier then I usually do and, of course, got up that much earlier! So I took advantage of the morning light and did a stroll along Hoan Kiem Lake to find some photo ops. At 6:30 am the traffic is light and crossing the streets are quite easy. The lake is still and the light is hazy but the sidewalks are teeming. All manner of Vietnamese people are walking and stretching and exercising along the paths around the lake. woman_warming_up.jpgMen in suits doing pushups on benches, mothers doing situps, grandmothers stretching and swaying to the constant loudspeaker exercise announcements. stretching.jpgOr at least I think that's what it was. The rhythm of the speech leads me to believe that some unseen person is calling out moves and stretches for the masses to exercise to. They group together or stand alone, gazing out onto the lake as they do their daily routines. mot_ba_gia.jpgAt one point a group has appeared to finish up and they all form into a line and start rubbing each other's backs, laughing and enjoying the pleasure of it. group_back_rub.jpg
I have a seat at a sidewalk cafe and order a ca phe sua while I sit and watch the city wake up.cac_ba_in_hats2.jpg


Posted by Chi-Xep 17:19 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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