Friday 20th December: The Road Most Traveled – From Hanoi to Vinh

The shower is a perfect temperature & operates at full power & pressure – for both of us – before decisions are made as to what to wear for the day.

Result:

‘Same, same. But different’  images

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Ben is keen to have another muesli & fruit breakfast at KOTO.

Today, for something a little different,  we share a pot of Lipton tea. I try the Banana Bread & Jam with Fruit & Yoghurt as a side dish. Though I scrounge a few perfectly-ripe mango pieces from Ben’s sizable plate of fruit.

With our bill already settled we cruise the local precinct for bananas & bread rolls for our lunch-on-the-go (as advised by Nes) & score freshly baked baguettes, still steaming when they’re lifted from the bucket & into the paper bag;

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along with a handful of mandarins – & what I presume to be loquats (but they’re rather sour compared to the expected pear-like flavour with a touch of apricot and pineapple) – we find at the local street markets just around the corner, in Ngo Sy Lien.

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Bags already packed & eager to squeeze into a bus with our new-found friends, we take the lift for the final time to the foyer to plan for the trip to Vinh. Nonetheless I still feel there’s at least one unexplored area in this part of Hanoi I’d like to check out : what appears to be a park, opposite the Temple of Literature, in Quoc Tu Giam.

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So leaving Ben behind chatting with Hermann, I head off with my trusty camera case &  fully-charged equipment.

In its midst – & rising from the mist of the morning – I discover a pathway winding around a lake.

Rising from the lake is an island with its own simple dwelling set beneath a splendid old tree, its branches creating a rather secretive, hidden  place.

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Gardeners are busy, attending to weeding & tilling the soil; others stand in a small boat removing weeds from the rock-wall surrounds.

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It’s a tranquil urban setting where quite a few older Hanoi citizens take time to exercise in relative quiet (after all you can’t really escape the sound of horns in Hanoi).

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Journeying back I find a shoe-shine guy set up on the footpath outside the hotel, busily polishing gentlemen’s shoes for a small price. His process is well-practiced & precise, each completed effort producing – with the aid of brushes, cloths, polish & spit – the basis for a mirror finish.

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Back in the foyer we hand over the US$30 for our Laos Visa to Nes, then trundle our luggage into the minibus.

There’s enough room for everyone to occupy double seats so we can stretch out as we cruise – or sometimes stumble – along  sections of the 75%-completed Noi Bai-Lao Cai Highway – part of the first phase that stretches for 245km from Hanoi to VinhPhuc, Phu Tho, Yen Bai, and Lao Cai as part of the Kunming-Haiphong Transport Corridor -with the same driver who took us to Halong Bay (I recognise his explosive, uncovered cough!).

Though vehicles are initially permitted a maximum speed of 80km, I feel in many sections we’ve arrived a little early as the 26 km section of the Noi Bai-Lao Cai Highway contracted to Posco, a Republic of Korea contractor, & linking Soc Son district in Hanoi to Vinh Phuc province, is not scheduled to open to traffic till December 27.  In some places that target opening seems highly unlikely; even given the fact it’s had  2.554 trillion VND (120 billion USD) thrown at it since 2009.

The journey soon proves to be too much for Roly who seems to be suffering greatly from motion sickness-  or whatever (& there was something about last night’s meal that initially rang alarm bells for me) – even after he moves to a front seat; even as he droops his head every few minutes into bag after plastic bag while I attempt to snap at the scenery through glass as the countryside passes us by with monotonous variety and the driver negotiates the traffic as efficiently as any cross-country rally driver sustained by Valium.

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Two rest stops spaced every two hours proves sufficient relief for most. And more than enough interest if you care to wander off a bit & take a look around …

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Ben catches the backsides of his jeans on a piece of metal protruding from part of a front,  folded aisle-seat as he re-enters the bus. As luck would have it I have needle, cotton & the time to do a mend … though he must sit in his undies with a jacket thrown over his legs … while the youngsters of the group play ‘Presidents & Assholes,’  a card game known by other vulgar names, such as “Scumbag”, or even  “Landlord;” and though the vulgar names are of American descent, this card game actually has its beginnings in Japan, where it is known as “Dai Hin Min.”

Apparently Ace is the highest card. Jokers can be included as wilds or taken out of the deck. Also it’s important to know 2s are also considered wild and can be played as any other card.

On their turn, no matter what was played last, a player can lay down a single 2 which clears the table and that player can then lay down any 1, 2, 3, or 4 of a kind.. If players are not able to play, they must pass their turn. 

If a player plays their turn and every other player passes, that player can then clear the table and lay down any 1, 2, 3, or 4 of a kind. 

If a player lays down a card or cards equal to the previous card or cards played, the next person’s turn is skipped. 

The objective is to run out of cards first. 

Every player is ranked in the order that they run out of cards. The first player to run out of cards is declared the President. The next player to run out is the Vice President. The last player to run out is the Asshole who then becomes the dealer of the new game. Once the deal is complete, the Asshole is obliged to give their highest valued card to the President, who in turn can give them any card he/she doesn’t want. The President then leads the play.

The game, my stitching  – and Roly’s ‘gutteral  entries’  into plastic bags that are passed to him by an attendant Nes – goes on as we move towards the late afternoon. Outside the bus the distant hills  & mountains are shrouded in smoke – or smog – and the passage of traffic seems more like a Sydney slow-crawl traffic jam.

Around 51 kms from Vinh & the turn off to Quẻ Phong, we spend time in a long, arduous queue, waiting to pass a one-way intersection near a railway crossing where extensive roadworks are taking place. Vigilant policemen attempt to make some difference to the a seemingly-impossible two-way flow at the railway crossing; one even stands supervising the changing of a truck tyre, the truck partly blocking the oncoming traffic.

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Eventually our progress improves & the vehicles spread, becoming  more like a length of floating ribbon than a clump of steel wool caught in a plug hole.

Finally the stitching seals the gaping hole & the repaired jeans are slipped over feet, legs & butt with much thanks, & a great sense of relief.

Meanwhile Roly is still unwell.

‘He’s always had a problem with cyclical vomiting,’ says a worried Kate as she comes to his rescue with an extra water bottle & a supportive chat.

Yet all anyone can really do is to pass him additional plastic bags.

I gather sometimes being a traveller is meant to be tough going.

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The occasional stretch of smooth ‘highway’ improves our forward motion somewhat & lifts the spirits of long-suffering passengers before bumpier, unfinished sections return to interrupt – & slow down – the dusty journey on a road heavily-travelled.

Nonetheless the destination is getting closer by the minute. Ben notes the signpost to Vinh.

‘Only 21kms to go,’ he says as the weakening sun hovers above a stodgy hill.

Around five o’clock rows of street lights stretching ahead down the right-hand side of the roadway signal an apparent nearness to Vinh.

The lights switch to the other side of the road as a busy tree-lined town appears that might be Binh Minh, though it’s anybody’s guess.

It turns out to be Vinh when- well-before it’s expected, time-wise – Nes recognises our stop for the night – a gaudily-painted hotel, the Green Nghe An Hotel that rises from the earth at No. 2, Mai Hac De Street (Vinh City) like a chunky concrete frog set in a palm garden. 

It feels somewhat of a relief to arrive early & to be greeted by pleasant, helpful staff standing at the Reception desk while clocks tick in time,  representing a range of time zones & cities; & with the tendency to make a traveler just a little home-sick.

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After settling in to Room ‘225’ & checking out the verandah view, we walk towards Le Loi in search of Pringles. Assigning ourselves only a restricted amount of time to achieve success, after coming out of every possible store empty-handed, we cross the wide divided roadway & find a Jacker variety at a mini-mart that more than fits the bill.

Dinner at the hotel restaurant is kept simple for everyone – at Nes’s request – so  it’s Vegetable Fried Rice, all round.

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Evening 19th December: Meeting our New Friends for the Fortnight to Follow

Our Intrepid  guide, the delightful Nes, is standing beside us at the hotel desk when we return for our room key. Usually a resident of Bangkok – and therefore  surely from the Land of Seductive Smiles – she confirms with a signature beam that’s coloured by recently-applied chartreuse lipstick, that we have a small group of ten travellers for our Laos Discovery tour; that we’ll meet in the foyer at 6pm with passports & insurance details, plus US$35 & passport-sized photo for our Laos visas.

A pink zippered bag swings from her shoulder. A pink zippered jacket stretches over ample curves. Already-quite-beautiful eyes dazzle though they’re further-defined by an application of vivid black eye-liner that flicks up at the outer corner before it quite reaches the end of the lid.

Already I presume this well-rounded Thai beauty is a woman obsessed with detail. And pink.

We take the lift to our room feeling somewhat pleased we’re probably going to be in well-organised hands for the next fifteen or so days.

Ben freshens up his clothes & puts on his new shoes, then stretches out on the bed watching Channel ‘V’, the 90s hits channel that reveals a youthful Ricky Martin, spunky-enough to please the eye & spike the libido of a divorced sexagenarian travelling abroad.

When we return to the foyer ready for the ‘welcome meeting’ , the young Vietnamese concierge informs us it’s been transferred to the dining room on the 9th floor.

We are first to arrive but are soon joined by Laura, a red-headed, recently PhD’d stunner from Ireland with a smile that beams on cue, & even in-between times.

‘I’m only travelling as far as Vientiane, then I’m joining up with my long-distance boy-friend from Canada. It seems we only get together when we interrupt our separate travels with an extended sojourn in some exotic place.’

‘Oh, I know from experience, you’ll miss the best part of the tour,’ I say before biting my lower lip.

Having dropped something into the conversation I’d determined would remain unsaid – the fact I’d been on the tour before, though traveling in the other direction from Bangkok to Hanoi – I quickly add (before anyone else arrives), ‘The tour just seems to build incrementally in splendour & purpose the further one travels into Laos. And gliding on the Mekong is a brilliant experience, one I’ve determined is worth repeating with my son.’

And we leave it at that when Nes enters the room, organises papers & a small pink zippered money purse on the table, & introduces herself to Laura with a ‘Xin chao! Welcome to Vietnam.’

Others of the group then take their seats around the table as they arrive, on time.

Hermann, the Swiss-born geo-physicist who now lives in Canada whenever he’s not traveling to all parts of the globe as an Intrepid group member. ‘I know it’s gonna be good. This is my eleventh tour! And I keep Intrepid well-informed of my opinions – & on their tourist toes – by filling out every feedback form  I can lay my hands on.’

Roland (Roly), the young thirty-year-old events manager from Adelaide who’s covered The Arts Festival, The Byron Festival, The Big Day Out, & River Sessions in Mackay, as well as numerous overseas gigs that seem too many & varied to squeeze into such a short life.

Kate, his quiet, unassuming girlfriend who’s trained in theatre costuming & set design.

Amy & Tahlee, two recently-graduated HSC students – long-time friends from Sydney & Melbourne – now choosing to explore exotic, educative locations while absorbing new cultures abroad rather than getting plastered on the Gold Coast after just learning – on-line – they’ve achieved – almost -the necessary TERs to continue their future studies at their respective universities.

Josh, the effervescent ‘fussing’ graduate from Sydney Uni who’s already lined up his job in the world of finance. ‘Sorry we’re a little late but it seems we’ve booked into the other Van Mieu 2 Hotel, the one at 159 Kham Thien. It took us simply ages getting across to here in the taxi. Will we stay there, or will we try to get a refund & move over here?’

‘Oh, you must stay here,’ says Nes. ‘It’ll be easy to make the changes. I’ll help.’

And his super-quiet, super-thin, totally-under-dressed-travelling companion, Karl, the soon-to-be-PhD-candidate who’s already been teamed with his supervisor at Sydney Uni in the field of nuclear physics. ‘I just need to complete two units of my Arts degree alongside continuing work with my thesis.’

‘So what type of employment will you be working towards,’ I ask rather glibly.

‘Solely in academia. That’s the only course available in my field.’

All done with introductions – & concerns for Karl’s lack of footwear & adequate warmth (though certainly not for his ability to determine answers to difficult algebraic equations, or figure out exchange rates)  – the meeting goes ahead as planned. Many forms are filled out & signed – for visas, entries, & exits – before passport photos are attached to the Laos Entry Application forms with the push of a stapler, and Intrepid shoulder bags & further instructions for daily meetings, every evening at seven given out by Nes, the lover of  pink & fluffy ponytail scrunchies.

Then it’s off to KOTO for our first meal together as an entire group.

While most make conservative choices – though none more bland than mine – I’m surprised by the meal Roly selects. Still he seems to swallow every bite & leaves the restaurant with a smile on his lips.Image

Thursday 19th December: The Temple of Literature & Ho’s Mausoleum

Ben is concerned.

In this ancient city that otherwise surges with energy, he’s been constipated for a number of days now.

Since this is quite the opposite problem than the one he  experienced on our last journey –  the problem we’ve bargained on & have all the necessary pills & drops to stall – we go off in search of a ‘gut-mover’ – muesli – and find the perfect breakfast dish, again at KOTO, though this time in the more-private room positioned on the first level.

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After polishing off a sizable bowl of oats & grains nestled on top of jackfruit, pineapple, & watermelon – with an over-layering of yoghurt – there’s apparently a small degree of success in the ‘happy room’ at the hotel; enough to relieve more than the ‘pressure of anxiety’.

‘Thank God for even small mercies,’ Ben announces at 7:45 am as we head across the road to the Temple of Literature –  the first university of Vietnam;  built in 1070 under King Lý Nhật Tôn to train talented men devoted to Confucius (the great politician, educator & philosopher  – 551-479 B.C. – honoured as the ‘Everlasting Exemplary Teacher’),  that’s now  filled with  ancient and unique architectural styles & curios that have remained preserved or restored as part of the ‘vestige’ (history) of  Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám, one of the most important historical & cultural sites in Vietnam.

Throughout its history, bright students were apparently selected by local examinations from all over the country. For three years they studied Confucian Canons, practised writing administrative documents, literary compositions & composed poetry, preparing for the national, & then Royal, exams to become doctor laureates & mandarins.

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Without throwing any history aside, it’s a tranquil place at this early hour, & the bonsai pots are a feature that quite meet with Ben’s approval as he poses somewhat mandarin-like (though without the customary headgear & flowing robes).

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Both cameras are soon busy clicking  away.

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We even pose for the occasional ‘selfie’ :

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before another tourist offers to take a snapshot of us both together, Ben’s hand resting round my waist in an uncharacteristic outward show of affection.

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Still there’s more to be seen & appreciated as we stride along into the day…

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Somewhat auspiciously we exit the grounds as a large number of young women gather in caps & gowns celebrating their educational passage to wisdom through literature …

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that’s marked by the giving of lilac bouquets that become floral statements strewn along footpaths as more immediate memories – of friendships, perfect fringe drops & make-up – are captured on phone-cameras …

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As others prepare to celebrate their passage through life in diverse ways,  we wend our way, at first along the broken footpaths, as we head towards the marble edifice that is ‘a mecca for many Vietnamese’ : Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

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This cold, grey block of marble is Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place where, in spite of his wishes to be cremated, his body lies in state similar to Lenin, Stalin & Mao, other great Communist leaders before him.

There are strict behavioural rules & dress code at the monument. You cannot take bags or cameras inside. You must not wear shorts, tank-tops or hats. And it’s forbidden to put your hands in your pockets.

When there, met roadside by a series of guards regaled in snowy-white military uniforms, we’re directed to follow – in single file – along the white line painted onto considerably better footpaths that lead to the tomb; though as a group rather than individual visitors. Yet one would think there’s less safety in greater numbers.

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Nonetheless, there’s a solemn & respectful walk-past through a darkened, guarded room to witness, in passing, the illuminated face & hands of Ho in a glass sarcophagus that tends to add a slightly macabre aspect to the spectacle of an embalmed suited body with wispy white hair.

Ben asks, ‘Is it really his body?’ when we’re outside & allowed to speak.

‘I believe so,’ I say. ‘No one wants to remove the slightest memorial trace of his life, his dees & accomplishments, even if this means the maintenance of the corps in Russia every year, when the mausoleum is then closed for a couple of months.

Though tempted to miss the opportunity – as we close in on the 11 o’clock closing time, when we might ‘just get caught inside the complex, & be forgotten’ – Ben is easily persuaded to forgo his anxieties & pass through the entrance gate on Pho Ong Ich Kiem & so visit the  imposing yellow Presidental Palace (the former home of the Governor General of  Indochina that’s now used for official receptions while remaining closed to the public) …

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& the Ho Chi Minh residence (House No. 54) together with Ho’s stilt house which, according to the brochure we’re handed when buying our tickets, ‘symbolizes his living way of simplicity, modesty, gentleness and dedication for the nation and the people.’

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And it proves well worth the 25000 dong entry fee, especially since not only is the whole site ‘full of wind, light and fragrant flowers from gardens around’ (as the brochure goes on to say ) but we realise it’s rather fortuitous-   & far less structured & crowded – when we’re the last people being let through the gates as they’ve already closed the mausoleum viewings. It’s great when it works to a ‘happenstance’ schedule that’s not in the least ruled by clocks & plans.

Set within a well-tended garden, there’s a pond stocked with carp …

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Yet there’s more that captures Ben’s eye than a few brilliant fish.

There’s the chance to pose next to some of Ho’s original vehicles garaged in glassed enclosures …

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and rooms preserved just as Ho left them.

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Even the changing of the guard becomes a highlight of our late-morning visit …

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as well as being able to pose on the bridge almost alone …

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before  marveling at the mystery of painted trees …

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After completing our visit to a place of such historical & political significance we take the circuitous route past a curving wall to Ho Tay (The West Lake)  before deciding it best to hail a taxi back to KOTO for lunch rather than choosing dubious food from a string of unknown sources (though they’re deemed – by the Lonely Planet – to be popular restaurants that are ‘de rigeur  for a local night out’).

‘Is this the type of scooter you’re intending to buy when we get back to Lismore?’ I ask when Ben snaps a shot of me near the pedal-boat-swans at West Lake.

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‘Probably something along those lines. Though I think I’d prefer a black Typhoon.’

Having  jumped from the taxi in heavy traffic – after handing over the agreed number of dong – we walk the rest of the way to KOTO.

The downstairs eating areas being packed to the rafters, we’re directed up three flights of stairs to the roof top dining area where the sun bathes us for a time as we opt for a snack & take in wedges, mixed veges & garlic bread that’s totally sufficient & tasty; rather than other Vietnamese food that’s deemed to be fresh & satisfying because it’s immensely nutritional & often supplemented by a huge pile of vibrant herbs …

like the iconic dish of Vietnam – pho – or even  the popular bun cha that more than satisfies most taste buds with its combination of chopped grilled pork tossed into a sweet and sour soup, accompanied by rice noodles and herbs, and garnished with chillies and minced garlic …

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Again there’s always a tourist willing to take a photo of us together; this time a middle-aged woman toting a French translation of the Lonely Planet who’s dining with her daughter.

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We pay the equivalent of US$5.25 for our luncheon choices, wend our way downstairs then turn left  past the doorman and into Van Mieu.

Back at the hotel Ben shaves, rests for a while then visits the bathroom & announces he’s had another ‘probably-better’ result.

We’re both relieved.

Seems things are now quite definitely on the move.

So we move off to further explore this particular section of Hanoi so as to search out a shop that might be able to put the contents of my full memory card onto a CD.

Found & all done after less than fifteen minutes, we venture – in totally the wrong direction, as Ben points out –  towards the hotel again & happen upon a shop selling the perfectly-priced shoes he’s been looking for since he slipped & stepped his favourite black & green sneakers into a stagnant pool when skirting the broken sections of a footpath in downtown Hanoi.

Fussed over by a gaggle of female retail assistants with jovial smiles & tiny waists he happily chooses a pair he likes for US$25.

He wears the new shoes, & carries the grubby old favourites in a plastic bag back to the hotel where I use the hotel toothbrush to clean them up, hoping they’ll dry by the morning especially when placed near the heater we find waiting outside our room; the one we trundle inside so we’ll be warmer at night.

And this marks most of the events of the last ‘unaccompanied’ day we’ll have in Hanoi because we’re meeting up with our tour guide – & our fellow travelers for the next fifteen days – later in the evening.

And I guess – like Ho at his work desk – there’ll be plenty to write about when that part of my life’s journey gets underway.

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Wednesday 18th December: Halong Bay to Hanoi

In the morning the boat is still thankfully moored to the buoy in the quiet bay.

There’s no post-dawn leaping by pubescent-dare-devils into the deep waters (as in 2008) …

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merely the gentle sloughing of the waters of the Bay against the hull … as others go about their daily routines in an otherwise tranquil world.

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According to Miguel Gibson in his 2012 posting entitled ‘Halong Bay Treasures the Caves of the Dragon’ at <http://technorati.com/lifestyle/travel/article/halong-bay-treasures-the-caves-of/&gt;

The Vietnamese call this place the Bay of the descendants of the Dragon (Vinh Ha Long). It extends along a coastline of 120 kilometers. More than 3 000 irregular limestone islands emerge from their deep blue waters with dense vegetation and the sound of birds singing since early in the morning.

According to the legend, during the time of the Emperor, the Chinese invaders wanted to seize the land of the Vietnamese empire. The Emperor asked for help to a family of dragons that launched pearls and jades in order to sink the enemy ships. Once finished the battle, due to the beauty of the place, the dragons and their descendants decided to stay.

While some islands are nothing more than large rocks, others are much more important and contain large caves

Today we will see one of the more magnificent caves.

For breakfast there’s a yummy selection of fruits (mango, passionfruit, pineapple & banana), honey pancakes (& bacon); with nice conversations & exquisite scenery that seemingly stretch beyond shoulders in all directions.

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Afterwards preparations are made for our transport by tender to :

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so we straddle the side railing of our junk, slip across wet planks, clip on our life jackets & set to join the line of vessels heading to the same uniquely-picturesque location: the Sung Sôt or Surprise Grotto on Bo Hòn Island, discovered in 1901 by the French, named in 1938 by the French (Grotte des Surprises) and which thereafter welcomed its first visitors in 1993.

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Arriving early enough to miss the peak tourist times, unlike six years ago there is not the push’n’shove by large vessels, merely the smaller tenders whose job it is to safely deliver its passengers to a designated wharf & then pick them up later at a different spot; the site I remember, beneath the vertical rock face at the end of a lengthy wooden pier that seemed forever to be but a crush of boats; their sea-worthy timbers cracking & creaking in the jostle to be adequately-nosed-as-close-as-possible to the pier.  

Though this too is now far more civilised. Authorities might also be concerned about the possibility for carnage given the large number of visiting craft & the dubious skills of some Vietnamese boatsmen.

Still, above & beyond past disasters, after climbing around  700 granite steps in all

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to reach the massive cave, we find it consists of three smaller compartments, or ‘chambers’ – covering an area of more than 130,000 square feet (12,200 square meters)- each filled with impressive rock formations. In places, the grotto’s roof sits nearly 100 feet (30 meters) from the cave floor & drips with impressive examples of stalactites onto  a considerable number of unusual & aptly named stalagmites (such as ‘Penis Rock’ & ”The Lucky Tortoise’), many highlighted by colored lights.

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Ben considers the scenery worthy enough, so  pulls out his camera  to take a selection of his own photos; 

& again I cannot restrain myself because the place is indeed one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

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Totally mind-blown by the cave visit & the expansive postcard view across Bo Hòn Harbour, we board the transfer vessel, again don the requisite life jackets (though no-one checks to see if they’re clicked into place or pulled tight across torsos, & pushing high against chins – so why do I keep remembering the not-so-long-ago tragedy at this very point?) – & return to our mother ship

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where we again climb over the side of the boat,

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though this time walk along the port-side passageway to the starboard cabin, gather up our bags, return our room key & settle all outstanding bills with the barman.

We hand over the 270.270 dong (equivalent to US$13.06; & with 5% service charge added)  for two cans of  7-Up, one Tiger beer & three Lipton teas.

It’s cloudy.

And chilly.

Almost too unpleasant to remain out on either the fore or aft decks for too long.

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Instead we gather like a group of penguins stranded on pack-ice in the protected ‘inside’ area.

At the allotted hour the barman demonstrates his version of ‘vegetable origami’ : creating  flower arrangements with carrot, cucumber, potato & a choko-like vegetable that grows on trees (perhaps like an avocado; or even the chayote the Vietnamese call  su-su or trái su su though even Sunny’s translator that’s checked  through his I-phone can’t verify what it’s actually called – or even resembles – in English, ‘though it’s definitely not a choko,’  he says with a grin) …

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But back to the demonstration …

What’s required is a very sharp knife, scissors, long fingers for nestling the vegetable against, & more than a small degree of patience; plus an even higher degree of skill for delicately slicing, cutting, stripping & shaping.

It’s such an enthralling & intriguing process (though laboriously too lengthy for some) that makes me very appreciative of the work that went into decorating last night’s banquet table. So I take far too many photos – even a movie – to stretch the revelation of floral/vegetable artistry into lasting, lively memories.

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Beyond returning to shore on the tender, we climb the concrete steps that stretch along the foreshore & walk a short distance – with our luggage in hand – to the luncheon spot – billed as a ‘fast food’ restaurant – where we climb an additional few steps, & sit  around our allotted tables while other travelers sip – al fresco – on  cocktails between cigarette puffs & the ramblings of  tales delivered in Spanish,  German or French.

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First up, the corn soup with shredded egg is warm, & much appreciated.

In fact, the spread of dishes that follows proves to be exceptionally tasty, especially (according to Ben) the crumbed calamari.

Afterwards we group outside in the bus parking area & soak up every ray of the available sunshine before tossing our bags through the back window for the driver to stack, &  then hopping into our seats, ready for the return trip to Hanoi.

And though I may wish for a different view of the landscape, I realise I’ve positioned myself on the exact same side of the bus that will give me a similar – though reversed – view as on the forward /upward journey; one that reveals not only the forward thrust of progress but the relaxed, far more serene state of a previous place in time.

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The ‘happy room’ stop also serves as the place where the buses line up to get washed by a non-la- wearing fellow in gum boots.

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He’s quick, thorough & efficient; & gets the nod of approval from each driver whose bus he services with a jet-force hose.

Back in the bus, I’m still snap-happy-enough to capture images of the variety of house styles – other than three-storey ‘rocket’ houses – power plants, & huge chimneys;

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even a mountainous pile of garbage literally forming a mountain of renown right beside the roadway;

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along with a rather large statue that’s under construction though (when it’s viewed up close-&-personal) is found to be already rising high & proud above a delineated patch of manicured lawn & stylised gardens.

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Hanoi city is crazy busy – & the view rather more  blurry –

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the nearer we get to the Old Quarter where most of the hotel drop-offs occur (though not, it seems, in the reverse order to the morning pick-ups).

Ben tips Sunny US$5 for his conversation – & impressive wealth of generously-imparted information – before we hop off the mini-bus at Ly Quoc Su & wind our way to the Bluebell Hotel to organise for a taxi to the Van Mieu Hotel in Quoc Tu Giam.

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Though it’s not light enough to quite notice the row of cages clinging to the walls beside the steep hotel stairs …

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when we arrive at the desk, drop our luggage at our feet – or into any available space against  a vacant wall-  then hand over our passports for confirmation of  identities – & a previously-arranged booking – the hotel concierge offers us ‘a room at the inn’ & provides us with a key to Room ‘804’.

Well-advised, we take the lift – what a godsend! – and find our room contains a double bed.

Though we’re content enough to accept the room without complaint, when we go downstairs to hand in the key before heading off to have  dinner at KOTO, the friendly receptionist – the one who’d handled our original entry into the place –  asks,

‘Is everything OK with the room?’

“Well, we’re not a couple. We’re mother & son, & would prefer to not have to sleep in the same bed.’

‘Oh, you didn’t look old enough to be his mother.’

I suddenly like this young woman very much; especially when she hands over a new room key for ‘704’ .

‘It’s a twin room,’ she says with a generous twinkle in her eye.

We do the room swap, wash a few well-used, necessary items

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raise the striped window shades to take in the view across the city

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& then head off downstairs to find KOTO, just around the corner, on Van Mieu.

koto-logo-newis a  multi-level restaurant that ‘serves as a professional platform for KOTO trainees to fine tune their skills in hospitality service and culinary arts while at the same time providing guests with a warm and charming venue to enjoy fantastic food and service’. Having visited there a number of times on previous visits I well-know it has served guests from all over the world and has been ‘pivotal in spreading worldwide recognition of KOTO’s mission to not only provide hospitality and life skills to disadvantaged youth in Vietnam but also as a restaurant of superb quality and memorable experiences’ (as stated on its website <http://www.koto.com.au/about-koto/koto-enterprise/koto-hanoi-restaurant&gt;).

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Though the menu offers a variety of Vietnamese delicacies we fill up on Vegetarian Fried Rice with Pineapple pieces while Ben has a KOTO Special Smoothie made from banana, passionfruit & mint & I try yet another Tiger Beer.

We divvy up our money & hand over 180.000 dong

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Back at the Van Mieu Hotel we find the air-conditioner takes a fair bit of tweaking to get the temperature beyond 14 degree C.

But eventually the room is warm enough,

the pillows adjustable enough,

& the beds comfortable enough for a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday 17th December: Cruising Wide-eyed into Halong Bay

Freshly-baked bread rolls are waiting with crusty coverings  in an over-sized plastic bag at the corner where I’d expect the ‘saleslady’ to be, her face shaded by a non-la. Though at 6:30 in the morning she’s not yet there, waiting far-from-bleary-eyed, eager to sell her dough. And though I’m disappointed, I would never just reach into the bag & take what I need since there’s no place to leave the necessary dong; no box or basket into which I could drop the money.

Feeling somewhat deflated & empty, walking past the Aussie Backpacker’s I notice the breakfast menu displayed on a small roadside pedestal. What’s offered seems perfect for our Western tastes. So when Ben’s completely awake we make our way past the congregation of backpackers – who risk getting so wrapped up in the hostel itself they don’t get to see enough of the city – & make for the kitchen (totally renovated since I was last a paying guest).

I order  two fried eggs, sunny side up; Ben goes for the pancakes.

Our orders appearing – like manna from a heavenly source – we sit in air-conditioned warmth at a chunky table, peruse the signatures & platitudes on the walls behind us  &, like the other Westerners around us, shovel  perfect breakfast food into our mouths.

Back in our room at the Bluebell we pack, then with each of our bags arranged on some part of our bent, twisted bodies, wind our way down the three levels of the somewhat rickety staircase. Perhaps the place has never had access to a screwdriver; nor firm-enough concrete that solidifies  round bolts like Antarctic pack-ice around a tourist ship in Commonwealth Bay  –  and wait in the lobby for our Halong Bay pick-up.

Still, the management is hopeful the curtain rod will be repaired soon enough. And because permission is granted to store extraneous backpacks at the Bluebell, we position them well out of the way of prospective third-level fixers – behind the reception desk –  until we return.

With enough time to spare I dash up to the 7-Eleven-type store on the corner of Phủ Doãn  &  Ấu Triệu & gather up two large bottles of Evian, and a handful of mandarins from the stall outside;  then take a photo to remind me of the morning scenery directly across from the hotel, & of the passing banana lady (& the dog on the bike).

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Though, like everyone around him the dog’s over-layered on this nippy Hanoi morning, the sun is shining.

Our suitably-named guide, ‘Sunny’,

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arrives in pointy-toed shoes, low-slung jeans, black leather jacket & cap. He first confirms our tickets are for the two-day-one-night Alova Gold (2 days 1 night) Cruise (@ $216 Aussie dollars for 2 pax.), then directs us down Thọ Xươn to Phủ doãn, & into the waiting mini-bus. After a number of pick-ups at various hotels & guesthouses scattered throughout the Old Quarter …

the shuttle bus is soon filled with our fellow travelers, ears & minds open to the information,  graphic statistics & imagery  doled out by Sunny – who’s apparently not only fluent in English, but also Mandarin –  with the aid of a power-point presentation delivered from his lap-top.

Though we could opt for the train or even a chartered helicopter to cover the distance, the road to Halong Bay is most definitely a road well-traveled by tourist buses, taxis & trucks. Yet since I last was here six years ago, much development & construction work – roadside & along the pathway we move – is evident. In fact the progress along the 180 kms of scenic ‘highway’ that passes through Bac Ninh, Hai Duong and Quang Ninh provinces – providing plentiful opportunities for classic snapshots of the Vietnamese way of life (all worthy of a closer look) …

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– could be graded as phenomenal by any standard, particularly along the final section where there’s now a tree-lined boulevard punctuated with overhead signage constructed from fish-shaped steel piping that arches proudly across the roadway to announce one’s arrival in Halong Bay after three-and-a-half hours of travel.

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Though the tacky souvenir shops selling tourist trinkets are still there, the closely-positioned port-side gathering of junks at Bay Chai Harbour is missing.  

No more the clambering from one junk to another –  testing the level of one’s bravado –   to reach one’s pleasure craft, vintage 2008-style:

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Even the boys marooned on metal buoys in the muddied waters are noticeably absent. 

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Everything is far more civilised.

Now only smaller transit ferries called ‘tenders’ wait – with enough mandatory safety jackets laid out on board – to take eager, spell-bound passengers to their ‘leisure junks’ moored further out …

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Nonetheless, a few moments back in time, Sunny busies himself with the authorities, affirming our permits to cruise into hallowed waters. Meanwhile, given the degree of contained chaos & tourist anticipation as the noon-day sun rises vertically above capped or hatted heads, we wait – as orderly as we can (& somewhat avoiding standing like over-sized schoolkids on an excursion)  – behind the entry gates.

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After the transfer to our vessel is effected  without a single ounce of drama – or brave act – we’re greeted with a tall glass of orange juice, red-tinged at the base of the glass with what we suspect is cordial; then  allocated our cabins, tidy tiny rooms tastefully decorated with stylish Vietnamese adornments.

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The luncheon that follows provides us all with a luscious array of ‘Vietnamese Traditional Dishes while the boat slowly slides on romantic waves of the sea to the legendary fishing village’  (according to our Tour notes). 

Afterwards the sun lights the way through the kaasts, 

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& the gentlest of breezes makes it sufferable-enough to remove jackets & lay prostrate – with overly-full bellies – on the sundeck recliners while taking in the grandeur of the place.

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Even Ben basks in the glory of his surroundings

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as we cruise past Cock Fight Rock.

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In the late afternoon we’re transferred to Ti Top Island, by tender 

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‘to the sandy beach where emotional feeling erupts at one of the most splendid water world; [where] you can swim [if you’re crazy] and enjoy the seascapes with photo shooting’ …

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& climb the 400-odd steps – in stages; gathering our breath whenever there’s  a possible  photographic opportunity – 

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to finally arrive at the viewing platform (though Ben falls short of the full ascent to the top, choosing instead to recognise his limit at the three-quarter-plus point).

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After experiencing the water temperature back at the tourist-strewn beach with fingertips

& not the full immersion of scantily-robed, lily-white bodies as some shivering European tourists choose to do so they can say they’ve done it in the years to come –

though Ben agrees to become my patient-physie-pose-photographer on land …

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he later declines the early evening kayak activity that moves us like plastic litter on a pristine surface; across still, sun-streaked waters  toward a darkened passageway, through the widening cave 

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and  into a tranquil lagoon dotted with a host of other life-jacketed paddlers as the sun sinks slowly in the west.

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Instead Sunny is my companion paddler. He’s also the responsible leader of the soon-disparate group so it’s the instructions to

‘Go, OK!’

or ‘Stop! Now relax,’

that punctuate our escapade through the anchored vessels as the light fades swiftly & fellow paddlers become but silhouettes on a back-lit sheet.

We re-board the vessel in virtual darkness.

Then it’s shower time.  And the water is ‘HOT’ (though only during the designated hour), as promised. Meanwhile the dining room is prepared for the evening meal.

Dining room on Junk

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Though the ‘cooking class’  consists of rolling one spring roll from prepared ingredients, the meal – that supposedly includes these ill-formed attempts – is a sumptuous feast though limited in it’s vegetarian offerings. Nonetheless I fill up on noodles, garlic vegetables & eggs. Ben is more adventurous. Trying most things on offer – the beef, chicken, shrimps, fish, crabs and squids – more than once, he declares the chicken dish the absolute winner.

We retire to the quiet & warmth of our air-conditioned room around 8:30, and crash, cocooned  in pristine cotton sheets as our junk settles around its anchor in the cove with its sisters, without giving but a cursory thought to the possibility of  tragedy in such a tranquil & beautiful place;   in the Gulf of Tonkin  that’s been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1994, & famed for its 1,600 island and islets as well as its towering limestone pillars.

Yet it’s known that on the afternoon of October 3 (2012),  five Taiwanese tourists, including a nine-year old girl were killed at about 3.30 pm when a small boat that was carrying 18 passengers from Sung Sot Cave to the tourist boat ‘Paradise QN-6688‘ collided with vessel ‘East Room QN-1402‘. The force of impact was so strong that the small boat was capsized and sank, taking all 18 tourists. And though rescuers went to the scene very quickly they could rescue only 13 people.

And an American survivor,of a tragic accident that claimed a dozen lives in 2011, said his girlfriend had warned him, “Oh my God … The ship is sinking. We need to get off!” after she was tipped out of bed, reported Australia’s Herald Sun.

 

Monday 16th December: Water Puppets, Fine Food, Cricket & The Crash

Around 4 pm we’re dressed & ready to head towards the Water Puppet theatre.

After making enquiries of staff  at the Aussie Backpacker’s about the location of the courtyard restaurant that was previously recommended for its Green Papaya Salad, bang xiao pancakes and Bun Cha – the one we intend to  find after we’ve been to the theatre because I’ve been there before (with Mary, Kristy & Co.) & really enjoyed the experience  – armed with a new ‘highlighted’ map marking the designated spot we take a gentle, unruffled cruise around the block.

There’s just enough time for Ben to purchase a dragon/ tortoise statue from a nearby gift shop for 126000vnd before we make our way to the Water Puppets.

Before standing outside with a gathering a crowd, I capture a few snaps en route…       

  • of Ben (& the type of scooter he dreams of purchasing when he’s home  …because ‘if  millions of Vietnamese can ride them, then I too can surely give it a go!’)

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  • and of me again (though this time being far more restrained when seen in a different light)

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  • then  of a puppeteer taking a peep outside between-shows (& I love the composition, & mood of this shot)

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  • and of us together after asking a passing tourist to take a photo of us both, to imprint the occasion on our minds …

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After watching & waiting for a little further time for the earlier audience to squeeze it’s way out onto the footpath ( many toward waiting tourist buses) we then take to the steps & head upstairs towards the usherette at the theatre door.

Our tickets are checked  &  we’re directed to the best seats I’ve ever nestled my backside on during previous visits (this is my third visit to the water puppets show) in the front section of the theatre, not far from the stage that’s back-dropped by a bamboo screen (though far enough away to miss being splashed by the dragon’s antics that follow).

Behind us sits a young child who’s absolutely delighted by the fast-disappearing & ‘suddenly appearing’ puppets; almost finding it just-too-difficult to contain his anticipation of the shot-gun-quick emergence – or re-emergence – of birds, eggs, fish & water dragons from the green waters of the small pond that forms the stage. His apparent glee – as he suspends any disbelief that the depicted birds, dragons & fishermen are anything but the real deal – makes my experience of the lighthearted comedy & intricately skilled puppetry that derives from an art form dating back to the 11th century – when rice paddy fields were flooded & villagers would make entertainment standing in waist-deep water holding long poles to support their puppets over the water –  totally unique, in a majorly delightful & personal way (because after all I am a mother, & a grandmother, of sorts).

Yet, every day, show after show – & to the exquisite  joy of thousands upon thousands of broadly-aged tourists & locals alike  – accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music on drums, bamboo flutes, horns, & bells, exquisitely dressed singers  sit on an elevated platform performing authentic Vietnamese operatic songs while the puppeteers set in aqueous motion numerous vignettes of daily life in the countryside  ( including the celebration of the rice harvest; plus ancient tales such as the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake and the peaceful founding of the city of Hanoi), every member of the talented cast creating a magical hour of escape (though I’ll need to include the photos of Thomas Schoch & Gryffindor located at <http://www.visit-mekong.com/vietnam/hanoi/water-puppet-theatre.htm>  because I opted not to pay extra  for permission to photograph – though one sneaky shot did turn out OK).

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All done with the puppets – & the squeals of childish delight – we travel by foot,  wandering in & out of the glow of street lights & the ever-pervasive pressure of Vietnamese darkness that lurks in Ben’s mind – though never in mine because after all I’m the supposedly-fearless-leader of our traveling duo at present – down Lê Thái Tổ (past the Vietnam Thailand International Joint Stock Company),  before turning right into Trang Thi , then left into  Quang Trung  till we eventually meet up with Hai Bà Trưng, &  hurry – with adult culinary anticipation – into Phan Bội Châu.

The lights of the Quan An Ngon restaurant make it an enchanting & welcoming place (though Ben appears somewhat insecure, & overwhelmed at first).

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And the atmosphere & food doesn’t disappoint.

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The Tiger Beer is perfect & I finish the entire chilled contents while we share Fried Vegetables  (crunchy string beans with visible chunks of garlic), Fried Potatoes (recognisable chips) & Fried Rice with Garlic  (with a superb, awesome taste).

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‘Where’re the authentic Vietnamese choices that could  shift a tourist’s taste buds toward an ongoing state of  ecstasy?’ you might ask.

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They’re certainly there. And in profusion, cooking – or being prepared – in the open air …  like authentic Vietnamese street food … right before our eyes.

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Yet Ben is certainly happy with our choices & even happier we’ve found better food tonight at a classier restaurant;

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even congratulates me on my map reading skills when I deliver him safely & expediently to the Bluebell Hotel, unscathed by any untoward experiences.

After a night-well-spent it’s into the bathroom for another super hot shower &  a final stint of washing (of socks & undies) in the ample hand basin.

Having then climbed onto the bed to suspend these items from the curtain rod, it’s into bed for a bit of Aussie TV;  learning the English are on the ropes in the Perth Test following Warner’s & Watson’s centuries &  Bailey’s record-scoring 28 runs in a Test  over, joining Brian Lara’s name in the history books as – off the bowling of James Anderson in the final over of Australia’s second innings at the WACA – he matched ‘Lara’s mauling of Robin Peterson at the Wanderers …   which occurred ten years ago almost to the day’ according to Brydon Coverdale  ( assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo) at <http://www.espncricinfo.com/the-ashes-2013-14/content/story/700729.html>who goes on to say:

Bailey, who was playing his third Test, could have been forgiven for batting conservatively given that he has yet to really cement his place in the side, but followed the team plan for quick runs to allow Michael Clarke to declare once the lead passed 500. His attack against a bowler of Anderson’s quality and Test experience highlighted the gulf that has grown between the two sides this series and pleased his team-mates no end.

“We didn’t know it was a record,” Shane Watson said after stumps. “There’s no doubt we’ve had quite a few bad experiences against Jimmy Anderson. To see that is always nice to have the shoe on the other foot, because he’s certainly had the upper hand on a lot of our batsmen in the Ashes series that I’ve been involved in … at certain times individuals in the Australian team have been at his mercy. It certainly provided a little bit of enjoyment for us.

 Watson had already thrilled the crowd with a sustained assault on the England bowlers earlier in the session, his best over having brought 22 when he launched Graeme Swann down the ground for three sixes. But Bailey’s efforts were all the more remarkable given Anderson’s pace, and brought to mind the way he has played in his highly successful one-day international career.

He began with a hard cut that flew over the slips and ran away for four, then followed up with a straight six that cleared the sightscreen at the Prindiville Stand End. A two clipped through the leg side followed, and then came a better-placed swat through square leg for four. Bailey finished the over with two more sixes down the ground, one that just cleared long-off and another that sailed much further into the crowd at long-on.

Anderson was unable to find a length that stopped Bailey from getting under the ball but Clarke’s declaration at the end of the over prevented any further carnage, although Anderson and his team-mates still looked dejected as they left the field facing a chase of 504. Bailey was left unbeaten on 39 from 30 deliveries; he had started the over with 11 from 24 balls.”

At around fifteen minutes after midnight (& not far enough into the new day to move the incident into the next post) I wake with a start on hearing a mighty crash in the room. Inches from my head the curtain rod – & attached curtains – rests on the bed, the screws that hold it secure & safe having dislodged from the wall (hopefully not due to the added weight of our underwear & new coats). Hardly acknowledging any close brush with death – or at the very least, a possible bump to the head –  I venture down the rickety stairs to alert the young ‘guardsman’  I know from previous experiences in Vietnamese hotels will be sleeping on the floor in the vestibule, keeping clients safe from possible intruders.

He’s startled  when I arrive at the bottom of the stairs just as he’s coming out of the toilet cubicle, zipping his trousers.

He recovers his composure, gathers nothing in hand, yet comes up to the room to try & rectify the situation, mostly in the dark (because Ben is still wrapped in his quilt, sleeping soundly).

With a bit more light he’s able to raise the rod some distance till it catches against the wall – at an angle – so the curtain can then be strung across the window (for a bit of additional warmth – I realise – when I measure the stretch of the windows that reaches almost across the full length of the wall).

All done – yet with the room appearing slightly-more-at-a-slant – he turns off the light, closes the door  & I try to return to sleep (after I’ve remembered to at least  zip the internal lock into place).

And, even though – in true Vietnamese style – a screwdriver wasn’t required (at this stage) …

all’s well that’s suspended well in the Bluebell Hotel, in Hanoi.

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Monday 16th December : First Morning in Hanoi

    

I rise at 7 am local time, refreshed.

I move to the window & check out the view into Tho Xuong.

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While Ben sleeps on, I dive arms & fingers into my backpack, pulling out & setting aside the things I’ll need for the Halong Bay tour with Alova Gold Cruises. And thankfully I finally remember where I’ve ‘hidden’ my Aussie Summerland Visa card (though not before I begin to feel somewhat anxious & perplexed when it appears to be lost).

It’s quite a bit cooler today & because the rain continues to fall at a slight but steady rate I consider I might have to look for an additional jacket-come-raincoat if the umbrella bought on a previous trip to the Kampot markets in Cambodia doesn’t provide enough cover.

Ben wakes. He seems content & well-rested, and after a breakfast of banana & baguette he relaxes in front of the sizeable flat screen TV watching Fox music / fashion channels ( ‘WOW CHINA’).

Outside, the streets & shops of Hanoi beckon us to explore … & spend.

The first consideration is that we definitely need warmer jackets than the ones we’ve packed;  especially ones that also protect against the insistent Hanoi rain.  But because I take a rather long & circuitous route –  hoping to find the most appropriate shops in the wrong-end-of-town, silly-me –

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we soon need to stop before shopping; for a warming Peppermint tea + croissant & jam at the Highlands Coffee shop in Le Thai Toa, a cute eatery that’s set rather pleasantly beside the Lake (though today the view across to  Thap Rua, the flag-topped Tortoise Tower at the southern end, is rather diminished by the rain).

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After sipping, supping & settling the bill of 142,000 dong for ‘Tra Dilmah’ (2 Dilmah tea) and ‘Bo mut + 2 banh sung’ (Butter , jam + 2 croissants)

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 – slipping the appropriate 10% tip into the tabled leather pouch – and visiting the rather decorous outdoor ‘dunny’,

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we negotiate our way across Lý Thái Tổ at the sweeping corner. Apparently  named after  the founding emporer of the Ly dynasty who’s best known for relocating the imperial capital from Hoa Lư to Thăng Long (now modern day Hà Nội) in 1010 AD, we survive the crossing with the exercise of patience  – & then reckless abandon  –  and travel the short distance to Hang Dao (‘Market’) Street  where we spend quite a while tossing jackets over bodies & discarding them onto plentiful racks until we each find the right – & most affordable – ones: the gold-zippered XXL L.H.X Vague Fleur Beau made in Langhuaxiu for me; &  the XXL Yabu with the classy silk-like striped lining for Ben.

After scrounging around in tummy-hugging bum bags for the right amount of dong, we pass over the equivalent of US$60 & US$55 respectively.

The coats go over everything else we’re wearing. 

Immediately warmer, we open up to what Hanoi has to offer … & head straight for the Thang Long Water Puppet ticket office in Dinh Tien Hoang Street where we purchase tickets (for seats  ‘H1 & H2’ : quite exceptional seating as we will later find out) for the 17:20 show, for 100,000 dong apiece.

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Pocketing our tickets we negotiate the traffic on  Đinh Tiên Hoàng – doddering our way through weaving traffic like yachts parting the waters of Sydney’s harbour – and make our way along well-worn, tree-lined  pathways to our next point of interest;

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needing firstly to walk over the red bridge so as to get acquainted with Hoan Kiem Lake’s legendary turtle at the 17th century Ngoc Son Temple …

apparently the well-known Vietnamese tale states Emperor Le Loi’s magic sword was swiped by a turtle while the ruler was enjoying a day out on the lake. Resigned to the loss of his sword – and the disappearance of the crafty turtle –  Le Loi concluded that Kim Qui – The Golden Turtle God  – had reclaimed the sword given to Le Loi earlier when he led a revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty.

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Not quite yet in the turtle’s presence we firstly pause on border seating in the little island’s picturesque courtyard  so Ben can re-organise the notes he’s bundled into his money pouch; and for those who’ve read  ‘The Subtle Exposure of Madness Abroad’ – my previous series of  travel blogs – I guess you’ll understand  such a process involves the lifting of of clothing & the exposure of significant belly flesh.

All done – & recovered – we pose for a series of photos near aged bonsai specimens & other temple artifacts … till we’re back-dropped by mangroves & pointed towards the little red bridge again.

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Having learned the temple is dedicated to three important people : General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century; the scholar, Van Xuong; and La To, the patron saint of physicians, now relaxed, warmer & more protected from the changeable weather of Hanoi, we again cross the red Rising Sun (‘Huc’) Bridge,  & follow most of the recommended Lonely Planet walking route (as shown on p 106 of my well-fingered copy)

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though cutting it short by a few streets after seeing fine examples of French-influenced architectural design 

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and the Old East Gate –   

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stopping to feast our eyes – & camera lenses – on all manner of crazy culinary & glace fruit delights

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though avoiding any entry into Dong Xuan Market – so as to return to the Bluebell for the use of the downstairs ‘loo.

Setting off again to find an eating-place I’d visited last time round (possibly in  Nha To), though Hanoi’s Old Quarter is loaded with places to shop & snack, we head towards the Gothic arches of St Joseph’s Cathedral  (also named Nha To); though we by-pass the more renowned eateries I read about at <http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2010/oct/12/hanoi-street-food >  where, as Rosie Birkett, writes : 

Cafe Nha Tho sits in the shadow of Hanoi’s most imposing Catholic Church. In a somewhat bizarre but quintessentially Vietnamese juxtaposition, gown-draped painted angels stare down from the building’s frontage at the hoards of young, hip Hanoians who crowd the pavement on tiny stools. The close social proximity that is the norm here may take some getting used to (the diminutive plastic seats are barely big enough for one Western buttock), but it’s all part of the conviviality of the city, and you’ll start to feel every bit the local as you chew on pumpkin seeds and drink sua chua thach – glasses of ice, yoghurt and candied fruit.

While it’s name & actual location still escapes me, once seated near a frequently-opened door as eager or satisfied customers come & go causing the snow-flakes to shiver on the glass, lunch is as good as remembered. And much, much better than anything we ate last night : perfect peppermint tea served in tall glass mugs accompanied by delicious Fried Rice & Banana pancakes.

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It’s so good when the superimposed details of memories become validated by satisfying new experiences.

We round off our morning cruising the shops in Ly Quoc Su, looking for a money purse to replace the well-worn, hand-made  Cambodian version bought in Phnom Penh two years ago; and a  range of colourful scarves that may serve as gifts…

My bum-bag now devoid of all Greenbacks & Viet dong, we consider it timely to return to the Bluebell … to do a bit of hand-washing of the cream rain-jacket that’s served Ben well so far, tracksuit pants, socks, underwear & blue shirt-maker blouse. Thankfully I find just the right number of coat-hangers  in the wardrobe  & just enough hanging space in the en-suite area & across the hand-rails of the balcony. The rest will be left to the drying power of the air-conditioner, & the tilt of the Hanoi breezes.

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