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Beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam

posted May 18, 2014, 6:51 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:40 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Arriving in a new country is always exciting. Even the airport and its advertisements can give you a sense of what’s to come in this new country. I always look out for a couple of things; firstly the national beer, and secondly, what the country is famous for. Arriving in Hanoi airport, you are bombarded with the same images of the same place. Vietnam’s jewel in its crown, Halong Bay.

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Sometimes when researching a destination, you can read too much about it. Much like when we were organising our Happy Gringo cruise in the Galapagos islands, we’d spent a lot of time looking at Halong Bay to work out the best option for us, and heard many contrasting opinions before we arrived, many negative. ‘It’s packed full of tourists’, ‘you can’t move for boats’, ‘there a big party boats of loud music and boozing people’. It didn’t fill us with much confidence, and coupled with stories of rat infested, over packed ships, we approached our trip with trepidation.

All of this however, doesn’t resonate with us at all. We had a wonderful time on Halong Bay and thought it was incredible, but as with our cruise to Antarctica, it seems you get what you pay for at Halong Bay.

Halong Bay Cruises

There are a few options for Halong Bay, but most will choose either the one night or two night option.  If you pick a cheap one night option, you get a fleeting glimpse of the magnificent limestone karsts, as you battle it out with hundreds of other one nighters before leaving the next morning, your view tainted by the whole episode.  A one night option will set sail at lunchtime, with a few hours sailing amongst other boats before sunset.  The next morning you sail straight back to the port and disembark late in the morning.  Not at all what we wanted, and with the benefit of having more time on our trip, we opted for the two night option.

We made a rule that for some of the popular, famous attractions (read Machu Picchu, Halong Bay, Angkor Wat) we would break the budget to do them properly, and scrimp and save elsewhere on the trip – we didn’t want to be disappointed by Halong Bay.  So we booked a luxury two night cruise with Indochina Junk tours, with a beautiful boat, double room, banquets for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a small group of equally minded people.

The route took us on an alternative journey through the bay, separate from all the other boats – on our first day after leaving port we didn’t see another boat until we docked for the evening.

It’s impossible for us to explain the vast bay in words, so we’re going to let the photos do the talking.  Needless to say, we were in awe of the piercing limestones karsts as they rose majestically out of the bay.

Dinner on our second night was a magical experience.  We were taken on a small boat to the bottom of one of the karsts, where we ascended a stairway carved into the rock.  Halfway up we entered a small opening in the wall, which opened up to reveal our dining venue for the evening! Wow. It made a welcome change from our candlelight caving experience in Guatemala!

After a ten course BBQ banquet, our cave experience was over and we took a small boat back to our boat.  We grabbed a couple of drinks and headed up to the top deck to watch the stars as hundreds of limestone karsts passed us in the darkness.  It was so quiet, and we felt very lucky to be experiencing the bay as we imagined it.

The following day (after the usual banquet of food) we visited a floating village where the community goes about its daily lives on the bay.  It was a serene and tranquil place, with whole communities and their associated services (shops, schools) all floating alongside them.

After all of the delicious food we’d eaten, we were keen for a bit of exercise!  So we took a kayak out onto the bay and got up close and personal with the limestone karsts, giving us an even better view of the bay.

And so as quickly as it had arrived, it was time for us to leave the bay and head back to Hanoi. Halong Bay is a beautiful place, and we feel lucky to have experienced it at its best.  The boat, its crew, the route and the weather all combined to give us a unique view of one of the worlds most incredible sites. We would highly recommend it to anyone considering visiting Vietnam!

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A Night and a Day in Ha Long Bay

posted May 16, 2014, 8:47 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:29 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Ha Long Bay in Vietnam translates to Bay of the Descending Dragon and has recently become one of the new seven natural wonders of the world.  And truly wonderous it is – a mystical landscape where thousands of limestone karsts burst breathtakingly skywards from the depths of the  sparkling, emerald-green South China Seas.  We spent a day cruising through this stunning scenery followed by a night moored amid the beautiful limestone formations before returning to port the following afternoon, via Vung Vieng, one of the bay’s four floating fishing villages.

Our Indochina Junk mini-bus collected us from our Hanoi hotel at 8 a.m. on a warm December morning and set off on the three and a half hour drive.  Time passed quickly as there was so much to look at en-route; observing everyday Vietnamese life was fascinating. Water buffalo waded through the fields while farmers in their coolie hats tended the vibrant rice fields, groups of school children in pristine uniforms cycled to school and scooters tooted at anything that came into view – there’d be no shut-eye with all that noise.  Didn’t matter though – I was far too excited to sleep!

We approached the packed port where hundreds of boats were jostling as hoards of tourists were boarding.  We drove straight past and stopped at a smaller quay around the
harbour.  Indochina Junks have permission to visit a different, quieter part of the bay from all the other tourist boats.  Bai Tu Long Bay (Baby Dragon Bay) takes up 3/4 of the Halong Bay area and is just as stunning but quieter, calmer and serene – just as it should be.  After checking-in at the office we took a small boat out to the four Indochina Junks moored offshore.  Our junk, although you could hardly call it a junk with its teak panelling, crisp cotton tablecloths and ornate decoration, was The Dragon’s Pearl (below) modelled on the traditional Chinese junks that used to sail these waters – although I doubt the originals had sun-beds.

We headed off away from the port and as we slipped deeper into the bay the waters became more aquamarine and translucent and we relaxed on deck taking in the peacefulness and breathtaking beauty of our surroundings.  As we drifted onwards the towering limestone, almost vertical, outcrops loomed towards us, their lofty tops covered in dense foliage as they stretched into the horizon and beyond.

We dropped anchor and lunch was served on the top deck – a seafood banquet. Red bean and lotus seed soup and a succulent vegetable salad for starters followed by Clams in Pineapple Sauce, Deep Fried Prawns with Garlic Butter, Vung Vieng Minced Oyster with Herbs, Steamed Fish with Soya Sauce, Stir Fried Vegetables and Fragrant Steamed Rice.  Dessert was fresh fruit.  If the food carried on like this they’d have to wheel me off that junk…

That afternoon we stopped off at a small island where there was an opportunity to kayak, visit Thien Canh Son Cave with its stalactites and giant cauliflower-like stalagmites or swim and chill out on the beach.  A game of football kicked off on the sand and we stayed, nicely mellowed, and watched the turquoise waters turn amber as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Dinner that night was another never-ending feast – it just seemed to keep coming and coming.  Eight mouth-watering courses in all interspersed with amazingly intricate fruit carvings which the waiter presented with a flourish to much applause.  There were 19 guests on board of varying nationalities -  you’d have thought they were feeding 50 of us – and then cake as a Belgian guest was celebrating a special birthday.  We sat up chatting over a few glasses of wine with some of the other guests while an American guy strummed away on guitar and the moon cast a silver sheen across the water.

After a sound night’s sleep in our cute little cabin (above) but only after locating the blanket, we were up early to catch the sunrise.  A steaming Vietnamese coffee helped get us going – dark, strong and sweetened with condensed milk – perfect at 6.30 a.m.  The mists had come down overnight and it was chilly but the sunrise more than made up for it.

After a breakfast of more coffee and croissants the junks started their engines and we gently chugged towards Vung Vieng Fishing Village.  We transferred in twos to sampans each rowed by a village resident – mainly very petite but incredibly strong women.  That 40 minute row was no mean feat.

As we neared the village we saw small, brightly painted, wooden houses built on rafts and buoyed up with large, blue floats, some had balconies and wooden porches planted with herb gardens, washing hung out to dry and children played – just like any other neighbourhood. It surprised me to see not just dogs but many cats around the village.  I suppose it figures – there’s a lot of fish around!

Vietnamese flags fluttered in the breeze as the villagers rowed from house to house, prepared food or fished. A small school housed tables, chairs and a blackboard – no children though, maybe it was lunch-time. Members of this small
community survive by fishing and cultivating fish and pearls; some are sold to passing junks, tourists and, of course, the mainland.  The villages are becoming smaller as the younger people leave to work in the city and I wonder how much longer these communities will survive.

After the visit to the village it was time to head back to the junk and then to shore.  As we slipped back through the mystical landscape towards land we soaked up the last of the scenery trying to gather memories to last a lifetime.  As I looked back the karsts seemed to continue into infinity, shrouded in mist whilst the dragons undulated through the deep, still waters – a different world to the busy Hanoi we were returning to.

I recommend the indochina-junk.com experience.  At $160 (just over £100) per person for 24 hours, lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch and transfers to and from Hanoi it’s not the cheapest but you’ll get a first class, and more importantly, safe experience.  You’ll visit the quieter parts of the bay and avoid the noisy, fume-filled flotillas that descend on the waters nearest to the port – over 400 boats daily.  There are bargains to be found, of course, but at what cost?  Indochina Junk, has developed a sustainable business associated with environment protection, to help the families who live in the Bay. In co-ordination with the Halong Bay Management Board, they have developed a programme ‘For a Green Halong Bay’ ensuring that rubbish does not
contaminate the bay surrounding the Vung Vieng fishing village.  They have also helped set up a school for the village and are involved in community tourism; employing locals to provide job opportunities instead of just using the area without compensating.

We have visited Halong before but our first trip was a different story – it was planned as above but cancelled due to a typhoon.  We took the 3 hour journey anyway from Hanoi and peered listlessly from the deserted, windswept beach at the few outcrops near to shore that were vaguely visible through the mists.  The next day we were able to go out for half a day along with hundreds of other vessels – it was so busy we had to climb over 3 boats to reach our own and the smell of diesel stays with me still.  The queues into the caves there moved at a snail’s pace and once inside we could barely move it was so crowded – very much a tourist trap and an entirely different experience to the one above.

Typhoons are a regular occurrence in the summer season (May to October) they arrive, blow some and go again all in a day but the authorities will not let any boats out until the winds have passed. If you’re going to visit Ha Long Bay as part of your Vietnam itinerary don’t plan it the day before you move on – give yourself time to re-schedule if typhoons hit.

So there you have it – two ways to experience Halong Bay – which would you choose…?

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Vietnam: Halong Bay - A unique adventure

posted May 16, 2014, 7:57 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:51 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Halong Bay was a magical journey with landscape that was beyond spectacular. 

The Bay is located in the north of the country, in the Quang Ninh province and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam.  It is a 4-hour drive from Hanoi. "Ha Long" is literally translated as "Bay of Descending Dragons."  You will see it written both as Halong Bay and Ha Long Bay (the Vietnamese way).

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1994).  It is said to be 500 million years old.  It is an area of 964 miles and consists of a dense cluster of close to 2000 limestone islands most covered with thick jungle vegetation. 

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Several of the islands are hollow, with large caves.  There are also a number of beaches on the smaller islands.

Halong Bay Legend

According to local legend, thousands of years ago the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, when the gods sent down a mother dragon and her babies to help defend the land.  The dragons began spitting pearls and jade to sink the enemy ships, which transformed into thousands of islands and islets dotting the bay.

Their handiwork formed a great wall blocking the invaders path.  With the people safe again, the family of dragons became interested in more peaceful endeavors and decided to stay to enjoy their stunning creation. Hence the name Ha Long (Ha: descending, Long: dragon).

Our boat - Dragon's Pearl 2

We set sail on a traditional junk boat for 3 days and 2 nights.  We selected Indochina Junk and we were on the Dragon's Pearl 2.  We were extremely happy with our choice and recommend them.

We had nine other couples on our boat from many different countries - France, Austria, UK and Australia.  We were the only Americans.  There was also a diverse range of ages among us.   But everyone was so interesting and we all got along so well.  This was a big reason why our trip was extra special.

Our Captain and a crewmember.

Our bathroom - not bad for a boat!

Our room - not huge but nice.

How about this for a dining view?

The tranquil emerald green waters and the captivating vistas truly were breath taking.

Many of the islands have acquired their names as a result of interpretation of their unusual shapes: such names include Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), and Mai Nha Islet (roof).

Of the islands, 989 have been given names. Birds and animals including bantams, antelopes, monkeys, and lizards also live on some of the islands.  We did not see any animals – just birds.

What we did while on the boat

We visited a floating village.  Most of the islands are uninhabited, but there are several floating villages of fishermen living in the bay.  They have small paddle-boats that serve as transportation around the village, which they used to pick us up from our boat for our visit to their village.

The shallow waters have 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks.  We visited Cong Dam fishing village.  The houses we quite colorful and well maintained.

We have seen floating villages before – but it is always unbelievable and fascinating to see an entire village situated on water.  And hard to get my mind around their way of life including seeing this wee one was standing on a box close to the boat edge - with no one else in sight.

Full families of multiple generations lived in one-room boats… and they even had dogs. 

Indochina has built a school for this village and pays the teachers annual salary (approximately $90 USD a month) to teach the children. They have also developed the program ‘For a Green Halong Bay’.  

Supported by the government and residents, this program helps in the collection and treatment of waste in Bai Tu Long Bay.  As you might have read, trash in the bay is a big problem.

This is an oyster farm.  Australia has helped train local families in culturing, spawning and nursery techniques.  Most of these families had been earning an average income of between $1,800 and $3,000 a year. But growing oysters has offered growers the chance to substantially increase their family’s income.

Kayaking and Swimming

 We did a little Kayaking and D took a swim (he is the one swimming, not in the kayak).

He also had fun jumping off the side of the boat into the water.  There were jellyfish so I passed.

The photo below is one of my favorite of the trip.  To me, it captures the true calm and quietness of Halong Bay.

Fortunately our junk boat took us to a part of the bay where there were very few other junk boats.  There were many local boats, which were enjoyable to see.

Climate:  The bay has two seasons - hot and moist summer, dry and cold winter.   We were just on the cusp of the rainy season but lucked out and our first day was a perfect blue-sky day.  We had a few showers one morning – but overall excellent weather.

On our last night, we had a very special dinner in the Thien Canh Son Cave.  Wow what a spectacular sight.  We walked up 100 steps on the cliff and entered into the cave.  We though we would just be at the mouth but we walked several minutes deep into the cave.

Once we entered the cave, there were candles lit everywhere making the numerous stalactites sparkle.  When we read this was part of the trip - we were expecting something very hokey - but it was so special.

Below is our set table.  How they cooked and carried all the food and equipment up into the cave was impressive in itself.

The chef even carved several special table setting for us.  Below is the one of our boat made out of a watermelon and melons.  Beautiful!

And swans carved from melons.  All of the food was exceptional, not only for this dinner, but the entire trip.  It far exceeded our expectations.

Wow - we were happy we opted to take this trip with this particular company.  A truly memorable experience!

After our fun stay in Hanoi and Halong Bay Vietnam - we can't wait to explore more of this fascinating country!


My wife takes me places

posted May 16, 2014, 6:57 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:49 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Since our travel dates were constrained by a family wedding in Los Angeles, we could not find a group tour with a coinciding starting date.

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First stop, Hong Kong.  Everyone told us how much we would love it, but we much preferred mainland China.  However, we must say that the rooftop pool at the W Kowloon Hotel was utterly amazing.

After a bit of research, we discovered that it was not significantly more expensive to simply hire a private car and driver and make our own itinerary.  We found Tonkin Travel through high praise on the TripAdvisor forums.  We contacted several companies, whose prices were all within about 15% of each other, but decided on Tonkin because of its exclusive with the Moon Garden Homestay (see 4 April).  Our entire land tour, inclusive of almost all meals, the private car and driver, internal flights and all hotels cost $2,750 for both of us.  We had to pay tips to the drivers and guides, and we spent less than $200 on additional food, souvenirs and little extras.  Our big splurge was the Moon Garden Homestay, which alone cost $350 (anywhere else in the world a similar experience would have cost at least double) but was worth every penny.

27-28 March, 2012 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong is our chance to eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin star rated restaurant, Tim Ho Wan (the original).  We wait with a bunch of locals and Australians in the line and eventually get in to eat delicious dumpling.

In the queue at Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest Michelin star-rated restaurant.

The dumplings are worth the wait!

Room with a view – Kowloon Harbor from our room at the W Hotel.
Kowloon Park.

Mac Nerd. Hong Kong Apple Store.
Dinner at night market.

29 March 2012

Arrival to the Long Guest House in Ho Chi Minch City (Saigon), one of the top-rated places on TripAdvisor.  Very basic room, but terrific location, very clean, and the family is incredibly nice and helps us get our bearings.  We immediately walk a few blocks where we get massages at the Blind School, where blind people are trained in the trade of massage.  Not the best massage ever, but for $3 no complaints.  The clientele are mostly foreigners.

Saigon — Scooters everywhere!

In the evening we walked around the city and to the big shopping area.  No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a pedicure!  Yes, the nail salons in Vietnam are owned and operated by Vietnamese people, just like in the States.

Our driver + guide picked up from our guest house to take us to CaiBe for our tour of the floating market along the Mekong, where local barges full of fruits and vegetables trade with people on other boats.

Life along the Mekong River.

Brandied snakes.
It’s not popcorn, it’s poprice.

We stopped at a consortium of local workshops to see how rice and coconut candy and pop-rice (like a puffed wheat) is made.  The handicraft village lets you see how they make some special products, like baby snakes marinated in liquor.  We had lunch of a crazy, scaly fish under the shade of local orchards on An Binh Island.  A stop at a local nursery garden was a chance to try new varieties of fruit a homemade rice wine.  We opted against staying to listen to traditional music.

More river life.
The weirdest, ugliest fish we’ve ever eaten. But tasty.

31 March

Morning visit to CuChi, where 200-kilometre-long tunnels formed part of an incredible underground network built by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war.  We walked through the low, narrow tunnels and our quads were burning after just a 10 minute crawl – can’t imagine how the soldiers managed it.

Hanging out with the Viet Cong.

Delayed flight to Hanoi and check into the very nice and centrally-located Hanoi Imperial Hotel.

1 April

We had VIP entrance to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which enabled us to bypass part of the line. Vito got scolded in the line for putting his hands in his pockets, and I got scolded for wearing sunglasses (this was outside while waiting, not inside the tomb).  The elderly woman in front of us is clearly a great admirer who fervently prayed and moaned as we filed past the coffin.  The young guards wanted to respect her and honor her devotion, but eventually they gently pushed her along by putting their hands on her back to move her forward.  Nearby we visited Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts (and his car collection) and the One Pillar Pagoda, a symbol of Hanoi.  We drove to the Temple of Quan Thanh, where lies the genie protector of the city (or Tran Quoc Pagoda located on the shores of Lake West).

Two Capitalists on vacation.  Nothing says Communist icon like a frozen body and a giant mausoleum. Tomb of Ho Chih Minh.
Ho’s friends.

Next a stop at the Opera House and then a visit to the Hanoi Hilton.  The English signs around the prison are propagandistic to say the very least and employ the use of the term “puppet regime” quite liberally.  A fellow grammar nazi took a sharpie to many signs to correct the grammar/spelling.

Hanoi Hilton – 1* rating on TripAdvisor. Bad food, uncomfortable beds. This place is torture.

Vito toured Hanoi’s famed old quarter from the seat of a cyclo (a bicycle rickshaw) while I walked around hopelessly lost.  The cycle driver, who was  paid by the tour company, was furious to receive what he deemed an insufficient tip (after ripping us off by shortening the length of the tour).

Lake in the center of Hanoi.

We went to the late matinee at the water puppets theatre, which was quite enjoyable and mercifully brief.

The streets of Hanoi.

Our driver picked us up for a 20.30 transfer to train station for night train to Laocai station, overnight on the train.  We took the Fanxipan train, where we had the whole 4 berth cabin for the 2 of us (it’s small enough for 2).  Very clean and actually quite comfortable, but this was the bumpiest/shakiest train ride we’ve ever taken.

Our cabin on the Fanxipan train.

2 April

At 6.00 a.m. our train arrived in Laocai, where our excellent guide and driver picked up from train station then transfer to Boutique Sapa Hotelfor breakfast.  The hotel is in the heart of the town, and we were able to walk around the local market.  We bought some knock-off Kleen shoes and a North Face hat (which which now affectionately call North Farce).

Dog at Sapa market.

Our guide met us back at the hotel to take us to Lao Chai village, a Black Hmong ethnic minority village. Many (or most) of the tribal children don’t go to school, so we saw many of them just hanging out alone at their houses while their parents go to work.

Nobody’s home – take my picture!
Rice paddy lunch break time.

Boys will be boys anywhere in the world, and a group of young boys (aged from about 4-8) sat around on the mountainside throwing rocks (over the cliff and at each other).  From there we walked to Tavan village where the Giay ethnic minority hill tribe lives. Luckily because we had a private guide we weren’t hassled by people trying to sell us junk as much as the tourists walking on their own.

Buffalo gets lunch, too.

We stopped at a guest home for a delicious lunch prepared by our guide.  She phoned ahead to request mushrooms, and we paid a little extra for some wild mushrooms from the family’s property.  Some of the young Vietnamese people who were sleeping at the guest house wanted to practice their English with us, and we enjoyed a fun conversation.

Pick a skewer.

After lunch our walk continued through a bamboo forest to Giang Ta Chai, a Red Dao ethnic minority village. We walked around Sapa in the evening and sat outdoors to enjoy fresh grilled skewers from a street vendor.  A Spanish tourist sat next to us and ordered skewers of tiny songbirds, which cost about 20 Euros in Spain but only a dollar here.  Everything was tasty and cheap.  Our hotel has a lovely view of the mountains.

3 April

Coc Ly is a very small market which takes place only on Tuesdays.  Other than some fresh coconut ice cream and a few stuffed rolls, we didn’t buy anything and actually thought the city market in Sapa was better.   The long and windy road was worth the trip, though, for the a one-way boat ride along Chay River and a short walk to Trung Do village of Tay minority that followed the market.

Boat ride along the Chay River.

Back for another overnight on the Fanxipan train.4 April

At a green tea plantation with our guide Ha, who had the best English of any guide and gave us wonderful insight into Vietnamese life.

The other side of the river (behind us) is China. We don’t have visas, so we are not free to walk over.

Crack of dawn (4.30 a.m.) we arrived to Hanoi station, where our driver then transfer directly to KySon Village for our stay at the Moon Garden Homestay, which is owned by the owner of our tour company.  We showered and rested in the traditional style stilt house (where groups can stay in semi-private accomodations) while our private room was being prepared.  I guess I can call it a “semi-resort”.  We enjoyed sitting by the rice paddies and just reading and relaxing.

Lunch is served in an old church.

Our lunch was followed by a Hand Spa, where our  fingers were dipped in a fragrant lime bowl and we were given traditional herbal hand massages.  No detail has been forgotten here, from the rose petals on our bed to every last decoration in the lovely bathroom.

All around Vietnam fields and rice paddies contain family graves.

In the afternoon Vito took a bicycle ride to discover the Ky Son, Tam Son, Van Minh and Cham farming communities.

If there’s a chance a tourist might walk by, kindergarteners around the world learn to say, “Hello!”

In the evening we watched the family performing traditional prayers and worship.  Then we had a terrific outdoor candlelit dinner.  Since there is a maximum of 12 guests, there is a relaxed feeling and lots of personal attention.  Dessert was a foot bath in warm water with ginger, salt and mugwort medicinal herbs.

Dinner by candlelight.

As if we weren’t relaxed enough, when we returned to our rooms a traditional steam bath with fragrant herbs (Lemon grass, pomelo leaves, holy basil leaves) awaited us to prepare for a good night’s sleep.

5 April

Breakfast is served in an old church that was moved onto the property.

Ancestral tributes for sale.

One of the homestay employees took us on a walk through the village, and we stopped for tea at his family home, where we met his children (home from school for lunch) and his parents.

Spring roll cooking lesson results.

After lunch we had a cooking lesson and learned to make spring rolls and how to carve fruit.  We headed back to Hanoi in time for dinner.  We wandered around the night market sampling various street foods.

6 April

Our driver picked us up early for the drive to Halong Bay, a journey of approximately 3 1/2 hours. Listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Ha Long Bay is a stunning limestone archipelago stretching over some 1500 square kilometers and comprising nearly 2000 islets.  Everything was very well-organized, and we boarded our Dragon Pearl junk.  There were about 25 people on board, a mix of Australians and Americans.  The boat was clean, comfortable, and the staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating.  We enthusiastically recommend the Indochina Junk company and particularly the longer cruise which includes dinner in the cave (see below), which is truly a unique travel adventure.

Halong Bay – a must visit.

The weather was perfect so that we can enjoy an outdoor lunch while cruising to Bai Tu Long Bay, admiring the formations along the way.  We stopped at  the little islet of Cap La and enjoyed a swim and a kayak ride.

Refreshing would be the word to describe this early April swim.

Relaxing would be the word for this read on the beach.
The view from our cabin.
7 April

We took a morning kayak ride through the hidden lagoons and the geological park in Cong Dam.  We had good weather, but after lunch it was pouring rain for our visit to

Cong Dam fishing village by a rustic row-boat.  We visited a local school and were welcomed into local homes to see how the villagers live.

Floating village.

One of the highlights of our entire trip had to be our dinner in Thay (Master) cave.  We walked up steep stairs and into a cave, walking along a candlelit route into the atmospherically-lit grand cave.  The boat staff entertained us with their amazing food carvings and served us a fantastic, multi-course meal.

A little rain can’t stop a kayak ride.

8 April

We visited Thien Canh Son cave in the morning and had lunch before disembarking and riding back to Hanoi

Tips from the Australians at the Kangaroo Cafe.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Hanoi’s markets.  We watched a gruesome frog disembowelment and purchased a variety of fruit, tea and “weasel coffee” (which allegedly passes through the digestive system of a weasel.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

posted May 16, 2014, 1:21 AM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:46 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

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Recently named one of the seven wonders of the natural world, Ha Long Bay is simply breathtaking. Covering an area around 1,000 square miles, the greater bay area is home to over 2,000 limestone island islets, each topped with lush vegetation like the frosting on a cupcake.

Sunset Over Ha Long Bay

Having heard a number of mixed reviews, some glowing and some horrific, we made sure to do a fair amount of research prior to our trip. One has a whole host of options when looking to experience this natural beauty. The most common one is to take a boat ride out into the bay. Trips range from a simple day trip, to an overnight stay, to multi-night stays. Having read all the reviews available, we determined that this was one of those times in life where spending a little bit more can drastically improve your overall experience. That in mind we opted for a two-night cruise with Indochina Junk on board the Dragon Pearl III.

Indochina Junk – Dragon Pearl III

Relaxing on the Boat

The greater Ha Long Bay area is segmented into three main bays – Ha Long Bay, Bái Tử Long Bay, and Lan Ha Bay (Cát Bà Islands). While Ha Long Bay proper has the highest concentration of giant limestone karst islands (775 islets), it is consequently the most popular and swarming with tour boats 24/7. What sets Indochina Junk apart, and why we ultimately chose to go with them, is that they have the exclusive use of the largely uncharted Bái Tử Long bay. Nearly 2x the size of Ha Long Bay proper, we basically had this entire area to our selves. In fact, we only saw one or two other Indochina Junk boats the entire time we were on the water.

Ha Long Bay Scenery

The Dragon Pearl III was a medium sized boat housing a total of 20 passengers and 13 crew. We boarded the boat around noon on the first day and immediately set off into the maze of limestone mountains. Standing on the top deck, it probably took me at least an hour and hundreds of photos later to settle my excitement down. It was just SO serene, SO majestic, SO utterly breathtaking that it was hard to fully take in.

Our boat made its final approach into one of the many coves and dropped its anchor for the night. It was around this time that our trusty guide Phuc, rounded up the passengers to go for an evening kayak ride. The next two hours were spent winding our way around the various rock formations encircling us. We passed one of the four floating villages in Ha Long Bay. Children smiled ear to ear as their parents poked their heads out of their boats or looked up from what they were doing. With friendly smiles and a loud “hello-goodbye” (spoken as all one word), I couldn’t tell if they were more novel to us or us to them.

Our Guide Phuc

Pat and Al Kayaking

Floating Village of Ha Long Bay

Kayaking Ha Long Bay

Our next day in Ha Long was a full one. After a filling breakfast we hung out on the sun deck as we motored to our next location. Arriving at another floating village we where escorted around in small, four person bamboo thatch boats. We were able to see how they farm pearls, where the locals go to school, as well as step foot inside some of the local houses.

Bamboo Boat Taxis at Ha Long Bay Floating Village

View from the Floating Village

After a quick afternoon swim off the side of the boat, we all cleaned up in preparation for our grand finale – dinner inside a cave.

Swimming in Ha Long Bay

Around 10,000 square feet in size, the cave itself is immense and was only discovered less than a decade ago. Lucky for us, Indochina Junk has the exclusive rights to its use. Our candle light cave dinner was spectacular. The entire trip would have been worth it for this one experience alone. The entire crew of 13 was there preparing our feast for us. They set up a BBQ grill outside and grilled us an endless array of seafood. It was romantic and mysterious. I just can’t say enough good things about it.

Dinner in a Cave

Having spent another beautifully serene evening sleeping in Ha Long Bay, the next morning inevitably drew our tour to a close. We packed up and were back in port by noon. The three-hour shuttle ride back to Hanoi was spent looking at photos on our camera and marveling in the beauty of Ha Long Bay. If planning a trip to Ha Long Bay, we would highly recommend Indochina Junk. While slightly pricer than some of the other options, it is absolutely worth it. For what we received in terms of both service and amenities, I would have paid much more in fact. Everything was just amazing.

Sunset on Ha Long Bay

A load of old junk in Halong Bay

posted May 16, 2014, 12:56 AM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:38 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Halong bay - one of the big hitters for any Vietnam travel itinerary but could it really live up to the hype? Or would the thousands and thousands of tourists have taken their toll on the magical bay? We had heard the good, the bad and the downright ugly – from a majestic paradise to a litter-ridden congested highway for worn out karaoke boats filled to the brim with screaming tourists!

 Would Halong Bay live up to our expectations?

John and I definitely wanted to check it out for ourselves but we wanted to make sure that our experience didn’t involve bad karaoke – just to be clear though, we love karaoke but there is a time and a place. We wanted to find a company that had a different route to most and would therefore let us explore the gorgeous karsts and caves without too many others. After some research online we decided – 3 days 2 nights on the Dragon’s Pearl, a gorgeous old Chinese junk boat, which promised to deliver a ‘road less travelled’ route. A little out of our backpacking budget but this was our last splurge in SE Asia and we reckon you get what you pay for…or we hoped so anyway!

To avoid any confusion our boat wasn’t a piece of junk – it’s just the old name for the traditional boat from this area. But when you see some of the wrecks sailing around Halong Bay it can definitely be used both ways!

Dragon's Pearl

After a 4 hour journey from Hanoi we arrived at the jetty to be ferried out to our junk – we were instantly disappointed to see most of the boats anchored in the bay had been painted white. We were expecting a mysterious and ancient pirate ship not a plastic fantastic wannabe eyesore! Okay that is probably a tad harsh but you get the point - we don’t like the white paint! We later learnt this was a decision taken by the Halong Bay tourism department. Who thinks the Director of Tourism probably has shares in a paint factory??? We do!

Stressful at sea

Once on board our junk was amazing, gorgeous interiors, relaxing sundecks and the cabins were perfect. It definitely exceeded our expectations and we couldn’t wait to get underway. We set off whilst munching on our first of many lovely meals and as our lovely tour guide Ha explained the activities over the next few days – lots of kayaking, relaxing and swimming.

The first few hours were spectacular, the scenery really is breathtaking and the mist made it even more magical and mysterious. We anchored up in a gorgeous quiet spot as Ha told us to get ready for kayaking, it was pretty cold so after getting on our coats we jumped in to our two man kayak and set off to explore some of the caves and fishing villages. It was great fun and there was a brilliant bunch of people – a hilarious Iranian/ American couple and a Kiwi couple – and amazingly we still hadn’t seen another boat. Who said Halong Bay was congested?!

Guess who did most of the paddling?

After around 2 hours kayaking it was back to the boat to chill out before dinner. Dinner was another spectacular feast of seafood, some of which we have no idea what it was but it tasted good! All washed down with yummy wine – happy days!

Next on the cards was squid fishing…bamboo stick, a length of string and a light bulb is all you need! Inevitably this turned out to be a battle between nations – the Kiwi’s vs the Scots vs the Yanks. Things got pretty intense and after a hard fought battle it was

Yanks - 2 (Also known as Indian squid whisperers)
Scots - 1 (It was a giant squid though – we tried to argue victory)
Kiwis - 0 (no pity, they have rugby!)

It was a great end to a perfect day.

Day two was an early start with breakfast at 8:30am, a feast of Pho Ga, eggs and toast whilst we cruised to visit one of the few permanent floating fishing villages in Halong Bay. Once we arrived we were greeted by lots of lovely ladies in rowing boats waiting to take us on a tour of the village. These places are incredible – a group of around 20 houses all floating on pontoons where generation after generation of families live for their entire lives raising children, going to school and making a living from the sea without setting a foot on dry land except to get supplies of water, vegetables and clothing. We were welcomed so warmly by the village elder who served us green tea as he explained to us what life was like here and their efforts to keep Halong Bay clean in their very own water world. The little children were adorable too and it was a privilege to visit such an amazing place.

One of the amazing floating houses

They put our rowing to shame!

After lunch it was kayaking time again – this time it was to one of the gorgeous beaches where the junk would come to meet us. This was also where we would have our evening meal…it a candlelit cave! After around 1 hour kayaking we got to the beach as the sun was beginning to set – a gorgeous little patch of white sand. After chilling for a short time we decided we would brave the cold water and swim back to the boat around 30m out. Jesus it was cold – we had to run straight in before we chickened out but we quickly got used to it. It was then a race to the hot shower, but not before jumping in from the top of the boat!

Sunset on our final kayak

At around 7pm in the pitch black we all jumped in the little tender boat for our cave dinner. John and I were excited but weren’t expecting much, just a BBQ in a cave with a few candles. We were wrong, it was magical. As we squeezed through the tight entrance we were greeted with a walk way of tea light candles all the way in to the cave which opened up in to a gorgeous space of golden stalactites covered in candles and was quite possibly one of the most stunning settings for dinner I had ever seen! The evening was brilliant - good food, music and chat in such a romantic setting!

Our last day had arrived we were served a delicious breakfast once again as we cruised back through the stunning scenery. We packed up and relaxed on deck taking the last photos of gorgeous Halong Bay.

We would definitely recommend anyone heading to Vietnam to check out Halong Bay, but choose your boat and itinerary wisely. Research online, read reviews and make sure the company is reliable. There is a cruise for everyone, if you want a relaxed few days then book the Dragon’s Pearl or if you want more of a party boat then head to the Hanoi Backpackers on Ma May Street to book.

We found the articles at Travelfish really useful during our.

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   Our romantic cave dinner

Halong Bay

posted May 16, 2014, 12:30 AM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:44 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Halong Bay is one of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam.  Not surprising since it’s so beautiful it’s listed as both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the new 7 wonders of nature.

Located on the northern coast of Vietnam about 3 hour drive from Hanoi and made up of almost 2000 islands we decided that instead of trying to do it on our own we would book a 3 day cruise.

Package tours are not really our favourite way to travel, (in fact we avoid them at all costs) but even though it was the most expensive  thing we have done so far, it was well worth every penny.  We picked a tour company (Indochina junk) that offered cruises away from the popular day trip destinations (there can over 100 boats on the bay at any time), which was great, we never saw more then 2 other boats and it made it feel as though we had the bay to ourselves.

The cruise itself was more fun than i initially thought it would be.  We got to go kayaking, swimming and we visited a floating village.  One of the days we even ventured to an island owned by Indochina junk where we played soccer in the sand and enjoyed a romantic dinner in a cave. We also met a few really nice people on the boat and our tour guide, Tony, was great.

Halong Bay is one of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam.  Not surprising since it’s so beautiful it’s listed as both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the new 7 wonders of nature.

Halong Bay Panoramic 1

Located on the northern coast of Vietnam about 3 hour drive from Hanoi and made up of almost 2000 islands we decided that instead of trying to do it on our own we would book a 3 day cruise.

Halong Bay BeachHalong Bay Kayaking

Package tours are not really our favourite way to travel, (in fact we avoid them at all costs) but even though it was the most expensive  thing we have done so far, it was well worth every penny.  We picked a tour company (Indochina junk) that offered cruises away from the popular day trip destinations (there can over 100 boats on the bay at any time), which was great, we never saw more then 2 other boats and it made it feel as though we had the bay to ourselves.


The cruise itself was more fun than i initially thought it would be.  We got to go kayaking, swimming and we visited a floating village.  One of the days we even ventured to an island owned by Indochina junk where we played soccer in the sand and enjoyed a romantic dinner in a cave. We also met a few really nice people on the boat and our tour guide, Tony, was great.

Little Boy from the Floating Village Halong Bay 

I’ll stop boring you with my words now, since even if I was a skilled writer I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the beauty of Halong bay, and let you enjoy the pictures…Well, see you later.

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Halong Bay Viet Nam

posted May 15, 2014, 8:41 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:45 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Cam's parents are here! They came all the way from Colorado to spend two weeks with us. They're sitting next to me right now, totally relaxed with their feet propped up staring out at the East China Sea and reading their books. We are taking it easy after their 24 hours of travel, which is perfect because Cam and I got sick from Vietnam...  thankfully he's had every shot known to man so he's fine, but my gentle little immune system couldn't handle it. I got so sick that Cam had to take me to the ER last night. Oh goodness, you don't even want to know.... Sparing you the details... and moving on to breathtaking and surreal Halong Bay.

Our Indochina junk ship ~ the Dragon's Pearl

Where we spent the first day ~ Hon Co Island

It's far more beautiful and peaceful and romantic than my photos do it justice.
It was the craziest three hour trek to get there from Hanoi but as soon as we set sail on the junk ship we were immediately in quiet and tranquility. We sailed on the other side of Halong Bay in Bai Tu Long which is the remote part of the Gulf of Tonkin more recently opened to junk ships. We saw only a
handful of other ships the whole time. It was overcast which somehow made the Bay even more exotic and other-worldly. All of us on board found ourselves talking in hushed tones as we marveled at the nearly 2,000 islands jutting from the emerald water slowly passing by. It really felt like a different world. We ate each meal al fresco with the other couples on board and loved getting to know each of them a bit ~ most of whom were from England and were hilarious. And the crew was just the best.. so warm and hospitable. They served us a 6 course seafood lunch while we sailed to Hon Co Island where we walked up about 100 steps to a massive cave, took in the views, kayaked around the islands and swam. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking a bottle of wine on the lounge chairs looking out in total awe. The only sounds were birds, an occasional fisherman passing by and soft music from the acoustic guitar one of the crew strummed for us on deck. It was so, so romantic and peaceful.. and just absolutely gorgeous. Truly a once in a lifetime experience.

The crew sang traditional Vietnamese songs to us after dinner that night as we all sat outside drinking wine,  thanking us for joining them. It was so lovely.. up until they asked us to join in on a praise song to Ho Chi Minh. Umm, heck no. Cam put it really well when he said that communism seems to be gasping for it's last breath in Vietnam. Free marketism is slowly making it's way in, though seemingly still at the rudimentary level.

I'm so excited to show you what the Bay looks like at dawn and the floating fishing village we rowed through...

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A Luxurious Junk Boat Cruise of Halong Bay

posted May 15, 2014, 8:18 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:39 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

Towards the end of our stay in Vietnam we took a 2 day/1 night cruise around the Bai Tu Long area of Halong Bay. While still part of the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, this north-eastern section is less visited by tourists and proved to be the enchanting hideaway that we’d hoped for. We cruised aboard the Indochina Princess Junk, a small wooden boat with a single cabin. Yes, that’s right, we were the only passengers on the boat. We didn’t realize it would be a private cruise until after making the reservation, but it ended up being the most relaxing thing we could have done for ourselves. There were five crew members on board including the boat’s captain, chef and a waiter. We spent most of our time lounging on the deck, wishing the cruise would never end.

Unbelievably, this is the only photo I took of our crew.

Meals on board the ship were sumptuous, multi-course affairs. We were served lunch on the deck almost as soon as we boarded and the dishes just kept coming. Sweet and sour seafood soup, sesame chicken and vegetable salad, buttery clams with pineapple, crabs and jumbo prawns, bacon-wrapped fish in soy sauce with spinach and rice – it was a spectacular feast!

We spent several hours after lunch on one of the islands enjoying Indochina’s private beach, where we had the options of swimming, sunbathing and kayaking. Hubby read on the beach while our knowledgeable tour guide took me out in one of the kayaks. We arrived back on shore in time to watch the sun set and play with the island’s resident puppies before heading back to the boat.

Our chef truly outdid himself at dinner. While we were frolicking on the beach, he was busy carving animals out of vegetables. The first course of spring rolls came adorned with two cranes carved out of lotus roots, with carrot beaks and ginger feet. Next swooped in a flying dragon carved out of pumpkin. It was perched on top of a pineapple and looked like it was about to catch the geoducks that were served along side. This was followed by more sesame chicken salad, steamed veggies and rice, garlicky prawns and individual steaks. We chose a chilled bottle of sauving non blanc to accompany the meal. Afterwards, the captain and all the crew came to introduce themselves and thank us for choosing their boat. They even gave us a beautiful conch shell to show their appreciation. We were completely blown away by their kind gesture!

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Early the next morning as our small caravan of five boats slipped through the foggy bay, we were served piping hot beef pho for breakfast. Not content to give us just one dish, we also had fresh fruit, eggs, toast and a mango smoothie. Sufficiently fueled up, we embarked on our second outing of the trip.

We were met by a small fleet of row boats that would take us for a tour of one of the area’s largest floating villages. About five minutes after getting in the smaller boats it started to pour, but our trusty guide was ready with ponchos and giant golf umbrellas. None of the other groups were as prepared and got absolutely drenched. The residents of the village were not bothered by the rain – women washed clothes, dogs ran around and children played in the water. It was so interesting to see a community out there on the sea. After cruising through the village we took a quick peek inside the floating school room and then headed to their cultured pearl shop. As we soaked up the incredible scenery on the return trip to the mainland, we were served a “light” lunch of steak, shrimp, veggies, rice and fruit. We definitely did not go hungry!

We booked our cruise through Darian Culbert Tours and can’t say enough good things about their customer service. All email communication went through Darian directly and he even helped secure our tourist visas upon arrival at the HCMC airport.

Viet Nam May 4 Hanoi to Halong

posted May 15, 2014, 7:47 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:52 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]

I woke up around 4:30am and started rousing everyone up. We arrive as scheduled at 5am, below is one of the hard seat cars without air conditioning, looks like a prison cell.

Again walking on the train tracks to get back to the main building...

We were advised by my agent not to leave the premises, and to pick up a Mai Linh Taxi inside the main train station. We managed to locate a few of them within the complex. The drivers wear white shirts and don green ties. The taxi's can be green or white with the Mai Ling Logo. Below is a sample pic of one though not the one I was in..

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*It was super chaotic with all types of cars/taxis/people outside the train station. I took a photo of the horrible traffic, and am so glad I did. Trusting the Mai Linh company as my travel agent and my hotel had recommended it, I trust the meter as well, which the driver starts at 100,000dong (it should have been 10,000dong). Being that I was so exhausted from the long train ride and we were tired, I didn't notice the huge error even though I knew the approximate cost of the ride. My 50,000 dong ($2.5) turned out to be 500,000dong ($25) 10x the amount it should have been. Anyhow I didn't even realize I was scammed until we were in Halong Bay. I was super upset...when we returned to the hotel the next day, I informed the hotel of the situation. They looked at their security cameras but could not find anything and I didn't get a receipt because I thought what I was paying at the time was correct. The front desk receptionist, Ngo, was pretty mad at what happened. It reflects badly on their services because it is a company they endorse.

Anyhow, while at the airport on my way to Hue, I locate the picture below, which shows the car ID! JACKPOT! I email the photo to Hanoi Diamond Elegance Hotel. They call up Mah Linh...2 days later while I was in Hoi An, I get an email from my Hanoi Hotel informing me that Mai Linh Corporate located the driver and he has lost his month's bonus, and he brought the money back to the hotel with an apology. The hotel receptionist asked where they should send my money, but I had always intended for them to keep it as tip as a token of appreciation. The hotel did not need to do anything like this since we had checked out days before but they felt that it was the right thing to do. Lesson learned, I got a bad apple when it came to the driver, but at least Mai Linh is a reputable and a REAL company.

5:30am morning drive back to the hotel, we saw many Hanoians out doing morning exercises in the park...there was everything Tai chi, aerobic classes, walking, jogging, etc.

Another reason to love HANOI ELEGANCE DIAMOND HOTEL. We had checked out of the hotel on May 1st, but hotel held our luggage until May 5th, and it was always accessible to us between trips for our clothing changes. What made them really great was that when Heidi asked, and since it was not in use, they allowed us to shower in the Spa Room! Free of charge! They even provided clean towels and toiletries. OMG it was the BEST shower of my life after spending the day before exploring Sapa, then onto the overnight train in 100% humidity. We tried really hard not to mess up the room so as not to give cleaning staff extra work.

After my shower, I walked by myself to the lake to try to get some money from the HSBC ATM. To my dismay none of the ATM's were turned on/opened perhaps because it was before 8am! Who knew that ATM's closed...there was 1 or 2 bank atm's that were opened but since I was not pressed for cash, I decided to wait to get cash from HSBC to avoid extra charges.

Morning vendors...

Doggies ride the scooters too...

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