Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Travelogue - Vietnam - Phuket - II

Okay, i know it has been really long since i came back and wrote something.
Note to self: Discipline is needed... loads of it. So without much ado, i begin the rest of the journey...

Day 2 - 11.02.2010

Breakfast at the hotel in Hanoi before we begin our drive from Hanoi to Halong bay with our guide Moon and the driver at Yes that's early when one is holidaying; but we aren't complaining since we are really looking forward to Halong Bay. we head out into the city and bump into traffic which is already at its peak. Our guide tells us how her husband returned late at night, yet again in high spirits and asks me if Indian men are the same? oops! :) I say, my husband definitely isn't! We cross another landmark of the city, a bridge constructed in 1901 by the French. We are told, the contractors for the bridge were the same who built the Eiffel Tower! Vishal's hand is healing.. i think i forgot to mention this... the night before we started for Vietnam, Vishal was experinmenting in the kitchen as usual and accidentally (of course!) poured hot water on his wrist... some real bad burn. His wrist was bandaged for the entire journey and invariably invited questions from our guides. Perhaps they thought Indian women indulge in husband-bashing :)

It's a 4 hrs drive from the city to Halong Bay and we indulge in some small talk. We talk about the high taxes in Vietnam; many people prefer getting low basic salary with big bonuses. Our guide tells us about farmland life in Vietnam. How farmers in earlier days preferred having many children; one reason was more children = more farmland given by the govt. So there were instances where a farmer would have 19 or more children.. the parents would name their kids - No.1, No.2, No.3 and so on... The other reason for so many kids.. there were no TV or any other form of entertainment... so what do you do? :)

Any conversation in Vietnam is incomplete without anecdotes from the wartime.. we are told, some 300,000 tonnes of bombs were unleashed on Hanoi in 12 days and Nixon infamously claimed that he wanted to take Hanoi to the stone ages. There were generations poisoned by the chemical warfare and Agent Orange (sights of which we would witness later in Ho Chi Minh)... i can't even begin to imagine, how this nation not just managed to defeat the mighty Americans but also rise up to the challenge of building and healing a nation that was deeply injured and ravaged by the war. I can't imagine how the violence of that era must have left the psyche of an entire generation bruised and mangled. And i have so much respect for these people who rose from the dust and blood and worked hard to be where they are now; salute to the grit and positivity they possess.

Enroute to Halong Bay we visit a place where they create silk embroidered paintings amongst other handicrafts, a tradition that Vietnam is rich in, much like India. Some of these paintings are created by the physically challanged, so whatever the tourists buy goes to charity. We buy some exquisite embroidered paintings , some laquerware and a laquer painting which has a base of cracked egg-shells; such effort and attention to detail!

Halong Bay

Halong Bay in Vietnamese means "Descending Dragon Bay" and it's a UNESCO World Heritage site. Vietnamese legend has it that when the Vietnamese were fighting the Chinese, God sent Dragons to protect and defend the people. The jewels and jade the dragons spit out became the islets of Halong Bay. It's a collection of more than 1,600 limestone islets & islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The waters of Halong are calm and peaceful and it wasn't untill the recent past (i can't remember exactly which year) that it was opened to tourists. Commercialisation and tourism has changed the landscape of Halong a bit, you do see lot more boats now that you would have in the past. I can only imagine how ethereally beautiful and serene this place must have been before humans decided to devour nature, yet again.

We reach Halong Bay. It's a beautiful day, sunny with breeze from the bay. Moon and our driver hand us over to our guide for this leg of the trip - Steven, who accompanies us with another couple in our boat, a Chinese junk named Victory (and so are most of the boats as we dicover later) with 2 bedrooms, a lounge area where one could sit, chat and dine and an open air deck upstairs. We are joined by the second couple, an elderly British couple, Mary & Dick. And this reminds me... i have always wondered, why would parents name their child "Dick"? why on earth? Anyway, we settle down in our cozy bedroom with a really plush loo for a small junk.

First off, we are served some of the best seafood evvvver for lunch... fresh catch from the bay we are told while the boat peacefully glides on the waters of Halong that is dotted with junks of all sizes. It' peaceful and serene and the experience is quite difficult to describe in words (i could play this scene again and again in my head and feel the serenity through my thoughts). What do we have for lunch? Steamed crabs & king prawns with calamansi, salt and red chillies dip. Cabbage rice, fried spring rolls with fish/ crab stuffing (we couldn't tell which one :p), fried fish, steamed rice, dragon fruit & local beer... yes all of this for lunch! And we happily hogged our way to a happy tummy (It was only after a while, i am punished for being such a glutton)...

After lunch, we are taken to this place called "Surprise Grotto". The limestone islets of the bay have some spectacular grottos, "Sửng Sốt" being one of them. It got its name from the French who called it "Grotte des Surprises". Why? because you are surprised at every nook and cranny of the grotto.. there are as many animals and forms as your imagination permits. We arrive at the islet and a climb up 50 steps brings us to the entrance of the Surprise Cave (as our guide Steven calls it) and we are in awe of nature yet again. The size and beauty of the grotto is spectacular, beautiful and something to be experienced. Parts of the cave are dramatically lighted in different colours; i wonder how it must have been without the tourists and the lights in the past. Spooky i guess!

After the grotto-visit, we head off to Quan Lan island which is part of an island range on the outside of the gulf of Tonkin and is part of a navigation route that connects China, Japan, Thailand, Phillipines to Vietnam. What strikes us immedaitely is that unlike the islets inside the bay, this one has a beach.. apparently man-made, but googling reveals its natural. There is this Pagoda at the top of the hill and Steven tells us that we can get some spectacular views of the bay from there. Unfortunately, like i mentioned before, i am punished for being a glutton.. I am visited by a very bad case of stomach upset and unfortunately in a place which doesn't have a functioning toilet. I mean there is a toilet, but that's about it. And at this point, i totally regret hogging like a pig. The thought of going up the steps to the Pagoda is excruciating and poor Vishal has to stay back on the beach with me and my gurgling, painful tummy. I manage to use the facilities provided, but i would love to wash away those memories completely. :)

Finally its time for us to board our boat; we set of towards the bay again and i heave a sigh of relief with the thought of a proper loo at my disposal. :)

Back on the boat we view a beautiful beautiful sunset from the open air upper deck, while our boat silently glides on the calm waters again. An amazing amazing experience. We soak-in everything till it's time for our dinner. My stomach seems alright by now and i think its alright to hog again :) Vishal continues to be surprised by how much i can eat when the food is good. :p

We join Mary & Dick for dinner; it's Mary's birthday so we raise a toast to celebrate the night with some good food, wine and company. For dinner we have stuffed crab, king prawns, bok choy, fried fish croquettes and some really good Chardonay. Dick and Mary are a well travelled couple who keep us entertained with their travel stories. Dick tells us stories about his childhood in Singapore. He and Singapore were still babies then and so when he visited the country some years back, he could no longer take Mary around to the places, streets and lanes that he grew up in. Much of what he had in his memories had changed.

We chat late into the night... how strange, so many thoughts and ideas exchanged with perfect strangers. Dick tells us that his family is from New Zealand and we tell him about our wonderful time in New Zealand. He tells us, how he wants to move to NZ for good but can't; Mary doesn't want to be far from the kids and grand-kids who are all in the UK. Ah, the pull of the family and blood! From what they tell us, we get the feeling that they don't fancy spending their old-age in UK. Every country has it's share of problems and so does the erstwhile land of the never setting sun. We are told that apart from the high taxes, if you are a British citizen, then 40% of your life's earnings go to the govt when you die! What?? Really?!! And that there are generations living on social security because they get more on social security than they would by doing low paying jobs. I guess, unless you live and experience a place, you never really know how it is...

We chat some more about the different places we have been to - India, Greece, Egypt, China, Singapore etc before saying our good nights.

If it was calm and peaceful during the day, the quiet of the night is one notch up. The waters are extremely calm. Apart from the gentle rocking of the boat, much like a baby's cradle, and the gentle whispers of the water, there is no other sound. (The boat was tilted towards my side of the bed the entire night! i thought it was because of me! really? am i THAT heavy? my fears were put to rest when in the morning i was told that Mary also slept on the same side.. woman power heh? ;-))... I would love to spend more such serene nights here... alas, our time in Halong Bay comes to an end tomorrow.