Monday, December 6, 2010

Wednesday, Dec. 1 and Thursday, Dec. 2 Hanoi

Some of us were up when Michael and Chau left the hotel this morning for the airport. Bernie had plans to do some touring and Eleanor and I were accepted as companions! From 8:30 to 5 we traipsed on his walking tour. Others went into the Old Quarter or elsewhere....
Bernie led us first to the mausoleum for a look at Uncle Ho's body, then to the Canadian embassy (right across the street!) to use the computer and washroom, on to the Fine Arts Museum, lunch at Koto's, a tour of the Temple of Literature (Vietnam's first university), through some back alleys where thriving markets operated to the Hanoi "Hilton" (originally a French prison for Vietnamese prisoners, then a prison for American pilots) and then back to the hotel. Along the way we noted children rollerblading at a park where men were playing a game involving a shuttlecock-like ball and feet and body parts other than hands.
I was exhausted but Bernie joined the others for dinner at the Green Mango, a place mentioned in travel books and therefore a bit disappointing. Eleanor and Sharon had a quiet dinner in the neighbourhood.

Next morning Bernie had another tour planned! Eleanor, Sharon and I joined him in a walk through the Old Quarter. It is also known as 36 Streets in which each street seems to specialize in a particular item. For instance there were streets of shoes, kitchen racks, paper products, Christmas ornaments, wooden stamps, tin smithing, picture framing, hinges, paint products, keys and padlocks, and of course, silk. We three ladies let Bernie continue for we had serious shopping to do! After having expended energy and money I returned to the hotel to find Brendan sitting down, very unlike him. He sent me on to the Women's Museum which highlighted the history and the influence of women in North Vietnam in particular. As with all the museums I filtered out the propaganda but was still impressed by the role women played during the wars with the French and the Americans.

Hoan Kiem Lake, with its Sunbeam Bridge and lovely walking area, made our part of Hanoi very special. Most of us preferred Hanoi to Saigon as a place to spend time. But it was time to go.

The two minivans managed to hold all our bike boxes and luggage for the journey to the airport. Robin and Dan went to the Korean Air counter while the rest of us went to Air Canada. A delayed flight and a 3:30 breakfast left little time for sleep. With an 11 hour wait at the airport Doug, Gala and Bernie headed into Narita where Doug experienced some live eel, I think! Sharon and Eleanor, Brendan and Jadine waited out the hours at the airport while I paid for a long sleep in a hotel room.

Flight home was late leaving the airport and was highlighted by great turbulence and our hearing of the pilot calling Tokyo airport several times....common sense reasoned that he had forgotten to turn the mike off but it was a bit uncomfortable, to say the least!

Finally we are home to face the rush of Christmas or off to more adventures. This group of 16 was wonderful to be with and look forward to seeing each other on another cycle trip sometime soon.

Tuesday, November 30, Halong Bay back to Hanoi

Even on the junk we couldn't escape the call for an early breakfast! At 7:40 we transferred to a small boat powered by a standing man plying two long oars; he seemed to be rowing backwards to what we do. We slipped under an arch of stone into a beautiful serene lagoon surrounded by tall outcrops of limestone.
Checkout was at 9 am, lunch at 10:30 (Dan, Bernie, Doug and Yvonne played a rematch of bridge game started on the train to pass the time) and then back to shore to the bus.
On the way back to Hanoi we stopped at a "happy place" in a factory similar to yesterday's. On our arrival back in Hanoi Paul and Nancy did some power shopping as they were leaving at 6 am the next day. The rest of us walked around a bit until dinner time.
 At dinner we said goodbye and gave our final thanks to Chau for the experience of a lifetime. Then off we went to see a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater; puppets were manipulated by means of long sticks and wires to seem as if they were on the water. Fighting water buffalo and a wealthy merchant and his servants were highlights.

November 29, Hanoi to Halong Bay for overnight on junk

We had said goodbye to Les before our train left Lao Cai last night. He had plans to trek some more in the mountains and experience home stays or camping out. This morning, after a short night's sleep (carousing Germans in our car and a wake up knock on the door at 3:30), we said goodbye to Dawn and Ross, picked up Robin and dropped off Brendan (Jadine was back in Hanoi) and drove for 3 1/2 hours to Halong Bay. On the way we stopped for breakfast and the "happy room" at a touristy factory (marble sculpture, hand embroidery, silk clothing) and then at a pearl factory where we learned the tricks to discerning real pearls from fake (use a lighter to burn the pearl, scratch the pearl on a mirror).

By now the sun was shining and we were thrilled by our accommodations on the junk. Lunch was a delicious seafood meal; a rum and orange juice drink cost $7 US, I guess justified by the white tablecloths and a seven person crew! The junk motored through the limestone peaks jutting straight up from the water to a dock. We disembarked (BC Ferry talk) and proceeded to climb up to and through several large caverns. Doug had briefed us on the expected phallic symbol bathed in red light; this is not called the Cave of Awe for nothing.

We then motored over to another dock by a beach. We ascended TiTop islet by foot; it was more than a 12% grade. At the top Paul and Doug conversed en francais with French tourists who were impressed that we had cycled throughout Vietnam. Upon reaching the beach Yvonne went for a swim in her clothes, joined by Doug having his second swim of the day. Very salty water.
Dinner again was a lovely time with Yvonne being surprised on her birthday by a cake, lovely bouquet of red roses and an enlarged signed photo of the group. Bernie, Paul and Nancy kept her supplied with red wine. Dinner was followed by dancing, with Bernie getting everyone up to boogie around the dining table. Bernie and Sharon were still dancing at 10:00 while others were enjoying the still warm night air, the stars and the magical evening.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dec. 3 Final thoughts

To be added when Yvonne gets home.

November 26th, rest day in Sapa

Friday, a misty wet day in Sapa.   What a touristy town!!    Makes one think of Whistler, cool, foggy, rainy.  Tourists wandering the streets , wannabe trekkers pacing the streets from hotel to backpacker store to street market to restaurant until finally giving in to foot fatigue and collapsing onto a couch at one of the many massage parlours.  Tourists!

Our morning was mostly spent like most other tourists going down (We walked, many others took a tour bus.) to a traditional village called Cat Cat, pretending all the while we hadn't passed many similar villages while biking.  There, as usual, more peddling of crafts.   A good group of performers danced (More athletic then what we had seen in the past for they had a proper stage instead of a rough street.) and played instruments in an old building  which was once a power generating station.  One performer played a half of a bean pod to produce a sound not that much different then a harmonic.   We heard that a number of our group decided to venture onto the back of motor bikes for the trip back up the hill.... wimps!!  

Match maker Bernie encouraged Les to catch up to his sister who was headed for a coffee shop by herself.  He commented afterwards that he couldn't remember having such a private chat with his sister for many years.  Interesting how life passes without one "finding time" for those simple but valuable moments.
Ross and Dawn raided all the tourist convenience shops for some "Western goodies (chips)" for a happy hour in their room.   Having learned their lesson about Vietnam moral codes Dawn and Ross had the ladies sit primly on one bed, the guys on another.   They had received their warning about local standards a couple of days previously when Dawn, just sitting (So she says!!!) on Ross' lap at a dance performance, was given a stern finger waving lecture, "Vietnam NO!!, Vietnam No!!, Vietnam No!!.   There was no mistaking that message!
Later, before debarking for a pizza joint (Yes... pizza... this is a touristy town!) a couple of brave souls decided they would entice Brendan to join the party.   They came back.... "Brendan is in this white gown with knee length black stockings!!!"  Gee.... a guy isn't safe in the privacy (so he thought) of his own room.   The party finally swarmed into the pizza joint and proved, one can be sure, Vietnamese thoughts about their eating habits, clearing away a full regular sized pizza each and copulas quantities of beer and wine.
"What... we got to get up at five thirty, have breakfast, then brave the seven thirty cold for one hundred plus kilometres, the last twenty up a 12% grade.  ALL WITH A POTENTIAL HANGOVER!!!"
Entered by Brendan and Les

Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 28th Bac Ha to Lao Cai City and then overnight train to Hanoi

The loudspeakers on the street thankfully shut down in Bac Ha around 9 pm only to restart at 6 am after morning verspers of cocks.  Breakfast featuring rare papaya and the usual bowls of cold fried eggs and Chinese noodles and doughy bread and suspect jelly.

Highlight of the day was to be the Sunday market in Bac Ha where the H'mong people descend from the hills with their wares.  And it did not disappoint.  The most colourful market in every sense of the trip.  H'mong in their multiple layered brocades (females only) selling the kitchen sink but not pulling at your coattails:  most of the sales seemed to be among themselves.  Live fish in concrete pools, scaling and cleaving fins, live water buffalo, short horses (we've seen very few horses all month), pot-bellied pigs in grain bags with snouts protruding, baskets, bags, ducks, chickens, dogs, linens, chilis, peanuts, star anise, cardamon, kits, cats, ...  All  going to and for sale.  And a food court:  Metrotown move over!  Dare you to eat anything and come out alive.

After, we descended off the mountain for a two hour boat ride up and down the Sang Tchay river.  Sandstone cliffs, many butterflies, a couple of sandpipers and unidentified raptor the only birds.  Then lunch, good lunch, last lunch together.  Speeches and gifts and tips to the crew.

Then back in the vans the same way we rode yesterday into Lao Cai City:  clear evidence that you experience so much more from the saddle but able to piece together the whirr as we spun yesterday.  The whirr is banana plantations, veneer wood plants, tea groves, and winding busy highway.

Showers at the hotel and cleaning shoes and dinner (again) and on the train tonight armed with playing cards and cookies and mandarins.  Train was bearable.  Four to a room.  Washrooms not great.