Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Pearl - Part 4

March 24-25, 2017

Friday was the last day of work for the team, and some down time for me.  Tim faced a couple of daunting opponents in a game of checkers, or "draughts" as it is known in most of the rest of the world.  Lucky for him, he had to go to work before the game was over...

Spent most of the day just wandering the Old Quarter again.  Picked up a cool dragon jigsaw puzzle for really cheap, and got a new hat to replace my lost one.  Some random photos from the day:

Workers bringing flowers for planting at the lake

These rooftop decks and gardens are a common sight in Hanoi

The whole group stayed Saturday for a day trip to Ha Long Bay, a nearly three-hour drive from Hanoi.  Sadly, the one day off for the whole group was rainy and gray, as witnessed by the snail outside our hotel room.

Tim's colleague arranged for a van to pick us up from the hotel.  Got a good look at the country side of Vietnam, after passing countless karaoke places on our way out of the city.  They really are everywhere!

We arrived at the Tuan Chau Marina, where the parking lot was jammed with tour buses and mostly Chinese tourists.  We were met by our guide for the day, and after a slight mix-up about whether our tour included lunch (it did, for an additional price), we followed him past dozens of two-story wooden tour boats to our designated craft.  The interior was lovely, old wood with carved wooden benches at each table.  I was surprised we had the whole boat to ourselves - it seemed awfully big for just seven of us, plus our guide.

Sailing out into the bay, we had lots of company.  Tour boats dotted the landscape, and selfies seemed to be the activity of the day.  It was a little hard to appreciate the beauty of the natural surroundings with such busy-ness around us.

Our guide, Cee (in front), the captain (right) and crew

Ha Long is a huge bay located on the east coast of Hanoi, dotted with nearly 2000 limestone cliffs in unique and interesting formations. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is quite similar to the Li River cruise in Guilin, China.  We "visited" a fishing village, just boating past with the guide pointing in the general direction.  Apparently these fishermen live right on the water in little coves around the bay, as they have for hundreds of years.

"Ha Long" means descending dragon, and the legend goes that the gods sent a family of dragons to help protect the Vietnamese people from invaders.  The dragons spit out gems and jade, which turned into the limestone cliffs dotting the bay.  Some of the limestone pillars rising out of the bay have been named according to their appearance, such as the Elephant, the Fighting Cocks and the Monkey.  Most of them range from 50 to 100 meters in height.

the "Fighting Cocks"

We had a simple lunch served family-style to our two tables.  Rice, fish, fruits, etc., and a plate of french fries to appease the westerners.   Tim ordered a bottle of Vietnamese wine for the table, too.

After lunch, we docked at the entrance to a large cave, just as the rains began to fall in earnest.  We were pretty drippy by the time we took the long walk and many stairs into the cave.  Dau Go Cave is a huge limestone grotto lit with colored lights for the tourists.  Again, many formations were given names - dragon, turtle, lion - and stalactites and stalagmites abounded.  A nice chance to walk around, but lots of tour groups crowding through.

The original entrance

low tide

Back on the boat, the young ladies who worked on the boat had their many wares out for sale.  Tim, who hated to see these girls get zero profit for their afternoon, kindly bought a pearl necklace for his wife, and paid the other girl to take our photo, even though we all had our own cameras.  Our traveling companions bought a little plastic fan for their son as well.  Our tour was over quickly, and we found our van driver for the long drive back to Hanoi.  Traffic was brutal at that time of day, and we passed a big factory right at quitting time, finding ourselves in a river of swarming motorbikes.

Familial tombs can be found at the edges of many fields

Very common architectural style 

cattle heading home for the day?

Rice paddies

Hello Kitty helmet with ponytail hole
When we got near the hotel, traffic was at a standstill, and roads were blocked off.  We'd seen them setting up for something in front of the Opera House the day before, but didn't know what it was for.  We learned they would be taking part in Earth Hour 60+, when communities around the world would turn off all non-essential lights for one hour, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.  We had to get out of the van and walk a block or two to get back to the hotel.  The hotel was setting up lanterns in the lobby in preparation.

We met for our usual drinks and snacks, then Tim and I walked out to the Opera House to see what was going on.  A big stage had been erected, with lots of bright lights and big screens.  Seemed to kind of miss the point, having so many extra lights, just to turn them off!  A huge crowd was gathered, and a couple of celebrity-types were center stage.  It was quite a festive atmosphere, and after a big, dramatic countdown, many of the city's lights were turned off.   Our friends were out walking through the night market, and said they had to find their way back in the dark!  Good event to promote awareness in any case.

Lights out!

Hotel lobby by candlelight

Next morning, we all rode together to the airport, and bid Hanoi, the pearl of the East in my mind, a fond farewell.