So far my trip to Vietnam has been such an experience. We arrived on the New year...and although we missed the actual celebration, people were still out partying in the streets, lighting paper laterns that lifted away and lit up the sky, people with HUGE and brightly colored balloons and motorcylists carrying multiple people and huge stalks of bamboo and kumkuat/orange trees. Fireworks were still popping in the background and paper money (fake) was being lit for good luck and in honor of dead ancestors.The following morning Kevin, Matt and I took a bus to Ha Long Bay and we prayed for our life the entire way. Our driver was insane, and obviously rules don't exist. The scenery was magnificent and the towns (although small) were clean and the houses are typically tall with only the side facing the street being painted. Since it was the new year, everyone was wearing new clothes and it was quite the fashion statement. The streets were pretty quiet since everyone was spending the holidays with family and the shops were closed. Three hours later, we arrived safely and boarded a 'junk boat' for our 2 day (overnight) tour of the islands and Ha long Bay. The boats were all a dark cherry wood and decorated with a cool Asian flare. The first order of business was lunch. All of our meals were served family style and it was great to talk to the other passengers at our table. People from all over the world. The scenery here was stunning... a 360 degree view of mountains jutting out of the water...for the most part, uninhabitable. We went to a cove where we got to climb up to a huge cave (with stalagtites/mites)...very cool!The weather has also been very cool...and although we were given the opportunity to seakayak...we opted to stay in the boat after our trip to the cave. That night, after dinner, we crashed early!The next day we traveled to an island, where the people only live off of tourism, and took a bus to a rural area where we boarded another boat and went to yet another cave. This one was not touristy though and our guide had to crank start a generator to light the inside of the cave. Once we got in, a few of us journeyed beyond what most people could. With only a flashlight (and our camera flashes) we crawled through a 16 inch slit in the rocks and entered into another part of the cave (again, filled with stalagtites/mites). I felt like I was in the Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom. I won't lie, it was a bit freaky. We actually crawled through two more similar holes and again, opened up into a unbelievable part of the cave. Only 5 out of the 11 of could fit through the holes, so once inside we took our time and explored all the details, pointed out by a local who led the way. Little did we know, we were freaking out our tour guide and all the others who didn't get to crawl through since we were gone for over 40 minutes.
When we finally crawled back to day light we walked back to our boat and traveled back to a house on stilts, which also was our lunch stop. WE had a wonderful meal prepared for us...however, we had quite a bit of fried food...their way of catoring to the 'Westerners'. After lunch we bussed through the windy roads along the valleys and hill tops of rural Vietnam and arrived at Cat Ba...a quaint town with beautiful hidden sandy beaches. The town itself was quiet b/c of the New year, but it was nice. We had the rest of the days to ourselves. Matt, Kevin and I got dropped off at our gorgeous hotel, over looking the water and the moutains protruding from the ocean. We went for a walk along the cliffside, to those hidden beaches and enjoyed the little sun we could. Had it only been 20 degrees warmer we would have been playing in the ocean! We continued our walk into town and enjoyed a beer at one of the few restaurants that were open. The rest of our tour group met up with us later that evening at the same place for dinner. When we arrived back at our hotel, we realized that the water was phosphoescent...and we ooohed and awwwed at the vibrant blue color it made when the waves crashed. It took me several tries, but I got some cool photos of the neon colors. When we walked in the sand where the wave had just crashed, you could see our footprints light up. It was fascinating!
THe next morning I woke up early and went on a run along the waterfront. A large number of the people live on house boats and they were all up early getting ready to start their day fishing. It was a great way to get a glimpse into their daily life. Our toured gathered back together and we boarded a bus and headed back through the windy roads to the other side of the island where we got back on our big boat. The rest of the day was spent going back to Ha Long Bay, and then getting back on a bus to Ha Noi. It was a long day, but well worth it. While most people slept on the bus, I enjoyed soaking in the scenery...rice patty fields, big mountains surrounding the valleys, colorful yet simple buildings, bright red banners streamed across the town reading, "Mung Chuc Nam Moi" (Happy New year), motorbikes packed with up to 4 people on each (many with infants just being held by their mother), farmers with their cattle or tending to their gardens and wearing the traditional woven cone shaped hat.
Today we got to see more of Ha Noi...we spent the whole day walking around town, checking out the local shops and markets (those that were open), saw the HoChi Mihn Museum, had a fabulous lunch at the coolest restaurant in town and then went to Hoa Lo prison (the prison that McCain was detained in for 5 years). As we were walking around, we stumbled across a huge New Year parade with all the traditional costumes, music and dances. Needless to say, I took a few pictures! Getting around town has been easy so far, however, crossing the street is always a challenge. It's like playing 'Frogger'...and you have to time it just right. The motorbikes are everywhere and again, there seems to be no rules...just GO. With all those bikes, there is a reason that so many people wear masks...the pollution is incredible, and we are still witnessing a quiet time of the year.
Tomorrow we are hopping on a plane to Ho Chi Mihn (aka. Saigon)...so I will continue to write about our journeys. For now, I will sleep. Good night!
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