Monkeys Make Me Smile

WP_20140205_024
Wild monkeys in Ha Long Bay

Experiencing the adventure of gliding through a stone cave at low tide to access the secluded inner sanctum of the tropical forest sprouting out of an ancient rock formation in Ha Long Bay was magical.  I expected to see a dinosaur at any moment because it reminded me so much of a scene from Jurassic Park.  In of itself, that would be an awesome memory.

Gliding through the cave at low tide to reach the monkey kingdom
Gliding through the cave at low tide to reach the monkey kingdom

Layer in the wild monkeys of Vietnam strutting their stuff among the treetops and shoreline and you now have a once in a lifetime rare glimpse into a private world unchanged by civilization.  These adorable creatures have probably been part of the animal culture here for millions of years and would make even the grumpiest person smile to see them tearing through the canopy of vegetation to joyfully play with one another.  Enjoy this private glimpse into my short video of our great adventure.

Ha Long Bay

WP_20140205_004
Ha Long Bay shrouded in the morning mist

Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is just as beautiful as all the pictures you will see.  That being said, it was a terrifying trip there from Hanoi.  Probably 50% of the time, our van was on the wrong side of the road careening straight into the oncoming traffic of other crazed drivers.   That we survived is a miracle.  I would never do it again..ever.

Our cruise on the Princess Luxury Cruise Ship was so special and memorable, especially after our life or death experience getting there.

WP_20140204_048
Ha Long Bay bathed in sunshine

These stone formations jutting out of the green water have been around for 500 million+ years and we got to see them in the sunshine and also shrouded in the morning mist-both were spectacular.

We stopped on the way here at a tourist rest stop.  There, they had many ladies doing hammered egg shells in and coat with lacquer many layers and then paint beautiful pictures on top.  There was also jewelry, clothing, scarfs and embroidered pictures.  So many to choose from that I couldn’t make a decision.   Most cost less than $50.  The lady selling said all the people doing the artistic work were disabled but you tend to be skeptical when told that here.  Either way, the craftsmanship was amazing and I hope the artisans were paid decently for their lovely art.

WP_20140205_035
Gorgeous new hotel restaurant by the bay

In the “van from Hell”, we shared our adventure with a couple from England and a couple from San Fran.  We exchanged stories of China for their travel adventures around Vietnam.  In general, the houses we saw in the villages are much nicer than in rural China.  Made of concrete and bricks, they are usually three stories high, narrow in design with patios and beautiful wood doors.  The interiors I could peer into looked quite nice with tile floors, circular metal staircases and almost all with large screen tv’s.  However, their infrastructure is seriously lacking in Vietnam.   Roads are broken concrete messes with many bumps and sections of unpaved roads.  By contrast, when we got to Ha Long Bay, it felt like Miami Beach with new condos by the water and modern sleek hotels and restaurants, fueled by the almighty tourist dollars.

WP_20140205_034
Princess Luxury Cruise-very nice!

Our boat had just 18 cabins, filled with mainly Europeans and some Chinese folks.  The meals were lavish with pork, chicken, seafood, lots of vegetables and impeccable service.  During the safety announcement, Jimmy, our steward, showed us a hammer and told us that it was to be used in case of emergency only, i.e. to break out the windows to get out of the boat.  In other words, you are ON YOUR OWN!  He encouraged smokers to smoke outside (this is on a totally wooden boat mind you) and not to smoke inside as it would set off the smoke alarms.  No shit…However, doubtful that those hard core smokers paid attention but, just to scare them, Jimmy warned the passengers that everyone would break out their hammers and it would be complete chaos if they smoked inside.  To recap, if there is an emergency, grab that life vest, use the hammer and out you go into Ha Long Bay where the jellyfish are as big as a Labradors and good luck climbing those steep cliffs once you reach shore.  Luckily, we didn’t need the hammer as we couldn’t even find one in our cabin.

WP_20140204_052
Boat Merchants selling snacks and booze

As our Head Steward urged us to keep the bartender busy, who am I not to comply???  Seeing our pale white skin glistening with tanning lotion was a welcome if creepy sight after a winter of grey polluted China skies.  Need an Oreo or wine?  Small junk boats, merchants selling pearls and snacks and booze come alongside the  bigger cruise ships selling their wares.  You put your money in a net and in return you get your goods.  A tough life for these merchants rowing their boats all day with babies in tow.  Thom’s brother told us that he swept this bay near here in 1971 on a mine sweeper.  Hard to imagine this commercial tourist attraction was once a war zone but the people who live here still lead a meager existence in contrast to the beautiful cruise ships.

WP_20140204_095
Thom aka The King of the Squid

Thom spent the late evening hours fishing for squid off the back of the boat.  The crew was impressed with his results-two squid, scared out of their “ink” which they proceeded to jetson into the green waters of Ha Long Bay as he reeled them in.  Thom didn’t eat the squid for breakfast, as the crew suggested, but he will be boasting for many years to come of his prowess with the hook.  Whatever!  I stood at a distance and took the pictures to document his expertise–I don’t do the “squid” thing.  Anything that ugly can stay in the water and certainly shouldn’t be eaten.  Holy.  Hell.  No.  Way.

Park Scene in Hanoi, Vietnam

WP_20140206_018
Flowers are blooming in Hanoi!

It was lovely to see the ladies dancing in Vietnam just like they do in China.  They had their loud speakers going and were working it!  Our only day to enjoy Hanoi, we decided to  walk around Hoan Kiem Lake today and enjoyed the warm weather.  This lake is in the heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi and seems to be enjoyed by all the locals.  From the lovely pagoda in the middle of the lake to the bridge over to an island,  the flowers were blooming everywhere.  This is the one public space we have seen in Vietnam that is in good repair and maintenance.  There is a nice walking path around it and we are looking forward to enjoying the lights that are strung up between the trees tonight as we plan an evening walk.  There is a café on the lake as well as several restaurants with a view of the lake for everyone to enjoy.

On the first walk around the lake, we not only saw ladies dancing but many families out taking a walk and street vendors selling their wares.  After we had gotten almost the whole way around, Thom turned to me and proposed an adventure.  We would  walk back, find the “seasoned” lady selling wooden children’s toys and buy them all.  Thus, she could enjoy a well deserved day off and we would then spread some love around the park by giving away the toys.  Done and done. 

Oh what fun we had on this Vietnam “pay it forward” project.  First, several gentlemen came to the lady’s aid when they thought we might be trying to swindle her.  No, we reassured them that we really wanted her to have 500,000 dong to buy all the toys she had to sell.  They were shocked and laughed.  She smiled.  Then, off we went around the park with Thom approaching any and all children and giving away the toys.  Another vendor selling cards found out what we were doing and encouraged us to find the children from the “working” families and give them the toys.  This, we tried to do.  While we mainly got smiles and nods, Thom did manage to scare a few children with his goofy smile and outgoing positivity. 

WP_20140206_031
Thom giving away toys in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hopefully, stories will be told of the tall smiling Laowai wearing the bright green Xbox Sounders shirt and the joy he tried to bring to the children in the park.  For us, it will be a very fond memory and may become a new tradition of spreading joy throughout the world as we enjoy great adventures wherever we go.

Walking The Streets of Hanoi

WP_20140206_004
French influence among the many cables strung between buildings.

What is it like to visit Hanoi, Vietnam? How to begin to describe this frightening, wonderfully unique place?   First, the people are as friendly and helpful as the scooters are plentiful.  The scene here is so different from Shanghai, where we live now.  There are hardly any luxury stores or cars here yet the average citizen seems to live well and be very happy.  Though we got a few hard stares from the older guys, in general we were accepted and welcomed with open arms.  The French influence is strong here in the building architecture that is old and not kept up but still lovely and the jaunty French berets worn by the old gents sitting on the sidewalks.

WP_20140206_007 (1)
Poles are still widely used to balance the load on the shoulders of the local women to carry fruit and vegetables to sell.

The women dress to impress as they might in Paris, not in jeans and casual clothes—they wear dresses and heels on those scooters as they speed around.  The restaurants here are more formal and have the white tablecloths and more French atmosphere of formality than you see in China.  Yet, there is a traditional Vietnamese element prevalent on the streets with the strong ladies wearing their Non La traditional hats and using the poles to balance their heavy load of fruit or vegetables to sell to passersby.  One aggressive lady tried to pin me against a street front with her load to try and convince me to buy her bananas and pineapples.  Always nimble to stay alive, I dodged her and kept right on walking..being nimble is paramount to living in this part of the world.

WP_20140206_035
Chicken just laying out on the sidewalk…street food in Hanoi, Vietnam-eat at your own risk.

Like China, life is lived here on the streets.  You see barbers cutting hair and everyone eating on the sidewalks, squatting on small plastic stools as they inhale Pho and rice/vegs/chicken dishes that smell wonderful.  We saw chickens running around in the streets by our hotel and meat, including chicken, laid out on the sidewalk, ready to be cooked but certainly not refrigerated or following any Western standards of food safety.  Our friend from the cruise likened the street scene to Mumbai where the traffic is insane and the people are out in mass to enjoy socializing and eating.  We saw many more Western tourists here in Hanoi than in China, probably due to the ease to enter Vietnam and the low cost.   The dong is the currency and 21,000 dong = $1 US.  So, we were paying millions of dong for items which was totally weird.  I found myself chastising Thom for paying too much for Super Glue to fix my glasses that had inconveniently broken at the start of our trip.  Turns out, he paid .50 cents for it…oops-what a bargain!  I went crazy buying quilts from a non-profit I could feel good about that helps Vietnamese women make a living and the quality is fabulous.  Baby Mia, our first grandchild, will enjoy laying on these gorgeous quilts for many years to come as Papa Thom tells stories of our adventures all over the world.  We were enchanted by the bamboo bikes also for sale at the quilt store, www.mekong-quilts-org, including a tricycle that was ADORABLE!  Other items you see for sale everywhere are lacquer boxes and bowls, ox horn cutlery, jade and silver jewelry and silk clothing.   Very inexpensive and just beautiful…I bought an empty suitcase or two just in case and they will be going back full.

WP_20140206_020
Enjoying the fine weather and the sights of Hanoi!

What sets Vietnam apart from China?  Well, China does a great job keeping their public areas clean and well manicured with beautiful flowers and plants.  Vietnam, does not.  There is trash and dirt everywhere, no flower/trees in most public spaces and wires for who knows what are strewn everywhere, hanging between building, trees, poles, you name it-it’s nuts.  There are few stop signs or traffic lights to help control traffic.  I thought China streets were unsafe until I came here and now I will actually look forward to the quieter, more sane streets of Shanghai.  Surprise!  There is a place crazier than China when it comes to traffic and it’s Vietnam.  I would still encourage you to visit but be prepared to be nimble and have nerves of steel if you want to cross ANY street in Hanoi, Vietnam.  A glass or two of wine takes the edge off too!