Vietnam is an interesting place with lots of rules. No overnight trips allowed without a Visa and no currency exchange outside the country however you can purchase anything from a diet coke to a ride down to the marina for exactly one US dollar.
Our first view of Ha Long Bay came at sunrise as the ship sailed into the bay. The water was extremely calm but it was particularly cloudy so we were eager to get off the ship and take a closer look. After a quick tender to shore we made our way up the pier and were greeted by about 50 mope head drivers eager to take us for a ride. Paul was more than willing to hop on but I was less than enthusiastic. The lack of helmets and erratic flow of bikes was not something I was ready to tackle, besides after 24 hours at sea floating around in the pool and enjoying more than our fair share of cruise food we certainly needed the exercise.
Vietnamese people are soft spoken and very polite but also extremely persistent. Even though Paul respectfully declined their repeated offers to take us to the marina, two motor bikes continued to pursue us for at least a half a mile. It was cute but a bit irritating.
Ultimately Paul won out and we arrived at the marina about 30 minutes later on foot as planned. After negotiating a $25 dollar per person rate (opposed to a $75 rate on the ship) we boarded a boat with about 20 other people and set sail.
Ha long Bay is made up of large limestone formations or Karst resulting from glacier changes over millions of years. Melting glaciers caused the water to raise allowing coral to grow while freezing glaciers cause the water to recede and coral to calcify. The Karsts were further shaped by pockets of water and a rolling tide creating caves. During the Vietnam War, several of the larger caves were actually used as hospitals. By following a series of winding paths we were able to climb to the top for a breathtaking view of the bay.
After exiting the cave we rejoined our boat for a short ride to the floating village (my favorite part of the trip). Far from shore and hidden among the karst was a floating dock which was set atop large blue barrels and Styrofoam blocks wrapped in tarps which kept the structure afloat. After obtaining bright orange lifejackets from the guides we stepped into a small wooden boat for a closer look at the karst and a tour of the floating city. It was simply amazing! The entire town built atop floating barrels and Styrofoam linked together with wooden planks and a series of ropes. It was fascinating to watch the people going about their daily lives napping in hammocks, washing laundry, pealing fruit, even cooking with fire on the back porch as curious tourist rowed by with cameras in hand. The floating village even had a floating school.
Our tour continued with a row under a low lying section of limestone though a small opening and into the center of one of the large hollowed out karst which made us feel like we were sailing around the bottom of a volcano.
Good news, our luggage arrived we survived our first night on the cruise ship! Recognizing this was our last day in Hong Kong we were eager to hit the road early and see a few more sites.
Hong Kong is truly a concrete jungle. Aside from a few of the outlying islands, Hong Kong consists primary of skinny skyscrapers dotted with a few temples. There is no grass or trees aside from a few highly regulated parks and gardens (needless to say it is not a good place to be a dog). Eating and drinking is prohibited on all public transportation and in most of the gardens. Surprisingly most of the infrastructure, temples and gardens are relatively new.
First stop, Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery, by far our favorite part of Hong Kong. Both were constructed in 2006 to strengthen the people of Hong Kong’s awareness and appreciation of traditional Chinese culture. One of the most notable things about Nan Lian Garden its location. The garden is situated in the heart of town surrounded by massive skyscrapers and partially coved by the bypass, however due to the creative placement of water features, foliage and rocks the garden is quite insulated from noise from the bustling city. We enjoyed watching the gardeners meticulously prune the trees using just two fingers and marveled at the buildings which were all constructed using the bracket system of the Tang Sung Ming and Qing dynasties (no nails or glue required). Connected to the garden is the Chi Lin Nunnery. Set up in the traditional courtyard style the nunnery is enshrined with statues of several Buddha’s (most notably Sakyamuni Buddha) and tended by the nuns who live and worship there. In front of each Buddha the nuns place offerings such as bowls of fruit, separated by type and stacked into pyramids, massive pots of fresh orchards and tall electrical candles. The Buddahs come in many shapes and sizes but are all gold in color and sit atop large thrones. Out of respect for the nuns we honored their requests to only take pictures in designated areas and as a result we do not have any pictures of these beautiful Buddhas.
Next stop was the Ladies Market in Mong Kok Kawloon. The market is full of street vendors selling any and everything from clothes and crafts to food and fortunes. We didn’t run across any must have items but it was certainly fun to look.
In sharp contrast to the tranquil and orderly confines of the Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery, the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple was a microcosm of excitement and chaos.
Sik Sik was built in 1921 and is claimed to make every wish come true. Upon entering the grounds we were immediately struck by the thick smoke wafting though the air and the sounds of a large drum in the distance. Excited visitors hurried about carrying fistfuls of smoking incense and small red and gold lanterns (both widely available for purchase from one of the vendors along the entrance and throughout the temple). In the center of the courtyard was a large fire pit tended by a single man. A waist high fence separated the crowd from the fire and served as the
central point of the action with long sticks of incense being transferred from the crowd to the fire man who dipped them into the flame and passed back across the rail. Smoking incense in hand, patrons then took off across the courtyard to pay homage to one the many Buddha’s or religious figures positioned throughout the grounds.
One notable figure was Yue Lao. In Chinese mythology Yue Lao, belonging neither to Buddhism nor to Taoism specifically, he was the equivalent to Cupid, tying the knots between people to form couples and marriage. He stood in between two other statues one representing a bride and the other a groom holding a thick red cord that connected the two. The nun tending the statue explained that people looking for love would fasten a red cord to the rope in hopes of finding a mate. She then gave us a cord to take home for continued good fortune in marriage. Upon further exploration of the temple we came across the twelve statues representing the twelve animals on the Chinese Zodiac. Unsure as to which ones represented our birth years we decided to pose for a quick picture with each and made a mental note to Google it when we got to Saigon before posting these pictures on the blog.
Twenty-seven hours after our initial visit, we returned to Simpson Sin for a fitting. The tailor took additional measurements and went over everything from cuff length and collar size to back pleats and hem lines. It was a really fun experience.
Sadly the shop is closed on Sunday, so we won’t see the final product for a few more weeks; bad news for Paul (he was planning to wear his on the cruise), but good news for me (my suitcase was already at the weight limit before we left the states).
The metro system here is cheap, clean and accessible all over the island. Friendly locals and ample English signage made it easy for us to navigate. Also, since Paul and I are a good 8-10 inches taller than everyone here we never had to worry about losing each other in transit. Outside the metro we stopped to help other tourists with pictures.
Shopping is big in Hong Kong and apparently so is Christmas (or at least that’s what the retailers would like you to believe with windows full of sparkly trees and staff sporting a wide variety of Santa hats). In the Diamond Hill district we were overwhelmed by the number of high end stores overflowing with busy patrons all rushing about in search of last minute Christmas gifts or standing in long lines entranced in their I-phones. Hong Kong is consumerism at its best.
Aside from shopping, the Diamond Hill District is also a hot spot foodies in search of hand pulled noodles in rich steaming broths and succulent bursts of Chinese goodness (better known as dim sum). The Hong Kong experience certainly would not have been complete without a trip to the infamous Tim Ho Wan for Dim Sum. The restaurant is a bit hard to find, does not take reservations and has a ridiculous line at anytime of the day, but because it boasts the title of least expensive restaurant in the world with a Michelin Star Paul and I “qued up” to wait. To our surprise the line actually went faster than expected. English speaking guests were provided a blue ticket which also served as a menu (Chinese guests were given the same in yellow). As soon as one party finished the soft spoken hostess would call the next number in line in the language which corresponded to the ticket (blue -> English, yellow -> Chinese) and wedge the new group into the open spot. This was my first experience sharing a table with strangers who did not speaking English and were halfway through their meal when we arrived, but when in Rome right? Since we were expected to complete our ticket prior to being seated the waitress greeted us and took our order in one step which also helped speed up the process. Chopsticks in hand, Paul slurped down every bit with adroit dexterity relishing every bite while I poked and prodded every piece with my flat bottomed spoon. Not my favorite, but memorable nonetheless.
We planned to visit Victoria Peak for a night time view of the city, however after seeing the line we opted for a walk though the city instead. It has been a long day and we are anxious to check out the ship and confirm our luggage made it on the boat.