Vietnam Part II – Ha Long Bay Continued

IMG_3029_result After a fantastic tour of Ha Long Bay we headed ashore to explore the city.

First stop lunch, at least for Paul; I’m pretty sure this restaurant wouldn’t have passed a US health inspection. He had been eagerly anticipating a bowl of hot steaming “Pho” since breakfast and was now on a mission to find us the perfect spot to try this local dish. About ten minutes into our walk back to port we stumbled across a restaurant with a small friendly lady out front. Moments later we were escorted to two blue plastic chairs in the middle of a three-sided cinderblock building (in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint) and seated at a rectangular table dressed with a well worn plastic PepsiCo cover. DSCN1143 The table was sticky and the large plastic box containing the makings of lunch had no refrigeration. As I sat at the table questioning Paul’s decision to dine here I couldn’t help but wonder if the chopsticks and large silver spoons shoved haphazardly, handle side down, presented more of a health risk in their current state (as various hands had surely bushed against them at previous meals) or if correctly placing them handle side up would have increased the likelihood of ingesting a far more sinister pathogen growing down in the bottom of the basket.
Prior to departing for Asia we had heeded the CDC’s advice and both headed down to the Health Department for a round of Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations (quite possibly because someone from the agency had visited this very establishment) however at this point in the trip I was neither hungry enough nor curious enough to give it a try. Paul on the other hand sat right down, cracked open the menu and went to work selecting his Pho. A few minutes later, the lady returned with a large piping bowl of rice noodles in some sort of chicken broth with several thinly sliced pieces of beef and green onions floating on top. DSCN1144 Two additional dishes accompanied the soup. The first was an equally large plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and wedges of lime. The second was a small a bowl containing two Vietnamese hot sauces, one brown and one red (both with a consistency similar to ketchup) and several slices of what appeared to be some sort of fresh chili pepper, seeds intact. Paul then proceeded to instruct me on how to assemble and eat the Pho. He added a bit of each ingredient as the lady and I looked on in anticipation of his first bite. With the final squeeze of lime complete, he picked up the chopsticks, leaned over the bowl, tweezed a grouping of noodles, and slurped them down. This was followed by a smile and a few gracious words to the chef who returned his smile and nodded before heading back to the kitchen. Alternating heaps of noodles with the chopsticks and sips of broth with a metal spoon Paul finished the rest of his lunch. It was certainly an interesting way to eat soup, but appears to be the standard practice. As I looked around I saw several of the locals applying the same method. I do have to admit the soup smelled wonderful, but I still wasn’t feeling brave enough to give it a try. DSCN1149

As I write this blog we are in transit to Bangkok and Paul is still talking about this meal. He will eat it two more times before we leave Vietnam but still steadfastly believes that this was by far the best.
After lunch we continued our walk back to port, stopping from time to time to peruse the shops. Didn’t find anything I had to have, but certainly enjoyed looking.

Vietnam Part I – Ha Long Bay

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. IMG_3106_result

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, IMG_3096_result 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.

IMG_3012_resultVietnamese 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.

IMG_3025_resultHa 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). IMG_3057_result 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. IMG_3040_result 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. IMG_3080_result
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.