Sunday, November 27, 2011

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Temples and tourists

Cambodia is our destination for two and a half weeks, and our first stop has been Siem Reap, home of the Angkor complex and at least 296 temples. Don't worry, we're not visiting all of them! But we have had our share of temple-hopping the last five days along with the thousands of other tourists who are doing the same thing. I haven't counted them (the tourists or the temples we've visited), but I think we've explored at least a dozen, some huge and some quite small, some pulsing with visitors and some where we had the place basically to ourselves.

John and our guide, Chamrong, head off to a small temple

We've heard about the beauty and mystery of Angkor Wat for years, and it's been high on our list of must-see destinations for a long time. We have not been disappointed. The setting, with a wide swath of grass and a large moat surrounding the five towers of the temple, is stunning. It's on a par with the pyramids and (I imagine) the Taj Mahal for sheer impact.

Angkor Wat at mid-day

No shouting!
We visited Angkor Wat in the middle of the day, not an ideal time in terms of the heat but a great time in terms of lack of crowds. Most people were at lunch while we were enjoying the peaceful temple (marred only by one Korean tour guide who was SHOUTING at his group--guess he didn't get the message on the sign telling people not to yell). We're going back tomorrow at sunrise for another look.

There are tons of tourists here--many Westerners from lots of different countries, but the largest number are from Asia (as our guide said, the Koreans visit in the morning, the Japanese in the afternoon, and the Chinese all day). But despite the crowds, it's possible to find some quiet spots and enjoy the awesomeness of the buildings and the bas-reliefs that decorate them.

The stars of the show, besides Angkor Wat itself, are Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Bantei Srei. I think Angkor Thom is my favorite, with its wonderful causeway over a moat, lined with sculptures of gods (on one side) and demons (on the other) holding a giant snake, and the Bayon with dozens of huge, surreal faces staring out in all directions. The theory is that these are a combination of the face of King Jayavarman VII (the first Buddhist king of the Khmer empire, who lived in the 12th century and had many of the temples built) and Buddha. Or maybe just Jayavarman himself. Lonely Planet calls him the Donald Trump of Cambodia. The faces are all similar, wearing an enigmatic smile that rivals Mona Lisa's. We spent about four hours at this temple alone, and by the end of our visit I was about ready to pass out, even though we started fairly early in the morning.

The heat is just relentless! Every chance I got I gravitated to a shady spot, and I was extra happy to have an air-conditioned car to go back to for a break. We had prearranged a guide and car for the first three days so we could get an overview and some detail about the temples, and we are happy we did that. The rest of our time here we are using tuk-tuks and no guide. Riding in a tuk-tuk (a two-wheeled, covered cart pulled by a motorbike) allows you to enjoy a cool breeze and a close-up, slower-paced view of the countryside and the many villages that line the routes to the temples. Two dollars gets you a ride anywhere in town; to get to Angkor Wat for the day is $10 (plus $3 if you want to be there at sunrise).

Tuk-tuks waiting for passengers

Another great temple is Ta Prohm, aka the Tomb Raider temple, thanks to Angelina Jolie's movie of the same name, which we avoided previously but will have to rent now that we've been there. Here the jungle trees share a symbiotic relationship with the crumbling temple. A crew of workers sweeps the tops and sides of the temple, keeping the intruding foliage at bay.

Temple vs. jungle at Ta Prohm

The other really outstanding place is tiny Bantei Srei, about 45 km from Seam Reap but easily reached by car or tuk-tuk. We took a car there for our first visit (visiting older temples of the Rolous group along the way) in late morning but returned by tuk-tuk this morning just after dawn to see the intricately carved, red sandstone reliefs that decorate the walls in better light. The ride through the countryside to the temple is beautiful. Cambodian houses in this area are mostly wooden and built on stilts, which makes for a beautiful scene. Observing the villages come to life, including many kids on bikes going to school, was a real pleasure.

Intricate carvings at Bantei Srey--love the 3-headed elephant

Visiting one of the highest temples for a sunset view over the countryside and Tonle Sap in the distance seems to be a requisite stop on the tourist circuit. We shared the top of Phnom Bakeng with about 500 other tourists for sunset the other night--the sunset was nice but really not that great (we've seen a lot of sunsets in our xx years), but it was fun to observe the scene around us. Recently the authorities instituted a policy allowing only 300 people to enter the top of the temple after 4:00 p.m., but anybody who is already there at 4 is not included in the count, so there were plenty of people. After the sun sets everybody has to climb down the really steep steps and walk down the hill in the dark to their waiting cars and tuk-tuks. Fun to do once but I wouldn't make a habit of it!

Wonder how many tourists lose it on this descent after sunrise

Most people in the countryside are farmers, working the flat rice fields. Siem Reap, however, has proven to be a great draw, with more and more people moving from the countryside to take advantage of money-earning opportunities provided by the constant flow of tourists. There are over 100 hotels in town, and there seem to be enough tourists to fill them all. Our hotel is the Golden Temple Hotel (not to be confused with the Golden Temple Villa). For $58 a night we get a big room with all the conveniences one would want, an excellent small restaurant (free breakfast), a beautiful small swimming pool with the requisite lounge chairs and gazebo areas as well as a waterfall at one end, and a lovely staff dedicated to serving their guests. Can't ask for much more than that, though there are lots of hotels around that raise the bar (and the price) even higher. We really enjoyed the free one-hour massage, starting with the layer of cucumber strips they masseuse lays on your face, and a day relaxing at the pool and hanging out in town.

Next: on to Battambang by boat

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's a wrap: HCMC and the Mekong Delta

The North gets almost all the press (Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay), but spending some time in the South is also a great experience. After our night at the beach in Mui Ne we returned to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) for a couple of nights--at the beginning of our trip we had just slept there overnight before flying directly on to Hanoi. Two interesting things along the 4-hour drive from the beach to the city: first, miles of dragonfruit orchards--strange-looking foliage with equally odd-looking fruit hanging from it; open it up and you find a pretty pink rind topped by white pulp with black speckles on the inside. Nice flavor too! We ate dragonfruit for breakfast almost every morning of our trip.

Dragonfruit--like eating a dalmatian with pink skin

The second unusual feature of the drive was the hundreds of small, privately owned rest stops where you could pull over for refreshments and a hammock break. Wouldn't it be nice if U.S. rest stops had hammocks too?  

I've never seen a hammock I didn't want to be in

Ho Chi Minh City was a lot less daunting after 23 days traveling around the country. Yes, HCMC surely takes the top prize for the highest concentration of motobikes in the world, but it seemed so much calmer than it did when we first arrived. Do I dare say we've gotten used to the motorbike overload?

5 million ... and counting

The city has a lot going for it--there's a modern, vibrant feel to it that was not as noticeable in Hanoi. Young people flock here for jobs, shopping, and entertainment. Everybody is doing something, going someplace. There's great shopping at modern stores (the clothes are especially nice in the district 1 shops), tons of restaurants and coffee shops, but also thriving Vietnamese street life of the more traditional sort. For example, right outside our modern hotel (the Sanouva) street vendors cook and serve noodles and veggies to passersby morning and night.

We checked off a couple of tourist musts. Visited the lovely main post office with its old maps painted on the walls and a big portrait of Ho Chi Minh looking down over the customers. The building is old, in the French style (designed by Gustave Eiffel), and many of the original features have been retained even while the postal business goes on, uninterrupted by the tourists snapping photos.

Across the street is Notre Dame Cathedral--a brick version of the Parisian landmark, sans buttresses. There are actually quite a few Catholic churches in HCMC and the Mekong area, but many of them are built in a pseudo-Asian style that makes you look twice when you see a cross on the building.

We also took in the Cholon district, Chinatown, which has lots of pagodas as well as a big wholesale market selling birds nests for soup, shark fins (ugh), and sundry other goods in bulk. After the market we stopped in at the very active Thien Hau temple where lots of praying was going on despite the crowds of tourists gawking at the hanging incense coils and other temple features.

Hanging incense coils burn in memory of ancestors for a couple of weeks

Le makes like a Vietcong--put the top down and disappear
A couple more days in the city itself would have been nice since there are many museums and pagodas to see, but instead we headed out onto the delta on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and to the town of Tay Ninh, about two hours from downtown HCMC. The tunnels were a famous part of the Vietnam war, spanning a large area very close to the city. Here the Vietcong controlled the countryside through a series of narrow passages and larger underground living areas. The area was thoroughly bombed by the Americans and was the scene of repeated attempts to eliminate the Vietcong presence. The area of the tunnels we visited has been restored so visitors can get some idea of what it was like during the war. We found it extremely interesting. We went early in the day (left HCMC at 7:30 a.m.) so it wasn't overrun with tourists, who generally crowd the trails a little later in the day. After we watched a propaganda film from the late '60s (Americans were foreign devils, etc.) and saw various exhibits of life in and around the tunnels, we walked, hunched over, through a very narrow underground trail section. We went only about 30 meters, but it was enough to convince me that I would not have done well as a tunnel dweller during the war. Or ever.

Tay Ninh is home to the head church of the Cao Dai religion. I'm intrigued by different people's religious beliefs and how they are expressed, so this place was really interesting. The religion was established in 1928, combining elements of Catholicism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and seems to appeal mainly to rural residents of southern Vietnam (we saw lots of Cao Dai temples south of HCMC). The head church is decorated with dragon columns and bright primary colors--blue, red, and yellow--but the most noticeable feature is the star-laden globe altar with a big eye looking at the followers. Many other eyes adorn the walls. We observed the 30-minute noon prayer ceremony (similar ceremonies take place 4 times a day, every day except for the 3 days around the lunar new year), which involved a small orchestra of Vietnamese instruments and lots of chanting by a female choir while the couple hundred worshippers sat cross-legged in orderly fashion on the floor, bowing their heads in unison every so often at certain points in the chant. Men and women were grouped separately. The strangest part of the religion for me is the choice of saints: a Vietnamese poet, French writer Victor Hugo, and Chinese republican leader Sun Yat-sen. Quite a mix.

Cao Dai elders during the prayer service

We returned to HCMC for the night but headed out again the next morning for a two-day exploration of the Mekong Delta. The river dominates life in this area, and we were able to get a sense of the place by taking several different sizes of boats over the course of the two days. The wide, main river section is busy with boat traffic--all varieties of produce, sand, petrol, tourists, you name it--and we spent most of our time on a long, covered motorboat with the standard noisy engine. But we were also able to go through some of small canals on a quiet rowboat, which was really nice.

Quiet time on a Mekong canal

Last night we stayed in the small city of Can Tho, right along the river, and really enjoyed seeing the locals relaxing and exercising in the park along the river in the cooler evening temperatures. A few games of foot badminton were going on, too (a cross between hacky sack and badminton).

This morning we got up at 6 a.m. and took a boat downriver (or was it upriver?) to the Can Tho floating market, where boats from surrounding areas and even other provinces gather every morning to sell their produce to Can Tho residents. Each boat that is selling something hoists that product (watermelon, pumpkin, taro, onion, pineapple, whatever) up on a bamboo pole over the boat so that buyers, on smaller boats, can easily see which boats to go to for what. Our guide told us that the market has been getting smaller year by year, mainly because of the cost of petrol for the boats--it's apparently cheaper to bring the produce to market in other ways.

Longan, a small fruit with a big seed

The drive back to HCMC took about 4 hours, including a stop for lunch at a large, nicely run rest stop/shopping opportunity/restaurant, which serves most of the tour groups, large and small, that travel from the delta to city. It's a thriving operation that must make a ton of money for the owner, who is already very powerful in the area, according to our guide. Pretty good food though, including one of the specialties of the delta: elephant ear fish wrapped in (edible) rice paper with lettuce, pineapple, and rice noodles.

All wrapped up and ready to eat

So that's a wrap for our 24-day trip to Vietnam. It's been a pleasure. Never got tired of the food--there was always something different to try, and it was usually very good. The scenery was varied and often incredibly beautiful. The weather was quite nice in the north and got warmer as we went south; afternoons in HCMC and on the delta were best spent inside an air-conditioned space, though mornings and evenings were comfortable and great times for walking around. The people we met were universally friendly and welcoming. Our accommodations-- with the exception of the hotel we stayed at in Lai Chau, in the far northwest--were all modern, very comfortable, and reasonably priced. Our guides were terrific, though some were easier to understand than others. The drivers were great (Mr. Driver's gearshift problems aside). We really enjoyed Vietnam and are so glad to have been able to spend a good chunk of time here, getting to know the country from top to bottom.

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friday, November 18, 2011

Same same but different

We've continued our exploration of central Vietnam in the past few days, staying a couple nights in the beach city of Nha Trang, one night in cool Dalat in the central highlands, and a night in Phan Thiet (at Mui Ne beach), back on the coast. All these places include aspects of what we've seen in the northern part of the country--busy streets, motorbike mania, life lived on or close to the street, beautiful countryside starting at the edge of town--but they also have their own distinctive style. Vietnamese we've talked to are quick to note that the country has three regions (north, center, south) that aren't always in sync with each other.

At Cam Ranh Bay

We flew on Vietnam Airlines from Hue airport to Nha Trang. It took just an hour, but when we landed at Cam Ranh Bay airport we knew we were someplace different. The scenery and temperature were Tropical with a capital T, and we caught beautiful views of the bay on the 27 km drive to the city itself. Cam Ranh Bay was a major U.S. naval base during the Vietnam war, and after the United States exited Vietnam in 1975 it became a base for the Russian Navy until Russia also departed in 2002. The Russian legacy is seen in the popularity of Nha Trang with Russian tourists. Our guide disparaged the Russians for what he felt was bossy and rude behavior. Ironically, he had positive things to say about the many American veterans who come to the area to reconnect with their wartime experiences.

Low-key resort off the coast of Nha Trang
Nha Trang is a sunny, clean city. Most of the tourism there is concentrated in the lovely beach area. The day we arrived turned from brilliant sunshine to drippy rain by afternoon, so we didn't get to the beach until the next day, which was again nice and sunny. The beach, with mountains in the distance, reminded us of long-ago Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, before high-rise buildings took over the beachfront. The surf was pounding--beautiful to watch. Earlier in the day we took a boat ride to a nearby island that has a small, tropical resort (no lodging, just restaurant and lounge chairs) where we relaxed, swam in the protected bay, and had a really good seafood lunch. Plus a "passion sour" to drink--midori, passion fruit, and lime juice. Delicious--must make when we get home.

Fishermen use these small round rowboats to get around the bay

Back in town, we had a very nice dinner at Lantern, a small restaurant that actively supports a local orphanage. We sat next to two Norwegians, the first we've seen in Vietnam. Coincidentally, on the other side of us was another Norwegian (no relation). We introduced them to each other and soon they were deep in conversation. While they talked Norwegian, we practiced our English with the guy from Ireland at the next table. It's an international world!  

While in Nha Trang we also visited a couple of religious sites--the Long Son pagoda (a large, active Buddhist temple with a huge white Buddha at the top of the hill) and the Hindu Po Nagar towers, another Cham site. Interesting to see that many Vietnamese, no matter what religion, visit the towers to pray.

Po Nagar Cham towers

Beach time was over, for the moment, as we next headed into the mountains to Dalat, a former French hill station that was "discovered" by a Frenchman in 1893 and became a popular escape for the colonialists from steamy Saigon. We were enthralled with the scenery as soon as we left Nha Trang--again, the countryside was very reminiscent of parts of Hawaii. Gorgeous green, pastoral valleys surrounded at first by low hills and then, as we climbed up further and further, by steep, foliage-covered mountains with waterfalls tumbling down them. The road was new and excellent (though already showing some signs of breaking up in places). The ride from Nha Trang to Dalat took about 3 1/2 hours and was worth the time, even if there were no reward at the end.

But there was! Dalat is a center of coffee production and flower growing, besides having strong vestiges of the French influence in the chalet-style architecture of the houses and public buildings. A culinary specialty is artichoke tea. The outskirts of the town are packed with greenhouses for the flower industry. The city is big (over 400,000 people) but has a very nice feel to it. And the weather is much cooler and less humid than in the steamy lowlands, a welcome relief. I think that the place I'd most like to live in in Vietnam is Dalat.

Our hotel, the Ngoc Lan, combines nice atmospheric touches like large French windows with more modern decor. It looks over the manmade lake in the center of town and is a short walk to the night market, which is the liveliest market we've been to in Vietnam, with beautiful vegetables, piles of clothing, and interesting street food along with some of the other standard stock. We decided to skip the street food, though, and instead ate dinner in a small, friendly bistro, Long Hoa, around the corner from the hotel.

Pancakes on the steps near the night market

For sale at the Valley of Love
Dalat is reputed to be Vietnam's "most romantic city." Not sure about that, but it does have a large flower garden as well as a park called the Valley of Love. The views of the valley from the park above are quite pretty, but the love theme is a little forced.

 The city is also said to have "four seasons in one day," which isn't much of an exaggeration--we experienced summer and fall as the sunny skies gave way to a heavy downpour while we were walking in the park, causing us to scurry back to the car. We slept through winter, but the morning was definitely springlike. 

Dalat sunrise

One site we found very interesting was the former summer palace of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, whom Vietnamese today label as a "French puppet." The residence was built in the 1930s; Bao Dai lived in it only until 1945, when he was forced to leave the country for France after Ho Chi Minh took control. It retains the original furnishings from the 1940s and has a strange art-deco feel to it (without the art or the deco). Lots of Vietnamese were visiting while we were there, and once again we were photographed like we were part of the display.

Bao Dai's summer palace--or is it a hospital from the 1940s?

Coffee and tea, growing next to each other
We would have loved to spend another day in Dalat to explore the surroundings, but our schedule called for us to head back to the coast, to the beach community of Miu Ne, about 4 hours back down the hill. (A drawback of having a prearranged tour schedule is that you can't really change plans on a whim.) The drive down the mountain was on a different road from the drive up, but the views were just as beautiful, dominated by steep hills full of coffee trees (think Costa Rica). Instead of rice drying by the side of the road as in other areas, here we saw lot after lot filled with coffee beans.

Nothing stops a bus like a gaggle of ducks crossing the road

Do Russians love kite surfing?
Miu Ne is a beautiful beach about 10 km from the coastal town of Phan Thiet. The long, sandy beach is lined with Western-style resorts, including the one we're staying at, the Sea Horse. The majority of tourists in the area seem to be Russian, and the most popular activity (besides seaside or poolside lounging) is kite surfing. A nice place for a little R&R and very different from the other parts of Vietnam we've visited.

Almost as many kites in Miu Ne as there are balloons in Cappadocia

Next: our final Vietnam stops, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The serene center

Members of my generation don't usually associate Da Nang and central Vietnam with the word "serenity," but things have changed in this part of the country since the 1960s and '70s. It is home not only to the former wartime U.S. air base (now the domestic airport) but also to the beautiful World Heritage towns of Hue and Hoi An, which were calm and serene during our visit. Our guide for the area, Mr. Thuan, was so calm and placid it seemed like we were in a trance. He spoke good English, really slowly, like he was speaking to someone who didn't really understand the language. He was a pleasure to travel with.

Part of the Citadel in Hue

Both towns had experienced heavy rain and flooding last week, but now they are back in business; the only sign of the bad weather was the brimming big rivers that they sit beside.

Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945, when the communists moved the government to Hanoi. The reason we were in Hue was to visit the famous Citadel, Vietnam's equivalent of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This vast area was the home of the emperor and his court but is now open to all Vietnamese and frequented by the many tourists who visit the city. It's an impressive sight that has undergone restoration, more or less, after much destruction in previous decades.

Two of the nine imperial urns--nine is a good number for emperors

Also beautiful and serene were the two emperors' tombs we visited (emperor #2 and #4). These parklike places have a definite aura of the past about them. Since they contain the bodies of the emperors, they are treated with great respect by Vietnamese. We visited toward the end of the afternoon, when the light was beautiful. 

One of the tombs

Hue is also noted for its cuisine, and we had one of the best meals so far of our trip there, at the Y Thao garden restaurant. And we stayed at a nice, modern hotel, the newly built Romance Hotel, with the best breakfast we've had in Vietnam. Both are recommended if you ever visit Hue.

On the way from Hue to Hoi An we stopped at the Cham Museum in Da Nang, which houses most of the best sculptures from what's called the Champa holy land, My Son. I understand why so much ancient statuary and stone artwork is kept in museums, but isn't the best place to display the relics of a site at the site itself? We think so. At My Son, which we visited the next day, there are only a few remnants of the sculptures. Nonetheless, it's an evocative place, especially in the morning rain that fell on the day we visited. Temples that pop with vegetation are so beautiful--even if the plant roots aid in the destruction.

In the rain at My Son

 This is our second night in Hoi An, another neat town that spreads along a river. (We took boat rides on the river in both Hue and Hoi An.) This was a former trading port that was frequented by European, Chinese, and Japanese traders and developed as big commercial center until the harbor silted up and most maritime trade moved to Da Nang. The people of Hoi An are still engaged in commerce, though--they've made the place into a go-to center for tourists who want to get suits and dresses made to order overnight. We passed on that but did more delicious Vietnamese food at one of the garden restaurants.

The town of Hoi An straddles the big river

Casting nets along the river

 Today, besides visiting My Son, we drove to a beautiful vegetable farm that caters to tourism as an aside. We had lunch at an open-air restaurant on the farm and then toured the paths. Unexpectedly, we were pulled into the work of preparing a small plot and planting cabbage seedlings--hoeing, spreading seaweed fertilizer, watering...kind of hokey but it really did make real what I've said all along on this trip: it must be hard being a farmer! Of course the farmer we were "helping" said we looked like a couple of "professionals." Ha ha, they say that to all the tourists. We were dripping with sweat after we'd finished preparing and planting a plot about 2 feet by 6 feet.

News alert: I'm not going to give up my day job

Beach time in Nha Trang coming up, as we head south toward Ho Chi Minh City.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Naturally wonderful Halong Bay

In a great coincidence, this part of our trip brought us to amazing Halong Bay for an overnight cruise on the day that it was named one of the seven natural wonders of the world (#2). We agree with the selection committee—it’s a wonderful place. 

The bay, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage area, comprises more than 1,600 square kilometers. There are about humpy 1,900 islands sprinkled about, most rising straight up from the water. The waters are calm, perfect for boating, and we lucked out with two beautiful, sunny days. Oh, almost forgot the full moon, which rose over the bay just before we sat down for dinner on our boat’s back deck with the 17 other passengers onboard. Pretty darn nice.

The sails were lowered after the photo op
Our boat was a Chinese-style junk, the Pearl Dragon 1. It’s a lovely dark wooden boat with 3 decks and a couple of orange sails that weren’t really used for sailing (they were raised for a photo op while we were anchored near one of the islands but lowered soon after). Our cabin was cozy and well-equipped, and there were enough deck chairs for everybody. Perhaps the best part was the international passenger list – interesting people from France, Poland, Canada, Portugal, Spain, the U.S., and Singapore—a mixed age-group (we were probably the oldest). The guide who accompanied the boat declared that the language spoken on the boat would be English, much to our delight. As always when we’re traveling, it was great to learn about others’ travel experiences and to be able to share the fun. 

Our cabin

Getting to the boat from Hanoi involved a hair-raising, 3½-hour drive in a Toyota Corolla. This has to be one of the worst driving experiences in the world, and I could only give thanks that the driver was a capable, experienced Vietnamese driver and not me! The road was actually decent, but it was clogged with motorbikes, heavy trucks, buses, cars, SUVs, bicycles—you name it. There were ostensibly two lanes, but they became three or even four with all the passing involved. Mustn't forget the standard Vietnamese cacophony of horn-honking (does that do ANY good?). We had one close call when our driver lost focus for a few seconds as we approached an oncoming truck, but thankfully he noticed at the last moment and jerked the car out of the way of the truck. Glad we lived to tell about that one!

An international group of passengers
The cruise itself was just the opposite—relaxing, beautiful, and fun. In the 24 hours we were on the boat we were served 4 meals, all of them delicious, with a concentration on seafood (prawns, oysters, scallops, crabs, fish). Everything was included in the price (not sure what that was, since it was included in our total package from Tonkin) except the drinks.Which we drank.

After cruising for a couple of hours out amidst the islands, the seascape just getting better and better, we moved from the junk to a small tender that took us to one of the islands with a wide sandy beach. There we climbed up the hill to a nice (lighted) cave that was full of stalactites and stalagmites. In the late afternoon we got to kayak for about 40 minutes, around another big island, returning to the sandy beach as the sun was setting across the bay. Beautiful! Equally beautiful was the moonrise a little while later, when we were back on the boat and cruising to another part of the bay. We slept well that night!

Another amazing kayak experience

Morning brought another transfer by the tender to fishing boats rowed by tiny but strong local women that took us among more islands to a cluster of several dozen floating homes that make up a fishing village in the bay. The fishing people have been gathered there in recent years through the “guidance” of the government, which provides them with a floating primary school for the young children and electricity for 3 hours a night. The people are occupied in fish farming, oyster farming, and rowing tourists around. An interesting place that certainly looks idyllic, though life must be hard. 
The one-room floating schoolhouse

Our cruise all too quickly came to an end, and unfortunately we had to make the horrible drive back to Hanoi. But we lived through it again and ended the day with a flight to Hue to begin our journey in central Vietnam. We loved Halong Bay and regret that we couldn't spend another night or two cruising there.

Next: Touring central Vietnam