Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

There are view places that have truly taken my breath away. The Kananaskis Valley in Alberta is one of them and the Amalfi Coast in Italy is another. On this trip to Vietnam, the place that had that affect on me was Halong Bay.

We were picked up by our tour (Maya Cruises) bright and early at our hotel in Hanoi. After about 2.5 hours in a ballin’ limousine bus, we arrived at the dock to board our ship. While we waited, we met some of the fellow visitors and chatted about life back home next to fish drying on the rack. While it wasn’t the fish that became part of our dinner, it did remind me of my childhood, back when my grandpa would dry and salt cod fish to preserve for the winter.

After a short taxi, we boarded our main ship with our outstanding guide, Tommy. We were greeted with a welcome drink and taken to the dining area for our 5-course lunch. This was my first cruise experience and it did not disappoint. After our lunch, we were given our room keys and told the agenda of the day. As we sailed further into the bay, the group of us made for two Australians (one of whom was originally from Vancouver), a Brit, and two Taiwanese from Halien. We quickly became a pretty tight knit group as there were only 7 of us.

After lunch and getting sorted in our rooms, we hopped into our bathing suits and prepared for our group kayaking tour around the bay. Once we were all in our respective boats, Tommy guided us around some of the house boats and showing us their oyster farms.

These house boats became a thing after the invention of polystyrene foam, which allowed for the building of cheap floating platforms. Prior to that, the families of Ha Long bay lived on land in traditional houses and in the natural caves on the islands. The last family living in a cave home moved out in 2009. Now, due to the bay’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, no new private homes are allowed to be built on land. Only a few yellow and red park ranger stations dot the landscape. The days of the floating homes are numbered too – the government is relocating those families back on land, due to the environmental impact of the breakdown of the polystyrene floats. I do wonder if ten years from now, visitors to Ha Long bay will see recreations of these villages, built strictly for tourists.

We chose the 3 day / 2 night option while the rest of our group would head back to Hanoi after just one night. While our boat made its way to drop the group off, we boarded a “day boat” cruise which included a different tour guide and a new group of sailers, all of whom were from neighbouring cruises in the bay. We were the last to join the group before we made our way to the famous Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay and is the only island with habitats. It’s also home to the endangered Cat Ba monkey. The monkey lives more in the middle of the island and there are less than 100 left in the world. While we didn’t see any of the monkeys, we did take a bicycle tour to Viet Hai, a small village just a few kilometres from the eastern port. The ride was a pretty easy one with only one big hill that I couldn’t tackle on the bike myself (I’m not a cycler) and the views were incredible.

After a visit to the hospital and school (both of which seem a bit much for a town of less than 200 people), we stopped in for a fish foot massage – strangest feeling ever! – and a rice wine tasting before heading back to the dock. The wines that we did try were infused with rose petals or banana… there was also the infamous snake wine which none of us tried but can be seen in a number of southeast Asian countries including Vietnam. After a nice bicycle ride back to the boat, we made our way to a kayaking raft where we paddled our way to our own private beach.

Paddling in Halong Bay really did bring us up close and personal to the bay. It’s unfortunate that over the years, so much pollution has accumulated in the bay. As you paddle around, it’s not uncommon to cross paths with multiple plastic bottles, plastic wrappers, pieces of styrofoam, and even a rubber glove. But as we made our way back to our main cruise ship, we did see two rangers gathering garbage from the bay, so there is hope for a cleaner bay in the future.

After an action packed trip, we ventured onto the water one last time to visit some caves before we left Halong to make our way back to Hanoi. I have to say that after two weeks exploring Vietnam, Halong Bay was by far one of the highlights of our entire trip. I only wish I could have spent more time…

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Ho Chi Minh – Saïgon

Ho Chi Minh – Saïgon

The air is thick with the smell of gasoline, garbage, and urine. The streets are loud with the hustle and bustle like any major metropolis. As I’m attempting to cross the street, bikes weave around me at all speeds, honking to make me aware of their presence. I’ve been in Vietnam over a week and I’m now in Saigon… I don’t know what I expected but this wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

Ho Chi Minh City is big, really big. With over 13 million people and close to 8 million motorbikes, its the largest city in Vietnam. Originally settled by Khmer people, it was slowly taken over as the Vietnamese people headed south. In the 18th century, the French arrived and brought with them their architecture, food, and religion. The French ruled for 90 years and left a very big mark on the region, which can been seen in the city and street design, the buildings, and the food. During this time, the city’s name was changed to Saigon as it was easier to pronounce than Gia Dinh. The term Saigon is now interchangeable but is mostly referring to the city centre area.

After the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu, South Vietnam gained its independence. The country was split into two, the north being communist backed by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam being non-communist. The south at the time was led by a corrupt government, which led to small gorilla armies to emerge throughout the region. The USA remained supporting the government in the south but it wasn’t long before the two regions went into war that lasted 20 years.

The Vietnam war wasn’t something that I was very familiar with. In high school, and throughout my entire education, a huge emphasis was placed on teaching the two World Wars, leaving little room to educate on both the Korean and Vietnamese wars. It might be because Canada’s independence was so closely tied to events in the WWs. So I could be brought up to speed, B and I visited both the War Remnants Museum in the city, and took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Both experiences gave me the history lesson that I was craving and opened my eyes to how long-term damaging this war was, remnants that can still be seen today…

HCMC wears you down. Whether it’s the humidity, the honking, or the constant “you buys something” in the markets, it’s a draining experience. Having said that, there are moments of quiet tranquility that makes the city special in a way. Nôi Quy park near our hotel allowed for this gentle reprieve. In the morning, you can find locals enjoying the little bit of nature practising Tai Chi, exercising in the free outdoor gym, playing a game of Jianzi (like badminton but with your feet), or just relaxing or even napping on a bench. Outside of the park, you can always find people taking a break on the back of their parked motorbike or seated on a stool under an awning or umbrella. It doesn’t matter where they are, the Saigonese know how to relax. In my opinion, you have to in order to enjoy the city.

The way I enjoy a city is through their food. I had high hopes for the south as I had been told that most of what us Canadians know as Vietnamese is the food that comes from the southern region. What I quickly came to find is that HCMC is largely a city of chains. Here you’ll find Starbucks, Burger King, Popeyes Chicken, and a shocking number of Sushi and Korean restaurants. Sure there are sidewalk stalls serving up HCMC’s finest but there’s barely any room to sit as the sidewalks double as motorbike parking. Our first meal was Banh Mi (likely everywhere else we’ve visited) but to be honest, it left a lot to be desired.

Saigon does do a few things well – the markets. If you want souvenirs, cheap clothes, or even a Samsonite suitcase for cheap (like I did!), head over to Ben Thành Market. Do not pay the price given unless you’re in the no haggling area. My new suitcase cost me $50 CAD whereas back home it would be closer to $150. If you want Adidas, Nike, or Underarmour, go to the Russian Market. They also have extras from shops like Zara, Banana Republic, and Mango! Some are knock offs, but there’s a good amount that’s just excess from the factories all in Vietnam. Lastly, there’s a food stall market which was quite possibly my favourite thing to do in Saigon aside from the museums. It’s just around the corner from the Ben Thanh Market and bares its name. Here you can find most Vietnamese dishes like Banh Mi, Pho, Bun Chai, and of course, my favourite, Banh Xeo.

While Saigon/Ho Chi Minh isn’t the prettiest, cleanest, or calmest city ever and despite its faults, I’m forever grateful for the chance to have visited and experienced all that makes it special.

Hue – A Foodie’s Paradise

Hue – A Foodie’s Paradise

Hue was on my list as we planned out our trip to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) was on B, and Hanoi we knew we had to do. I wanted to do Hue for the Old Imperial Capital, or the Citadel as they call it… but what I quickly came to learn about Hue was more than old building ruins, I have learned the Hue should be more known for the food.

Sure Bourdain (RIP) had visited before, and I had seen the last episode he did while visiting the region, but it didn’t hit me until our first meal. In the pouring, soon to be monsoon-like, rain that stayed with us the entire time, we made our way to grab some lunch after our hour flight from Hanoi. We stumbled upon the restaurant and bar area of Hue city centre and plopped down at a place called Xuân Trang where I order Banh Khoai (without the pork of course!) and an order of chicken with rice. B got Nem Lui (ground pork patties grilled on lemongrass skewers). Place number one set the bar high.

Our first food in Hue was amazing, my jet-lag, not so much. Four days into the trip and I still had trouble sleeping the entire night, needing naps during the day… but my Hue nap took us into well into the night and we ended up missing dinner. At 11:30 pm we took to the street only to find that Hue is not a town of late night eats. After wandering around for a good 30 minutes in the rain, I turned on my data and found a food stall that serves burgers and fries… not very traditional but I was starving. We weren’t the only ones, and found a group of three Malaysian travellers who were also in search of food. We all went to the burger stand together and took it back to our respective hotels… even Hue’s roadside burgers and fries are outstanding!

Breakfast the next morning was included in our hotel. The buffet had a wide assortment of fresh fruit, breads and pastries, meats (which B made a comment on), rice, crepes and more. What really stood out was the pho. I’ve come to learn over my short time in Vietnam is that pho is eaten really any time of the day… and it differs depending on the city (not really a surprise here). B was so obsessed with it that he convinced me to get a bowl. And he was right to obsess over it, it was THAT good. (Naturally I asked for mine without the beef in it – I’m so complicated)

Aside from the Banh Khoai which I so desperately wanted to try, I wanted Banh Beo. These tiny coin shaped rice circles come with shrimp and fried onions and I had had them at a Vietnamese restaurant back in Canada. Knowing that they’re a uniquely Hue dish, I knew I had to check it off my list. We ordered a dish of them at a restaurant called Madam Thu, which serves up traditional Vietnamese food and has vegetarian options! As our mains, B ordered chicken and rice while I ordered a vegetarian Banh Khoai (honestly, could not get enough on that stuff!). Our Banh Beo came with the traditional fish sauce but what really made the dish was the chilli sauce that they provided. The spicy was a nice compliment and I should have ordered more.

I could go on and on about the food in Hue, but all good things must come to an end. Aside from the endless rain, and the crippling jet lag that I still haven’t kicked after 6 days, we’ve made our way to our next destination (Hoi An). But I know that Hue will always have a special place in my food-loving heart.