Travel: Dennis Carr in Vietnam, Part 3

Travel

By Dennis Carr, Contributing Editor, on an excellent adventure

Vietnam by bicycle, rowboat, and ferry (Part 3)

Image: Photo of boats on the water of archipelago in the Gulf of Tonkin, provided by Dennis Carr.

Cat Ba Town and Ha Long Bay

By Dennis Carr
Contributing Editor, True North Perspective
 
Attentive readers will recall my last trip report ended with the stalwart trio enjoying a few cold ones on a patio overlooking Ha Long Bay in Cat Ba City. While we were sad to be at the end of the bicycle touring portion of our excellent adventure, we were excited about the new adventures that lay ahead. Early the next morning Joe and Hugh, our bicycle guides picked us up in their van and drove us to a nearby harbour where we hopped onto a junk to enjoy a half-day boat ride in Ha Long Bay.
 
Image: The author with son and spouse on Ha Long Bay. Provided by Dennis Carr.
 
Ha Long Bay is a beautiful archipelago in the Gulf of Tonkin made up of thousands of limestone islands rising from the emerald green waters. A mystical landscape of breathtaking beauty, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular with tourists of all nationalities because of its serene beauty. Our junk was a tad dilapidated but seemed stable enough as we left the fishing vessels and freighter behind in the port and set off among the floating fishing villages and misty ethereal karst islands set in the waters.
Image: Boats on Ha Long Bay. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
The junk is a traditional wooden Chinese sailing ship with a flat bottom and battened sails, which (according to Mr. Wikipedia) makes them appropriate for long voyages in rough conditions. We never found out if this was true or not as the weather was warm and sunny and the winds were calm. The bamboo battened sails on our junk remained folded up on the rear deck beside the rebar anchor while the diesel motor did all the work.
 
Image: Photo of a rebar anchor on deck of traditional Chinese fishing boat,  provided by Dennis Carr.
 
We passed every manner and size of floating vessel from small grass fishing boats to larger tourist ships. The floating villages included small fish farms and barges loaded with nets, floats, bait and other fishing related paraphernalia.
 
Image: Photo of a 'floating village', provided by Dennis Carr.
 
Dogs and kids roamed the docks while the industry of fishing carried on around them. After a couple of hours of relaxed fascination we docked at a floating fish farm. This would be our lunch spot. Under the dock and sitting area of the establishment were fish tanks holding everything from small minnows to a tank with what we were told was a 15 kilogram monster.
 
Image: Photo of George giving fishing a try, provided by Dennis Carr.
 
We relaxed on the deck. George tried his hand at fishing (no luck) until we were served a delightful lunch of fish, prawns, stir fried cabbage, fresh onion and cucumber salad, French fries, fried chicken and spring rolls. Then we motored back to the harbour, drove back to Cat Ba Town and said our poignant goodbyes to Joe and Hugh.
 
The afternoon was spent exploring the sites around Cat Ba Town. After some extensive negotiations and hand gestures, we managed to convince a cab driver/tour guide to take us high above the town to Fort Cannon, a former anti-aircraft gun installation offering spectacular views featuring fishing boats in Cat Ba Harbour and the surrounding islands. It was built by the Japanese during World War 2, used by the French and then by the Vietnamese to protect the port of Hai Phong from American bombers. Visitors are treated to life size mannequins manning gun emplacements and a re-creation of the sleeping quarters, including a private room for conjugal visit. George was disappointed there weren't mannequins depicting the conjugal visits.
 
Image: Photo of former anti-aircraft gun installation Fort Cannon, showing mannequins manning gun emplacements. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
We had booked another junk tour for following day, this time it was a full day event. Unbeknownst to us, the morning would be a repeat of the previous day's tour including a visit to the same floating fishing and the same lame and unsuccessful attempt to catch a fish using a piece of bread on a hook. Kia, our tour guide, chatted vociferously with the lady of the house. I thought maybe a major commercial dispute was taking place however it turned out she was just his sister-in-law.
 
After lunch we loaded two kayaks onto the junk and motored through the beautiful karst islands to another floating home/restaurant and started kayaking. George partnered with Kai who, rather oddly, sat on top of the kayak deck rather than in its seat.
 
Image: Photo of George and guide Kai on a Kayak, showing Kai sitting on top of the craft, rather than in the seat. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
We paddled through a series of caves to secluded bays. A highlight was seeing two (according to Kia) yellow monkeys. We kayaked in a large loop through quiet waters back to the boat where a lunch of fried spring rolls, freshly caught fish, steamed prawns and cucumber and carrot salad waited for us.
 
After lunch, we motored on, which provided me an opportunity to nap on the deck, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat and the hum of the diesel engine. Our next stop was a short but pleasant cavern tour and a short hike up to a height of land with a fabulous view of the islands. Next we did some swimming from the boat to a small but pleasant sandy beach and then returned to Cat Ba town.
 
Image: Photo showing Halong Bay from a cliff. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
While beautiful Ha Long Bay may be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it's not without its share of environmental challenges. 'Progress' and poor regulation has taken its toll. It is near the large port of Haiphong and suffers from water pollution. It is not uncommon to see piles of rubbish floating in the water and washed up on the shores. According to some guide books (read after our tour), ships dump raw human waste and diesel fuel into the water. The water isn't suitable for swimming (which makes you wonder about the fish farming) and pregnant women, children or people with weak immune systems should stay out of the water.
 
Next morning, we found ourselves aboard a well-worn high-speed hydrofoil to Haiphong for a brief stopover before an afternoon flight to Da Nang on the central coast. As befitting a highly industrialized city, the enormous harbour is crowded with every imaginable floating vessel from sampans to huge tankers.
 
Haiphong is large city, but doesn't have the crazy intensity and tourist hustle of Hanoi. The streets were busy but not insanely crowded. It didn't have the aggressive hawkers or the dodgy street stalls. With wide tree-lined streets and a café culture, it was quite urbane. After a pleasant stroll around the town centre, we found our way to a brew pub recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. Relaxing on the patio, we enjoyed excellent craft beer, a lunch of fish and mustard greens and Vietnamese coffee. We then set ourselves to finding our way to the airport. This involved not only finding a cab (easy) but also negotiating the fare (not so easy).
 
We arrived three hours before the domestic flight (I'm a nervous traveler) and, being too early to wait in the departure lounge we found a café outside the airport and sat on the patio enjoying ice cream and freshly made lemonade. Not something one can do outside the Ottawa or Vancouver airports. Eventually, we entered the airport. Accustomed to long line-ups at security gates, we were surprised to find ourselves and other westerners being the first to be checked in. Are the long line-ups at Canadian airports the result of Asians getting priority? We found ourselves in a small, shabby, very crowded departure lounge with long rows of metal benches, a few tattered soft chairs and a small booth selling treats and trinkets, There didn't seem to be anything else except the departure times screen, a clock and a large TV featuring a talk show which competed with the screaming kids for our attention. Further exploration (I'm a pacer) revealed stairs to an upper business class lounge, a smoking room and, 40 years after the war, a donation box for victims of Agent Orange.
 
While the Haiphong airport was shabby and provincial, the Da Nang airport was sleek and modern, perhaps because of its closeness to the central coast beach resorts. A brand new bus awaited us as we got off the plane. Its sole purpose was to take us to a newly minted terminal, 30 seconds away. Inside the modern facility we were greeted by boutiques selling expensive goods and numerous promotions for tourist activities. Our luggage arrived promptly, as did the driver from our hotel and we headed off to Hoi An.
 
The drive to Hoi An was fascinating as well as disconcerting. Leaving the airport on a smooth, modern billboard-lined highway, we passed a strip of immense, banquet halls. It was like the Las Vegas strip for Asian marriages; each building trying to out-do the other's garishness. Further along, as the highway paralleled the coastline, we passed by a series of gated villas, resorts and golf courses. Joe had earlier explained to us that in Vietnam, people can own their house, but not the land it sits on. It allows the government to easily expropriate and move people away for 'public' purposes such as the luxury Greg Norman Da Nang Beach Resort. The land is then leased to developers and lots of money is made, except by the poor saps who lost their homes.
 
About 45 minutes later we were delivered to our hotel in Hoi An. Our hotel (the 'An Hoi') was nothing special. Our modest room on the ground floor, accessed by a narrow dark hallway, was small and dank but we didn't care. We didn't plan to spend much time in it as the hotel was situated near the heart of one of Vietnam's most interesting and popular towns and at $36.00/night the price was right.
 
Image: Photo of an ancient building, now refurbished, in Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
Hoi An was once a major port City but in the late 19th century the Thu Bon River silted up and ships could no longer dock. The city's importance dwindled until a 1990's tourism boom transformed its fortunes. It features the grand merchant architecture and attractive riverside setting of an old port town but without our 21st-century afflictions of traffic chaos and pollution. Today, Hoi An is one of Vietnam's most wealthy towns, a culinary destination and an important tourism centre.
 
Image: Photo of a street in Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
The town's attraction is largely the preserved Old Town and its stunning legacy of tottering Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples, and ancient tea warehouses. Of course, the residents and rice fields have been replaced by tourist businesses, including numerous tailor shops but beyond the small historic area and the surrounding hotels, not much has changed. Just beyond the city centre is a huge market, a few kilometers away are superb bicycle and motorbike trips, enticing scenery and amazing beaches.
 
Interestingly, Hoi An was mostly untouched during the Vietnamese War (or what in Vietnam is called the 'American War') due to cooperation on both sides. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and there are strict controls in place to protect the heritage features.
 
Image: Photo of a temple in Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
The dining room of our hotel was on the second floor and we relaxed on the outdoor patio munching our breakfast of baguettes, fried eggs, jams, cheese, yogurt and fresh fruit, while we enjoyed pleasant views of the river and the historic city. After breakfast, in true tourist fashion, one of our first stops was 'Kimmys' a tailor shop recommended by the hotel manager. I went there intending to order one shirt and came away with five; 3 linen sports shirts and two cotton dress shirts. Janet ordered two silk shirts. The total cost $185.00. Our extremely friendly and helpful saleswoman encouraged us to write a positive comment on Trip Advisor because for every five good comments she earned a vacation!
 
Image: Photo of a beach near Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
It was a clear, hot day. We rented some old, but comfortable coaster bicycles and headed to the beach. Our destination was a secluded beach recommended by the guide book but we had left our map at the hotel and after some back tracking, soul searching, and undiplomatic exchanges we managed to find our way to the more popular but more easily found beach and parked our bikes in a secure area ($0.25 per bike). The walk to the beach was along a network of restaurants, street stalls, and hawkers. As it turned out the beach was perfect; lovely sand, warm water, and not very crowded.
 
Image: Photo of fun on the beach near Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
Eventually it was time to head back but we hadn't had lunch and of course we couldn't brave the 6K bike ride back to town on empty stomachs. We stopped at a random café along the strip and ordered fish seafood pho. It was the best soup yet! Lots of garlic, tomatoes and featuring transparent cellophane noodles. What a great country.
 
Image: Photo of a crowded market in Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
The ride back to Hoi An was straightforward as we stuck to the main roads. While stopped at an intersection, we happened upon a guided motorcycle tour group. The guide stopped to chat with us and was thrilled when he learned we were from BC. He proudly informed us that his brother, a boat person who eventually settled in Canada, made a good living in BC's marijuana trade.
 
The remainder of the day was spent strolling through the town, enjoying the café scene, checking out he market and tasting some unique culinary specialties such as banh bao ('White Rose'; a dumpling delicacy) and banh xeo (crispy pancakes with herbs in rice paper).
 
I awoke a 5:30 the next morning and not wanting to disturb Janet and George I went to the hotel lobby thinking I would check email at the internet café. The spacious lobby was locked behind closed gates and crowded with scooters. The night staff were sleeping on couches under mosquito netting. Not wanting to disrupt their rest, I crept to a third floor patio and read.
 
The hotel is on a peninsula connecting to the central town by a short bridge over the river. At night the bridge is lit up with lanterns. Day and night, the boulevard and both ends of the bridge are heavily used public spaces – used for meeting up with friends, outdoor concerts, cab rentals and stalls for selling stuff to tourists.
 
After breakfast we asked the hotel concierge where we could rent scooters for the day. He said to come back in an hour which gave us another opportunity to wander through the town. When we returned, two rather well-used scooters, no doubt borrowed from hotel staff or friends awaited us. We asked for helmets and three appeared in short order. When I asked how much gas was in the tank, I was provided with some unclear instruction about the location of gas stations.
 
Off we roared (more like sputtered), this time in search of the beach that we misplaced the previous day. My trip notes indicate we found the beach without incident. This no doubt refers to having not got lost which for me qualified as a red letter day. It certainly doesn't refer to my driving the scooter. Out of a misplaced sense of gallantry or maybe patriarchal chauvinism, I thought it would be safer if George rode with me.
 
Image: Photo of an uneasy rider. The author rides a scooter, with George on the back. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
My qualifications for the responsibility were slim. In 2000, Janet and I rented, without incident, scooters in Cuba. As a teenager, I had borrowed a friend's scooter, taken it for a ride through her dad's apple orchard, hit a drainage ditch and put my shoulder through the windshield. For much of the trip I was grinding the gears, mistaking the brake for the accelerator and lurching over sidewalks.
 
After parking the scooters, we found, on the path leading to the ocean, a small statue of a polar bear. Don't ask me why but it really did look like a polar bear. This was another incredible beach and I was comforted with the sight of what I took to be life guards in round 'basket boats'. It turned out they were fishermen (although probably, for a small stipend, they would save your life if you were drowning or being dragged to China with the undertow). This boat has interesting history that is worth an internet quote:
The thung chai, or “basket boat”, traces its history back to the French colonial era. As the story goes, the French arrived in Vietnam and began levying taxes including a tax on the ownership of boats. Most of the poor Vietnamese fishermen who depended on boats for their livelihood could not afford to pay the taxes, so they invented a new type of boat: the thung chai.

Hemispherical and woven from bamboo, the thung chai is a variety of coracle – a small, circular boat traditionally used in parts of the British Isles as well as India, Iraq, and Tibet. The fishermen who built them argued that these were not boats at all but baskets and therefore couldn't be taxed. Their crafty plan seems to have worked, and ever since then these domed vessels have been a feature of the landscape of central Vietnam, lying scattered across beaches and (more recently) ferrying tourists from A to B.

On this beach, the restaurants were located behind the beach area. At no charge, they offered thatched roof shade umbrellas and lawn chairs. No doubt they hoped their generosity would be rewarded when the sunbathers were in need of food and drink and of course it was. George ordered fish and chips and that is what he got – French fries and a whole fried fish.
 
Image: Photo of fish'n chips Vietnam-style. A whole, deep-fried fish, with chips, but George was up to the challenge. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
I wondered why they were taking so long to bring it but then I understood. The cell phone service between the cook and the fisherman in the thung chai must have been down. Talk about fresh! As I've noted before, the food in Vietnam is universally great. Even when it is standard fare such as spring rolls, pho and seafood, different regions have different variations and it is always wonderful.
 
We (by which I mean 'I') decided to take a different route back to Hoi An. Of course we got thoroughly lost which meant we drove through fascinating country side, past rice paddies and small farms, bridges over canals and small villages we would otherwise never had encountered.
 
Image: Photo of Janet aboard her scooter, stopped before a colourful boat in dry-dock. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
At one point, we found ourselves driving across a busy pedestrian bridge; no cars allowed only pedestrians, bikes and crazed foreigners on scooters. Then I played chicken with street venders as I rode along the crowded street leading to the public market. Out of respect for the local population and our lives we managed to avoid other busy areas and eventually found our hotel although only by accident. George noticed it on the other side of the street where it was supposed to be as I rode past.
 
Image: Photo of a market street in Hoi An. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.
 
The following day was our last in Hoi An and we used our time to purchase gifts and pick up our shirts at Kimmys. On the way back to the hotel, Janet stopped to look at shoes. At the risk of providing too much personal information, she has difficulty finding shoes that fit. She found a pair of sandals she liked but couldn't buy them because one of them didn't fit. No problem she was told. The sized her up and told her to come back in two hours to pick up tailor made sandals. Out of gratitude she gave then her worn out , but stylish, Commercial Drive hipster sandals to be copied and sold at their store.
 
Then it was back to the hotel for a well-earned rest. Shopping can be tiring. While Janet went to pick up her shoes, George and I relaxed in a café patio enjoying White Rose and fish soup. I ended my meal with Vietnamese coffee. From our cool, shaded seats, we had a front row seat to the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Hoi An which included the arrival and departure of an endless stream of tour buses dislodging passengers all marked with similar identification; the same coloured caps, name tags or the same colourful t shirts.
 
Eventually, we headed back to the hotel to wait for the taxi that would take us to the Da Nang train station. I was apprehensive about the train ride. Joe's words were ringing in my ear. When I told him we were taking train from Da Nang to Hanoi. “Oh!” he said and then he shook his head. “Trains in Vietnam are bad, very bad.”
 
But you'll have to wait for the fourth installment for that story.

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