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Halong Bay and Hanoi

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Halong Bay . . . Several years ago I began to notice photographs of a strange and beautiful place, and I discovered that it was Halong Bay, in Vietnam. So, when I saw its name on a Celebrity cruise itinerary, that made me pay attention. And when Flying Wheels offered it as a wheelchair-accessible tour, we signed up.

Things don't always work out as planned. Others cancelled their reservations for the tour, so it turned out that Hugh and I are traveling by ourselves, using the shore excursions arranged by Flying Wheels. We are quite happily traveling without a group, especially when the arrangements work out as smoothly as they have on this trip. But I was disappointed when I woke up Wednesday morning to find that the cruise ship was surrounded by fog. We went out on deck at the time that the captain announced we would be entering Halong Bay, but there was not a rock formation to be seen. Eventually we saw one, then another, then another through the mist, but they were so indistinct the the automatic focus of my camera found nothing on which to focus. I tried manual focus, and that was no better. Eventually we left the deck and had an early lunch to prepare us for the afternoon.

When we were ready to leave, we got our tender tickets and waited for our number to be called, for there is no cruise dock in Halong Bay. When our turn came, we boarded one of the Millennium's tenders and made the easy trip to land. There we were met by our tour guide, driver, and helper, and got into the same kind of Toyota van that had served us well on the previous two land excursions. The trip to Hanoi was longer and also slower than those, its speed hampered by much road construction. And the dark, misty afternoon made the towns through which we passed seem more drab than they would have under brighter skies. Our route took us past towns with the very narrow but tall houses that are common here. We also so many people working in their rice fields, and we passed factories making shoes, bricks, and other goods. Most noteworthy was the large Canon plant. We took a break by stopping at a handicrafts centre which provides support for disabled workers, and about four hours after our pick-up at the port, we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi.

Ever since we visited India about ten years ago, we have been amused at how, on tours, we have been booked into more luxurious accommodation than we ever choose for ourselves. Our Hanoi hotel was the Intercontinental Westlake, and in our accessible room we were surrounded by luxury as well as convenience. I had signd up tor the chain's membership program in order for us to get wireless internet connections in our room and not just in public areas, and we discovered that here our membership also gave us a 15% discount on our meal in the hotel's restaurant. We had very good dinners and then enjoyed internet and relaxation in our room. The bath had both a tub with many grab bars and a roll-in shower with a convenient built-in bench, and I had a fine shower.

The breakfast buffet offered many choices, and our guide and his helpers were waiting when we checked out at the appointed time. The weather had not cleared up; in fact the mist had become a misty rain. We went first to the area dominated by the massive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. There we saw the long lines waiting to visit the monument; they included many groups of schoolchildren wearing their school uniforms who used their English skills to say "Hello" and sometimes "How are you?" We walked past the monument and continued onto the busy but lovely grounds of the presidential palace and the much smaller "stilt house" in which Ho Chi Minh chose to live while he used the palace only for purposes of state business. While the mausoleum was grey, the palace and smaller buildings were painted a warm yellow shade that almost glowed through the misty atmosphere.

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We reboarded the van and next visited the Temple of Literature, regularly described as the first university of Vietnam. The pathways through the grounds were decorated with many topiary plantings, and red lanterns gave colour along the way. The climax of all this was the Confucian temple at the far end of the grounds, with its large statues and much red and gold, making the visitor forget for the moment the dullness of the day.

After that, the van took us to an old quarter of the city where we had 45-minute cyclo rides. The vehicles were like those in which we had toured earlier, but these had their top canopies in place as roofs, and the driver fastened a sheet of clear plastic from the footrest up to about chin level, so we were surprisingly comfortable despite the misty atmosphere. We rode past hundreds of street vendors and storefront businesses, a much more diverse selection than we had seen previously. Of course there were a great number offering food, clothing, and household goods, but we also saw welders and a blacksmith at work in the more "industrial" area of shops.

Following a brief toilet stop, we started back toward Halong Bay. We had a noodle lunch at the same handicrafts place that we had visited on the outbound trip, and Hugh and I bought one small souvenir, our only shopping on the entire trip. Then we continued to Halong Bay.

As we approached the bay, we saw that, although the sky was still cloudy, the fog had lifted and the nearer rock formations were now clearly visible. Our guide made a suggestion: we could let off our helper, and then for an additional fee, he and the driver would take us to the city of Halong. We agreed. We went over the tall bridge that we had seen from our ship and crossed into the city. There we parked by the dock, if it can be called that, which is near a floating village and which serves as the departure point for water taxis and small fishing boats. In the sea were many of the amazing islands, some nearby and some more distant! We did not see them in their mysterious beauty, but we did see them as part of a fascinating human landscape, or rather seascape, so it turned out to be worth visiting Halong Bay after all. Then we went to the nearby market, especially in order to see the extensive fish market there. A remarkable variety of sea life was offered for sale, some cut up and ready for cooking, much still alive. All in all, this turned out to be a very fine extension to what had been an interesting land excursion with less than optimal weather.

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Finally we returned to the tender dock and to the cruise ship. We freshened up and had another fine dinner. The next morning we discovered that we had been tired enough so that we had gone to bed without noticing in the newsletter that we were supposed to turn our clocks ahead one hour, so we arrived at the the main dining room too late to eat breakfast there. However the ship has options, so we got breakfast at the buffet restaurant. Thus we began our final day at sea.

Posted by MarilynWhiteley 06:31 Archived in Vietnam

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