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VIETNAM-“Chaotic” experience in Hanoi’s traffic and cruising pristine Ha Long Bay



By Wilfredo Valenzuela
Photos: Wilfredo Valenzuela, Danny Valenzuela, Cindy Valenzuela and Eddie Flores
Hanoi – Vietnam
January 29 – February 3, 2016


 
 



My brother Danny’s wife Cindy planned and arranged our first trip to Northern Vietnam months in advance.  Danny, Cindy, my sisters Chi and Quiding, Quiding’s husband Eddie, and I took an early morning flight from Manila to Hanoi via Singapore.  It was dark by the time we set out from Noi Bai International Airport to our lodging at Hanoi’s French Quarter. 
The modern airport was not very busy. And neither was the highway leading out of the airport.  The smooth highway traffic near the airport belied the heavy traffic we encountered as soon as we entered Hanoi.



The following day, we took an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Ha Long Bay reminded us of the fjords in Norway.  However, instead of a narrow inlet between high cliffs, Ha Long Bay has hundreds of prominent limestone islets jutting out of the sea.  It was an overcast and chilly winter day, but this did not mar our enjoyment of the cruise. 

We went on a hike through a cave to the top of a hill on one of the small islands.  Quiding impressed all of us by scaling the top of the steep hill.  We rode a paddle boat.  The young Vietnamese woman paddling the boat motioned that her arms were getting exhausted, as she paddled the boat for all 6 of us. 

Our short stay in Vietnam left me with some lasting impressions.  First, the people are very hospitable.  Our tour guide Hiu and the crew of Stellar Cruise provided us with excellent professional service.  Thao, the manager on board Stellar Cruise, graciously catered to our every need.  Our waiter King serenaded us with Vietnamese love songs.

While we were in Hanoi, Dong, our local AirBnB host, and her Australian business partner Narelle attended to our needs to our utmost satisfaction.  Dong not only provided us with very reasonably priced lodging, but also took care of arranging most of our meals as well as the Ha Long Bay cruise.  She made plans for a friendly family in her neighborhood to prepare a home cooked dinner of fish for us upon our arrival in Hanoi from the airport. 

Dong served us flavorful Phở noodle soup for breakfast.  She and Narelle provided us with all the guidance we needed to be able to navigate the center of Hanoi and explore the city on foot.

Second, the traffic is intimidating.  Manila traffic, which many foreigners find disorderly, is nothing compared to the traffic in Hanoi where motor bicycles rule the roads.  Few drivers seem to observe traffic lights.  Motorbikes go in the opposite direction of busy traffic.  They dodge pedestrians to a few inches of apparent collision.  We were advised that the best way to cross a street in Hanoi is to just keep on walking and leave it up to the motorbike drivers to avoid you. 

This is easier said than done, but we quickly learned as otherwise, we would not have been able to tour the city on foot.  Danny likened crossing a Hanoi street to the Philippine children’s game of patintero. Interestingly, we did not see a single accident in spite of the seemingly chaotic traffic flow.

Third, the people of Hanoi are very proud of their history and culture.  Most of the tourist attractions in the city are places that promote the culture and history of the region.  We watched a water puppet show, an ancient art form which is said to have originated in the Red River delta around Hanoi. 

We visited the former Hoa Lo Prison which was built by the French colonists to incarcerate political prisoners, and later used by North Vietnam to imprison American pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam War.  We sauntered around Hoan Kiem Lake, a place of refuge from the nearby busy shopping area and the hustle and bustle of the city. 

The lake surrounds a tiny island with a pagoda, the Ngoc Son Temple, in the center.   We entered the courtyards of the old Confucian Temple of Literature (Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam), the first university of Vietnam built almost a thousand years ago.  The Temple of Literature was the school for the royal family.  In the 15th century, steles or commemorative stone monuments with inscriptions of the names, birth dates and birth places of doctorate graduates, were erected in the temple.


We visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum.  Ho Chi Minh is held in high esteem by the locals who refer to him as Uncle Ho.


Fourth, the food is excellent.  Everything we ate was delicious.  We had Phở for breakfast and lunch.  This popular Vietnamese street food is served throughout the day.   Every dish in the multi-course meals we were served during the cruise was delightful.  There are many restaurants all over town in Hanoi, and everything we ate there was tasty with no exception.  I would not mind eating Vietnamese food every day. 

Fifth and last, we got this peculiar impression that the Vietnamese are all slim and slender.  We spent a lot of time in crowded streets and restaurants, but we did not see a single overweight Vietnamese throughout our stay.  This is perhaps another reason why I would not mind a regular diet of Vietnamese food.
 Fortunately, I live in Orange County, California with its sizeable Vietnamese population, and convenient access to Vietnamese cuisine.




TRAVEL TIPS .... CRUISING HA LONG BAY:


We took an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. This is a beautiful place. Aclass Stellar Cruise included door-to-door service from our lodging in the French Quarter in Hanoi.

Our tour guide Hiu and the crew of Stellar Cruise provided professional service to our utmost satisfaction. Thao Le, the manager on board Stellar Cruise, graciously attended to our every need. Our waiter King not only served us excellent meals but even serenaded us with Vietnamese love songs.

Every dish in the multi-course meals we were served during the cruise was delightful.

Activities such as hiking through a cave to the top of a hill on one of the small islands, cooking demonstration, kayaking, swimming, and a bamboo paddle boat ride were included in the very reasonably priced package.

(Wilfredo Valenzuela)


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