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My wife takes me places

posted May 16, 2014, 6:57 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated May 21, 2014, 1:47 AM ]
Since our travel dates were constrained by a family wedding in Los Angeles, we could not find a group tour with a coinciding starting date.

First stop, Hong Kong.  Everyone told us how much we would love it, but we much preferred mainland China.  However, we must say that the rooftop pool at the W Kowloon Hotel was utterly amazing.

After a bit of research, we discovered that it was not significantly more expensive to simply hire a private car and driver and make our own itinerary.  We found Tonkin Travel through high praise on the TripAdvisor forums.  We contacted several companies, whose prices were all within about 15% of each other, but decided on Tonkin because of its exclusive with the Moon Garden Homestay (see 4 April).  Our entire land tour, inclusive of almost all meals, the private car and driver, internal flights and all hotels cost $2,750 for both of us.  We had to pay tips to the drivers and guides, and we spent less than $200 on additional food, souvenirs and little extras.  Our big splurge was the Moon Garden Homestay, which alone cost $350 (anywhere else in the world a similar experience would have cost at least double) but was worth every penny.

27-28 March, 2012 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong is our chance to eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin star rated restaurant, Tim Ho Wan (the original).  We wait with a bunch of locals and Australians in the line and eventually get in to eat delicious dumpling.

In the queue at Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest Michelin star-rated restaurant.

The dumplings are worth the wait!

Room with a view – Kowloon Harbor from our room at the W Hotel.
Kowloon Park.

Mac Nerd. Hong Kong Apple Store.
Dinner at night market.

29 March 2012

Arrival to the Long Guest House in Ho Chi Minch City (Saigon), one of the top-rated places on TripAdvisor.  Very basic room, but terrific location, very clean, and the family is incredibly nice and helps us get our bearings.  We immediately walk a few blocks where we get massages at the Blind School, where blind people are trained in the trade of massage.  Not the best massage ever, but for $3 no complaints.  The clientele are mostly foreigners.

Saigon — Scooters everywhere!

In the evening we walked around the city and to the big shopping area.  No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a pedicure!  Yes, the nail salons in Vietnam are owned and operated by Vietnamese people, just like in the States.

Our driver + guide picked up from our guest house to take us to CaiBe for our tour of the floating market along the Mekong, where local barges full of fruits and vegetables trade with people on other boats.

Life along the Mekong River.

Brandied snakes.
It’s not popcorn, it’s poprice.

We stopped at a consortium of local workshops to see how rice and coconut candy and pop-rice (like a puffed wheat) is made.  The handicraft village lets you see how they make some special products, like baby snakes marinated in liquor.  We had lunch of a crazy, scaly fish under the shade of local orchards on An Binh Island.  A stop at a local nursery garden was a chance to try new varieties of fruit a homemade rice wine.  We opted against staying to listen to traditional music.

More river life.
The weirdest, ugliest fish we’ve ever eaten. But tasty.

31 March

Morning visit to CuChi, where 200-kilometre-long tunnels formed part of an incredible underground network built by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war.  We walked through the low, narrow tunnels and our quads were burning after just a 10 minute crawl – can’t imagine how the soldiers managed it.

Hanging out with the Viet Cong.

Delayed flight to Hanoi and check into the very nice and centrally-located Hanoi Imperial Hotel.

1 April

We had VIP entrance to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which enabled us to bypass part of the line. Vito got scolded in the line for putting his hands in his pockets, and I got scolded for wearing sunglasses (this was outside while waiting, not inside the tomb).  The elderly woman in front of us is clearly a great admirer who fervently prayed and moaned as we filed past the coffin.  The young guards wanted to respect her and honor her devotion, but eventually they gently pushed her along by putting their hands on her back to move her forward.  Nearby we visited Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts (and his car collection) and the One Pillar Pagoda, a symbol of Hanoi.  We drove to the Temple of Quan Thanh, where lies the genie protector of the city (or Tran Quoc Pagoda located on the shores of Lake West).

Two Capitalists on vacation.  Nothing says Communist icon like a frozen body and a giant mausoleum. Tomb of Ho Chih Minh.
Ho’s friends.

Next a stop at the Opera House and then a visit to the Hanoi Hilton.  The English signs around the prison are propagandistic to say the very least and employ the use of the term “puppet regime” quite liberally.  A fellow grammar nazi took a sharpie to many signs to correct the grammar/spelling.

Hanoi Hilton – 1* rating on TripAdvisor. Bad food, uncomfortable beds. This place is torture.

Vito toured Hanoi’s famed old quarter from the seat of a cyclo (a bicycle rickshaw) while I walked around hopelessly lost.  The cycle driver, who was  paid by the tour company, was furious to receive what he deemed an insufficient tip (after ripping us off by shortening the length of the tour).

Lake in the center of Hanoi.

We went to the late matinee at the water puppets theatre, which was quite enjoyable and mercifully brief.

The streets of Hanoi.

Our driver picked us up for a 20.30 transfer to train station for night train to Laocai station, overnight on the train.  We took the Fanxipan train, where we had the whole 4 berth cabin for the 2 of us (it’s small enough for 2).  Very clean and actually quite comfortable, but this was the bumpiest/shakiest train ride we’ve ever taken.

Our cabin on the Fanxipan train.

2 April

At 6.00 a.m. our train arrived in Laocai, where our excellent guide and driver picked up from train station then transfer to Boutique Sapa Hotelfor breakfast.  The hotel is in the heart of the town, and we were able to walk around the local market.  We bought some knock-off Kleen shoes and a North Face hat (which which now affectionately call North Farce).

Dog at Sapa market.

Our guide met us back at the hotel to take us to Lao Chai village, a Black Hmong ethnic minority village. Many (or most) of the tribal children don’t go to school, so we saw many of them just hanging out alone at their houses while their parents go to work.

Nobody’s home – take my picture!
Rice paddy lunch break time.

Boys will be boys anywhere in the world, and a group of young boys (aged from about 4-8) sat around on the mountainside throwing rocks (over the cliff and at each other).  From there we walked to Tavan village where the Giay ethnic minority hill tribe lives. Luckily because we had a private guide we weren’t hassled by people trying to sell us junk as much as the tourists walking on their own.

Buffalo gets lunch, too.

We stopped at a guest home for a delicious lunch prepared by our guide.  She phoned ahead to request mushrooms, and we paid a little extra for some wild mushrooms from the family’s property.  Some of the young Vietnamese people who were sleeping at the guest house wanted to practice their English with us, and we enjoyed a fun conversation.

Pick a skewer.

After lunch our walk continued through a bamboo forest to Giang Ta Chai, a Red Dao ethnic minority village. We walked around Sapa in the evening and sat outdoors to enjoy fresh grilled skewers from a street vendor.  A Spanish tourist sat next to us and ordered skewers of tiny songbirds, which cost about 20 Euros in Spain but only a dollar here.  Everything was tasty and cheap.  Our hotel has a lovely view of the mountains.

3 April

Coc Ly is a very small market which takes place only on Tuesdays.  Other than some fresh coconut ice cream and a few stuffed rolls, we didn’t buy anything and actually thought the city market in Sapa was better.   The long and windy road was worth the trip, though, for the a one-way boat ride along Chay River and a short walk to Trung Do village of Tay minority that followed the market.

Boat ride along the Chay River.

Back for another overnight on the Fanxipan train.4 April

At a green tea plantation with our guide Ha, who had the best English of any guide and gave us wonderful insight into Vietnamese life.

The other side of the river (behind us) is China. We don’t have visas, so we are not free to walk over.

Crack of dawn (4.30 a.m.) we arrived to Hanoi station, where our driver then transfer directly to KySon Village for our stay at the Moon Garden Homestay, which is owned by the owner of our tour company.  We showered and rested in the traditional style stilt house (where groups can stay in semi-private accomodations) while our private room was being prepared.  I guess I can call it a “semi-resort”.  We enjoyed sitting by the rice paddies and just reading and relaxing.

Lunch is served in an old church.

Our lunch was followed by a Hand Spa, where our  fingers were dipped in a fragrant lime bowl and we were given traditional herbal hand massages.  No detail has been forgotten here, from the rose petals on our bed to every last decoration in the lovely bathroom.

All around Vietnam fields and rice paddies contain family graves.

In the afternoon Vito took a bicycle ride to discover the Ky Son, Tam Son, Van Minh and Cham farming communities.

If there’s a chance a tourist might walk by, kindergarteners around the world learn to say, “Hello!”

In the evening we watched the family performing traditional prayers and worship.  Then we had a terrific outdoor candlelit dinner.  Since there is a maximum of 12 guests, there is a relaxed feeling and lots of personal attention.  Dessert was a foot bath in warm water with ginger, salt and mugwort medicinal herbs.

Dinner by candlelight.

As if we weren’t relaxed enough, when we returned to our rooms a traditional steam bath with fragrant herbs (Lemon grass, pomelo leaves, holy basil leaves) awaited us to prepare for a good night’s sleep.

5 April

Breakfast is served in an old church that was moved onto the property.

Ancestral tributes for sale.

One of the homestay employees took us on a walk through the village, and we stopped for tea at his family home, where we met his children (home from school for lunch) and his parents.

Spring roll cooking lesson results.

After lunch we had a cooking lesson and learned to make spring rolls and how to carve fruit.  We headed back to Hanoi in time for dinner.  We wandered around the night market sampling various street foods.

6 April

Our driver picked us up early for the drive to Halong Bay, a journey of approximately 3 1/2 hours. Listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Ha Long Bay is a stunning limestone archipelago stretching over some 1500 square kilometers and comprising nearly 2000 islets.  Everything was very well-organized, and we boarded our Dragon Pearl junk.  There were about 25 people on board, a mix of Australians and Americans.  The boat was clean, comfortable, and the staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating.  We enthusiastically recommend the Indochina Junk company and particularly the longer cruise which includes dinner in the cave (see below), which is truly a unique travel adventure.

Halong Bay – a must visit.

The weather was perfect so that we can enjoy an outdoor lunch while cruising to Bai Tu Long Bay, admiring the formations along the way.  We stopped at  the little islet of Cap La and enjoyed a swim and a kayak ride.

Refreshing would be the word to describe this early April swim.

Relaxing would be the word for this read on the beach.
The view from our cabin.
7 April

We took a morning kayak ride through the hidden lagoons and the geological park in Cong Dam.  We had good weather, but after lunch it was pouring rain for our visit to

Cong Dam fishing village by a rustic row-boat.  We visited a local school and were welcomed into local homes to see how the villagers live.

Floating village.

One of the highlights of our entire trip had to be our dinner in Thay (Master) cave.  We walked up steep stairs and into a cave, walking along a candlelit route into the atmospherically-lit grand cave.  The boat staff entertained us with their amazing food carvings and served us a fantastic, multi-course meal.

A little rain can’t stop a kayak ride.

8 April

We visited Thien Canh Son cave in the morning and had lunch before disembarking and riding back to Hanoi

Tips from the Australians at the Kangaroo Cafe.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Hanoi’s markets.  We watched a gruesome frog disembowelment and purchased a variety of fruit, tea and “weasel coffee” (which allegedly passes through the digestive system of a weasel.