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3…2…1… Action: Peaceful Halong Bay

Halong Bay’s majesty surrounded us during our overnight trip off Vietnam’s coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. Certainly the highlight of the unique experience was kayaking in complete peace for two hours in an area inaccessible to the Chinese junk boats. But it was not all time for quiet reflection.

It is 5:45am. Not a sound is audible except for the heavenly songbirds. Even the nearby pearl farmers are still slumbering:

Greg and his pal Justin from India rolled the dice and went swimming with “sharks and crocodiles”:

To escape the clatter created by the multitudes of Chinese junk boats, we kayaked through a watery tunnel to Eden:

Ah, the sound of silence amongst the fascinating limestone karsts:

The Malaysian family aboard the Pinta (our Chinese junk boat) enjoyed karaoke even more than Greg. Our guide Trung ate it up:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. It is nearly impossible to know what kind of group dynamic you will have during trips with strangers. However, you may inquire about percentage of capacity sold, ages, and nationalities before booking. With that info, you can compare operators not just by price, but also by the group’s demographics.

Chinese Junk Boats In Halong Bay

Fog. A menacing weather phenomenon that grounds planes, dampens your suit en route to the subway, and causes vehicular pileups. But just as fog adds mystery to America’s Smoky Mountains, it makes Halong Bay’s topography extraordinary.

Junk Boats Scenery From Up Top

Kayaking Near Limestone KarstWe climb into the newish minibus in Hanoi joining a grinning Malaysian family of four and a friendly couple from India bound for Halong Bay. One of favorite tour guides of all time, Trung makes himself known. His enthusiasm is palpable, almost laughable. He is the classic people pleaser that refuses to utter the word ‘no’. By midday we reach our Chinese junk boat, the Pinta. Trung’s stomach convulses in laughter at my Christopher Columbus antics, yet he does not understand the references. We instantly love the guy. The Pinta gingerly departs the crowded harbor of junk boats and we are surrounded by a mine field of limestone karsts jutting from the salty sea. Riding on the open air top deck, Ash and I soak up the dreamlike scene.

Amazing Cave - View From Top Halong Bay - Sunrise

Amazing Cave - Greg's BullseyeNumerous junk boats present themselves on the horizon as the Pinta inches closer to Amazing Cave. Inside the limestone karst is a labyrinth of natural tunnels, towering stalactites, and growing stalagmites all lit in a soft yellow hue. Trung guides us through the cavernous enclosure signaling interesting spots with his red laser pointer. When I ask him to point it at my forehead, like a marksman’s scope, he becomes nervous to the point of fidgety. He relents and gets a good laugh after my vision remains 20 – 20. Outside we are aboard the Pinta once more and purchase water from a floating convenience store whose saleswoman’s helpers are two adorable young Vietnamese boys.

Amazing Cave Yellow Hue Boat Convenient Store Helpers

The overcast sky dims as the Captain tucks the junk boat into a secluded bay inhabited by a lonely pearl farm. Here, Justin (Indian) and I dawn our swimming costumes for a refreshing dip in Halong Bay’s turquoise water. Dinner is fantastic and is the prelude to two hours of riveting karaoke on a flatscreen television. Everyone takes a turn, some more willing than others. The Malaysian family favors the Beatles, Ash the 80s, the Indian couple soft rock, and yours truly Styx. Trung, well he loves it all, naturally. Sleep finds us after such a varied performance.

Trung! Halong Bay - Ash Singing Karaoke

Kayaking Halong Bay - KarstsWith fog enveloping the whole of Halong Bay, it is hard to pinpoint the sun’s arrival. In any case, I wake with the birds. With only myself to share the moment, I am in awe of the immense beauty coupled with isolation from the agitated world. The quiet is so intense that it seems the songbirds are outfitted with loudspeakers. There I sit, Ash still counting sheep, for ninety minutes. Then it is time for light exercise post breakfast with kayaking Halong Bay’s hidden nooks and crannies. We head straight for a watery tunnel beneath a hulking karst where on the opposite side is a paradise like no other. The water flat, karsts lofty, fog blurring our depth perception. Calmness fills our lungs, hearts, and minds. Ashley quips, “this is my kind of Heaven.” That about sums it up. Trung nearly ties a rope to our kayak in order to pull us back through the kasrt passageway back to the Pinta for the final time. We don’t want to go!

Kayaking Through Karst Tunnel Kayaking Halong Bay... So Peaceful

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Booking Chinese Junk Boats while in nearby Hanoi is difficult due to the hundreds on offer in every price range. It is a classic “you get what you pay for” excursion. Budget boats do sail, but prepare to share your bunk with freeloading rats. Luxury ships are beyond pricey. Opt for the middle road, a little extra money is certainly worth a good sleep without rodents.
  2. Rated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, trash floats while rubbish loiters in trapped bays all over Halong Bay. What’s more, most of this trash comes from the junk boat operators themselves. While I was enjoying the solitude of the morning, I watched in dismay as a neighboring junk boat dumped a filled trash bag overboard. What a hassle taking it to shore must have been! Do your part in places you love by discouraging littering.

Bile. Beating heart. Blood. Eating Cobra in Vietnam’s Le Mat Snake Village

Bile. Beating heart. Blood. All consumed in your prototypical shot glass.

Le Mat Snake Village - Tiger Cobra Beating Heart and Bile Le Mat Snake Village - King Cobra On The Loose

Le Mat Snake Village - Tiger Cobra Beating Heart and Bile - Greg Gearing Up For ShotA Vietnamese snake village? This we had to check out. Le Mat is just a short taxi away from Hanoi’s Old City, a perfect way to escape the hectic city for the evening. We had negotiated for ice climbing, fish spa treatments, and Vanuatuan kava. But never had the bargaining revolved around a floor of dangerously poisonous cobra snakes. The King Cobra was way beyond our means, so we opted for a full grown Tiger Cobra instead. The handler expertly pinned its body down with a stick and in a flash its head and gallbladder were removed via an impossibly sharp knife. Our dinner was taken across the open concrete room to the kitchen that was adjacent to the cages full of venomous serpents.

Le Mat Snake Village - Ash Dining on Grilled Tiger Cobra Snake Le Mat Snake Village - Tiger Cobra Snake Feast

We settled in for our twelve course Tiger Cobra Snake meal upstairs. No better way to kick off a hearty meal than with a shot of bile complete with a still beating heart. The gracious waiter sauntered over with a clear shot glass in which you could see the throbbing heart. With precision, he lanced the gallbladder and drained the bile until the heart bobbed like an apple.

It took a few tortuous minutes to muster the nerve, but down the hatch it went. It tasted like pure vomit. And though my mind was playing tricks, it felt as if my stomach pulsated until the acid neutralized the snake’s panting heart. This video speaks volumes.

Then the Tiger Cobra was delivered to our table wave after wave, each prepared in a different method. A sampling – snake browned in fat with chili and citronella, snake liver ralled omelette, soft fried snake skin, snake porridge. Ash nibbled on the grilled bits. She was so polite, leaving me the rest. Though lean, we were amazed how much food just one snake provided. The Vietnamese believe consuming the cobra’s blood provides strength. I needed to wash down all the deliciousness, so what the heck.

Le Mat Snake Village - Partying with Vietnamese Men - Ash Was a HitIf our evening wasn’t eventful enough already, twenty-three Vietnamese men invited us to join them at their snake feast. We had had our fill, but joined them for shots of rice vodka that leaves a soot on your pallet.  The men went gaga over Ashley, wanting to pose in a flurry of both group and individual photographs. We still get emails from Nguyen, our North Vietnamese friend.

Meeting people like him and his Vietnamese mates are the sort of travel experiences for which we yearn. Nguyen’s first email to us was so brave:

hi!

Nice to meet you.

I am Huong

I met you in “Huong que” restaurant yesterday.

I hope we are frend now.

I wish you send for me some us photograph.

Thank you very much.

see you again.

my name: Nguyen Xuan Huong – Viet Nam

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Vet the Internet to ensure that local customs are in fact harmless. We did not find any instances or warnings that consuming a live cobra heart was dangerous. It just puts hair on your chest.

Take A Deep Breath: Hanoi, Vietnam

Our Hostel's Solution to a Broken Window... a Soiled MattressTake a deep breath. We had been warned. Don’t trust anyone in North Vietnam. To us, that seemed a bit exaggerated. We step off the plane in Hanoi and board the airport approved minibus bound for downtown. First stop, fifteen feet outside the airport gates. More money was required to take the load of white faced tourists to their hotel. Cue the band of scammers. Take a deep breath. We arrive at a poorly lit intersection where the driver rudely announces this is the last stop. A heated argument ensues between me and  the fraudulent minibus operator about how we paid to be dropped off at the Hanoi Guesthouse, not some Hanoi locale swarming with suspicious individuals. Take a deep breath. My demands fell on deaf ears, but a gentleman offered to take us to the hostel for a fair price. Oh, did he ever take us to “Hanoi Guesthouse” alright. Turns out the real Hanoi Guesthouse has such a great reputation that others with the same name have popped up. However, these knockoffs are of inferior quality. Evidence #1: the ”Hanoi Guesthouse” we slept at utilized a soiled mattress as a window replacement in the second floor stairwell. Take a deep breath.

Before Getting in Verbal Argument with Van Driver, This Seen of Not Being Able to Get A Piece of Luggage Out Was Hilarious Hanoi's Old City Area on a Rainy Day

Water puppet shows are all the rage for tourists in Hanoi. What the heck, we shall check it out. Unfortunately, the thearte in Hanoi’s Old City was sold out. I called another theatre further afield whose tickets were available so I hopped a cab only to find the person I spoke with was mistaken about the ticket window times. IIt was closed all day, only open immediately before start time. Take a deep breath. One hour prior to showtime, Ash and I flagged down a lime green cab driven by a friendly looking woman in her twenties. Friendly until she opened her mouth. We quickly noticed the meter had been tampered with and was ringing up a bill four times faster than normal. I asked her to stop the car, that we would pay the current amount and hail another. But she wouldn’t stop. Take a deep breath. So Ashley and I told her we would not pay the full amount upon arrival at the theatre. To say she became angry is an understatement. You must understand one thing about Hanoi, Vietnam in general, before the story unfolds; motos are everywhere and they are driven recklessly. For example, crossing the street is toying with fate. So the fraudster driver was prepping for a confrontation as she parked the tiny car twelve feet away from the crumbling concrete curb with motos racing past us on all sides. Before exiting the cab on the curb side, I glanced over my shoulder to ensure no bikes were moving past. Upon opening the door just one quarter, WHACK. Take a deep breath.

Hanoi Moto Parking Hanoi - Hoan Kiem Lake - Tortoise Tower

Perpendicular to the taxi’s right front tire lay a man and his young son, no helmets in sight. I was mortified. Instinctively, we rushed to their aid. Thankfully, both were fine except for a small bleeding cut on the boys ear. Once it was clear that they were both not seriously hurt and that the moto itself was in working order, I gave them half the money in my wallet as a penance. Take a deep breath. Next thing I know, the scamming taxi driver has a handful of my button down shirt with an unbelievably tight grip, screaming in Vietnamese. Ignoring her, I sternly ask Ashley to run away and meet me at the hotel as an angry mob surrounds us. But she won’t leave my side. The scene is chaos. Take a deep breath. I nearly punch my temporary capture in the face after repeatedly looking her in the eye saying in slow English, “let me go.” Instead I opt to unbutton my shirt as a way of escape. But before I am shirtless, two men remove the ravenous woman’s clutch then each take a firm grip of Ashley and me while directing us to a streetside cafe where we sit, trembling, on two low plastic stools. The father and son have since left unceremoniously on their moto as the crowd grows around us. There is shouting, mass confusion, no one speaks English, and we fear for our well being. Three tense minutes pass with us scanning the impenetrable fence of North Vietnamese. Then a pre-teen girl and her younger brother approach, speaking decent English. I beg them to call the police, but they say that that won’t be necessary. That everything will be OK. Take a deep breath. The two men who accompanied us to our current location have since had a visit to the accident scene with the flustered driver. Through hand gestures, but mainly through the young English speakers, we are told the accident was not my fault at all. It was the driver’s mistake since she stopped so far away from the curb, essentially in traffic. Upon understanding the circumstances of the accident, the crowd becomes disinterested and a few even apologize for our uncomfortable treatment. Our dishonest driver has since fled after realizing payment is now the least of her worries. We didn’t see the water puppet show, just thankful for calmer heads prevailing. Take a deep breath.

Hoa Lo Prison - As It Was Before Western Section Torn Down for Skyscraper Ha Noi - Hoa Lo Prison - Open Area

Hoa Lo Prison - John McCain's Flight SuitTake a deep breath. Hoa La Prison, otherwise known sarcastically to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. Typical of Vietnam’s war museums, it was more propaganda than legit history. Constructed by the French in the 1860s when present day Vietnam was part of French Indochina, the North Vietnamese used the facility to interrogate and torture American pilots downed during Vietnam War bombing raids. Methods of torture included beatings, lengthy periods of solitary confinement, and iron bindings. The North Vietnamese were not after military intel. Oh no. They longed to break their prisoner’s spirit and obtain written and / or verbal statements that were critical of US conduct in war while praising their “host’s hospitality.” Take a deep breath. The museum went to great lengths to portray the prison more as a temporary home than hell on earth. Perhaps the most maddening display was a picture of captured pilots enjoying a Christmas decorating session complete with paint brushes, craft materials, and even a Santa. We knew this photo was staged, that the Americans were ill-treated rather than welcomed as foreign guests free to celebrate their holidays. John McCain’s flight suit was proudly encased in glass, displayed as a spoil from wartime. Take a deep breath.

Hoa Lo Prison - Fake Christmas Hoa Lo Prison - Greg Not Happy Outside Wall

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. When taking transport of any kind, only pay once your request has been fulfilled. Keep the money in your wallet until the very last second, otherwise your payment may not result in the desired results.
  2. All guidebooks have a “safety, dangers, and annoyances” section about a country. In many nations, these guidebooks list traffic accidents as places where violence may flare up. Thus, avoid getting in the fray just to catch a peek of an auto accident.

3…2…1… Action: $0.18 Beer & Sand Dunes

Slowly making our way to North Vietnam, we took an overnight stop in Mui Ne, famous for its towering sand dunes. For $2.00 you can try your hand at sand sledding. Further along the coast, we took a much deserved break from shopping in Hoi An for some ultra cheap beer.

After twenty minutes hiking Mui Ne’s white sand dunes, we arrived at a peculiar sledding hill. Greg gave it the college try and failed miserably on his first attempt:

Take two on the sand sledding, results so-so:

Ash’s skepticism for a mug of beer costing less than an American quarter is on perfect display:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. The sand on dunes can be piping hot. It is advisable to wear a shirt when sledding on such occasions…

Dunes, Diving & Custom Clothing

Saigon is a city torn: capitalism pulling it towards the developed world while the communist regime keeps it trapped in the past. So we left Ho Chi Minh City in yesteryear and moved north along the South China Sea.

Mui Ne - White Sanddunes - Ash Builds Up a Thirst Mui Ne - White Sanddunes - Lilly Pond - Man Wading Into the Water

First stop, the massive dunes of Mui Ne. Having not set an alarm, we awoke with the sun having turned our room into a sauna. A short while later, I negotiated a rental of a sick Honda Airblade moped for our exploration of the coast line. Thirty minutes along a deserted road and a fishing village’s bay jammed with junk boats revealed itself. The sight caught us off guard, what with all the uniform blue masts and yellow trimmed hulls. Further along, the unmistakable vision of giant sand dunes came into focus. The pavement gave way to a shifting granular surface that required Ash to walk while I carefully navigated the machinery across. We threw some Dong (Vietnamese currency) to three kids hanging around to safeguard our “hog” while we hiked the white dunes.

Mui Ne - White Sanddunes - Vietnam Boys Mui Ne - Fishing Village - Boats In Bay

Approaching an oasis pond full of blooming lilypads, we rented a rolled up piece of teal plastic that would serve as a sand sled. Twenty minutes uphill under the blazing sunshine and we reached our destination. We peered over the edge only to have the brilliant sand sculpture dissolve beneath our toes. I scoped out the sledding hill void of any snow and gave it the ‘ole college try only to humiliate myself by sliding all of five feet. Having learned from my initial failure, the second attempt can only be classified as a mild success. We opted out of additional winter sports atop the neighboring red sand dunes. It broke our hearts, but we reluctantly handed over the keys to the Honda Airblade and climbed to the top row (the bottom was crawling with roaches) of a sleeper bus bound for Nha Trang.

Nha Trang Beach - Woman Selling Lobsters Nha Trang Beach - Greg Chilaxing

Nha Trang - Ash Sipping Her BelliniOur hopes were high after reading that Nha Trang was Vietnam’s beach “paradise.” Our expectations were soaring. No beach could have lived up to the image conjured up in our minds. Yet we made the most of it by drinking “3 3 3” brand beers (pronounced ‘Ba Ba Ba’), consuming freshly grilled squid kebabs, and relaxing at the Sailing Club. We booked a two tank scuba dive at Hon Mun ($40!), located a short distance from Nha Trang. Being the only two certified divers, Ash and I were treated to a private guide of Vietnam’s intriguing underwater world. Armed with a digital underwater camera, the ocean became our playground. For a reason unbeknownst to me, Ash began an underwater flying exhibition, her arms out as if she was performing the angel balance. Chuckling with a respirator in your mouth and mask suctioned to your face causes some serious problems when forty-five feet beneath the surface. But I had no choice but to laugh.

Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Greg's A+ Entry Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Moray Eel

Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Ash FlyingWe came across a zebra striped sea snake slithering across the ocean floor, examined straw coral, swam alongside a turtle, and even had starfish in our hair. Just when we thought we had enough fun, Huy (our diving guide) instructed me how to fill my BCD vest with enough air to stand upside down underneath the dive boat. It was an odd feeling being underwater, feet firmly against the hull, and breathing normally. Ash and I agreed that it wasn’t the best diving, but certainly the most fun. It was supposed to be a quick jaunt back to Nha Trang. That was until the engine refused to start and the dive boat had to be towed back to shore. So Nha Trang wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Could have fooled us.

Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Ash Holding Rock Starfish Nha Trang - Diving Hon Mun - Greg Stirring Up Clown Fish Nest

Hoi An - Ash Getting Fitted for Her Gorgeous White CoatOne long overnight bus later, we settled into the tailoring capital of SE Asia, Hoi An, Vietnam. It was Ashley’s dream come true for four days of non-stop shopping. The town itself is beautiful with its French architecture painted a faded burnt yellow. Some roads are paved, others cobblestone, and most are dirt. Yet they all offer the same product: cheap, custom fit, quality clothing. The first day was spent examining twenty plus shops comparing craftsmanship, cost, and specialties. We hit the streets early the ensuing morning negotiating prices, trying on prototypes, and being fitted to ensure ample time was available to evaluate our goods the next two days. All this shopping made the man accompanying this ravenous woman thirsty. Ah… I discovered a local beer joint offering mugs of refreshing lager for just $0.18! Ash was happy, I was even happier. With cold and cheap beer at our fingertips to keep the good times going, behold our shopping spree spoils:

Hoi An - Yellow Streetscape Hoi An - Suit Fabric Choices

Hoi An - Greg Trying on His Gray Pin Stripe Cashmere Suit- Three dresses (deep blue, pink, baby blue) for Ash and her sisters (Kiley & Bailee) – $15 each

- White wool winter coat with blue silk insert and embroidered (Ash) – $55

- Long pink casual shirt (Ash) – $18

- Gray pinstripe cashmere suit with embroidery (Greg) – $90

- Navy blue pinstripe cashmere suit with embroidery (Greg) – $90

- Button down shirt (Greg) – $12

- Long light blue dress (Ash) & long yellow dress (sister-in-law Kim) – $22 each

- Deep blue silk cocktail dress (Ash) – $45

- Black travel shorts (Ash) – $22

- Brown corduroy blazer with embroidery (Greg) – $30

- Button down boy shirt (Ash) – $12

- Blue silk nightgown with our friend Amy’s (recently married) new initials embroidered – $19

- Shipping clothes & assorted items to three different USA addresses – $120

Hoi An - Ash's Coat Prototype Hoi An - $0.18 Beer, So Good, We Were Repeat Offenders

We treated ourselves to all of Central Vietnam’s offerings: dune sledding, underwater merriment, and a brilliant new wardrobe. A breath of fresh air… until troubling Hanoi.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Arriving in a new and strange place with no accommodation booked can be fun and exciting. Except when the clock strikes midnight and you find yourself riding on the back of a moto searching for a guesthouse, relying on the integrity of the driver. Such was the case as we rolled into Mui Ne, Vietnam. Since that episode we have pre-booked lodging when arriving after sundown.

3…2…1… Action: Nha Trang’s Underwater Playhouse

Rated one of Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Beaches of 2010, Nha Trang’s expanse of sand fell short of such a thrilling title. The diving however exceeded expectations with a diversity of hard and soft corals, tranquil turtles, and slippery moray eels.

Moving as a snake would upon land, we watched intently as a moray eel freelancing as an underwater zebra slithered in the South China Sea:

You would think this turtle was flying if it weren’t for the bubbling noise caught on film:

Part of what made our two tank dive so memorable was our fun-seeking guide. He instructed Greg on how to stand upside down under the boat, so the wannabe gave it the college try:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Spots hip to scuba diving always have multiple operators competing on price. While cost, boat quality, and equipment are certainly determining factors, inquire about the diver to guide ratio before choosing a company. For example, we had a personal guide while others had an 8:1 ratio for the same price and similar equipment. Our boat however was towed back, which turned out to be an unforgettable experience.

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