HaLong Bay

I don’t have much to say, but I have a ton of pictures. Halong Bay has been on my travel list for years so I had to see it this trip. It was my one splurge-I booked an overnight cruise from Hanoi. They pick everyone up in a van, then it’s about a four-hour drive to Halong Bay. It rained off and on during the drive but the views were beautiful. All along the highway were fields and fields of rice, with farmers wading through them picking the plants, some still using oxen, others with tractors that had sort of metal or wood frame wheels to roll through the mud.

We got on our boat around noon and checked in to our cabins. There were 15 people total: 5 guys from India who kept mostly to themselves, a family of 4 from Australia, a father and daughter from Russia, and another dad from Belgium with his teenage son and daughter. It was an interesting group, and a fairly small boat; we saw others much larger. The main area of the bay was super crowded; the tender boats could barely find a place to dock to pick everyone up. But once we got on the boat we headed to Bai Tu Long Bay-part of the Halong Bay heritage area, but less crowded. It was raining most of the first day but the water was pretty calm; all the little islands seem to break up any waves. I liked seeing them in the rain, actually, it was misty and looked so mysterious.

The cliffs rise straight out of the sea, with no natural beaches I could see, but one of the larger islands had a man-made beach built for the tours to dock. From there, we could climb up to a large cave in the side of the rock and explore.

In the evening, we anchored to have dinner and spend the night. The food was delicious; every kind of seafood in the area-shrimp cocktail, squid, stuffed crabs, oysters, steamed fish, lots of vegetables, rice, and pumpkin soup, which seams to be popular here. They also had a cooking demonstration where everyone got to make some traditional spring rolls. After dinner, we had the opportunity to try squid fishing. Fortunately no one caught anything. It rained more overnight but the bay still stayed pretty calm and the cabins were really comfortable so I slept well.

The view of the bay at twilight was stunning!

The next morning we left bright and early and arrived at this little floating fishing village just after breakfast. The houses were built on pontoon-type platforms and linked by docks. Some were houseboats. I was surprised to see how many people had dogs or cats with them, just floating along. The cruise companies had arranged for some of the local fishermen to row tourists around the islands in rowboats to see the village and cliffs, so we anchored there and got into smaller boats. It was a beautiful morning to be out: finally got a bit of sun!

It was a bit sad to see though. Our guide was telling us how these fishermen had lived in their floating villages for generations, even had floating schools for the children. It was the only way of life they knew. But when the bay was declared a world heritage site the government wanted to clean up the bay and relocated them to the mainland. Many couldn’t read or write and couldn’t find jobs.  They still come back to fish and the government employs some to clean up trash on the bay and has subsidized other employment, like the pearl farm we visited. Still, this trip has illustrated a lot of the problems caused by overtourism. I have read several articles lately about this problem that is affecting different places around the world, but in Vietnam I have seen it first hand. Hoi An, where I am now, is overrun with tourists, and it’s clear that the lives of the local people have been changed, even in the past few years.

I arrived back in Hanoi by the late afternoon and had a bit of time for some shopping and sightseeing in the evening. The lake at night is even more beautiful:

cof

My flight the next day was scheduled at 6pm (and ended up being delayed until 8pm) so I had the morning and early afternoon to explore. I took one of the hop-on-hop-off tours buses to see as much as possible; this one let you choose the duration, which was nice, since they had a 4-hour option and I had 4 hours left in Hanoi. It rained a lot of the time but I still sat outside on the top deck with my umbrella. (I thought I was the only crazy one, till we drove past West Lake and I noticed people still swimming in the rain!) It was a good way to see some of the city outside the old quarter.

Clockwise: Hanoi Opera House, Flag Tower, Temple of Literature, West Lake Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

 

Malaysia Rocks!

Malaysia was incredible-Jess and I are already planning a return trip in October! This weekend we had a four-day break for the Chinese QingMing holiday so we took off after work Friday. The flight to Kuala Lumpur was a struggle since we left at 2am. But we landed and were out of the airport before 10:oo so we had time to explore the city before our next flight. We caught the express train to the center of the city. It went straight to the Petronas Twin Towers. Then we walked all over the center of the city and saw some of the old town and the Central Market.

Then we went back to the airport for our evening flight to Langkawi Island where we were going to stay-only to find out we were at the wrong airport. Apparently there are two-oops! So we got a cab to the other side of the city. Fortunately, Subang was a much smaller airport than KUL so we had plenty of time. The flight to Langkawi was only a little over an hour, and the resort we stayed at-The Daun-was only about 10 minutes or so from the airport.

There were so many things to do on Langkawi but we were kind of limited for money and time, and some things had to be booked in advance. So we have a full itinerary lined up for next time we visit. But for Saturday we still got to go on a boat tour of the mangrove forests and see some wildlife. We went with Dev’s Adventure Tours and our guide, Khirien, was excellent. Highly recommend both to anyone visiting the area-they do other tours too. Next time, I want to go kayaking. Khirien was knowledgable, funny, and very eco-conscious, which was great. We went first to see the bat caves, then spotted some local wildlife-water monitors, venemous pit vipers, that sort of thing. Sadly we missed seeing one of the deadly cobras known to haunt the island. Maybe next time.

One area in particular was home to numerous eagles. A lot of the tour companies feed them but ours did not, which I prefer. Khirien told us that for years the tour operators fed the eagles kilo after kilo of chicken skin to attract them to the boats. It affected their diets drastically; the birds hunted less, didn’t get enough calcium, and their eggs were too fragile to survive. With fewer birds, the snake population went up. Fortunately, officials have taken some steps recently to curtail the amount and frequency of the feedings and things have improved. But it’s frustrating to see what happens when we interfere with nature.

After the tour we went back to the resort to change and head out to the beach. It was starting to drizzle a bit and Aizat offered to drive us into town, although it’s just a short walk. We found chairs and an umbrella and sat and drank mojitos in the rain for a bit. Then I figured I was already wet so I might as well swim in the rain. The water was perfect and I had fun splashing around; Jess opted to go parasailing instead once the sky cleared up. It’s rainy season now, but the rain is sporadic and we got pretty lucky overall, with quite a bit of sun between showers.

This was the first predominately Muslim country I’ve been to and I have to say it was unusual to see women wading and and swimming in headscarves and long sleeves and pants. But after my inevitable sunburn, I have to say I was tempted to do the same! And people were really nice everywhere, in both Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, very friendly and helpful.

I really can’t say enough good things about the resort we stayed at. We found it on Airbnb and thought it was odd that there were no reviews but the price and location were great so we took a chance and it turned out to be wonderful. The Daun had only officially been open a week and we were the only ones there for the duration of our stay. The staff, especially the manager Aizat, were friendly and accommodating. Aizat sat and chatted with us over breakfast, gave us advice about different places and activities, called to book our tour, and drove us around when he was available. If anyone’s looking for a place to stay on Langkawi I would definitely suggest this one! (On Airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/17964652).

Before we left for Kuala Lumpur the next day we decided to rent mopeds and drive around the island. Turns out it’s easier said than done if you’ve never ridden one before. Or if you’ve never driven on the wrong (left) side of the road. Aizat drove us into town, arranged the rentals, and gave us a crash course on how to use them. Jess chickened out a bit and didn’t want to ride on the street so he drove her back to the resort in a big loop and I followed. It was so much fun! When we got back to the resort we took turns riding around and practicing on some back roads. Aizat went with us in his car until we got the hang of it and showed us a little fishing port.

Nobody fell off or hit a tree so I’d call the day a success. It’s possible I was driving on the wrong wrong side of the road-i.e. the right side-at one point but the road was deserted and no one saw so it doesn’t count.

Aizat took us into the airport, which is tiny; we got there less than an hour before our flight left for KL and made it with no problems. Jess got some great shots of the islands from the plane:

For National Holiday in October, we’re planning to save up some more money, go back, and try the things we missed-ziplining, jet ski tour of the islands (Langkawi actually consists of 99 islands, 104 at low tide), snorkeling/scuba diving. We’re going to stay at The Daun again to see how it progresses. They will be adding a restaurant and a pool by the end of summer, if everything goes as planned. Can’t wait!