The Secret Six in South East Asia! - Episode Six - 'Ha Long has this been going on?'


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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hai Phong
November 23rd 2018
Published: November 26th 2018
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The Paloma’s tender boat.
Guess what.......an early start again today! Out of bed at 6.00 am, in time for breakfast, check out and then on to the coach for a 7.30 departure. In actual fact, it was only a 'partial check out' today, because as Arnie famously said (sort of!), 'We'll be back'! We're off to Ha Long Bay today, for an overnight cruise in the bay, then back to Hanoi tomorrow evening, for one more night, at the same Sunway hotel, in Hanoi - we only took an overnight bag on this trip and left our main cases in storage at the hotel.

Ha Long Bay is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one the highlights of the trip; one that we have all been looking forward to. The iconic image of the limestone promontories spread across the bay, will be familiar to almost everyone and whilst definitely one of the potential high spots of the itinerary, we set off with a mixture of both excitement and also some trepidation, just in case Ha Long Bay didn't quite live up to the hype!

And as the coach pulled away, the omens weren't good! It was pouring with rain, the
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The tender boat approaching the Paloma from the rear.
temperature had dropped about 10 degrees and the locals were all wearing coats of one sort or another! To be fair, it was still about 17 degrees, so not that bad for us hardy Brits, but as we looked up at the blackening skies, it was difficult to believe Phong's reassuring prediction that the weather would be better when we get to the coast. In fact, we had been told that the previous day's cruise had been cancelled because of bad weather and this did little to lift our mood.

Ha Long is about a four hour drive from Hanoi and is located on the east coast of the country, on the Gulf of Tonkin, itself 'famous' as the place where an incident took place (namely the alleged attack by the Vietnamese on the American destroyer USS Maddox, in 1964) that the US used as justification for sending American troops to Vietnam. We are now well north in Vietnam, with Ha Long itself only being less than 100 miles from the Chinese border! But before getting there, we had a pit stop at the half way point to use the Happy Room and surprise, surprise this happened to be
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Mandy checking out the sun deck.
located in a shopping complex!

Just outside of Ha Long, we made another stop, this time at a Pearl Factory and showroom and this was far more interesting. We were shown the process of making pearls in oysters and this was, indeed, fascinating. If I understood it correctly, there are two types of pearls, namely 'natural' and 'cultivated', with 'natural' occurring when a piece of grit or sand gets into the live oyster shell. The oyster then recognises this as a 'foreign body' and covers it with successive layers of mucus, which harden into what, in essence, becomes the pearl skin. Unfortunately, due to the irregular shape of the grit/sand, the final pearl shape is almost always irregular and unappealing to the market. Cultivated pearls, on the other hand, start life as tiny balls made out of Mother of Pearl (together with a tiny piece of oyster membrane, which acts a bit like stem cell tissue) which are together, injected into a very young oyster by slightly prising open the shell. The whole process can be described as Oyster IVF, I suppose. The impregnated oysters are then put back in the sea in wire holders, for between two and
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An early stop in the islands...
five years, with the term governing the potential size and colour of the pearls.

This process is painstaking work and is all done by hand. About 60% of the oysters do not survive and even if they go full term, the final quality, size and colour of the actual pearls, is always a surprise. But even if rejected, the pearls are ground down to be used in anti-wrinkle cosmetics, the shells are polished to make Mother of Pearl and the oysters themselves go for eating; nothing is wasted. Another surprise though...........after being shown the process.............we were able to go into the showroom and purchase from a massive range of jewellery, etc. Some lovely stuff and we were very tempted, but we managed to resist!

Back on the road and we were soon in Ha Long, where we passed under the enormous and the World's largest, reversible cable car connecting the city with the top of Ba Deo mountain; each car able to carry up to 230 passengers, another World's largest! And then we pulled up at the jetty for the cruise boats. The boats themselves were cruising around the harbour entrance and we reached ours (the 'Paloma', by
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Just what is around the next corner?
tender boat, which approached the cruise boat from the rear, tied up to the main boat when close enough and we then switched from one to the other, on the run! It probably looked scarier than it was and we all boarded safely and here's the good thing, it had stopped raining. It was still cloudy, but at least it was dry and we had a chance of some better weather tonight/tomorrow......with a boat named 'Paloma', we just needed to have 'Faith'!

Even though it was cloudy, it was very clear that this is a truly magical place. Nearly 2000 limestone promontories, usually covered in varying levels of foliage, spread throughout the bay, as far as the eye can see giving the whole area a fairy tale look. The sea conditions were dead calm and you hardly knew that the boat was moving (a blessing for Steve and I, who are not the best sailors in the world!). If the truth be known, we probably didn’t sail that far, but just enough to get lost in fairy tale land.

Our boat slept about 40 and for our trip, it was our group of 23 plus 9 others, which
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The Tites and Mites.......
turned out to be a really nice number. It was a lovely old vessel, with two cabin floors, a dining floor above and then an upper sun deck. We gathered in the dining room, where we had a complimentary drink, before being allocated our cabin on a pot luck basis, by pulling keys from a bag. Before we did, Phong told us about the activities whilst on board, which we either participate in or not, as we wished. The activities were pretty non stop, namely:

* 15 minutes after boarding, a short trip in the tender boat (which is tied up to the back of Paloma for our whole cruise) to one of the island promontories to walk to a small beach and into a cave on the island;

* On returning to Paloma about an hour later, a chance to go kayaking;

* At 5.30, a get together on the top deck, with a free drink and then a ‘happy hour’ 3 for 2 offer;

* Dinner at seven;

* After dinner, we could try our hand at squid fishing from the tender boat and then.......free time’!

* Up at 6.15 next morning
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........and some more.
for Tai Chi on the top deck and/or watch the sunrise (hopefully!);

* 6.45 breakfast;

* 7.30 another short hop on the tender to pick up a Sampan for a ‘cruise’ out to a floating fishing village (an hour’s trip);

* 9.30 check out of our room;

* 10.00 spring roll cooking demo;

* 11.00 brunch;

* 12.00 disembark.

I’m exhausted simply typing this, let alone doing it!! I won’t bore you with all of the above, but the highlights were:

* Beach/cave visit - a few minute ride in the tender, then down some steps to the beach and up a few more to the cave entrance. The cave was fabulous, full of the usual stalactites and stalagmites and whilst only probably a couple of hundred yards from end to end, we came out to a fantastic natural viewing area - great for snaps. Then it was down to the small, but lovely beach. No real time to swim (although, Rob, one of the group did go in), but the water was lovely and warm when I checked it out;

* Out of the six of us, only ‘action woman
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The viewing area at the end of the cave...
Tina’ went kayaking; a 45 minute jaunt that she thoroughly enjoyed. The rest of us went to our cabins to rest and freshen up. Incidentally, our cabin was excellent, with a proper double bed, very good sized bathroom with shower cubicle and a window (which we could open) looking out on the bay;

* Dinner was very good and the usual several courses and included Tiger Prawns in vodka, cooked by the chef on hot stones in front of us all, in a spectacular eruption of steam;

* Squid fishing was a bit of a dead loss, using a bamboo pole with line and hook, which you had to continuously drop in and then pull up to try and encourage the squid. Most of us gave up after about 20 minutes, but one of the group did catch one, all of a couple of centimetres long!

* After a great night’s sleep, I awoke with a start to what sounded like a dog shaking itself dry, in our bedroom. Wondering what on earth was inside our cabin, I stepped gingerly around the bed, only to realise that it was the sliding door to our bathroom moving on
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......and more views...
its rollers, because the boat was underway! It was 5.45 and although barely dawn outside, it looked as though our luck was in weather-wise, so I got up to try and get some sunrise pictures;

* When I got up to the top deck Tai Chi was underway and Lily, Tina, Sarah and even Steve were up there doing their very best Tai Chi poses . I passed on joining in and concentrated on a beautiful sunrise in perfect weather. For those that know me, I love a picture of a sunrise or sunset and goodness knows how many snaps I took!

* The Sampan ride turned out to be one of the most memorable things we have done anywhere in the world. After a few minute tender boat trip to a floating jetty, we were met by a Sampan with a Vietnamese man or woman rowing from the rear. Us six were in one boat and we then off for 45 minutes of pure heaven. We were soon into another fairy tale area hidden amongst some stunning promontories, and where the only sound seemed to be the wash of the oars through the water. The view of
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The small beach area.
the Sampans ahead, with the Vietnamese ‘rower’ in their iconic, conical hat, was just perfect. We soon realised, that we would not be stopping at the fishing village and we just rowed by and carried on our journey and that was ideal. We all loved this experience and will remember it forever. As it finished, we were recommended to tip our rower 10,000 Dong each, a massive 30p per person! We rounded it up to 100,000 Dong between us or just over 50p each! What can I say?!

* The spring roll demo was a bit of fun, we all had a go lined up on a long table in Generation Game style - although personally, I think my perfect little package was robbed of a Star Baker prize at the end!

All too soon, it was midday and time to disembark the boat. We had paid our bar bill, tipped the brilliant staff and said our farewells - embarrassingly as always, they spoke far better English than our grasp of Vietnamese! This trip to Halong Bay lived up to and, indeed, far beyond our expectations and today’s weather has been spectacular!

Once ashore, we were back
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Tina and Hazel........will they be back in time for dinner?
on the bus for the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi, but this time............basking in the warm glow of satisfaction.

Now, some of you may have been wondering about the title of this episode, 'Ha Long, has this been going on?' and, indeed, some of you probably couldn't care less!! Well, either way, it's a play on words (surprise, surprise!) on the classic song 'How long has this been going on?' sung by the great Paul Carrack when he was the vocalist for a group called Ace. And......which ever way you look at it, this has been a truly ACE trip to Ha Long Bay.

When we got back to the hotel, around 4 pm, we had a bit of specialist shopping to do. Whilst we had arranged our visas for Vietnam back in the UK, we knew that we could get our visas for Laos and Cambodia on arrival in each country. What we didn't know was that we needed spare, passport sized photos in each case, because we had been led to believe that they would simply scan our passport photos at immigration. But no, this wasn't the case and Phong told us where there was
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Dusk starts to fall....
a 'photographic studio' a few blocks up the road from the hotel. So, us six, plus Rob and Cheryl, hot footed it to try and find this place, in good time before dinner.

As it turned out, we did spot it, but only just! We could easily have missed it, seeing as 'photographic studio' was a somewhat grand description; the front of the building was only about six feet wide and probably no more than 12 feet or so deep and was a bit of a cluttered heap, to be honest. The lady who ran the place understood what we wanted and pulled a piece of white cloth down over the back wall as a back drop, positioned us carefully on a plastic chair, tidied our hair and clothing and then took our snaps with a nice digital camera. She then pulled a laptop out of a little nook in amongst the clutter, downloaded the photos, resized them properly on the screen, printed them off, cut them into four separate photos and placed them in a nice little plastic pouch; all for 50,000 Dong (or less than £2 per person!). And, she did all this while comforting her baby
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........and dusk becomes night.
who was kicking off most of the time!

Shopping done, we returned to the hotel and got ready for dinner. Phong claimed he was taking us to a 'special restaurant' tonight for our 'farewell to Vietnam dinner', but regrettably, it turned out to be our worst meal of the trip and a real disappointment. We certainly won't be frequenting that restaurant again, any time soon!! After dinner, our coach dropped a number of the group in the centre of the city by Hoan Kiem Lake. Being a weekend, Hanoi comes out to play(!) with the streets around the lake closed off to traffic and becoming pedestrian only areas and total relief from the crazy traffic. Hanoi's version of 'play' really seemed to be pleasantly naive and innocent, with children playing harmless games such as Jenga and skipping, quite a few adults doing ballroom dancing and a number of traditional music combos performing at different points around the lake. There was even a load of mini electric vehicles (probably a couple of hundred at least) for children to use on the closed off streets, on the face of it, at no cost! A lovely end to the evening, followed by
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Perfect weather over Ha Long Bay.....
a walk back to the hotel and a couple of late night snifters in the hotel bar for Steve and I, before dropping into bed.

Finally, a couple of music quiz questions today:

* Name two other bands that Paul Carrack has been in, and

* 'Pearl's a singer' was a hit for which female singer?

Once again, don't forget the additional photos at the end!


Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


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.........just perfect.....
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.........wow!
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Idyllic and peaceful....
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.......passing the fishing village...
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........more fishing village...
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......and more.....
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........one of Tina's photos.....great colours!


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