Ha Long Bay

The ride out to Ha Long Bay was a bit more than three hours and was pretty much uneventful. Not a whole lot in the way of extraordinary scenery, but it was interesting to see a glimpse of life outside bustling Hanoi.

Got to the piers and were rather quickly on board our boat, our cruise manager Huy getting us all sorted. We were on a charming and comfortable barge with six cabins, run by Bhaya Cruises. Besides Mom and me, there was a family of American ex-pats currently living in Hong Kong – husband and wife and their 9-year-old daughters. And that was it! Almost like our own private boat.

Ha Long Bay is really just as beautiful as I’d been led to believe. Yes, there are a lot of tourist boats out on the water – but most of them are quite lovely to look at and there’s enough space around that it doesn’t feel like a full-on armada. There are also plenty of local fisherman out making their living on the bay, along with some occasional giant work liners off in the distance. I never tired of gazing at the fishing boats and the men and women working on them. Just fascinating to see a tiny slice of a life so different than anything I know.

Of course, the real draw are the hundreds of islands in the bay – from tiny rock outcroppings to pretty substantial limestone islands towering above the water. It’s pretty much impossible to tire of gazing at them – especially from a comfy chair on the top deck. We visited several islands over the course of our two nights aboard and also got to do some kayaking and swimming. It was relaxing and wonderful – plus we were looked after by a very friendly crew who made sure we were kept well-fed and happy.

There’s not really a whole lot more for me to say about this trip. I loved it and the timing was pretty great, giving us a break from the urban intensity of Hong Kong and Hanoi. I think the photos speak for themselves.

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Hong Kong to Hanoi

Our last day in Hong Kong! And it’s one of those kind of weird last days: our flight isn’t until after 5PM, so we have some time to do stuff in town – but not really that much time since we need to get to the airport, deal with luggage, etc.

The original plan was to visit the Asia Society for a photography exhibit, then have a reputed-to-be-excellent dim sum lunch at one of the fancy hotels. Well, given our track record with fancy expensive meals, Mom and I decided to head back to Joy Hing for a breakfast of char siu – it was amazing, of course and only about US$8 for two. As much as that dim sum place seemed interesting – and probably tasty! – I’m glad I went with a third trip to Joy Hing for their incredible bbq pork as my last meal in Hong Kong.

The Asia Society is a pretty cool venue in and of itself. It’s a modern exterior built into the side of a hill. After passing through the entrance then up to quite lovely roof garden, one heads back to three old British colonial buildings used to store arms back in the day. They’ve been updated with the middle converted to an exhibition space.

The show itself, Picturing Asia, was a “conversation” between photographs taken during monsoon season by Brian Brake and Steve McCurry. There is a clear streak of exocitizing of Asian people and culture in the works of both photographers – I wouldn’t go so far as to say fetishization, so I guess that’s good?- and I just recently read a critic refer to McCurry’s work as boring. But I found much of the imagery to be quite striking – and McCurry in particular is adept engaging the viewer in the humanity of his subjects.

It wasn’t a large show, so it proved to be just the right way to wrap up our stay in Hong Kong.

Had an uneventful transit through HKG and arrived in Hanoi on schedule (flying in coach! #howdreadful). Made it to the MK Premier Boutique Hotel wiith nary a problem and were ready for bed soon after arrival. We’d been upgraded to large suites – IKR? – which was pretty deluxe. So, we had huge rooms each – but they weren’t the most thoughtfully laid out: no dresser or other drawers; the bathroom was large but with a huge, high-sided tub/shower which was a bit of an ordeal to climb into; not much space to lay out one’s toiletries; and the AC seemed to struggle to keep the room cool. But still – the staff was friendly and accommodating and the lobby bar on the front patio proved a nice location to knock back a few beers.

This part of the Old Quarter is also home to some rather prominent boots-and-pants-and-boots-and-pants song stylings from the backpacker bars along the street  and it was rather audible from our rooms at the front of the hotel. Happily, though, it turned out not to interfere too much with sleep and Mom and I both slept well.

Spent our first full day in Hanoi touring with Guang and Kien, two young men from Hanoi Free Walking Tours. It’s a total win-win: they get to practice their English and we get a local perspective on the city. We visited several temples, ambled through the French Quarter, had some coffee in a “secret” cafe on a rooftop overlooking the lake and a great lunch at a big, busy Vietnamese place where our guides ordered for us. Needless to say the lunch was delicious. Also stopped at Hỏa Lò Prison, which was grimly fascinating – and a stark reminder of the cruelty of colonialism.

After our walk our guides delivered us to Spa SF, where I’d made appointments for Mom and me – she for a foot treatment, me for the whole works: massage, reflexology, facial. WELL. It was delightful and I was very happy with my treatments – though I’m not sure how happy the therapist was with my snoring during the facial component.

It had been a long day, so Mom and I just had some snacks and cocktails on the roof of our hotel and called it a day. Tomorrow we out to Ha Long Bay for a two-night boat excursion.

Monday in Hong Kong

Woke up about 4:00 Monday morning and decided to get a jump on our visit to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island by pre-ordering our tickets for the cable car ride up. The site to book directly required printing the tix (IKR?), so I used Klook – the travel aggregator/reseller I’d used to book my ill-fated airport pick-up at HKG. But it seemed legit – order via their app and you get instant confirmation and a voucher sent directly to your phone. What could go wrong?

Well, after placing my non-refundable order, instead of a confirmation, I got a “we’re still processing your order” – and this being a local holiday, Klook’s help desk doesn’t open until 9:30AM which was exactly the time I planned to already be at the cable car desk redeeming my voucher. So, this was infuriating. I was able to contact them at about 9:31AM from our destination and get things sorted and the voucher was delivered. But I shan’t be using Klook’s services again…

Anyway, the cable car ride up to see the Buddha was pretty cool. There’s a pretty good stretch of the trip that provides a fantastic view of Hong Kong’s airport and I loved watching all the planes taking off and landing. We also got to watch from above as the many more physically fit types hiked up the mountain via the well-maintained but no doubt grueling trail to the top.

The Buddha is quite magnificent, with his serene expression and raised hand. To get up close, a hike up  what I seem to recall is 268 steps from the bottom – not too bad, but definitely a trek! Great views from the top, both of the surroundings and of the Buddha.

After making it back down, we treated ourselves to the vegetarian lunch served at the Po Lin Monastery. It was decent, though nothing to write home about – and certainly superior to the Subway sandwich shop we’d passed on the way in.

The ride back down on the cable car was as nice as the ride up – and I felt like quite the smart tourist for getting an early start. The lines to ride up were massive and here we were already on our way back into town!

Mom and I decided to go our separate ways: she headed back to the history museum and I decided to check out the Tea Museum. It was OK, but I did have a nice walk through the park. On my way back to the hotel, I treated myself to a match latte followed by a foot massage at a little place near the hotel called Sala Raj. Not luxurious by any means, but very well-priced and really excellent service. After five days of non-stop walking, my dogs were barking – and I left here feeling like a million bucks.

Dinner was at Mott 32, a trendy space done up in a sort of 1930s Shanghai-via-Hollywood with a dash of tiki. Drinks were tasty and the food was quite good – though also quite pricey. And as much as we enjoyed our meal, it didn’t seem to have as good a price-to-value ratio as some of the simpler joints we’d tried. I guess that’s pretty much true everywhere in the world…  I will say that I loved the dessert. Maybe a post-modern Moonpie? Chilled disks of chocolate mousse enrobed in a matcha couverture and encrusted with sesame seeds. Simple tastes with a nice variety of textures. Really delicious!

Back to the hotel to start wrapping up our visit to Hong Kong. We fly tomorrow to Hanoi – though not until late afternoon, so we’ll probably squeeze in one or two more activities…