Ha Long Bay
Day 1 Thursday 16th Nov 2017
On Tuesday, Stephen was reviewing plans and realised that he had made the mistake of thinking of "1am Thursday" as "very LATE on Thursday night", rather than very EARLY on Thursday morning !
Lots of last minute re-arrangements: cancelled dinners with friends; delivered a dresser we had sold on eBay so the buyer can pick it up; farewelled and escalated pace of packing !
We departed on Singapore Airlines. The 8 hour flight into Changi airport was very comfortable and we purchased the usual duty free gin during our 2 hour stopover and then had a 3 hour 40 minute flight to Hanoi.
Caught a taxi to our hotel, Hanoi Guest House Royal, about a 40 minute ride from the airport.
The sense of entering into a foreign land was similar to landing in Kolkata, but there were many differences: less poverty, less pollution, people busy compared to Indian passivity, few beggars and homeless and fewer but healthier dogs. The Vietnamese that we meet superficially as tourists are helpful, honest and guileless compared to our Indian experiences. Perhaps this is an outcome of the relative affluence and optimism here. They look healthy and trim. Not many smokers. Even the tourists seem different. We saw very few obese travellers - a different clientele than Germany for instance !
Motor bikes dominate the streets, lined by stalls and thin, tall architecturally interesting colonial buildings. Many mature trees as well as street side rows of recent plantings all supported by triangular pyramids for protection against the typhoon winds.
Our hotel reminded of us of our experience in Athens - a small thin 7 floor building with lift only to the 6th floor - of course we were on the top floor ! Where else ! A tiny balcony in this modern 2 year old building overlooked the hustle and bustle of the "old quarter" of the city and the freeways in the near distance. We settle down into the gaudy luxury of the Louis XIV decor! The marble tiles throughout perfectly amplified Stephen’s “el-cheapo” but comfortable squeaky walking shoes.
Setting off for our first walk, we had been forewarned of the terror of crossing the chaotic motorbike saturated roads. Initially, it took us minutes to decide when to make the determined and steady crossing. Uncertainty or change in pace or direction is the recipe for disaster. Gradually, learning the skills for street survival, we visited at the "Hanoi Traditional House", a 19th century home showcasing Vietnamese architecture and building techniques. On to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake and across the red Húc Bridge to the Jade Island and into the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple).
After crossing the huge roundabout in Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square, we walked up the stairs to the Cong Bar for a drink and a view over the lake. All the decor in this bar relates to the Viet Cong and it was filled with fashionable young Vietnamese. Lib had her first beer in about 20 years as this was the only fare !
Walking round the lake, we enjoyed the breeze that alleviated the heat and humidity. The activities around the lake - families relaxing, shuttlecock and ball games, exercise groups, etc. make an impression not unlike Sunday around Albert Park Lake, Melbourne. In the middle of the lake is a tiny intriguing island dominated by a ruin - Turtle Tower.
We are frequently encountering places where there is little substantiated historical detail available in english. The Vietnamese will tell fanciful stories but seem not to distinguish them from historical fact. The lake and the tower are associated with legends about a magic turtle and sword that helped a real person, Lê Lợi expel the Chinese from Vietnam in the 1400's.
Dinner at the Lantern Dorm and then home to bath/shower and bed. A big day, Melbourne to Hanoi !
Day 2 Friday 17th November 2017
As we are returning guests, the hotel were happy to open breakfast early, so that we could enjoy scrambled eggs and fresh fruit, before being picked up by a minibus at 6.45am that connected us to the air conditioned and comfortable Sapa Express coach. We left Hanoi as the stalls began to setup and thousands of motorbikes began to surge into town. Cars are in the minority here and push bikes are rare and tend to have elderly riders.
A couple of hours later, the bus delivered us to Trạm dừng nghỉ, a isolated toilet/ breakfast stop in the hope of milking us of some impulse buying money. We drove past paddy fields surrounded by banana palms, sugar cane and many other tropical plants. After 3 hours we began the hill climb and the road narrowed (although it was a much safer road system than in Darjeeling and far less scary !). We saw evidence of landslides and road damage due to the recent cyclone. The temperature dropped as we reached Sapa, 3000m high in the mountains, uncomfortably close (20km) to the north west border with China.
We caught a taxi to The Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa, our new home for 3 nights. Realising Stephen had left his beloved faux manila safari hat in the bus, we quickly freshened up and caught a taxi to the Bus office and asked them to contact the bus driver.
We were in a good weather window - the mountains were clearly visible and the sun occasionally shone - so we grabbed a cab to take us to Fansipan Cable Car, a 6282m-long trip crossing the Muong Hoa Valley and flew to the summit of Fansipan in 15 minutes. It was VERY scary and exciting. The ride was relatively smooth as it crossed the wide valley at the bottom of it's arc, but as the cable became steeper and steeper climbing the mountain, the wind at altitude became stronger, the car began to sway 20 or 30 degrees side to side, which even Stephen found terrifying - despite reading that the whole system had been designed by Germans !
After disembarking into the huge new modern mountaintop reception/ restaurant complex, there was an additional funicular that we decided to use avoiding the 600 step ascent to the top.
At the top, there was a very chilly wind but the spectacle was amazing ! Wonderful views of the valleys in every direction were revealed, then hidden as the clouds from the south were blown over the peak. To the south, we were literally gazing down on the cloud layer as it passed. At 3100m, we were on top of Vietnam’s highest mountain (Victoria's Kosciusko is 2,200m). The mountain top complex is stunningly ambitious, huge and beautifully designed. Despite the communist party, it even incorporates a number of Buddhist temples.
After a relaxing coffee in a luxurious and spacious restaurant overlooking the valley, we collected our nerve and took the cable home (Stephen’s quote “An opportunity to worry that must not be missed !).
Back in SaPa we retrieved Stephen's hat from the bus company and returned to our hotel in time for "Happy Hour" negroni's.
In newly enhanced mood, we walked down into town and chose a Lonely Planet restaurant, Little Sapa Restaurant for dinner. As we walked back, we noticed a road being closed to traffic to allow local stall holders could set up their goods. We stayed and enjoyed browsing the stalls and shops and observing the locals and their children. Sapa town square contains an amphitheatre that was abuzz with teenagers playing with shuttlecocks and very young children dancing in traditional costumes for money.
Back at the hotel, Libby ended a fabulous day with a swim and a sauna at the resort spa and pool rather inconveniently located 200 meters up the hill.
Day 3 Saturday 18th of November 2017
The day began with a vindication for rushing to Fansipan peak as SaPa was in a dense mist which everyone calls "cloud". No mountain views today ! Nevertheless, the temperature was warm and humid.
We got up at 5.30am and walked into town and around the lake to the Sapa market, a purpose-built modern building near the bus station. The outdoor area was already a hive of activity with beautiful displays of fresh produce alongside slaughtered animal carcasses. Not for the squeamish! Lib bought 500 gms of roasted chestnuts. Delicious.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast banquet including the usual a la carte omelettes and unlimited bacon ! To wear off some of the excess consumption, we walked 3km down the mountain along a winding road into the nearest village, Cat Cat. The entrance fee allowed us to walk along a long circuit of picturesque tourist traps in the growing heat and humidity. To return back up to SaPa we decided to ring the same driver as had taken us to Fansipan.
Returning to SaPa market building, we expecting it to filled by now with commercial activity but found the modern indoor section of this new building ignored by the locals and the outside section beginning to shut down.
We walked home around the lake, picking up some items for lunch and munch before returning home for a rest. We had done 10000m by 11 am !
At 3pm, our reliable taxi driver collected us and drove 15 km north of Sapa towards Lai Châu to the Tram Ton Pass on the northern side of Fansipan. The mountain drive was slow and busy with many large trucks feeding the rampant construction everywhere. Quarries, cement works, excavating machinery, smoke, dust and haze.
At 1900m, Tram Ton Pass is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass, and acts as a dividing line between two weather fronts. Today, we could barely see the mountains. We misguidedly bought a pass to walk down to the Love Waterfall and, after hundreds of descending steps, decided that the whole experience was less than spectacular so we walked back up to the taxi. Our driver awoke and pointed to another set of ascending steep steps ! Stephen's exasperation and going down to the falls, turned into commitment as he can never resist an upward path. We enjoyed the limited and rather cloudy views form the Tram Ton Pass bell tower in the middle of the bush.
Driving back, we photographed the Silver Waterfall.
Home to rest before dinner at our hotel with the local Hmong people entertaining us with dances and musical pieces.
By bedtime we’d done 22000 steps. No wonder Lib was tired !
Day 4 Sunday 19th of November 2017
Enjoyed another great breakfast and then dropped our washing off at a local laundry that charges $1 per kilogram ! We enjoyed a quiet, restful day, partly due to rain and a heavy mist that shrouded the whole town. Rested, messaged the kids, wrote and read all afternoon. Very relaxing. It felt like a snow village but without the chill factor !
Visited the local church and SaPa Museum.
Libby ventured out again to purchase a better backpack for Stephen and tried her first pho for lunch, very tasty, clean and fresh.
The heavy mist adds a degree of difficulty to road crossing which we had not encountered in Hanoi. Scary.
After our afternoon "G and T"'s, we walked into town though the fog to the Catholic Church where a large number of young people were participating in a service that felt more like choir practice. We sang along to the Vietnamese cue screens for about 30 minutes and then crossed the road to dinner at The Gecko. Delicious sizzling beef and a lemongrass chicken stir fry.
Found an ATM and then booked a guided walking tour to a remote village tomorrow through the SaPa Sisters.
Day 5 Monday 20th of November 2017
Woke up again to another white out - cool, drizzling and low fog ! After breakfast we packed up and stored our suitcases and at 9 am our driver and guide from the Sapa Sisters collected us for our walking tour. The Sapa Sisters is a trekking company recommended by Lonely Planet for its employment and support of local women. Giang (Zang) our guide is 25 year old and an ethnic Red Zao/Dao. She is also a cheerful and committed single mother with a 6 year old daughter.
There are six ethnic groups living together in the Sapa district with total population of 52,899 (2009). The Hmong are 51,65%, the Dao 23.04%, the Kinh 17.95%, the Tay 4.745%, the Giay 1.36% and the Phu La 1.06%. The Hmong are divided into three main groups : Lenh Hmong, black Hmong and Do Hmong who live mainly in the villages of Sapa; Hau Thao, San Xa Ho, Lao Chai, Ta Giang Phinh. Sapa ethnic communities work at maintaining their identity through customs and traditions. Giang seemed to feel that the lowland Vietnamese were almost as different to her as the Chinese.
We drove south from Sapa for about 20 minutes down the Flower Valley and the mist dispersed more and more as we descended. We past above the townships of Lao Chai (Mong) and Ta Van (Zao) on the way to Bản Dền.
Trekking through villages is integrated into the tourist infrastructure with concrete roads and walking paths through villages which charge every tourist for entry. In this northern area of Vietnam, farmers can only grow one rice crop per year compared to the possibility of 3 crops down in the lowlands. Corn is grown on the steepest slopes along with many other vegetables.
Reaching Hầu Thào, we across bridges; past the Cau May Waterfall; through rice fields, up and down hills and arrived at Giang’s mother’s house. She lived in a big, spacious and relatively new shed in traditional design but with modern building materials. The owners of the power station in the valley had built her a new home as compensation for taking over some of her farming land and, soon after our visit, flooding the valley. When we arrived, she was collecting veggies. She was about the same age as we are, but had endured so much more than we could imagine (just read some Vietnamese history). Some of this wear and tear was apparent in her face and body. Her husband died years ago. We bought a small piece of her work and had some soup as we talked with Giang translating.
Walking up the hill to TL142, we re-joined our driver who took us to Ho Village, Bản Dền where, up a winding track, was the homestay Vàng Kim Sìn, where a woman prepared us a delicious chicken and rice noodle soup - so fresh and gingery with chilli and lemon grass. The conical leaf hats worn by men and women farmers are called non-la.
We set off again on foot along the valley scattered with primitive dwellings. Across the Cầu Treo Bản Hồ suspension bridge, up to the Spring of Life waterfall and dodging mud pools and weaving among rice banks as the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, buffalo, and children gazed at us with nonchalant amusement we crossed a second suspension bridge. The last leg was up a punishing steep hill to the remote heritage village of Nậm Toóng School where an official told to get of the property! The town looked impressively primitive.
We then followed the contours of the paddy embankments with wonderful views across a valley of paddy fields and looped back to the north east to meet our driver on the DT152 road. Sooo many steps ! We drove home in a very heavy fog. The driver, like his passengers, was focussed on protecting his smart car against collisions with wild drivers passing us all the way !
The trek was one of those “great to be alive” days - everything we had hoped for - a walking tour through rural Vietnam, exploring the rice paddies, remote villages and their tribespeople. We felt so lucky that our young guide had good english and was so open and welcoming.
Home by 4.45 pm exhausted and dirty, we showered up in the Spa centre. Libby went out for her last shop in the darkness of the snow village and fell over a row of metal poles ! Her excursion must have had bad karma as the selected shop wouldn’t take her visa card anyway. Met Stephen at Viet Emotion 2 restaurant where we dined last night. Despite the repetition, we had a few wines and two delicious meals.
20 minutes before we left SaPa, Libby finally stopped procrastinating and bought a lovely Gore-tex jacket. The Victoria shuttle bus arrived and 1 1/4 hours later, at Ga Lào Cai station, we boarded the Victoria Luxury train carriage. The “deluxe” cabin had two single beds with clean bedding and a fold down table. Changed into our pj’s, had a drink and hit the sack. Ear plugs supplied and boy did we need them ! Big day. 22000 steps !
Day 6 Tuesday 21st of November 2017
Oh what a night train ride it was ! Lib took hours to get to sleep on a very narrow hard bed. The train rocked up and down rather than side to side, aircon blasting with no controls. It was actually inferior to our Indian experience which costed 100 times less ! One thing that would not happen in India was the cup of tea and croissant that was delivered to our cabin at 5am.
At daybreak, we exited into Hanoi and found our way to the Mango Hotel where we waited just over an hour for the shuttle service to Halong Bay. The breakfast was very suss. Stephen would not touch any food and Lib doubled the Travelan gastro preventative tablets !
At last the shuttle bus arrived and we left Hanoi to the sight of all the locals eating pho on low plastic stools. The 3 hour drive was again reminiscent of India as we left a bustling city and drove on varying road surfaces, continual construction, across flat land with paddy fields and through small villages, market gardens along river banks. Occassionally, there would be unmistakable signs of colonial legacy such as a beautiful church like Từ Phong parish church
Another toilet stop at a touristy trap in Thanh Dong Jewelry. Expensive merchandise but a clean toilet ! One of our fellow passengers was an Australian semi-celebrity - Rory Sloane, a footballer for the Adelaide Crows who was recovering from losing the AFL Grand Final only weeks ago !
At last, we reached the outskirts of sprawling Halong City with its dowdy high-rise buildings. We turned south before reaching the city over a bridge onto Tuan Chau Island (Đảo = Island) full of finished and unfinished new office and residential buildings.
Soon the staff of Aphrodite Cruises pronounced the ship was ready for passengers.
Halong bay is a World Heritage site of about 2000 islands, comprised of thousands of limestone karsts that poke out of the sea in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Erosion and water have eroded them into spectacular grottoes, pillars some topped by forest. Halong translates as 'where the dragon descends into the sea' and legend tells that this mystical seascape was created when a great mountain dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouging out valleys and crevasses. As the creature plunged into the sea, the area filled with water leaving only the pinnacles visible. The geological explanation of karst erosion may be more prosaic, but doesn't make this seascape any less poetic.
We had selected the Aphrodite on the recommendation from Lyndy Telfer, for our 3 day 2 night cruise of Halong Bay. Our cabin, 210, on the 2nd floor was beautiful with windows to the side and front as well as a private balcony. After a jokey safety talk from the compare/ head steward, we enjoyed a delicious 4 course lunch in the dining room accompanied by a bottle of wine !
Then we boarded a wooden boat and visited Luon Cave which was more like a tunnel leading to a small lake surrounded by steep high rock faces.
We celebrated our happy holiday with the complimentary bubbly in our room before Libby went to the spring roll cooking demonstration.
Dinner was at 7pm and very yummy. An early night partly because there is no wifi !
Day 7 Wednesday 22nd of November 2017
After a lovely breakfast, we boarded a tender and spent the day with the 6 other "2-night cruise" passengers. The tender discharged us onto a wooden boat in which we visited the Cua Van Floating Village. We were rowed slowly around the very modest homes in this sheltered location surrounded by very high rocky outcrops. The villagers farm fish which are caught offshore and fattened up in netted enclosures. The Cua Van Cultural Centre Museum and school rooms illustrated the strange lifestyle of these villages.
There was no let up on the food quantity or quality. We enjoyed a 5 course lunch, making our own grilled fish spring rolls, tasty pork wrapped in green leaves, prawns, cheesy cooked muscles and spicy cooked oysters, followed by pork in a tomato sauce with rice and bok choy and finally fresh fruit !!!
After lunch Scottie, Mitch, (Brisbane boys) Alan, Rosamind (Vancourvians) and I took off in kayaks with our guide Ming to Trinh Nu Cave which had been used as a location for a film "Kong, Scull Island". Stephen stayed on the boat as he was concerned about security and didn’t want to leave his phone or our documents unattended. He enjoyed listening to classical music while we clambered through the wonderful limestone cave with glimmering rock faces and stalactites, giggling and laughing all the way. This was followed by 40 minutes of free kayaking time. The Canadians said they wanted to paddle around the island and Ming said that would be fine … WRONG ! She thought they meant just paddle around a closest small island but they turned left. The only way back from that route was a 20km row !!! Off they went and I followed for about 15 minutes but the coves were deceiving so I got a bit anxious and turned back choosing to follow Mitch and Scottie. Everyone except the Canadians made it back to the boat in time. Ming, our guide, was worried about the Canadians as well as her employment prospects ! Eventually the Canadians returned. They had rowed flat out for over 40 minutes, realised the island was huge, pulled up beside a big tour boat and asked them to contact Aphrodite who sent a tender to pick them up !
We all arrived home safely, an hour late and not together but all was well. Had G and T's in our room prior to Libby attending another spring roll making class with coconut wine followed by dinner, 5 courses ! We now expect no less ! Sat on a table of 6 swapping stories with our fellow kayaking survivors !
Day 8 Thursday 23rd of November 2017
An early light breakfast and then on to the tender for a short ride to the Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave that was discovered in 1901. This feature is being rapidly developed for mass tourist visitation. We walked up the stairs cut into the cliff and walked through three huge chambers inside the karsk. The guide book: “The popular Hang Sung Sot has three vast chambers; in the second there’s a pink-lit rock phallus unsurprisingly regarded as a fertility symbol." Even less surprisingly, some guides refer to it as the ‘Cock Rock’ “.
Home to Aphrodite for the main breakfast/light lunch (Ahhh, Stephen thought he'd missed something) and then farewells as we cruised back to Halong Bay and its tawdry quay.
Waited for our mini bus and then endured an excruciatingly long drive back to Hanoi with one toilet break and constant road works - at one point we were stationary for about 25 minutes.
Arrived at our Hanoi Guest House Royal at about 5.45, rested and then walked to a restaurant that the Canadian’s daughter had recommended called Bun Bo Nam Bo. Walked in and by the time we’d sat down, 2 bowls of delicious beef and noodles had arrived ! Did we order that ? It was delicious. With a beer it added up to about $9. Coffee on the way home, bath and crash !
Day 9 Friday 24th of November 2017
At 9 am, Trang, the voluntary guide that Stephen had booked online from Australia arrived at our hotel. Stephen explained to this well spoken 20 year old university student what we hoped to see, and she was well informed and charming.
She took us walking past the oldest gate in Hanoi, Quan Chuong City Gate, then the Hang Dau water tank, Hang Dau Park where we saw the impressive concrete sculpture to the Vietnamese war veterans; along a lovely old tree lined street; past the Presidential Palace to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum with perfect timing for the changing of the guard. Then through the palace gardens to see the house Ho lived in for 3 years and the very beautifully designed stilt house the French build him for his final years. The one pillar pagoda was less than spectacular. We arrived at Hoa Lo Prison museum (called the "Hanoi Hilton" by US prisoners).
We thanked and farewelled Trang and Lib noted that she had walked 12000 steps already !
Lunch at the Hanoi Social Club (another Lonely Planet recommendation) was delicious with a yummy curry laksa for Libby. French fries for Stephen ! Stephen walked home to rest for 2 hours while Lib browsed around the shops and we met up again in the afternoon for the Water Puppet show at Thang Long.
Dinner at the New Day restaurant and then a walk thru the night market area where they close off the streets to traffic and it turns into a colourfully illuminated trendy open air restaurant area with live music and traditional performances at intersections.
Day 10 Saturday 25th of November 2017
After a sleep in and a leisurely breakfast we set off for a day of museums. Stephen has mastered the Hanoi public transport app called "Timbus" and now we catch buses. The first one took us to the Viet Nam Military History Museum. And then another to the Opera House where we saw high school and accountancy students having their year group graduation photos taken on the steps. Lunch was lattes, soya beans and french fries at Soba Cafe part of the National Museum of Vietnamese History which we visited directly after.
We walked along the fascinating Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural which borders the highway for almost 6.5km along the Song Hong dyke. The project took 3 years and was completed in 2010 for Hanoi's 1000th-birthday celebrations. Made from ceramics produced at nearby Bat Trang, the colourful mural depicts different periods in Vietnam's history and is the combined work of many local and international artists. It retains its Guinness World Record for being the largest ceramic mosaic on the planet.
Another bus to the Pan Pacific Hotel for a margarita waiting for the Summit Lounge to open for another drink whilst enjoying an amazing view of the city.
Walk, bus and walk back to the Hanoi Social Club for another curry laksa but tonight’s was not as good.
Home to collect our washing, cleaned hiking boots and a bath.
Day 11 Sunday 26th of November 2017
On our last morning in Hanoi, Stephen rested after breakfast while Lib took a short walk around our hotel area. Our taxi to the airport arrived late which was a tad worrying but not a problem as our flight was delayed by 3 hours. The airline provided a simple but free lunch and then the wait continued ! At last we were in flight for the short trip to Da Nang and a 45 minute taxi ride to our hotel.
The Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel is over 200 years old which earns it the privilege of being the only hotel allowed on the main street of Hoi An. It is old, modest but very gracious. Our upstairs room connects to a balcony overlooking the street.
We walked around the town which is pedestrian only and decorated with colourful lanterns and being a tourist mecca, it is wall to wall shops and restaurants.
Dinner at The Morning Glory restaurant consisted of a margarita followed by spring rolls, chicken rice, prawn curry and bbq chicken with lime. Delicious
Over the river bridge to the river island, An Hội, we watched boats rowing up and down with tourists and coloured lanterns floating in the water. Home for coffee and tea on our upstairs verandah before bed.
Day 12 Monday 27th of November 2017
Our 35th wedding anniversary ! Woke to the sound of motor bikes and lots of beeping horns. Vehicles are allowed to use the streets until 9am and again from 11-3pm so that the commerce can be restocked.
Breakfast followed by a neck and shoulder massage from the in-house masseuse then off for a walk to the Japanese Covered Bridge. Lib spotted a free live performance of traditional dancing and music. Stephen had been intrigued in Hanoi by the sound of the Dan Bao, a single stringed instrument that was treated as the star of many traditional music groups. The Dan Bao player in this performance was excellent. Lib was intent on locating a recommended shoe shop and tailor but found the whole shopping experience too overwhelming - too many choices and not sure what she really wanted.
Cooking on the other hand is where Lib excels. We walked to the Gioan Cooking School and Lib attended a class with 4 very lovely young women from Hong Kong. They walked to the local market with the teacher Hanh and purchased all the fresh produce, then returned for a very active 2 hours of preparing, cooking and eating of fresh spring rolls, country pancake, chilli lemongrass chicken and beef pho. Yum!
Miraculously, Lib found her way back to the hotel for a cuppa tea on the balcony, followed by margaritas at a local bar and then dinner on the balcony at Cargo Club overlooking the river. Stephen had BBQed chicken with a tangy salad and rice, an improved version of what he ordered last night ! Lib a delicious green mango and chicken salad.
Home for tea and coffee on our verandah overlooking the street.
Day 13 Tuesday 28th of November 2017
After breakfast Libby retraced steps and purchased 2 scarves from the Lifestart Foundation and 2 cute little pairs of pj’s for Harry. We both then walked to a sister hotel of ours, Vinh Hung Emerald Resort, on An Hội, island to claim a complimentary boat trip for about an hour around the 2 islands in the river. The water damage from the recent typhoon and following floods were apparent here whereas the town, which had been underwater on a couple of weeks before our arrival, looked untouched.
Hiring push bikes, beside the Hoàng Diệu bridge, we explored the Cẩm Nam island east to its downstream point seeing how the locals live.
Returning to our hotel, it was time to wheel out the suitcase and hop in a taxi area to our last Vietnam stop - the luxury Victoria Beach Resort. The gourmet part of our trip ! Our cabin was right on the waters edge, facing the sea. Very deluxe except the beach did not exist !! The typhoon had washed the sand away (and the hotel had forgotten to tell us !). The difference to the advertising images was accentuated by the overcast sky and the gale force winds. Nevertheless, it was very exciting to see the wild weather just metres away from our wall of glass and luxury accommodation. Lib enjoyed the jacuzzi in the main resort area and then came back for a shower in our room. Quite an experience having a hot shower in our private courtyard in the pouring cool tropical rain ! Gin and tonics enhanced the mood and before a buffet dinner followed by a group of children and adult acrobats performed a “Lion” performance at the resort. Stephen was concerned for the children as they leapt and slipped on the tiled floor.
Going to sleep with the crashing waves so close to our room was strangely relaxing.
Day 14 Wednesday 29th of November 2017
After a leisurely gourmet buffet breakfast (with omelettes cooked individually by chefs), we decided on another bike ride. We dropped off our washing at the Cao Cao restaurant up the road that also offered laundry services and then rode north along the main road towards a well known beach. Bãi biển Cửa Đại just to reassure ourselves that they still existed somewhere. Evidence of the recent typhoon was again very obvious: piles of recycled timbers; rubbish and rubble everywhere; and the replanting of crops and roadside trees. We took the advice of some fellow riders and took a path back along the river, Ho. The river bank had been reinforced by a huge concrete wall and behind it was a strip of new smart and ornate homes, all two or even three storeys high on very narrow blocks. In the river there were fishing boats and huge nets with winches ready for action among a few floating homes.
It had started hot, humid and overcast, but the sun intermittently managed to appear between light warm showers.
Back to our latest home Lib rested poolside while Stephen preferred the air-conditioned room with a bed facing the elements listening to podcasts and music.
Gin and tonics on our balcony completed the daylight activity before we walked down the road for a delicious early dinner at Cao Cao restaurant and to collect our washing (300 dong !). The laundry/ restaurant was better that the resort and so much cheaper !
Day 15 Thursday 30th of November 2017
A day of total relaxation ! Breakfast was longer and finished with the signature Vietnamese iced coffees. We watched local fisherman in their coracles (circular bamboo fishing boats) set nets off shore from our bungalow as the day became sunny and humid. One small panic when Stephen thought he'd left his credit card at the restaurant last night … so back on our bikes, back to the restaurant with no result and... there it was, in a concealed compartment of his beloved bum bag ! He celebrated with a beer !
We rode south for a while but the environment seemed a carbon copy of yesterday and it was getting hot !!! Lib relaxed poolside and had a swim while Stephen was back in the room fascinated by Sam Harris’ podcast about consciousness with German philosopher, Thomas Metzinger.
Light lunch poolside and more relaxing, until dinner at Cao Cao again.
Day 16 Friday 1st of December 2017
Breakfast finishing with iced coffee again. Paid the hotel bill and told the Victoria Beach Resort staff that they really should change their advertising (or the resort name !) now that they had lost the beach. Taxi to the Da Nang airport and 3 1/2 hour flight to Singapore.
An efficient airport shuttle bus dropped us at the Bencoolen Hotel. Our room was very basic but comfortable on level 5 with a view straight into the next high rise building ! Singapore is even more hot and humid than Vietnam. The vegetation verdant and everything very organised and clean.
Tour leader Digby led the late afternoon walking circuit into a Sri Mariamman Temple, through down Pagoda street through Chinatown with its market shops on street level lined by 4 storey beautiful old buildings with coloured shutters. Then we walked along the river stopping for a "happy hour" negroni at Shabestan.
We had a booking at Jumbo’s Seafood Restaurant at which Stephen has enjoyed a superb Black Pepper Crab as a teacher on a school trip 20 years before. The famous Singapore efficiency was a little lacking as the staff got confused about which of their chain of restaurants had accepted our online booking and sent us to walk between them. By the time our first location accepted it's responsibility, we were a bit hot and bothered ! Luckily the huge pepper crabs were delicious. We walked home tired but happy.
Day 17 Saturday 2nd of December
Breakfast at the Belcoolen Hotel was a very modest buffet in tiny alcove. We checked out but left our luggage and caught a cab to the Gardens by the Bay.
We spent a wonderful 2 hours walking through the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest Dome marvelling at the engineering and the exquisite display of plants sculptures and atmospheric conditions in the delightful air-conditioning.
Late in the afternoon, we met relatives living in Singapore and had just returned from a 2 week trip to Melbourne. In the hot sun, we walked around the outside gardens an up into the skyway - a suspended walkway high above the gardens snaking around the huge artificial "Super Trees". Libby was too traumatised by the height to enjoy the amazing views!
We walked to the giant Marina Bay Sands Hotel, and with local knowledge, got up to the 57th floor Sky Deck where we enjoyed the views across Singapore while drinking aperol spritz.
A quick cab ride to get to the Telok Ayer covered food market where we had a bite to eat and said goodbye.
An attempt to experience a Singapore shopping mall lead to a cab drive through very busy traffic. Stephen duly waited in a cafe kept company by his phone while Lib discovered that the selected mall was far too "up market" for her - and full of extremely wealthy people doing their Christmas shopping.
Deciding that the air conditioned airport was more enticing than more adventures in sweltering Singapore, we got a cab to pick up our luggage from the hotel and drive straight to the airport. It was 5 hours before our flight but we could relax, rest and be out of the heat.
The overnight flight provided sleep for Lib and more movie experience for Stephen and got us to Melbourne in the morning.
Day 18 Sunday 3rd of December 2017… Home on the skyBus and so ended our Vietnam experience.