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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Thousands of limestone isles rise out of the emerald green water.  To say this is a tourist destination is an understatement.  We did a three day, two night junk boat tour into the bay.  At most times, I could see 20 other tourist boats.  Despite this fact, it was incredibly peaceful and restful.  I left behind all devices on this trip, so there were no distractions.  I spent hours on the decks, with camera in hand, just watching life go by.  We did a few stops along the way, but for the most part we enjoyed the scenery, which I hope you do through this photo tour!

The fishing village you see in the background of this photo seemed like one of the most remote places on earth to me.  We talked about it and decided that they have easier access to society than some other places, but they live with generators on their floating, one room houses.  A radio tower is positioned atop a nearby islet to warn of incoming typhoons.  

A style of Asian shrimp fishing boat that we have here in Taiwan as well.  At night we could see the boats with the bright lights on to attract the shrimp into their nets.

It was typical to see men and women paddling their boats with their feet.

We stopped at Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave), one of the largest and most beautiful caves in Halong Bay.  We were truly surprised at the size and length of this cave.  A kazillion people were visiting.  We were headed along by our guide, so it was hard to get a good look.

Chad and Damon kayaked the fishing village while the girls and I opted for the rowboat option so we could take lots of photos!

 In the middle of Halong Bay floats a cultured pearl farm.  We stopped for a tour of how pearls are grown.  The process is interesting.  The basics are:  An "irritant" is carved from the shell of an oyster and implanted into an oyster of the correct age.  A piece of tissue from another oyster is added at the same time (I really didn't understand this part, but they do it none the less).  The oysters are put in cages and suspended in the sea so they can grow.  The oyster builds a pearl around this foreign substance.  Periodically they are taken out of the water for the buildup to be cleaned off the shells.  This farm grew the pearls  

rows for cages of oysters

Inserting the seed made from a shell
Finding the pearl
from 3-7 years depending on the type and desired size.  Around 40-50% of the oysters survive and grow a pearl and only about 10% produce a high value, round pearl.  The flawed pearls are sold to be ground into make-up.

We traveled with Legacy Cruise Halong and had a wonderful experience!

A Few Days in Hanoi

 We took a few days at Christmas to get away and reconnect as a family.  It seems like ages since summer when we were together last.  There is always a lot to catch up on and sometimes a change of scenery is good.  We immediately loved the fast pace of Hanoi.  It is everything that Taipei isn't.  Loud and colorful, full of culture.  Taiwan often feels very milk-toast.  We've discussed why this is and have a few thoughts, but at the same time it is a mystery.

Food was one of the fun things about Vietnam.  Street food, restaurant food, and international food!  Just after we arrived we went out to look for our first meal.  We must have looked rather lost because a man and his wife stopped us and offered help - in perfect English.  We started walking and talking with them and learned that he was from Hanoi but had moved to the U.S. years ago.  He has returned to Vietnam several times, but this was his wife's first visit.  They were so excited to show us their favorite restaurant in the area, and we were not disappointed.  We couldn't have done as well even after several days in town.  He showed us what to order and then disappeared to catch his own flight home.  You can't visit Vietnam without having a bowl of local Pho!  Later in the week we found a fabulous restaurant called "Pho Ten" where we had amazing bowls of Pho. 

The streets were crazy busy.  I've never been in traffic quiet like this.  Our first clue was the ride from the airport into town.  We were on a highway of sorts.  I noticed that everyone was driving in their lane except our driver.  He drove straight down the dotted line.  I couldn't understand it.  When we got off the highway mopeds and bicycles added to the mix of cars and busses.  I've gotten used to mopeds here in Taiwan, but this was a whole other level of insanity.  Taiwan is a very rule adhering country and very safety conscious.  People wear helmets.  I've never seen more than 3 on a moped here.  There is a very orderly way of driving and following traffic signals.  In Hanoi, all of that goes out the window.  Helmets seem to be an option, we saw several mopeds with 5 riders, and all sorts of goods are carried.  There is a noticeable lack of street signals and stop signs.  Intersections are simply not labeled and all people move forward, simply weaving their way through the jam of cars to get to the other side.  Yet it worked.  It was fun to sit on a balcony above an intersection and just watch it all work out.

Shopping was loads of fun.  People were selling things right off their bicycles as they pushed them through the crowds.  The Old Quarter consisted of street after street of tourist shop, selling local handicrafts.  I now have a nice row of lantern hanging from our bedroom ceiling adding a spark of fun!

The architecture adds color to the city as well.  The style is considered French, but I would call it a unique style, specific to Vietnam.  Houses are narrow and tall.  Typically one family owns a house with multiple generations occupying it.  The French influence is seen in the bright colors along the landscape,  porches on the facade, decorative - but functional - shutters, and an overall neoclassical feel.

Vietnam is a Communist county.  It was evident from the moment we landed and were waiting for our visas to be processed at the airport.  It took me by complete surprise.  Yes, I knew Vietnam was communist, but I did not expect the similarities to Russia.  Over and over I was amazed at the little nuances I picked up on that were the same.  This memorial statue could have been in any park in Moscow.  The blocky stylizing of the figures is exactly the same.  We were surprised at the number of people dressed in old style or formal style military clothing.  This sense of nationalism in dress is similar to what I saw in Moscow, especially in the younger generation on national holidays.  They have a Ho Chi Minh mausoleum which is reminiscent of Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square.  We arrived planing on viewing the preserved body, just as we had in Moscow.  We were disappointed that it wasn't open the day we were there.  We were hoping to check another creepy dictator experience off our list.  From what I read, Ho Chi Minh's body is sent to Moscow every year for embalming inspection.   

The Water Puppet Theater was a unique experience.  This form of theater is only performed in Vietnam.  The puppet masters are behind a backdrop where the stage is a pool of water.  The puppets emerge from the water, splashing and swimming around.  The addition of sparklers created fire from the dragons and an interesting smoky atmosphere for parts of the play.  Live music accompanied the performance.  The local instruments created an eerie ancient oriental atmosphere.

Sadly, I know very little about the war in Vietnam.  I know it was controversial and still has an air of anger associated with it.  The Hoa Lo Prison is a vast complex built by the French in 1896.  It was intended to house around 450 inmates, but over 2,000 Vietnamese political prisoners were held there by the French.  Conditions were deplorable.  Prisoners were tortured and many were executed.  The prison has become a symbol of colonist exploitation that the French used in Vietnam.  The prison was used by Vietnam during the Vietnam war to house American POW's who nicknamed it the "Hanoi Hilton."  This is where John McCain was imprisoned in the late 1960's.