(Halong) Bay Watch


A few hours after I got back to Hanoi from Sapa the front desk at the hostel called to say that Ludo had arrived. (Ludo is the Swiss guy I met at the Cu Chi tunnels. We had made plans to meet in Hanoi and go to Halong Bay together. After weeks of traveling alone, I was really looking forward to having someone locked in to eat meals with, sit beside me on buses, and apply sunscreen in hard-to-reach places.)

Knowing that we were going to Halong Bay the next day, we decided to make the most of our short time in Hanoi and headed out immediately to sightsee. We made a second attempt to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but, once again, it was closed. But the visit wasn’t a total loss—who should we meet out front but Jean-Baptiste and Yeter, the French couple I had met in Sapa. They offered to take us to the extremely reasonable travel agency they used to book their side trips. It was a little storefront in the old quarter, where a young woman named Anna showed us beautiful photos of an elegant boat in Halong Bay. We were a little skeptical that the boat would look exactly the like the photos (the bed they showed was adorned with rose petals in the shape of a heart), but the price was unbelievable. My hostel offered one-night trips for $99—we decided to go for two nights for $75.

With that taken care of, we went out to lunch at a place Jean-Baptiste and Yeter liked. (They had spent a lot of time in Hanoi because they were waiting for a visa to somewhere—India?—and the embassy required them to stay in the city for a week.) I was excited to see cassava on the menu since it came up a lot in my Vietnam War book. (Apparently everyone in the North Vietnamese army, from the generals on down, was responsible for growing a certain amount of cassava so everyone would have enough food to eat.) Since I had no idea what cassava was I was eager to try it. What they brought me were little translucent dumplings with a squishy texture that, while not horrible, wasn’t exactly pleasant. I ate them, but I was glad that I didn’t have to rely on them for sustenance for 20 years.

I was determined to spend the rest of the afternoon seeing something cultural, and so I dragged Ludo to Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton). I didn’t have very high expectations of it, but I felt like it would be wrong not to go see the jail where so many American POWs, including John McCain, spent much of the war.

In front of the Hanoi Hilton

In front of the Hanoi Hilton

Most of the museum is dedicated to the horrible treatment the Vietnamese received at the prison under the French. There are rooms full of mannequins writhing in pain with their legs shackled to the floor. There are also rooms full of photographs and descriptions of the brave Communists who were imprisoned there in colonial times. There are also exhibits of the handicrafts they made while behind bars.

The Americans are confined (no pun intended) to two small rooms decorated with photographs that could only be described as propaganda; the American prisoners decorate the prison for Christmas; the American prisoners get excellent medical treatment; the American prisoners accept gifts as they sadly say goodbye at the end of the war. Since I had just read several POWs descriptions of their treatment (which involved heavy torture) I was not fooled, but don’t get me wrong—it didn’t anger me. I didn’t expect the unvarnished truth.

After the museum I wanted to at least take a look at the outside of the Temple of Literature (which Ludo, templed out, flatly refused to enter), so we headed in what my map told me was the right direction. And it was—only the map didn’t tell us that the area right beside it was a maze of narrow alleyways (think 10 feet across) where Ludo and I proceeded to get lost for quite some time. It was rather scary, too, since there were no tourists, we obviously had no idea where we were going, and robbing us would have been a piece of cake. At one point Ludo even told me that he thought we were being followed—then burst out laughing when I looked stricken. If I had felt safe it would have been quite fun—many doors were open, meaning that we were practically standing in people’s one-room apartments. It was fascinating to look up and see balconies and laundry crowding the narrow airspace above, blocking the sun

P1040829When we finally made it to the Temple of Literature they were indeed locking the gates. We decided to take a walk in the park beside it, which was full of people walking or playing games of volleyball. At this point Ludo noticed that my coat bore the initials “RF,” which he said was for Roger Federer. I told him I was completely indifferent to tennis, but that excuse held no water with him. He said that even if I didn’t like tennis, I had to see Federer play, because he was as graceful as a dancer. By this point Ludo was actually dancing around, hitting imaginary balls with an imaginary racket, and I, of course, was giggling uncontrollably.

Then out of nowhere a voice said, “I love seeing happy couples!”

We turned to see an elderly Vietnamese man sitting on a bench.

“How long have you been married?”

We looked at each other. Thinking quickly, I decided it would be less hassle to just say we were married than to have to answer lots of questions about why we weren’t. So I said, “Five years.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m American; he’s Swiss.”

“My grandchildren live in Pennsylvania.”

By this time the old man was standing in order to talk to us more easily. He revealed that he was a former colonel in the army. He had fought the French, the Japanese, the Americans, and the Chinese. “But I know that the essence of Americans is very generous. There were just a few warmongers.” (He kept apologizing for his English, but it was impeccable.)

He talked a lot about the Vietnamese tendency to forgive. “I was at Dien Bien Phu [the iconic battle wherein the Vietnamese soundly defeated the French, winning their independence after 100 years] and afterwards I was guarding some French prisoners. A Vietnamese woman came up with some food for them. I said, ‘Hey! What about me?!’ and she said, ‘You’re from a poor country. You’re used to being hungry. They’re French! They need to eat.’” He laughed.

He said that he had recently met with some retired American military men who wanted to know how Vietnam had managed to win the war. He told them it was the Vietnamese spirit. A woman would take care of her children while her husband was fighting, and tend her fields, all with a gun on her back. If she saw a plane flying overhead she would shoot it down. And if the pilot survived the fall, she would serve him food.

“Do you dance?”

Taken entirely by surprise, I said that I did. (You know. More or less!)

“Then let’s rumba!” He grabbed my hand and pulled me into position, and we rumbaed right there on the path in the park.

Afterwards Ludo (who could only understand bits and pieces of the conversation) asked what was the colonel’s secret to his youthfulness. (He was 83, but could have passed for 20 years younger.)

“I was separated from my wife for 10 years during the war,” he said. (Lots of couples were unable to meet for years during the fighting.) And then he told us that his theory is that sperm gives you energy so men shouldn’t have sex more than once or twice a week(!!!) “But with such a beautiful wife, that may be difficult,” he said politely. Ludo and I avoided each other’s eyes.

Colonel To (for that was his name) told us that he had just been to an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. I asked if he had known Ho Chi Minh. He said that they grew up in the same village. I wish I had recorded everything he said—it was all fascinating. (Afterwards Ludo ordered me to repeat every word in French so that he wouldn’t miss anything.) When we said goodbye I told him it was a true honor to have met him. He mused that he wished he got more opportunities to practice his (flawless) English. I suggested he hang out at the city’s major tourist attractions. So next time you’re in Hanoi, look for him!

With Colonel To

With Colonel To

At this point we were going to be late to meet Jean-Baptiste and Yeter for dinner, so Ludo and I ran through the streets—which wasn’t easy given the volume of motos.

We found Jean-Baptiste waiting in the lobby of our hostel. Yeter was napping, so it would just be the three of us for dinner. Ludo declared that he had had enough Vietnamese food for the day, so we ended up having hamburgers somewhere. Afterwards Yeter joined us for a drink. A football match was playing on the TV, and everyone in the bar was smoking but me, but all I could think about was that the following day I would finally get to see Halong Bay, which I thought was the most beautiful place I had ever seen pictures of. I hoped it would not disappoint!

The next day we got up bright and early for our bus ride to Halong Bay. (I felt a little schadenfreude when I saw that the manager of my hostel was chagrined I had bought the tickets elsewhere. But they had so overcharged me for my Sapa trip that I felt justified in my mirth.)

The bus ride was about two hours. Ludo was reading, and I kept interrupting him to point out amazingly green fields tended by farmers in conical hats. At one point we saw a water buffalo pulling a plow.

When we got to the pier my old enemy, fog, was rearing its ugly head. I fervently hoped that we would be able to see the rock formations that have made the bay so famous.

Our boat turned out to be a very charming older white vessel. Our bedroom did not have any rose petals in it, but it did have the same linens as the picture (alas, though we were initially given a very sunny, spacious room, we were almost immediately moved to a cramped one right next to the (very loud) engine room. Easy come, easy go!)

All of the passengers (there were about 15 of us) ate lunch together at one long table in the dining room at the center of the boat. In addition to Ludo and I (whom everyone, naturally and erroneously, assumed to be a couple), there were three French girls, Marie, Marion, and Maude, two Swedish girls, some Koreans, and a Canadian family consisting of two parents, Laura and Tony, and their 10-year-old twins, Hazen (a boy) and Shaeah (a girl). The Canadians, originally from the West Coast, now lived in northern China, so they had lots of advice for me—especially the kids!

I needn’t have worried about the fog. Even though it was overcast for all three days, the bay was breathtaking.


Lunch, which was not very tasty to begin with, was ruined for me when the older Korean man sitting next to me, without so much as a word, reached over and repositioned the chopsticks in my hand in front of everyone! I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do. I had been very proud of my chopstick usage up to that point, and now I felt both dejected and exposed. I tried halfheartedly to eat the way he had, er, directed me, but I couldn’t and I ended up putting the chopsticks away for the duration. Normally I get along really well with old men (see: Colonel To) but I was so annoyed that I gave myself permission to give the Korean dirty looks for the next two days. (And for the record, I had dinner with Peter, my Korean friend from Sapa, in Hanoi on my last night there, and he holds his chopsticks the same way I do, if a little closer to the ends. So I was not wrong! And even if I had been, he could have found another way to tell me. End of rant.)

After lunch the boat stopped at the largest cave in Halong Bay. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was spectacular—the ceiling was as high as a cathedral and the room was just as big. Colored lights illuminated points of interest, such as stalactites shaped like animals. (Our endlessly patient guide, Tho, never tired of the children’s guesses as to what each one was supposed to be.)

Then it was time for kayaking. I was looking forward to kayaking with Ludo, since he’s very athletic and I figured I would not have to do any work. J But then he overheard one of the kayak renters telling Laura that the children were too young to kayak. Ludo loves children (he’s a teacher) and he couldn’t stand the idea of them being disappointed, so he asked if I’d be ok with him proposing that we each take one of them out with us. At first I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but it did seem like such a nice thing to do that I couldn’t say no. And the kids were so excited when they heard that they could go. I ended up going with Shaeah, who turned out to be a very bright, friendly, all-around-awesome kid. For some reason the men in charge of the kayaks only gave a paddle to me, so I gave Shaeah my camera so she could take photos. Which she did. In abundance! It’s a good thing it’s a digital camera, because otherwise I would be developing dozens of photos of Ludo and her brother.

Eventually I gave her the paddle and explained how to use it. It was nice to relax while she did the work (though she didn’t bring much power to the paddling).

Going through gaps in the rocks into inlets was amazing.

It was beautiful and exhilarating and fun.

On the way back we paddled by floating houses, complete with multiple dogs. I wondered how the dogs felt about being surrounded by water. (My parents’ dog hates water and can’t swim.)

After kayaking we sailed for a while. Ludo and I ended up hanging out on the top deck with the French girls and the Swedes. (I felt guilty because we were almost always speaking in French, because none of the French people spoke English very well, and I felt like we were excluding the Swedes, who were very nice girls.) I particularly liked Marion, who said she had had an enviable life in Paris, but she had developed serious stress-related health problems—problems that vanished as soon as she quit her job and started traveling. She’s not sure if she’s ever going back to live in France.

Dinner was actually quite good (if chopstick-free for me). The children were excited by the promise of karaoke, but the machine’s remote control turned out to be broken, which meant that it only played Vietnamese music. None of us were interested in that, so we ended up playing cards instead.

The next morning we had to be packed before breakfast because those of us staying for a second night were spending it on Cat Ba island, a very large island in the bay with its own national park. Marion, the Canadians, and the Swedes would be joining us.

Our first stop on the island was the national park, where we were told we’d be doing “a little hiking.” The “little hiking” turned out to be a very fast, vertical mountain climb, complete with ladder! The pace was so fast that we were hurrying the whole way—there was never time to stop and take photos. (Though our guide for this leg, who introduced himself as “Monkey Man,” did show us how he earned his nickname by shinnying up a vine and swinging from it!) When I finally made it to the top, drenched in sweat, I resolved to be the last person to leave, so I could set my own pace. (Ludo and the twins ended up climbing a very scary-looking observation tower at the summit, but considering the fact that almost all you could see was fog, I decided to keep my feet on the ground.)

Ludo and I were indeed the last people to head down, which was nice because I could take all the photos I wanted. What I hadn’t anticipated was that we would fall so far behind everyone that we wouldn’t know which path to take. And that it would start to pour. Fortunately, Ludo was wearing his raincoat so I gave him my purse with all my electronics to wear under it. And since the jungle was so thick we didn’t really get that wet. Fortunately, Ludo selected the right path (my instinct was to go the other way) and we soon found everyone else sheltering at a café near the entrance.

It was a long drive (45 minutes or so) from the park to the city where we would be spending the night. Our hotel was less than a block from the harbor, and Ludo and I were immediately excited by the tandem bikes we saw available for rent next door. After a nap we pedaled around the harbor, with me in the back (which made it possible for me to close my eyes when we were going downhill. I hate going fast!)

We ended up at a secluded resort. Ludo asked the security guard if we could go down to their private beach, and he said yes, so we left the bike and went for a walk in a beautiful cove. There was a cliffside boardwalk that allowed us to admire the view from an even better angle. Ludo sighed and said that he never returns to places, but he may have to come back to this one.

After dinner Tho took us to a bar where he said they had free beers for women. They did not. It was very cheesy, with giant music videos playing on a huge screen and disco lights flashing at 8:00 pm. We did get to meet a few other travelers, though. At one point we were all going around introducing ourselves, and after I said where I was from an older French guy from across the room smugly said, “I feel sorry for you!” You could have heard a pin drop. Finally I said, “Pourquoi?” (“Why?”) and he said that it was a joke, which it clearly wasn’t. And not only because it wasn’t funny. I should have said, “Well, it was hilarious!” but instead I said, in French, “For how many years do I have to put up with this type of joke from French people?” Which was not so snappy. And a little immature. But it truly feels like I have had to deal with this superior attitude for the 15 years that have elapsed since the first time I went to France. Marion, who was there and was mortified, said that she thought that it was a result of the post-9/11 change in the US/French relationship, but I told her that I first went to France in 1998 and people had exactly the same attitude then. (I want to emphasize that I have absolutely nothing against “French people” as a group—Isaure and many of my dearest friends are French and I could not love them more. I am usually the one defending “French people” from other nationalities.) Anyway, in the end I actually felt good about the whole thing because of the way all the other people reacted—with horror. I have been in situations where I think everyone would have agreed with him, so it was so nice to see the Swedish girls and Marion tell me that they thought he was an asshole. (Ludo was outside talking on the phone with his mother when it happened, but he was very supportive when he got back as well.) And I learned a few ways to say “unbelievably awkward silence” in French, so there you go.

We spent most of the following day returning to Hanoi. We took so much longer than expected that Ludo was afraid he was going to miss his bus to Luang Prabang, Laos, but Tho told him they were waiting for him and as soon as we got to the city he was whisked away on a motorbike.

I went back to the hostel to change for dinner with Peter from Sapa. He had been living in Hanoi for two months doing a legal internship, so I was looking forward to being shown the sights by a semi-local. I was amused to find that he actually knew his way around the city less than I did—he got so lost looking for the lake (that was actually on the same street as my hostel, where we met) that I assumed he must be looking for a completely different lake. I also had to keep grabbing him and pulling him out of the path of oncoming motorbikes. But after many wrong turns he did eventually take me to a very authentic restaurant I never would have found otherwise. One amusing (to me, anyway) moment happened when he remarked, “Say, they eat a lot of really weird food in China. How are you going to deal with that?” While eating intestines.

After dinner we took a walk around the lake. There were tons of people out strolling. One woman informed me that someone had just unzipped my purse, which freaked me out since it was the second time that evening. Fortunately, nothing was taken either time, but I resolved to wear it in front of me.


Then Peter took me to a bar beside the city’s best-known Catholic church. We sat alone on a balcony festooned with what the British call fairy lights (we call them Christmas lights but that just seems wrong the rest of the year). I wished I had more time to explore the city, but alas I was flying out the following morning, to Laos.

Vietnam will always have a very special place in my heart. I can’t wait to go back!