The van that came and picked me up for the tour of Halong Bay stopped at several, increasingly tonier-looking, hotels on the way out of town, with the last stop being for an Australian woman who was at the Hanoi Hilton (not the one John McCain stayed in). With the exception of me, three Australians, and one South African, our group of a dozen was entirely Asian; several were actually Vietnamese, one Korean couple, and one older Japanese couple. I appeared to be the only obvious backpacker amongst the group; most of the rest looked to be in their 30s at least. Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese lady named Han, which like the Han in Hanoi means River. We drove out of town, threading our way through the scooter-filled streets and coming out into the countryside. We passed through ricefields dotted with ancestral shrines and small villages with concrete walls moldering in the tropical climes and narrow colonial-style houses. Water buffalos crossed the road at a few points. After an hour or so we made a rest stop at a tourist trap / market -- gotta pay the gas bills, I guess. After about twenty minutes we got back on the bus and continued uninterrupted out to Halong Bay, which was another three hours or so drive.
All manner of tour boats crowd around the docks at the entrance Halong Bay and after our guide bought us tickets we boarded one, a spacious double-decked craft titled the Haiphong 2, and broke our way out of the clot of ships to head out into the bay. We had a lunch of spicy tofu, cucumber slices, tasty prawns, and ginger chicken with rice as the boat cruised through open water. Chatting with the other English-speakers about my travels in Southeast Asia, the Australian lady mentioned that she was "dying to see the Killing Fields", which I thought was a pretty strange choice of expressions, given the circumstances. Midway through lunch we were amongst the islands, which are large limestone protrusions rising out of the water. The name in Vietnamese means "dragon descending", which according to legend is what thrust the rocks upwards like they are today. We cruised amongst the islands at a leisurely chug, and around 3:00 came to a large one, where we disembarked and entered a fairly sizeable above-water limestone cave. It was cooler inside, but even then you couldn't escape the humidity; I was soaked by the time I made it back to where the boat had docked. After that we crossed over to where several floating platforms had been lashed together to construct farm cages for fish, prawns, and mussels; it was here that we got our chance to kayak. I ended up paired with one of the older Australian guys, and we paddled around a few of the nearby islands for about 40 minutes before coming back to the boat. We finished with a leisurely boat ride back to the dock and then three hours in the bus back to Hanoi, where I got in at 9:00 and had a dinner of pho noodles while watching a pair of Vietnamese brothers whack each other which chopsticks. A nice tour, though I personally would've taken more time in the kayaks and less on the boat.
Sunday morning I woke up early and spent a few hours on the hostel's computer attempting to figure out how to sign up for Skype service so that I can attempt to call come for cheap; it's pretty popular with the backpacker crowd here, and I've almost figured it out I think. My taxi out to the airport got me there with time to spare, as my flight on to Hue was actually delayed for an hour and a half -- though that did give me time to charge my iPod in the departure lounge and eat a lunch they provided for us (still just an inflight meal, though). I spent the flight reading the English language weekly paper, the main piece being an article on a woman who at the age of 15 had worked running supplies along the trail to Vietnamese fighters in the south. Most of it was devoted to her rapturous rememberances of the time she got to meet Ho Chi Minh. The flight was only about an hour and when we arrived at the small Hue airstrip and walked off the plane, a bus carried us fifty meters over to the terminal where we picked up our luggage. I took a taxi to the hotel I was planning on staying at, which worked out fine this time -- think that scam is mostly a big city thing, as this one was a fair metered ride.
I checked in and then took a walk across the river to see the old imperial citadel of Hue, which had crowds of Vietnamese families out and about, since I think they waived the admission fee in honor of Vietnam's Independence Day, which was Sunday -- Hanoi was festooned with flags all over during the few days I was there, but I didn't see any big celebrations. The citadel is crumbling and ruined thanks to fierce fighting between Vietnamese and US forces back in the 1960s, making it look much older than its 200-some years; large portions are open grassy fields, broken in place to place by old flagstones. Reconstruction is underway in some places, but I liked the ruined feel -- my timing was just right at the golden hour of sunset, and I got some good pictures that I'll be uploading when I get back.
I had dinner in a Hue restaurant, the Tropical Garden; wicker lampshades and candle light illuminated the open-air dining area, with a thatched roof and wooden lattice walls surrounded by plants and greenery. Waitresses in imperial purple ao dais brought me a succession of six courses, starting off with a souple of beef and noodles with a slight lemony tang, and finishing with some sort of fish pate wrapped in banana leaves (which you're not actually supposed to try and eat, I learned) and a plate of pineapple, watermelon, and dragonfruit. A quintet of traditional Vietnamese musicians played short pieces while I ate. It's the fanciest meal I've had in a while and the whole thing set me back maybe $15.
As nice as Hue was, I decided to carry on, so yesterday I woke up at 7:00 and caught a bus to Hoi An, which is about three hours drive south. We passed several muddy brown rivers with sampan boats anchored to the banks, and large nets strung out over the water to be lowered down for fishing when the tide rises. Arriving in Hoi An, we got the hotel hard sell, stopping at several places for commissions before I finally got a chance to break out on my own. The place I found is one of the best I've stayed in yet, with a nice little double room, with big ceiling fan and hot water, all to myself for only seven bucks.
I had a lunch of sweet and sour pork and mixed fruit smoothie and then walked around the historic Old Town, which is closed to car traffic and full of old sulfurous yellow buildings and preserved architecture that blends Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese styles. Formerly an important trading stopover for merchants from Hainan island and Japan, there are several clan assembly halls and old merchant houses open to the public for a small fee. The nicest home I visited was still being lived in after seven generations, despite regular river floods which, as you could see marked on the walls, had once come as high as the ceilings of the first floor -- must've been at least eight to ten feet. It was full of old furniture, including some wooden plaques with mother-of-pearl-inlaid Chinese characters, each "brushstroke" formed in the shape of a bird in flight.
For dinner I went to the Ba Le Well restaurant just as it was getting dark, setting myself down at a low red plastic table in an open white room as several other Vietnamese families dined around me. In the back room, past the small shrine lit with red Christmas bulbs holding three tiny cups of rice wine set atop cans of Heineken, several generations of extended family bustled back and forth at work in the kitchen. An old great grandmother wandered down the stairs at one point, watching me eat with idle curiosity but saying nothing. A middle-aged woman in purple top decorated with rhinestones spelling out the name 'Cindy' showed me how to eat the spread in front of me, which included a large plate of greens, skewers of satay pork, fried spring rolls, and rice paper wrapping with a peanut and chili dipping sauce. Delicious stuff, and one of the best meals I've eaten in Vietnam yet.
Hoi An's other attraction besides history is its legions of custom-fit tailor shops, and after a break for a cold drink, I browsed around yesterday before finding a place that is going to make me a fully tailored suit for $53 -- whether that's a great deal or a big rip-off I don't really know, but I'm off for the adjustments now, so we'll soon see!