Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Do An – That's right, FOOD!!

The purpose of this blog was not to be a food blog. There are very good ones out there already (noodlepie and gastronomy are my personal favourites regarding Vietnamese food). However, as anyone who knows me may tell you, I do LOVE food and have been known to only discuss food, in detail, when I come back from trips (New Orleans comes to mind). Let’s just say I’m a live-to-eat kind of person, rather than eat-to-live…

So as a homage to food and food bloggers, I was planning to showcase specialties from Trung (Central Vietnam), where my mother comes from (more specifically Quang Ngai). However, it seems it’s just a mishmash of food images from the past few weeks. As well, my sister e-mailed me, whining "you haven’t talked about food yet!", so here are some food pics with commentary!

Like most countries, food is quite localized here in Vietnam. So you may find one version of a dish in a very specific region, never to find it again anywhere else. Quang Ngai’s banh beo is served with a sauce that consists of ground pork and shrimp, rather than the usual minced shrimp with fish sauce (which I actually prefer). Note the special wooden stick used just to eat this dish!

Ok, so I’ll have to work on my picture taking skills. I was so focused on getting the picture focused, that it’s not quite centered. In the big plate, are nem nuong - grilled ground pork balls (ball shape and not the pig’s anatomy as someone I met once thought), bo la lot (grilled ground beef wrapped in a green called la lot) and ram tom - spring roll with whole shrimps. Top right is a plate of grilled beef.

Sometimes it’s combining existing things that is the novelty. Nem nuong is quite common across Vietnam. Then you have ram tom, which is simply a spring roll with whole shrimps. But roll them together in rice paper with some fresh herbs and vegetables, that’s a Quang Ngai specialty. You can’t beat that! [Two notes: 1) we're actually using "special" rice paper that does not require dipping in water and 2) The Boyfriend was served a vegetarian dish of spring rolls with... peanuts inside?!]

In the usual plate of fresh veggies, were these innocent looking vegetables. Looking more closely now, it’s clear that they’re NOT cucumber; however, when you’re in a rush to eat, you just make WRONG assumptions. These are actually unriped bananas, cut in a cross-section. The only way to describe it (there’s a specific word in Vietnamese for it) is that it takes all liquid out of your mouth and dries it out. Acquired taste? I don’t know…

My aunt (in Quang Ngai) grilled fresh squid and shrimp outside, to worship our ancestors. Hmmm... Some of the shrimp sizes here are HUGE! (My friend T: do these beat the shrimps you buy at Costco?)

Baguette et Chocolat (in Sapa) is a bakery with a cause. A French NGO started these bakeries as a means to train disadvantaged youths as bakers and pastry makers. According to Le Routard, there are also locations in Hue and Hanoi; however, we had no luck finding them (we tried!). We did find the one in Sapa and it was SO worth it! The pastries were excellent and that’s also when we ran into the two Hmong girls mentioned in the Sapa post. And by my snooty Montreal standards (which is less than the Parisian standards), these pastries were awesome!

Again, I wouldn’t make a very good food blogger because I can’t record details very well. This classic combination - bun thit nuong & cha gio – was eaten at Bunta in Hanoi near the water puppet theatre. You get a beautiful view of Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s next to the Calvin Klein store, on the second floor. Bun are rice vermicelli, thit nuong is grilled meat and cha gio, fried spring rolls. Bunta is one of those restaurants that target tourists. It’s trying a bit too hard: note the the tri-coloured (white, yellow, and subtle green – top left) bun. Unlike tri-coloured pasta, which is infused with flavour, this looks just like food colouring. But it was pretty yummy! Especially considering this was after the Perfume Pagoda day… No mystery meat here!

The Boyfriend LOVES café sua da, iced coffee. He even knows how to order it in Vietnamese! It’s quite the process: first coffee filters through a percolator, in a cup where there is condensed milk. Then you take this sweet mixture and pour it in a glass full of ice. Miam! The only thing is that this drink is NOT fast food; filtering takes time and sometimes you’re impatient, especially when it’s hot!

I love exotic fruits and there is an abundance here. I just couldn’t resist fresh jackfruit from a street vendor in Saigon. Sticky and sweet!

I got a call from my uncle calling us to join them for my second cousin’s birthday party. Family seem never ending here! It was at a hot pot restaurant (Lau Chen – 152 Nguyen in Saigon). Hot pot is always fun and they were some great seafood AND mushrooms, like oyster, enoki and shitake. The boys also enjoyed some sake.

Co Nhi Vien Phu Hoa (Phu Hoa Orphanage)

On our second day in Quang Ngai, Cau Q brought us to an orphanage (Co Nhi Vien Phu Hoa). We were taken by surprise. It was after we visited the graves of various family members and we thought were just going to another grave. My cousin K back in California had sent money, so my uncle wanted to stop by and give it to the orphanage. The experience was not as I would expect, sad and depressing; rather, it was actually pretty fun, mainly because the kids were full of joy, despite their situation.

My aunt is holding a four month old, who was dropped off when she was just hours old by her father.

There were about a dozen kids, ranging from 4 months old to maybe 12 years old. Some of them knew a bit of English: "How are you? What your name?". Some of the little boys were instantly attracted to The Boyfriend and started to call them Father. That was a bit disconcerting because it was the only indication they were looking for parents. It seemed they were trying to stake out potential parents and some referred to us as "Mom and Dad" for the rest of our visit.

The sister (nun) who runs the orphanage taught them a few songs in English. So they sang We wish you a Merry Christmas and Auld Lang Syne, with synchronized dance moves. It was quite cute and funny, especially with their little accent. They also sang a lovely Vietnamese song.

Kids singing us a song.

This little guy was so cute and hyper. When my aunt asked about sugar cane planted in the field, he ran out and pulled one out for her (sugar cane plants are BIG for such a little guy).

While we were having tea, the kids were playful and wanted to get our attention. They were especially fascinated by The Boyfriend and his hairiness. They kept pulling his arm hairs and showing they could make a little ponytail. I thought that was hilarious. Then one of the little girl was pulling my skin and said in Vietnamese that there was no lean meat. I guess The Boyfriend had the last laugh.
As they grew less shy, they grabbed our sunglasses and tried them on. Then they were on the scooters with the helmets. Finally, they asked whether they could use the camera. However, unlike what I would imagine from "regular" kids, they did listen attentively to my instructions when I told them to be careful. And when I told them that it was someone else’s turn, they were very good at sharing.

The kids took hold of glasses and were posing for us.

The little guy on the right is so funny with my aunt’s PRADA glasses…

The kids taking turn with my camera and becoming photographers!

This is the little cart that is used to bring the kids to school every day.
Everyone who knows me knows I sometimes have silly romantic notions. My notion of orphans comes from Anne of Green Gables or Annie. This is not quite reality. These kids just lead normal lives; they eat and go to school. I’m not sure they fret on their fate, but they do seem to yearn for someone to love and care for them. They didn’t show outside sadness; they just seemed genuinely happy to have people play with them.

This orphanage is small and so doesn't draw as much attention as the big city’s orphanages. If anyone wants to help, it’s much easier to go to Saigon (that's probably where Angeline Jolie went). However, small town orphanages also need notice. My cousin bought a roasted pig for them for Tet. I’m very happy to find out that my family has unofficially "adopted" this orphanage and helps out whenever they can!

Perfume Pagoda: Pilgrimage, Mystery Meat and Big Crowds – Feb 22

For our last day of travel, we went to Chua Huong (or Perfume Pagoda). It’s set in beautiful limestone cliffs, similar to Halong Bay, by a river. It is 100 km south of Hanoi, which equates to about a 2 hour drive. The drive was especially bumpy in the minibus and the guy in front of us actually started puking. Luckily, we were at the midpoint stop (the usual toilet stop/tourist trap, a big warehouse that sells all sorts of things, at jacked up prices) and were able to leave the minibus. Then you need a 1 hour boat ride that covers maybe 10 km.

According to the travel books, it was likely that there would be big crowds because we were in the middle of the THREE MONTH long Perfume Pagoda festival, during which Buddhist pilgrims come to pray for fertility, good health and probably money. However, with our luck, we were there on the 16th day of the lunar month, which is especially attractive to pilgrims. Supposedly even numbers having more meaning than odd numbers – not sure why. This means that as we went to visit the first pagoda, Thien Tru Pagoda, it was jammed with people bringing offerings and praying. We took a few pictures and hid in the shade for the remaining half hour allotted. While most of our trip has been spent in the cold, this day was hot and sunny – perfect timing with the big crowds and large amount of stairs we would have to climb.

All the boats arriving at the mountain site.

Massive crowds walking to the Pagoda.

Thien Tru Pagoda.

Inside, worshippers are praying.

On the bus ride, we had indicated to our guide that The Boyfriend is vegetarian. As we walked by food stalls and sat down at a specific one (lunch was included), a few of us, including myself, conveniently became vegetarian. This is because at every food stall were hung carcasses of small, mystery animals. My stomach’s getting upset just writing this… When I questioned the guide, he informed me that the biggest was a baby water buffalo (not bad), the medium body was that of an animal that looks like a dog, but not a dog (our guess was some type of weasel? it actually sort of like an ant eater) and the smallest one he agreed was a rabbit when I asked him, but then also agreed was a cat when someone else asked. Note that our guide seemed a bit confused about everything. No matter, I didn’t want to eat any of the options available.

Mystery meats. Rabbit, cat, skunk, who knows?

Now being in the North of Vietnam, the specialty dish is actually dog meat. I have seen restaurants advertising dog meat but not seen any carcasses like these. As a meat eater myself, I think it would be hypocritical to judge people for eating dog meat, while I eat beef or pork. How can I say one meat is ok to eat while another is not? However, this doesn’t mean that I’m willing to eat any or that I don’t feel sick thinking about it.

We were brought rice, boiled cabbage and a dish of tofu with meat. Not knowing what meat it was, most of us just picked the tofu. It was actually a bit confusing to have meat as an option near a very important Buddhist pagoda. Most strict Buddhists are actually vegetarian. Three of the Vietnamese people in our bus actually requested vegetarian meals and only had boiled potato-like vegetables.

After lunch, the plan was to go visit the most important pagoda: Huong Tich Pagoda, which is set in a cave in a mountainside. Our options were either to go by cable car or by foot, i.e. climbing the steep steps, which would take an hour. The 5 Vietnamese people, including an elderly man, opted for the cable car. The two German couples, a French couple and ourselves decided to go by foot. Our guide pointed the way and told us there really was only one way to go, which wasn’t quite accurate. I assumed that he was going to follow at the end of the group. As we climbed, we realized the guide was not with us. We then assumed he went up by cable car and would meet the rest of up there.

As we neared the cavern, there were people waiting in line to enter the cavern. Using the word "line" supposes people waiting in an orderly fashion, just as the word "pilgrimage" supposes peacefulness and tranquility. Rather, people were pushing and shoving their way ahead of the line. As The Boyfriend put it, climbing up the stairs with the pilgrims was having all your senses attacked: there were vendors on all side selling food and beverages, music blaring from speakers. I had imagined pilgrims contemplatively climbing up the stairs, maybe chanting prayers in a low tone. Not so.

While waiting in line, The Boyfriend and I decided the wait was not worth it. It was too annoying having people push you and we most likely had a long wait ahead of us. Realizing we had also lost our guide, we decided to wait for everyone at the cable car. We were still hoping the guide was waiting at the cave. An hour later, the French couple gave up, having gotten to the entry of the cave. Finally, half an hour later, the Germans came back, without our guide. They showed us pictures they took – a cave jam-packed with people.

We all decided to take the cable car down, having no idea where the guide or the rest of the group were. People waiting in line for the cable car were also shoving their way through. Each cable car could only take 6 and people were pushing each other to get through. It was ridiculous! There was a cable car every 10 seconds. But when we finally got into a cable car, the silence was so wonderful and the scenery beautiful that it almost seemed worth it; this lasted for a whole 5 minutes.

Crowds waiting for the cable car.

View form the cable car.

As we climbed down the remaining stairs, we saw our guide, who obviously seemed panicked without any group. Supposedly, he had stayed behind because he didn’t like big crowds. Whaaaaaaaat?! He sure didn’t tell any of us that. We had to wait another 45 minutes because the people who went up by cable car decided to go down by foot.

Boat ride back to land.

Since we were an hour behind, we did not have our scheduled stop during our drive back. In addition, our driver seemed to try to make up the time by speeding; the ride was so bumpy, we were literally airborne at a point. And that’s when the guy started puking again. This is the only time on our trip when we didn’t tip the guide; the whole trip was such a mess.

So what's the final verdict? Do I recommend going? I think it is a beautiful setting. I would suggest avoid really busy pilgrimage days. There are supposedly calmer days, even during the 3 month festival. As for the food, maybe have an alternate plan if you're not willing to eat mystery meat.

Hanoi – Feb 21

After our night on the train and in the cubbyhole (refer to previous blog), we decided to take it easy and walk around the city. First, we stopped by ET Pumpkin Adventure Travel to book a tour the next day to the Perfume Pagoda. This cost $18 USD each. I tried to ask the agent if it was going to be busy but she didn’t understand. We found out the hard way the next day.

Some nice old architecture in Hanoi.

This was actually the first day we saw sun in the north of Vietnam. Temperature was in the low 20’s and it was beautiful. We went to the west side and saw Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Neither of us was interested in seeing his embalmed body so we just took a couple of pictures from outside. Very close to the mausoleum was the Canadian embassy, which was not impressive looking at all. We also went to the botanical gardens, which is supposedly make-out central for young lovers, even in the early afternoon.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sapa-Lao Cai-Hanoi: Minibus, Train, Taxi & Cubbyhole

We took a minibus to catch the 8 pm train in Lao Cai. Although The Boyfriend did not enjoy the ride from Lao Cai to Sapa, I didn’t have too many problems except feeling a few bumps. Unfortunately, the return trip was not as smooth. The bus was going up and down, around mountains, lurching forward then breaking; it was horrible. I am not the type who gets nauseous (unlike The Little Sister who used to get car sick as a child). It seems this ride made up for all those times I never felt sick.

When we arrived in Lao Cai, an hour before departure, the people from our minibus decided to go into a restaurant before the train departed. Smoking has not yet been banned inside buildings here in Vietnam. In my condition, I couldn’t bear to be in a restaurant with numerous smokers, so I sat outside with The Boyfriend.

The Boyfriend was approached by a Viet Kieu who asked if he spoke English and indicated he came from BC. Supposedly, the simple bond of being Canadian is quite strong abroad. After speaking to him, we found out he was born in Quang Ngai (my parents’ hometown), where his father used to be the chief of police. Five minutes later, we’re sitting with him, his wife and friends at a table outside and The Boyfriend is having rice alcohol shots (37% alcohol, yikes!). I pled car sickness and had a tiny sip, which was sufficient.

We then went on to catch our train. In our cabin was a young Vietnamese man. Now, not too sound judgmental, but this guy looked like a SNORER! While The Boyfriend and I played cribbage, our new roommate fell asleep while reading his newspaper. We were definitely not wrong about the snoring… When we decided to go to bed, I turned off the lamp – our roommate’s individual light was still on. Two minutes after I turn off the communal lamp, our roommate awakes, turns it back ON and starts to read again. How rude!

We finally arrived in Hanoi at 4:00 am. After the previous taxi fiasco, my first question is “Meter?”. “Yes, meter”, I am assured. We’re then pretty sure he takes the longer drive home because it still cost over 40,000D. You just can’t win with these cab drivers.

When we arrive at the hotel, it’s 4:30 am now and the owner wakes up to greet us. Before we left, he was 80% sure of having an available room that night. He actually did have a room for the night, but it would only be available at 8 am. However, he did offer us a “platform”, he called it, where we could lie down until a room was ready. It was literally a cubbyhole – you couldn’t stand in it and the width barely accommodated our bodies. Now the hotel was not in the wrong. It was actually generous of them to let us come in and stay there at 4:30 am – we didn’t actually pay for this. I was out by 7 am, surfing the free internet and we had a nice room by 9 am. I will try to avoid cubby holes from now on though.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sapa – Feb 19-20

The train ride actually arrived in Lao Cai (about 35 km from the Chinese border) at 5:30 am. You then need to take a bumpy one hour ride to finally arrive in Sapa.

Arriving at 6:30 am with no hotel reservation is not an ideal situation, especially when it’s cold and wet. After seeing one hotel room that was freezing for 15USD, we picked the Bamboo Sapa Hotel for 49USD, which is more than double the cost of any of our other hotel stays in Vietnam. It’s easy to agree on any price when you’re promised some heat! After a short nap, we went down to reception where angry French people were checking out and were very upset about the lack of hot water. One man pointed out to my Routard and promised that they would get a poor review next year. The Boyfriend still tried to have a shower later with negative results. I didn’t even try.

We went by the Handspan office to book a trek and fortuitously ran into a British couple. The woman showed us rain boots she had bought and how dirty she got; her husband’s feet, on the other hand, were too large and wasn’t able to find any boots. We scored on some rental boots for 15,000D; that’s right, even The Boyfriend with his gigantic 10.5 size feet. We also bought some socks for extra protection.

The main attractions in Sapa are the views of the perfectly aligned rice paddies, the lushness of the bamboo forests and Mount Fansipan (or as I like to call it, Marzipan), the highest mountain in South East Asia. Unfortunately, a lot of it was covered by fog. We weren’t even able to get a peak of Mount Farsipan. As well, another big attraction are the many villages around Sapa, where ethnic minorities live, such as the Hmong, Tsay and Dzao.

Our hotel entrance where many Hmong women await outside for tourists.

Equipped with hats and gloves that we bought in Hanoi (that’s right, count on us Canadians to find the coldest spot in Vietnam to visit…), we followed our guide on our trek. Leaving the hotel, 5 persistent Hmong women followed us, one with a baby and one in sandals. The first part of our trek was quite foggy. We hit a house where 30 kids were selling bamboo walking sticks. You’re literally surrounded by kids screaming “Buy from me! Buy from me!”. It’s so hard because a lot of them are SO cute and they totally use it to their advantage.

Hmong kids selling bamboo walking sticks for 5000 D.

The Hmong women helped me as we were going down muddy sections. I had a hunch that I’d have to pay them back later! These women are quite small but very strong. Whenever they grasped my hand for support, it actually hurt their hold was so strong. It was only when we reached our location for lunch that they started to try selling their wares. And buying from just one of them is not sufficient! We had to buy from all 5 women!!

View of rice paddies.

We visited the Hmong village of Lao Chai. They farm the rice paddies and vegetables in the summer. They also make artistic wares to sell. After lunch we saw some Red Dzao women. They wear traditional red scarves around their heads and are not as aggressive at the Hmong. The recently married women have a shaved heat to prevent other men from flirting with them. The Boyfriend suggested I shave my head too!

Red Dzao women hitting up some tourists.

The five hour trek was enjoyable. Although the boots were uncomfortable, they did prevent our feet from getting wet during the trek.

The next day, we went to Cat Cat, another Hmong village, on our own. Similarly to the previous day, you spend the first half of the trek going down hill and then you have to go up. My calves were killing me! On this trek, a very nice waterfall awaited us. This was about a two hour trek.

Waterfall in the Hmong village of Cat Cat.

I had misgivings about encountering ethnic minorities. On the one hand, it’s so interesting to see them. Their costumes are very nice and it’s amazing to see people live so differently from you. On the other hand, I didn’t want to treat them like animals in a zoo, snapping pictures like crazy. I have to admit I did take some pictures. They put themselves out there, mainly because they’re quite poor. You feel so bad but you can’t buy from everyone. Now I have some trinkets I don’t need.

A Green Hmong woman I met at the market. She's 30 just like me!

I did get a 2 minute encounter with 2 Hmong girls, literally as we were about to leave, that made me very happy. They just seemed like two happy girls, ready to chat and their English was quite good, which was not so with the women following us on our trek. I asked if I could take a picture and they said yes. When I showed them the picture, they said it’s beautiful! I asked them their age, 10 and 16. They knew a bit of Vietnamese and even how to say Bonjour. As they turned the corner, they said goodbye and to look them up the next time we visit. They didn’t ask us for money or to buy anything which was definitely a first!

The two lovely young Flower Hmong girls I met during my last hour in Sapa.

Taxi and Train Rides to Sapa – Feb 18

Sapa requires an 8 hour train ride from Hanoi. Therefore, after a good dinner at 69 Bar Restaurant, we hailed a taxi to the train station. I always have a mini panic about whether the taxi meter will start and usually make a fuss about the meter. I have learnt in Saigon that the meter automatically starts when the car runs and I don’t have to worry about it. Obviously, the moment you let your guard down, you know what happens…

The driver seemed nice enough and chatted me up in Vietnamese. After the short ride to the station, the meter read 19,000D (16,000D = $1USD) and I handed him 25,000D. He made a fuss and I tried to explain that it was the tip. I realized, he actually wanted 50,000D!! He then told me he had said 50,000D from the get-go and I had agreed. Something about the meter not working. We argued and I ended up giving him the money. I realize 50,000D is only $3 USD but I still regret it now. I should have stood my ground. Dammit!

At the train station, it just seemed like there were a lot of people waiting with no clear indication of where to go. We finally figured out our platform and found our sleeper cars. It consisted of two sets of bunk beds with complementary water. Not bad!

Our bunk beds on the sleeper car.
About half an hour before departure, I had to use the toilets (obviously, I didn’t need to at the restaurant earlier). So I find the toilets, locked and am told that they are only unlocked once we depart. The Boyfriend’s experience in India was that there is no receptacle so they may not want us to use it before we leave. Lovely… I finally get to use the squat toilet and his explanation is correct. I abstain from drinking the rest of the ride.

I’ve never slept on a sleeper train and was a bit apprehensive because I’m a difficult sleeper. After putting earplugs in to block noise off, your body still feels all the motions of the train. In the middle of the night, it stopped abruptly, water bottles and my glasses being thrown on the ground. I did get to sleep though, frequently interrupted, but it was relatively comfortable.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Halong Bay & Cat Ba Island – Feb 15-17

Our trip to Halong Bay started with a 3.5 hour drive. The first half was rather unpleasant due to some Indian dinner the night before. Then we had the requisite bathroom/tourist trap stop. The second half was much better.. We finally got on a boat meant for 14, but were only 7 due to the timing of our trip (low season = freakin’ cold).

Halong Bay was more beautiful than I imagined, with thousands of limestone formations of all shapes and sizes. We got to enjoy the views from the upper deck. It was rather foggy, but we even got a break of sunshine. We passed some “boat homes” where fishermen and their family lived, often with an aggressive dog barking at us. The Boyfriend was really bothered by the diesel fumes coming from the boat. There is something incongruous with the beauty of the scenery and the bad smells and sometimes loud noise.

The dragon at the head of our boat.

Various view of Halong Bay.

Boat homes among the limestone formations in Halong Bay.

Meals were provided by the boat crew. Unfortunately, we were broken down into two groups: the vegetarian/non-seafood table and the will-eat-anything table. My meals included fresh fish, shrimp, crab. Mm… mm… mm!! The Boyfriend had faux fish that he did not really enjoy!

We got to visit the Amazing Cave and amazing is definitely the right word for it. It’s something out of this world. It actually felt a bit extra-terrestrial, especially with the added lighting. Then we sailed to our final location, where we would sleep. It’s a bit surreal because images of Halong Bay doesn’t capture the MANY boats out there. We were easily surrounded by 15 boats – we could see people playings card on the boat “next door” and hear karaoke on another one.

Pictures really don't capture the Amazing Cave very well.

Just outside the Amazing Cave, we were amazed to find this rock formation that looks like a "rock man" 's two dangling feet, while he's sitting on the ledge (admiring the view was The Boyfriend's story. I was a bit morbid and thought he was pondering jumping...)

The next day brought us foggy, cold weather for our sea kayaking lessons. Once we got going, it wasn’t too bad. No incident like my friend SP who got splashed by a speedboat trying to tip her kayak!! We did have a very brief panic during our second stint kayaking. Half of our boat elected to skip it due to the cold. The Boyfriend thought it was free time and we could go anywhere we wanted (even though I thought it was a better idea to follow the guide…) Our blood pressure went up a bit when we saw our boat leaving and the other kayak nowhere to be found. 15 minutes later and all was good, though our guide didn’t seem too impressed!

Kayaking in Halong Bay.

Kids we encountered while kayaking. There's really only one mode of transportation!
During the afternoon, we headed to Cat Ba Island where we were to spend our next night. It is a big island in Halong Bay. The Sunrise Resort was SO nice with a private beach, pool and bar. We had an amazing view from our room. “Too bad it’s not warmer” is all I kept saying.

This was the nicest hotel room during our stay.
View from our hotel room.

Our final day in Halong was spent trekking in Cat Ba National Park. Our guide was very nice, but tended on miscommunicating, or not communicating (thus the kayaking incident). We didn’t find out that we were actually hiking up a mountain until we were close to the peak. It was quite a treacherous ascent, and an even worst descent, with very slippery rocks due to the rain. At the peak was a former military observation tower that we could climb. I’ve gone gliding and skydiving, and I would compare the experience of climbing this tower equivalent or worst. The tower was so rickety with spaces between the stairs and my shoes were muddy and slippery; one false move, and you’re falling off a tower, perched at the top of a mountain. Even at the top, were planks of wood that did not seem to be securely nailed down. But the views were amazing and worth it all, I think?

View from the military watch tower.

All in all, we were very VERY happy with our trip to Halong and with Handspan in case anyone wants to book a tour with them!