Ha Long Bay aboard the Orchid

Explorers Extraordinaire

We're on our way to explore Ha Long and its 1,969 islands. However, before we get to that portion of the trip, a couple more thoughts about Hanoi and Vietnam.

Balloon sellers in Hanoi on Tet
(Lunar New Year)
Last evening, before dinner, we took a tour of our historic hotel building; the Sofitel Metropole. Built in 1901, by the French, when Hanoi (which is 1000 years old) was the center of French Indo-China. It has hosted world leaders, celebrities and wealthy tourists from the beginning. It is one of the "three old ladies" of South East Asia (the other two being The Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok). During the Vietnamese War, it played host to Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez (who spent many days in the hotel's bomb shelter during the 12 days in 1972 when President Nixon vowed to bomb Hanoi back into the Stone Age) as they protested American involvement in the war.

Locals in Hanoi on a holiday weekend
I was surprised to learn that in addition to Russia being a large supplier of military equipment to Vietnam, so is Israel. The Vietnamese do not like buying military equipment from China as they believe it is inferior, easily broken and hard to repair. That same aversion to Chinese goods applies to the population in general, where they avoid buying cars, motorbikes or scooters made in China. Japanese companies seem to be the main suppliers of these goods.

A neat and tidy junction box
While Vietnam still has a Communist government, it has adopted an open economy. In 1986, government farms were distributed to the farmers and production went through the roof. Today Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of rice and coffee. 50% of the country has WIFI and normal households have 136 TV channels.

Surprisingly, both education (starting with kindergarten) and medical services are NOT supplied free by the government. In primary schools the annual tuition is about $200 annually. All sales carry a 10% VAT and incomes over $12,000 a year are subject to income tax.

The country is fiercely independent and is always worried about China encroaching on its territory....like the new artificial islands that China has created in the South China Sea.

Now, Ha Long Bay......

Ha Long Bay

Ilene prepared for a day of adventure 😀

Loading luggage on the tender
We board our small boat at Hai Fong City which has an enormous industrial port. It is the main entry/exit point for all goods in the Northern half of the country. You will recall that the Americans mined this harbor and port during the war to slow the import of military equipment coming into the country.

As part of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1972, the American agreed to UN-mine the harbor, which they did.

The boat trip to Ha Long Bay was about three hours. Along the way we had a very wonderful Vietnamese lunch. There are thousands of islands in the Bay (many just outcroppings of rocks, but all with vegetation). There are small villages along the shores and numerous floating communities.

We spent our second day in the Bay on a smaller day-boat working our way in and out of islands and communities. We spent several hours at Viet Hai, a small village of about 350 people. Most of the men spend the day on the water catching fish (or tending the fish farms they have built). The women tend their extensive gardens and rice patties. They have a modern pre-school and primary school (up to the 8th grade; after that children have to board at a school on the other side of the island in a bigger village). There is no compulsory education, but all the 45 kids in the village seem to attend school. The scenery in the Bay is spectacular. It reminded me of the dream-like mountains outside Guilan, China that we visited several years ago. I will try to post some pictures of the Bay as soon as I can find a WIFI spot that can handles the transmission of pictures.

Floating communities dot the Bay. Locals live and work on these boats barges for months at a time.

Vendor on Ha Long Bay
The Bay is full of tourist boats, Chinese junks, and sampans. Many of the locals try to sell locally produced products to the tourist boats or other villagers. The hustle and bustle of commerce is in sharp contrast to the serene scenery of the islands and shorelines.

Dinner last night was fun as we made friends with a honeymoon couple from Delhi, India (she grew up in Washington DC; he was born in West Covina), as well as a Swiss/Russian couple. Lots of singing and toasting the newlyweds.

Lots of visitors from South Korea, Singapore, Europe, but no Chinese or other American visitors.

The Vietnamese people spent 20 years in their War of Independence (1954-1974) after Ho Chi Min declared its independence in 1954. They fought the French (Dien Bien Fu); the Americans (the Tet Offensive); the Chinese (the Border War) and finally each other (the Civil War to conquer the southern half of the country after the Americans left in 1972). They are proud of their independence, but do not dwell on it.....with the exception of some propaganda signs at former military installations.

The view out my window at
The Reverie, Ho Chi Minh City
Finally, a word about the Vietnamese people we've met. They are happy, helpful and pleasant. Animosity from the war does not seem to exist. They are eager to show you their beautiful country and make you comfortable.

Today we're in transit to Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon). It is a two hour flight from Hanoi (about a 1,000 miles south).

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