The dawn-infused city of Hanoi greeted us as we were dropped off in the Old Quarter section of town. Quite surprisingly, after we disembarked and trotted away from the bus station near Hoan Kiem Lake, we found ourselves in the middle of a pseudo-Richard Simmons 4 a.m. workout hour in the park. Young and old alike ran in circles around the lake, batted badminton birdies, moved gently in tai-chi poses, or lifted weights at makeshift weight benches. Many of the ladies wore silk pajamas or flowery spandex outfits, and most of the men sported terry-cloth headbands and knee-high socks. We learned later that this early morning workout was a ritual among Hanoi locals, and was an important part of their day and healthy lifestyle.
Exploring Hanoi and Halong Bay – We only had a few days to explore Hanoi before heading off on our Halong Bay trip, so we opted for a few of the more popular touristy destinations. A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) is a must for any visitor in Hanoi. It’s a pleasant place to sit back with an iced-coffee and enjoy the leisurely pace of everyday life. Afterwards, we browsed the streets of the Old Quarter, where the original street layout and architecture still reflect the charms of old Hanoi. There are several silk vendors and other stalls set up to sell trinkets, delicious Vietnamese street food, and other souvenir goodies.
We spent an evening at Hanoi’s water puppetry show, a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century CE when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other by telling traditional legends using this form of enchanting puppet play. The wooden puppets perform in a waist-deep pool and are supported by large rods that are controlled by a puppeteer hiding behind a screen. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over their water theater. Although several Van Mieu, or Confucius Temples, can be found throughout Vietnam, the most prominent and famous is the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. The Temple, which functioned as Vietnam’s first university, honors Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. The grounds are filled with flower -covered pathways, extraordinary statues and stunning pagodas.
Around Hanoi – Known as the “Bay of Descending Dragons,” the HaLong Bay archipelago is made up of 1,969 islands, and is a beautiful marine area where jagged cliffs rise unchallenged out of the bay. We took a Junk Boat Cruise to jungle-clad Cat Ba Island, a cute fishing town built into rugged mountain caverns.
Upon arrival, we had a seafood dinner and promptly fell asleep in our guesthouse, worn out from the intense day of sun bathing and sea-watching and excited for the next day of adventure. Our three day tour package included a delightful morning walking among nature at its fullest as your guide points out native wildlife (exact words from the brochure). With this description in mind, we thought we would leisurely stroll through the National Park, occasionally stopping to take some photographs of some exotic bird or cat.
uh – WRONG!!!
After breakfast, we spent four hours chasing our nimble-footed, half ape guide as we raced up an incredibly steep, rocky mountainside. There was absolutely no path, or at least not one that had been walked on in this century. Instead, we created our own trail across 1/2 inch jagged cliffs and sharp rocks. Our guide did do his part and delightfully took a moment to point out a deadly poisonous spider that lay directly in our path. He also watched, with a huge grin on his face, as we crawled underneath and clapped his hands gleefully when none of us were bitten. (I also noticed that he not wearing an emergency first-aid fanny pack either so I was left to wonder just what would happen if one of us did have an accident.)
Then, oddly, he disappeared into the jungle depths, leaving us to meander through the foliage on our own, only guided by his occasional bird whistles and the infrequent water bottle tacked to a tree to line the path. By the time we reached the top of the first mountain, we were all torn and bleeding, bruised and panting, and completely drenched in sweat. Our guide graciously gave us two minutes to rest before exclaiming that we had not one, but two more mountains to hike up before our adventure was complete!
Needless to say, our afternoon was spent tending to our wounds and napping. We had the opportunity to go kayaking, but my arms were too sore from hauling myself up Mt. Everest, and I chose to sit on our balcony and watch the fishing boats sway on their moorings.