Halong Bay Vietnam: This potted plant sits next to the elevator on the tenth floor near my room at the Halong Plaza Hotel. Notice the tallest slender shoot and marvel at the structural integrity engineered by Mother Nature. It is supported by nothing more than its roots and balance.
Greetings from Ha Long Bay in Vietnam:
Halong Bay in Vietnam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and more recently in 2007 has been voted one of the new seven wonders of the world. I took a hundred photos during those few hours. Karst geology in this part of the world certainly is photogenic!
During my brief one day visit to Halong Bay back in 2002 I vowed to someday return when I had more time to enjoy the unique scenery and extensive level walking opportunities. This is that hoped for return, so I have done a lot of walking. My short term travel companion and long term walking partner from back home is Winda Sholes. She and I flew into Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport after a single night in the Amari Don Mouan Airport Hotel in order to make a 0645 flight departure possible. The hotel is quite comfortable and based on our trial run the day before, offers a splendid buffet breakfast for those not rushing for a pre-breakfast flight. In our case, the hotel prepared a substantial "box lunch" for us to take away.
Immigration formalities included a $45 visa on arrival in Hanoi (pronounced "Han Oh" by the local folks) as we had obtained the $17 visa approval letter with the Internet application prior to arriving. Customs and immigration formalities took about a half hour. Once we had paid our money and presented our passports, we waited with others until an automated system read our documents and a computerized voice like Stephen Hawking's called us up to collect our visas.
City busses (#7 and #17) sat ready a short walk to the right outside the terminal to whisk us into the center of Hanoi city. Alighting from our #17 bus in the city center terminus we quickly located the #55 bus that would get us to the appropriate intercity bus terminal where big deluxe busses leave several times an hour for Halong Bay. Tickets are 100,000 Dong or about $5. I always buy two bus tickets so there never is a hassle about my bag occupying one of the seats. Winda sensibly bought only one ticket and because the bus was not crowded her bag also rode in the empty seat beside her. The trip takes 3-5 hours; ours took close to 5 hours.
My eager travel companion had been warned about my peculiar hotel shopping habits and gamely played along with my bizarre shenanigans. First, we started walking in a direction thought to be toward the bay where the previously identified good possibility Saigon Halong Hotel and a cluster of other promising hotels would be located. Several queries of locals later and we finally got correctly oriented and started our hike in the right direction to the bay shore. Naturally, EVERYONE wanted us to ride something as the distance is seven kilometers! ... "much too far to walk." Ha! Winda is my frequent walking partner back home, so she handled the ordeal much as I did... without complaint... most likely even enjoying the exercise.
After several false starts we eventually found the Saigon Halong Hotel and entered to start the negotiations. Walk-in rates we learned are 1,500,000 dong (about $75) for a deluxe sea view room. The receptionist may have been ill prepared for rate negotiations with the likes of me or perhaps his command of English lacked some essential nuances. When I revealed my research had found the Agoda agency offer of the same room for 1,200,000 dong, he appeared ready to negotiate a lower rate. With garbled, poorly pronounced, convoluted English he led me to believe he could meet the Agoda rate for a sea view deluxe room and we prepared to have an inspection. The sea view room he showed us looked fine and we agreed to proceed with the bookings.
Back down at the desk we started the registration process with credit card charges. To my surprise the charge slip presented for signature showed the original higher 1,500,000 dong rate. Immediately I protested that we had agreed on the Agoda matching rate of 1,200,000, to which he responded that the lower rate he had mentioned applied only to the superior, not deluxe room. So, up we went again to see the cheaper room; it turned out to be identical, but without a sea view. Infuriated, I protested confusions like this at the beginning of a hotel stay did not bode well for a happy long term relationship and told him and the now present desk manager to cancel the credit card charges and we would look elsewhere.
No one seemed to know how to cancel a credit card charge, so the manager handed us three crisp new 500,000 dong bills instead... with profuse apologies for all the unpleasantness. Later, it occurred to me that restarting the reservation process using Agoda would get us the deluxe room at the lower rate, but the original unpleasant experience undoubtedly would make everyone uncomfortable.
Now tired, hot and disheartened, our eagerness to book a decent hotel led next door to the Halong Pearl Hotel with walk-in rates of $50. Agoda might have been a better bet, but not without Internet access. The rooms appeared adequate, so after a brief discussion we took them. Breakfast turned out to be awful, meaning I would naturally want to find a better value eventually for my longer stay. Immediately after breakfast we checked out the nearby Grand Halong Hotel and quickly agreed it would be a superior choice for Winda's final two nights in the country. Noting I expected to stay for perhaps a week, the $70 walk-in rate came down to $60 B&B (matching the Agoda rate!).
A $20 bay cruise arranged by the Grand Halong Hotel for the following day provided a "low budget" three plus hours whirlwind tour of the major geologic features around the bay. The package included transfers both ways, but leaving the boat we could find no one waiting to get us back to the hotel. Finally, one of the dock staff noted our plight and seemed to be finding our transport, but actually only arranged for a taxi; to my "no pay?" question she nodded. But, the cab driver still expected to be paid when we arrived at the hotel, leading to some acrimonious conversation.
Vietnamese currency gives new meaning to the expression: "paying with plastic." The "paper" bills are actually some paper-like plastic material with unusual folding properties. Since 2003, Vietnam has replaced its cotton banknotes with plastic polymer banknotes. Folded bills either take on a semi-permanent folded condition or spring back to the unfolded condition, never quite doing what I intend. All denominations of the currency bear the image of "founding father," Ho Chi Min and a 20,000 dong note equals about one US dollar at the moment: two million dong about one hundred US dollars.
As I write these words, Typhoon Kalmaegi is shouting defiant threats to all sentient beings in its path. Snug in my (worth five stars) deluxe Plaza Hotel room here on the tenth floor I am privileged to see and hear the fury of the storm. High velocity winds are whipping tree foliage about wildly and the whistling sound of wind over holes in the structure is a variable solo concerto for the few hardy remaining souls in the hotel. With the threat of the Typhoon most/all cruise ships put up in safe harbors, meaning the in flow of new guests to hotels along the strip has dwindled to a trickle. So few guests remain here in the Plaza Hotel staff has decided to replace the lavish buffet breakfast spread with individualized al-la-carte breakfasts tomorrow morning during the storm.
From my perfect high perch directly opposite the bridge I can see a long queue of motorbikes halted on the hanging roadway, apparently timing their mad dashes for breaks in the heavier vehicular traffic... which is pretty light in these high winds. I have experienced few consequences of the storm myself so far: a couple power interruptions while the hotel's auxiliary generators kick in, some of the satellite TV channels going black, but little else.
Exactly one week after the Typhoon passed another storm of sorts unleashed its fury on the latest manifestation of evil in the world, the ISIS Islamic extremist offensive in Iraq/Syria, both countries I have visited. On 23 September 2014 an American led coalition of some 30-40 countries including a half dozen moderate Middle-eastern Arab countries launched a massive wave of coordinated air strikes against high value military targets of the ISIS conquering forces sweeping across northern Syria and Iraq just south of the Turkish borders, an area I know quite well from my travels.
As I watched the news reports of atrocities being committed by the ISIS idealistically motivated Islamic juggernaut I couldn't help comparing their military strategies with those used by the first Islamic expansion campaign more than a millennium ago when the prophet Mohamed offered conquered people the simple choice: convert or die!
Fear has been a powerful military weapon in the arsenal of many of the world's great empires wanting to expand their territory by conquest. What is surprising is that such a barbaric behavior has survived in the face of universal efforts to find peaceful means for solving disagreements. But, I forget that objective reason has never been an effective means for persuading idealistically blinded religious fanatics to modify their behavior. They insist their unshakable faith is the highest of virtues where reason has no role!
For much of my adult life I have attempted to avoid polarized positions on world religions, finding something of value in every irrational belief system. That tolerance is being severely tested by the actions of Islamic extremists. My moderate Muslim friends have remained quiet for too long and it is from within their community of peaceful believers where reform must begin. Once again I call upon all thinking people to examine the destructive aspects of Islam and concoct strategies for retaining the good and abandoning the bad anachronisms. To this end I direct attention to a hard hitting website which critically examines the contemporary elements of Islam which trouble the much of the world: TheReligionOfPeace.com.
After my friend Winda's departure I resumed my optimum hotel value search. Breakfast in the Halong Grand Hotel hardly met my bare minimum requirements. The dining room staff seemed mainly concerned with clearing away the evidence of guests dining by the nine o'clock deadline, so late arrivals needed to scurry in order to grab vittles before the over anxious staff whisked everything away. As far as I could tell, all of the other guests came on low budget package tours organized in Korea, so the noodles and rice emphasis no doubt satisfied their preferences. I do enjoy the stir fried cabbage concoction always included with every Vietnamese meal, however.
There was at least one bright moment in the Grand Hotel: to be fare, my friend Winda and I had a delightful al la carte simple dinner one evening in the hotel's cavernous, dimly lit deserted dining room... and cheap: $15 for the both of us. The young English speaking waitress serving us added to our enjoyment with her contagious enthusiasm and alert attention to our every unspoken wish.
Continuing my early morning quest for the "perfect" hotel as I investigated other nearby possibilities, I naturally paid special attention to the quality and selection of items on the breakfast buffet tables. Most of the places had some slightly varied version of the inadequate Grand Hotel offerings. When I reached the Halong Plaza Hotel at the farthest end of hotel row to the North, I'd about given up finding anything close to my hoped for quality at a room rate compatible with my travel-forever, make the funds last 'til the end budget. The minute I entered the hotel for an inspection I dashed back to the dining room to beat the common nine o'clock termination time for Vietnamese hotel breakfasts. To my surprise and delight, this hotel continues serving until ten A.M! ... and, both the selection and quality left no doubt I'd be properly fed. The food and beverage management is unsurpassed here. Both selection and quality of dishes complimented the thoughtful, alert attention of the serving staff during all meals I subsequently enjoyed at the Plaza.
At the Halong Plaza Hotel reception desk everyone spoke some English, several excellent English. Equally importantly, they spoke "Agoda" and agreed to meet that agent's discount rate of $64 B&B, net. When I saw the room, all indecision evaporated and I agreed to take a room without further discussion, indicating I expected to stay for a week or more. This hotel, built in 1997 deserves 5 stars, though it is currently only rated 4 star! It is clearly the best value of the many I investigated, including one rated five star. Sitting directly across the bay front boulevard, a wide walkway through beautifully landscaped gardens runs along the seawall. My first night in the hotel a talented musician entertained the few guests lounging in the lobby with her performances on a traditional Vietnamese hammered dulcimer.
Naturally I have been walking... a lot! On one trek I first bussed over to the other side of the bay where the war memorial plaza is located. From there I started a walk back until stumbling on the only example of an American fast food joint in this part of Vietnam: a KFC restaurant. Wanting only something light I ordered a single piece of chicken and some coleslaw, but the young server behind the counter excitedly would hear none of it, pulling out a flyer promoting a Buy 2 Get 1 Free deal. With almost no English she made me understand what a great deal the offer represented, so I succumbed to her enthusiastic persuasion. Three pieces really made a meal too big for my dainty stomach at that time... especially when she drew my attention to another deal: 4 egg custards for the price of 3. Packaging the surplus I managed to satisfy my hunger that evening with the leftovers... foregoing the huge $16 seafood buffet in the hotel that evening, though I have enjoyed it numerous other times during my stay (See all the photos). Many American fast food restaurants like KFC have dining areas on upper floors where large picture windows provide an unexcelled perch for people watching, one of my favorite things to do in a foreign country.
On another long walk I ventured up into the hills behind the luxury hotels lining the bay shore drive and found an endless selection of old, some dilapidated budget hotels. Considering the difficulty reaching them on foot I wondered who would choose such a venue in a vacation place like this even with what must surely be very low room rates. A long time budget backpacker myself, I knew those of really tight budgets might be convinced to settle for questionable quality at the right price. Then I spotted a better explanation: off to the side sat a taxicab.
Around every transportation arrival point there are always touts waiting to lead the naive to substandard, out of the way, over priced hotels. These guys naturally receive fees from the places to which they entice guests. On numerous occasions I have watched as smooth talking agents bamboozle usually young bewildered backpackers into following them to this or that "really great place." In fact, I have myself fended off such eager promoters on many occasions in the past. On another walk to higher ground I found a long stretch of elegant budget hostels like the one called "The Light" with room rates around $15 per night, an excellent value in that price range!
As I write these words northern Vietnam where I am staying has survived the fury of Typhoon Kalmaegi which left behind uprooted trees and scattered debris on the roadways. For the past couple weeks the international television news broadcasts have been dominated by the Scottish referendum seeking independence from the United Kingdom. Moments ago the results showed most Scots desired to remain a part of the British empire.
The Scottish independence movement contrasts dramatically with other recent events around the world. It would seem that violent anti-democratic uprisings occur when it is a minority that is agitating for changes not desired by the majority, such as the activities of the Islamists throughout the Middle East right now. Democracy, while far from an ideal form of governance, still seems to offer the best protections for the most people. Extreme positions, by their very nature, rarely are embraced by any majority left free to choose a single course of action.
Most women on the streets wear "dust" masks; a smaller portion of the men also wear them. Older people commonly still wear the pajama suits... a very practical choice in this hot, humid climate. City bus rides are about fifty cents to anyplace I want to go. One of my favorite destinations is across the bridge where I found the modern KFC restaurant.
My sense of smell has been on the decline for several years, but here in the hot, humid air of Vietnam I am overwhelmed by exotic fragrances, some not so pleasant, but most refreshingly different and pleasing. As my long marathon walks frequently take me into residential neighborhoods, encounters with the "just plain folks" are common. In most neighborhoods everyone smiles and many try out the one word of English they know: "Hello!" The older folks (people my age) go out of their way to make contact with me, toothless grins and all.
I have been ensconced here in this comfortable Halong Plaza Hotel for two weeks working on my BIG backlog of postcards and emails... and still am far from finished! As my Vietnam visa expires in a couple more weeks, I need to move on to Hanoi where there is a Chinese Embassy. Previous experience reminds me it will take a week to get the visa for travel into the Peoples Republic of China again. The old cycle of travel, write, and share my postcards has been derailed due to all the medical challenges. I'm still going strong and my mind remains as juvenile as ever, but the backlogged tasks have piled up and with all the fascinating distractions in this part of the world am finding it difficult to stay focused.
Fred L Bellomy
Halong Bay Vietnam: This monument commemorating the area as one of the new seven wonders of the world sits directly across the street from the Halong Plaza Hotel where I stayed during the last part of my visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site region.