We had an untraditional Christmas this year. If you read our Christmas letter, you might remember that we spent our Christmas in Vietnam with our friends Derik and Amanda Grove. Our trip was mainly broken up in two parts. A trip up north to Hanoi and Halong Bay and a flight down south to a tropical Vietnamese Island, Phu Quoc.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh on the evening of the 23rd and checked into our hotel by midnight then had to be back at the airport by 6 am. We then flew up to Hanoi and got to walk the busy streets before we left for a cruise through the breathtaking Halong Bay.
After the longest cab ride I’ve ever been on, but still only cost like $20, we arrived at our hotel and checked in. We were brought welcome drinks and given a map of the city with suggested restaurants to try and sights to see.
We were famished so started to make our way to a highly recommended restaurant. It was a great choice! The menu was huge and the atmosphere bustling! I had been looking forward to traditional Vietnamese noodle soup since we bought our tickets. Back in my hometown, Wichita, KS, we have a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon, that gave me a taste for the food several years ago.
We then took a stroll to a nearby lake located in the middle of the city. There are apparently several legends surrounding the lake and it has bore many names including Fox Corpse Swamp, Golden Buffalo Lake, and Foggy Lake. Eventually, they decided on the generic name of West Lake.
We soon started to notice all of the scooters crowding the streets. It became a source of entertainment for the rest of the trip. We decided that scooters usually outnumbered cars 10-1 and sometimes 50-1. You would see everything on scooters: tons of women in heels and sometimes sitting side-saddle, families of 4-5, pigs, crates of chickens or even cats. I will confess, I failed miserably at capturing some of these sites.
Another thing we soon started to notice was the crazy wiring. The electrical poles were overloaded! I’m not sure how they would ever fix anything in that mess!
This was a view from our hotel balcony. We had a wonderful time playing cards and enjoying complimentary coffee and tea.
We ventured back out to find dinner and crossing the street at night was an even bigger feat than in the daylight. We found that it was a bit of an art. We had keep moving while watching oncoming traffic. We were blessed, the worst that happened was getting my hand knocked by the mirror on a passing scooter. Sidewalks were not safe either. We found another wonderful restaurant and were quite surprised when our bill was over 400,000. But that’s around $20. We did a little shopping from some “made in Vietnam” shops then headed back to our hotel. They were having their own Christmas party and insisted we join. What a way to spend your Christmas eve!
Here is a display of colorful money. The top two you should recognize. The next two are Korean won. Underneath them, is Vietnamese dong ranging from $25-0.05 . They have no coins only paper money. It took us our whole trip to finally get a good handle on the conversion.
They next morning (Christmas!) we got up bright and early and got our stuff together to get picked up for our cruise in Halong Bay. We didn’t realize we were in for a semi-crazy 3 hour van ride through rural Vietnam. The sights were spectacular. We saw tons of the countryside moving at a more relaxed pace than the city. We stopped at a huge souvenir complex complete with sculpture gardens. When we finally got to our destination we were then greeted by our guide Juan, but spelled much differently, and this charming sign as we boarded our shuttle boat that took us to our cruise ship.
This bed was by far the most comfortable on our whole trip. Asian beds tend to be quite hard…but not this one!
We stopped at a beach and were able to go on a trek up stone steps to capture this breathtaking view. The hike was nice but most of it we were just following the line of people. We began to realized that although we were surrounded by many white people (weird coming from Korea) many of them were speaking in languages other than English. I guess Vietnam is a more popular vacation spot for Europeans rather than Americans, go figure. It was fun though trying to pick out accents and languages. Just on our hike we heard the people in front of us speaking a combination of German and English. They just kept switching back and forth, it was entertaining.
I borrowed this picture from Amanda. 🙂 It was too fun not to share. We opted not to go swimming at this beach. The weather was in the 60’s and a big improvement from below freezing in Korea.
We couldn’t get enough of the scenery. Although it was overcast, it created a kind of mystical landscape with all of the sharp faced mountains emerging from the mist. Notice the profile of a face on the rock furthest on the left. Ethan said several times, “I never thought I’d see landscapes like this.” After our beach time we boarded the ship again and set sail towards a cave tour. In the bay near the cave, there were monkeys scattered along the beach. They apparently aren’t always out and retreat to the caves in the heat. So, we were lucky it was only 60 degrees and we got to catch a glimpse of them scampering around.
The bamboo boats held around 20 people and were rowed by traditional Vietnamese paddles.
Night started to set in and we decided to change for dinner. However, the night was young and we still had a lot of Christmas Day activities to go.
We got to see a fruit/vegetable caving demonstration by the staff and I even got to participate. After another delectable meal, we were told we could try our luck squid fishing. We were warned that December is not exactly squid season. Ethan and I were the first ones out there and we got pretty serious fast. Ethan figured his chances were better with 2 poles.
Derik and Amanda joined and Ethan decided he’d share one of his poles. Bad idea though, within 5 minutes Derik had snagged the only catch of the night. 🙂 No hard feelings though, it was fun to see a live squid.
We went back inside to take advantage of the buy one get one drinks and played some more cards. The night still didn’t end there although the rest of the boat was in bed by 10pm. The boys wanted another shot at fishing so they pulled the spot light back out and hung their feet off the edge of the boat. I will say, it didn’t exactly feel like Christmas. It is a tradition in my family to read the Christmas story on Christmas. So, I read us the account while we enjoyed the crispness of the night and tried to take in all the beauty surrounding us. It was a unique but special Christmas!
The next morning we were up bright and early again for an invigorating session of Tai Chi. Sidenote: This vacation had us getting up the earliest for the most consecutive days in a row since we’ve been married! 🙂 I added in a little yoga, too. I guess the Tai Chi didn’t totally do it for me. I mean who wouldn’t want to do yoga on the top deck of a beautiful boat sailing through gorgeous scenery?
This monkey was just hanging out, he knows all the passersby will feed him. However, he wasn’t exactly friendly.
We wrapped our trip with a huge (delicious of course) brunch and some lounging on the top deck while we cruised back to the harbor. Captain was happy to snap a photo with me! I think he might sleep there too!?!? All in all, we felt so blessed to spend Christmas on an incredible cruise making unique memories since we couldn’t be home. I would definitely suggest a Halong Bay tour if you ever find yourself traveling to Vietnam. We went through the company Indochina Sails and would totally recommend them.
Amanda has also done a series of posts on our trip and shared other great photos and memories if you’d like to take a look: http://derikandamandagrove.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/vietnam-in-silent-waters/