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New Year's Eve in Halong Bay

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We rang in the new year in style on a Chinese junk in Halong Bay. Leaving Hoi An and all the Christmas trimmings and trappings we’d acquired there, we flew to Hanoi, arriving in the evening, and set off the very next morning for Halong City to board the boat that would be our home for the next day or two as we cruised and kayaked around spectacular Halong Bay on December 31 and January 1.

I’d read that December was the dry season in northern Vietnam, but it seems there’s no escaping the perpetual mist and fog of the bay, at least not at this time of year. It was dreary and foggy the last time we visited, twelve years ago, and it was dreary and foggy—and cold—this time as well. Still, the mist lends a mysterious, ethereal beauty to the already-stunning scenery, and the cool weather was a welcome change from months of tropical heat.

We were not alone on the boat—it was a large junk with at least 10 cabins, so we were joining a group of some 16 other tourists and four or five staff (no other children, unfortunately). We spent the first afternoon cruising the bay until we’d reached a floating village where the locals make their living farming fish and oysters. Some of the oysters are grown for food, while others are for pearls. We had an interesting time comparing the process by which a pearl is formed with the process by which callouses on Chloe’s feet are formed. Basically, the farmer embeds a grain of sand into each oyster; the oyster responds to grain of sand as though it were a wound—by growing a protective little shell around it. Over time, the response creates a pearl which is eventually harvested.

In the case of Chloe’s feet, tiny grains of dirt or sand that managed to find their way under the skin on the soles of her feet have caused the skin to react by forming tough, painful callouses. We’ve been deliberating for two months now over whether or not to have them treated medically (by having them burnt or frozen off or surgically removed) or persevere with our gradual approach of applying salicylic acid to them. In any event, she got a kick out of understanding that in at least this way, she may be similar to an oyster!

After we’d been rowed around the floating villages in a small wooden boat for an hour or two, it was time to return to the junk and relax before dinner. Since it was New Year’s, we sprang for a bottle of wine (a nearly unheard-of splurge on this trip). Normally, most passengers, including us, would have been asleep by 11 p.m. or so, preparing for an early morning of kayaking around the bay the next day—but this was New Year’s, so the crew cranked up the tunes and got the party started. Our guide, a young guy of maybe 25, had some good moves and tried to get people dancing. Nobody was taking him up on it, though, until Chloe jumped in. The two of them began with the macarena, and moved on from there, dancing up a storm. Ciaran ran down to our cabin to change into his Thai boxing shorts and Tiger beer shirt so he could join in the fun, then ran back up and started shadow-boxing alongside Chloe. Eventually he was tired enough to ask to go to bed, though, so I went down to the cabin to put him to sleep. By the time I re-emerged, Chloe had at least half a dozen people dancing with her, and Mark said she had essentially worked the room while I was gone, getting everyone out on the dance floor, not taking no for an answer. For the next two hours she danced up a storm, showing not the slightest sign of tiring, excited, energetic and determined to be awake at midnight. It took some persuading to get her to leave the party after the champagne had been handed out, but she was asleep by 1 a.m.

We kayaked around the bay the next day for at least two hours, enjoying the emerald water and dramatic limestone outcroppings for which the area is famous. By the end of the afternoon we had cruised to Cat Ba Island, where we spent the night at a beautiful resort with a large pool and private, white-sand beach. Unfortunately, it was so cold and wet outside that none of us were interested in swimming. But we enjoyed getting to know the other people on our cruise a little better at dinner, and the following morning we hiked to a few other beaches along a beautiful trail built into the side of the limestone cliffs.

Back in Hanoi the next evening, we met up with Ken and Jo, friends of ours from Portland who are on a three-week holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam. It was great to catch up; on the first night, Ken and Mark went out drinking around 10 p.m., spending most of the evening sitting on small plastic chairs on the sidewalk near our hotel in the Old Quarter and drinking bia hoi (Vietnamese draft beer), not returning until 3 a.m. The next evening, Ken and Jo treated us to a fabulous dinner at a Vietnamese-French fusion restaurant that trains disadvantaged Vietnamese youth so they can get jobs in hospitality. So our last dinner in Vietnam was certainly a four-star affair—thanks again, Ken and Jo (if you’re reading)!

Hanoi is still the same incredibly photogenic city that I remember from our last visit, but its streets are infinitely more motorbike-choked than they were a decade ago. Negotiating the narrow streets of the Old Quarter as a pedestrian is challenging, especially with kids, since the sidewalks are usually occupied by parked motorbikes, impromptu kitchens and hawkers. It was great to be in the heart of the city for a few days and stroll around the the lake. We took loads of fabulous photos, but I'll have to upload them another time since I'm nearly out of (pricey) wifi at the moment.

One thing we really enjoyed about both the Halong Bay cruise and our time in Hanoi with Ken and Jo was listening to the kids talk about our trip so far. When it’s just the four of us, as it so often is, it’s not always easy to tell what the kids are getting out of this trip—what stays with them, what horrifies them, what pleases them or what they’re likely to remember years from now. But when they get fresh blood, so to speak, they don’t stop talking, and we really get a kick out of hearing them tell other people about everything we’ve seen and done.

Okay, with 3 minutes left of wifi, here are some photos I managed to upload! The first one is a photo of the junk we were on.








Posted by The Rymans 20:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel

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Hello Mark, Patty, Chloe and Ciaran. I have been trying to find a way to send you a note, and I am hoping and guessing that this is the way. So, Happy New Year. You read like you are having a great time. I am enjoying the detail and photos. It was good to read that Charlotte joined you for a while. I look forward to more adventures. Travel safe.
Frankie J

by Frank Jefferies

Hey Frank, great to hear from you! Happy New Year to you too!!

Patti & Mark

by The Rymans

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