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The days in Hanoi all seem to run together now. We explored the Old Quarter where merchants selling the same kinds of goods group together according to the ancient Guilds. We had silk clothes made for a fraction of what you’d pay in Vancouver – a jacket for Don and pants for me, we ate chicken pho for breakfast, and prawn baguettes for lunch, and just walked and walked and walked taking in the crowded chaos of the rabbit-warren of streets that make up the Old Quarter. It was fascinating. And fabulous.

Old Quarter street

Fruit seller

It’s very common to see both bikes and motorbikes this loaded up with goods for sale or being transported. Also common to see a family of four on a motor bike with a child standing in front, then dad at the controls with mum and another child behind. And common to see three adults on one bike, and occasionally even four somehow piled on.

Old Quarter market – motorbikes even go down here.

In Hanoi the term “sidewalk cafe” takes on a whole new meaning.

Hanoi – five million people, 2.5 million motorbikes. As you can see, space for parking is at a premium.

So if you have room in your store you can also sell parking space. Or maybe they’re selling shoes and motorbikes?

Balloon seller

We loved Hanoi, in all its insistent crumbling crazy glory. It’s hot and steamy and crowded and pushy and a bit frenetic. Yet the people there are open and friendly and service-oriented in a way that would put most North Americans and Australians to shame. We would go back in a heartbeat.

We went to a seafood restaurant and we sat outside right by the river and ate the most fabulous prawns, and snake-head fish – a whole fish with a topping of peanuts and tomatoes, and a head that really did look like a snake, and fresh crab, and greens called morning glory and rice. The whole meal, including a pop and three beers, cost $10 each. Then we went to The Metropole for dessert; from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

The Metropole is over one hundred years old. It’s at least a five star hotel. It felt more like ten stars to me. It’s all dark mahogany and marble and quiet elegance. For dessert we all had the same thing called a “Charlie Chaplin”. It came in a huge brandy balloon and consisted of soft chewy chocolate cake, covered in a huge scoop of really creamy chocolate ice-cream, and a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, and topped with about half a dozen large dark-chocolate curls, and a brandy-snap shaped like a walking stick. Oh and a small pot of liquid chocolate on the side in case you didn’t have enough chocolate. We were all swooning. Dessert cost more than dinner.

Our last three days in Vietnam were spent in Ha Long Bay, a truly magical place. Just to get there took a two hour car ride then a twenty minute bus ride, followed by a thirty-five minute ferry ride, and finally, a forty-five minute bus ride to get to Cat Ba city on Cat Ba Island where we boarded a junk – our own private floating hotel. And for the next two days we cruised and kayaked and swam and lounged our way around this extraordinary landscape.

The bay is huge and filled with hundreds of islands, some parts of it wilderness, some parts of it taken over by floating fishing villages. The islands are limestone karsts weathered over hundreds of thousands of years. In some places openings, or low tunnels, have been created from the outside to the inside of, or through, the island so the water flows right through.

If you look carefully at the right hand side of this picture you’ll see where the water flows right through forming a tunnel under the island. Click on the picture to make it bigger. Sometimes the tunnels just lead to the other side of the island. Sometimes they lead to a lake that has formed in the middle of the island.

Here’s another example of how the water has worn a tunnel through under the island.

We went kayaking through one of these tunnels and found ourselves in a lake. Then we went through another tunnel about thirty meters across and one hundred meters long, and were in an inner lake inside the island. We were paddling around in there when Ruth spotted a group of monkeys. Well to be more precise they were probably macaques. Either way it was wonderful to see them – about four adults, and two babies about the size of kittens – playing in a tree. And then one of them took a flying leap through the trees and landed in a tree lower down. Then another leapt, along with one of the babies, and eventually the rest followed. It was so exciting to see them in the wild like that. Magic!

Don lounging – fishing village in the background

We stopped here for a swim but it was a bit rough underfoot, so we went back and jumped in straight from the boat.

The entrance to a cave we explored.

We got back to Hanoi with just enough time to pack our bags and head to the airport for our flight back home.

Well that’s it. Our trip is over. We’ve been home a week, and hit the ground running, though I don’t think either of us is all the way back yet. I think it will take a while for us to digest it all.

In forty-four days we did thirteen separate flights – Vancouver-LA-Rarotonga-Auckland-Sydney-Canberra-Brisbane-Cairns-AyersRock-Perth-Singapore-Hanoi-Seoul-Vancouver! Only one flight was a little delayed and arrived fifteen minutes late, but apart from that no missed flights or connections, no delayed flights or schedule changes, and no lost baggage. That seems somehow miraculous to me. And all our other bookings, from hotels to rental cars to camel rides, went as planned. We were blessed with good travel karma.

The whole trip was just amazing and fabulous and better than either of us could have imagined.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.