Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hoian cycling: Passing through Realities

By Mpom
I finally met someone who spoke English at my most frequented Hoi An culinary hotspot: the local market on the road to Cua Dai beach. Trinh, donning a mandarin satin uniform from her hotel shift, informed me I was eating banh bot loc, bite-size clear rice noodle pockets of shrimp and potato lathered in oily chili-garlic fishsauce and sprinkled with chives. She also equipped me with a number of useful phrases.

The next day, lathered in sweatproof 50 spf, I am prepared for a day of cycling Hoian with my Canon camera, large water bottle, and Vietnamese “hello” “what is this” “how much” “thank you” “what is your name.” Anxious to escape the countless tailor shops and chorus of Vietnamese-accented “hellos” ringing with the single-minded pursuit of cash, I peddle off toward the Cam Thanh fishing village. Past rice fields, their moist, sweet smell overtaking the toxic exhaust of whirring motorbikes. Past dry fields sprouting solitary concrete shrines, miniature marigold-painted, red-roofed temples perched on posts and filled with the incense remains of prayers past. Past a wedding reception, punchy Vietnamese hip-hop and raucous laughter spilling through the gauzy red and pink decorations onto dusty streets. Past tightly packed teams of bamboo trees standing in shallow water dotted with wooden canoes; the owners shade their faces with conical hats fashioned from tan, slender leaves as they pull clear fishing lines from the water without end, like magic trick ribbons from a spectator’s ear. 

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I happen upon a small farmers’ protest in a town clearly surviving on the bamboo leaf industry, open-air sheds filled with drying stacks. Ten old men and women, skin shriveled brown and their few surviving teeth like cracked and blackened bits of corn, quack poorly coordinated group chants. They clank sticks on hollow bamboo poles, shouting as police in olive uniforms half-heartedly herd the farmers’ bare feet down the town’s one cement road. A few meters later, I discover two young men who accept my hand gesture request to watch them as they make bamboo siding. Around the corner and four thousand dong ($2) later, an eager woman, clearly awaiting any lost tourists who happen upon her home, paddles me amongst the bamboo forest, the easy-going whoosh of her paddle gliding us through narrow water alleyways winding amongst the trees.

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After many thanks and photos, I decide to take a coffee break on the riverbank. As small restaurants and cafes are merely extensions of the family living room, I join an extended family as its three women make sugar cane juice and skin bamboo shoots while four men of various generations drink their 10 am beer and idle in hammocks. It is a dirt road town with few diversions beyond its natural beauty; I quickly become easy entertainment. An entire wedding party arrives and sheepishly indicates they would like a photo shoot with the disheveled American biker. (They are one of the 13 wedding parties I will see July 17; I find out over my dinner noodles that it is an auspicious day for weddings amongst the Buddhists in the area). We snap approximately twenty-three group photos and a series of individual shots, me in a sweat-darkened grey t-shirt, the men in their suits, and the party’s primped and whitened women in brightly colored and sequined ao dai, high-neck long-sleeved tops that fall to their knees slits up the thigh showing matching loose pants. (I love when enthusiastic, camera-happy groups attack me; it redeems me and gives me good travel photography karma.) Like confetti, the giggling party blows on down the street.

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Seeing the fun has passed, a sinewy old man, one of the four boozers slouched in the hammocks, begins crafting bamboo leaf glasses so he can swap me for my black plastic frames. The family collapses in jovial howls. We start our own photo session using my camera. Then my coffee is finally finished. I wave and proceed to peddle around the area for another six hours before returning to my hostel near the Old City.

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A few custom-made shoes and sandals, one more night in my slanted-ceiling, and a relaxing day at the beach later, I board an overnight sleeper bus to Nha Trang en route to the mountain town of Dalat, famous for its flowers and honeymooners. Away goes the swimsuit, out comes the jacket.  Fast-forward two days: I am riding on the back of Vietnamese Khein’s motorcycle on the winding roads beyond Dalat, poncho flapping around my body. I take in the chilly hillside.  It is a scene from my childhood: a Kansas patchwork quilt of fields, but here stretched over the rolling land and sprinkled with trees.

And this is what I love most about traveling: passing—biking, walking, hitching, swimming, busing—through people’s day-to-day routines. Rumbling along on the back of the cycle, I am seeing the 6 pm near Dalat. I can imagine the 6 pm Hoi An market with its faithful food stall vendors, perhaps wondering where the odd solo American girl has gone after nine meals in their company. Or maybe the absence goes completely unnoticed. In New York, I can see my friends on subways headed home from work. In Kansas, Mom is driving home about to feed the horses. For now, in biking Hoian, I am passing through these realities, like a person entering a dance after it has begun, enjoying the beat while it is in full swing, and then gracefully bowing out before the music has a chance to trail off. It is the ability to enjoy each local’s unappreciated routines as if fabulous novelties. Traveling through these varied alternatives is the should-tap-whisper-in-the-ear that the reality of one place simultaneously exists amongst a million others, including the place I call home. And how quickly, when I once again begin to make my circles in that home place, my reality will misguidedly become the world.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Ha Long Bay - Surprising Cave and Kayaking

By Jennie Mckie
One of the most famous areas in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay situated in the North East of Vietnam 4 hours away from Hanoi. All around Hanoi you will find loads of different Halong bay tours which will take you around the area. 

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We were picked up early in the morning and driven to Ha Long Bay to board our boat and where we would be sleeping that night. Straight away you could see the famous limestone cliffs every way you turned however once we set sail the sheer size of them was incredible! Our guide explained that Ha Long actually means ‘descending dragon’ and legends told of how the dragons protected the country from invasion until they finally laid to rest in the sea and the jagged cliffs you see are actually the dragons that had fallen down!

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Ha Long Bay consists of 1969 islands and the scale of it was way bigger than I first thought! The pictures do not do the place justice and it’s hard to explain just how beautiful the scenery is. We had lunch on board the boat of chicken, spring rolls and seafood all while watching the beautiful scenery pass us by!

We stopped off at Sung Sot Cave one of the ‘most beautiful’ caves in the area and also known as the “cave to heaven” or “surprising cave”, it was only discovered in 1993 by a fisherman and not opened to tourists until 1998. The caves reminded me of the Nigili Caves in Australia but with much higher ceilings!

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It was lit up in all different coloured lights and the effects were staggering! We walked through as our guide pointed out all the rock formations in the shape of all different animals and people such as the dolphin, the lion, dragon, Buddha and our favourite… the giant boob! Some of these require a LOT of imagination but it makes you think about the first people down the caves who would have been down here before all the lights and must have seen all the rocks like ‘WAA there is a lion!!!’ Half way round the cave we reached the point where the fisherman first came through to find the cave and where the cave gets its nickname as high up there is an opening, and when the sun shines it sends a beam of light down into the cave as though it is coming from heaven.

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My favourite area of the cave was ‘Romeo and Juliet’, again you need an imagination for this however as you look into the rock the shadow looks like a man (all be it a man with a beer gut!!) and he is looking up to another shadow that looks like a girl. It is quite sweet despite ‘Juliet’ looking in the opposite direction! The caves are ridiculously humid and everyone in our group had sweat pouring down their face by the end!

We got back onto our boat and headed off for our next area. We stopped at a tiny floating village and started our kayaking Halong trip, taking them out to explore the area around Luon Cave.

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Kayaking around going under the massive cliffs it really does feel like you are in some sort of dream or movie. It is exactly like scene in Avatar where they fly through the floating cliffs except that obviously the cliffs are in the water!! We kayaked around the area for about an hour in what was literally breathtaking scenery, heading back to the boat we took our kayak around the village with tiny kids shouting hello and guard dogs barking away. The dogs are there to protect the fish farms and the whole thing seemed so weird as the closest land to village is about 2 hours away by boat!!

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kayaking Halong bay 5

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Setting sail again we had time to chill out on the deck of the boat, lying on sun loungers as giant cliffs sailed past us. Dinner was on the boat where we made our own fresh spring rolls and had amazing fish and honey chicken all while listening to what I think must have been a 90s power ballad CD including some Titanic classics! It was a hectic day and after dinner Andy and I decided to head to our room on the boat and get showered and changed for bed ready for day two on the majestic Ha Long Bay…

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Random Motorcycle Adventure in Vietnam Leads Tourists to a "Death Party"

By Micah Spangler
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Ben Tre province - Mekong Delta
The idling motorcycle wobbled as I climbed aboard, my arms desperately clutching at the waist of the stranger now only centimeters from my face. I eyed Caroline anxiously as her driver started his bike.

“My name is Diamond,” Caroline’s driver yelled at us, attempting to drown out the rumble of the passing Saigon traffic with his slow, practiced English. “OK, we go to Mekong Delta now!” he shouted.

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Blue boats in the rivers of the Mekong Delta (Photo: Getty Images)
The bikes lurched into action as our drivers weaved their way onto the busy street. A kaleidoscope of colors sped past us, echoing against my helmet’s visor until the lights and sights of the city were miles behind.

Caroline and I had met two days earlier on a bus ride back from Cu Chi – a vast network of Viet Cong tunnels that are part of the common Ho Chi Minh City backpacker route. The tunnels turned out to be a huge tourist trap, complete with cartoonish mannequin soldiers and tacky, overpriced souvenirs.

“Do you want to see the real Vietnam?” Caroline asked me, as I vented out loud that the trip had been a waste of a good afternoon.


“Then I have a plan,” she said.

Caroline unfolded a ripped piece of paper with a Vietnamese phone number scrawled across it. “This guy, Diamond, offered to take me on a motorcycling southern Vietnam trip! He can take you too. We can go together.”

“Diamond?” I asked incredulously. The name – and the do-it-yourself business card – didn’t exactly scream reliability. Caroline looked at the number and then at me and sighed, “I want to go, but not alone. Come with me?”

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Beware of the smelly durian. So pretty … so noxious. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Over the next two days, Caroline and I took an exploring Mekong Delta trip with Diamond and his uncle, perched on the back of their twin motorcycles like two infants in a high-speed BabyBjörn. We visited a local floating village and then a family farm with fields full of Asia’s most noxious fruit, the pungent durian. We snuck into an upscale Western-styled resort, where Diamond knew a security guard, then cooked shrimp on a homemade grill while passing around a bottle of banana seed whiskey – a strong, tart bottle of booze I had never seen before or since.

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The writer never would have visited this floating village without his motorcycle guide. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Properly plied with Vietnamese liquor, we ended the day halfway to our destination in a sleepy village somewhere in the Ben Tre province, where the Vietnam War is commonly considered to have officially begun in 1959.

“Do you want to get a beer?” Caroline asked.

“Yeah, of course.”

The streets of Ben Tre were dark and quiet. After crisscrossing half a dozen blocks, we finally found an open restaurant.

The patio was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with chain-smoking patrons, white bandanas wrapped tightly around their foreheads. A trio of musicians was crammed into one corner, sending a wave of live music over the crowd. Behind the tables, large wreaths leaned against the bare brick wall, adorned with balloons and ribbons.

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Ben Tre musicians (Photo:Jos Dielis/Flickr)
Caroline and I quickly sat down at the only two open seats at a table close to the street. Less than a minute later, a little girl tapped us on the shoulder and motioned for us to follow her. We shuffled passed the crowd, returning the diners’ awkward smiles and nods until we reached a large table at the back. At the table’s head sat a plump man with a smile seemingly superglued to his face. He shooed away two of his seated guests and offered us their chairs, slapping us on the back as we sat.

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Fruit plate (Photo: Getty Images)
Almost immediately, another girl emerged from the kitchen and placed a pile of fresh fruit and sweets in front of us. The crowded table looked at us like biologists examining specimens of a long-extinct race, waiting for us to eat. We dug in.

Not one of them spoke English, and I was convinced that even if I was fluent in Vietnamese, I’d have trouble communicating. The man to my right poured a plastic water bottle into a shot glass. He flapped his arms to get my attention and then stared at me straight in the eye as he tossed back the shot, careful to leave it half full. He handed the glass to me and smiled wider.

I examined it playfully, bringing the shot to my nose. The booze was as clear as water but reeked of diesel. I swallowed it in one gulp and slammed the glass on the table. The crowd cheered, and each of the men followed suit, individually taking their turn to share a drink with me.

Finally, at the behest of our accidental host, a little boy began translating for us.

“What is this?” I asked the boy. “Looks like a party. A birthday party?” I guessed, eyeing the balloons and homemade streamers.

“Um … kind of.” The boy said, clearly eager but nervous about conversing with a native English speaker. “It’s a … a … death party.”

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A scene from a Vietnamese Death Party (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Caroline and I both let out a gasp. “This is for his mother’s death,” he continued, pointing to the man nodding back and forth, signaling that even though he didn’t understand us, he knew what was being said. “She died one year ago today. We remember her.”

I was shocked and saddened, but I couldn’t help but think this was a much better way to remember a loved one, rather than the gloomy memorial and a cold cut combo that was all too common in the States.

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Incense burning (Photo: VivianDNGuyen/Flickr)
As we continued on, the man invited us inside to light a stick of incense and place it in front of a large framed picture of his mother. Turning to finally leave, he gave us both a big hug and began to cry.

“He says come back whenever you want,” the boy translated.

The next morning, we climbed aboard our motorbikes and sped passed a twisted corner. To my amazement, the “death party” was still in full swing, the band thumping their instruments like it was its first set.

From across the street, I caught our host’s glazed gaze once again – his face redder and puffier than the night before, but his smile two times wider. He waved both arms at me, jumping up and down. I waved back until he was out of sight; the vacant, open road the only hint he was ever there at all.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cycling in Hoian - the charming ancient town

By Anner
cycling Hoian 1
Today, after a lengthy breakfast at the resort, we decided to take a cycling Hoian trip around the town.  We set off along the river, stopping periodically for pictures or shopping.

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Maddie and Akaya on bikes
At this point, we had gone five minutes, and in 88 degree heat with 89% humidity, we were all drenched in sweat. So we stopped at one of the many little stores, and all bought conical hats. I went with a simple design, though they did have ones that said, stitched in Vietnamese, “Hoi An- I’m a tourist.”

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Buying tourist-y conicals hats
Along the way, we passed many rice fields, bridges, and decorated streets. We stopped for sugar cane juice, pressed fresh, and sat down while various people came over and tried to sell us things. This time, though, they actually succeeded, selling cards with pop-out pictures of things like boats, flowers, and characters. 

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Rice paddy fields
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Dad looking out
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Fish nets
After some time we stopped for lunch right on the river, and I learned all about Vietnamese customs. First off, if someone invites you somewhere, it’s considered very important. It creates a sense of community and friendship, and is not something you can be careless about. Also, it is customary for the youngest woman to wipe off all the chopsticks for each guest at the table, and for the oldest woman to look over the bill at the end of the meal. Also, splitting the check is seen as very rude, similar to buying a gift for someone and then asking them to pay for part of it.

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Lunch on the river
As for the meal itself, we all trusted Dad to pick out some good dishes. None of us are really well-versed in either Vietnamese or finding out which menu items actually translate into good food. We ended up with grilled squid, lemongrass chicken, rice, garlic spinach, and probably some other seafood items that I’m forgetting. Everything was, of course, family style, a custom that I always am familiar with.

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After lunch, we headed back to the resort, ready to embark on our next three tasks before going out again for our Hoian travel: chilling, relaxing, and resting (my dads own words, surprise surprise).

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Beautiful views

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hanoi to Sapa by motorbike - Our memorable travel

By Kia Ora Vietnam
The road from Hanoi to Sapa winds its way for 670 kms into the northwest of Vietnam, towards the border with Laos and China. Together with our friend Rachel and her Vietnamese friend Do, we took a motorcycling northwestern Vietnam trip and set off on a 4 day ride to Sapa. After relaxing for 2 days in Sapa we returned by overnight train to Hanoi.

The scenery is possibly the most spectacular in Vietnam, and the journey provides many opportunities to see something of the lives and colourful costumes of the many ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

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Day 1. Hanoi - Mai Chau
(150 kms, 5 hours)

After the first hour riding out of Hanoi amongst all the traffic, and getting used to a different bike, it was a pleasure to reach quieter traffic and settle into a rhythm. It was nice to see green fields again, but nothing spectacular until we crossed over the mountain pass and descended into the beautiful Mai Chau valley which is home to predominantly Black Thai minority people. On the recommendation of Richard, fellow teacher (and the person who inspired us to undertake this journey) we stayed the night at a Guesthouse in Lac Village, just out of Mai Chau. Facilities were basic but comfortable, the hospitality very good, and the environment absolutely fantastic. We immediately decided that we’ll be returning for a longer stay before too long.

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Day 2. Mai Chau – Son La – Tuan Giao
(265 kms, 9 hours)

From Mai Chau onwards, the traffic became less, and the scenery and ethnic minority villages more spectacular. Children started waving and calling out “hello” as we rode by, and stopping for a drink or meal became an opportunity to meet the local people. Having Do with us enhanced the experience as he could interpret for us.

After the standard 2-lane roads we had travelled, the road into Son La was a bazaar 8 kms of 6-lane highway with essentially no traffic except for the occasional wandering buffalo. I think they must be anticipating some future development!

From Son La the road narrowed as we climbed over several mountain passes, eventually arriving at the otherwise unspectacular town of Tuan Giao, with just one Hotel, where we stayed the night.

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Day 3. Tuan Giao - Lai Chau   
(90 kms, 5 hours)

We started the day with breakfast at an eclectic café where we ended up drinking tea with the owners in their home. The direct road to Lai Chau is the last part of highway 16 (highway is somewhat of a misnomer) which was once sealed, but a very long time ago. The road was rough, and included a number of river crossings. On these rough roads the Minsk’s really came into their own with good suspension and soft seats.

Travel was slow, but it enabled us to take in the sights and be welcomed by the Black Thai and White Thai villagers along the way. It has to be said that the further you get from the beaten track, the more interesting the sights, and the more open and friendly the people are.

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Day 4. Lai Chau – Sapa
(165 kms – 6 hours)
The road follows the river valleys for much of the way, and once again whenever we stopped we had wonderful experiences meeting the local ethnic minority people, including a wonderful half hour spent with some Miao people.

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The last part of the journey was a steady climb up past Fansipan (the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143 metres), and the weather was noticeably cooler as we approached Sapa (1,650 metres). Today we experienced the only wet weather of our journey, but this only lasted for a brief 20 minutes.

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Day 5. Sapa

After passing through so many ethnic villages which see relatively few foreigners, the development and tourist nature of Sapa was a marked difference. We simply took the opportunity to relax after the previous 4 days of travel.
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We last visited Sapa in January 2003 – being winter the fields were bare, and the weather extremely cold. This time, however, the terraced rice fields surrounding Sapa were a magnificent green. This truly is a beautiful part of the country.

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Day 6. Sapa – Lao Cai – Pho Lu - Hanoi

On our previous visit to Sapa the road down from Sapa to Lao Cai was unsealed, and hundreds of manual workers were toiling to rebuild the road. The result is that now this 35km stretch is one of the smoothest roads of the whole journey.

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Unfortunately the railway line approaching Lao Cai had been damaged by landslides, so we had to ride an extra 35kms to Pho Lu where we were able to put the bikes onto the overnight train to Hanoi.

It seemed all too soon that our short Vietnam motorcycling travel was over, but it must rate as one of the best road trips we have done for a long time

Monday, August 25, 2014

Halong Bay: The Most Beautiful Place in the World

By Vicky 
Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world, there’s no doubt about it. I booked a kayaking Halong tour there when I was in Vietnam for two weeks in August. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about the place beforehand but somehow had heard it was awesome and so decided to check it out. I’m glad I did. It was 5 hours from Hanoi, but worth every minute of the journey. Just a short boat ride out and we were greeted by these huge limestone karsts just scattered in the bay. Apparently there are thousands of them, but we must’ve only seen a small per cent during our time there.

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The smaller boat took us out to this the ‘Surprising Cave’. As soon as I step foot in the place I was amazed – I didn’t realise then how huge the cave was. It was exciting for me to come across on a guided tour, imagine being the person to discover this place all those years ago?!

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It was so hot and humid in there – note the lack of piccies of me here – I was a sweaty mess. The ground was slippy too, a few times I slipped off the path. If you’re going investigating places like this on holiday you need to make sure your travel insurance covers any sort of adventure activity, even if you have to pay a premium on it. Just check with your provider if you’re in any doubt, but do make sure. As long as you stick to the signposted walkways, and can walk steadily you’ll be fine but there’ll always be that one person who decides they want to go and explore further. Don’t be that person.

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The way they’d lit the Cave of Wonders up just made it all the more incredible. Stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere but the cave was so huge it never felt claustrophobic.

They took us kayaking tour on the second day morning – if you’ve ever kayaked before could you let me know how you steer the ruddy thing in the direction you want it to go? I was hopeless.

Kayaking Halong bay

We stopped to swim at the beach and there was a pathway to climb the limestone and look out over the bay, this was the incredible view.

Beautiful Halong Bay