Sunday, November 20 – Waking up on the water of Ha Long Bay and then off to Vin Uni…


With the excitement of the previous day, having awakened in Hanoi, traveling to the coast, shuttling to our ship and then kayaking in the afternoon, I had retired relatively early after our evening hot tub followed by happy hour and a lovely dinner on board. My intent had been to rise well before sunrise and, though I did make it out onto my private deck in time for that wonderful event, I will admit that I did have an extra hard time getting out of bed given just how comfortable it was and the fact that I had my very own gigantic picture window looking out over the bay. When I finally made it outside to gaze over the water and all the incredible islands that make up this World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay, the sun was just peeking out above the hill tops and below the cloud layer that was left from the night. It was really a miraculous sight and there was little wonder that they call this “the golden hour” for the lighting is just that perfect.

I could feel by the slow movement of the ship that we had just gotten under way during the time I was still contemplating getting out from under the covers, perhaps the motivation that got me moving as well, and now, while looking out, I could easily see that we were keeping time with some of the other boats, all heading in the same direction as we were. Tai Chi was to begin at 6:10 am on the upper deck and, as much as I had wanted to join given that I was in Asia, I really couldn’t help suppressing the desire to just sit and enjoy my rooms private balcony with its sitting chairs and table, a ready-made writer’s studio. Though I clearly wasn’t as productive as I had hoped given how late I am at posting these blogs, it was the thought that counted and, in the end, my camera won out over my computer. It was just impossible to ignore the awesome scenery as we passed each small island, each seemingly with its very own tiny floating fishing village. I had read about these and the families that occupy them, both fishing and raising fish like we had seen yesterday where we had done our kayaking.

Breakfast was being served this morning promptly at 6:40 am and, for those of us who were departing later this morning as opposed to those who were remaining a second night, we were scheduled to take an excursion to a dry cave on Cat Bah Island at 7:30. As one who hasn’t been eating breakfast now for at least several months (I’m intermittent fasting), it was strange to once again be eating something in the morning as I had done yesterday, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel doing so, but knew that I’d get back on schedule once I arrived back at Hanoi and Vin University. For this morning, though, I enjoyed having some fruit and coffee and, though, I didn’t partake in their omelette station or breakfast bowl of noodles, I did also sneak a little bowl of cereal just to tide me over until we had brunch later in the morning. It was looking to be a gorgeous day outside as the cloud cover began to break and the solid rays of sun shone brightly down as we all boarded our little shuttle boat and struck off for the dock at Cat Bah Island where we were met by a bus that drove us deeper into the mountains of the island until we finally reached the entrance to the cave we were to visit.

The islands here are all made of porous limestone, so hence the caverns, all of which are formed by the effects of water flowing over many thousands of years, are found within these mountains of easily eroded rock and sediment. As we drove in the direction of the interior of Cat Bah Island, we passed through a number of small villages and tiny regions where crops were being grown in the steep and narrow valleys that were the main features here. The sun was out and it was beautiful traveling over this terrain which I had not expected we would do on the trip. Despite the fact I would have loved to spend more time on our boat to simply enjoy the scenery of the bay, I will have to admit that this was equally incredible and something that I would not have wanted to miss. And this was even before we made it to the cave. As caves go, Trung Trang Cave is not the largest or most impressive of caves that I have seen, but it’s location and presentation is certainly quite unique. I have been to many caves throughout the US and the majority of them are quite concealed and one would typically never guess the giant caverns that lay below as their entrances are usually by elevator or require shimmying down some tube or slide (like Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota that Kim didn’t very much appreciate).

Entering Trung Trang Cave required you to navigate only about 140 well-cared for concrete steps up the side of the mountain and there lay a large gaping hole that literally begged for your presence inside. The cave was reasonable lit along the way and the path well maintained with either hard packed dirt or cement. Our guide walked our entire group through, describing all the formations that either had some significant meaning for the locals or was quite obvious that it represented some familiar shape and was so named. Some seemed to have very little resemblance to what they were supposed to be and, for those, you just had to muster up every bit of imagination you had and smile in agreement. I’m so used to caves being so naturally air-conditioned, but this cave has warm and humid throughout and by the end of our little tour, I think each of us was just happy to finally reach the outside air which was relatively cool and dry in comparison. To be honest, I far more enjoyed the drive into the mountainous interior of Cat Ba Island with all its sights than I did the cave, though the latter was certainly a nice addition and far more pleasant than just a simple diversion. I had hoped that we would travel to far side of the island to meet out shuttle back to the Peony 2, but instead it was back to the earlier dock where we had arrived.

Unfortunately, heading back to the ship, we would only have a little time to relax before an early lunch, again delicious, and then it was time to pack for our trip back to shore on the shuttle rather than the big boat. I guess it was rather unrealistic to have thought that we’d be cruising for most of our 24-hours on the boat given the cost of fuel and such, though it ended up being a very pleasant introduction to the coastal region and enough to make me know that I must return someday, and hopefully that time with someone to share that luxurious cabin with as it was just so spectacular. That next visit will be for a longer chunk of time so as to spend much more time just relaxing and cruising that glorious bay in one of the most remarkable corners of the world.

The trip home after our ride to shore seemed to go quicker than the ride there and it also included a short break at the Vietnamese equivalent of a turnpike service area so familiar to those of us on the East Coast. There were bathrooms and plenty of food stands with just about anything that might interest you and that included freezers with packaged ice cream bars and cones that certainly hit the spot on our drive of something less than two hours. By the luck of the draw, I was the first to be dropped off at the Hanoi Hilton Opera, where I had left my large duffel to pick up. Had I planned it better, I could have brought it with me, which is what most everyone else had done, as the drive home took us right past Ocean Park, the site of Vin University and where I would be spending the following week. In the end, it cost me about two hours (one hour each way) and approximately an $8 taxi ride from the Hilton back to Ocean Park. The taxi that came to pick me up was the tiniest of cars that could barely hold my duffel in the back and required that the rear seats be released to move it forward. Thankfully, the driver didn’t have an issue with me sitting up front as it would have been terribly uncomfortable to have sat in the rear with the seatback sitting bolt upright. Despite the inconvenience of having to make that trip, it was still enjoyable as the sights of the city are pretty remarkable and I enjoyed them all as we drove back over the red river in the direction of my home for the coming days.

When I had originally planned this trip, only several weeks ago, I had wanted to stay the entire time at the Hilton, but the powers that be at Vin Uni had insisted (quite strongly, in fact) that I stay in one of the apartments at Ocean Park rather than making the 30-40 minute drive twice each day to get to and from the University in the traffic. Well, I am so thankful that I was not allowed to have made the decision myself, as it turned out that the apartment was so incredibly comfortable and ended up making my stay so much more enjoyable.

The Vin Corporation, now known simply as Vingroup, is the largest company in Vietnam and much of their focus these days has been on housing, automobiles and education, hence the explanation for Vin University and the nearly nineteen 24-story towers that and endless rows of three-story townhomes, many of which are still unoccupied. Along the street level there are countless businesses (restaurants, small food markets, clothing stores and other specialty shops to buy just about anything) that occupy the bottom story of all the towers and many of the townhomes. This is Ocean Park, named for its man-made lakes and beaches that are intermixed throughout the area, and it is only one of perhaps a dozen or so complete communities that VinHomes, the company in charge of their housing ventures, has created in the north of Vietnam in and around Hanoi. In addition to the university, which has their health sciences school with nursing and medicine, they also have a business school and engineering school, and they are run by other US institutions such as Cornell, while Penn has the agreement to not only help with the medicine and nursing undergraduate education, but also the graduate medical education that involves the Vin Corporation’s medical center that it has built some kilometers from here.  Leave it say that the Vingroup is an industrial force to be reckoned with and whose automotive company, VinFast, will soon be marketing its electric vehicles in the United States as soon as next year.  Get ready.

All of that was neither here nor there for me as I checked in at the lobby desk of S2.17 (Tower 17 that was grouped on the same street with the other “S2” towers so I imagined that to be its address) which was one of several of their “serviced” residential towers where guests had furnished apartments and maid service. English is not spoken commonly by everyone here, which I have to imagine may be a result of our history with the country, though I was able to get through the check-in process with the attendant in so much as he took my electronic fingerprint that would allow me into the building and then up the elevator to my exact floor. He gave me my room number on a piece of paper, that being room 15A06, and the front door code that would let me in to the room. It should have been a clue to me that my fingerprint didn’t work on the elevator for me to light up the 15th floor button, though there was a maid on the elevator who conveniently, or not so conveniently as I would come to find out, pushed the button for me. I walked to what I thought was the right room number and my code repeatedly failed to work.

Defeated, I went back downstairs to the front desk and the receptionist ended up having to go next door for me to get a key to the apartment which he worked on the problem with the front door code. I went back to the elevator and again was unable to push the correct button when it finally dawned on me that I was trying the wrong floor for my room was actually on floor 15A and not 15. Apparently, rather than skipping floors with unlucky numbers here, they instead create another floor, which for some reason comes earlier than actual number it should be. There is no 7th floor, but rather 8A, and there is no 13th or 14th floor. I never asked, but I supposed that 14 was a 2 times 7 and hence bad luck. Either way, I got off on correct floor this time, 15A, found my room and the code worked just fine for me to enter.

The room was excellent and well-appointed with a nice couch, a dining table with four chairs, a full refrigerator, A/C units in the living room and bedroom, a pull-out futon in the little hall to my bedroom and there was a very nice queen-sized bed in the bedroom proper. The bathroom had a wonderful glass shower stall just to my liking. There were pots and pans, glasses, plates, silverware, a rice cooker, an electric water kettle, a TV with Netflix and, most of all, great WiFi with fast internet. What more could anyone possibly want? Well, there was one small problem, there was absolutely no power in the entire flat. Using my powers of deduction, I began to search for a circuit breaker somewhere, which didn’t take long at all as it was right next to the front door and which would have been problem solved other than the fact that all of the breakers had labels that were in Vietnamese, which, of course, made absolute sense. Thankfully, they were all flipped in one direction except for the only two-gang breaker which, again using my strong powers of deduction, had to be the master breaker and, with the simple flip of a switch, I was in business. There was another switch on the wall right next to the circuit board that had a red light that lit up with it was flipped and this one I was fairly certain was the water heater since that’s how they work in Africa. With electric water heaters, you leave them off until you’re ready to use it so you just have to remember a few minutes before you jump in the shower.

Feeling like I had really accomplished something between the floor numbers and the power for the apartment, I decided to go outside with all the confidence in the world and find a shop where I could buy some dish soap, a sponge, laundry detergent (there was actually a washer on my balcony along with a rack for drying though I didn’t end up using them), a large jug of potable water, toothpaste, bath soap and a few snacks. I tackled the shopping and now it was time for dinner which I ended up having at one of the many Pho stands downstairs and, luckily with the help of the waiter who spoke some broken English, picked out a noodle bowl with some beef that was incredibly delicious and filling. That and a Vietnamese beer were all I needed to fell complete for the night. I was too meet Dr. Quan in the morning at 8:30 am as he would bring me over to the University that was just across the street and I would begin my teaching. I couldn’t wait.

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