Saturday, November 19 – Waking up in Hanoi and off to Ha Long Bay…

Breakfast at the Hilton

Having essentially passed out early last night after my nearly 30 hours of travel from Philadelphia, it wasn’t surprising at all that I awakened bright and early this morning and ready for a new day. I had booked my Ha Long Bay cruise over the phone and had all the paperwork, but there was still a small bit of concern as to whether or not someone would actually show to pick me up for the two hour drive to the coast. I will have to admit that I had been completely unaware of the cruise industry at Ha Long Bay, but save it to say it is incredibly huge and robust with a great many tour operators, all advertising on the internet making it very difficult to choose just who to use. Thankfully, TripAdvisor came to the rescue and allowed me to narrow down the choices though there is still a great deal of options in regard to the amount you want to spend and level of luxury you’re looking for. I was absolutely not looking for luxury, but wanted to make sure I would have some basic needs met (like a shower and a view) and was perhaps slightly less concerned about the cost as even the more expensive ones were very reasonable and this would be the only real expense of my trip., In the end, I didn’t choose the top rated, the most expensive or the most luxurious, but rather a decent cruise line whose ships were not overly large and seemed more authentic, whatever that might mean. Peony Cruises was the winner and it didn’t disappoint by any means.

I packed my bags at the Hilton, heading downstairs for breakfast and to hopefully meet my ride in the lobby. The concierge at the Hilton was incredibly helpful with directions as I had wanted to also hit an ATM for some cash and he was also reassuring regarding my ride as I was again just a little leery as I didn’t have a number to call in the event that no showed up to transport me to Ha Long. Breakfast was wonderful buffet and I stuck to as much local food as I could, but couldn’t resist the delicious looking bacon that was being served. So, I had noodles, dim sum, and a pork bun along with my bacon. The ATM was fairly easy to find as it was just around the corner and down the block, but how much to withdraw was a question as I wasn’t sure what denominations would be available. Thanks to inflation, the exchange rate is currently something like 24,000 Vietnamese dong to the dollar, or about ten times more than the Tanzanian shilling making it fairly easy for me to remember. I took out 2,000,000 dong, which equaled about $80 USD, and was promptly given four crisp 500,000 dong notes, each worth almost exactly $20. I’m not sure what the largest note is here, but given that in Tanzania, the largest note is the 10,000 Tsh, or just over $4 USD, they already have them beat with the 500K note. As you might imagine, though, making a very large purchase in cash in Tanzania, requires an excessive number of paper bags (plastic bags have been outlawed in Tanzania) or perhaps even a wheelbarrow!

My ride arrived with plenty of time to spare, meaning that all my worry was for naught, and rather than a large bus, turned out to be a very fancy limo van with captains seats for all but the back row, which is where I ended up as all the other guests had been picked up first. Given the ride was nearly two hours, though, I had a nice conversation about American politics, abortion and the current state of diversity and inclusion with the two young women who were my fellow back row travelers and were both here from Australia. It was very interesting to get their perspective on the craziness going on in the US at the current time and their take on Trump and the republican party. That theme also continued on later in the evening when I had a long conversation with a gentleman who was Dutch, but was currently living in Australia and just had a hard time believing what was occurring in the US with its politics. Meanwhile, as we approached the coast and the region of Ha Long, the limestone peaks of that region that I had seen in photographs became readily visible and, thankfully, the haze that had engulfed Hanoi began to fade a bit. I had hoped to get some nice photographs of the region during my visit, but to be honest, I was really just looking forward to seeing the place and having those images in my memory. Before we reached the boat, though, we made a stop at a pearl center where they were not only demonstrating how they produce cultured pearls (really a very interesting process that involves placing plastic beads into the oysters), but were also selling pearl jewelry and many items made with shell and pearls. We were told that our boat wasn’t quite ready for us yet, though I knew this ploy quite well from my time in Tanzania, which was that our drivers would get paid a percentage of whatever we spent probably along with a flat fee for merely having us stop there. Having us put tags around our necks identifying just which vehicles we were from and being given the story that this would help us make it back to the correct vehicle was really just another means of ensuring that their kick back would get to the right tour guide. Mind you, there’s nothing at all wrong with the practice in principle, but there was no need to have made up the story about our boat not being ready, which all seemed pretty silly.

Arriving to the marina, where I presumed we would be meeting our boat, I was immediately impressed with the vast number of ships that were there, probably hundreds of them and some that were very large, sitting idle as it was not the high season for travel in the region. After the long drive down one side of the immense marina and back along the other side, we came to the dock area for the company I would be traveling with. There were guests that were coming back from their cruises and those that were heading out on cruises, all mixing at the dock and as we checked in, we had baggage tags attached to our wrists that would identify which of the smaller boats we were to get into that would shuttle us out to the larger ships we would be spending the night on. Thankfully, the baggage tags worked well for without them it would have been incredibly easy to have gotten lost and ending up on the wrong shuttle would have not been a good start to the weekend for sure. As it turned out, it was a bit of a hurry up and wait as it did take about half an hour or so for us to be called for departure, though they did have excellent cold ice tea and water along with an active snack bar that I purposely avoided, instead waiting for the lunch that we would have upon boarding our final vessel. The ride out to the ship was certainly picturesque if not as comfortable as I would have liked given that we were sitting on bench seats with our life vests on, the latter making the short ride a bit more warm and clammy than I would have liked.

As we rounded the first limestone islet and more of Ha Long Bay began to open up in front of us, the number of ships waiting for their passengers was a bit mind boggling as was the variability in their size and style. There were a great many of the medium-sized vessels that were quite classic and similar to what I would end up on, while there were many that were a great deal larger and many others that at least appeared to be of similar size though seemed less classic “junk” styled and more like an ocean going vessel. Either way, there were dozens and dozens of large ships out here, all anchored and awaiting their guests before departing to other areas of the Bay for their appointed cruises. We dropped off some guests who were booked on one of the other ships from our line and then made our way to the Peony 2, the ship to which we had been assigned. Our ship was a medium one that was in a classic junk style and had a platform on the stern for us to climb aboard and ready ourselves for the cruise that laid ahead of us. Once on the ship, we all made our way to the dining area on the second deck where they would be serving lunch following an orientation and after the ship got under way.

Sitting on the deck, I began to hear the steady whine, or perhaps more like a banging, of a smaller compression engine and just couldn’t imagine what I was hearing. Slowly, though, a small skiff began to appear from behind the little shore boat we were towing and I came to realize that the skiff was keeping pace with us and was loaded with dry goods so that it looked like a floating grocery store. A women sat in the back of the skiff which one hand on the rudder and the other intermittently adjusting the speed at which she was traveling as she pulled closer and closer to us. It soon became readily clear to me that she was planning to sell whatever she had on the boat, which was pretty much everything, to whoever was interested and though I waved her off several times while taking photos of her, there was another passenger who had other ideas.

She had a long-handled fishing net, like the ones you use to land a fish into a boat, and it was again clear to me that the purpose of the net was to hand off whatever it was that you were interested in. One of the other passengers on the upper deck singled to her that he was interested in buying a bottle of wine from her, so went to the stern and climbed onto the boat we were towing, allowing him to now grab a bottle of wine directly from her and then pass over payment. She even handed him back his change before she veered off in the direction of another boat.

Buying a bottle of wine for dinner the hard way

The dining area consisted of glass all the way around and thankfully there were shades that could be lowered given the intense sun of the day, though I was so grateful that the weather was clear, it really didn’t bother me as the sights were incredible steaming along through the many narrows that existed between the islands here. Lunch was a delicious buffet of mostly seafood, all prepared in traditional Vietnamese-style and there was lots of it. We still hadn’t seen our cabins, though, and I was really looking forward to this as I had reserved one of the two exclusive cabins that were at the rear of the ship on the second floor (there were only twenty cabins total on the ship with those on the second floor being the more desirable ones), probably a bit of overkill given that I was traveling by myself, but since this was the only sightseeing activity I was going to do while here, I didn’t think it was too unreasonable.

Well, the room was simply amazing as it had a huge bed that looked out an oversized picture window, a large bathroom that had a huge bathtub (that I didn’t use) and a shower, and a large private rear deck that overlooked the stern of the both. The entire interior of the ship was wood, including my room, and everything was in great shape. I sat outside on my private deck for a bit before it was time for us to eventually go downstairs and ready ourselves for our first activity which would involve kayaking for some and riding in bamboo boats for others. There were several caves in the region that we’d be going to visit, and thankfully, there were enough of the kayaks to go around as it seemed the majority of those on my cruise were more the bamboo boat crowd, wishing someone else to their paddling. From our smaller shuttle boat which we had taken to reach the caves, we all unloaded onto one of the small floating fishing villages that was doubling as our launch site for the activity. As I was by myself, I would be taking one of the two-man kayaks out by myself and, while getting into the kayak, which was of the very rigid fiberglass type, I slammed my low back into the hard seat back with a very hard hit despite the life vest that I was wearing. It certainly could have been more serious than it turned out to be, but I ended up with a very nasty bruise that ended up turning black and blue over the next several days.

Despite this mishap, the kayaking turned out to be a great adventure as we were able to paddle a fair distance to one of the caves through which we traveled, ending up in a secluded area that had no other entry into or out of it. Prior to going through the cave, there were some monkeys sitting on one of the ledges watching us intently, I’m sure wondering what the heck we were doing on the water. Though I didn’t get to see them, two of the other kayaks that were behind us later on spotted a langur monkey with a baby swinging through the trees high above the water. I thought they might have been gibbons based on their description, but looking later on the internet, the langurs are resident in this area, though rather rare to see. After traveling through another cave into a secluded a waterway, we finally traveled back to the floating dock and, after checking out some of the large fish they were raising in enclosures nearby, boarded our little boat for the ride back to our ship. Upon getting back to the Peony 2, I promptly went up to the top deck where there was a wonderful hot tub already warm and ready for everyone. Watching sunset from the top deck and in a hot tub was quite a unique experience and one that I won’t soon forget, nor was the fact that it was also happy hour so that we were able to enjoy our drinks while soaking up the last rays of sunshine as darkness fell upon us. I can’t recall having had such a perfect setting, though sitting on the veranda at Gibb’s Farm sipping my Moscow Mules comes pretty close.

We had plenty of time to freshen up prior to dinner and it was again a wonderful buffet of Vietnamese seafood given our location. It had really been a perfect day and somehow cruising along on the bay during the darkness of the night with all the other ships around and then retiring to the privacy of my own cabin with its private balcony to sit outside and watch the stars and the other ships in passing was almost too much to comprehend. When I finally decided that it was time for bed, I went inside, climbed between the fresh sheets of my incredibly comfortable bed and drifted off to sleep while peering out amidst the darkness of Ha Long Bay, broken only by the distant lights of the other ships whose passengers were undoubtedly sharing the very same experience.

November 16-18 – It’s off to Hanoi and Vin University…


Having just returned from six weeks in Tanzania and settling back into my Philadelphia lifestyle, the last thing on my mind was to once again leave town and to head half way around the world. But yet, here I am once again traveling. Now, mind you, there is little more than I love in this world than traveling, so it took very little to convince me when I was contacted by Penn’s Center for Global Health with an offer to fly to Vietnam for ten days to help out with a project they were working on. Given that I have never been anywhere in Southeast Asia, it took me all but about ten seconds to look at my calendar and realize that with a few schedule changes, I could make it happen. Though it would mean traveling over Thanksgiving, which was of course one of the reasons that others had very likely passed on the opportunity, I felt that was a small price to pay and, in doing so, I could also provide some service to the University and repay a small part of what they’ve done for me over the last ten years.

My sushi dinner at the business lounge in Doha

Vin Corporation, the largest private company in Vietnam, had several years ago decided to build a private, non-profit University (Vin University) that would include a number of professional schools including medicine and nursing. To do this, they chose to reach out to other institutions around the world to submit proposals to help develop curricula for these schools in addition to assisting in faculty development. Penn won the contracts for the health sciences and is now in the midst of helping to create top notch training programs. What I have been requested to do is to go over and help teach part of the undergraduate (medical school) neurology program by delivering a series of course lectures that have already been developed by other faculty at Penn while also mentoring the existing neurology faculty at the school. As you might imagine, this curriculum and these lectures had been developed some time ago and it was only several weeks ago that I found out I was going, so I have had little opportunity to rewrite any of the lectures which, to be honest, was fine with me as others had already put lots of time into them. The students, who are third year medical students, will be hearing about clinical neurology for the very first time, so I am hopeful that I can excite some of them into pursuing neurology as a career as I have had the privilege to do at home, though typically I do this not in the classroom, but on neurology ward service and in the clinic.

Given my long history with Qatar Airways, which is what we have flown to Tanzania over the last 6+ years for our work at FAME, I decided to fly them again so I’d benefit from not only their excellent service, but would also accumulate miles towards my frequent flyer club membership. Besides, I know the Doha airport inside and out and I would be the most comfortable flying on an airline I knew well. For those of you who aren’t aware, the World Cup is about to begin in several days and it is in Doha, Qatar, for the first time which is why Qatar has been putting tons of money into the airport over the last several years and developing it into its own destination which more shopping and restaurants than you could possibly imagine. Flying through Doha, I was impressed with the number of travelers, everyone coming and going, as well as the amount of new shops and dining options given the lack of travelers there had been over the last several years with the pandemic. Just to remind everyone, I had traveled every six months to Doha and Kilimanjaro over the last nearly three years of the pandemic and did not miss a beat as I had felt a strong commitment to FAME and my neurology patients there. At the height of the pandemic, there had been so few travelers in Doha that it almost seemed like a ghost town, but that has all passed now and the crowds were back, whether for the World Cup or just catching up on trips that had been postponed, it was great to see.

The weather channel at the Doha airport

So, in planning my very first trip to SE Asia and Vietnam, even though it is really for business, I wanted to make sure that I would at least have the opportunity to see something outside of Hanoi, their capitol and the location of Vin University. Thankfully, it seemed as though everyone who has been there before told me the same thing and that was that I must visit Ha Long Bay and take an overnight cruise. I decided to leave a few days early so I would have the time to do that while still taking in the sights and sounds of Hanoi and, perhaps most importantly, enjoying some of their unique cuisine. With my trusty Lonely Planet guide in hand, I am planning to spend time on the streets after I arrive, then travel to Ha Long Bay for my overnight cruise, and, finally, back to Hanoi where I will be staying in one of the University’s apartment complexes that are just off campus, but outside of central Hanoi.

Arriving to Vietnam, after having traveled to Tanzania for some many years where I know everyone, was very much different for me. I was to meet my driver, who would take me to the Hilton, in the arrival area, but after passing through customs and discovering that there were to arrival areas, each mobbed with disembarking passengers and their families who were greeting them, it was clear to me that this was not going to be such a simple task. Amazingly, for this situation is not one that I would have easily navigated in the past without a tremendous amount of anxiety, I calmly walked back and forth between the two areas, both inside the terminal and out, and eventually ran across my driver who was holding a piece of paper with my name on it. Whether it’s age, or having worked on this issue over the last 10 years, who knows, but regardless of the reason, I was relaxed and ready to encounter the new experiences a visit to this country would bring.

A chicken coup on the back of a motorbike (notice the geese in front of her feet)

It was very hazy outside and the drive to downtown Hanoi was quite interesting, mostly for the throng of motorbikes we encountered once entering the city proper. I didn’t have a chance to snap photos of the many four-person families riding together on a single small scooter, but did get one of woman driving with several chicken coups strapped to the back of her motorbike with all the chickens sticking their heads out in the breeze, all with little knowledge of their short future and what was in store for them later that evening. Arriving to the Hilton Opera, so named as it sits immediately next door to the huge Hanoi Opera House, I finally realized just how exhausted I really was after my thirty so hours of flying, even with the sleep I got on the first leg of my journey. I went upstairs to my room and promptly dozed for a few hours before heading outside to explore.

The Hanoi Old Quarter is probably the most famous and well-visited area of the city as it is comprised of small streets and alleyways, each with its own theme of what is sold or traded, reminding me very much of the Souq Waqif, or marketplace, in downtown Doha, a place I had visited a number of times prior to the pandemic. It was structured much the same with each alleyway or section of the market selling specific wares for the locals. Without much direction and armed only with my iPhone, a map, and the knowledge that I wanted to visit this particular section of the city, I strode out of the Hilton and onto the streets of perhaps one of the most remarkable cities I have ever been to. The very first thing you have to learn here, which is a matter of shear survival, is just simply how to cross the street with the thousands of motorbikes zipping in just about every direction and horns constantly honking at who knows what. It’s probably one of the only times that my lack of hearing in one ear has been a positive thing, that is other than when the last group of residents were listening to Shawn Menendez while driving in Turtle. I got the knack of it pretty quickly and the simplest way to explain the technique is to ignore the motorbikes as the last thing they would like to do is hit you. They’re very agile and, as best I can tell, are very good at dodging pedestrians. As intimidating as it may sound, it didn’t seem to bother me and far less risky than crossing the street in Dar es Salaam where you almost always forget to look in the other direction since they’re driving on the other side of the road. Either way, I found that walking the narrow streets and crossing the larger ones was not as big of a deal as I had heard it might be. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m a bit fatalistic in my old age.

Dining in the Old Quarter Hanoi

It was still hot well into the evening and despite the fact that I was still incredibly stuffed from my flights coming in (I did fly business class for full disclosure), I decided that it was only appropriate for me to find a nice table at one of the little bars where all the seats are outside on the tiny streets and you could watch all the passersby, to have a beer or two. Vietnamese beer, of course. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t exchanged any money nor had I even stopped by an ATM, and even though they were willing to take dollars instead of dong, I do think it cost me an extra dollar for the two beers I drank. In the big scheme of things, that was a small price to pay and besides, I was still simply intoxicated by the incredible atmosphere of this city. The beers were quite refreshing given the heat of the night and more than enough to fill me up as I’m sure those that know can attest to the fact that I was not about to starve. On my next foray into the Old Quarter, though, I vowed I would bring an appetite as well as a local who could help me with navigating all the food choices. There was plenty of seafood and snails and I was determined to try them before I leave this country.

Walking into the Old Quarter Hanoi

I walked back to the Hilton at an early hour knowing full well that I would be returning soon and better armed with the right currency and more knowledge of the local cuisine. Tomorrow, I would be leaving early for a two-day, one-night cruise on Ha Long Bay, a place that was not to be missed according to every single person I spoke with and told I was coming here. But I already knew that I would be returning here someday to experience this place with a partner for, as much as I do enjoy traveling alone, Vietnam is a place that should honestly be shared with someone special, but that would have to wait until my next trip.

Sitting having beers in the Old Quarter