Luscious local travel in North Vietnam

One of the best meals we had in Hanoi was in a tiny place known as Number 49.

One of the best meals we had in Hanoi was in a tiny place known simply as Number 49.

I can cook Vietnamese spring rolls – and they taste delicious! I have learned t’ai chi; the absolute basics. And I can kayak, well, sort of!  And, and, and, and  …….

During our #BFGAdventure – Big Friendly Giant Adventure – we chose to travel as consciously, responsibly and locally as we could.  We stayed in local hotels, ate at local restaurants and/or with street sellers, bought what we needed at local shops and travelled by cyclo, tuktuk, car, bus, ferry, ship and train.  Oh yes, and our walking boots certainly saw a lot of use :-)

If you’ve never been to VietNam before, as we hadn’t, the skills and rules of driving over there are fairly non-existent! At least, that’s how it seems to a new visitor. The traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road, well, that’s the theory. To get to Ha Long Bay, where we were going on a 2 night and 3 day cruise, there is an eighty mile  journey from Hanoi – thoughts of the fairgrounds and dodgem cars sprang to mind!  The next morning, we were filled with excitement and a certain amount of trepidation when the mini-bus picked us up from our hotel. A long journey giving us a great opportunity to see all the areas in between the two locations, and that was punctuated by a stop off at a rather large statue & monument emporium, containing a restaurant. Comfort break time. What we did find was that when you’re with an experienced local driver, the roads hold no worry. Our travels were as smooth as the road works and potholes would allow. Talking of road works; this is the main road from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and it is being improved and widened. They work on one side of the road and the traffic is allowed to use the other half of the road (alternatively, of course!) Phew, the precision with which these drivers go is amazing – there were at least two inches between the men digging and our vehicle.

IMG_0065The port we were going to was all new with a lot of  development happening around the location. It’s a beautiful place and was undergoing a rapid expansion with new hotels, apartments and complexes; sadly, though, the buildings could have been in any place, in any country, there was nothing that epitomised a Vietnamese style. Inside the port building it was more like a modern airport concourse! You did not get the impression that there would be serenity in just a short while. There were many ships in harbour, ranging from very small to rather grand ones. We joined the other guests of Bhaya Cruises and were taken out to the ship, the Au Co, by speedboat and welcomed on board as if we were the most important group of people in the world. And that level of customer care is what we all experienced throughout the whole adventure. The girls and guys, who made up the crew, were more like a team of good friends, always happy. They were generous with their time and gracious, oh so very gracious. The cruise manager was Alfred Yong, you can see him in the wedding picture below – he’s the one wearing the red polo shirt.

In those three days we experienced Vietnamese dancing, kayaking, t’ai chi, tea ceremony, cooking demonstration – where we learnt how to make the Vietnamese spring rolls, We visited the floating village of Cong Dam; Cat Ba Island and the village there; the Sung Sot cave on Bo Hon island and, all our meals were based on the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood and metal. We were also offered night-time squid fishing, but I don’t think anyone took that one up!

DSC00916The girls and ladies from the floating village of Cong Dam, rowed over and took us to see where they lived.  It’ s fascinating how they’ve put together the ‘houses’ with walkways between them and areas for different activities. We got out of the boats and had a look round, we even went into the school house to see what they were doing. Bhaya Cruises has built the school house for them and sponsors the teacher and his personal house.  The children weren’t in school as it was a holiday but we saw them playing on some of the houseboats, as we saw the men chatting in groups. There’s a fish farm there too, now that really is local!

Visiting the village of Viet Hai on Cat Ba island, the next day, was a real treat, in more ways than one. It is a long way to walk from the quay to there and you could choose to walk or go by bike. We chose to walk. So pleased we did, we lingered over the scenery and the beautiful butterflies we saw and we dallied where the wild goats and their kids were. The island was quite heavily wooded and we stopped time and time again to smell the local flowers and, if truth be known, have a tiny rest on the 45 to 60 minute walk.

There are no cars on the island, we just saw the occasional bike or moped.  And it did seem as if the women were doing all the work again, we saw them out fishing, working in the fields and going about household chores. All had big smiles though – such joy everywhere.

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The farm there is all organic and grows vegetables and fruit. All work is done by traditional methods, the women plough the fields, leading water buffalo pulling the harrow. I always feel the traditional methods give more substance to the term organic, but that’s just me.

The Bhaya Cruises’ Au Co Foundation, works with the local villagers, supports them and started the organic farming project there. The company provides funds, agricultural and practical training for the locals and, when the fruit and vegetables and crops are ready, buys the produce back at a fair market price.

The bride in the wedding picture is one of the team on our ship, how fantastic was that – and we were all invited to go along. The bride and groom, on the right, looked so very young, I actually has to ask, and they were 24 and 25. Must be their way of life! Many of each crew for Bhaya Cruises come from Viet Hai and all are so genuinely delightful. What a wonderful example of community involvement. And we could feel the joy – we became part of it.

bhaya langur_familyCat Ba is also the only home of the Golden-headed Langur. They are one of the most endangered species and, it is thought, there are only 53 of them alive today. You can find out more, and/or become involved/help, from the Cat Ba Langur Conservation site or on their facebook page.

On this cruise, I was a guest of Bhaya Cruises.  However, the content and comments are entirely mine; and I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending them.

Lynne Gray – Thatspr