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The joys of Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam; great Asia destinations


HANOI – I arrive in Vietnam and the first sign I notice on the side of the road is a giant, powder-blue sign affixed to an apartment building with giant red letters that scream “English for Future.”

Yeah, I guess you could say this country has adapted rather quickly. It was only 40 years ago that the USA, the country where I was born, was bombing the living bejeezus out of this part of this most beautiful of countries for reasons most Americans never quite understood. But a lot has changed. The government here labels itself as a Socialist republic, but the key here, like most parts of the world, is commerce. Followed by making a buck. Followed by making money, if my point wasn’t clear already.

“We understand that American people are different from the American government, just as Vietnamese IMG_9760 people are different from the Vietnam government,” my tour guide in Halong Bay told me. Maybe it’s just what people say, but everywhere I’ve been in the last two days I’ve found warm, generous people eager to practice their English – and apologetic when they don’t get it right. And I call say is – I think – “thank you” and “hello.”

It’s been a real eye-opener, and I’ll get into more about that in a future column on our website and in the paper. It’s important, but there’s a bigger subject I feel compelled to tackle at this critical juncture in the world’s history: breakfast.

I’ve been to Japan and China and Hong Kong and now Thailand and Vietnam, and I still don’t understand the breakfast thing. I mean, what’s with the rice and the noodles and the fish and the spicy chiles IN THE MORNING? Every breakfast buffet I go to in Asia, and in North American or Pacific nations or European markets that cater to Asians, I see similar layouts. When I left my hotel in Hanoi Sunday morning at 7 a.m. to find an ATM, the sidewalks already were filled with people squatting on tiny stools or on their haunches, dipping into bubbling bowls of soup and noodles with the most exotic-looking bits inside. (I don’t quite know what the deal is with the al fresco dining, whether they simply enjoy it or don’t have room in their apartments to sit down for a meal. I suspect it’s the former but if anyone has thoughts on the matter I’d seriously like to know. As someone from a culture in which many people don’t even acknowledge one another on the street, I find this communal eating thing to be really cool).

Anyway, I know North Americans are pretty unique in our breakfast habits – pop-tarts and toaster waffles and crazy cereals with cardboard-like marshmallow-ish products shaped like yellow stars and green clovers. I know it’s not healthy and that it’s pretty amusing to most folks in the world. Or perhaps frightening.

Lucky_charms_med (As a side note, I urge anyone interested in the great breakfast debate to pick up Bill Bryson’s great book about living in the U.S. – The Lost Continent – and the chapter in which he analyzes the massive rows of horrible cereals at his local supermarket in New Hampshire. It’s brilliant).

So, yeah, we’re a little strange when it comes to breakfast – and I’m not even going to get into the chicken and waffles with maple syrup thing they do in the southern U.S. for lunch. But in our defence, I have to say we’re not alone. Italians are, I can say without the shred of doubt in my mind, koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs.

Well, Cocoa Krispies if you want to get technical about it. I was at the Turin Olympics for the Star and there were two kinds of cereal each morning; Corn Flakes and Cocoa Krispies. Last time I was in Italy I wandered down to the breakfast buffet and found…Cocoa Krispies. I think the Italians have a secret crush on the stuff. I really do.

But the point is these are exceptions. For most of the world outside North America and Europe, breakfast appears not that different from other meals of the day, which I find kinda depressing. I mean, I love lunch and dinner (and, just like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, second breakfast and tea) just fine, but breakfast is such a key meal for me and I enjoy that it’s completely different from other meals.. And I want cereal or yogurt or good, Swiss birchermuesli and big loaves of crispy French bread (plenty of that in Vietnam, thank you) and butter and six or eight kinds of jam and probably some bacon or sausage and, sometimes, pancakes with maple syrup (cooked in bacon fat and crispy around the edges when I make it for myself at home) or raisin bread French Toast or sometimes a toasted sesame seed bagel with cream cheese and blackberry jam, which sparks looks of mock disgust from members of my own family.

My hotel here in Halong Bay, the lovely Novotel (see photo of the pool bar and the infinity pool – very nice) has strawberry jam and honey and, I think, orange marmalade (nasty, wicked stuff) but not raspberry or blackberry or pineapple, which is disappointing. The Sofitel in Bangkok had papaya jam with lime and a bunch of other tropical jams such as pineapple and IMG_0012 passionfruit, all of which I scooped onto a plate and mixed together with wild abandon, tossing culinary caution to the wind in a certain devil-may-care, go-for-it, manly gusto attitude that I thought might’ve attracted a few ladies to my table but, alas, no.

I’d love to come back to the breakfast buffet here at 11:30 a.m. and try the Asian food they have laid out for breakfast. I’m sure I’d love it. The kitchen here at the Novotel makes a fabulous bowl of pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup with chicken or beef and basil leaves and crunchy, flavourful green onions. I wish it was a little more spicy, but they’ll bring you limes and chiles and, I think, tamarind sauce if you want a little more fire in your bowl.

(This is a bit of a tangent (gee, really?), but what’s with the scrambled eggs in France and here in Vietnam. They barely cook them, and you get this soupy, yellow gunk on your plate instead of nice, fluffy eggs. And don’t get me started on uncooked bacon, a specialty all over Europe and in some parts of Asia.)

The food for the Asian buffet at breakfast is great. I just can’t eat it in the morning. I haven’t quite figured out what congee is, but it looks like I could probably manage it. I think it’s a bit like oatmeal or cream of wheat, which my Dad and I used to eat on a cold winter’s morning in California when I was a kid, albeit with brown sugar and honey, not fish sauce and scallions and chiles. My Dad also used to eat something called Wheatina, which I haven’t seen in 50 years. It was filled with all sorts of tiny bits and my sister and I used to call it “bird seed.”

Not unlike Jerry Seinfeld, I was always more into breakfast cereal. One time, when I was a kid, I counted 31 boxes of cereal at my house. And there were only two kids in the family. I still have probably ten open boxes at home in Toronto, and that’s a little strange.

So that’s my take on the most important meal of the day. Looking at the tiny, slim folks that surround me in Vietnam, I can almost guarantee you they’re completely right in the breakfast department and I’m doomed to an early death by too many brown sugar-cinnamon Pop Tarts (the ones without the icing on them, in my defence) and white-bread toast with sugary jam and too many bowls of Captain Crunch.

DAY TWO – HALONG BAY

HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM – There are far too many UNESCO heritage sites. This one doesn’t make that list.

Ha Long  Bay has long been famous, and rightfully so, for the majestic limestone islands that rise  IMG_1272 suddenly out of the sea in the northeast section of this green, lovely country. There are said to be 1,969 islands in the bay, which stretches for miles and miles. Most are towering columns with sheer, vertical faces of rock and tree that plunge directly into the South China Sea; creating a magical, surreal effect.

Add in the hundreds of Asian-style sampans that ferry tourists from Vietnam, France, Milwaukee and Manitoba about and you get a scene that simply screams “Asia.”

It’s the stuff of dreams, albeit more crowded than one would like. Still, on my visit this week the crowds of boats weren’t too thick and it by no means spoiled the view or the experience. Many folks opt to spend the night on a cruise boat and visit outlying islands, including Cat Ba Island. I didn’t get the memo on that, through my own haste and improper planning, but I did get the basic, four-hour tour that takes folks out to one of the islands closest to the mainland.

It features an enormous cave discovered by a farmer only a couple dozen years ago. Oddly, the government folks who run the attraction have installed dozens of garish blue, green and red lights in the cavern, thus making it feel a bit like Las Vegas instead of a natural wonder. Still, there are areas where you can see past the glitz and get lovely views of fantastically-shaped stalactices of all forms and sizes.

The basic tour then ferries tourists around the back side of the island to a floating fishing village, where folks have been eking out a living on seafood (and, now, tourism) for thousands of years. One man I spoke with, who I’ll feature later in the Star, is ninth generation in the village.

It’s a pretty lonely life, but the mainland is 45 minutes away and it’s lovely and peaceful as can be and there’s a tiny, floating school and several shops selling fruit and cigarettes and crackers and beer. There also are two floating banks, so commerce can’t be all that bad.

Many folks like to rent a kayak and explore a pair of beautiful lagoons reached via small entrances only five or ten feet high. They’re absolutely magic; still and wondrous and surrounded by massive cliffs of rocks and trees. IMG_1350

Okay, the kids singing what sounded like a German beer song might have put me off for a second, but the music didn’t last long and I loved the quiet. It was great chatting with some of the village residents, who posed for a photo with me (I don’t usually go for this sort of thing but my guide liked the idea).

The boat then passes past a pair of famous rocks called the Fighting Cocks, although my excellent tour guide prefers to think of them as “Kissing Chickens.” I suspect he has a solid future in p.r.

I was staying at the lovely Novotel on Halong Bay, which has a very good restaurant and a fabulous pool with views out to the islands, although it’s usually overcast from what I can see. There are dozens of waterfront cafes and restaurants scattered up and down the coast in what looks a bit like Wasaga  Beach without the beach. (They’ve tried installing sand to create beaches but it appears to be a losing battle).

I had lunch at one spot he mentioned. It was okay, but the chicken feet in my lemongrass and chile chicken I could do without, and it would be nice if the beer wasn’t room temperature on a day when the thermometer reads 30 degrees or so. Still, it’s a great part of the world that’s justifiably famous, and it’s easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the good fortune to visit in my life.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: VIETNAM STYLE

There’s a million things to see on the highway (and not quite highway) on the from Hanoi to Halong Bay and the eastern coast of Vietnam. It was raining when we pulled out the other day and passengers on the backs of the ever-present motorbikes (it’s said there’s a campaign to make Hanoi’s motorbikes one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and it’s not a completely crazy idea) were huddled under tarps and rainjackets, unable to see a thing while the driver whizzed on.

It’s a lovely drive, past deep green rice paddies and wide, muddy rivers and occasional gravestones peeking up out of the rice plants; seemingly placed at random but almost certainly with reason. The homes along the way are hit-and-miss in terms of quality; many finished and gleaming and others in a rather sad state. Creme with brown trim is the overwhelming favourite colour scheme, although you’ll spot the odd green or delft-style blue.

IMG_0494 The homes are usually narrow and three to four stories tall in both the city (seen here) and, especially I think, the countryside. I surmise that it has something to do with property taxes; perhaps the situation being that taxes are based on the footprint, not the square footage. But my driver didn’t speak English and I keep forgetting to ask anyone else. Although most of the homes are painted, it’s usually just the front that gets the treatment. Most of the time the sides are bare, grey concrete in the country.

There were a few cows and water buffalo scattered along the road, although nothing like the menagerie you see in India. Both on the way to Halong and on the way back, our driver pulled into one of those money-making pit stops filled with tourists who file en masse into a giant room filled with locally-made scarves and blouses and trinkets and statuary and, of course, food and drink for sale. The country seems rather crazy about crackers, I must say. There were dozens of varieties on sale at the rest stop, and when you go to a temple you often see offerings of not only fruit but rice or wheat crackers – and the occasional cookie. Hey, the gods must know what they like, so who am I to argue?

On the way back from Halong Bay I spotted dozens of dusty roadside stops with sloping racks of dark pineapples for sale. A few minutes later, they were replaced by row upon row of tiny green or yellow bananas.

I only had the little bananas once on this trip. When I was at the Novotel in Halong Bay, a girl who was working at the breakfast buffet walked by. I saw melon and oranges and dragonfruit on the buffet but wanted, in good North American fashion, banana for my corn flakes. She looked at me, then glanced around and said “I’ll go ask.”

A minute later she returned, flashed a huge grin and handed me three little guys.

“It’s our secret,” she whispered.

Absolutely delightful.

Back in Hanoi, I bedded down for two nights at the stunning Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, formerly home of Jane Fonda and, not so long ago, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, a bevy of Saudi Arabian princes and, a few years back, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The latter had the Graham Greene suite, named for the author who used to frequent the hotel in the glamour days (not that it’s not glamourous now). They liked Jolie so much they’ve named the Italian restaurant in their new wing after her. It’s called Angelina, not Jolie, in case you want to phone for reservations some Friday night.IMG_0463

The place simply reeks of money and intrigue and mystique and glory. There are uniformed door men with hats, old cars that will drive you about, enormous ceiling fans in the glassed-in Le Club Restaurant and a lovely pool where, unbidden, the staff in pith helmets and khaki shorts will deliver sorbet, chilled water, cold towels, fresh fruit and mango ice cream cones. Not bad.

Mornings are awesome in Hanoi, especially over at Hoan Kiem lake, where they do tai-chi in the cool (kind of) sunrise hours. I spotted three 14-year-old boys out for a morning constitutional, and when do you see that in Canada except after a night at the all-night bars in the Entertainment District. There were older guys with their shirts off exercising at the side of the lake, as well as groups of women exercising to music. I could here them chanting something that sound like “oh ai ya, aaack, aaack, aaack, aaack, aaack.” I gotta admit it sounded a bit like the aliens in Mars Attacks or a wounded duck, but it was quite cool.

After a while they gathered in sort of a conga line and started slapping each other on the back, as if giving a brief massage. Over to one side, a woman in a crop top and tight, short pants was gyrating back and forth as if trying out for a Vegas show, thrusting out her bum and swaying her hips back and forth. That was, um, pretty good, too.

 

 

 

 

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