Monday, June 12, 2017

Vietnam - Halong Bay






The incredible view from Surprise Cave in Halong Bay

The next stop on our journey around Vietnam was a cruise around the magnificent Halong Bay.  This part of the holiday was the absolute highlight for me.  We left Hanoi for Halong Bay, not entirely sure how much we were going to enjoy Halong Bay.  We had left booking the cruise options until the very last minute, as no one could make their minds up about when and where to go.  One of the significant disadvantages of travelling with a large group is the need to take multiple peoples annual leave options and interests into consideration!  As we had deliberated for so long about where to go and what to do, we were unable to book into our preferred option for the Halong Bay part of the holiday.  We had intended to book a private cruise on a traditional Indochine Junk, which sounded divine.  Sadly, they were all booked and the next best option that we could find that could accommodate all of us was a 3 day cruise on Au Co 1.  We were all a bit unsure about what this experience would be like, none of us are cruise people and the idea of being locked away on a boat with 66 other tourists filled some of us with trepidation.  



Upon arrival at Tuan Chau Port, where our cruise was to depart from, we were ushered to the waiting area with our fellow travellers, all of us surreptitiously eyeballing each other.  A few other families, multiple young couples and so on,  then much to our collective horror, a large group of young men suddenly appeared.  All of them dressed in matching colourful Hawaiian shirts.  The communal gasp of horror was almost audible.  My sister in law and I locked eyes, both of us instantly imagining all sorts of potential raucous debauchery.  Shame on all of us though, the cruise was amazing, we loved every second of it.  Writing this today, months afterwards, I would still say that it is one of the best things that we have ever done as a family. The Hawaiian shirted louts? Well, they turned out to be a group of Norwegian engineering students that were finishing up a study tour of Asia and were a charming and polite group of young men, who turned out to be great fun to be around.   A true lesson in not making assumptions was learnt.



The boat was very clean and well equipped.  The food was great (no one got sick!), the seafood barbeque dinner in particular on the boats rooftop was memorable not only for the magical setting but also for the seafood feast.   The crew of the Au Co were fantastic, lots of fun, brilliant with kids and very talented at keeping everyone entertained.   There were plenty of different activities available onboard and it is important to note that there was no obligation to take part in any of these.  Indeed,  I wouldn't have known that some of them had even taken place had the boys not participated and provided me with feedback.  Activities that were offered on our cruise included kayaking tours of Ba Trai Dao area and also Dark and Bright Lagoon.  A traditional bamboo boat ride during which we actually saw some Cat Ba Langurs playing.  Apparently we were extremely lucky to see these as there are fewer than 60 remaining.  Ross and Hamish were able to paddle very close to them in their kayak.  I tried to take photos but couldn't manage it with my phone unfortunately.  In the evenings the boys busied themselves squid fishing off the side of the boat with the crew.  Every morning there was a tai chi lesson on the deck, Hamish, my nephew and my Mum all did this together and enjoyed it!  There were cooking lessons and fruit carving lessons before dinner.  All in all, if you wanted to be busy there was plenty to do,  if you just wanted to lie on the deck drinking cocktails and soaking in the wonder of Halong, that was equally possible!


Nick on the top deck of the Au Co 1


Every evening we enjoyed sunset cocktails on the rooftop of the Au Co and marvelled at the wonder surrounding us

Activities of note included a visit to Surprise Cave in Lan Ha Bay.  The cave was enormous, made up of three separate chambers, all filled with delicate stalactites and stalagmites.  It was quite a hike both up to the cave and then back down again and it is not something that I would  recommend unless you are reasonably fit and confident on your feet.  We all enjoyed the exercise though and it was well worth the walk to enjoy the magnificent view from the exit of the cave.  Our visit to the cave was very early in the morning and the caves were empty as we walked through.  I have since heard that it can be chaotically busy later in the day when the day boats visit Halong so that is something to consider when tossing up between an overnight cruise visit to Halong or a day trip.  

Inside one of the immense chambers of Surprise Cave.  The two tiny figures are Hamish and my nephew who ran about inside the cave having the time of their lives.


The largest chamber inside Surprise Cave is the last before you exit.  
The Cave was used by the Vietcong Army as a hide out during the Vietnam War and it was this aspect of the caves that probably fascinated the boys the most as well as the opportunity to have a run around.   For the rest of us it was a great opportunity to get some exercise and I would also recommend visiting the caves just to see the view from the caves exit.

Bikes lined up in preparation for the tour of Viet Hai Village

Another amazing Halong Bay experience organised by the Au Co crew was an afternoon spent exploring Viet Hai village on Cat Ba Island by bicycle.  Well we all cycled to the village and Nick who was training for NSWPSSA Cross Country ran the 6km to the village, much to the amusement of everyone else on the cruise and the villagers.  He was able to keep pace with us all also, pretty impressive in the heat and humidity!

Viet Hai village until recently was completely self sufficient and essentially isolated from the rest of the world only accessible by rough tracks through the jungle.   It is home to 80 families and is now open to a small amount of tourism.  We were permitted to visit as many of the Au Co Crew grew up in the village and the village is now the primary supplier of vegetables and fruit to the Au Co.  We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the sustainable and completely organic garden beds that supplied the majority of the food we were enjoying at every meal!





The "Au Co Organic Vegetable Gardens" on Cat Ba Island


After the tour of the gardens we were then permitted to explore the village and visit the small school.  Once again, we were the only tourists to be exploring the village and the whole experience felt like such a privilege. Chatting to the locals who all adored the boys and Hamish and my nephew loved an impromptu soccer game with some of the local boys.  The cycle ride to the village itself was beautiful, passing through tropical jungle and fields of grazing animals , there were a few hills but nothing too challenging and all the children managed the ride easily.  

Soccer truly is the worlds number one sport!  Hamish playing soccer with the boys of Viet Hai village that was cut off from the rest of the world until relatively recently.  













Halong Bay is incredibly beautiful,  the water is so still and the impressive limestone island formations so extraordinary that you truly experience moments of breathtaking wonder.  Be warned though, the rubbish in the water is appalling.  The crew explained to us that most of the rubbish floats down to Halong from China and that almost all the professionally operated cruise ship companies are now sponsoring rubbish collection programs.  Even so the amount of rubbish is extraordinary and there is only so much that the cruise ship companies and local people can manage.  If any readers are lucky enough to visit Halong Bay and experience the serenity and yet striking beauty of this World Heritage listed site please consider writing to UNESCO and lobbying for the protection of the people whose livelihood depends upon the cleanliness of the water, those that inhabit the floating villages and simply for the protection of the environment.




Tips for Halong Bay:

 - Pack a few warm clothes, the evenings out on the deck were quite cool and we were literally layering clothes on in order to keep warm.  The days were beautiful though and the water was lovely and refreshing. (Yes we swam despite the rubbish and no one ended up sick or acquired google worthy skin infections!)
- Make sure you pack a waterproof camera or a gopro to take photos of kayaking expeditions.
- Book well in advance and only with a reputable company, we have heard a few horror stories about overbooked ships and shonky cruise ship operators.








Friday, June 2, 2017

Vietnam - Hanoi


The April school holidays were spent exploring Vietnam and Cambodia and it is almost certainly the best holiday I have ever been on.  I find myself thinking about the many experiences we had and the incredible places we visited often.  We travelled with my parents and my brother and his family as a celebration for my Mum's 70th birthday and I admit, I was terrified before we left that it was going to be a nightmare.  I literally had sleepless nights imagining all the potential family dramas but in the end it was absolutely fine.  There is a lot to be said for multi-generational travel actually. 

Our holiday began in Hanoi.  We left the day school finished and I felt so disorganised before we left.  It was the least preparation I had done for any holiday.  I needn't have worried though, the company we used to plan the holiday were fantastic and Vietnam is a fabulous country to explore  with children. The Vietnamese love kids, somewhere whilst on this holiday I read that the Vietnamese adore children as they believe it brings them closer to God, and they really do seem to cherish children.  From the guides we had in each city, to the hotel staff, to people on the street and in shops,  they all adored the children and were happy to chat with them and indulge them.  Vietnam really is a fabulous family holiday destination.

Our first morning we explored the streets near the hotel. A short walk from our hotel was the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake.  We wandered around the lake in the early morning bustle of the city.  As we walked my dad was telling us that the last time he was in Hanoi, which was in the late 1980s, there was still the wing of a B52 bomber poking jauntily out of one of the city lakes, left as a constant reminder to the people of the catastrophic effects of war.  The boys of course delighted in hearing this story.


These photos don't really illustrate the activity that was taking place all around us.  It was very early in the morning as we walked and there were people doing tai chi classes, hawkers selling their wares, shop fronts opening, people on their way to work, joggers and cyclists all around us competing for space along the walkway. Yet, at the same time it was as incredibly peaceful as these photos suggest.


Highlights of our time in Hanoi included exploring the bustling French quarter by cyclo.  We all had our own cyclo driver and I was the last to leave.  My driver was holding the most enormous cane and terracotta pipe and as we pulled out he had a long suck of whatever it was that he was smoking and then he was off, we explored the "36 streets"  of the old quarter, him pedaling my 180cm tall frame around and I was eventually the first back to the hotel.  Love to know what my guy was smoking!


Mostly the drivers went in single file as we pedaled around the streets so it was easy to keep an eye on those kids that were alone with their cyclo driver.  The youngest two both travelled with an adult much to their disgust.  The oldest one, looked like a little Maharajah in his cyclo!  We all loved this method of exploring the city and I would recommend the experience to all.  I was able to sit back and relax and really admire the fabulous old buildings and watch the passing traffic, soaking it all in properly.








Another highlight from Hanoi was our hotel.  Most of the hotels we stay in are amazing but I only ever include details about the hotel if I think that they are truly unique or special.  Our hotel in Hanoi was definitely worthy of a mention.  We stayed at the Sofitel Legend Metropole and it was stunning.  The hotel is located just moments from the lake which was fantastic for us, Nick was (and still is) training for some up coming cross country races so he was able to jog around the lake safely every morning without us being concerned for his safety.  He is 11 and quite mature though.   It is also walking distance to the old town.  The hotel itself is stunning, with French Colonial architecture and is soaked in history.  Jane Fonda stayed at the hotel during her controversial trip to Vietnam in the 1970s, Graham Greene stayed at the hotel whilst writing The Quiet American.  W. Somerset Maugham was once a guest and wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour at the hotel.  I loved our stay here, both for the fabulous ambience and the history.  I highly recommend it.





Other activities in Hanoi included a visit to Ho Chi Minh's Tomb, it was here that I really felt a sense of Vietnam's Communist ruling party.  The vast Ba Dinh Square where the mausoleum is located and where Ho Chi Minh delivered his Declaration of Independence speech in 1945, really does have echoes of China's Tiananmen Square.


Two of those tiny figures in the distance are Hamish and my nephew.  There is something about wide open spaces and the desire to run for small boys.  The boys also enjoyed observing a changing of the guard ceremony which was done with all the necessary pomp and circumstance.


If in Hanoi I would also recommend a visit to The Temple of Literature, the home of Vietnam's first university.  It is over a 1000 years old and home to the UNESCO heritage listed Stone Seles.  Stone tablets that record exam results from the Le and Mac dynasties (1142 - 1779).  Ha, that might motivate the students of today to study harder knowing that their exam results were to be carved into stone and then added to the UNESCO world heritage list! The boys were nonplussed by these though and much more impressed with what they deemed to be the biggest Taiko drum they had ever seen.  (Nick is in a Taiko drum group at school).  The Temple is a lovely place to visit, it is surrounded by high walls and inside has a peaceful, tranquil feel away from the chaotic streets of Hanoi just outside the boundary walls,




The only museum we visited in Hanoi was the Museum of Ethnology, here my Mum whipped out notebooks and pencils for the boys.  One was very into it, one lukewarm and the other blankly refused.  I loved my Mum's idea of the boys documenting their holiday with drawings and written notes and wish that they had agreed to participate with this but sadly no.  Whenever they did agree to document anything the Vietnamese people around us were fascinated by their drawings.



My last recommendation of things to do and particularly with children is to attend a Vietnamese lacquerware workshop.  We watched with interest as the artists began with a wooden base, then painted or decorated the wood with an inlay of egg shells or mother of pearl.  The boys even got to try their hand at a few of the different stages involved in creating a lacquered work of art.





Hanoi was a wonderful introduction to Vietnam and it is well worth a visit, if only for a visit to the fabulous Sofitel Legend Metropole for a drink at the bar and then a cyclo ride around the old quarter.  I will follow up in the next few days or so with the next leg of our holiday.  The magical and magnificent Halong Bay. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A pool landscaping update





We have made some significant changes to the landscaping around the pool in the backyard.  The pool was quite exposed previously,  with the neighbours house virtually looking directly onto it.  This, combined with an almost complete absence of greenery, made the pool area feel barren and boring.   We wanted to create a sense of privacy and also make the pool a more relaxing place to be.  We began by creating a garden bed along the fence line with the intention of growing plants to create a natural screen between us and our neighbours.   A second garden bed was then added between the pool and the cabana and we are thrilled with the end result, the entire area is far more intimate and more resort like now, a much more enjoyable place to go for a swim!



The new garden beds and decking going in.



The fabulous new garden bed in front of the cabana. We currently use the cabana as a guest room, however I am tossing up changing the space into a backyard games room. 




A sneak peak into the cabana through the bromeliads, gingers, cardboard palms, strelitzia and  one flowering canna lily.





The new garden beds with their amazing tropical plants have created an incredible pool oasis.  Ross spent hours scouring ebay and gumtree and was able to source most of the plants cheaply and in some cases they were even free! The mature yuccas for instance were free to whomever was prepared to dig them up.  Taking the time to source mature plants was well and truly worth it as the garden looks like it has been there forever.  We were also very careful to choose plants that do not shed lots of leaves as cleaning leaves out of pools is a nightmare and not something either Ross or I fancied spending our weekends doing.




There were two things that precipitated all this work to the back garden, the first was that all the decking had to be replaced around the pool. The previous home owners had painted the boards black which had damaged the wood badly.  We were unfortunately also unable to flip the boards as they had been nailed down.  Sadly we had to start again completely which really troubled me environmentally but at least the new decking has been screwed in and will be treated only with the appropriate wood decking products! 

The second thing that inspired the new pool landscaping was the position of the pool fence.  On the garden side of the pool there was a small strip of garden between the pool and the pool fence.  Visually and practically the position of the glass fence just didn’t work and I am so glad we moved the fence to the coping, as it has made an enormous difference to how the whole area appears.  Practically it has also made a big difference, as there are no more bits of grass and dirt being tracked by the kids straight into the pool!






New pool fence in and what a difference!  Meanwhile the plants are maturing well and it will not be long until the green screen takes it's full effect, providing some privacy from the neighbours.  The greenery when layered against the gum trees beyond will add even further depth to the garden, increasing the sense of space.   It is a lovely place to be now, it really is extraordinary the difference plants can make to the feel of a place.


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