Farewell to Hanoi, en route to Cambodia

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I didn’t see anyone make a purchase from this street vendor, so I can’t say what’s inside these leaf-wrapped bundles. This young woman’s entrepreneurship is typical of what tourists see on Hanoi’s streets.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the eighth post in the series about our experiences.

We returned from Bai Tu Long Bay to the same Hanoi accommodation we stayed at before our cruise, the Art Boutique Hotel. Our first room, while adequate overall, was compact. It had everything we needed and good air-conditioning, but not much room to maneuver. We rearranged where the laptop computer and supplies for making tea and coffee were on a desk to create more surface space. Luggage racks would have been a big help as well.

The only window was a tiny one in the bathroom. When I booked the room online, I had requested a “quiet” room, and as this was away from the street, the potential for “quiet” was present.

Unfortunately, one evening construction work was going on in the building next door until 10 p.m. We weren’t the only guests who (politely) complained, more than once.

And we also had a problem with the drain in our shower. We mentioned it before going out for our daily activities, but it was not fixed when we returned. There may have been a misunderstanding about the sink vs. shower drain.

After another complaint, made gently in person to the front desk staff, a man came to our room to clean the drain. Many sincere apologies were made by staff for not having solved the issue the first time.

So perhaps to make up for these inconveniences, when we rechecked in, we were given an upgrade to a daylight room at the front of the hotel, with a walk-out balcony and a fine view of old Hanoi. Chairs and tables outside needed a good cleaning, but we did appreciate the overall gesture.

We could hear street and traffic noise, but by bedtime, it wasn’t a problem.

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An early evening view of Hang Dieu Street from the balcony of our room at the Art Boutique Hotel in Hanoi. Space is at a premium, which means it’s easier to build vertically than horizontally.

The next morning, we noted that the breakfast options had been upgraded (more buffet choices, particularly fresh fruit) and the menu had been retyped and resided between new covers. We had been doing fine with baguettes, robust coffee, juice, eggs and pancakes, but it was nice to see the improvements.

As if still trying to make up for the drain and noise issues, a day after we checked out, I received an email thanking us for our patronage and offering a 20 percent discount off our next stay. And if we weren’t planning to return, that our friends and family could use the discount.

As I said in my May 26  post, the welcome mat is out.

On our last half-day in Hanoi, we walked from our hotel in the Old Quarter to Hoan Kiem Lake, where we had visited previously with our Food on Foot night tour (see June 26 post). No cyclo or taxi needed this time. Part of the fun of wandering a city is looking at the shops, what they’re selling, and the busy street vendors, who offer a fantastic variety of wares.

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Ngoc Son Temple (to right of bridge) is a popular spot to visit at Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s reached by crossing the Rising Sun Bridge. The temple is dedicated to Gen. Tran Hung Dao, who repelled the Mongols in the 13th century; La To, a patron saint of doctors; and Van Xuong, a scholar.

We took a leisurely stroll all the way around the lake. An arched, red bridge leads to a small island at the north end of the lake, the chief structure of which is Ngoc Son Temple. There is a charge to walk on the bridge to the islet, and we skipped this.

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This young couple, perhaps newly engaged or newly married, was posing for pictures by the lake. In an earlier photo I took from a distance, she is holding a bouquet of red flowers.

A beautiful young woman, dressed in an ao dai of white, short-sleeved lace top and purple slacks, and a man, possibly her fiancee or husband, made a handsome couple. They were posing for professionally shot pictures on the promenade.

In Ho Chi Minh City the next week, we saw two other brides, in Western traditional white wedding gowns, at two other locations having their wedding pictures taken with their new husbands.

After we completed our lake lap, we had a little time to kill before heading to the airport. I saw a sign in a cafe window that said “egg coffee,” so we headed to the red-facaded Note Coffee.

Its claim to fame: Multicolored Post-it-like notes papering the walls, overlapping the ceiling and flapping in the upstairs windows, thus the name. They aren’t just for decoration, either. All had writing, some in English and other languages, and a good many in Vietnamese.

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The Note Coffee in Hanoi, a place for young trendsetters to hang out, and maybe leave a message for a secret admirer.

The vibe here seemed to be young, hip and a place to court — or moon over — a special someone. For hours at a time.

Susan had an egg coffee — different and not as good as at Giang Cafe on our food tour — but it came with a hand-written note that said (in English): “Have a great time in Hanoi. Enjoy your holiday.” The lighter egg was swirled in the shape of a heart in the middle of the cup.

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A friendly note accompanied our coffee stop across from Hoan Kiem Lake.

After five-and-a-half days covering Hanoi and our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, it was time to move on to Cambodia.

Cambodia: The heat is on

We touched down at the Siem Reap airport shortly before sunset. The immediate impression: jarring heat, especially noticeable after the comfortable temperature and cloud cover for most of our time in Hanoi and on Bai Tu Long Bay. No skyway from the plane to the terminal here: Visitors walk outside from the tarmac to the airport buildings.

We had both secured our visas before leaving the United States, so we cleared immigration quickly.

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Passport stamps at Siem Reap Airport incorporate the towers of the UNESCO World Heritage site at Angkor Wat.

One exceptional souvenir: the passport stamp for Cambodia. No boring outlined square or rectangle with a date inside, that could be affixed almost anywhere in the world. Vietnam’s immigration stamp features a small airplane, but otherwise it’s without frills.

On arrival, the passport stamp installed in Siem Reap is an octagon, adorned at the top edge with the outline of the famous towers at Angkor Wat, the reason most visitors journey here. The departure stamp is similar, though the exterior border is an oval.

A brilliant red-orange sun was beginning to set as we settled into a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorized vehicle) that our hotel sent to fetch us (service included as part of the bill) for the 15-minute ride into town.

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This flatbed is turning onto the center lanes of one of the main roads in Siem Reap. For safety, vehicles of lesser size and horsepower are relegated to the lanes on either side of the wider center road.

One of the main roads leading from the airport to town varies by width. The main center lanes are for large vehicles, such as trucks, cars, buses and minivans. On either side sandwiching the center road are narrower lanes for slower vehicles such as scooters and bicycles. Separating the traffic according to horsepower and vehicle size seemed to a workable and safe solution in order to lessen the possibility of accidents.

On National Highway 6, tourists can choose from more than 60 hotels, many of four- and five-star international standard. These hotels, some with spa facilities, are away from the bustle of downtown Siem Reap. Several resorts also boast golf courses, including one designed by six-time major championship winner Nick Faldo.

We opted for an in-town property, walkable to the colorful market, restaurants and several of the local wats (temples).

Our room at the spotless Soria Moria was the most spacious of our trip. The hotel was founded by a Norwegian woman, Kristen Holdo Hansen, who is a big proponent of sustainable and responsible tourism.

Through the years, each of the Cambodian staff, many from impoverished backgrounds, have had a chance to invest in the 38-room hotel. “The goal is for the local employees to own and manage the business independently and continue to help developing their own community,” the website says.

A yearlong exchange opportunity with a hotel in Fornebu, Norway (in greater Oslo), also gives Cambodians a chance to have extensive training in the hospitality industry in Scandinavia, while Norwegians come to work in Siem Reap, everyone benefitting from the raising of cultural awareness. Check the website for other information about how the Soria Moria is empowering its workers through education, literacy and management programs.

Quick reference: Art Boutique Hotel, 65 Hang Dieu St., Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi; artboutiquehotelhanoi.com The company also has two other properties in Hanoi, the Art Trendy Hotel, and the Hanoi Marvellous Hotel and Spa (the newest of the three). The website links to the other hotels.

The Note Coffee: Gui tai 64 Luong Van Can, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, Wat Bo Road, Salakamrouk, Siem Reap, Cambodia; thesoriamoria.com

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Dickey Chapelle, American photojournalist

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Dickey Chapelle was in her early 20s when she gained accreditation as a photographer, designated by the “C” on her armband, in World War II. The photo was taken in her New York City apartment in 1942. The inset of Chapelle dates to Milwaukee, 1959. “This is the photograph of me at work I like better than any other. It was taken covering the Marines on Operation Inland Seas across the same beach where I learned to swim as a little girl,” the caption says in “Fire in the Wind.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

The name Dickey Chapelle was not on my radar until I saw a photograph of her, barely clinging to life, as part of the “Requiem” exhibit at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

On Nov. 4, 1965, Chapelle was the first American female war correspondent to be killed in action. She was with a Marine unit on patrol near a village called Chu Lai in South Vietnam when a lieutenant in front of her accidentally tripped a mine and shrapnel struck her in the neck. Four Marines were also wounded. Chapelle was air-lifted by helicopter, but she died en route to the hospital. She was 46.

In the black-and-white photograph, she is lying face down, with her left profile exposed. Dirt, prickly vegetation and what looks like a pool of blood surround her. Her left arm is bent at the elbow, she’s wearing a wristwatch and her curled fingers obscure the middle part of her face. She’s fallen on her right arm. Her palm-up right hand peeks out from under her body. Part of her kit and a knife are fastened at the waist.

Her hair is tied back. Her treasured Australian bush hat has come to rest right side up a few inches from her head. The upper parts of her fatigues are discolored, probably from her own blood, which also looks to be on her forehead. A trickle zigzags down her cheek, emanating from below her earlobe, one of the pearl earrings that she always wore clearly visible.

Squatting over her is Chaplain John McNamara of Boston. His cap is hiding his face, and perhaps his emotions. He’s making the sign of the cross and administering the last rites. Two helmeted soldiers stand behind McNamara, rifles slung over their right shoulders, with the weapon’s business end pointing skyward. In the background, among denser plant life, another soldier sits with his rifle resting diagonally across his right knee.

The image was taken by Henri Huet, a Vietnamese-born photographer working for The Associated Press.

When I got home, I did a bit of online research and found a biography of the photojournalist, “Fire in the Wind: The Life of Dickey Chapelle” by Roberta Ostroff (Ballantine Books, 1992, $21).

(The photograph described above is included in “Vietnam: The Real War, A Photographic History” by The Associated Press [Abrams, 2013; $40; see my June 18 blog post], but oddly not in “Fire in the Wind.” It can also be found elsewhere online.)

The author says her project began as a screenplay, but by the time she’d finished writing the first draft, the commissioning company was out of business. But she remained fascinated by Chapelle’s life, so decided to turn her project into a book.

Luckily, as Ostroff says, Chapelle was a pack rat. Ostroff drew on Chapelle’s 99 notebooks, reams of correspondence — Chapelle made copies of every letter she wrote — unpublished versions of Chapelle’s autobiography, another unpublished manuscript, articles Chapelle wrote for various publications and news clippings. All these and hundreds of photographs comprise the Chapelle archive at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Ostroff says.

Wading through this amount of information must have been a formidable task. In the end, Ostroff seems confounded by Chapelle’s contradictions, while equally admiring her courage and her subject’s obsessive need to “eyeball” the story.

By turns, Ostroff portrays Chapelle as a feisty, tough-talking, chain-smoking woman driven to prove she was as good as or better than her male counterparts. At the same time, Chapelle was a wildly naive, foolhardy risk-taker, who by the end of her life had lost nearly all semblance of journalistic objectivity.

Chapelle had a vivid imagination as a child, a hunger to be “someone” and perhaps an overinflated picture of her abilities. She had what fictional TV news editor Lou Grant would have called spunk, and she apparently rarely let “no” derail her plans. While Chapelle was busy building and polishing her own legend, Ostroff says, the truth did not always win out.

Born Georgette Louise Meyer in the middle-class Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood, Chapelle longed for an exciting life. She so fervently worshiped explorer Richard E. Byrd that as a teenager she adopted “Dick” and then “Dickey” as her first name in tribute to him.

A studious, intelligent girl, she was burdened by a controlling “helicopter” mother — before there was such a term. This was in direct conflict with the subtler messages she was getting from her father about exerting her independence. He fed her early quest for achievement through a steady diet of films and lectures about the celebrities of the day, including aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

So it’s not surprising that Dickey was among the Depression-era masses swept up in the excitement of the developing field of aviation. Her first published article, at 14 years old, was “Why We Want to Fly,” showcasing her infatuation with the budding industry.

In 1935, she took her first steps to becoming part of it, when at 16, she graduated as class valedictorian, and earned a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of only seven women among incoming freshman, her goal was to be an aeronautical engineer, designing commercial airliners, the more radical in look the better.

A combination of factors quickly derailed the plan. The freedom of being away from her mother’s influence, too many hours spent watching airplanes, too much time squandered with her boyfriend and not enough studying caused her to flunk out in her sophomore year.

Embarrassed at her failure and back in Milwaukee, she landed a summer job as a secretary to one of the pilots who clustered around Curtiss Wright airfield. She briefly took flying lessons, showing great enthusiasm but no innate aptitude.

Her mother, appalled at the amount of time Dickey was spending with the roguish barnstormers, sent Dickey, now 18, to south Florida to live with her grandparents. This ultimately backfired, as Dickey landed a job handling publicity for a well-known air show, only fueling her adoration of all things aviation.

She parlayed that into a trip to Cuba for another air show, and the promise of filing copy directly to the American press. When one of the pilots died in a crash, she was badly shaken, and she was beaten on the story. But she’d caught the eye of the United Press aviation reporter, who hired her to be his secretary, when he accepted a job with the fledgling Transcontinental and Western Air, later known as TWA.

The key was that the position brought Dickey to New York, where she would meet Tony Chapelle, who was directing TWA’s publicity pictures. Chapelle, a former World War I photographer, was also a pilot and taught photography. Dickey was an eager student, dazzled by this “charming” man, 20 years her senior, and his perceived talents. In October of 1940, they were married.

What Dickey didn’t know was that her new husband was an unrepentant womanizer — in fact married to someone else on the day he wed Dickey — with an invented resume, a master manipulator, and often deeply in debt.

But he also was the conduit to Dickey putting together the elements that would fuel her career: a new-found devotion to photography, her writing skills and blinding determination that ultimately took her to far-flung destinations, sometimes working as a team with Tony.

Some of the campaigns Dickey would take pictures of and report on:

  • infantry training in the jungles of Panama in 1942 (simulating conditions that Allied troops would face in the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II);
  • Iwo Jima (photographs of the wounded aboard a hospital ship anchored offshore, and an unauthorized visit to the front);
  • Okinawa in April 1945 (she disobeyed orders, left a hospital ship and spent several days “far forward” on the island, which caused her accreditation to be revoked);
  • Marines training in San Diego in 1955 (among her favorite assignments);
  • rebels in Algeria in 1957, as their forces fought to win independence from France;
  • 53 days spent in a Budapest prison, detained while purportedly on a humanitarian mission to deliver medicine during the 1956 Hungarian uprising (where she may or may not had some sort of loose Cold War collaboration with the CIA);
  • the Marines’ landing in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1958;
  • the Castro revolution in Cuba, in 1958-59;
  • U.S. Special Forces in the “secret war”  in Laos in 1961;
  • and five tours in Vietnam, 1961-1965 (where she was at least 10 years older than the Young Turks, reporters such as Neil Sheehan [United Press, later The New York Times] and David Halberstam [NYT], who made their reputations there).

In his memoir, “Muddy Boots and Red Socks,” Malcolm Browne, who covered Vietnam for UPI and later The New York Times, remembered Chapelle as a “kind of Ernie Pyle [famed World War II reporter] who marched with the U.S. Marines in every conflict from World War II to Viet Nam.”

In 1959, at age 40, while researching a story about military preparedness, she enrolled in a privately run “jump” school in Massachusetts. With clearance from the Pentagon, she proved her competency at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and earned a paratrooper certificate, something few of her male colleagues could claim.

While she did gain acclaim and honors for some of her work, Dickey never seemed to have reached the level of fame which she had envisioned as a child. She went on U.S. lecture tours, appeared on TV shows such as “What’s My Line” and “To Tell the Truth,” and won the prestigious George Polk Award from the Overseas Press Club.

Most important to Dickey was the special bond she formed with the Marines, writing pro-military accounts of their training Stateside, and covering their patrols under combat conditions in several countries.

Though never on staff at a newspaper or magazine, Dickey’s work appeared in Argosy magazine, Cosmopolitan, Life Story magazine, Look magazine, Reader’s Digest, and National Geographic, among others. She was on assignment for the National Observer the day she died.

One year to the day after her death, the Marines dedicated a hospital dispensary named for Chapelle in the village near where she died. The marble plaque says in part: “She was one of us and we will miss her.”

As interesting and informative as I found the book, there are swaths of dialog and passages that read like they had sprung from the author’s imagination — or her screenplay. I had in mind to contact Ostroff, but an online search indicated that she died in 2004. She was mentioned in an obituary that said she was the third wife of Icelandic guitarist Jon Pall Bjarnason, who died in August 2015.

Ostroff says she conducted interviews, but only a partial list of participants is included in her acknowledgements, nor is there a notes section. She did track down a Marine captain who was among the last people Dickey had contact with, and relies heavily on his recollections in the 22-page prologue, where Ostroff reconstructs the final two days of Chapelle’s life in considerable detail. But I still had the feeling that Ostroff may have been taking some literary license.

Unfortunately, glaring errors and editing and spelling lapses mar the book. For example, in the introduction the author refers to the “Michigan” Institute of Technology, and while there is such a place in Lapeer, Mich., it is not Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is where Chapelle flunked out of. Also in the introduction, the author tells us she had access to Chapelle’s 99 reporter’s notebooks, spells out ninety correctly, then repeats it in the same sentence and spells it ninty.

The author is just plain wrong when she says the United States dropped two bombs on Hiroshima in August 1945. Maybe in a draft she referenced Hiroshima and Nagasaki separately, then rewrote some sentences, eliminating Nagasaki, and wasn’t as precise as she needed to be.

Among other oddities: The author never divulges Chapelle’s birthdate — I tracked it down as March 14, 1919 — and the narrative begins when Chapelle is 10.

All that said, I think Ostroff achieved what she intended: To bring to light for a post-Vietnam War generation the exploits of a somewhat controversial, complicated professional, whose name and reputation have mostly receded into the annals of history.

Addendum: A brief mention is made of Chapelle’s death in Peter Arnett’s “Live From the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World’s War Zones” (see my Aug. 1 post for that review). In Arnett’s book, Associated Press features writer Hugh Mulligan quotes a corps commander: “Whenever any other girl reporter came up here, we always had to run a colonel out of his room because it had a private toilet. But not Dickie [sic] Chapelle. She never asked for the slightest concession because of her sex. She’d spread her poncho in the mud like the rest of them and eat out of tin cans like she hated it, the way we do, and not because it was something cute. In fatigues and helmet you couldn’t tell her from the troops and she could keep up front with the best of them.”

Arnett gets the year of Chapelle’s death wrong, putting it in 1966. Otherwise, he confirms that the presence of female reporters and photographers in Vietnam was barely tolerated by their male counterparts, rarely giving them the professional — or personal — respect they deserved.

Additional background: “What’s a Woman Doing Here?: A Reporter’s Report on Herself” by Dickey Chapelle (William Morrow and Co., 1962) According to Ostroff, Chapelle was unhappy with her publisher’s editing of her autobiography, softening it to appeal to a mostly female audience.

Wisconsin Historical Society: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org Its collection has more than 20,000 of Chapelle’s images, more than 450 of which are online.

“Behind the Pearl Earrings: The Story of Dickey Chapelle, Combat Photojournalist” This documentary ran in November 2015 on Milwaukee Public Television, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dickey’s death.

“Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action” by John Garofolo (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015, $25)

Cruising Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam (continued)

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This skillful fisherman uses his feet to row, thus freeing his hands to ready the implements of his trade.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the seventh post in the series about our experiences.

We could have started our mornings with the 7:30 sessions of tai chi on the top deck of the Dragon Legend 2, but instead of practicing a succession of slow controlled movements, we got a boost from strong coffee in the bar area of the dining room.

At breakfast, everyone gravitated to the same group of tables they’d sat at the previous day, and this pattern continued for the rest of the trip. This meant that we had a chance for in-depth conversation with a couple from Denmark and a Canadian couple who live near Toronto.

We alternated among three tables, so everyone had an opportunity to sit nearest the window and enjoy the Bai Tu Long Bay scenery as we dined.

I stuck with a Western breakfast of juice, toast and eggs. Susan was more adventurous and had a big bowl of pho ga, the chicken version of pho, the famous Vietnamese dish of rice noodles in broth, sometimes served with beef.

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The bay’s limestone karsts provide protection from some of the harsher weather elements for the inhabitants who live around Vung Vieng fishing village.

Our first activity of the day was to go by rowboat to visit Vung Vieng, a floating fishing village. Many of Indochina Junk’s itineraries include this stop. (The crew was rigorous in making sure that each time we left the DL2, everyone was wearing a life vest.)

A woman in a conical straw hat stood at the stern of our rowboat, her purple-gloved hands expertly guiding the oars, delivering a smooth, gentle glide on a coolish, drizzly morning.

A black scarf partially covered her face, and she wore a knee-length gray coat and black trousers. A young German couple who spoke English were in the rowboat with us.

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We were able to get excellent photos of the karsts and other bay scenery because of the skill of the woman guiding the oars.

Before long, our little flotilla of DL2 passengers arrived at the fishing village. The few people who were there paid us no mind and went about their business.

We walked along the worn planked decks, got a look at a schoolroom (furnished with an Australian school’s aid), some sparsely furnished living quarters and a room with a display of implements used in the fishing industry.

The schoolroom’s lesson on the chalkboard included English translation of the word “ma,” which, depending on the accent, has at least six meanings, including “ghost,” “mother” and “rice.” It also featured the requisite framed picture of Ho Chi Minh.

(The Dragon Legend website says the village is more a “museum” now, indicating that safety and educational regulations require former residents to live on land. Maybe it was referring to the buildings that we walked around because the other houses we saw on the water were definitely inhabited.)

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Everything this fisherman needs is neatly stowed on his boat.

Our visit was brief, and we climbed carefully back into our rowboat. A light rain was falling, and our pilot gave each of us a conical hat that matched hers to keep our head and face dry.

She maneuvered us into tiny coves and up close to the limestone karsts, an excellent opportunity for photos.

Among my favorite of the whole trip: A young fisherman, solo in his boat, with his feet on his oars to row, thus freeing his hands to cast his fish-catching equipment into the water.

With no mechanical sounds of any vehicle nearby and calm water, this interlude was pleasingly peaceful and sublimely scenic.

We also made a stop at a pearl-growing area, where we witnessed a specialist inserting tiny seeds into oysters, in which gems will eventually grow. In the next room, pearls set as jewelry were available for purchase. Thankfully, the sales pitch wasn’t overly aggressive and the stop was short.

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Precision and patience are needed to implant seeds into gem-bearing oysters.

The whole outing took only about an hour, and we returned to the Dragon Legend 2.

Barbecue lunch was scheduled to be on the beach of Thien Canh Son Island, but because of the rain, it was relocated to the island’s cave. This delighted me no end, because when I had originally researched Indochina Junk’s itineraries, I wanted to book its ship that features a meal in a cave, but couldn’t because of a schedule conflict.

Tender boats delivered us from the ship to the beach. Cautiously, we climbed 100 steep, winding steps to the entrance. The cave isn’t one of the largest — the ones in Halong Bay and other locations in national parks have that distinction — but what it lacked in size it more than made up for in ambiance.

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Candlelight helped set a relaxed mood for a barbecue lunch served in Thien Cahn Son cave.

The crew had elegantly laid the cloth-covered tables with china, glassware, silverware and candles. They set up the barbecues in a covered area that overlooked the bay, so the smoke wafted in that direction.

On the menu (kudos to Susan for writing this down): barbecued ribs, spicy squid, gigantic grilled prawn (“that was delicious and tasted like lobster,” she reported), chicken wings, grilled fish (“very mild”) and veggie rice.

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A closer look at some of the stalactites in the cave.

After our leisurely meal, we were given the choice of exploring the beach, or later going kayaking. Because it was still raining lightly, we returned to the Dragon Legend 2 and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.

Dinner was another multicourse menu, which unfortunately I didn’t get a copy of. The chefs went all-out with the table decorations, carving intricate floral designs into small, oblong watermelons and fashioning flowers, birds and a dragon from other fruits and vegetables. A bouquet of “roses” was in reality crafted from beets.

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In addition to delicious food, the chefs showed off their dexterity by carving table decorations from vegetables and fruit.

The Canadian couple we were sitting with was celebrating an anniversary, and the staff had prepared a small chocolate cake. It was cut into petite pieces and shared throughout the dining room, a nice touch to end a pleasant day.

On our last morning, we again had coffee before breakfast. Knowing there would be a full lunch service before we departed the ship, I ate lightly.

Checkout of our cabin was at 10 a.m., so, as instructed, we put our luggage in the hall for staff to collect and organize to be brought back to shore.

We went onto the top deck to take more pictures, and I tried to mentally store the images in my “memory palace.” As mentioned previously, Bai Tu Long Bay isn’t crowded, and though we did see other boats, they appeared mostly to be fishing vehicles, though one woman selling souvenirs rowed up to the side of the DL2.

Lunch was an inviting buffet. The menu:

Appetizers

Vietnamese salad with carrot sauce

Seafood spring roll

Main courses

Pan-fried shrimp with aloe leaves

Grilled fish with banana leaves, served with tomato sauce

Indochina Junk’s traditional beef on a sizzler plate

Vietnamese eggplant with prawns in a clay pot

Stir-fried seasonal vegetables

Steamed fragrant rice

Dessert

Seasonal fresh fruit

We arrived at Hon Gai pier at about 11:30 a.m. and boarded our vans to begin the trip back to Hanoi.

The stop at Yen Duc village for the water puppet show was about 30 minutes.

Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese performing art, dating to the 11th century. It is said to have originated in flooded rice paddies of the Red River Delta. The paddies could partially hide both the puppeteers and the long horizontal bamboo poles used to manipulate the puppets.

The village “stage” we saw was more of a square pond in front of a bamboo curtain. We only saw the puppeteers in their bib coverall waders when they came out to take a bow after the performance.

The brightly colored puppets — animals, dragons, human figures — are made of lacquered wood, and because of the repeated exposure to water, don’t last more than a few months, my guidebook says.

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Dragons dart to and fro in the water puppet show at Yen Duc village. After the performance,  puppeteers came out from behind the bamboo curtain to take a bow.

The show had musical accompaniment with traditional instruments and some explanations about the brief acts, which dramatize myths, legends and ordinary village life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out most of the narration and instead just concentrated on watching the dragons and other puppets darting from side to side.

(Visitors who want to see a water puppet show but aren’t stopping at Yen Duc village can book at theaters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.)

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Workers man rice paddies in the countryside.

We were dropped off at our hotel late in the afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed our cruise experience.

Scheduling it in the early part of our trip turned out to be a wise move in that we were able to rest and recharge for the busy days ahead in Cambodia.

Quick reference: Indochina Junk, www.indochina-junk.com; direct link to Dragon Legend ships: www.dragonlegendcruise.com The four-deck Dragon Legend 1 and Dragon Legend 2 are identical ships, built in 2013-14. Each has 24 cabins (maximum of 48 guests), staff of 35, outdoor and indoor restaurants, two bars, a pool, fitness area and a spa.

Price depends on length of cruise and time of year. Be sure to check for available promotions/early booking specials. Read the refund policy, and other information on the website closely. Cruises are sometimes canceled, rerouted or shortened because of poor weather, especially during the summer monsoon season. Purchasing travel insurance is a good idea.

Oct. 31, 2016 addendum: The option of dining in a cave is no more, at the Thien Cahn Son cave where Indochina Junk ships stop in Bai Tu Long Bay, or anywhere else on Halong Bay. Citing concerns about possible damage to the landscape and natural environment, Quang Ninh Province authorities, specifically the People’s Committee of Halong Bay, announced in September that by the end of October, all tour companies must drop this feature. Indochina Junk’s itineraries have replaced the cave-dining experience with a chance to have lunch on a beach.

 

Beautiful Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

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Even with an overcast sky and a bit of mist blurring the tops of the karsts, there’s no mistaking the magnificence of Bai Tu Long Bay, in northern Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. Here’s another post about our experiences.

A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without a relaxing cruise on one of its beguiling bays. Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994, is the most famous.

We opted for a slightly different route, choosing a cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay, northeast of the more congested Halong, but with the same spectacular scenery: towering karsts as far as the eye can see.

More than 2,000 of these vegetation-covered limestone islets dot the water in the bays (part of the larger Gulf of Tonkin). My guidebook says that Halong translates as “where the dragon descends into the sea.” So visualize a dragon, its lengthy body submerged, but its somewhat triangular, spiky back appendages jutting skyward out of the water and you’ll have an idea of the landscape.

We made our decision to cruise Bai Tu Long Bay based on the fact that it has far less boat traffic and cleaner, clearer water than Halong Bay, which, unfortunately, is paying the price for its popularity, with pollution taking a toll. I’ve seen articles that estimate 500 or more ships ply the waters of Halong Bay.

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On our three-day, two-night cruise, we saw few other ships on Bai Tu Long Bay. The ones we did see were generally small, belonged to fishermen or the occasional vendor in a rowboat selling souvenirs.

Many companies vie for the almighty tourist dollar, and offer similar schedules and activities. Costs range from the super budget to the “I can’t believe I paid that much money” for a top-end ship. I spent more time researching this leg of our journey than any other, checking prices, itineraries and safety record of 11 companies.

Knowing we’d be sleeping two nights on board, I wanted to make sure that the steel ship we picked, the Dragon Legend 2, had a good safety record, and that the company we contracted with, Indochina Junk, had a good reputation.

As it turned out, this was one of those “you get what you pay for experiences,” and we were extremely pleased with the result. The 24-cabin ship was well-appointed, the food smashing and our fellow cruisers an interesting bunch.

We met lots of Canadians, a few Aussies and Brits, one German couple, one Danish couple and one American family. (The ship was not booked to capacity.) The staff worked very hard to make sure everyone was comfortable and having a grand time.

Let me digress for a moment to discuss the overall duration of the trip. On the three-day, two-night itinerary, the total time on board is about 48 hours. It takes nearly four hours to get to the ship, so about half the day is gone by the time you embark.

The second day is a full day on board, and on the third day, passengers disembark about 11:30 a.m. The lengthy drive back is interrupted for about a half-hour at Yen Duc village so passengers can watch a traditional water-puppet show, and also stops at the same multimedia workshop visited on the way to the bay.

Arrival back at your Hanoi hotel is sometime around 5 p.m. So time on the ship is really two half-days and one full day. The two-day, one-night itinerary has the same travel time to and from the ship and is, in reality, about 24 hours total on board.

Some companies also offer a “day” trip. Again, with the same amount of travel time at each end, time on board a ship is only a couple of hours. Obviously, passengers will see the karsts but with the hurried itinerary, the overall enjoyment will probably be limited.

And I can’t stress highly enough to research a company’s safety record, though, even then, there are no guarantees.

In the morning hours of May 6, the top two decks of a luxury Aphrodite Cruises ship were fully engulfed in flames, causing many of its 37 passengers to jump into the water as it was returning to the dock from a Halong Bay cruise. A kitchen fire is suspected as the cause. According to various news reports, all passengers were quickly rescued and three were treated for the injuries. The boat sank.

The cruise line said on its website that the wooden ship was not equipped with an “automatic fire-fighting system.”

In February 2011, 12 people, including two Americans, died when an anchored boat, the Bo Mien (Dream of the Ocean), on which they were sleeping, sank in Halong Bay. The BBC reported that the AZ Queen Company was fined $700, and was suspended from doing business.

Furthermore, in the wake of the Aphrodite Cruises fire, VN Express International reported that the local authorities in Quang Ninh province want all wooden ships sailing Halong and Bai Tu Long bays to be replaced by steel ships within the next 15 years. And it wants to ban the ships from staying overnight in the bays.

In that overnight cruises bring in so much revenue, I doubt this possible ban will become reality.

Now, back to our cruise. We were picked up promptly at 7:30 a.m. by a driver and a representative from Indochina Junk. Two people were already in the minivan, and we picked up two more after us. Once the six of us were collected, the rep departed and we were off.

The air-conditioned “luxury” van was as advertised: Two sets of two facing seats and a bench seat in back that could accommodate three or four people. The van was equipped with Wi-Fi and a supply of bottled water. It was, by the way, a Ford.

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Workshop artists spent many hours sewing this embroidery of villagers harvesting a rice crop.

A couple of hours into the drive from Hanoi to Hon Gai pier, we had a planned stop at an artists’ workshop that employs people with disabilities. It was a shopping opportunity that no one capitalized on and a restroom/snack/stretch-your-legs stop too. Among the items for sale: embroidery, stone carving, lacquerware and jewelry.

A French-Canadian couple who had been traveling since January and a couple from Ontario, Canada, shared our van, and the long journey gave us plenty of time to swap travel stories: Where we’d been, what we’d done, what we would recommend, etc.

Overall, the road was good. Once outside Hanoi, the scenery quickly changed from urban to rural. Lots of rice paddies — this being the offseason, more brown than green — occasional villages with modest living quarters and concrete buildings.

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The Dragon Legend 1 (above) is identical to our ship, the Dragon Legend 2.

At the pier, those who hadn’t paid in full did so. Then each passenger was given a life jacket, we boarded our tender boat and were taken out to the DL2. A welcoming glass of hot, sweet lemon grass-ginger tea was served while our tour leader, “Kenny,” outlined the available activities and went over the safety procedures.

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Cabin 201, our home for two nights, as we cruised Bai Tu Long Bay.

Meanwhile, our luggage was being delivered. We had about a half-hour to settle into wood-paneled cabin No. 201 before lunch. In addition to two single beds, we had a small table and two chairs set beside the big picture window. The bathroom had a large round tub next to a window and a separate shower. We also had a flat-screen TV, ample closet space and a mini-safe.

We were asked about allergies and food preferences when we booked the tour, so things I don’t eat, such as prawns and crab, were replaced by chicken, tofu or vegetables. Each time our waiter brought me substitute dishes, he said, as he set down the plate: “Prepared special for you.” Indeed.

The lunch menu:

Appetizers

Spicy and sour seafood soup

Chef’s green salad with lime dressing

Main courses

Steamed prawns with lemon grass and garlic

Deep-fried crab paste ball van don-style

Chicken with goji berries and lotus seeds

Hue royal steamed sea bass with spring onion

Steamed fragrant rice

Dessert

Fresh fruit

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Chicken with goji berries and lotus seeds was one of the main courses for our first meal on the Dragon Legend 2.

Action-packed days were catching up with me. I was feeling “off” when I left home, I didn’t sleep on the overnight flight via Seoul, South Korea, to Hanoi, and I hadn’t slept well for three nights in Hanoi. So after lunch, I retired to our cabin at about 3 p.m., pretty close to exhaustion.

I asked Susan to check on me at dinnertime, but if I was asleep not to wake me. Fortunately, the ship was smooth-sailing, the bed deeply soft and comfortable, and the cabin quiet. One of the staff called around 6 p.m. to ask if I would like to have dinner brought to the cabin.  I declined.  I slept for about 16 hours, and felt much better at breakfast the next morning.

While I slept, Susan went on one of the tender boats for a closer look at the karsts. Some other passengers went kayaking. Before dinner, Susan attended a cooking demonstration where Vietnamese spring rolls were prepared.

I’ll write about the second and third days aboard the DL2 in my next post.

Quick reference: Indochina Junk, www.indochina-junk.com; direct link to Dragon Legend ships: www.dragonlegendcruise.com The four-deck Dragon Legend 1 and Dragon Legend 2 are identical ships, built in 2013-14. Each has 24 cabins (maximum of 48 guests), staff of 35, outdoor and indoor restaurants, two bars, a pool, fitness area and a spa.

I booked directly with the company on its website. Price depends on length of cruise and time of year. Be sure to check for available promotions/early booking specials. A downpayment is required. Read the refund policy, and other information on the website closely. Cruises are sometimes canceled, rerouted or shortened because of poor weather, especially during the summer monsoon season. Purchasing travel insurance is a good idea.