Vietnam Experience - Part One

January 14, 2017  •  2 Comments

I traveled to Vietnam in December 2016 with Ralph Velasco's Photo Enrichment Adventures tour. I kept a diary along the way. This is that diary with a few pictures.  Here is week one of the two week trip. See part two for the second week. 

Rice field workersWe stopped at a rest stop along the highway to wave to these ladies and take some pictures. This image is cropped from a full size image to panorama format. Lumix G85 with 35-100mm f/3.5-5.6

November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday
Travel day from home. Jane and James drive me to JFK Terminal 1. Checked in at JAL desk, agent offered to move me to a window seat. I went to TSA line and after a few minutes the Japanese woman JAL agent came over and asked to see my Vietnam visa papers. She had forgot to ask earlier, and was relieved that she caught me. The lounge at this terminal is run by Air France. Grabbed a Nespresso coffee and hung for about an hour.
Japan Airlines MealBusiness class JFK to TOK. The JAL crane was a nice touch
Flight to Narita on a Boeing 777. Most of the 36 seats in Business Class were empty. Perhaps a dozen seats occupied. I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain about Okinawa, Japan, a documentary about Chinese Pandas and Wolong Reserve, and a couple of movies. For the meal, I chose traditional Japanese. it was delicious. Flight map showed that most of our path was across the northern parts of Canada and the Alaska, hopping over the Aleutian Islands.

At Narita, checked in to the Sakura Lounge, same one I had visited in 2014. Got a message via Messenger from Chris Payant who was to meet me here as we are on the same next flight. Turns out that there are three (or more) Sakura Lounges at Narita and it took us an hour to rendezvous at a lounge near our gate. Quick glass of wine as we got acquainted and off to the gate.
TOK to HANSecond leg of trip to Hanoi, flying directly over Shanghai, China. 5-1/2 hour flight.
Same type of aircraft on the flight to Hanoi. Map video showed that we flew right across China, from Shanghai to the south on a bead towards northern Vietnam. Traditional meal was a delicious Steak with a little glass of red Bordeaux.
HAN ImmigrationWaiting for visa
After a long wait at Hanoi airport to get our visas processed where we had to listen intently to a barely discernable local official reading names over a crackling loudspeaker, we met our driver at HAN airport and drive to hotel, getting into the room just after midnight. E Central Hotel, part of the Elegance Hospitality Group. Very nice room with all the amenities. Fourth floor overlooking the street. Got some good sleep and awoken by a rooster (which faithfully sounded each morning thereafter). Seemed odd to hear a rooster in a big crowded city but that sort of set the tone that I was in a very different place. 
Hanoi BeeriPhone 7+ Portrait Mode Friendly Bellman in HanoiLas Seista hotel, location of restaurant and part of the Elegance Hotel group
Day 1:
The next morning, still ahead of our group, Chris and I headed out to explore the local neighborhood of Old Hanoi. We walked around Sword Lake which was packed with families, bridal parties, youth groups,.... all out enjoying the weather. The city closes off off the streets surrounding the lake. We stopped for a coffee after a couple of hours, then back to the hotel to meet the group for our Meet & Greet with Ralph and the other attendees. After an hour meeting we headed over to the Red Bean restaurant at the La Siesta hotel, which is also part of the Elegance Group of hotels. Tried a Hanoi Beer with dinner which was a multi course prix fixe of delicious plates.
Turtle ShrineLocated in the temple on the island in the lake. Morning StretchesAn elderly man doing his morning exercises in Hanoi.
Day 2:

Off early (700am) with the group to photograph around Sword Lake again. Walked across the temple bridge to Ngoc Son Temple on the island. Giant Turtle sculpture inside a glass case, a beautiful shrine with incense burning and store bought biscuits still in the retail packages offered up on the alter. Lots of people doing Tai Chi exercises. The group then headed over to the open air food market, where shops sell fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, etc. Narrow streets with activity on both sides. Motor bikes whizzing by... tried some slow exposure speed pans to get background blur effect. We walked over to a century old temple with beautiful yellow paper lanterns hung, and caged birds. Next, we all hopped in cyclos.... which are the pedicabs... for a ride through Old Town. About 45 minutes of exploring the sites, captured a timelapse on the iPhone. Stopped at Ying & Yang restaurant for another meal with various dishes of traditional Vietnam cooking. (This all just a warm up for the foodie tour to come in a few days). After lunch, free time so I found a hotel nearby that had a spa for a massage. I asked for something other than a Swedish or Shiatsu, which the said were both 'medium', and I opted for a Thai massage. 60 minutes of the masseuse digging his elbow into my spine up and down... very intense to say the least but one of the best massages I've ever had. Cost was $16.
Sacred BridgeBridge to temple on Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
The group met up at 430pm to head back over the the lake one more time, this time to photograph the bridge to the temple island. It is lit with red lights at night so we positioned ourselves along the lake to prepare for some long exposures. After a couple of hours, we wrapped up and grabbed a beer at the beer hall that overlooks the traffic intersection that William had told me about. We did some time lapse and long exposures for fun. My time lapse was not ideal due to a focus issue (failure on my part) so will have to try again next I am here.

Day 3:
Checked out of hotel, grabbed breakfast and boarded our bus to Ha Long Bay. Our guide, Steve, provided an excellent lecture on the bus about the country's history, culture, growth and outlook. Since the end of the war, the transition from a communist country where the government owned everything (i. e., the farmer's rice) to individual ownership and privatization, and two baby booms (one right after the war, and one happening now) in which the population has doubled from 50 million to 100 million today, there are so many fascinating aspects of this country.

Interesting rest stop half way to Ha Long Bay. Big factory type building with various trinkets and statues for sale. Busses dump off the tourists at one end of the building and told to meet their bus at the other end. I purchased a small lacquer box and a snack.
StateroomOnboard the Annam Junk on Ha Long Bay, each guest is provided a private stateroom with private bath. Halong Bay MajestyEarly morning activity in Halong Bay.
We arrived at Ha Long Bay (The Bay of the Rising Dragon) at noon and boarded our boat, the Annan Junk. Each site has a double bed and private bath. Very nice.

Touring Ha Long Bay: breathtaking views of the towering islands, unlike anywhere I've ever seen.
After about an hour or so of cruising, we stopped to board a flat skiff to enter a grotto which was basically a small hole in the side of a mountain. along the shore of the entrance little grey monkeys were skittering at the water's edge . The boat driver, standing on the back wires long paddles, guided us through the hole in the mountain to an inlet that looked like a lake surrounded by steep cliffs. We were essentially inside the donut hole of the island. A very magical place indeed. We boarded our tender and headed back to the junk, where we relaxed until dinner. The chef gave a lesson in making spring rolls which we each did and ate as appetizers. Dinner was served, which consisted of many dishes of traditional foods, mostly seafood. After dinner we listened to music from Ralph's iPhone and talked until bedtime.
GrottoInside the lake-like grotto accessible by a single cut in the rock walls that surround it. MacaqueMonkeys along the shore are non-indigenous macaques.
Day 4:
I enthusiastically joined the morning Tai Chi exercises, led by the chef, on the top deck of the boat at 630am. We photographed the scene around us with the rising sun. After breakfast we headed over to Titop Island and climbed the 420 steps to the top of the mountain for a fantastic 360 degree view of Ha Long Bay. This wrapped up a spectacular 24 hours in Ha Long Bay, and we headed back to Hanoi, stopping at the same statue factory that we had visited the day before for Pho lunch and some more shopping.
Snake Winevietnamese snake wine, along with the superstitious and tourist attention getting appeal of a cobra AND a scorpion inside the bottle, is more like strong vodka made from rice.
Jeff bought a bottle of vodka that had a giant scorpion AND a cobra snake inside it for twenty five dollars.
Hanoi Street FoodA woman cooks up street food on the sidewalk in Hanoi city Street Food MerchantThis merchant served hand made spring rolls from his kitchen on a bicycle. Hanoi Foodie TourTasted many dishes on a three-hour foodie tour in Hanoi
Back in Hanoi: Checked into our hotel and rested for the afternoon before heading out on a foodie tour with our host Miss Cherry, a young lady who specializes in leading such tours. We walked to about eight restaurants (I lost count), each of whom were waiting for us and we tasted many different kinds of cuisine. Virtually stuffed by the end of the evening but thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Ho Chi Min mausaleumHanoi, Vietnam
Day 5:

Today we embarked on a sightseeing tour of Hanoi by private motor coach (Ralph arranged for a bus that seats 26 for our group of ten for the entire time in Hanoi. Everyone had a window seat)
First stop was Ho Chi Min's mausoleum, an enormous complex with guards in impressive white uniforms standing guard. We did not enter the tomb but did witness the changing of the group guards and captured it in video. We moved around to the other side of the complex to visit the One Pillar Pagoda, sampling some fresh cut Jack Fruit while there. We then moved on to a beautiful complex of gardens, ponds and buildings with statues and alters.
Golden TurtleSymbolizing wisdom. Citroens in HanoiOutside the Sofitel Hotel.
Here we saw another giant tortoise in a glass case, this one covered in gleaming gold.
In the evening a group of five of us walked over to the Sofitel for a cocktail, then I left the group for a late dinner in the Old Quarter to experience Bun Cha for the first time.

This is the meal that Anthony dined on with Barack last year IN Hanoi. It was as good as I had dreamed it would be but didn't come close to finishing it. Entire meal was 60,000 dong, which is less than three dollars.
Da Nang AirportDuring the war, this was the busiest airport in the world with all of the take offs and landings of US military aircraft. FishermanUsing hand casted nets, fishing the river deltas of Vietnam.
Days 6, 7 and 8:

Leaving Hanoi hotel, we transferred by bus to the airport for a flight to Da Nang. It is said that during the 'American War', Da Nang was the busiest airport in the world with all of the take offs and landings of military aircraft. Today, it is a modern international airport. Along our bus ride to Hoi An, about an hour away, we stopped at China Beach, it was so named by the American forces who found pieces of pottery (china) in the sand when they first visited.
We checked into the Vingh Sun resort in Hoi An just before some heavy rain started. By the next day the river started rising but not before we got a morning of great shooting at the 'wet market' (mostly seafood, and also produce). Hoi An is a beautiful town, known as the city of lanterns, and we visited many attractions including: Japanese Bridge, a boat ride to watch fishermen cast nets, a bike ride into small villages along the waterways, and lunch at a place made famous by Anthony Bourdain as having the best Banh Mi sandwiches, a wonderful combination of fresh ingredients inside a perfectly fresh French style baguette. Crispy on the outside; soft and fresh on the inside.
Hoi An FloodAlongside the river, Hoi An's shopping district is vulnerable to flooding during the wet season. Miss MelindaCustomer service representative at tailor shop in Hoi An, Vietnam
By the second evening in Hoi An the waters had risen so high that the streets were flooded and we had no choice but to stay at the resort for dinner. We sat at the outside bar as the river rose nearly to our bar stool legs.  While in Hoi An we visited Yaly Couture, one of many custom tailor shops where they make suits to order. The service was spectacular and the technology (including a full body laser scan) used to measure, fit, and adjust, along with an army of tailors on the floors above the street level shop, allows them to make a totally custom suit from scratch and deliver it the next day. My personal representative was Melinda who helped me pick out the material, browse online to a suit on that I wanted, and they made and delivered it the next day for a fraction of what it would have cost me at Brooks Brothers in the states.
Casting the NetFishing net demonstration captured in 4K Photo. Lumix G85
We spent a day exploring the area by bicycle, and also out on the river to watch a demonstration of fishing using a hand cast net. Although this was staged just for us tourists, the fisherman did catch a few fish... he had his dinner and we got some great photos. I used the 4K Photo feature in my Lumix to capture just the right moment that I wanted. 
Boats in Hoi AnBoats in Hoi AnBoats with eyes on the rising river waters in Hoi An, Vietnam
In Vietnam, all of the boats on the water have two eyes painted on the bow. We were told that it is such so as to ward off the evil spirits in the water.


In Part Two, we head to Saigon and the Mekong Delta.  Also coming soon, a post about the 10 Things I learned about Vietnam that surprised me or otherwise didn't know.



William Innes(non-registered)
Reading this on a train from Milan to Venice. I just relived my visits over there. So ready to go back. Thanks for sharing this.
Chris F. Payant(non-registered)
What a wonderful blog Tom. I loved reading it and reliving the amazing experience we had. Thanks so much for sharing your posts and your excellent photographs from Vietnam. I can't wait to read the second one!
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