Vietnam: Ha Long City Center…with a bag of blood: Part One

I don’t know what could have prepared me for our morning arrival in Viet Nam.  I grew up at a time when Americans were raised to hate Viet Nam, that it was a place of bad things.  This still didn’t deter me from wanting to see what it actually is today, but I have to admit that I was nervous, excited, and mildly scared all at the same time.  I am WAY out of my element here, but having a friend like Francis with me really helps keep me focused.  

Opening the Window to Where the Dragon Entered the Sea

During the night, we sailed across the Gulf of Tonkin into the Harbor of Ha Long.  There is no pier capable of docking a ship the size of the Serenity.  This would mean that we would have to drop anchor and “tender” into the port.  On a large cruise ship like this, the “tenders” are the lifeboats.  They launch them from the ship and use them to ferry people back and forth.  The fourth deck of the ship is called the “Excursion Deck.”  On either side, they have these large sections that fold out of the ship to create docks.  Once these docks are set up, a variety of boats, including local tour operators can pick up passengers.

While we were just beginning to wake in our stateroom, which is #7009, Forward Starboard side, we could hear them launching the tenders, which are stored directly below us.  Francis and I finally decided it was time to see where we are.  I got up, went to the window and peaked out the curtains.  Nothing could prepare me for what I saw.  Through the thick mist of the morning, I could see shadows of the large, egg shaped rock formations that jutted out of the sea.  Among the shadows were moving figures of boats, some large, most very small.  It was a breathtaking wake-up.  I turned to Francis and simply told him that he would have to look for himself.  It was truly something to behold.

The First Bazzel in Viet Nam since 1967

We had breakfast overlooking this harbour, it was then time to set out for our daily adventure.  I would be the first Bazzel to step foot in Viet Nam since my dad had left in 1967.  We stopped by the local tourism desk on our way off ship, picked up a map, and got a bit of an understanding of things before we went ashore.  Yesterday, we were given Vietnamese Passenger Landing Card.  Our passports were taken from us upon our arrival on the ship; we get these cards instead, for going ashore.  As we walked down to the excursion desk, we came face to face with the Vietnamese Immigration officer.  These gentlemen do not appear to have a sense of humour.  They wear what look like military uniforms, a brightish foresty green colour with crisp red accents and gold symbols.  They look very smart, and certainly not someone that you want to mess with.  We handed them our Landing card, and they stamped it for our first port of entry into this country that I have only heard about.

I could feel my heart rate increase, and my blood pressure go up a bit while we sat on the tender heading to land.  Out the back, I got my first view of our entire ship.  It is HUGE!  I didn’t quite realise just how big it was, and we only have 760 passengers on board right now.  Landing was actually not on a dock.  It can best be described as an unused ferry boat that has been beached, one side is for docking, the other is for walking onto the shore.  Crystal set up a refreshment and security station there.  They are very careful to always give their passengers access to safe beverages.  We walked across the rusting hulk of a dock to a series of red rubber carpets which led up to the main causeway.

The town looked almost abandoned, with some buildings appearing to have never been completed and just left to sit and face the weather.  Others appeared to be hold overs from the old French era, overly used, but you could see where people tried their best to take care of them.  As we walked up on the main thoroughfare, cab drivers approached us from every direction.  Some had full cabs (Toyotas or better) others had “tuc tucs” (these are half motorcycle, half jitney), while others tried to make due with nothing more than a moped.  They all wanted to make us an offer to be our tour guide for the day.

US$1 = VND21,000 approx.  US$50 will make you an instant millionaire here.  The currency of preference is the US Greenback.  While everything is marked in Dong, everyone very quickly barters in US Dollars.  Just a few bucks will take you a long way in Viet Nam.  We really wanted to walk and explore on foot, and we had been warned by the local tourism official to not deal with such aggressive cab drivers.  While we trying to get our bearings, we met Victor and Barbara.

Victor and Barbara

Victor and Barbara are a nice older couple from Los Angeles.  Vic is CFO for the company that prints Crystal’s brochures.  I first met Vic briefly before we set sail when he approached thinking that he recognised me.  They seemed a bit overwhelmed by drop off point as well and asked if they could join us for a bit.  Francis and I welcomed them and we set off down the main road for our little adventure.

Note about Vietnamese Tourism Agency maps, scale means NOTHING!  Following their map to the local market was very deceiving.  It looked like we just walked a few minutes, made a right and we would be there…WRONG!  But, Vic, Barb, Francis and I made our way.  I think being with a younger couple helped make Barb feel a bit more comfortable.  She had a bit of “deer caught in headlights” look about her.  Finding the market street was underwhelming and we were beginning to seriously wonder, why did Crystal bring us here.  There was nothing; no touristy things, no hawkers trying to get us to buy…it all seemed a bit odd.  Finally, we decided that we would grab a cab and head over to Ha Long City Center to the Central Market.

Barb and I went into the Ha Long Dream Hotel, which has a large brass sign out front proudly giving it a 4 star rating from the Vietnamese Government Tourism Bureau.  The bellman did not speak a word of english, but he was a nice guy and was able to direct us to a cab.  Vic quickly took on the negotiation with the driver, which required another driver and two bystanders to work out.  Over here, cab drivers want to get a customer and hold on to them, acting as your personal chauffeur.  We just wanted to get to one place, one way, since we didnt know when we would want to come back.  We arranged a deal of US$15 for all four of us to the Central Market.  Personally, I would have tried to go for US$12.

Watch the Road

Traffic lines on the streets here are merely decorative.  They don’t seem to really mean anything.  HELL, the streets don’t seem to really mean anything.  We saw several scooters being driven down the sidewalk, at full speed.  Our driver was very adept, but sometimes he was on the left, sometimes on the right, there was no real order to it.  They also love to blow their horn, and not for any reason.  Several times our driver and others were blowing their horns when there were no other vehicles or obstructions near.  That is very odd to us; we have no idea why they were honking.  We crossed over a large cable stay bridge and that is when everything changed.  The main city of Ha Long is very different from the area we had landed at.  it is a hustling little city, but you can see the effects of time and lack of money here.  We eventually made it to the Central Market.

A Bag of Blood to Go Please!

The Central Market is a large open-air building that is three stories tall.  It reminded me of those indoor flea markets that were popular when I was a kid, like the I-95 Marketplace.  You could buy just about anything here: inside there were home supplies, electronics, grocery items, fabric and knick knacks; outside were large butcher counters, produce vendors and other food items.  There were many vendors who appeared to be selling type of fried dough, but I am not sure that is actually what it was.  We saw these women sitting around a bin with a very white dough like substance, which they kept stabbing and cutting with a pair of heavy shears.  In another step of the process, this dough like substance was formed into small disc like things and appear to have been fried.  It looked very much like Navajo Fry Bread.  It smelled good too, well at least it did to me.  People bought these in large bags.

The butcher counters were fairly disturbing to me.  In this one large covered area directly behind the main market building, there were these large white tiled counters, very similar to those that occupy the Reading Terminal Market back home.  There were pools of blood on the ground and slabs of freshly butchered pig.  You would see a pile of ears, stacks of bellies, and then some other miscellaneous parts.  On the front of one of the tile counters there was a large clear plastic bag full of bright red, semi frothy blood.  Blood that red can only men that the animal was slaughtered a few moments ago.  Now this does not bother me; I know where my food comes from and that animals are slaughtered for it.  I don’t know why there was this odd bag of blood just hanging there.  It was the only bag like it.  I didn’t see any reason for it to be there, yet there it was.  And even this was not terribly disturbing to me, what was disturbing is that these counters appear to have never been cleaned.  I mean like, forever.  It was a pretty dirty place, and all of this raw meat laying on these dirty counters was destined for someone to eat.  Ok, ok, maybe my western sense of hygiene is at play here, but so is basic science.  It was the clearest indicator to Francis and me that we were best off returning to the ship and having lunch on board.

We soon caught up with Vic and Barbara and agreed to head back to the ship.  This time it was my turn to haggle for the fair back.  I was able to swing a deal for all four of us for US$10.  I filmed our journey back, which is quite fun to watch.  You can see what I am talking about with driving on either side of the road.  On our arrival to the dock, I gave the guy US$11.  look, haggling is expected and respected, I get that; but, a dollar to me is really nothing, but to people here it is a decent amount of money.  I don’t mind haggling, but that doesn’t mean that I have to take advantage either.  When the guy counted the money and saw that I gave him an extra US$1, he tried to return it, I refused.  He gave me a big smile and thanked me.  We returned to the ship for lunch.

Part Two is coming up very soon.

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