Star Date:  January 2007
Northeastern and Central Vietnam


Hello Dear Family & Friends!

Pa prama!

(Hello.  Tay hill tribe)

Happy New Year!



"Life isn't about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself. "
(George Bernard Shaw)


Like a scene out of the movie , Indochine, leaving the hectic pace of Hanoi heading east, is a what would be thought of as a typical Vietnamese landscape.  Verdant rice paddies, partitioned by narrow dirt paths, accented with water buffaloes plowing the rich, good earth*.  Slender, agile women in coolie hats are rhythmically planting new rice starts, continuing the cycle of life.   A major growing area for the north, both sides of the road are decorated with a crazy quilt of crops.  It takes at least 45 km. to leave behind the haze of Hanoi and greet the ocean breezes of Halong Bay.

Searching for the outer limits of the islands, beyond the mass of tourists, found us on a bus to Cua Ong, followed by a moto over the new bridge to Van Don Island, putting us closer to our destination.  The next morning we were on the 7am ferry, maneuvering our way through the magnificent mogote islands on a small local ferry, complete with a hull full of ice, gunny sacks of cabbages or turnips, and four enormous 200+ lb. pigs in baskets (which had to be gingerly walked on to get to the bathroom at the back of the boat).  We luxuriously filled our lungs with the fresh sea air.  We had been away from the ocean for too long.  The further we sailed from the coast the slower the pace got and 4 hours later when we landed on remote Quan Lan Island, time ground to a halt - if not headed backwards.  The lazy streets partially covered by sand, were littered with dogs posing as speed bumps.  Our moto driver dropped us off at our rest house and friendly Nga and son welcomed us in.  Our room in the back facing the tidal zone, was blissfully quiet in contrast to the rat race of the city.  We spent many wonderful hours walking the beach, swimming and lying in the sand listening to the melodic rhythm of the waves.  Being from Hawaii it was soothing to our souls. 

We explored the end of the island opposite the ferry pier, past women digging clams and men breaking up road rock by hand.  Continuing on for miles to the end of the road we happened on a couple of tiny remote villages, at the end of jungle paths only 1 ft. wide (not even room to drive a motorbike).  The people were shocked as we appeared through the banana plants and ended up in their compound.  Immediately invited in for tea and 'talk' we enjoyed a welcomed rest.  We kept wanting to find another way back to town along the coast but the irregular coastline, with large ragged rocks around each headland made the going impossible.  We scrambled for an hour and decided that we needed to backtrack rather than risk an injury in such a remote place.  Back we went on the narrow paths through the jungle and followed the dirt road back to town.  Finishing our 10 mile hike in style, we hitched a ride on a large, noisy rattletrap truck hauling rocks, carefully keeping our feet up to avoid the drive shaft in the floorless cab.  We continued to explore the island for 6 days.  Becoming 'regulars' it took us literally 2 hours to walk through town, having to sit down and share tea with shop owners or follow new friends home.  We paused daily with the conscientious nun at the quiet old temple, supported by enormous 2.5 ft. diameter log pillars, in stark contrast to the surrounding denuded hillsides.  It's interesting that in places such as here or when viewing the stark landscapes in areas of Tibet, Australia or New Zealand to name a few, people believe that the landscape has always been so barren.  A closer look at large logs in long standing temples and buildings, or as seen in old photographs of the area, shows that the once ample forests were simply used up by encroaching populations, or even burned to make room for crops or cattle.  Without trees droughts and bush fires follow.  How much can our resilient planet endure?

A leisurely walk amongst the fields, through the family cemetery and along the beach is an interesting way to catch everyone in action on Quan Lan; tending the crops, collecting seafood along the shore, and making brooms or large briquettes from the coal tar in nearby Cua Ong.  The genuine friendliness and laid-back ambience of this quiet island makes it a must go for anyone with some extra time. 

It was here in the Gulf of Tonkin that the Vietnam War or should we say 'conflict' began.  **When the French started losing power in Vietnam in the late 1940's, a puppet government protecting the French-American interests, led by Ngo Dinh Diem (a Catholic and former resident of New Jersey) was supported in the south by the U.S. and CIA; protecting this resource rich, strategic location in Asia. This began 25 years of involvement by the U.S. in Vietnam.  "The first casualty of war is truth. The second casualty are the innocent."   The highly publicized Pentagon Papers disproved the supposed attack on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese boats in 1964.  (During the hearing the commander of the Maddox admitted they had fired at the Vietnamese patrol boats first).  This allowed the U.S. to officially get involved in this no win conflict - many Americans without a clue as to where Vietnam was located, let alone knowing any facts of the conflict.  By 1965 500,000 troops had entered the war, 7 million tons of bombs were dropped, and an area the size of Massachusetts was defoliated.  In total over 13 million tons of bombs, 450 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb, were dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; 5000 lbs. for each man woman and child in these three unfortunate countries.  Massacres such as at Mei Lei, carried out by panic-stricken GI's shocked the nation, as the simple country folk were destroyed in the wake.  Thankfully by 1969 the protests in the U.S. escalated, young men stopped registering for the draft and the U.S. as a whole was in an uproar.  American aggression only unified the spirit of the Viet Cong soldiers and the fight to rid their country of foreign control after centuries of occupation strengthened. American troops spilled over into neighboring Cambodia and continued unofficially in Laos.  It wasn't until 1973, after one of the war's largest air raids by B-52 bombers, that U.S. troops were withdrawn.   It was too late for the over 4 million Vietnamese people and 60,000 U.S. troops who were killed, hundreds of thousands more injured for life.  Active in the pro peace movement, as were many of our generation, we were hopeful that this marked the end of the U.S. going into another country to interfere with civil disputes or to destroy the latest flavor of enemy.  Sadly Iraq is a carbon copy of the mess in Vietnam.  What if China invaded the U.S. to overthrow our current unpopular leader?  Just as ludicrous.  Is any of the passion that has made our country great, alive in the U.S. today or has everyone simply given up? We can only ask ourselves. When Will We Ever Learn?

Halong Bay, as described by ancient poets:

"Halong is a sleeping dragon that dreams of life.
A sail leisurely crosses Hoa Phong,
The royal mandarins praise the blue sea and the peaceful sky.
Steep cliffs and vermilion rocks emerge from the water;
Long kept secrets, hidden by nature, still follow boats like the wind.
They cause venturous and romantic thoughts;
During traveling everybody feels happy."

We exuded this happiness as we rode the ferry from Quan Lan Island to Halong City.   Halong Bay has a unique ecosystem with 3000 islands, (and as many tourists on the weekend), but it is still able to absorb the tour groups without feeling crowded.   Designated a World Heritage Site the eastern side of this  famous bay is completely untouched and we were glad that some things remain the same.  In sharp contrast Halong City is a beehive of western, Vietnamese, and Chinese tourists looking for a lively, karaoke type time.  Our karaoke voices a little rusty we continued on to Cat Ba Island.   The best way to get to Cat Ba is via a tour of the islands.  The zoo at the dock for overnight tours was discouraging but once on the boat the scenery was spectacular.  We had packed in a hurry to leave on a sunny day and it was worth it.  On stormy or cloudy days the "sea eats up the mountain islands" and mist obscures the view.  We stopped at Hang Dau Go Cave which was quite impressive with its 3 large chambers, stalactites, lights and many steps.  The 3rd chamber is where the sharp bamboo stakes were stored then later planted in the bed of the Bach Dang River; to impale and destroy the fleet of the invading Mongolian General Kublai Khan in the 13th Century.  We slowly meandered through the islands.  In a deck chair on the roof, wind in our hair, (like the scene from Titanic) we drifted into the sunset towards  Cat Ba.

Our 5 hour tour had, Vietnamese-style, turned into a 3 hour tour and we began humming the theme song from Gilligan's Island.  Far from being washed up on a deserted island, Cat Ba, is a 'wanna be tourist destination' and the infrastructure is expanding to meet the growing need.  For instance they have electricity most of the time, unlike Quan Lan that fires up a generator 5 hours a night, well most nights that is.  A pleasant manicured waterfront promenade leads along town to Beach # 1, Beach #2, and Beach #3.  Behind door #1 is an exclusive resort catering mainly to Chinese tour groups, door # 2 is a quiet beach with set up umbrellas, and door #3 is a waterslide extravaganza.  We stayed for 7 nights in our 5th floor room, with sweeping views overlooking the bay, for only $6.25 a night.  We took advantage of the quiet, slow pace to do our once a year 5 day cleanse (***see below).  Besides trekking in the National Park it is good to climb up the various hills surrounding the bay. A pleasant 4 mile hike is following the road to the bay at Cat Hai and back around down the hill into Cat Ba Town's main market - where fresh hot sweet corn and refreshing coconuts are waiting as a reward.  A definite highlight of our stay was a 1 hour paddle around the bay in Liu's woven basket type row boat.  The bay is bustling with fishing and house boats of all sizes, and the floating markets servicing them.  Dogs, kids, laundry flapping, fishing nets being repaired, music playing, laughter and smiles from sampans were signs of a rustic but happy existence.

We took a boat and 2 buses back to Hanoi to pick up our repaired camera, not wanting to trust the mail service.  Besides eating in our favorite vegetarian restaurant and hiking around the lake daily, I had the pleasure of walking down the street near our hotel and running into Bill Clinton.  Told by a secret service agent that Mick Jaggar was in the Apricot Art Gallery picking up a few pieces, I was surprised to instead see Bill stroll by.  Shaking his hand, I told him my name was "Monica" Gill and said something profound like, "Great to meet you."  Had it been good old George Bush, who had visited the APEC meeting in Hanoi the previous week, I would have had plenty to say.  As it was I guess I'll never find out if the Rolling Stones are getting back together!  

Our scheduled 11 hour train trip down the coast to Hue turned into 16 hours and we were burped out at 2am into the pouring rain.  One of those want to forget travel experiences, to equalize all the fun times, it wasn't long before our taxi dropped us at a quiet guesthouse and we were snoozing, only the memory remaining, of pretzel-like contortions while trying to sleep on the hard wooden seats.  The cold winds of the first snow in China had blown us south - quick - and sauntering along the Perfume River en route to the Citadel, in laid-back Hue on a warm sunny afternoon, confirmed we had made the right choice.  A pleasant day on the river found us exploring the 7 storey, octagonal Thien Mu Pagoda (1601AD), Hon Chen Temple and the stunning, serene Minh Mang Tomb, with its forests and lakes.  A superlative day we saw the largest bell in Vietnam, cast in 1710AD, which can be heard 10 kms. away and the massive 20 ton stele lauding the accomplishments of ruler Tu Duc, the author non other than Tu Duc.  It took them 4 years just to move the bloody thing from its origin 500 kms. away.  But I ask you, do they have the world's biggest ball of twine or the world's largest frying pan, like they do in the Midwestern United States?  No!

Our 4th Christmas overseas we decided to spend the holidays in Hoi An, to enjoy some of the infrastructure that tourists encourage.  All decorated with trees, lights, and Christmas carols playing we explored the shops, villages, and ancient Chinese and Vietnamese Temples along the Thu Bon River. From a lively vegetable market to in vogue French bakeries and restaurants, this town is a fun place to relax for a few days.  When unpacking our bags, with their meager assortment of clothes worn over the last 3.5 years, we decided to take advantage of the many famous make-to-order tailors in town.  Old, worn, baggy pants were passed on to grateful street recipients as we donned new well fitting pants, complete with secret zippered pockets and zip off legs of 2 lengths.  The ultimate travel pants, our designs well tested under all conditions!!  We splurged the extra $5 and each had a new top made;  Joseph's in indigo blue linen with an embroidered dragon and mine an elegant silk blouse.  After completing the highlight of our day, phone calls to family and looking at e-cards and messages from friends, we donned new clothes and ate a French Christmas pastry while sipping tea with the best of them on Nguyen Thoc St.  Simple pleasures.

Planning ahead and with the help of my Mom & brother stashing sage, dried cranberries and vegetable broth in our last Post Restante package to Hanoi, I created a gourmet vegan feast as a Christmas Eve surprise for Joseph.  Two hours of searching the market stalls for ingredients and 2 1/2 hours of preparation created mouth watering fried tofu and 2 kinds of mushrooms in gravy, mashed potatoes with coconut milk, stuffing from baguettes, an assortment of 5 different colored sweet potatoes in fresh herbs, cranberry sauce simmered with mandarin oranges, festive stir fried tomatoes & green beans, corn on the cob, a plate of salad vegetables, all crowned with a desert of hot tapioca cooked in fresh coconut cream, topped with mangoes and candied ginger.  I couldn't even begin to describe the primitive conditions under which this gastronomic delight was prepared but seeing Joseph's face light up made it worthwhile.  Friendly Toy and Auntie just kept shaking their heads and smiling in disbelief as one dish after another was prepared.  This was interspersed with the new daily English words and choruses of Jingle Bells (their favorite song).  We bought their family 2 types of special Vietnamese sweet bean, sesame and ginger squares from the market and with additional money towards propane everyone was happy.  As a bonus, our salad on Christmas was joined with a big baguette filled with leftovers; all enjoyed on our private balcony, decorated with a large bouquet of flowers from Santa Claus.  Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!    

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Hoi An dates to over 2200 years ago. From the 2nd to 10th centuries this was the center of the Kingdom of Champa.  An interesting place to look at this ancient Champa civilization is to take the inexpensive tour to My Son, passing through the countryside and up into the mountainous jungle where the ruins are located.  Archeologists are still baffled as to what the 4th century Chams used to hold their baked brick temples together, some saying a botanical paste and other theorizing that the structures were actually baked and fused in place.  During one period in their history the crests of the towers were completely covered with a layer of gold. Catch the seductive Shiva/Kali dance near the first ruin and opt for the boat trip back to Hoi An, stopping to see wood carvers and boat builders along the way.  As the guide said when we arrived at the river, "All boat people get out here."  Makes one think, what if the tables had been turned .........?

And so it goes...............................................Next South Central Vietnam.   We hope that you have a Happy, Healthy, Prosperous and Passionate 2007!  Lighten up, have fun and remember to Keep Smiling while creating the new you!       Take care.


Love, xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph


Travel notes:

$1.00US = 16,000 VND

Quan Lan Island:
Resthouse Phuong Hoang , Phone:  877345  #305 , 80,000VND for the top, back room,  Nga and Ho run a clean, genuinely friendly place.
The eco-tourism "resort" is deserted most of the time and expensive for plain thatched huts on the beach. (most without toilets).
Give the dumpy Quan Hai Bungalows at the end of the beach a pass - unless you like seedy characters.  They try to push these resorts on you from town - look before you leap!  The new resort under construction will only take in one end of the mile long beach nearest town.  The beautiful white sand beach will remain open to the public.
It is possible to take a ferry back to Halong City directly from Quan Lan, (at 7?am and 1pm - 80,000VND) worth taking for the spectacular scenery alone.

Cat Ba Island:
Nam Duong Hotel, beach end of the bay phone # 84 031-888586, Room 501 for a spectacular, panoramic view of the bay, $6.25 night.
Take a 1 hour tour with Liu out amongst the fishing boats in his woven read row boat (only 40,000VND from behind the center waterfront steps).  It is a vibrant floating community.
When choosing a tour boat to Cat Ba from Halong City make sure to have transfers on each end included, or you may get dropped off on the other side of the island from town, at the mercy of the moto drivers.


Halo (Ha - Loc) Guesthouse, 10A/66 Le Loi, down a quiet alley across from the river, phone #054-829371, 4th floor comes with a lovely plant filled patio, $7-15 rooms, friendly, helpful family, spotless rooms  email:
Take the $3 boat trip -make sure to go to the end, Minh Mang Tombs.
Skip the Dong Tam Vegetarian Restaurant across the alley - once in Lonely Planet the quality has slid straight down.

Hoi An:
Nhi Trung Hotel, 13 D Nhi Trung St., phone  #863 436, Clean, well maintained, friendly helpful staff for only $7-12.  Friends of the Halo folk up in Hue.  Try the 3rd floor.
Tailor:  Cloth Shop 36, 36 Le Loi St, professional, English speaking, good prices.


*We just had the computer read to us The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1938).  If you haven't read this Pulitzer prize winning novel, about 1ife in turn of the century rural China, add it to your list. 

**"A People's History of the United States", Howard Zinn,  A well documented, eye opening book, worth a read.  Info also from Encarta Reference Suite DVD.

** *Check out wild and crazy Dr. Richard Schulze at for ideas on health and cleanses.













Halong Bay: "Long kept secrets, hidden by nature,
still follow boats like the wind."


Love that betel nut smile!
  One of the new friends we shared tea with
 (but politely refused a "chew") while out walking  on Quan Lan.


Making coal briquettes for cooking.


The solitary nun chanting in her ancient temple on Quan Lan.


Pristine beach near town on Quan Lan Island.


Can't figure out which ferry to catch amongst the islands?  Just ask one
of the helpful locals riding on the roof, the best seat in the house.


We loved the sandalwood incense hand made for us by this young lady.


Serene gardens of Minh Mang Tomb.


Thien Mu Pagoda (1601AD).


Traditional Vietnamese instruments played during a concert
in the ancient Citadel in Hue.


A glimpse into the meager existence of life on a sampan.  Then again,
they own it, there's no mortgage requiring 2 jobs and if the
neighbors are bugging them they can simply move!


Lamps of every shape and color line the streets
 along the river in Hoi An.








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