New Development

After ending our cruise back at the Ha Long City port, we continued our trip back to Hanoi on a minivan ride similar to the one that took us from Hanoi before the cruise. The guests from our boat were split to separate minivans given our destinations in Hanoi. So we said goodbye to the other guests whom we came to know during the trip.

The drive back to Hanoi took about almost four hours. That included a stop in the middle at a souvenir shop / rest area. Since all of the minivans carrying the guests back to Hanoi left around the same time, we ended up seeing each other again at the rest stop.

During this trip back, I made an interesting observation on the economic development in the area between Hanoi and Ha Long City. When we left Ha Long City, we passed a toll gate that seemed to be part of a way to fund the development of the highway between the two cities. The road between the two cities was still a non-divided highway for most of it, but I could see the need to either to widen the road or make it a divided road.

It looked like there were increase in traffic to accomodate the growth in both tourism and manufacturing industry in the area. As we got closer to Hanoi, we could see a visible sign of economic growth in Vietnam as there were manufacturing facilities of multi-national companies like Canon that lined up on the side of the highway. There were also new residential and commercial construction coming up. I wonder if it would look very different if I come back again to the same place in a few years.

The photo below was taken somewhere in the middle of the trip. You can see new buildings being built in an empty lot. I thought it’s interesting that the buildings were built in the style of buildings in big city like Hanoi (on a narrow lot but deep and tall). It’s as if they’re anticipating it to be a high density development.

New Development

Service Excellence

The last part of our Ha Long Bay cruise was a brunch that was served as we were on our way back to Ha Long City. The food served seemed to be the leftovers of the ingredients that the boat carried for the three-day cruise; unlike the previous meals, it was not set up as family style, but as individual portion. It was still really good; the food was as delicious as the previous meals we had during the cruise.

At the end of the meal, our tour guide Smiley called for our attention as he wanted to acknowledge the crew members of the junk boat that had been serving us during the cruise. There were six of them serving us. Some were more visible as they were on the forefront in preparing for our activities and serving us during the meals. There were also a couple of them who were behind the scenes, including our boat captain and chef.

Once everyone was introduced, we gave them a nice round of applause thanking them for their excellent service. I had never been on a cruise before, but in comparison to services received in other hospitality industry before, this was definitely among the best. What’s impressive was when we found out that the chef who cooked all of the wonderful meals during the trip was a young man in his early 20s.

I’m not sure how long typically these guys stay in the same business; I’m sure for many of them this is only a stepping stone towards other careers. Hopefully the training and experience they get from this job would translate to brighter future.

The photo below was taken at the end of the cruise. You can see here the crew of the boat who helped make the cruise a memorable experience for the guests. The guy in red jacket was the chef who prepared the delicious meals during the cruise.

Dragon's Pearl Crew Members

Resting During Vacation

When I plan for a trip, I usually try to use the time as effective as possible to make the limited time I have in visiting a place count. Sometimes this means a trip full of activities; great experience, but could be exhausting. One thing I learned was to have a plan but not getting stressed out if certain details don’t go as originally planned. Another important aspect is to keep a pace that my body can take; there is no point going through the experience exhausted or even at the risk of impacting my health.

On the last day of our Ha Long Bay cruise, we had another opportunity for kayaking. However, it was quite a cold morning, and we were told that we had to be ready and packed up by around 10:30 am before a brunch that would be served on our way back to Ha Long City. That meant very little time to get cleaned up and packed up, especially if we try to squeeze in another session of kayaking. Kristi and I decided to skip that activity and instead slept in a little and took our time to relax and get ready.

Some of the guests did go on the kayaking trip. They went around the private island where we had dinner the night before. In the mean time, I had everything packed, and spent the rest of the time on the upper deck hanging out with Dave and others talking. Quite relaxing and a nice change in pace, especially after traveling and doing so much in the last few days.

The photo below was taken on the top deck of the junk boat. The boat had a sun deck that we didn’t use on the previous couple of days because it’s too cold out there, but some of the guests did use these for some time to relax in the absence on having anything else to do.

Resting on Sun Deck

Round the World Travelers

Among the guests on our Ha Long Bay cruise there were a couple from the United States who was in the middle of an epic journey to travel around the world. David and Kim were doing the cruise with Kim’s family (mom, brother, sister, and brother-in-law). Kim’s mom was originally from Vietnam, so this trip was also a nice homecoming trip for her.

Kristi and I had a chance to talk with David during our cruise. David said that they planned out the trip for quite a while, saved up for it, and started the journey almost a year before they reached Vietnam. They packed up their belongings in their home in New York City and started the journey that took them to countries in South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. They decided to meet up with Kim’s family for the Vietnam part of the journey. That must be quite special, as she got to share part of her experience traveling with her family in her mother’s home country, and even to celebrate her birthday there with the family.

From Vietnam, they would continue their trip to Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. Kristi provided them with some suggestions on places to check out in Bali. As I write this blog post, I did some google search to see if I could find a website that David told us they had set up during the trip to update their friends and family about their adventures. I couldn’t find the web site, but I did find David’s flickr photostream that had photos from their journey. It looked like now they’re settled in the West Coast, and since then had started a family and now they have a young son.

The photo below was taken by Kristi while we were kayaking on the first day of the trip.

World travelers

Surprise Celebration

We went back to our junk boat after we were done with the memorable dinner inside the cave on the island in Ha Long Bay. But before everyone headed to their cabins for the night, the Dragon’s Pearl crew asked everyone to head to the dining room instead. They said our tour guide Smiley had some announcements to make before we end the night.

We were already pretty tired after a long day, and some folks looked like they’re about to fall asleep as we waited in the dining room for Smiley. Then the back door opened and Smiley came in with all of the Dragon’s Pearl crew members, all with big smiles. The chef and head server came in with two cakes on platters. It turned out that they had a surprise birthday celebration for two of the guests who had their birthday during our trip. Del’s birthday was the previous day, and Kim’s birthday was that day.

We sang happy birthday, and then Smiley opened up the mike for anyone to say or sing something in their own language (other than English) to congratulate the birthday ladies. Dmitri said something in Dutch to wish the two ladies happy birthday. Then Kim’s sister suggested that Kim and Dave did a short swing dance like what they did during their wedding a little more than a year before. Apparently they were quite good dancers, and it’s pretty impressive to see them dancing in the middle of the dining room on the boat that didn’t have much room to maneuver.

That was quite nice of the crew to throw the birthday celebration, especially as both ladies had their close family members (Del’s brother and Kim’s husband, mom, sister, brother, and brother in law) to celebrate the occasion with them. Another great touch to make the trip memorable to the guests.

Here was Del with her birthday cake afterwards before we had the cake cut up and distributed to everyone to enjoy.

Surprise birthday celebration

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

There is a saying that you should not judge a book by its cover. This refers to the tendency that sometimes we form opinion or judgement on a person or situation based on what we’re familiar with in the past or certain stereotype that we know. During the trip to Ha Long Bay, we were reminded about keeping an open mind and not falling into this way of thinking.

One of the groups in our Ha Long Bay cruise was a young couple named Dmitri and Nina. At the beginning of the cruise, when asked by our guide Smiley, Dmitri introduced himself and his wife Nina as a couple from the Netherlands. While we were on the upper deck of the Dragon’s Pearl on the second day, Dmitri did said hi to us and greeted us in Indonesian. He mentioned that he lived for a couple of years in Jakarta when he was young as his father was a diplomat stationed in Indonesia. He and Kristi had a brief conversation about that, but beyond that, we didn’t interact much with them during the first half of the trip. They pretty much kept it for themselves, though they did occassionally talked with Hannah and Sophie whom they shared the lunch/dinner table with during the cruise.

Dmitri’s wife Nina was pretty quiet most of the time, though I noticed her taking photos of the sceneries around with her Canon DSLR and the recognizable white 70-200 mm L lens. So I thought she might be quite a serious photographer to have and bring that lens on a trip like this.

During the candlelight dinner at the cave, Kristi and I ended up seated at the end of the long dining table, next to Dmitri and Nina. As such, we had some conversations with them through the night. I think it started with Dmitri continuing his conversation with Kristi on what he remembered of Indonesia. While they’re doing so, I had conversation with Nina, and I didn’t quite remember how it started, but we ended up having a good discussion over the dinner and I learned more about this couple and the rich life experience they’ve lived already.

What I learned was that while the couple was officially from the Netherlands, they had actually lived in many places in the world. Dmitri’s father was a diplomat, and as such, he had lived in several countries including Indonesia. He went to school in the United States at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I’m not sure if that’s where he met his wife, but Nina also went to the same school. And after finishing their study, they also worked and lived for some time in Washington, DC, where I live. They were in the middle of a vacation trip in Southeast Asia before heading to Europe and then continuing back to the place where they call home then, Kigali, Rwanda. That was another interesting discussion I had with Nina, where I mentioned about what I learned and experienced during our visit in Cambodia, and how it’s comparable to Rwanda. Both countries had gone through difficult times after civil war and genocide, and now are in the process of rebuilding. Nina said she worked as a consultant to the government of Rwanda to help coming up with ideas on improving the economy of the country. It’s quite a difficult task as the country didn’t have much of natural resources, nor it’s located as strategically as other countries.

After the dinner, when we went back to our cabin to retire for the night, Kristi mentioned her appreciation of this couple and what they do in helping others in developing countries. She also said that before the dinner conversation, she thought Nina seemed to be pretty cold, unapproachable, and the impression changed after we got to know them better. A good lesson to not assume things from what you see on the surface.

I took the photo below during our visit to the Cong Dam floating village earlier that day. Here was Dmitri and Nina on another row boat. You can see him enjoying the scenery while his wife was taking photo with her Canon DSLR.

Dmitri and Nina

Candlelight Dinner

As we walked further inside the cave, the lighting for the path changed from electric-powered lights on the ground to a series of candles. It looked like the crew had spent some time to prepare this, given that it must have been more than a hundred of these candles needed to light the remaining path until we reached a large chamber inside the cave. This must have been where the previous inhabitant of the cave lived; it’s quite a sizeable space, and I could tell it’s a good place deep enough into the cave to protect from the elements during inclement weather.

The crew of the Dragon’s Pearl apparently had spent the rest of the afternoon while we were resting on the boat to prepare an elaborate candlelight dinner for us. Similar to the previous meals we had during this trip, it was a nice multi-course dinner. For this particular dinner, the dishes were all prepared on a grill somewhere on the island (or possibly inside the cave somewhere with some ventilation). We had grilled prawns, meat and vegetables in skewers, and some fried rice. Each dish was presented with beautiful food carving to decorate it, culminating with a model of the Dragon’s Pearl carved from a pumpkin.

I remembered the food was enjoyable, but what’s special for this particular meal was the setting and the company we had in enjoying the experience. You can see on the photo below the setting of the dining table inside the cave chamber, with the dimmed lighting around it.

Candlelight dinner