North Viet Nam.
September, 2006
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Information on our motorhome trip to Central America.
99 Days to Panama, an Exploration of Central America by Motorhome
by Dr. John & Harriet Halkyard,  is available there

by Harriet Halkyard


                                HA NOI

                                HO TEL

                                WEL COME

We toured Hanoi to Sapa in the North, including Halong Bay
(Map Courtesy Lonely Planet)

You can reach the people who put this together for us at Ask for Chi or Yen, and tell them we told you to call !!

It is hard to walk in the old quarter of Hanoi. The streets are narrow and filled with bicycles, motorbikes and cars weaving between pedestrians some of whom carry pendulous loads on the ends of bamboo poles. They think nothing of having little children riding the motor scooter with them or driving one handed while talking on the phone.

“Walk slowly.” Nam, our local guide advises. “Give them time to drive around you.”

There are sidewalks, but they have become parking lots for motorbikes and are completely impassable.

It was amazing to see how much they could carry on a bamboo pole. 

The traffic at a busy intersection traveled at a steady ten to fifteen miles and hour, crossing between each other with no controls. Bicycles carry one or two people, and motor scooters have one, two, three or four people as they weave between tricycles with a peddler pushing clients around and the occasional car. Then a bus pulled up and did a U turn across everyone and turned around the fountain that was not quite in the middle of the intersection. All the while an elderly lady was doing her exercises near the fountain next to the orderly queue waiting the bus. I could have watched all night, but we had a train to catch.

We made it to the Hoan Kiem Lake which is a calming break in the chaos, with little Tortoise Tower in the middle surrounded by legends.  We walked over the red lacquered bridge to another little island where numerous locals were praying to one of the city’s ancestors. Among the flowers, fruit and gilded offerings was a charming life-sized horse. This man had obviously been a great worrier. After a student had earned her tip telling us the history we returned over the bridge and past Writing Brush Tower on which was written in giant characters “A pen to write on the blue sky” and I knew that there would be more than I could ever write about on this trip.  

We had been told that the only way to get to the mountains in the Northeast of Viet Nam was by train, and unless you want to take the hard seat you travel at night in a tourist sleeper. The hard seat was just that; a hard seat. Imagine a wooden slatted park bench and you are right there. We selected the four person soft sleeper. I learned that “soft” is a relative term, but there was a four inch padded mattress and clean sheets. Our guide and a student returning home for the weekend joined us. There were no platforms and no signs we could see directing us to the correct train so we gratefully let Nam lead the way. The compartment was fine, the restroom down the hall adequate, but it was not a restful night. Perhaps it was because none of the stations were identified that the train stopped with such surprising force at each of them.

We had breakfast in the railway town of Lao Cai, next to the border with China, and then were driven to the market town of Can Cau.

We had never purchased a package tour before with a driver and a guide, hotels and most of the meals prearranged, but I had not’t allowed enough time to plan the program. I arrived in Singapore one week after John and one week before his semester break. It was Tuesday before I realized we were leaving on Friday and we didn’t even have our visas. With the aid of a travel agent in Singapore, and the guidance of a tour operator in Hanoi manipulating my ideas we landed up with an excellent itinerary.

Now we were up in the cool mountains of Northeast Viet Nam to see some of the minority groups.

The blouses have wide collar and cuffs decorated in the same way. The blouse itself and often the bottom of the skirt, is a made of rather startling velor that looks very out of place.

Many of the minority groups living in these mountains have retained  traditional lifestyles and customs. The Flower Hmong lady shown making a purchase in the picture to the left has a full skirt made up of wide bands of colored fabrics sewn together. You can see some of the bundled strips for sale in front of her. These are heavily machine stitched and appliquéd to create the striped pattern.

The women all wear head scarves tied in various ways. Most are of a plaid pattern that would make a Scott proud yet is native to the region.


Around the waist at the front as well as behind, they tie an apron. Over that could be a strip of fabric or they could have a spare headscarf filled with items, used like a rather large pocket. In addition, they usually have one or two heavily embroidered bags across their shoulders. It is a colorful and many layered outfit. And of all the markets we went to, this was the least interesting!

The countryside between Bac Ha and Can Cau is dramatic with rolling hills of green on green with rice paddy terraces creating irregular steps up the slopes.

The road was an easy two lanes although it was not wise to look down the steep hillside because I didn’t think the bamboo guard rail would do more than to point out where you had gone over the side. Most of the traffic is motor scooters and one brave sole was herding his buffalo along the road from his motorbike. Other traffic was the sturdy little ponies and people walking.

Sunday is market day in Bac Ha, just 18km south of Can Cau in case you miss their Saturday market. Everything a person could need from fresh vegetables to flowers, clothes both modern and traditional, plastic sandals and souvenirs for the visiting tourists is available. Some customers bought a fill of tobacco and smoked it through water in a long bamboo tube squatting together in a little group. Less interest was incurred by the musician who played a wind instrument made from clay that looked like a clarinet and sounded like a flute.

In Vietnam the family of ethnic groups is quite bedazzling if not bewildering. The tribes have come to this land over the centuries. Some consist of just a couple of hundred members whereas the Thai have over a million, and the Viet make up the vast majority of the population with almost sixty six million. In the countryside some tribes can be identified by their full shirts of highly decorated fabrics but others wear black form-fitting outfits with almost no embellishments. We visited villages that ware made up of homes on stilts and others that had have straw or mud huts on the ground.   In the towns much of the individuality is lost on Western dress and motor scooters.

Here in Bac Ha the Red, Black and Flower Hmong were a glorious blend of color and smiling faces.

Our hotel in Bac Ha was very pleasant, clean & we had a good view.
Thien Thank Hotel
Tel/Fax 020 880676
Cell  091202 9099

We had been on this trip just three days and had to travel to Sapa to and collapse into bed and a sleep of over exertion and altitude exhaustion. 

Viet Nam, North. Day 3


The French discovered more than silver in the hills of northeast Vietnam, around Sapa, they also found that the cool climate was a relief from the heat of the coastal lowlands. They built homes, a church and some were carried the 150 kilometers manually, by sedan. We just drove the two hours from Cac Ha. The view we woke up to was just as spectacular as the French would have seen. Our hotel was perched on a cliff overlooking a valley full of little patches of farmland and rolling hills all framed with green mountains. Of course it wasn’t all visible all he time because of the clouds drifting through the valley, but it made a splendid location for John to sip his sunset scotch.


Sapa is well developed for tourists but it is still enjoyable. The narrow streets are lined with interesting shops and restaurants filled with visitors sucking in the noodles of an evening.


We wanted to watch the dances of the some of various ethnic groups which was to be performed on the top of a hill in the middle of town. We walked under a sign that read “Tourist Hill” but were assured the real name is “Dragon’s Jaw Mountain”. The gardens are in a cleft between what, with a little imagination was the open jaw of a dragon taking a bite out of the sky.


There were well laid out gardens between great jagged cliffs somewhat reminiscent of Buchard  Gardens in Vancouver. The souvenirs here, however, were not the nice teapots of Buchard but bags of strange herbs and pickled snakes and scorpions guaranteed to cure your ailments (if they didn’t kill you.) Getting past all that and buying a necessary umbrella we made it to the raised floor of the wooden hut where the dances were about to begin. We were to see six of the fifty two ethnic groups represented in Vietnam, in traditional costume and dance.


As colorful as the costumes were the musicians. One man played an unusual three or four pipe, meter-long flute as he did summersaults and rolled about and lept from the floor. Later he made music with a piece bamboo leaf.


It was entertaining and interesting but only one of the ethnic groups our guide wrote down for us was listed in the elaborate picture book I purchased later at the Museum of Ethnology in Ha Noi. In fact if I added these to all the groups shown on various postcards I bought I come up with about seventy groups or sub-groups. It is a little overwhelming.  They live in harmony farming, dressing and living in slightly different ways. Only when the French spurred them on was there a conflict between two cultures about which could attend the Catholic church, but that is all over now.


I was eager to get to the market and see the hand made crafts and clothes. I never left one small area where I was being entertained by a lovely Red Hmong who of course sold me trinkets, and then by a group of Black Hmong. I was having such fun John left and roved the rest of the market and I didn’t see him for an hour.

This Red Hmong lady was delighted to show me how she assembled the necklaces she was selling and was most amused when I displayed her picture on my camera. The necklaces were 4-5 inches wide strips of fabric about two feet long. They are embroidered, often with little figures in order to encourage fertility, and are embellished with silver charms on a mostly red background. I doubt that the charms are actually silver but they are charming none the less.



Each of the women wanted me to buy from her and stopped peddling their well-worn Singer sewing machines to encourage a sale.


In the far corner I was fascinated to watch a group of Black Hmong spinning hemp. They had strips of the thin bark pealed from the stalks that they were shredding very thin. Then they were spinning these together and wrapping around their thumb and little finger creating bundles of yarn.

This old lady’s hands were a blur until she paused to look at the pictures I brought of Texas. You can see the cord around her hand as she holds the postcard.

The course fabric is then pounded until it is shiny and water resistant. So much work goes into making the clothes. The Black Hmong are also known for their use of indigo as a die. Although they are called Black Hmong, it is actually a dark indigo blue that they wear.


It was time to get some exercise and take a hike to some of the more remote villages. The excuse was limited time, but it also saved a long walk to take the car.

We were driven as far as there was a road and then set off down the cobbled path to Cat Cat where the Black Hmong were drying their fabric in the misty sun.

The little indigo plants were growing everywhere like nettles at the side of the path, and farther along you could see where they were cultivated in patches where rice would not grow. I picked a stem and crushed it between my fingers but it was just a clear liquid that wet my hand. A few minutes later I saw that I had blue stains on my fingers. It is the juice of the stalks not the berries that creates the color. The women I’d seen in the market had deep blue in every crevice of their hands.

It was a good hike to the bottom of the valley and over the swinging suspension  bridge that traversed a river that would have made an appealing swimming hole had it been hot. We then hiked up the other side but cheated as the car waiting for us where the path joined the road and we went the lazy way to yet another village.


Ta Phin was quite a different experience as most of the women had learned English. This made it not only more interesting but easier for them to make a sale. Unfortunately they were so intent on asking inane questions like “Where are you from?” and “How many children do you have?” that they didn’t talk about themselves at all. John is not good at bargaining and they knew a sucker when they saw one.

We were scheduled to take the night train back to Hanoi at the end of our fourth day, but I went back to the tour operator and insisted that if it was at all possible we wanted to drive. We wanted to see the countryside and not sleep through it. We were told that it was 8-10 hours and the road was not good. We have driven on bad roads for longer than that and we wouldn’t be doing the driving. We would sit back and watch the scenery. It was a very good decision, even though it didn’t take 10 hours, it took 12.


We passed rice paddies cut into the sides of the sweeping steep slopes and little villages with homes on stilts or thatched houses sitting directly on the ground with walls of matting. There were cinnamon groves and slabs of the bark as big as your arm drying at the side of the road. Buffalo wondered all over the place and there were fish ponds scattered among the fields. Cassava and corn flourished in little plots and dark hedges of tea made dark lines on the hillsides.


We stopped at one last village. Nam approached one house but the sign that read “Dangerous Dog” caused him to give it a wide birth.  At the next home we ere made very welcome.


Mrs. Tran invited us upstairs and lit the fire in a sandpit in the middle of the wooden floor. She had it blazing in a minute and we were grateful for the hot tea she served in glasses the size of small eggcups. I was very glad that we had brought gifts so we could reciprocate. We always carry packets of seeds. Perhaps next year there will be Sweet Williams growing in there garden along with the vegetables next year. Our guide was disappointed that we didn’t have more flower seeds but insisted that we must not send him any as it was against the law to import seeds.


We were also able to entertain young master Tran and grandma with our balloon making. Perhaps that is why it took 12 hours to make it back to Hanoi. Mrs. Tran put a clean shirt on her son from those strung between the roof supports, when I wanted to photograph him, and we promised to send them pictures. Nam assured us they would be received as he had no doubt about the quality of the postal service.


Grandma is 72 years old. This visit was my most precious time in Vietnam.

North. Our last days before returning to Singapore


We had sacrificed one of our days in Hanoi in order to make the drive through the countryside and now only had one day to see the capital. We had a car with driver and a fresh guide and planned to pack in the important sites. (Hong Ngoc Hotel,  99 Ma May St.  in the old quarter was clean and comfortable but the included breakfast was poor. They have 4 hotels in Hanoi)


The first place we were obliged to visit was the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. This was not particularly interesting from the outside, just an overpowering rectangular acropolis. The corpse of the great man that is usually on display to the public was on it’s annual pilgrimage to Moscow for refurbishing. (A visit with Mao, perhaps?) The nearby buildings, including the simple wooden home on stilts that Uncle Ho had had built nearby to live to live in, were worth seeing. You could look in the windows but you could only see the great yellow edifice of the Presidential Palace from a guarded distance.


Near the One Pillar Pagoda we visited a temple where by chance a family was celebrating the life of a member who had just died. They wore predominately black and the immediate family had white headbands. They were sitting in and around the steps of the temple having a picnic. In just a minute they cleaned up and the place was empty except for the offerings on the altar and smoke lingering from the simmering incense. 


The prison the US airmen called "The Hanoi Hilton", did not emphasize their residency, as much as that of the locals under the control of the French. They built by the French in 1896 in an effort to contain the anti-colonial movement, but in 1954 the north won. On display were various shackles and a couple of "head cutting-machine cut many patriots and revolutionists."  Among their US "guests" was Douglas 'Pete' Peterson who later became America's first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

Elsewhere on display was the wreckage of US bombers and the rusting ordnance that brought them down in the city. These relics were a casual focus of attention with cars parked between them as they continued to disintegrate in the humid sun.


I had been looking forward to the Ethnology History Museum. “Brand new ten years ago” our guide boasted, but I don’t think it had been dusted since. It didn’t do the cultures justice. It will take a lot for me to understand the numerous minority groups and branches, their similarities and differences, or even how many there are. Beside the Viet ethnic group that makes up 87% of the population, you will be told that there are 53 other groups belonging to 5 main families. However, the names in the official books and those on the postcards and the people we met didn't match so I am now thorougherly confused.


We then made a detour from the planned itinerary to visit to the Vietnam Red Cross. It was interesting to learn what programs were important to them like constructing “charity houses”, providing wheelchairs, household animal raising, and five programs for Agent Orange victims. We then took a short walk to visit the delegation of the American Red Cross who have an office that is working on various projects in Cambodia and Laos as well. They had a great program to make sure that the children had meals served in the schools. The ARC was one of eight Societies of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that had adjacent offices. It was interesting to see what they were doing and how they were working together. Unfortunately there were no souvenirs, but I left a couple of pins and postcards of Texas.

The Temple of Literature, dedicated in 1070 was special and well preserved. The names of the graduates were carved into dozens of stone stele resting on the backs of turtles. Turtles being wise creatures to carry the names through the centuries.


There was an elaborate temple to Confucius and his disciples where the students visited to prey before exams.





It was the serene nature of the place and its gentle maturity that I liked. It was my favorite site in the city.







We put our feet up for a welcome rest in the hotel and then, surviving another encounter through the Hanoi traffic, found our way to the water puppet show in the evening.

The puppeteers stand in the water behind the screen and control the puppets on long poles. They make fish jump out of the water chased by a fisherman and workers planted rice and boys played on water buffalo. All the while there were musicians and singers providing the vocals. It was fun and entertaining.

That evening we were the honored guests of the owners of the tour company that had arranged our program. They were interested in how we liked it, and because I had operated my own company, wanted our ideas. Among other things, I explained how important it had been to us to see the Vietnamese countryside on our drive back from the mountains. It was just three days later that Typhoon Xangsane hit the coast and disrupted a tour program they were running. After what we had said they added a long tour through the country instead of the now impossible beach time and their clients were delighted. Fortunately we were well out of harms way and although thousands were evacuated from coastal areas, there were few deaths from the typhoon.

The next morning we had a two hour drive to Halong Bay. En route we made a stop at a factory were disadvantaged locals had been taught sewing and lacquer work. The children went to school for half a day, but there were a number of adults who are being trained in marketable skills which makes up for any abilities they lack.


The workmanship was amazing and some of the tapestries were really pleasing, but we just don’t have wall space to hang another picture. We resisted buying one, almost did, but we refrained.

On the return trip the next day we visited a ceramic factory and although I had a hankering for a vase that I could look up at. I limited myself to a four inch jug, but you can see them at the end of the display.

But we didn’t just see factories and workshops on the trip. There were towns and villages and all manner of vehicles joining us on the roads between. Most homes were tall and thin like row houses, but many don’t have neighbors. Just in case a home will be built slap up to it there are usually no windows on the sides. Highly colorful and decorated fronts face the road with a bare cement wall each side. The kitchen and the grandparents quarters are on the ground floor, the traditionally parents live on the first floor and the children on the top floor because they are younger and can climb up more easily.

Coal dust was pervasive in one town with black dust accumulated in the gutters and visible in the air and red brick kilns bristling the landscape.

There were acres of rice paddies. In the 1970’s each person was given a portion of land, but so that a few would not get the best and areas and were closest to the village, the allotments were cut into very small parcels. One person might get a strip near home and another were he would have to carry the rice a long way. Looking across the fields you can see a dozen shades of green indicating the various degrees of ripeness of the rice of an individuals parcel. In this picture you can make out half a dozen shades of green between each paths.


“You have very nice junk” our guide told us as we clambered along a stone dock next to the water, hanging onto our bags, past a mass of wooden boats.


Halong Bay is meant to be one of the most scenic places in Vietnam and we were going to sail the bay in a junk on an overnight cruise. I had no idea what to expect or what  the accommodations would be like.


Judging by the number of vessels we were not going to be the only people out there. At peak season there aren’t enough births on the 500 junks.


 This was the off season and although there must have been over a hundred going out that day there are enough islands and coves that the others were soon lost.


Our cabin was just fine with a couple of petite twin beds and an immaculate bathroom; white tile everywhere. There wasn’t much to tile as you could shower sitting on the commode, but it had everything. (Huong Hai Junk Co. or


If we look happy we are.  I was utterly amazed at the quality of the boat, the service and the food. I had muttered something about being a vegetarian to the tour operator at the beginning of our venture but it hadn’t really be successful. I was just served what John got, less the meat. Here they were served enormous shrimp and crab and all sorts of goodies. I got a dish of something that the waiter insisted was mushrooms but for the life of me I couldn’t tell it from tough meat. Before the next meal the waiter came up to me and said the chef was having trouble with vegetarian food to I told him to forget it and I enjoyed glorious fresh sea food from then on.


There were ten of us and the staff tried to seat us according to our cabins but we mutinied. We scrambled our tables dining with different friends at each meal. We were a really mixed group: a wealthy French couple, an Spanish couple on their honeymoon, a single Dutchman who missed his wife, an Australian couple and a single Australian/Chinese/Malay women. All interesting and entertaining company.

The rock formations were delightful and everywhere you looked there were different vistas with shades of blue-grey fading into the distance. We paddle gently through a tunnel in one of the rocks and came out into water completely surrounded by high rock walls. It was strange and very quiet and very still. Then suddenly another boat load of tourists burst into our lagoon and exploded the tranquility.


Rock islands jutted around us. Greenery clutched to ledges in vertical cliffs and smoothing the jagged tops of the islands. Some islands were completely bald and others were green to the tide line. Areas were white where the limestone was too smooth and vertical for even the dirt to cling. As the islands receded they became a blur against each other even though the furthest was no more than 2 miles off.



The first day we walked half way up an island and into a limestone cave. The second day we climbed to the top of an island to enjoy dramatic views in all directions. Those who didn’t want to make the hike could take a swim off the little beach. John and I did both.

The only disappointment was that we didn’t get a real sunset as we were moored for the night in a cove and the sun slid behind one of the hundreds of islets long before it really set. Never-the-less John brought out the bottle of scotch he had been carrying around for the past week and we shared a glass all round. There was an ample bar on board, but we had been lugging the bottle for this very purpose. Then we went for a swim as the warm night wrapped around us and the junk stood out like a black ghost ship against the sky. This might look like a sunset shot but actually the sun is muted by the smoke caused by the annual burn-off before the monsoons come.

I was the first person up in the morning. I hoped to could sit on deck sipping a cup of coffee but all the staff were strewn about the dining room fast asleep on the pads taken from the chairs. Curled up in a wicker couch on deck I watched as hundreds of islands appeared out of the shadows. We were in the middle of a forest of islands. They were layers of shadows upon shadows rising like rocky teeth out of the water. Shards of rocks cast dark reflections on the rippled water. The light grew around me. The only things moving were the reflections of the junks around us and the star on the red flag of Vietnam that flapped over each vessel. I looked down into the deep green water, and across it at the sky; the never-ending grey that held everything down.


Women wearing cone hats appeared selling bottled water and fruit. They paddled their dhows standing facing forward in these round baskets boats. Their oars moved awkwardly tied to row locks with string.


An occasional tourist wondered the deck of a neighboring junk. You could tell when a crew member moved as they had purpose to their actions and did not stand on awe of their surroundings.


Suddenly a bright light appeared in the water. It was the sun. It had risen over an island behind me. The breeze picked up and the flags stood out. Small craft were dotting the spaces between the score of junks anchored in the bay and the hum of outboard motors filled the silence. I could hear plates being clattering in the galley and I yearned for that cup of coffee. More people were visible strolling the decks of the larger vessels and our crew was moving. A young crewman brought me a cup of coffee. It smelled rich and black. It was so rich and black that it made my toes curl up. Just the way he liked it. I could have done with fifty percent more water and some cream.

We were joined for our last dinner in Hanoi by Melissa who works for the American Red Cross, along with a couple of her ex pat. friends. It was interesting to learn what she was doing for the ARC and about teaching English to the locals from her friends.


For our final morning we took a cyclo ride to a French restaurant for a good cup of French coffee and a croissant. The breakfast at the hotel was somewhat lacking in appeal. The cylco ride was fun if not a  little of a thrill. A Cyclo is a three wheel peddle bike and you sit between the two front wheels as a kind of buffer between the cyclist and the oncoming traffic. You are at eye level with the motorcycle riders and are completely helpless as they come at you from all sides. Many of the local women wear masks covering their faces, this is more to prevent their skin from being darkened in the sun than for air purification. This becomes evident after dark when the masks and long gloves disappear.


We had an uneventful trip but unfortunately there was a power outage in the part of town with the French café. After a good croissant we returned to the hotel for a cup of the local very dark coffee, that they drink muted with a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk.   

Note to RVers.  Vietnam does not allow foreigners to bring vehicles into the  country, except those from Laos or Cambodia.  If you want to travel through Southeast Asia you will be restricted to Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. 

At this point I would like to highly recommend the tour operator who set up this program for us. With my usual system of planning, I contacted them on the Wednesday and they had it all set up to meet us at the airport that Friday. They made the changes we requested as we went along, the guides were good and spoke excellent English (a most important factor) and the price was good. They have the 5 star hotels, but we requested the 2 star and were more than happy. I plan to use them again in November and with pre-planning they have set up a treks by elephant, dugout canoe and bicycle to visit out of the way villages, and a trip on a xeloi, whatever that is! I'll tell you after Christmas.
Contact Chi or Yen at  or visit their web site at

By all means use our name.


October 5, 2006

© 2006 Harriet Halkyard