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Magnificent Mekong
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Magnificent Mekong: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with Viking

November 28, 2014

This will probably be my most difficult travelogue to write so far, and the reasons will become obvious as it progresses. Visiting Cambodia was for me both the highlight and the low point in this adventure.

It began as most of our long trips do, with some free time in the Admiral’s Club at Ezeiza Airport while waiting to board our flight. Depending on traffic, the trip from home to the airport can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. It’s best to try to avoid Friday afternoons.

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We had a glass of orange juice, with an Airborne tablet for luck. We knew the trip from Buenos Aires to Hanoi was going to be a grueling experience, so we broke it up by stopping over in South San Francisco for a couple of days to catch our breath at Pete’s mom’s apartment. We arrived on Saturday, 22 November, and took care of some banking business on Monday. Then at 5 minutes after midnight on Monday (actually Tuesday) we were on our China Airline 747 jet liner bound for Taipei, Taiwan, and from there to Hanoi, Vietnam. It was 13 hours 55 minutes to Taipei, and another 3 hours 10 minutes to Hanoi. The 747s flown by China Airlines were, I believe, initially configured for small framed Chinese people. Large framed North Americans like myself found the seats to be quite restrictive (and that’s putting it mildly). I let Viking handle our travel arrangements from San Francisco, and I don’t think I will do that again. When you are part of a ‘tour group’ on a charter flight, you have no access to your flight information, and cannot select your own seats on the Internet. The seat I was given was an aisle seat, but there was a large electronic box under the seat in front of me. We believed it to be for the retrofitted WiFi. I could not stretch out my legs at all, an impossible situation for me. I ended up moving to n vacant emergency exit row seat, between two Chinese ladies, and was able to stretch out my legs.

One thing I’ve got to credit Viking River Cruises for is the excellent hotels they put us up in, at each of our land tour phases. They used exclusively Sofitel hotels, and they were all Five Star.

We had booked the Ha Long Bay pre-tour Extension, as well as the Bangkok post-tour Extension. We figured that as long as we had come all this way we may as well see it all. Our first night, however, was spent at the Hanoi Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel. After the many hours in the air, we both felt like doing nothing more than taking a shower, and going to bed. We set our alarm, and when we woke up a few hours later, we found a nice restaurant in the hotel for dinner.

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I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was very Vietnamese, and quite delicious.

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The next morning we had a pleasant breakfast on the patio, and found ourselves leaving the Hotel Metropole Hanoi, and traveling by motor coach through the Vietnam countryside, with green fields and grazing water buffalo. We were on our way to Ha Long Bay.

My expectations had been heightened by things I had heard from others about Ha Long Bay, with its more than 3,000 islands, many large, but many more quite tiny.

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We would be spending the day on one of these boats. Inside they were pretty nice. Linen table cloths and napkins, and the promise of a nice fish lunch. What’s not to like about that? And the fish lunch was not bad at all, with a nice variety of dishes.

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Here are some shots of a few of the more than 3,000 islands. Ha Long Bay is HUGE, and the islands are quite varied in appearance. They were actually quite beautiful in many ways. The water in the bay was as calm as a lake, and the captain was in no hurry, so we had a very leisurely cruise going from island to island, but not all 3,000 of them. ;o)

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There were a lot of other boats out there, doing the same thing we were. Some of the rock formations had names. The two below were called the ‘Fighting Cocks”. You may have to bend my imagination a little on that one. There were quite a few floating fish farms. What an exciting job that must be. Ut, our Program Director tells us that off in the distance is a cave that we will be visiting.

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We pull up to a dock and disembark. The cave entrance is just beyond that red roofed building on the hill side. We head up the trail that leads to the cave. Pete has his ticket in hand, and he looks excited and ready for this adventure.

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Inside the cave, the lighting is amazing, and my camera really picks up on the colors. It was a Disneyland of wonder.

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The cave was huge, with lots of rooms. I’d hate to have all the lights go out, and try to find my way out in total darkness.

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The cave seemed to go on and on, and the colored lighting made it all extraordinary, surreal and awesome.

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The caves could easily be considered the highlight of the Ha Long Bay experience. It made the journey very worth while.

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Well, I guess that’s enough cave photos. By now you’ve got the idea. It was a pretty cool experience. As we exited the cave, we saw our boat below waiting for us. I’m glad they were all numbered. Ours was #59, I think.

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We wound our way down the trail to the dock to board our boat, but on the way down, Pete and I stopped at souvenir stand and we each bought a T-Shirt. The boat took us back to our starting point, and from there we’d be taken to the Hotel Novetel where we would be spending the night.

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It was a long day, and a cold beer really hit the spot when we got to the hotel. The pool was very inviting, but all we wanted was a shower, a quiet dinner, and a comfortable bed. We did have a cocktail before dinner at the elegant Novetel bar, the Vietnamese version of a mojito. Don't ask. ;o) Our dinner was more Vietnamese dishes. We could easily get used to this.

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From Ha Long Bay we would next travel back to Hanoi, the former capital of French Indochina. Our first day there would be free time to get acquainted with the city. The next day we would take a tour of this unique, thousand-year-old Asian capital.