Amsterdam view from Amsterdam Tower

Amsterdam view from Amsterdam Tower
The view from Amsterdam Tower

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ha Long Bay

When realizing that I moved into Ho Chi Minh City two months ago, I told to myself that I was only a few steps away from Ha Long Bay. I do not know why I have such chemistry toward this place.

Ha Long Bay Panorama View

How to get there?

Through Ha Noi
The common way to get there is to fly to Ha Noi, then drive from Ha Noi to Ha Long for four hours. If traffic is good, it can be reached within 3-1/2 hours. Tourists coming from overseas are recommended to go through Ha Noi because many airlines land in the capital city of Vietnam.

Through Hai Phong
However, if we are already in Vietnam, there is another way to get to Ha Long which is flying to Hai Phong.  It is the third most populous city in Vietnam. The name means "coastal defense".

Hai Phong port is one of the two biggest ports in Vietnam. It is an industrial estate where many multinational companies have factories. It all reminds somehow of Batam Island in Indonesia.  See this link for more info about on Hai Phong.

Cat Bi International Airport @ Hai Phong

There is a 2 hour direct flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Cat Bi international airport in Hai Phong. I heard there are three daily flights to Ho Chi Minh City. Then another 1-1/2 to 2 hours driving from Hai Phong to Ha Long.

Just before reaching Hai Phong, I could see the some limestone hills on the left and right sides of the roads. is amazing and it already looks like the view in Ha Long Bay. Such view that I had only seen in the website.

Falling in love with Ha Long Bay

Hạ Long Bay or Vịnh Hạ Long in Vietnamese literally means "Descending Dragon Bay". It is a popular travel destination located in northeastern or Quảng Ninh province, Vietnam. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes.

Hạ Long Bay was first listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, in recognition of its outstanding, universal aesthetic value. In 2000 the World Heritage Committee additionally recognized Hạ Long Bay for its outstanding geological and geomorphological value, and its World Heritage Listing was updated.

In 2009, the New 7 Wonders Foundation, which runs the New Seven Wonders of the World program, included Ha Long Bay on its list of nominations as one the World's 7 Natural Wonders. Check this link

How to Enjoy Ha Long Bay Scenary

The best way to enjoy Ha Long Bay scenery is go on a cruise.  There are many cruise providers offering trips to Ha Long Bay.  Some cruise tours have programs for 1 day trip or overnight trips (2 days 1 night. 3 days 2 nights, etc.) which includes transportation from hotels in Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay marina (return), boat cruising, meals, entrance and sightseeing fees and kayak.

Must bring items are sun block, sun glasses, hat, swimming clothes, comfortable walking shoes, flip-flop or thongs, camera, insect repellent. It is a good idea to bring a fan as it is humid. Of course please bring your passport for checking in.


Definitely Ha Long Bay is a famous destination for tourists as I could see and hear people from different nations at the departure lounge including some Indonesians. Cruise ship departed at 12.30 noon from Tuan Chau Island marina. This island is actually connected to mainland Ha Long City by a lengthy jetty.

My first concern when choosing cruise provider is safety. I was glad that safety induction was included in the welcome greeting when guests boarded. I think our boat was fit with max 30 people. An expatriate is leading the operations of the boat with some Vietnamese speaking staff. 

Perfect Cappuccino

As we sailed through the bay, lunch buffet was served. It was mix eastern and western food. With such a beautiful view, lunch tasted even better. Perhaps it was one of the most memorable lunches I ever had. I could not miss to have cappuccino afterward. I sat in a table outside, sipped my cappuccino, looked at the beautiful view of the bay, felt the warm sun and breeze in my skin, day dreamed and wondered for next magnificent view. Meanwhile my loved one was busy with his cappuccino and camera. Still he looked and smiled at me once in a while to make sure that I was happy, that we were both happy.

Not so long after we started sailing, I saw some limestone isles. It is the front part of Ha Long Bay, I guess? I was so excited to reveal the magical and mysterious Ha Long Bay.

The history said that in late 19th century, ”Les Nouvelles de Hai Phonh”, a French newspaper of the time, had an article, Dragon appears on Ha Long Bay, reporting the following story: In 1898 a sub-lieutenant named Lagredin, captaining the Avalanse reported seeing a huge sea snake on Ha Long Bay. This was also witnessed by many of the crews.

My mind was wondering around…. How many of these limestone isles here in this bay.  The new world encyclopedia says some 1600 limestone islands and islets, covered by jungle vegetation, populate Ha Long bay.  This reminds me of Pulau Seribu in northern part of Jakarta, Indonesia. Pulau Seribu means a "Thousand Island" consisting of less almost 128 small islands but still they are called as thousand. It is located in the Bay of Jakarta in the Java Sea. Most of these are inhabited and can be reached in about 1-2 hours from Marina Ancol by boat. However, they are regular coral islands (not the limestone).

Cua Van Floating Fishing Village

Cua Van Floating Fishing Village

It was a bright and sunny afternoon. The boat was heading to first destination which is the Cua Van Floating Fishing Village. This village has become a tourist attraction and has been present in the itinerary of almost all tourist agencies. Cua Van Village has a population of 733 in 176 households. They mainly earn their livelihood by fishing.

Cua Van is the largest fishing village in Ha Long Bay

Cua Van is the largest fishing villages in Ha Long Bay among others Ba Hang, Vong Vieng and Cap La.

Closer to this village, our boat was approached by some small wooden boats selling many things such as soft drinks, chips, battery, souvenirs, etc. Negotiation skill is required. There was a small wharf where we could board. Then we were transferred to a small wooden boat rowed by a Vietnamese lady wearing traditional hat. She took us around the village in her boat. She was too shy to talk with us. She was just rowing, smiling and nodding to our questions. I wondered if she understood, however the conversation seemed to flow smoothly. 

Rowing around the village, we could see the daily life of the local fishermen. Two girls were playing in the local rowing boat in the middle of the bay. One of them could row the boat using her legs! Amazing!

Cooking Class

During the cruise, there was a cooking demonstration to discover the Vietnamese cuisine. Not only that, we were making my favorite dish which is Vietnamese Spring Roll. I like both the fresh or fried ones.

Another goal to be achieved during my stay in Vietnam is to learn about cooking. My first cooking lesson is during a cruise ship in Ha Long Bay. I promised myself that there will be more cooking class to come onshore.

After this class, I found out why it is called Spring Roll. Because there are many colors in the rolls from the carrot, mushroom, onion, meat, vermicelli, therefore it looks like the view in spring time. 

Tung Sau - Pearl Farm

Tung Sau Pearl Farm

Second stop is the Tung Sau Pearl Farm. We could find out about a full cycle of how the pearls are created.  We stopped around this bay until the sunset. This area is also the place for swimming and kayaking. Water is calm and warm. 

Then we moved to another area of the bay, not so far from the Pearl Farm, where the boat was anchored until the next morning.

It was too foggy to see the sunset. However, being there at sunset time was already wonderful. It was a wonderful and romantic moment: sitting on the sundeck of the cruise ship, having nice drink, looking at other cruise boats surrounding… Later on when it got darker, one boat by another switched on their lights, its lamplights was blinking through the bay.  Making the bay looked so bloody damn too romantic.  

Dawn @ Ha Long Bay

I looked forward for the sunrise in Ha Long Bay!  It was an extraordinary morning with an indescribable feeling in my heart. The bay seems to spread some magical aura.  Comparing myself to this mystical beautiful view while there, giving me a reminder that I am as human being is only a dot comparing to this universe.

The day started by practicing Tai Chi on the sundeck while we were surrounded by other 26 cruise boats in the Bay!  We followed the movements of the Tai Chi instructor. Some of the motions reminded of the other holistic healing i.e. meditation. Of course they are both holistic healing. My meditation guru explained some theory that reminded me of these Tai Chi motions: holding our hands in front of the heart, neck and head are to open the Chakra in those areas.

Cat Ba Island

We were blessed by having a shiny morning. In fact, it was too sunny and humid for some people. Around 11am, we arrived at Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest island in the bay and approximately half of its area is covered by a National Park. See this link:

Gowes @ Cat Ba Island

We arrived at Viet Hai jetty and took bicycle trip to the untouched forests and wildlife. Other than bicycle, motorbike is an option.  As soon as we started our ride, the rain dropped heavily, as if Someone listened to our complaint that it was too sunny and humid, ooopss…. We were wet of the rain and sweat. Riding bicycle up and down the island was a bit of a challenge. Especially with the rain, it is slippery when the road goes down.

In the Jungle

In the rain, we still could see the village scenery: small shops selling local ice cream, loud music in one of the houses, some cows in the rice field.  Then we stopped at a small kampong and the rain stopped too.  After resting for a short while, everyone in the group could not wait for the jungle trek - trekking in the Cat Ba National Forest.  We first saw a big spider.  After having kept on walking, we arrived at a dark cave. When we were inside the cave, everyone was told that it is a bat cave!  Lucky or unlucky, nobody saw any bat. The cave was found in 1966. In fact some people used to live in it during the war.

Going back to our boat, it was sunny again and our clothes went dry quickly. Lunch was served at the boat. It was Vietnamese cuisine with Tumis Kangkung (morning glory cooked with garlic), Fresh Salad (for me it is similar to Thai mango salad but it is without mango), Fish and Shrimp curry, and fresh fruits.

Dark and Light Caves

Ha Long Bay's limestone islands are dotted with caves of all sizes and shapes. Most of these are accessible only by boat.  Link for Ha Long Bay caves

After lunch, we continued the cruise to the Dark Cave and Light Cave areas.  Here we could do kayaking and swimming.  When kayaking, we passed the biggest cave in that area.  We could pass underneath it and there we were at the other side of the bay. It was very quiet except the cicadas sound. Water is warm and calm without too much wave.  Passing other kayakers, we waved hands and smiled, as sign that all enjoyed that moment.

Turning around from that cave, we came back toward the cruise ship. We found an island with a little bit of beach of perhaps 10m width where we anchored our kayak and got off from the kayak.  The beach is formed from the clam shells instead of sands.  Perhaps trillions of broken shells.

No other person in the surrounding - as if the beach is personal property. Like everywhere in the bay, I could only hear the cicadas. We could feel the wind breeze, warm sun and sun burns in my skin, hear the splashes of the water. Suddenly there was a strange tingling sensation around my feet!  I was attacked and bitten by small fishes... (Dalam bahasa Indonesia, ikannya seperti ikan cere di selokan). Perhaps these fishes tried to give me free foot massage!

We left our private beach and did more kayaking. We found another cave smaller than the first one. We rowed underneath and arrived at the other side of that limestone island. That curve is a dead-ended part. It was so quiet, no current going to that way.  It felt spooky and I wanted to leave that area right away!  There was another cave, which is very dark and low, and indeed it is another dead-end cave. I forced the kayak to pull back. Takut!

After everyone returned from the kayaking, we sailed back to the mother cruise ship to rest before dinner. We met other guests who just joined the cruise that day. Everyone seemed to enjoy all of the activities. It is amazing that they are willing to travel from all around the world to visit Ha Long Bay.  They came from Munich, Dubai, Sydney and Kuala Lumpur.

The Sunset

On the second evening, we could see the moon peeping in the sky. It was half-moon.  Later on, we could see two stars; however we heard some lightning as well.

The boat anchored at the same location as the day before. Again, there were other many boats in the bay. Still it was tranquil.  Sunset moment with Margarita seemed cool. However my order turned out to be something like Martini, still it did not spoil my sunset mood.

One evening in Ha Long Bay

Later in that evening, there were more lightning. Rain fell heavily in the middle of the night. Our boat was swinging left and right following the small waves.


It was drizzling in the morning. The sun finally appeared just before we left the mother cruise ship and transferred to shuttle boat. I could not wait to visit the Surprise Cave (Hang Sung Sot) which is one of the finest and widest grottoes of Ha Long Bay.

Surprise Cave is located at Ho Hon Island

This Cave is located on Bo Hòn Island and was discovered in 1901 by the French, named in 1938 by the French (Cave of Surprises) and welcomed its first visitors in 1993. Bo Hòn Island is one of the 1,969 limestone monolithic islands that are topped with thick jungle vegetation. 

Can you see the cave entrance? It's that hole right in the center

I could see the location of the grotto from the boat. The entrance is high above the bay. No doubt, everyone had to climb the steps up to get there. Climbing up to the cave, there are some viewing platforms where we can look at the beautiful panorama. 

View from the viewing platform at Bo Hon Island - while climbing to the Surprise Cave

The cave has two chambers. The outer chamber is square and is often referred to as the waiting room. The cave's ceiling is approximately 30 m high. The walls generate a variety of colors that blend with the setting of the area. The path to the inner chamber is approximately 3m wide. The inner chamber is known as the serene castle. 

There is a side entrance which is approximately 6m in height. The light reflected from the moving water outside causes the formations inside the chamber to seemingly come alive. According to the locals, this was the reason the cave was named Sung Sot, from the awe-stricken reaction of the visitors to the cave. Inside, it is partitioned into two chambers; the first one being similar to a wide theatre hall. Many stalactites hang from the high ceiling, with numerous possible forms and shapes.

The chamber is huge and could contain thousands of people at one time. At 8.00am, the crowd was already seen at the ticket counter as well as inside the grotto. I could hear people speaking Bahasa Indonesian too-:)

There is stone in a shape of a frog as good luck charm. Visitors may leave some donation and touch the head of the frog stone. I did it with a wish for all of the good things in the universe. 

Sampai Ketemu Lagi di Ha Long Bay – See you again in Ha Long Bay

We left Ha Long Bay before noon and arrived at Tuan Chau Island marina around 10.30am. Most passengers then drove to Ha Noi either to continue their trip somewhere else in Vietnam or catch a connecting flight to their country. 

Meanwhile, we drove to Hai Phong and the 1-1/2 hour drive was reasonable.  The city was quiet on Sunday morning.  Our plane departed on time from Cat Bi airport and by 5.00pm we were already at home in Ho Chi Minh City.

Even though this trip has not allowed me to reveal the magical and mysterious legends on Ha Long Bay, at least now I can respond to people (who default asking me questions about Ha Long Bay every time I say that I live in Vietnam) that YES I have been to Ha Long Bay and I fall in love with it. Who doesn’t?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hari Raya di Kampung Orang Lain (Eid ul-Fitr celebration in Vietnam)

Eid ul-Fitr (Hari Raya Idul Fitri) or ‘Lebaran (more commonly referred to in Indonesia) – has just passed last week.  However its mood is still strongly felt. Assuming most people is back to work this week i.e. yesterday on Monday.  Business activity is back i.e. banking transaction resumes as normal.

Personally, I have two reasons why I will always remember this Lebaran:
1- I celebrate it in Vietnam, #
2- back home in Indonesia, Idul Fitri was celebrated/pushed back a day which was on 31st instead of 30th August as most 2011 calendars assumed. ##

Below, I put the explanation for reason no 2 first, then followed by no 1, with a special purpose. So my story flows smoothly. #smile#.

Pic was taken a few days before Lebaran

## Reason no 2

As info, the decision for Idul Fitri was based on its calculation of the location of the moon.  I remember that a few times in the past, there was a difference in determining the dates of Idul Fitri, between the Indonesian’s government and the Muslim organization.  However it has never damaged the Idul Fitri spirits.  Furthermore, other countries such as Vietnam also celebrated it on 31st August.

However, of course, such announcement has changed people’s plan to celebrate the holiday and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.  Some Lebaran meals that supposed to be served for Lebaran day on 30th August were enjoyed as the last Sahur (meal consumed pre-dawn before fasting).  Many funny jokes about how to preserve the Lebaran special meals that have been cooked by the ibu-ibu (housewives) -:)   Mmmm… I imagined the extravaganza super-duper delicious Lebaran dishes that I would miss this year.  #Ngebayangin hidangan Lebaran yang super enak nendangnya tapi ngak bisa dinikmati tahun ini#

Mosque in Dong Dun Street is locatedstrategically. See the blue gate of the Mosque? Building on the left is Sheraton Hotel. Building behind it is Caravelle Hotel.

# Reason no 1

As a rookie in Ho Chi Minh City, to satisfy my curiosity, I seek some info about Muslim activities in this country.   Vietnam's April 1999 census showed 63,146 Muslims and 9% in Ho Chi Minh City.  Source – Wikipedia

I then compared the experiences of Ramadan between in Indonesia and Vietnam.  It is a different atmosphere of course.

Idul Fitri decorations in Jakarta.

In Indonesia, especially Jakarta:
  • At the beginning of Ramadan most of the shopping malls and hotels are already decorated with beautiful Islamic decorations and music, as if there is a competition to win the best décor.  One 5 star hotel in South Jakarta had Middle Eastern decoration in their club house.  Guests can enjoy Buka Puasa (break the fast) sitting in the Middle Eastern style rugs/carpets and round cushions.   Decoration became perfect with Aladdin oil lamp, lanterns and even a camel..!   Food is variety between Indonesian and Middle Eastern dishes.  Guests including non-Muslim enjoyed both food and its ambiance.

  • Please do not try to walk in to a restaurant for Buka Puasa without reservation. Most likely you would be put on a waiting list with an uncertain waiting period. Because most restaurant is normally full, both lower-class restaurants and upscale. Many companies use Ramadan as an occasion to networking with their clients or to gather with their employees.

  • Closer to Lebaran, ibu-ibu (housewives) started to prepare delicious dishes like Ketupat (rice cake), Opor Ayam (chicken cooked in coconut milk), Rendang Daging (West Sumatra beef curry/beef cooked in coconut milk), Sambal Goreng Hati Ayam (chicken liver cooked in red chili), Vegetable Curry, etc… mmm… #air liur netes #drooling
Left: Kolak Pisang. Right: Es Kelapa Muda

In Vietnam, I could not find any sign of the sweet tasty dishes for Buka Puasa such as kolak pisang (braised banana in palm sugar sauce), bubur sumsum (rice flour pudding), es campur (mix of shaved ice, fruit, syrup and condensed milk), es kelapa muda (coconut juice), etc.   Juga tidak ada tanda2 rombongan orang mudik, kecuali orang Indonesia yang tinggal disini mudik ke Indonesia.

Ready to eat the fish and shrimp curry

Malam Takbiran
(the night before Idul Fitri, Takbiran prayer is chanted)

In order to satisfy my being away from home, I spent Malam Takbiran by having dinner at the only Indonesian restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.  Nhà hàng Sari Indo, 70 Mạc Đĩnh Chi, P.Đakao, Q.1. Website:
Walking into this place, I already felt like home.  Servers were smiling sincerely, helpful and professional.  “Mbak-nya” (waitress) asked me if she should serve the Lumpia Semarang first as appetizer and others come later.   *BTW Lumpia Semarang is fried spring roll: eggroll with bamboo shoots, chicken and prawn filling*.   At some other restaurant, I might have the main course first, drink and appetizer comes later.

Left: Lumpia Semarang. Right: Ayam Penyet
I could tell that some Indonesian customers were also enjoying the food.  We ordered Ayam Penyet (a fried chicken, lightly smashed using a pestle in a mortar laced with sambal/chili), Udang (Shrimps) and Fish curry.  No sign of ketupat (rice cake) but I was happy.  
After dinner, we went around passing the Haji Salim Mosque in Dong Du Street next to Sheraton Hotel.  Some people were in the front/terrace of the Mosque perhaps doing preparations for the Idul Fitri the next day.

This mosque is one of 12 mosques serving Ho Chi Minh City.  This Central Mosque was built in 1935.  It was originally constructed for worshipers from southern India then resident in Saigon, but now Muslims from as far as Pakistan and Indonesia come to pray.  See more info:

Three flags on top of the Mosque

Lebaran Day

Around 8 am on 31st August, people from different nationalities came to the Mosque in Dong Du Street: Vietnamese, Indonesians, Indians, Pakistani, Malays, Middle Easterners, etc.  I could guess from their languages and dresses.  Men, women and children dress up with their own national clothes.  I saw a Vietnamese woman in áo dài (Vietnamese national costume) and selendang (long scarf), Malay men in their sarong, Indonesian women in kebaya (Indonesian women’s traditional blouse) or baju kurung (a knee-length blouse) and selendang (long scarf), Indian men in their national dress, a young Middle Eastern man in his long sleeve business attire and I bet he supposed to go to work after the mosque - He looks like a professional banker.  There was a boy in his national dress, and a hat, all in white, – he looks like a young prince from Middle East.

Prayer started around 8.30am and followed by preaches which finished around 9.00am.  As the prayer was held inside the Mosque, there was no newspaper scattered in the yard.  In most Mosque or places that were used for Idul Fitri prayers in Indonesia i.e. public or soccer fields, some people might have value added benefit by collecting and sell the unused newspapers after the prayer.

After the prayer, some people gathered for a while at the Mosque yard while waiting for their family members, greeted each other by shaking hands and had the ritual Idul Fitri wishes “Minal Aizin Wal Faizin” or “Mohon Maaf Lahir dan Batin”.  It means asking forgiveness for past wrongs and attempt to turn over a new leaf.

Personal Notes

As I had no plan for any Halal Bihalal which is a special ritual during Idul Fitri and during this Muslim-Indonesians visit their elders, in the family, the neighborhood, or their work, and show respect to them.  They will also seek reconciliation (if needed), and preserve or restore harmonious relations) – I went to a coffee shop near the Mosque and enjoyed a cup of cappuccino and a scone, sent text messages and bbm’s with relatives and friends in Indonesia… Gee.., this texting made me busy the whole morning! They asked about my experience in Lebaran day in Vietnam, etc… also I needed that cappuccino to cool myself down and prepare this writing for my blog.  This writing was not extremely easy as it brought back my previous Lebaran experiences with relatives and friends which definitely it made me missing them -:)

Pic was taken in Nov 2010 during a Halal Bihalal (ex Amex reunion) in Jakarta. I was at the back wearing green top.
Yes, I felt slightly guilty of not being with my mom and nephews/niece.  However I knew that they are doing fine, I ordered some Lebaran cookies prepared by my girlfriend in Jakarta. I gave some THR (Lebaran bonus) for my nephew and niece, including some to buy new clothes for Lebaran.  I spoke with Mom in the evening to chat and to ask if there is any interesting news about her Lebaran activities.

However, myself, I celebrated Lebaran this year by cooking Beef Rendang a couple of days before Lebaran using Bumbu Rendang (a sachet of seasoning) that I bought from Hero supermarket in Jakarta.  I paid zakat fitrah at a neighborhood mosque near mom’s house when I was in Jakarta in the last mudik (going back home).

(Far right side) is me and others are my ex colleagues in TCI. Mohon Maaf Lahir & Batin.
I believe that Idul Fitri spirit comes from the heart.  Wise man says it is a time for celebration but also a time for reflection.  It can be celebrated wherever in this world, whatever to eat during this festive season, with or without Ketupat, with or without Kaastengel or Nastar cookies, with or without udik, as long as have a good heart, being humble and forgive others who might have hurt our feelings, as Idul Fitri is also known as kembali ke fitrah, like a baby who has just been born.

It is never too late to wish everyone a Happy Eid ul-Fitr - Mừng đại lễ Idil Fitri - Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri - Mohon Maaf Lahir & Batin.

Coming up next – Trip to Ha Long Bay.... Vịnh Hạ Long… La baie d'Ha-Long….!!!