Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin in Northern Vietnam is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Vietnamese legend has it that the bay was formed when a Dragon fell to earth. There are just under 2,000 islands and rock formations in the bay and most all are uninhabited. Halong Bay is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. You can easily get there from Ha Noi and most of the companies that are allowed to operate boats in the bay also include transportation from Ha Noi.
Long way to Ha Long Bay, is if the company that takes you there from Ha Noi doesn’t take the toll road to get there. The long way (about 190km with lower speed limits) adds a lot of time and may take as long as three to four hours. The toll road (150km) is much faster, about two hours. The scenic value of the slow road does not make up for the added time. I did not know this in advance, so I wound up on the slow road going there. Going back I changed to the toll road which is a better choice.
The cruise company does a pretty good job of entertaining the guests when nature alone is not enough to fill the time. One popular event is the “make your own spring roll”. There is a demonstration to follow along in to show you how to roll it and then you may try your hand at making a spring roll.
Once you have mastered the technique of spring rolling, you get to eat your creation as an appetizer at dinner.
Being a vegetarian or even vegan in Vietnam, is in my experience easy. The pork is of course used a lot here, as in most S/E Asian countries, but good vegetarian options are readily available. If they are not on the menu, most kitchens will change dishes so as to be vegetarian/vegan if you just ask. For the Ha Long Cruise companies, just notify them in advance and they will have your options available.
One of the excursions takes you to The beach on Ti top island (named for Russian cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov). This is one of the few beaches in Ha Long Bay that is now open to visitors. It used to be a “free for all” but the local government had to step in to make sure that the area was not totally destroyed by tourists that had no regard for the fragile environment. Today there are only a few beaches where the boats are allowed to take tourists that want to go swimming. This restriction obviously mean that the most accessible beaches get overrun by people and the obviously takes away ,most of the enjoyment of the beach trip. The boats are also only allowed to anchor up in certain areas and after an accident in 2010 they are put in the same areas so as to have help nearby should anything go wrong.
Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple) in the central Ha Noi’s Hoàn Kiếm Lake is dedicated to Confucian and Taoist philosophers and to the Vietnamese national hero Trần Hưng Đạo (b 1228 – d 1300). When the temple was built sometime in the 18th century it was just a small temple, but after an expansion in 1865 more buildings were added.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake (the name of the lake in English means something along the lines of “Lake of the returned sword”), the lake has had different names over time, one of them in English was the “Green water lake” which refers to the color of the water in the shallow lake, the depth is between 1.2 and 2 meters.
Today the centrally located lake and it’s surroundings is a gathering place for locals as well as for tourists. The lake is also a part of a legend that includes Vietnam’s greatest hero and one of the most famous persons in Vietnamese history Emperor Lê Lợi.
The legend starts in the Thanh Hóa province, some 150 km south of Ha Noi. During his evening fishing expedition on the local lake, fisherman Lê Thận caught something heavy in his nets and felt excited about such a big catch. The catch turned out not to be a big fish, but just a piece of metal. Disappointed, he threw the piece of metal back into the water and cast his net again. When he pulled the net in, he found that the piece of metal had yet again made its way back into his net. He mustered all his strength and threw the piece of metal back into the water, this time far away enough that he felt certain that it could not make it’s way into his net again. However, after casting his net again with the same result – the piece of metal was once again in his net, he shun his light on the piece of metal and then he realized that it was in fact the blade of a sword. He brought the blade with him home after his fishing expedition ended and put it away in a corner in his house.
A few years later Lê Thận joined the army of the rebel leader Lê Lợi to fight against the Chinese incursion into Vietnam, he was very successful on the battlefield and quickly rose through the ranks. The warrior Lê Thận caught the eye of the general and the two became friends. When general Lê Lợi visited Lê Thận at his home, the dark home suddenly became lit up from the glow of the sword blade that was sitting in the corner where Lê Thận had placed it after he brought it home. Lê Lợi felt that this had somehow come about as a result of his presence in the home and he grabbed the blade and held it up to look at it. Before his eyes the words “Thuận Thiên” (Will of Heaven) appeared on the blade. With the permission of Lê Thận, general Lê Lợi brought the blade with him when he left.
One day while fighting the Chinese enemies, general Lê Lợi saw a Banyan tree up on a hill that was emitting a strange glow from it’s branches. He climbed the hill and under the Banyan tree he found the hilt of a sword. It was beautifully decorated with precious gem stones. He immediately thought of the sword blade he had brought from the home of Lê Thận, and brought it out and placed the hilt on the blade. It was a perfect fit. Lê Lợi thought this was a sign from heaven that he had been chosen to free the land, so he rallied his troops and went to war to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. The sword helped them win many battles against the Chinese and they finally drove them out of Vietnam. Lê Lợi ascended the throne as emperor of Vietnam in 1428 (Emperor Lê Lợi ruled Vietnam 1428–1433).
Later when emperor Lê Lợi was in a dragon boat on the Hồ Lục Thủy (Green water lake). The lake was located just in front of the emperor’s palace, and according to the legend, a Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) came to him and asked him for his magic sword. Lê Lợi assumed that the Golden Turtle God was acting on orders from the Dragon King who was seeking to reclaim the sword that he had given to Lê Lợi during his fight against the Chinese. When the emperor looked down at the sword in his belt he saw it starting to move on its own. The Golden Turtle God came up next to to the emperor in the boat and with a human voice asked him to give the sword back to the Dragon King. Emperor Lê Lợi then realized that the sword had just been lent to him to free the land and that it should be returned to the Dragon King who lives under water in the lake. He then threw the sword towards the golden turtle and the turtle caught it in his mouth and disappeared. In commemoration of this event the lake was renamed from Luc Thuy “Green Water Lake” to the current Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Lake of the returned sword).
The turtles in the lake are likely of the species Rafetus Swinhoe (Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle) , although some Vietnamese biologists claim that the turtles in the Hoan Kiem lake is a distinct species separate from the Rafetus Swinhoei species. If it is a separate species it is at this time extinct since the last known turtle in the lake died in 2016 and is embalmed and on display in the temple. Of Rafetus Swinhoei there are only three known specimen in the world that are known to be alive.
The Khmers that built Angkor in the 12th century 1130-1160 AD where Hindu and they dedicated the temple mainly to Vishnu. They were led by King Suryavarman II. When Angkor was converted to a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century, the Wat was added to the name. Angkor was built to be the capital city of the Khmer empire, but scholars have long thought that it was also meant to be the final resting place and tomb of King Suryavarman II.
Angkor was built to symbolize the universe according to the way the Hindu Khmer saw it. The moat represents the oceans around the world. The galleries are the mountain ranges around the divine Hindi Mount Meru, the golden mountain – home to the Gods. Mount Meru itself is represented by the five central Angkor towers. There are carvings on walls all around Angkor showing the God Vishnu and other Hindi Gods. The theory that Angkor was also built to serve as the tomb for King Suryavarman II after his death, has now been generally accepted.
Angkor Wat is the worlds largest religious monument and it occupies some 162.6 hectares in Siem Reap district of Cambodia. One hectare is a square with sides that are 100 meters (this is about the size of a European football field). The area that Angkor Was occupies would hold about 162 European sized football fields.
The serpent in Hindu religion represents the struggle between good and bad as told in the Hindu story of creation; “The churning of the sea of milk”. In the center is Vishnu, on one side are the demons of the underworld, and on the other side are the celestial gods – the sides are both pulling the serpent Vasuki in their direction.
An Apsara is a spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. There are two different types of apsaras, worldly and divine. English translations of the word includes, nymph, fairy, celestial nymph and celestial fairy.
In Cambodian tradition Apsaras are either dancing or poised to dance. If the female figure is standing still and facing forward as a guardian or custodian of the temple, they are called devatas.
The sandstone used to build the temples at Angkor was quarried up on the Kulen mountain, around 40 km+ from Angkor and floated on the Siem Reap river during part of the route.
Even though wages in Cambodia are low with Western standards, don’t expect a visit to Angkor Wat to reflect that. The concession to sell tickets etc. is held by a private company and they charge whatever the market can bear. Currently in the fall of 2019 prices were $37 USD for a single day ticket, 3 days (there are no 2 day tickets) are $62 USD and a 7 day pass will set you back $72 USD. Here is a link to the official ticket site with current information. You can also pay in the local currency Riel (KHR) but US Dollars are widely accepted and sometimes preferred in Cambodia. You will also need a driver and, to get the most out of your visit, a guide to help you sort out where to go and what to see. The prices for this varies, but don’t be surprised when a guide and driver with A/C vehicle can cost you around $130 for the day. Cambodia is a great country to visit and Siem Reap and Angkor is one of the most interesting places in the world, but it is hard, not impossible though, to do well on a small budget.
Angkor is not just Angkor Wat, although this is the main temple in the whole complex. It has many other temples that are spread out around the area. The one furthest away from main temple area, Banteay Srey (sometimes Banteay Srei), is located some 25km away from the main group of temples that were once the medieval capitals of Yasodharapura and Angkor Thom. Banteay Srei means “citadel of beauty” or “citadel of the women”. This could be related to the more diminutive scale of the buildings and to the fact that it is intricately decorated with carvings, even more so than many of the buildings in he main temple area of Angkor Wat. The fact that Banteay Srei was constructed out of read sandstone which is easier to carve than other types of sandstone and therefore has more intricate carvings may also be part of why it was named Banteay Srei.