Prologue - February 2013

We were scheduled to visit Morocco in February, but the trip was canceled with only 5 days' notice due to security concerns and instability in the area. We were crushed, suddenly left wondering how and where we could take our scheduled vacation time with very little notice. If we didn't use our time off, we would lose it, which is unacceptable to us. We were scrambling for a replacement trip. We called on our friend Toni Neubauer at Myths and Mountains to see if she could help us out. We had been planning a southeast Asia trip for some time in the future, probably around 2015. But now suddenly we were in the market much sooner. Craig called her and we discussed what we would want out of such a trip: opportunities to learn about the local culture, homestays, a great guide, plus a healthy dose of beautiful scenery. She told us that she knew the perfect trip for us: "Vietnam: From Untouristed Hill Tribes to Halong's Lagoons." The trip focuses on Northern Vietnam and some of the minority ethnic villages in the mountains near the Chinese border. It also includes several days exploring capital city Hanoi, and concludes kayaking amongst the beautiful limestone islands of Halong Bay. And best of all, the trip is led by Le Van Cuong, whom Toni considers to be one of the best guides in the country.

Toni was able to put all of this together with incredibly short notice, and we ended up flying out a month to the day after our scheduled departure for Morocco. We had the utmost faith in her as Myths and Mountains had put together a fabulous trip to Bhutan and India for us in 2007, which resulted in a lifelong friendship with our Indian guide Mukul Pandya. Toni assured us that we would adore Cuong. An excellent guide makes for an excellent trip, and we were sold. We have absolutely no regrets; the trip was fantastic, and we feel that Cuong is a kindred spirit. Toni really came through for us when we needed it most, and this will not be the last trip we will take through Myths and Mountains.

We had already gone to the Lahey Travel and Tropical Medicine Clinic in advance of the Morocco trip. Our medical insurance does not cover these visits, so we didn't want to have to go again if it wasn't completely necessary. We knew we were up-to-date on our immunizations. Our only concern was malaria; it had been a non-issue for Morocco; there are no mosquitoes in the desert. But with water-filled rice paddies in Vietnam, we were less sure. I looked at some government medical web sites, and what I saw online said that the region we would be visiting did have a risk of malaria. So we decided it was better safe than sorry, and booked another appointment. I explained on the phone that we had just been in a couple of weeks before, and that our destination had now changed to northern Vietnam along the China border, and that I thought we may need anti-malarial medication. They gave us an appointment, and we went into the office, only to be told that the area we would be visiting is not a malaria risk after all, and no medication would be required. But we would still get charged for another full appointment, which our medical insurance wouldn't cover. We were a bit annoyed, and wished that we could have had some kind of phone consultation to prevent us from going all the way there for nothing.

Once we had the trip squared away with Toni, we needed to purchase flights. No matter what option we chose, it wouldn't be cheap to by flights so last-minute. So we started looking at itineraries. The option with the least flight time and layover time was a flight from Boston to Tokyo, followed by a flight from Tokyo to Hanoi. But as we looked into it further, there was fine print. This was a flight on the new Boeing 787 DreamLiner, which was currently grounded due to flammability issues with the battery. There was no way that this plane would be back in service within a month, so we had to discount this, which was the only two-hop option. Now that we were taking three flights to get there, there were a lot more options. As it would be March, we wanted to avoid any layovers in Chicago or New York City, which could potentially be impacted by snow. So we chose an option which went through London Heathrow and Singapore, operated by Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines. There was no way we were going to do flights this long with an airline like American or United.

When we told our friends at work that we would be visiting northern Vietnam, our friend Binh was thrilled. He grew up in Hanoi and and has family who still lives there. He got us in touch with his younger brother Loi, who offered to take us to dinner on our first night in town. Since we wouldn't even be meeting our guide Cuong until the second day, this sounded perfect. We knew we would be tired after flying halfway around the world, but what would be better than having a friendly face to welcome us to his country?
Morocco Cancelled

Morocco map from Wikimedia Commons


Vietnam map from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday 3/9/13 - Boston to London

We normally end up flying out at the crack of dawn when we go on big trips. But this one was a long haul, and actually started with a red-eye flight across the Atlantic. But we were still unable to sleep in, with our cat Fluffy waking us up at 4 a.m. She seemed especially clingy, as if she somehow knew that we were leaving for two weeks and was trying to stock up on atttention and love to get her through the duration.

We spent the day doing last-minute preparations. Craig's brother Steve arrived at our house at 4 p.m., and he drove us to the airport. We realized on the way to the airport that we had forgotten to brush our teeth. Nice way to start a 2 day journey halfway around the world. Thank goodness for Altoids.

We had planned not to check any bags, as we each had a carry-on-sized duffel bag and a personal item. But when we checked in at Virgin Atlantic, they weighed our bags. They each weighed 25 pounds, and apparently there is a 6 kg limit for carry-on luggage. So we quickly shuffled some of our stuff around so that we could check Craig's duffel. If we had known that we had to check a bag, we would have packed differently. But it should all be ok, assuming the checked bag makes it. They at least checked it all the way through to Hanoi, so we would not have to pick it up during each of our two layovers.

We headed through security and the TSA folks were quite nice. We went through the new body scanner which had recently been installed after they removed the backscatter ones. We got All-American sandwiches at the Earl of Sandwich. It was a toasted turkey, cheddar, cranberry sauce, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing on a nice fresh roll. This was a nice change from the ordinary fast food options, which are usually greasy burgers or cold dry sandwiches. We bought a Ghirardelli brownie and a chocolate chip cookie, knowing that we would probably find some time to eat them during the rest of our journey.

As we were sitting at the gate, I noticed some debris around my feet.I looked more closely and found that the rubber heel of one of my hiking boots was disintegrating. There was no way I could continue to wear them for two days of flying and airports. Yet I wasn't sure if I might need them during the hiking part of the trip...the other shoes I had with me were more like sandals. So I changed into the sandals, and tried with eventual success to shove the boots into my carry-on bag. I would deal with them later.

We boarded at 7:10 p.m. We were in row 60, so we got to board pretty early on in the process.The flight attendants looked like Mary Poppins in their bright red Virgin Atlantic skirt suits. We were in a section of just two seats, which was quite comfortable. We got headphones to use with our seatback TV's, as well as a "Virgin Atlantic feel-good pack" which contained eyeshades, earplugs, socks, a toothbrush, and a tiny tube of toothpaste.

Craig got a vodka and cranberry juice, and I had ginger ale. Craig wasn't feeling 100% well; he seemed to be coming down with a little cold. He accidentalkly spilled his cranberry juice, and it ran onto my khaki pants and my pocketbook. I had certainly not anticipated that these pants would be ruined before we even got across the Atlantic. Luckily, Craig tends to hoard napkins when we are in transit, and I was able to clean most of it off of myself.

There was a menu of dinner choices, but we were literally the last row to be served (attendants started in the front and back, and converged on our row last) and so there was no more choice. We were served chicken korma with dahl, basmati rice, caesar salad, bread, and tiramisu.

After dinner they came by with tea and hot chocolate. I had a hot chocolate, and we convinced the flight attendant to bring Craig another vodka and cranberry, as the majority of the previous one had landed in my lap.

We both napped for the duration of the flight. Though Craig never falls deeply asleep on planes, he likes to just zone out and relax. I find it very easy to fall asleep on planes. Since it was a red-eye, we wanted to at least try to sleep rather than get involved watching a movie or television show.

Sunday 3/10/13 - London to Singapore

For breakfast the next morning we had an apple muesli muffin (just the "muffin top" with no "stump", which made us think back to the Seinfeld episode where they couldn't even get the homeless to eat the muffin stumps), a Nature Valley oat and honey granola bar, orange juice, and tea. Shortly before landing, they came around distributing little rolls of SweetTart-style candy hearts.

We landed in London at 7:40 a.m. It was a short walk to Terminal 3. We saw an advertisement for dayrooms. Our layover today was short, but on our way home it would be 8 hours. We took note of the location of the dayrooms in case we decided to use one on our way home. We went through security and then found ourselves in the bull pen. Gates aren't announced far in advance at Heathrow, so you sit in a holding area near the duty free shops.

We sat outside of a Harrods that had an oversized teddy bear standing guard. It was now officially a new day, and Craig needed to take his daily injection of multiple sclerosis medication. Ususally he takes it at home or in a hotel. This would be the first time that he would have to take it while out and about. In a public bathroom. In Heathrow. He brought his equipment into a bathroom stall and balanced it all precariously on a shelf and proceeded to inject himself. He felt like a junkie.

We kept checking the flight boards to see when our gate would open. Eventually it popped up: 9:40 a.m. We walked to the gate, where we needed to check in at a desk and present outr invitation letter. We would be getting our official visa upon arrival in Hanoi, but to continue on we needed to provide a letter saying that we had been pre-approved for the visa. Myths and Mountains took care of all of this for us, and had mailed us the letter. We presented it and were let into the gate.

Soon the flight was boarding. "We sail tonight for Singapore!" we said excitedly to one another, quoting the song "Singapore" by one of our favorite performers: Tom Waits. We were seated next to a British bloke who was on his way to see his wife in Thailand. This flight was run by Singapore Airlines. The flight attendants all wore very flattering, pretty uniforms. They fed us lunch right away: thai chicken curry. It was delicious. Craig got a Tiger beer. We later were given a chocolate bar for dessert. Everyone was really nice and got us what we needed/wanted at all times.

We had private seatback TV's and a myriad of channels to choose from: movies, television, games, etc. We watched Le Marché de L'amour (The Love Market), a documentary about some of the very tribes that we would be visiting in northerm Vietnam. The film follows individuals of the Black Hmong and Red Dao ethnic minorities as they prepare to attend the local market where they meet up with their lovers. Lovers outside of marriage are seen as a healthy thing, with little jealousy. Both husbands and wives participate in these affairs. The men sometimes playfully "kidnap" women that they are attracted to, and if they can manage to keep her for several days, the family plans a marriage. Women sometimes marry at the age of 14. These tribes are ethnically Mongolian people who were forced out of China by persecution. The extreme northern area of Vietnam has rocky, infertile soil that is difficult to cultivate. The ethnic Vietnamese don't want to farm there, so they let the minority tribes have it.

The flight lasted twelve and a half hours, which meant that it turned into another red-eye. There was plenty of time for listening to music and zoning out. Shortly before landing, we were served breakfast. Craig had pad thai and I had poached eggs. It seemed like we were always eating on this flight.
Harrod's at Heathrow Terminal 3

Harrod's at Heathrow Terminal 3

Monday 3/11/13 - Singapore to Hanoi

We landed at Singapore's Changi Airport at 7:30 a.m. Craig's ears bothered him during the descent, and we assumed it was related to this cold that he seemed to be catching.

There was a lot of greenery around the airport. The gate didn't open until 8:40, so we sat on some seats on the perimeter of the concourse waiting. The airport was spotless. When Criag went into the men's room, there was a guy actively cleaning, and there was a touch screen survey to rate how clean the bathroom was.

When the gate opened, we went through a metal detector and then sat in the gate until boarding commenced. As we boarded the plane, there was a sign stenciled onto the walls on the gangway which read simply "Do not". We found this to be hysterical, and probablypretty appropriate in Singapore.

The flight took off shortly after our scheduled 9:50 departure time. This was our second Singapore Airlines flight. We were served a fantastic beef in coffee sauce for lunch. We had ginger ale to drink. The flight was only around 3 hours, which seemed to go by very quickly after our two previous long-hauls.

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