Animals Asia

January 12, 2011

My last full day in Vietnam was spent at the Animals Asia bear rescue center outside of Hanoi. Many thanks to Jill Robinson, founder of this superb facility, for introducing me to her project. You need to check out this project on-line at
www.animalsasia.org.

Hundreds of bears benefit from the efforts of Jill and her competent staff. The facilities are well designed and the staff are experts in their field. As for the bears, well they are pure bundles of joys, so immersed in their freedom that visitors do not get a second glance. Actually, visitors don’t get a first glance, a sign that Jill and her colleagues are succeeding at their efforts to rehabilitate bears rescued from bile farms. I so appreciate the time Jill and her staff spent with me and recommend that you support their efforts.

Seeing more of Asia

Visiting Vietnam was quite an adventure. Forget about the leisurely bike ride suggested in the guide books — you take your life in your hands just crossing the street! Even though they drive on the right side of the road, civilized driving etiquette ends there. The streets are crammed with cars, buses and zillions of motor bikes.

It took no time at all for me to abandon my original plan to rent a bicycle and spend many days leisurely peddling, safely, along the coast of Vietnam. After researching options, I decided that the sleeping bus would be a good, if not necessarily safe, mode of transportation. Little did I suspect that Vietnam’s roads hardly resemble a road at all in some locations — potholed mule trail would be a better description! But that was not a problem because I would be sleeping during my night travels and leave concerns about road conditions to the bus driver. This actually turned out to be a good plan; travel during the night, catch up on sleep and arrive early the next morning at my destination.

You meet the most interesting and tall people on the sleeping bus. I swear I have never seen so many towering European and Australian backpack-laden travelers; none were less than 6’2’’ tall. It was during these colorful bus trips that I felt grateful for my height. Clearly the sleepers were custom designed for persons of a short stature, perfect for me.

Not having traveled on a sleeping bus before, I had no idea what I had signed up for. It was not so bad — I was able to sleep, which made the time pass quickly. The two highlights were the seat/bed, which was, well, just a bit uncomfortable, and the restroom stops. It reminded me of childhood road trips when you wait as long as possible and then tell dad he really needs to stop NOW. In this case, dad was the bus driver and he really hated to waste time by stopping. Only when several cranky passengers huddled impatiently by the bus door would he stop. The sleepy-eyed passengers dashed out the door, disappearing into the dark, happy to find a secluded tree for a bit of privacy. Imagine my surprise when my final sleeping bus trip turned out to be a luxury liner, complete with comfortable bed, adjustable lighting and air vents, curtains to block the blaring lights of oncoming traffic and, yes, you guessed it, an on-board toilet. It was definitely the Sleeping Bus Hilton!

Vietnam is gorgeous all the way from the Mekong Delta north to the islands of stunning Halone Bay. In between are cities and villages brimming with possible adventures …if you can just get across the street!

I will admit that Halone Bay was the highlight of my trip. The islands are draped in a thin layer of mist, creating a ghostly image of the panoramic multilayer islands beyond. The muted colors and blurred mountain ridges give off a surreal effect. l felt I must have entered the ancient matriarchal world of Avalon — it was seriously stunning.

The bay was the perfect setting for an overnight stay on a quaint wooden vessel, designed to accommodate a dozen people. Although the bay was teaming with boats I felt as though we were a solo seafaring vessel on a journey of undiscovered lands. It was fabulous. Cold, indeed: we were told the weather had turned only days before and it stayed cold the entire time we were exploring the sights of the bay. But cold or not, I had the most amazing time.

We visited an enormous cave big enough to house an entire village and climbed to the top of a mountain simply to prove we could. It was quite comical because the guide gave no advice about climbing, no warning about possible problems, and simply said, “One way up, one way down,” as he motioned for us to head up a narrow, rocky, steep mountain trail without him.

This was no easy climb and not one that should be made in the girly flowered shoes worn by one of the women in the group behind us. When I mentioned my concern about her shoes she was offended, responding that her shoes — which were flats designed for ballet dancing not rock climbing — were fine for hiking since they had rubber soles. I stood corrected, remembering that the Asians I had met so far could run, jump, keep up with running elephants and, obviously climb mountains, in as little as flip flops.

The trail got steeper and narrower, the boulders grew bolder and the hazards more threatening with each step. When a handrail was provided you could not use it for fear of cutting your hand on the rusted corroded metal. The group I was with had a great sense of humor so we joked about the apparent lack of concern for safety and lawsuits. Tourists would be deprived access to such a treacherous location in the States, so I was thankful I was in Vietnam.

On top of the mountain stood a second challenge, a four-story metal tower swaying in the wind, just daring me to work though any fear of heights. No problem, I tested the handrail to see if the welds were still good and proceeded to climb to the top. What a rush. The view was spectacular and so was the wind! The panoramic view was layer after layer after layer of islands stretching for miles toward the horizon. It was thrilling.