Monday, January 26, 2015

Glimpses: Ha Long Bay

A few more glimpses of Ha Long Bay before I move on towards other sights in Vietnam.

Bãi Cháy Bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge in Vietnam
forms an amazing backdrop for the city

Sidewalk restaurants pop-up during the night, a relaxing way
for residents to spend the evening at the waterfront

A night market at Ha Long City

Some of the wares at the night market

The hotel complex on Tuan Chau island where I stayed

View of Ha Long city as I sailed away from it

View of the entrance to the bay

An impressively large sea-faring vessel on the seas

A secluded beach on one of the rock islands

Sung Sot Cave: The dissolving limestone dripping down 
to form a column (as seen below)

Sung Sot Cave: A column formed by soluble limestone over eons & 
the process continues (as in the photo above)

A floating home against the backdrop of the rock walls

At sunset

Fresh catch to be served to willing diners

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Creating sunshine

Today, was day when I felt a bit like this. Outside, the sun seem to have disappeared even before I realised it was there. 


Friday, January 23, 2015

Descending Dragon Bay

A rock island in Ha Long Bay

Now, imagine a seascape dotted with thousands of such rock islands. Literally, as far as your eye can see. That's Ha Long Bay for you. 

As my boat sailed past these towering rock islands, I could imagine myself in a 'Pirates of the Carribean' movie. There was silence all around broken only by the hum of the engine. The rock islands stood like silent sentinels watching us go by. 

Overview of the bay showing the numerous islands. 
(Not 100% accurate as images have 
been stitched together)

Ha Long Bay (Descending Dragon Bay) is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site about 150 Kms from the capital Hanoi (approx 3 hrs drive). This makes it an easily accessible and popular holiday destination for Vietnamese and foreign tourists, alike. 

The bay is unusual and attractive because of the limestone karsts and islands that are strewn in the waters. Ha Long is just one part of a larger ecosystem of these rocks along the Vietnamese coastline. The awe-inspiring islands and karsts have been formed over millions of years of geographical activity - tectonic shifts, flooding, erosions etc. 

Today, the islands are characterised by thick vegetation which I'm sure is home to numerous birds and small animals, the base immersed in the sea, to a host of marine life. None of these I could get a closer look at as all the islands are not accessible. The islands are also marked by caves and grottos formed by eroding rock and soluble limestone. 

A cave entrance at sea level

A large hollow where boats were tethered

There are a few islands where tourists are allowed. These are ones with large cave systems which have been developed to make it more accessible to tourists. I visited one - Sung Sot Cave or Surprise Grotto. The tale goes that when the first visitors to these caves entered it, their reaction was of surprise and amazement. Simplicity itself. :)

I was a little apprehensive at first, as I didn't want to enter a small enclosed space with hundreds of people in them. But I was, shall we say, surprised at the size of the caves. They were huge, with high ceilings and fantastic limestone formations. 

Surprise Grotto is on Bon Hon island and probably the largest cave that exists in the area. It is therefore a popular cave with tour operators bringing loads of tourists here. Small mechanised boats bring you from the yacht to the jetty on the island. Then you have to climb a series of steep steps to reach the cave entrance. It is a moderately difficult climb and manageable for anyone in 'okay' shape. 

Jetty where the boats drop tourists off before the climb to the caves

Developing tourist spots is a good thing but maybe one can do this with a little less enthusiasm. This cave seemed very sanitised - no birds, bats or any thing else within or outside. Most of the natural structures inside were lit by flood lights giving the place a surreal look. To give the Vietnamese credit though, they had made access to the caves as easy as possible i.e. the steep climb to the cave was aided by well maintained steps which helped immensely. 

A viewpoint far up the rock climb

Scene from the viewpoint

In the bay there are a few floating villages too whose people are expert seafarers. They survive by fishing and marine culture. With the tour boats cruising by the villages and some even docking at them, the villagers now also sell trinkets and other tourist paraphernalia. 

It is said there are over 1,500 people living in these many floating villages. Though when we cruise past them, it didn't look like more than 50 people could live in one group of these floating units. The villages were very interesting as they seemed so fragile and miniscule as compared to the huge rocks and the vast waters surrounding them. 

Ha Long Bay can be visited by yacht tours which are very popular. They normally dock at the Tuan Chau marina, a fairly recent development that is continuing to expand. There are different types of yachts, varied budgets and itineraries that you can choose from. Be sure to get a recommended and reliable option as safety standards are not always up to the mark. 

Yachts docked at the marina

A cabin in one of the yachts
I took a half day tour with Paradise Cruises which is one of the larger operators in the area. They also have different duration tours including overnight stays on the yachts. 

A view of the city from afar

I didn't have much of a chance to check out the city and its sights in the one day I was there. But, I'm glad I at least managed to sail the waters of this vast and impressive bay. 

My cruise trip ended with the sunset over Ha Long Bay. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A singular experience - getting a visa to Vietnam

In October 2014, I had made a short trip to Vietnam - a brief visit to Hanoi and nearby Halong Bay. To me, Vietnam has always been an attractive proposition as it's one of the less travelled spots and therefore (as I hoped) be less commercial and touristy. Especially, in comparision to regional neighbours like Thailand or Hong Kong or even Cambodia.

The first step was to get a visa. The downside of not being a tourist attraction was very evident when I started the process of getting one. There was no clarity in the information on the Vietnamese Embassy website, no traveller accounts on the world wide web that talked of getting a visa from India and worse, no travel agent who seemed to know how to go about it. It was like a black hole from which not even a glimmer of information escaped. 

There were lots of websites which offered to process a visa on arrival but they didn't seem authentic or accredited by the Vietnamese government and again there was no traveller info on the same. Later, I did find a post on Tripadvisor's community forum that said Visa on Arrival is available provided some pre-travel formalities are taken care of (Trip Advisor FAQ). But, it still seemed a little dicey and I opted for getting my visa before travelling into Vietnam.

The travel agent I was recommended, had no clue whatsoever, which I realised only after I had paid him a fat sum and he had got some basic documentation ready. Then each day was a like a day of discovery for him where he would tell me he needed one more type of document. Finally, when I did a bit more fact-checking, I found this great checklist on Thomas Cook's India website which had details of documents required. I sent it to the travel agent to get him organised. Not to mention, he also gave me tonnes of info on how rude and obnoxious the people at the embassy are or so he 'had heard' (!!!). As if I wasn't already stressed and apprehensive.

The visa stamping required a personal interview. So I trudged off to the embassy. I opted for the consulate in Mumbai. It's in the posh Hiranandani area in Powai. But, the postal address is all I had to go looking for it. There was no landmark given, no signboard when you get there and passers by are completely unaware such an entity existed. Finally, after some amount of going around in circles, I found it. 

I reached there early, by 9AM just to be on the safer side. I had no information on their timings of work. Well... the place was shut. Absolutely & irrevocably closed with no one in sight, not even a watchman or a cleaner or anyone in sight. There were no visa applicants waiting. I asked some people in an office next door who told me, "You never know if they will open. Sometimes they come, sometimes they don't." That left me speechless and thinking, "Must be a sweet deal where you can decide what time to get to office or not at all."

Finally, I went back down to the ground floor and checked with the building watchman who said it opens only at 10AM and added, "Woh log ayenge, aap wait karo" (they will come, you wait). I hung around and at about 9.45 AM someone came and opened up the place. He was a consulate official and asked me to wait for his colleague. That was another 20 mins. The visa officer came and without much delay took my papers. He was about 30 mins processing my documents and stamping my passport. 

The visa officer seemed quite surprised that I had applied for a tourist visa. By then a few more people had come for visas. It seemed that work/ business related visas were more popular and not so much the tourist ones. 

I was out of the consulate by 11AM with a valid visa stamped and ready for me to travel. Not a bad morning's work, I felt, not by a long shot. The fastest I have got a visa to anywhere. 

No fuss, no hassles and oh so polite the officials were. It pretty much set the mood for my holiday and Vietnam did not disappoint me. But more of that in later posts.

In a nutshell here's what is required for getting your tourist visa for Vietnam in India - 

1. A pre-filled visa application form - you can get it from the embassy/ consulate website.

Mumbai -
Delhi -

2. Passport should be valid for at least six months from the date of submission of visa

3. Two recent colour photograph, 35 x 45mm in size with white background.

4. Covering letter from the applicant on company's letter head stating his name, designation, purpose and duration of visit.

5. Proof of accommodation: hotel reservation including the name and phone number of hotel.

6. If staying at friend’s / relatives place, the applicant can stay maximum up to 15 days. If the stay is longer then the host needs to apply for the visa for the applicant at Vietnamese immigration.

7. Proof of airline reservation for a round trip.

8. Foreign exchange endorsement on the applicant’s passport / Credit card copy of the
applicant is required.

9. Updated Bank statement for the last 3 months is required.

10. One photocopy of the first and last pages of the passport.

11. Personal Presence is mandatory. There are two options in India - Delhi or Mumbai. You can get the addresses from the website (mentioned in pt. 1)

Again, Vietnam visa details on the Thomas Cook India website.

Only one aspect struck me a bit odd - the consulate asked me (via a note signed and stapled to my visa) to have a min of 1000 USD on my person before entering the country. Thankfully, I needed more than that for my trip, so it wasn't too much of a bother. Nevertheless, it seemed like an excessive demand considering pts. 5, 7, 8 and 9 above, were complied with. 

Note: While the information on visa requirements given above are current for now, it can change any time. It's best to check with the embassy/ consulate nearest to you before you travel.

Anyway, I hope this helps any one planning to travel to Vietnam. I'll leave you with photos of this beautiful and breathtaking country for now.

The famous ceramic mosaic wall in Hanoi &
a poster in the art style typical to Vietnam

Handcrafted greeting cards with pop-up figures

The marina at Halong Bay

Delicate inlay work in a Chinese antique furniture piece

A Vietnamese spring roll - very DIY

Thursday, January 15, 2015

My favourites in 2014 - books & movies

It's that time of the year again when all the 'best' lists of the past year are drawn up. And here's one of mine :)

The most memorable books and movies of 2014: The ones that I thought were really good and left me thinking days after I had read/ watched them.

calcutta chromosome amitava ghosh books fiction

Calcutta Chromosome 

The novel is set in India and traverses time from past to the future with considerable alacrity. British India, the 1990s and somewhere in the distant future are all part of plot. The central theme revolves around eternal life and starts with the discovery of Malaria by Sir Ronald Ross. It's partly rooted in science-fiction, partly religion but based on historical facts. Prima-facie, the story seems complicated but as you continue reading you realise how seamlessly Amitava Ghosh moves between lives and eras. I read the whole book at one go. It's 'un-putdownable'. Other links.

divergent veronica roth books fiction young adult

Even though I am many, many years older than the target audience for Young Adult fiction, I still like reading them. I particularly like Eon Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, Hunger Games (except the last book) and I recently started the Divergent series. The books by Veronica Roth have similarities with the Hunger Games but I personally felt that these went a notch further in telling a compelling story. 

Divergent is based on the premise that the world as we know does not exist any more. It has been divided into factions that stay within strictly regulated boundaries both geographically and socially to maintain peace and equilibrium. At 16 years, young girls and boys, no matter which faction they were born into and raised, are made to undergo a series of tests to gauge which faction they would belong to for the rest of their lives. The storyline is edgy, sometimes violent but the underlying theme of straining against rules and regulations and wanting to 'be yourself' are the same as other YA fiction. Other links.



frozen movie disney animation hollywood english
A year later, this movie is known more for its record breaking track 'Let it go'. But the movie is so much more than just the song. For once Walt Disney breaks its stereotype of Princesses being rescued by Princes Charming. But I am getting ahead of myself here. 

The story is of two sisters - Elsa and Anna. The older, Elsa, has the ability to create ice and snow. The ability is awesome when controlled which she never really learns to do. Elsa grows up into a serious and proper adult who becomes Queen way too soon. Therefore, turns out responsible and concerned with the affairs of the kingdom. She keeps her ability a secret from the time she accidentally puts Anna in danger when they were children. Their parents who were the only other people who knew of her uncontrollable magic are dead and Anna does not remember much. 

Elsa and Anna have an emotionally fraught argument which triggers off the magic and envelopes the kingdom in perpetual winter. Elsa flees to the mountains never intending to return. Anna realises that her sister must return and goes in search of her. They unite but again Elsa loses control and lashes out at Anna who returns home. On the way back Anna's hair starts turning white which is a sign that her heart is freezing after Elsa's attack. Only an act of 'true love' can reverse it. 

The story that continues where viewers can predict that one of the male leads will be Anna's true love. I mean, it's a Disney movie, duh!

Ah, but that's where the twist is. [Spolier Alert]: Elsa turns out to be Anna's true love. The spell is reversed and in true Disney tradition all's well that ends well. Other links.

American Hustle 

american hustle movie christian bale bradley cooper amy adams jennifer lawrence english hollywood
It released in India only in early 2014, probably to coincide with various awards that pushed it further into the limelight. 

The movie has a strong cast and is set in the 1970s or thereabouts. It revolves around con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), his business partner and mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and an FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). Robert De Niro has a cameo as a mobster. 

Christian Bale's character is particularly notable as it transforms him into an older, paunchy, toupée wearing con-man (so unlike the suave, cool Bruce Wayne in Batman... sigh!). Jennifer Lawrence is a boozy, erratic Rosalyn who oscillates between personalities as neurotic & possessive one moment and confident & manipulative in another. Again it's a complete opposite of confident Katniss in the Hunger Games. 

The plot is that of the FBI agent forcing the con-artists to trap corrupt politicians. Thrown into the mix are the mobsters. The story has a twist at the end which makes this film a brilliant watch.

American Hustle earned numerous nominations at the Academy Awards (Oscars), the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and many more. It won many of these nominations too. Surprisingly, it didn't win any Oscars though it was nominated in 10 categories. Other links.

Book thief

book thief movie
I haven't stopped raving about the book, though I read it many years ago. Movies based on books are always known to be less interesting than the books themselves. Nevertheless, I waited in anticipation for this movie. 

The movie is quite similar to the book except it is missing the continuous thread of Death narrating the story. It was one of the key aspects of the book but its role is limited in the movie. Probably, the makers felt it would have made the movie more morbid given the subject matter and therefore less commercial?

Based in Nazi Germany, the movie follows the life of a young girl, Liesel, who goes to live with foster parents when her family is scattered. The life she makes for herself in the new town, her relationship with her foster parents, the new friends she makes, learning to read and subsequently becoming a 'book thief' are the focus of the story. 

The story ends on a sad note for Liesel but we also get to know that she lives to a ripe old age, migrates to Australia and has a large family. Other links.


queen movie hindi bollywood
One of Bollywood's few entries in my list. A refreshingly light-hearted movie, it made the female lead the focus of the story without necessarily casting her into stereotypical female roles as seen in Bollywood films. 

The movie centers around Rani (meaning Queen in Hindi) played by Kangana Ranaut who belongs to a middle class family in Delhi. About to be married she is left at the altar by her fiancé. She decides to go on her honeymoon to Europe, alone, instead of moping around at home. 

Rani finds her way around the world, makes new friends, discovers her fun side and goes back home wiser and determined to follow her heart. All the while retaining her innate simplicity and naivete. Lighthearted and fun but infused with a large dose of reality (from an Indian context), the movie leaves you wishing there were more such films from Bollywood. Other links.


chef movie english hollywood
This wasn't an outstanding movie by awards' standards but I liked it for its happy-go-lucky storyline. It had a fairly straight forward plot but told the tale with so much optimism and joie de vivre that I couldn't help be happy when I left the theatre. 

The movie follows the life of a chef (obviously) who quits his restaurant job after a run ins with a well-known food critic as well as his boss. His ex-wife and a colleague at the restaurant, both encourage him to follow his dream, of running a food truck. 

How the chef starts the food truck business, how he repairs the strained relationship with his son and ex-wife and how he rediscovers his passion for cooking and serving people the most delicious food is the meat of the story (pun unintended). ;)

Jon Favreau is the chef, Carl Casper, Sofia Vergara is his ex-wife, Emjay Anthony plays the son, Oliver Platt is the food critic and Dustin Hoffman is the restaurant owner. Scarlett Johansson too has a cameo as the restaurant manager.

Chef stayed with me because it had been a long time since I had watched a funny, happy movie and one that ends well. Or maybe, I am just a sucker for happy endings. :)


interstellar movie english hollywood christopher nolan
One of the last movies that I watched in 2014. I have always been a Christopher Nolan fan and I had heard that if one liked 'Inception' then this would be an equally good watch. And I wasn't disappointed. 

Like 'Inception' the movie is based on sci-fiction [as we know at the moment ;)] where a group of people travel into space, through a wormhole, no less, to find new planets to inhabit as the earth is dying. Objective: to save the human race. (I am not entirely sure we deserve to be saved, but that's my opinion.)

Mathew M's daughter, Murphy (named after the law) keeps referring to a 'ghost' in her bedroom who is trying to communicate with her in code. The code finally leads them to a top-secret NASA facility.

Matthew M, Anne Hathway, Dave Gyasi and Dave Bentley along with two Artificial Intelligence beings (not sure if they can be really called robots) TARS and CASE, are the chosen ones to leave the earth in a NASA mission. Never to return.

The powers that be on earth had supposedly banned any further space exploration ventures as a waste of money - to appease the people. But secretly, they still funded it. Michael Caine is the head of the project who stays behind. He mentors Murphy  who becomes a NASA scientist and pursues Caine's work. Eventually, Mathew M and TARS sacrifice themselves into a black hole so Anne Hathway can continue with the mission. They land up in a space where time is a spatial dimension. They can glimpse into Murphy's bedroom at different points in time, all at the same time e.g. when she is reading, when she is sleeping, when she is doing her homework etc. Mathew M realises that he is the 'ghost' sending the message to his daughter. 

Mathew M also figures that they have been driven to travel into space, explore different planets by humans with very advanced knowledge who wanted to save the race. It's not the future as different times (i.e. past, present, future) all co-exist in parallel dimensions at the same time. 

Hopefully, that made sense. Better still, watch the movie. 

I am sure there are many more noteworthy ones that ought to be included in this list. Except, I did not get around to reading those books or watching the movies.  I hope I can make up for it in the next  year. After all, 2015 is another year!