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Bays of beauty

Posted by pakin On August - 29 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

A junk holiday offers an intimate brush with Vietnam’s remote northern coast

Carefully steering the kayak, we glide close to limestone pinnacles and enter a hidden lagoon where we bob gently, entranced by the magnificent scenery that surrounds us.

I am exploring Bai Tu Long Bay just north of its more glamorous sibling Halong Bay, a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site since 1994.

Both bays belong to the same sunken limestone plateau that stretches to the Chinese border up north – and they are equally beautiful.

Earlier today our 15-cabin cruise ship, the “Treasure Junk” cruised through Halong Bay to the untouched Bai Tu Long Bay, where we will enjoy two days of leisurely kayaking.

Our first day sees us hopping into double-seater kayaks and moving swiftly over the jade-green water.

Kayaking for a couple of hours on placid waves, with breaks, is fairly easy, especially since my paddling partner is a strong Kiwi woman.

Kayaking melds sight, sound and sensation. I love the changing scenes of fantastical limestone spires and islands all around, the incessant sound of waves and crickets, and the sense that we have slipped across a watery border into an Asian myth.

We take a break at a secluded beach and our guide Ngo Trong, 28, starts to tell us stories about dragons and Chinese invaders.

Halong means “descending dragon” and the legendary liberator defended Vietnam from its perpetual enemy, China.

Though China looms over the horizon, it seems far away in isolated Bai Tu Long, which translates, Ngo Trong tells us, as “the dragon parts from its offspring”.

By the time we leave our small island, it is misty in the distance and the evening light has a soft luminosity.

Still, it is not a total idyll here for guests, who include a policewoman and a sheep farmer from Invercargill in New Zealand, and a pianist and lawyer from London.

While the water looks like liquid emerald, swathes of it are polluted. Because our tour operator, Handspan Travel Indochina is community-minded, they ask guests to fish out floating marine debris flowing from the river, shipping vessels or, as some Vietnamese like to allege, from China.

We are industrious and pick up dirty styrofoam, plastic bottles, slippers, toys, sweet wrappers and woefully more, stashing the junk in nets or strapping the chunkier pieces to our kayaks till they look like floating garbage trucks.

Handspan, which has operated in Bai Tu Long for five years, also organises volunteers to do annual clean-ups of this bay, since the authorities focus on scouring famous Halong Bay. The Vietnamese company has si far built 30 schools in Bai Tu Long.

At the break of dawn on the second day, our ship starts its voyage to the centre of Halong Bay and moors there. Again we do not linger in touristy Halong to kayak – a smaller support boat deposits us further south in Lan Ha Bay.

A trio of scenic, shallow bays – Halong, Bai Tu Long, where we kayak the first day, and now Lan Ha – make up the Gulf of Tonkin. Three thousand limestone islands and islets dot the gulf.

Today, in Lan Ha Bay, we glide between some of these sheer, grey limestone cliffs that are splashed with the intense green of creepers and clinging plants.

In many places, the cliffs frame the landscape like colossal doorways. We paddle towards these portals, wondering what other dramatic, drowned peaks lie beyond.

The islands have fanciful names like Frog and Teapot, labelled by local fishermen for their passing resemblance to creatures, objects and phenomena that fill their life.

Caves and secret lagoons abound. Our experienced guide has scrutinised the tide tables, so we will not be marooned inside when the tide changes.

We strap on headlamps to enter our first cave. It is 200-metres deep, but too shallow to paddle beyond 100m or so. We enjoy the silence.

A few minutes later, we hear the voices of locals who have walked deeper inside the cave to collect oysters.

On our third and final morning, we are rowed instead into Vung Vieng, a floating village nestled in a lagoon and under immense cliffs. The fisherfolk live in wildly scenic corners of the bay, sheltered from typhoons.

Vietnamese villagers, thin and strong, row us in bamboo boats under the towering cliffs and out to the blustery sea. We also stop by their floating houses set on plastic barrels and styrofoam.

Neighbours relax over morning tea served in ceramic cups, while dogs patrol each shack. Even the toddlers are sure-footed as they play on the planks.

Our group has come prepared with gifts of exercise books, crayons and snacks for the children, who accept them shyly, one sign that the place is not yet over-run by candy-bearing tourist hordes.

Boats from the mainland collect the fishermen’s catch every day. The villagers also farm shrimp, clams and oysters.

At a little centre run by Vinapearl, a pearl company jointly set up by Vietnam and Japan, we get a primer on cultured pearls.

While I know the basics already, I can now observe how oyster nets are submerged in 1 to 3m of water where plankton is densest.

Only a fraction of pearls meet jewellery standards. Imperfect pearls may be ground into powder for medicine or cosmetics.

Apart from kayaking, we have fun activities on our ship, or close to it. It is squid season so we fish for our calamari at night.

Attracted to lamps on our boat, the squid rise to the bait like tiny apparitions, all silvery, shimmery and elusive. Many times they tug at my fishing line, flail as I pull them in, and plop right back into the water.

We dine on spicy seafood soup fragrant with herbs, steamed shrimp served with sea salt and a squeeze of lime, and Vietnamese drip coffee.

Often, we gaze at the mobile tapestry of pinnacles and waves from the deck or through huge windows in our spacious, air-conditioned cabins. The Treasure Junk cruises at a relaxed pace of 7 to 8kmh.

The bay is full of mystique, and with its legends about a dragon and its babies, allows us to enter a less-known Vietnam.

If you go

_ Ha Long Bay is in northern Vietnam, 170 km east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic ocean karst topography and is often included in lists of natural wonders of the world. The best time to visit Ha Long Bay is from March to June.

_ For more information, check out

APPLE HAS FINALLY sent out invitations to its upcoming launch event in what is undoubtedly the announcement of the iPhone 6.

It’s been a long time coming, but the invite reads nothing more than the expected date of 9 September and the rather cryptic “wish we could say more” message.

While it doesn’t tell us much, online reports have suggested there’ll be more unveiled at the event than just the next-generation iPhone, with Apple expected to make its first foray into the wearables market at the launch with the unveiling of the so-called Apple iWatch.

The iWatch will look to challenge the likes of the Samsung Gear S and LG G Watch R which were launched just this week and if speculation is anything to go by, Apple’s debut smartwatch may just do that. Most recently, Reuters claimed that the Apple iWatch will launch with a 2.5in, rectangular screen, which when compared to the 2in display on the Samsung Gear S, seems large for a wearable.

However, previous speculation from multiple sources has indicated that the iWatch will launch in two versions, one with a 1.3in display, and the other with a 1.5in offering. These rumours have also claimed that the screen, much like that on the LG G Watch R, will be rounded. Other rumours have claimed that the iWatch display will be curved.

As for the iPhone 6, there have been many conflicting rumours about the smartphone but the most prevalent suggest it will arrive in two versions. If these rumours are to be believed, Apple’s iPhone 6 will launch in 4.7in and 5.5in models.

There’s also talk that Apple will improve its Retina display screen resolution with the next-generation iPhone, with the firm reportedly set to out the even higher resolution Retina display+. This, if the latest rumours are to be believed, will weigh in with a resolution of 1704×920.

The upcoming iPhone event will take place at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts, which is on the campus of De Anza College in Cupertino. The iPhone 6 is likely to be made available a week or so after its unveiling. Last year, for example, the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C went on sale on 20 September, 10 days after they were announced.

On Thursday, widespread reports claimed that Apple is preparing the production of a larger sized iPad. Citing sources familiar with the plans who asked not to be identified because “the details aren’t public”, it was reported that Apple will soon begin production of a much larger 12.9in iPad, 3.2in bigger than its presently largest tablet model, the iPad Air. µ

Rihanna’s currently living the high life on board a luxury yacht and she hasn’t been shy about sharing the evidence with everyone.

The pop star jetted off to Italy after wrapping up her and Eminem’s joint Monster tour, and has been treating her millions of fans to envy-inducing photographs ever since.

And her latest sultry snap shows the singer, with a glass of wine in her hands, sitting on a sun lounger in a bright pink sparkling bikini with the sea behind her.

Shortly before that she took a small boat out to go snorkeling by old pirate caves, while another sees her showing off her fab body as she poses with a pair of binoculars.

While in a picture posted earlier this week, the Pour It Up singer poses seductively with her head tilted back on a yacht in a lace white dress and tan strappy heels.

The next day Rihanna, who recently stepped up to the Ice Bucket Challenge with Eminem, posted pictures of her looking glam in a silk black dress.

“Sailed up to an active volcano for dinner #bucketlists**t,” she wrote next to it.

This comes as the star recently admitted she tries to live her life by something Leonardo DiCaprio once said, to “avoid obviousness”, and she thinks that makes her more creative.

Asked if she has a motto which she lives her life by, she explained: “‘Avoid obviousness’. That is a quote by Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s what makes you create something, that’s the excitement, that’s the thrill.”

Obama leads condemnation as West rounds on Russia

Posted by pakin On August - 29 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

KIEV – Ukraine and the West said that Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting tearing apart the east of the country, raising fears of a direct military confrontation between Kiev and its former Soviet master.

US President Barack Obama led a chorus of growing international condemnation over the escalating crisis, saying it was “plain for the world to see” that Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine, despite more repeated denials by Moscow.

Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Russia’s actions “cannot remain without consequences” as the US and Europe raised the prospect of fresh sanctions against Russia.

“Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see,” Obama said on Thursday, ratcheting up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs and consequences for Russia.”

NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops were on the ground supporting pro-Kremlin separatists who have been fighting against Kiev’s rule since April.

The United States and the European Union have already imposed a series of punishing sanctions on Moscow over the crisis, the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Merkel said European leaders would discuss possible new measures against Moscow at a summit in Brussels on Saturday.

On a day of fast-moving developments, US envoy Samantha Power, at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, demanded in blunt terms that Russia “stop lying”.

“The mask is coming off,” she thundered.

“We see Russia’s actions for what they are: a deliberate effort to support and now fight alongside illegal separatists in another sovereign country.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the situation as “extremely difficult” but “manageable for us not to panic”, as security chiefs announced that mandatory army conscription would resume in the autumn.

US officials have accused Russian troops of being behind a lightning counter-offensive that has seen pro-Moscow rebels seize swathes of territory from Ukrainian government forces, dramatically turning the tide in the four-month conflict.

Kiev said Russian soldiers had seized control of a key southeastern border town and a string of villages in an area where fighting had been raging for days.

– Russians ‘directly involved’ –

The US ambassador to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, wrote on Twitter that Moscow’s troops were now “directly involved in the fighting” in Ukraine.

A NATO official said the supply of weapons to the rebels had also increased in both “volume and quantity,” with a diplomatic source later adding that ambassadors to the alliance would hold an emergency meeting Friday.

Fears that the flare-up in the conflict could lead to all-out war pushed stocks down in Europe and the United States, and Asia looked set to follow suit.

Russia’s ruble sunk to a five-month low as stock markets in the country plummeted over the possibility of new sanctions.

Kiev had called on the West for urgent help after a counter-offensive from the southeast border smashed through an army blockade around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and threatened the government-held port city of Mariupol.

The gains by the separatist fighters come after weeks of government offensives that had seen troops push deep into the last holdout rebel bastions in Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blasted Putin for having “deliberately unleashed a war in Europe” and pleaded for urgent action.

A top rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, has admitted that Russian troops were fighting alongside his insurgents, but said they were on “holiday” after volunteering to join the battle.

The spiralling tensions come only days after Poroshenko and Putin held their first meeting in three months, but they failed to achieve any concrete breakthrough despite talk of a peace roadmap.

– No Ukraine guarantee –

The latest claims of Russian manoeuvres are sparking fears that Moscow is seeking more than Crimea, which it annexed in March in the face of Western outrage.

“The latest newsflow from eastern Ukraine suggests an increased risk that Russian President Putin may go well beyond snatching Crimea and destabilising the pro-Western government in Kiev. Instead, he is edging closer to an almost-invasion to occupy parts of southeastern Ukraine,” said Berenberg bank analyst Christian Schulz.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists the Kremlin is “not interested in breaking up” Ukraine.

The United Nations estimates the conflict has killed over 2,200 people and forced more than 400,000 to flee since April.

Russia vehemently opposes closer ties between Ukraine and NATO.

Concerns that Kiev could be drawn closer into the Western security alliance — and towards Europe — are seen as a key motivation behind Russia’s actions in recent months.

Obama, who will host Poroshenko at the White House on September 18, said while ex-Soviet states now in the alliance could expect a US military defense, such guarantees did not apply to non-member Kiev.