Halong Bay - Night on-board
Anyone who has seen the outline of the old junks against the backdrop of the limestone karsts of Halong Bay knows that it is a part of the world shrouded in mystery and an old wordly style of living. Well, at least that is what I thought and hoped for. We had heard that the minibus tours that leave Hanoi on a daily basis are chaotic and that it was wise to at least arrange a higher priced tour, because your experience would be much different. Jimmy at Oceans II sold us, and another couple (both from Iceland, though she spoke Dutch as well), on his tour, so it made pickup and drop off much easier. We left our big luggage with him and took with us only enough for 2 nights/3 days. And we were so glad that we did.
The 3 hour ride to Halong Bay was broken in half again by an obligatory stop at a handicrafts factory. It was always interesting to take a peak, but this was such a tourist factory that we just patiently waited for our driver to say let's go. We had a darling young Vietnamese guy with us, who would act as our "tourguide" for the duration of the trip - though he was mostly just there to make sure meals were on time and we were where we were supposed to be. He had a good command of the English language and immediately took to Patrick - it was a male bonding thing that was actually pretty sweet. He liked the word "honey" and wanted to make sure that we all had one. He liked this one song on his phone too, that he played for us over and over again.
The arrival in Halong Bay was absolutely not what I expected - it was much worse. We arrived at a pier that could have been the pier in Cancun where the huge cruise ships arrive. It was big and crowded and swarming with dazed and confused tourists. Beyond the mayhem, in the bay, the junks were lined up next to each other, getting ready to take on the days passengers. It was a factory. We stayed relaxed and simply took it all in. Moments later we were asked to give our passports and then led by another guy to the junk that would be our home for the night. It was a beautiful old boat, without sails, but regal none the less - with white table linens and rattan furniture. We boarded, met the other passengers and simply waited for the rest to arrive. Lunch was served soon and there was an abundant amount, though for a non-seafood eater like Patrick and a few others, the selection was not as good. We were given our rooms and with that we were on our way.
The karsts were indeed majestic, but the amount of boats and the trash floating in the water cast a different light on this place. Our first stop was a cave, which although interesting, felt like a ride at Disneyland. At one point Patrick and I looked at each other and just laughed at the insanity of it all - I think there must have been 500 people in the cave with us. We couldn't take it seriously and had no idea how to deal with it. The waste baskets in the shape of dolphins or penguins every few meters helped with the amusement park feeling. At the top exit of the cave - the view down onto the Bay was beautiful. A ship with full sail had arrived and if you squinted and let the other 50 boats be camouflaged by the tree, then the site of the sails against the bay was really beautiful.
The next activity was kayaking, which Patrick and I both declined. That was not really like us, but with all the people, a rest on the top deck of the boat seemed much more relaxing. Two of the other girls on our boat did the same and we just watched from above. Below were locals selling Western treats like Pringles, coke and Oreos from their wooden boats and others were selling the fresh fish from the fish farm tanks and yet another was swinging in a hammock. This dock was their home and would soon be quiet as soon as the boats docked elsewhere for the night. The floating dock looked as though it were about to fall apart - the Styrofoam base was exploding out from underneath.
With everyone aboard, we sailed into the setting sun, which was a lovely sight, though the overall temperature was overcast and dreary. We docked somewhere for the night and dinner was served in the same manner that lunch was. We retired to our cabin, a cosy nook at the back of the inner hall. And then - it began. Someone pulled out the karaoke machine and it was all downhill from there. It began quite tame and Patrick and I considered joining the party, but then a Madonna song came on, and though the voice was good it was loud. We knew it was one of the Danish girls and from that point on we just listened from behind the door. I think Patrick did put earplugs in at one point when we feared that it would never stop. But around 11pm someone must have realized that many had left the party and were trying to sleep and suddenly the music went silent.
Halong Bay - night on the Cat Ba Island
After breakfast, served in the same methods as the other meals, we were enjoying a leisurely cruise on the bay. We were abruptly asked to pack our bags and check out of room - the crew needed to clean the room in order for it to be ready for the next group of tourists they would pick up in the harbor. We arrived at Cat Ba Island, where a few of us would stay the night and unloaded onto the pier. We were shuffled to another group, where we boarded a different bus and headed to the "hiking" part of the tour. Equipped with mosquito repellent and one bottle of water, we followed our guide up the mountain to the radio tower. It felt good to work the body - to really feel like we were doing something active. Up at the tower, some were brave enough to climb to the top, including Patrick. When he came back down and said that the rickety railing and steps had actually made him nervous, I knew had made the right decision to stay below. The last person to the top was an interesting Filipino born New Yorker. He was hiking in short shorts and flip flops and when he arrived at the top he said under his breath, "I hiked once 10 years ago and told myself I would never do it again, and now I remember why." He looked beside himself. We enjoyed the view from the top, until the mosquitoes got too aggressive and then it was easy to convince us to start the hike back down. It was slippery and several people landed on their bums on the way down. One step at a time and finally we go to the bottom.
When we arrived in the part of town where we would be staying, the minivan stopped at one location and most of our group got out. They would be staying here and we learned that we were staying elsewhere. And so began the segregation between our group and theirs, because we had paid $20 more per person. We arrived at our hotel, and though the electricity was off, it was still a regal building and one of the nicest rooms we stayed in. We had the afternoon to rest, before setting off on the afternoon trip to Monkey Island. When our driver and guide picked the four of us up, he asked if we minded extra people on our trip - the others had wanted to see the Monkey Island as well, but he was unable to arrange a boat for them. We thought for a moment and wondered what our extra $20 was really paying for - of course we didn't mind! When we picked up the others and told them what we had been asked, it started the comparison conversation and we realized very quickly that we indeed were getting the luxury version.
The ride to Monkey Island was short and actually uneventful. There were no monkeys in sight when we first arrived, even after climbing the fierce volcanic rock and exploring the other side. Today we were inspired to kayak, so we borrowed two and the four of us went exploring. On the back side of the island in the cove, we discovered a layer of pink floating on the surface. At first it looked like oil but when we raised the paddles out of the water they were covered in thousands of tiny bubbles or eggs. We all put our hands in and simultaneously had a creepy reaction when it seemed the substance stuck to one's skin. We immediately rinsed it off and concluded that it was probably something spwaning - at least that is what we convinced ourselves of. Sadly, being this close to the water, we also realized how polluted the water was. In these jetties, the trash collects, with no room to be swept out to sea. The cost of tourism and development is sadly so high. We returned to the beach, just in time to see the few monkeys come looking for snacks. But after our monkeys in Bali, these seemed less than interesting. We boarded the boat, and in the mist of the late afternoon, sailed back to Cat Ba.
Dinner in our hotel was again plentiful, though still heavy on the seafood side. Patrick declined the invitation to bar hopping in metropolotan Cat Ba, but I joined the couple from Iceland. The other group's guide picked us up and took us first to the other hotel. There the group was finishing their 5th bottle of Vietnamese wine and of course everyone wanted to know what we had had for dinner. I don't know if it was our food selection or then the news that we had satellite television but the natives were certainly restless, and perhaps wishing that they too had spent a few extra dollars. Shortly thereafter we walked to the bar which was apparently the place for tour guides to take the visiting foreigners. Not a local in sight- except perhaps the bartender. I suppose I had hoped for something a bit more original - and not something I could find at home. We sat at a big table, ordered some drinks, some let themselves get a mini head/shoulder massage and talked about our journeys. I spent most of the time talking with a young German couple - sharing tales of the road and the pros and cons of experiencing Vietnam. The three of us were not interested in the disco, so they kindly agreed to walk me back, though they really just wanted to see our hotel. Patrick was where I had left him, content and happy as a clam, in a cosy bed.
Back to Hanoi
This third day of the tour was simply used to get us back to Hanoi. From the hotel, we were shuttled to the pier, where we waited for the boats to pick us up, the same ones that were dropping off guests, as we had been the day before. The factory feel here at this pier was really apparent. We boarded a junk and soon left for the harbor in Halong City. After a few more shots of scenery, we arrived back and were escorted to the "restaurant" stop before heading to Hanoi. Part of the group went to one table, while again the four of us were escorted into a private room. This was getting ridiculous. But what else could we do but indulge in it a bit. Soon the restaurant was full of groups heading back to Hanoi and soon after we were rounded up, put in a minivan with another group of strangers and were on our way. We had of course one obligatory "handicrafts factory" visit on the way home which provided the necessary bathroom break and this time an ice-cream break as well. We arrived back to the chaotic streets of Hanoi and were somehow delighted at the familiarity of it. This time, we had 4 flights of stairs to climb to our room, but our bags were still there and the room was ready for us. I skimmed the LP (Lonely Planet) for a dinner choice and before we knew it we were sitting at a table with a huge plate of ribs in front of us.
There are several places of interest in Hanoi, including a few museums, but none draws more crowds then the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. This place is the holy of holy places for the Vietnamese and a strict set of rules is enforced - including removing hats and keeping silent. The security systems in place check for hidden cameras before you are allowed to get in line. When we arrived, the line wrapped around the corner and we were astounded how many locals were waiting patiently for a peek at Bac Ho (Uncle Ho).
The mausoleum is a gigantic structure of stone - modelled after the Romanesque structure in Moscow where Lenin is on display. As you enter the massive door, you are hit with chilling air-conditioning and silence. Guards insure that talking ceases once inside the building. The line wraps around corners, until it finally enters the sterile room. His embalmed body is encased in glass - his wispy white hair and whiskers make the whole thing even more surreal. People stare with wonderment at their beloved hero. It is ironic to see him here, as this was not his wish - he wanted to be cremated and wanted his ashes spread in North, Central and South Vietnam. He believed a grave plot was a waste of land that could be better used for agriculture. Similarly, Lenin had only wanted a modest funeral. We were lucky to see Uncle Ho - a few months of the year he is sent to Paris for maintenance. So bizarre.
We left the mausoleum just as a huge group of school children was getting in line to view Uncle Ho. They walked two by two and hand in hand, and it
only took one little wave for the whole group to erupt in giggles and happy hellos. It balanced out the somber mood of the viewing, that is for sure. I wondered what it would be like to witness such
a place at 8 or 9 - does it even sink in that this person was once alive. We headed next to the presidential palace and Ho Chi Minh's bungalow, both located next to the mausoleum. The
grounds are well preserved and peaceful with their koi pond and mango trees. His "house on stilts" looks for like a retreat in the woods, than the home of a nation's leader. In the brochure it reads
"Uncle Ho's House on Stilts is a symbol of his simplicity and gentleness. There are only some rooms here, but all of them are full of wind, light and fragrance from the garden..."
On our walk back into the city center, I snapped a picture of the One Pillar Pagoda and the three lovely ladies enjoying the shade of the afternoon. The road around the lake had been closed to traffic, so we were stuck in some fairly nasty traffic. We hopped out and walked the few blocks to the street with all the eye glass stores - we had learned that one can get a brilliant pair of glasses, with eye exam for around $100US. Patrick diligently shopped by comparison and ordered one pair, as a test. We would have to return later that day to see the results. We walked the south end of the lake, stopped for an over-priced ice-cream at a Paris style creamery and then walked toward the street known for its embroidered crafts. This was my last opportunity to buy anything in Vietnam, let alone Southeast Asia and it was difficult to be discerning - I wanted to take everything home. My favorite was a little gem of a store, no wider than a twin mattress, that was overflowing with embroidered baby dresses and jumpers - they even had crib sheets embroidered with Babar and his family. Looking back, I should have bought them for someone.
Patrick was determined to buy a few pairs of glasses and had a place he wanted to re-check, so we picked a time to meet for lunch. I arrived at the lunch spot, a dark and cosy restaurant in the alley a minute from our hotel, with less stuff than he expected. We ate and then returned to our hotel for the final countdown - with our cheap airlines tickets came also a stiff weight restriction, so it was better for us to send a box home and we needed to make sure we had chosen wisely. We borrowed the scale from downstairs that was usually used to weigh dirty laundry and methodically picked the things that would get sent home. With a huge bag in tow, we found two moto drivers who were willing to drive us around the lake to the post office. There we unloaded the bag and had to meticulously write down every object and its value. Then the postal employee ran down our list, double checked the quantities and then wrote the translation in Vietnamese. We loaded the box and left the post office 21 kilos lighter. 8 to 12 weeks later, the box should arrive in San Francisco.
We went back to pick up his glasses and were delighted at the quality and the craftsmanship. That meant he could order another pair or two and could pick them up in the morning. We walked back to the hotel via the lake, through the shoe market. Curious to just look, we walked into one store and the salesgirls immediately noticed my "real" Chacos. One whole rack was dedicated to some very persuading knockoffs and they quickly tried to convince me I needed a pair. She asked how much I had paid, and when I replied with $90US she was happy to offer up a copy for the bargain price of $30US. When I said I had mine for almost 8 years, she laughed, and said "Copy good for 3 year only". She was truthful and sweet and I almost considered it.
There was nothing to do this morning but get ready to leave. The box was shipped and the bags were packed the night before. Patrick had one last pair of glasses to pick up - and actually ordered one more that they made while he waited - and then it was already time to meet our taxi. We settled the bill with Jimmy at the front desk, had one last fried egg with baguette and were off. It was strange to be leaving and even stranger that we had spent a whole month in Vietnam. From the beach to the highlands, it was quite a ride. This next jump to Thailand was getting us one step closer to home, which also meant that our trip was slowly coming to an end.