The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 4th – Ha Long Bay

We have breakfast downstairs at the restaurant shortly after 7AM – mango pancakes with honey, because honey is the root of all good things in life. You can quote me on that.

It appears Mr. Tuan managed to arrange for another couple to join us on an overnight boat sleepover at Ha Long Bay, so we’re all set. A mini-bus picks up our “day group” at the hotel. Very soon we run out of space as we’re joined by a Vietnamese couple, two Italian guys, two Spanish guys, four French girls, an English couple and a lone English girl. Our luggage is stacked up at the front seat. Everyone knows riding shotgun is how luggage rolls. At the main pier we are all transferred to a boat that takes us out to Ha Long Bay.

Soon we reach a small bay with a few floating houses scattered around. Our boat is parked and we’re all given kayaks to use for the next hour. We do a few circles around the area through the majestic view of karsts and the arguably less majestic piles of garbage discarded by floating-houses residents.

Aaah, the untouched beauty of floating trash

One hour later everyone returns to the boat and we continue our journey through Ha Long Bay, taking in the scenery and enjoying the perfect weather with clear blue skies. After some time our boat stops again in another small bay, without any floating houses around. The water is a lot clearer and there’s no garbage in sight. Everyone goes for a swim, jumping into the water from the boat’s upper deck.

One of the French girls is stung by a jellyfish, which immediately prompts a drawn out discussion about whether or not anyone should pee on her hand. After a surprisingly urine-free resolution to the discussion we’re served lunch in the lower deck of the boat.

After lunch the boat arrives to Dau Go Cave and everyone disembarks to go on a cave excursion. The cave is huge and the walk takes us through its many smaller chambers. We make our way slowly through the cave, stopping to take pictures. One of the open spaces within the cave is filled with penis-shaped stalagmites. People linger long enough to exhaust their library of dick jokes.

“Look everybody! The cave is happy to see us!”

After the cave the boat makes a short stop at Viet Hai to pick up around 10 tourists travelling back to Cat Ba. They pile up on the upper deck and our boat starts to feel seriously crowded. Three of the French girls are happily living up to the “French smoke a lot” stereotype, chain smoking on outside area of the lower deck. We reach a place called “Monkey Island”, where we’re dropped off and told to enjoy ourselves for 30 minutes, while our boat leaves with all of our belongings. Wait a second…isn’t this how many horror movies start?

The only real cover from the scorching sun on this small island is a nearby cafe on stilts. Everyone immediately makes a beeline for it. Cafe is crowded so we stand around waiting for some tables to clear up. Katka and myself are waved over by an American couple and we join their table. Their names are Dax and Mary and they have apparently kayaked here all the way from Cat Ba. Show offs! After a brief chat they take their two single-kayaks and start making their way back to Cat Ba.

Once our boat returns Katka and I are transferred over to another boat that we’ll be staying on overnight. Here we are joined by the English – Ian and Angela. After leaving our luggage on the lower deck where we’ll be sleeping, we all grab a few lounge chairs on the upper deck and settle to enjoy what’s left of the sun for today.

Ian and Angela have been travelling across South East Asia for almost half a year, after having quit their jobs to embark on this trip. Angela doesn’t appear to be particularly enthusiastic about their travels. She’s continuously telling us horror stories about their experiences with thieves, scams, bribes and so on from their time in Cambodia and Laos. I can’t help but wonder how Angela got convinced to quit her job for this adventure, when she’s clearly so negative about it. Who knows, maybe she likes being upset about stuff?

“WORST trip of my entire life! Let’s do it again!”

There are two showers downstairs, but only one of them has sufficient water pressure. We all take turns to shower. Angela gets into an argument about the shower situation with one of the Vietnamese guides accompanying us on this overnight stay. Well, I guess this story is also going into her black book! Katka and I share the tiny shower booth, amazingly avoiding elbowing each other to death.

Once we return to the upper deck we’re served a delicious dinner. It even includes some western food – namely French fries and fried chicken. After dinner Angela’s not feeling well so she goes downstairs to sleep. The rest of us stay up for a while. The boat is anchored in open sea. We can see a few distant lights from the floating houses and the sky is sprinkled with lots of stars. We start identifying the constellations we know: there’s the Big Dipper, and there’s the…aaahm…yeah well, that was fun.

Around nine in the evening one of the guides brings a mattress to the upper deck – he’ll be sleeping here tonight. We return to the lower deck and are soon asleep, despite the snores coming from the boat’s driver sleeping nearby.

The remaining diaries will soon come. For now, remember you can check out Katka’s pictures of the whole trip on her Flickr profile.

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The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 1st – Hai Phong, Cat Ba, Viet Hai

At 6 in the morning I wake to discover that my thumb has gotten even worse. I can barely move it at all. The area around the thumb is swollen and hard to the touch. No obvious signs of a mutant insect trying to eat my hand from the inside, but you never know. After a while, tiredness wins over paranoia and I manage to fall asleep again until 8:30.

For some reason my hand doesn’t get miraculously cured within that time. Katka and I discuss options ranging from buying some anti-allergy pills to going to a hospital. We consult the Lonely Planet and immediately rule out all options. According to the book ingesting any pills sold over the counter is equivalent to suicide. It also advises strongly against Vietnamese public hospitals. Great.

Having received my daily doze of depression from the book I decide to wait and hope the hand gets better with time. We have a quick breakfast. Afterwards the tour guy drives me to the bus station on his scooter. Here I pick up two tickets to Hai Phong. We return to the hotel where I give him a generous tip for all his help during our three day stay in Ninh Binh.

Katka and I leave the hotel and walk to the bus station. Here we find the empty bus waiting for passengers. The doors of the luggage compartment are wide open. We are just about to put our bags inside when a guy materialises out of nowhere (or from inside the bus, I wasn’t paying attention). He shakes his head “no”, grabs our bags and brings them inside the bus instead. Odd, wouldn’t an empty luggage compartment be a good place for, you know, luggage?

“No sir, that’s not luggage, that’s a suitcase!”

There’s a large air conditioning unit at the top of the bus with “Air Conditioner” written on it. However, the unit seems to be just a hollowed out shell that used to contain something before. Our air conditioning will most likely consist of a few open windows. A few men outside the bus are tying small ropes together into thick braids. Hmmm, empty luggage compartment, ropes. Are we getting kidnapped? (Spoiler: we weren’t, because then I probably wouldn’t be writing these diaries).

We leave Ninh Binh shortly before 12:00. Aside from the two drivers and the “luggage” guy we are the only two people on the bus. On our way out of Ninh Binh we pick up a few more passengers at random spots along the road. There are no designated bus stops, people just hail the bus over as it makes its way through the city and hop on.

On the outskirts of Ninh Binh the bus suddenly stops. Both drivers and the luggage guy jump out. The luggage compartment doors swing open. We see the men carry big bags of what looks like wheat, dried grass and seeds inside. Well, that solves the mystery of the inaccessible luggage space. Granted, one of the less nail-biting mysteries in existence.

On the next episode of “What’s that empty space used for?”…

We start driving again, but the bus comes to another stop a few hundred metres down the road. We are now by a wood craftsman’s store. The luggage guy suddenly disappears into one of the open side windows and pulls himself up onto the roof. One of the drivers joins him. The second driver and the shop owner begin passing huge boards of carved wood (most likely parts of a bed and/or wardrobe) to the guys on the roof. The wooden boards fit neatly into the hollowed out air conditioning unit. Another mystery solved.

We leave the shop, but repeat the stop-and-load sequence a few more times at other nearby stores. The pile of wooden boards on the roof is now growing dangerously tall. This is where the braids we’ve seen the men make earlier come into play. They secure the furniture to the roof with a few braids and we set off again.

For the next three hours the following sequence plays out every few minutes:

The bus stops to pick up/drop off some passengers or cargo. Then the driver speeds off like a maniac, honking and swerving through the traffic, overtaking cars and threatening to kill us all in a giant collision. Then he comes to an abrupt halt to drop off or pick up more people and things. We are never on the move for more than five minutes at a time and the whole ride is built around cargo pick up/drop off spots.

Also, every time the bus backs up it plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. By the time the trip’s over the tune is stuck in my head and is driving me nuts.

I just can’t get you out of my head! Great, that reminds me of another song. It’s a vicious circle!

Close to the end of the journey the luggage man notices the by now so popular army helmet I bought in Hanoi. He takes out one of his own and shows me that it’s superior by knocking on it and pointing at a star at the front of it. Does that mean the cheap souvenir I bought off of a street vendor is not an actual army helmet? No way!

Finally we come to a stop at a huge parking area with several other buses. The luggage guy grabs our bags and takes them to the exit. He puts them on the ground and says “Hai Phong”. Guess we’re here.

As we step off the bus we’re surrounded by a group of loud and persistent drivers offering taxis and motorbikes to Ben Binh (the pier from which hydrofoils to Cat Ba depart). Since they’re too pushy and their prices are sky high we ignore their offers and walk out onto the main street by the bus station. Here we easily find a cab to take us to Ben Binh for a less insane price.

The driver drops us off between two tour company stands. Before we have a moment to catch our breath a woman from one of the stands runs up to us and unleashes a torrent of words in an attempt to hard-sell us a trip to Cat Ba. She claims that we have missed the early hydrofoils that go directly to Cat Ba Town. The last hydrofoil leaves at 16:00 (it is now 15:40) and can only take us to the western side of the island, from where we have to take a bus to Cat Ba Town.

She quotes a price of 300,000 dong per person, claiming that 150,000 are for the hydrofoil and 150,000 more are for the bus. We have paid 70,000 dong per person for the 3,5 hour trip from Ninh Binh and also know that trips all the way from Hanoi to Cat Ba cost less than 300,000 dong. Katka walks off to talk to the other tour agent. Immediately, the woman jumps up, yells something in Vietnamese to the other tour agent and leads Katka back. Subtle, and not at all suspicious.

“Look, I’m telling you the truth! Just ask anyone! But just don’t, you know, talk to anyone”

By now it’s obvious that she’s a scammer, but the other tour agent refuses to talk to us and the time is running out. We have a bungalow booked and paid for in Viet Hai and we’re at the risk of missing our last hydrofoil. We’re effectively held hostage by the woman (well, minus the constant threat of death). In the end we buy the ridiculously overpriced tickets and go to the hydrofoil. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)