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 3rd – Viet Hai & Cat Ba

It’s 6:00 in the morning. Stop, propaganda time! The nearby propaganda speakers spit out a man’s monotonous words interspersed with high pitched patriotic songs. This continues until almost 7:00 at which point falling asleep is no longer an option. Why? You try sleeping after a musical indoctrination session.

Katka is apparently immune to patriotic brainwashing and sleeps until 8:00, at which point we head out to have breakfast. Afterwards we pack our stuff and settle the bill for our stay with Zoam. Turns out they have it pretty sweet here. We’re charged 120,000 dong per person per each meal excluding drinks, which is easily the most we’ve paid for a single meal in Vietnam.

We’re also charged for the motorbike ride to and from the shore, which is the only realistic way of getting to and from Viet Hai. Well, I guess that’s what happens when you have a local monopoly in the middle of an almost deserted island?

“Come on, buddy, where else are you gonna go?”

We’re driven back to the pier where we hop onto a small motor boat, just like the one that brought us here in the first place. This time around the sea is calmer and it’s a lot sunnier. Katka goes back to her paparazzi mode, snapping picture after picture.

After a bit over an hour we’re back to the pier in Cat Ba. Here we get two motorbike drivers to take us to the creatively named Duc Tuan Hotel, owned by Mr. Tuan (the same guy who really helped us out a few days ago). He offers us a room for 20 dollars on the 4th floor. That’s 10 dollars less than our ultra-basic Viet Hai bungalow and probably home to a lot fewer insects. We take it!

The room looks brand new, has two double beds, air-conditioning, TV and a fridge. Most importantly it offers a fantastic view over the water. Although let’s face it, more time will be spent staring into that damn TV.

“Reality is overrated, human! I am your only true friend!”

We head for the beach, on our way arranging with Mr. Tuan to book a 2 day boat trip to Halong Bay with a sleepover at sea. After a 15 minute walk we find ourselves on one of the smaller Cat Ba beaches which is currently completely empty. We pay 100,000 dong for two benches under an umbrella.

For the next few hours we do the old “swim-read-swim” routine. The weather’s fantastic without any clouds and zero rain (well, those two tend to go hand in hand).

There’s a small group of men whose job it is to fish out any garbage floating in the water. The problem is the inflow of garbage is more than they can handle. Residents of the floating villages seem to discard most of their household trash straight into the water. As soon as the workers get the water relatively clean the waves bring in more trash. This Sisyphusian* cycle continues throughout the day.

*yeah, it’s “sisyphean”, but I like to occasionally make up words that sound weird and funny, so suefy me!

Once the beach starts to slowly get more crowded we decide to find ourselves a tandem bike. There are many tourists and locals riding on these, so why not try it out for ourselves?

Like this, but twice as good!

We find a woman renting out tandem bikes. She sends her son to unlock a bike for us. All bikes are attached to a long metal wire with a lock at the end. In order for the son to reach our tandem bike he has to first pull out a bunch of kids bikes to make space. After that ordeal he pulls out a tandem bike with a flat tire. Then he takes out another one and “tests” it by spinning the wheel once. Satisfied with this thorough examination he hands the bike to us.

As soon as we start to pedal it becomes clear that the bike is living its own life and doesn’t much care about our furious pedalling. Having comically struggled with the bike for a few minutes we return to the guy and ask for another one. This one seems a bit better, but after a minute or two of riding we discover that it’s permanently stuck in the lowest gear. The seats are set too low and cannot be adjusted.

Resolved to goddamn try and enjoy our first tandem bike experience no matter what we stubbornly continue for another 10 minutes. After a tiring and embarrassing uphill ride we finally accept our fate – tandem-bike Gods aren’t smiling upon us today.

Tandem bike Gods?

We return the bike and head to the hotel for a shower and a short break (from all that tiring lounging around). Around dinner time we wander into one of the many floating restaurants found here. The restaurant doubles as home for the family who owns it. While waiting for our food the “waitress” disappears in the shower to wash her hair. There are a few kids running around. Finally, the family of at least ten sits down for a dinner of their own in a nearby room.

We enjoy a delicious meal on the terrace. From here we can see almost the entirety of Cat Ba city. It’s very clear that the city is divided into two distinct sections. One side of the main road is lined with hotels and…well, essentially nothing else. On the other side are scattered numerous by-the-sea cafes and floating restaurants.

Which can almost, but not really, be seen here

The next challenge is to find an ATM to replenish our liquid financial assets for barter facilitation. What? I mean cash, we need cash. This proves surprisingly difficult in a town built exclusively on tourism. The flashy ATM across the street isn’t open. The “ATM” by our hotel is an empty box in the wall. No other ATM in sight.

Giving up on ATM search we decide to find a place that serves alcohol. We haven’t had a proper drink in a while. We stop by Queen’s Cafe (no affiliation with any known royalty), but no booze is to be found here. We order two cold shakes and then continue our booze hunt. Finally we find a restaurant owned by a guy from New Zealand, called Flightless Bird (the restaurant, not the guy).

They have plenty of boozified (refer to “*” above) cocktails and we go absolutely crazy! By that I mean we order literally one cocktail each, after which we decide we’re too tired to continue. We finish up our drinks and make our way home, making a detour in another attempt to find an ATM. We find one inside a building that houses Saigon Bank and Harbour View Hotel.

This concludes our second lazy day in a row. Life’s good.

We’re getting close to the end of the trip. The next day is found here. Remember to visit Katka’s Flickr for some awesome pictures from the trip.