Monday, 21 November 2011

Days 75 to 78: Ha Long Bay

Burness and I arrived in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam (though Ho Chi Min, aka Saigon, is the bigger city), on the Wednesday past, the 16th. It didn't take us long to realise we fancied moving on. Don't get me wrong, I liked Hanoi, but I really was not in the mood for it. Wild scooter-filled streets that simply defied all sense at crossroads, the city was a cacophony of horns and scooter engines, and crossing the street was as much like playing real-life Frogger as I've ever done. "Walk very slowly across" was the general advice, and there was no other way to manage it. Any sudden movement would see a scooter, from some direction, crash into you. Slow moment allowed them time to weave around you, or so you'd hope. I don't know how many pedestrian collisions that Hanoi sees every year, but it surely must be a lot, probably mostly involving jittery foreigners. It was not for the faint-hearted. Mum - please don't visit Hanoi.

From arrival at the airport, we met up with a Dutch couple and shared a taxi into the centre with them, and that evening had food and drinks with them. It transpired that the Dutch guy, whom I will phonetically spell as "Rool", worked in Glasgow a lot. It was a good evening, on the second floor terrace of a restaurant therefore removed from the worst of the chaos outside, and we eased off our hangover from the Laos bowling evening with a few more beers.

Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because I had the suggestion of a cold coming on, the next day I just wasn't in the mood. Not in the mood to roam around Hanoi's mayhem, and not in the mood to do anything terribly productive at all really. It was not my most intrepid day. Burness felt the same. Although we quite liked Hanoi, we just couldn't be bothered with it, as though it was an occasional friend you can handle for some drinks and a game of pool, but wouldn't want to share a coffee and a stroll in the park with.

The choice to go to Ha Long Bay therefore was a natural one, and was largely the reason we'd come to Hanoi - which is only a few hours away - anyway. It's the reason most people come to Hanoi, I would guess, based upon the vast amount of hotels and travel agents all advertising the same basic tour. A series of around 2000 small rocky islands on the north-east coast of Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has a growing profile around the world, helped in part by some handy film and TV appearances, such as Top Gear and a chase scene in Tomorrow Never Dies (I always recommend a chase scene in a film to boost a profile; mind you, another James Bond film - The World Is Not Enough - also featured a chase scene at the Millennium Dome, and that didn't work out so well).

Although the purist in me would have preferred to go it alone to Ha Long City, and arrange my own boat and sail around the bay myself, in my own time, before getting lost and sinking, the tours available seemed wholly more practical. Wary of tours after the mostly ghastly Java one and the patchy Luang Prabang one, nonetheless the price and convenience of the tour our hotel was aligned with was appealing. Three days and two nights, sailing around the beautiful bay, with all food and transport provided, for $90, the offer did seem too good to be true. Still, we snapped it up.

And like the sulphurous crater lake of Ijen, in Java, Ha Long Bay managed to transcend its tour group ghastliness.

Because make no mistake, the nature of the tour was very much in the manner of "herd them in, round them up, go here, take photo, move on, take photo, eat, go to sleep, please leave your free will behind." Scores of buses and minibuses clogged the Hanoi to Ha Long road, all stopping at the same soul-devoid tourist mart midway so that ten thousand of us could stock up on tacky souvenirs, before moving en mass to the crowded harbour to get our boat. On the way back from the tour, masses of us were crammed in a restaurant, told where to sit, and served the same meal. Our guide, a local named Tony who referred to himself always in the third person ("Please stay close to Tony while Tony leads you through the caves!"), stage managed us like a wholesome but vaguely condescending camp leader at a summer school for pre-pubescents. Everything that happened on-land was awful, turning us into human cattle. But none of it mattered. Because once we were on the boat, the tour group hell vanished, peace replaced it, and the beauty of Ha Long Bay was allowed to take over.

There is something a lot more magical about boats in a bay than there is buses in a car-park. Fifty buses in a car park is a noisy, ugly thing; fifty boats in a bay is tranquil, graceful, attractive. That's how it was with the tour. The boats - junks, in fact, I should perhaps more accurately call them - were surprisingly appealing. For the money we'd paid, I'd feared the worst, imagining decrepit planks of wood with one large cell for the crew and tourists alike, shared with rats of course. Within our glum misery, we would make sad puns about the "junk" we were on. But no, the junks were charming, spacious wooden vessels with comfortable rooms, a bar, and best of all, only fifteen tourists in total. There may have been lots of tourist junks at sea, but the bay is big, the junks were never bunched up, and the sense of being herded almost entirely evaporated.

We were fortunate with the weather, and had the days at sea consisted only of sailing around, looking at the scenery, I think all of us would have been content. The sheer, silver island rocks sticking out of the water everywhere were magnificent. There was a haze in the air, but a distant one allowing for a sense of mystery but never obscuring the actual scenery. Some rocky islands were large, dramatic creations, and some were petite and just nudging out of the water, and others seemed to stretch at improbable angles with cliffs and gaps in the rock and looked as though, one day, they would collapse and plunge into the bay. Birds of prey casually circled, shrubs desperately clung onto the sides of some of the larger rocks. Sometimes, a tiny sandy beach in a cove had formed at an island, but usually the rock just soared vertically out of the water, and I don't think I saw a single island that looked climbable without some serious rock-climbing gear and plenty of effort. I can only compare it to a spread out mountain range with multiple craggy peaks, that had been flooded in water so only the peaks were visible. In fact, geologically speaking, that's kind of what Ha Long Bay is.

But let's save on the descriptions, here are some photos:

As I say, had we simply remained at sea and enjoyed the scenery, I think all fifteen of us would have been contented. But being a tour, activities were lined up for us. There was a cave, which was pretty spectacular, but unfortunately so rammed with tourists pouring out of boats to admire it that it kind of obscured the beauty. "Keep moving, follow Tony!" our guide said, with some stress, as we filed along the walkway. But the kayaking was better, being on sea, and allowing us the freedom to explore some rocks and caves of our own. As dusk settled and our boat moved to a quiet position for the night, we had a chance to jump into and swim in the bay, the great dark silhouettes of rocks above us, and dinner afterwards was surprisingly tasty. We then - Tony announced - had some time for our own leisure activities. Tony hinted more than once that some karaoke would be fun - the Vietnamese love karaoke - but no-one shared his enthusiasm, so instead we started drinking and utterly failing to fish for squid. Three fishing rods were provided with the promise of abundant squid, but although a small fish toyed with me a couple times, and I caught a few plastic bags, no squid materialised.

We were very lucky, as the other tourists on our boat were a good bunch. It was mostly couples, with an older Dutch couple, a friendly Kiwi couple, a Vietnamese couple, a lass from Scotland and an English guy, and an American guy and his Swedish girlfriend plus her gooseberry friend. A pair of Dutch guys made Burness and I feel less out of place; then again, one Dutch guy wore bright pink shorts, so the trip for them may have had romantic overtones also.

The group was nice, but it was the Scottish girl, Heather, and her English boyfriend, Jamie, we got on with best. They had been working in Australia and Hong Kong, and were in the midst of travelling through China and now Vietnam, before heading off to New Zealand in the hope of finding further work. After some afternoon drinks and chat, and the evening squid fishing, we embarked on some card games, but a couple of games in we happened to get chatting about my World Wonder tour. I don't usually mention much about my Wonder hunting to others, but the subject happened to be brought up, and both Heather and Jamie were really interested in it. To the point where they wanted me to name each Wonder I intended to visit, in order. Such a level of interest I don't think I've ever encountered, so I must admit to being quite delighted, and so for the rest of the night we drank beer or smuggled-in vodka (the boat sold its own alcohol and more-or-less futilely prohibited bringing in any from outside) and discussed Wonders.

Wonders are a pretty good conversation piece, because many, even most, have plenty about them to discuss, and likewise have either been visited or are intending to be visited by someone in the conversation. Like the Eiffel Tower - "Jamie proposed under the Eiffel Tower. To a different girl..." or a few in China that are on my list, such as the Great Wall of China ("Really, really cold in January") or the Terracotta Warriors ("Lots of them"). Only long after the rest of the boat was sleeping and the four of us were gathered on the top deck, single white lights from other junks the only illumination, did I get through my list of 98. As it was 2am, and Tony had arranged breakfast for us at 8am, we reckoned some rest was in order.

And to Tony's great disappointment (and quiet disapproval), Burness couldn't manage the 8am breakfast start, only surfacing after his fried egg and dry bread had been allowed to sit forlorn, then discarded. After some boat transfers and a small shuffling of the passengers, our first activity of the day was some mountain biking, or as it turned out, some cycling on a girl's bike on some concrete paths on an island with mountains. It was a pretty cycle - Tony on a scooter to ensure we didn't over-exert ourselves - and concluded at a village handily set up to sell us soft drinks or beer.

The next - and final, it transpired - activity was the visit to Monkey Island. The name conjures up terrific images of an island presided by a monkey court, with monkey officials and police, and lots of cheerful monkeys walking about with bow ties, top hats, and cheeky smiles. The reality, even Tony admitted, was less monkeytastic - in five years of tours, he'd only seen about four monkeys. None with bow ties. They tended to hide in the mountains and were scared of people. It still didn't stop Tony making some entirely incomprehensible jokes about monkeys, most of which seemed to focus on them luring the man elsewhere so the monkey could seduce his wife or girlfriend. "Tony is joking!" he announced with relish, and everyone laughed with a peculiar sense of relief.

While lacking in monkeys, Monkey Island had large spades of gorgeousness. It was a mini-paradise; a small, sandy beach arcing around clear water. A handful of bungalows dotted the area behind the beach, and craggy rocks behind these ensured the paradise was entirely secluded and accessible only by boat. Kayaks were available, and nearby rocks and islands were an easy swim away, in pleasant waters. This was where everyone would be staying for the night. Wow, I could sense everyone thinking, this is really nice - much nicer than anyone had anticipated. As Jamie later said, it was the sort of thing people would pay a lot of money for. We had it as part of our $90 fee.

Except - we didn't. Due to a mix-up with our hotel in Hanoi when booking, Burness and I had no bungalow in paradise. We had a hotel waiting for us elsewhere. With everyone else lying on the beach, or swimming leisurely, we had to leave, with the greatest reluctance. Just ourselves and an older French couple, back on the boat, waving goodbye to paradise. We were, I do not at all understate, gutted.

That our hotel was straight from the school of towerblock anonymity along a commercial strip on Cat Ba island did not improve our mood one bit.

Still, we pepped up a little during the late afternoon and evening, after a few drinks, and dinner with the older French couple (Tony made us sit together - we were still on tour, after all), who were very pleasant. The man had been an airline pilot for Aer Lingus and had spent time in Nigeria in the 1980s, so we exchanged some tales of that lively/chaotic/exhausting nation. Later, Burness and I found a couple of pool tables, and whiled the evening away with beer and rubbish pool.

And so the tour ended, just about. The final day we were picked up and reacquainted with our Monkey Island group, cheering only to hear that most had early nights and hadn't slept well (our greatest fear had been that everyone might have had a great time). Apparently, shortly after we left, the sun dipped behind the cliffs backing the beach, and made the area slightly less heavenly - great! Still, it sounded wonderful, and we felt and wallowed in everyone's pity. But at least the two hour sail back to Ha Long City, through the outstanding rock-and-water landscape of Ha Long Bay, was as unerringly gorgeous as ever. Our surly mood evaporated into the air. A night in paradise may have been cruelly snatched from us, but we were still permitted to breathe in its beauty and feel our very souls melt into its majestic magnificence, a bliss-laden sample of the divine land of the gods. Or something like that.

Onto dry land then, and Ha Long's dreamy spell was broken and tour group reality snapped us back into focus. Packed into a restaurant, then a bus (soul-devoid tourist mart stop midway of course), mercifully there were only a handful of hours until we were deposited back in Hanoi. It was as full of engine-adrenalin as ever, but no matter - an overnight train had been arranged days before, and by 7pm we were settling into our sleeper cabin for the night, on the way to the small city of Hue, in central Vietnam.

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