Travelogue SEA 2: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Hanoi

18-19 December 2011

We were greeted bang on time at the hotel by our guide, Thine, although the bus ended up only arriving some 20 minutes later. It was a chilly wait and we were worried that the damp cold was a sign of impending rain.

The bus was a group of Japanese tourists (with their own guide) and us, so we had Thine to ourselves and he interspersed stories and tour guide info along the 4 hour journey (broken only by the usual obligatory stop at a souvenir store, where I bought rubies and Christian bought silk ties). The journey should never take as long – being only 160km, but the speed limits are 40 through the towns and 80 in between, with very few stretches where the foot can go flat.

Eventually reaching Ha Long Bay, we were merged with another tour of English speakers and ushered to our boat. We had booked a specific cruise on www.agoda.com based on its 2 day itinerary but were allocated to another boat, which we’d also seen on Agoda and which had the same itinerary but at considerably higher price. Bonus.  From comparing notes with the other travellers it seems that we’d stumbled on a gem with our booking site, paying similar value rates for our hotels to the backpacker types who booked as they went, but with the benefit of having a pre-planned itinerary to springboard from in these new and foreign places. We’d saved big $$$ by booking our cruise online!

Our cabin was lovely and spacious with a double and a single bed with fresh white linen and soft duvets, an en suite bathroom and neat decor with wooden panelling and silk curtains. Our tour guide (Dung, which he was quick to tell us is pronounced ‘Dzung’ not ‘dung’) kept reinforcing that this was a luxury cruise, although more in the context of not smuggling booze on board or buying from the endless stream of row boat hawkers that floated past yelling “you want buy somting?”, with ‘somting’ usually meaning an impressive selection of beers, wine, hard tack, cigarettes, chocolates, biscuits and Pringles (which seemed to also be the standard unit of currency in lieu of cash change).

First up was lunch, brought to the table in communal serving plates. Seafood soup, mussels, rice, tofu, beef and an apple-like fruit stirfry, Chinese veg and french fries. We were at a table with a Vietnamese couple and their 2 young kids who spoke with a Aussie accent and were only interested in the ‘chippies’, so making a meal of the central self-service platters was easy enough!

Then it was taking to the waters to see what Ha Long is famous for. There are 1969 limestone mounds that form the ‘Descending Dragon’ and have earned the area a place in the new 7 natural wonders of the world. A wonder within a wonder is Sun Sot (Surprise Cave) which consists of 3 enormous chambers that you can walk through and (supposedly) see all sorts of animals and shapes that time has eroded into the rock face, most notable of which is the finger/penis that points at a perfectly round hole in the ceiling of the second chamber.

It becomes a bit same same (only different) after a while and we were keen when we moved on from there to go to one of the floating villages to grab a kayak. The floating villages are pretty amazing. Individual houses or restaurants on pontoon floats with inflated barrels and polystyrene blocks keeping them out of the water. People going on with their daily lives, cooking, hanging out washing, peddling wares. Houses with tv aerials and satellite dishes and, it would, appear, better cell phone reception than I have at home!

We grabbed a kayak and paddled around the bay, getting a closer look at some of the rock faces, a little private beach and a lot of other tourists. The bay is very busy with lots of boats, junks and other (inexperienced) kayakers going in every direction and staking claim to right of way on a shared path. Lots of fun though and I’m glad I didn’t bail out on the activity (in both meanings of the word as I had almost passed on the kayaking because of the weather and for fear of getting wet and cold). I must just be a bit dramatic about cold though as the boys had a big laugh jumping off the top of the junk into the sea (maybe 8m).

We’d gotten friendly with a pair of NZ’ers and an Aussie through the caves and hooked up on the upper deck for some pre-dinner beers (after a lovely hot shower – in a bathroom far bigger and nicer than the ones in either Bangkok or Hanoi!) with them and a Canadian couple.

The boat staff were quite intuitive and we found on arrival in the restaurant cabin that they’d moved us from the family table to sit with our new mates. Dinner was a buffet with shrimp chips, fresh springrolls (more like a wrap than the usual deep fried ones), rice (obviously), prawns, calamari with lemongrass, sesame seed pork, chicken stir fry and cabbage. Sweet cake for dessert. (Real cake, not Malory).

Back up to the deck and an endless stream of Tigers began. The Canadians brought out their MP3 player and speakers and we proceeded to ADD-DJ and cross-criticise each others’ music like old friends! … Except Roger from Manchester, who was the only one who was quiet and who took some heckling for not being able to contribute a story to the endless eclectic mix of anecdotes and repartee (peppered with a healthy dose of sauce and profanity). Although he did tell us that he’d managed to find a KFC in Hanoi when we’d marvelled over how franchise and fast food free the city was.

We’d brought some beers with us from the market at the harbour, so we implemented our own private Buy One Get One Free promotion. Aaron, one of the NZ’ers, managed to get a floater (hehe) to pull up to their cabin window so that he could buy a bottle of vodka and 2 litre Coke, which he cleverly served for himself in a beer can so as to go undetected. Beers weren’t that expensive at $2 a can, but the subterfuge is all part of the fun – and having our own supply also meant we could bypass the main cabin and bar where we would be subjected to Dzung’s drunken solo karaoke medley (of what sounded like Vietnamese love songs), belted out in a key I’m certain would be alien to what the songwriter intended!

He had the last laugh of course when we finally decided to hit the main cabin and have a stab at karaoke… Only to find that everyone had gone to bed and there were 2 crew members sleeping on the floors. To rub matters in further, there was a Party Boat within yelling distance of us that was still in full swing. We tried to convince the barman to drive us there (an obviously flawed plan in retrospect) but he wasn’t having any of it. Deflated, we called it a night.

Slept like the dead… Only to be woken at 7.30 by incessant knocking on the door and “breakfast! BREAKFAST!”. Clearly not an optional activity… And a lot of excitement over simple fried eggs and lots of bread, jam and cheese.

Well fed, it was back to bed. The greatest nap ever!

Felt a lot better waking up slowly and naturally an hour later and showered, packed and evac’ed to sit on the upper deck and enjoy the view on the long slow journey back to port (with just our NZ mates as the rest had alighted earlier to go on to another day of cruising to other islands and sights in the Bay). No beers. Although Tigers continue to be very forgiving and there wasn’t a green gill among us.

Lunch on the shore was good: rice, calamari with onions, fried lemon chicken, stuffed crab, fish in a thick sticky (yummy) sauce! French fries and a watery soup (that remained untouched).

A bit of a wait and we are now on the bus headed back to Hanoi. The bright side about land travel is that there’s a lot of time – like a a lot a lot – to look around and take in the detail of daily life. Besides the obvious things like farmers in the fields – still donning traditional conical hats and still using water buffalo ploughs – we’ve spotted that  Vietnamese billboards and ads are strange. Most of the billboards are a long sentence of text in a single colour block letters on a plain background, some are just a logo with or without slogan, but very very few have pictures on them illustrating the product and/or lifestyle message. Store signage is cluttered with what seems like a detailed description of store offerings alongside the name and crude photo depictions. Streetpoles are dotted with vertical propaganda posters that look a bit like McDonald’s ads being yellow on red with a beaming happy face. The language is made up of mostly 2-4 letter words, some 5, very few 6 and no words of 7 letters or more.

It’s also odd that there are the renowned tube houses out here as well. They make sense (sort of) in town where it’s not uncommon to see stores 2m wide (but 30 or 40m deep) since they (used to?) pay taxes based on store frontage, so the stores (and the flats above them) are long and narrow to keep costs down. It also makes a bit more visual sense in town where the tube houses are squashed one against each other. Here in the countryside or when passing through a small town it’s very odd to see what looks like a sliver of a house in the middle of nowhere!

It’s all very interesting and fascinating and Vietnam (which, incidentally should be 2 words ‘Viet Nam’ because it means ‘South People’, as designated by China that lies north of Viet Nam and who believe they are the epicentre) has been a delight so far. Really highly recommend a visit – and we’ve only seen a splash of it!

The plan from here is for an overnight bus to pick us up from Mike’s Hotel to get us to Da Nang for tomorrow. The bus allegedly is double storey with the upstairs dedicated to proper horizontal lie-down beds… But I’ll believe that when I see it.