The Horror of Halong (to be immediately followed by)
Hedonism in Hanoi (Incorporating wild motorbike rides and some serious drunken ditch falling...)
After arriving in Hanoi from the annoying spectacle that was Ninh Binh, what does silly old me do? Chill out for a few days and soak up the atmosphere of one of my favourite places in Vietnam? Dont be ridiculous. No, I booked a tour to Halong Bay.
It wasnt a completely ludicrous thing to do. What with tropical storms and typhoons hurtling this way and that all over Vietnam (and knowing friends who had to cancel their trips time and time again because of this very scenario) I had decided that if the weather was OK, I would go the very next day to Halong.
So, finding the cheapest price I could (possible Mistake No. 1), I booked and was away the next morning> Well it didnt begin well and it went on a continuous slippery slide to the nether regions of the darkest pit of the universe. Only kidding. There were moments of sheer disbelief @ the whole inadequacy of the organisationby the tour operators> These moments had us all in fits of hysterics when time and time again we had to wait and wait and wait while Tour Guide No 1/2 or 3 kept trying to count how many people he was supposed to be looking after - counting out loud and using fingers bilaterally! This sort of thing happened over and over again over the course of 3 days.
But as I said, things didnt begin well when - after waiting for approx 45 mins from our supposed commencement time - a mini bus pulled up to my hotel, packed to the rafters with travellers and their bulky packs. Somehow I squeezed in. Put my knees up around my ears and away we went. But of course not before we collected more people and not before the bus Nazi cracked a hissy fit when - under the instruction of one of his stormtroopers - I attempted to climb into the front seat. Hell no way was that happening as he of the cap which was emblazoned with "My Thinking Cap" (methinks a little more thinking might have led to a little less shouting and carry on) began a billion decibel rant against the world and all its populace - well, probably just me and the guy who had told me to sit there, eh?
Anyway, on we went, making the obligatory stop at the usual places where all sorts of handicrafts are made. This time it was simply stunning statues - babies peeing, women taking off their tops, giant lions - you get the picture, or should I say puke-ture? We finally arrived at Halong Harbor at some indecently late time (as we were supposed to be on the boat for lunch - this did happen, eventually...) and waited while tour guide/s (and I use the term loosely as there was no guidance whatsoever!) dithered about in their own dumbness trying to work out who was going on which tour and which boat and, after 2 hours of finger counting, we were finally boarding.
And needless to say, getting a boat out into Halong Bay may be one of the most beautiful things u can ever do and cant be diminished by absolute incompetence. When I am able to upload my own photos (which surely is not going to happen here in Sapa) u will see what I mean, although the photo above is an example on a lesser scale, courtesy of STA. We had ome lunch, cruised for awhile, saw some incredible caves (many of which were only discovered relatively recently) and then after cruising some more headed to Cat Ba Island> This was despite being under the impression that we would have the first night on the boat. But no, they changed everything around on us and did it all a over t, if u know what I mean.
However that wasnt all bad, as I managed to connect with two lovely couples (one from Germany and one from England) who - after the debacle of the day which preceeded our internment on Cat Ba - and there was much more, suffice to say, these people couldnt organise a piss up in a brewery - were all quite gagging for a beer or two. The one fortunate thing about where our hotel was positioned was - in fact - its position, in reference to the local bia hoi. Which of course stands for draught beer. And now I know why I never feel THAT BAD after drinking copious amounts of the stuff. It is brewed on the day and "shipped out", so to speak, to all the local places and because it is used on the day it is brewed, it does not have any preservatives. Now having claimed the aforementioned, I must admit that after numerous bias and going to bed after midnight and then having to get up at 6am, I was feeling a little bit shabby the next day. But I had an awesome night drinking with Norman and Martina and John and Kay!
Shabby as I may have been (indeed, we all were a little under the weather) we managed to pick up the pace and go on our little trek through Cat Ba National Park. OK, never mind that it wasnt actually the national park - the views were still stupendous and it still had us feeling loads better. Never mind that some of us who shall remain unnamed didnt actually make it to the top (when offered the option of continuing up sheer cliff faces for at least another 15 mins or sitting down and admiring the view, some of us were quite content to do the latter), it was still somewhat of an achievement for all concerned. You know when u go on treks and there is always some absolute "winner" (invert this and u will know what I mean) who races ahead, declaiming to all and sundry how great this trek is while everyone else is suffering not so silently. Well this time that didnt happen. Nice to see a world full of unfit backpackers exist who no doubt also drink too many drinks the night before!
After the trek and lunch we headed to the boat ramp to wait another interminable amount of time and then eventually separated our group as people were shuffled onto one boat and then another. Crapola. The rest of the day though was pleasant enough cruising, though we didnt do most of the sightseeing that our intinerary had said we would. Dinner was passable. And everyone went to bed a bit pissed off and sick of being treated like a third class citizen that noone would listen to.
The next morning we cruised through the mist and made our way to a nice little spot where we able to do some kayaking. I joined teams with Benjamin, the amazing French dude who has been travelling for a year with 6 more months to go. What a sensitive and lovely soul he was, talking about his soul searching in India almost bought a tear to my eye> And so he was a lovely chap to do a bit of kayaking with. And it was nice way to start off the day. Later we found another spot where a few people did a bit of swimming in some seriously littered and oily looking water with a plethora of jellyfish surrounding them. Great!
The serious s*** only really took off when we got back to land again. First we waited and waited for a bus, and then waited and waited some more. And as I am always the last person to get on a bus (because who wants to be crammed up for any longer than needs be, lets face it), by the time myself and John and Kay were trying to board, it appeared apparent that there was no room for us. After much bleating from he of the thinking cap and many confused and desperate looks from the tour guides, room was made and we headed off to a restaurant for lunch before making our way back to Hanoi.
At the restauarant were two US guys who had paid for the tour, but had decided from the outset to do their own thing and stay on the island for a further night instead of joining us on the boat. This was the problem with the bus seating. Our friendly tour guides had not counted on these guys as I guess noone had told them and when they put their little heads together at the restaurant I figure they were able to work out who they didnt know, and henceforth who clearly wasnt on the tour, and therefore a damned intruder!
Which lead to a little pocket tyrant of a man to come bursting into the restaurant yelling and screaming at them. "You not on tour, you pay your own dinner" and subsequently "You not come on bus to Hanoi". This was when it really kicked off in the great rematch between Nam and the West. This guy was a clear candidate for an AMI and an early grave as he accused our friends and those of us who stuck up for them as "liars". The whole showdown went on for about an hour with this guy clearly refusing to listen, until he finally calmed down enough to listen to our pleas to call our tour guide of the first day. Once he was able to contact him, it was obvious that he was shamed, as he told us all to get on the bus with nary an apology. Something which Sam the Aussie Fireman told him in no uncertain terms - that "You should apologise". But of course....
When finally back in Hanoi we all decided to debrief at the bia hoi but only Norman and Martina joined me. I can see what happened though - everyone got back to their hotel room after having a bite to eat and absolutely crashed. Who can blame them?
Although I was going to continue on with the second part of my blog, it is getting dark and cold in Sapa, so the night when I caught up with Taelor beginning @ Mao's Red Bar and ending up (via another 2 bars and an outdoor party and a motorbike ride through a thundering storm) in the construction site at the front of Taelors apartment will have to wait.
Stay tuned....(Only 1 week to go)