Andrea: Ronan, eager for travel ideas, saw a picture of Mark Zuckerburg (the founder of Facebook) at Halong Bay over Christmas. Zuckerburg was riding a buffalo into the bay, and this motivated Ronan to make it his next holiday spot.
We were all in for the trip. He didn't have an alarm so we promised to wake him up so we could have breakfast and get on the bus. Vern went down first while I showered and banged on the door but to no avail. He had reception call his room, but no answer. Vern was concerned that Ro was still sleeping so when finished showering I ran downstairs to Ronan's room and banged on the window. He answered straightaway, fully showered and dressed while brushing his teeth. As he was telling me he was in the shower a French man from across the hall opened his door completely naked and yelled at us for waking him up. We apologized and gave him the look for 'you should probably put some clothes on before you go yelling at people' and he slammed the door. Great way to start the day. After breakfast the bus came and we started our three hour ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay. We had profusely complained to Ro about value adds on package tours so he was expecting the worst. We only had one stop at a food court/shopping center so it wasn't too bad. We were actually surprised at how efficient the ride was in bringing us from point A to point B! Our excitement was stunted, however, when we arrived at the bay and waited an hour and a half in the parking lot for two more people for the boat. From what we could see from the parking lot, the bay was fogged over with low-lying clouds and was very ominous looking. We could see a few of the 3,000+ land masses jutting up from the water, but were anxious to see more from the boat. We finally boarded and ate a very average lunch made up of foods that Ronan hated.
After lunch our first stop in the bay was the Amazing cave. The cave was lit very professionally in a range of colors lighting up the colossal cavern as we walked through. The stalagtites dripped down like maple syrup stopped in mid air, inches above your pancake stack. Each stalagmite came up high, anticipating a kiss from its rooftop counterpoint that will take millions of years to be granted. I was afraid that the name might be overselling it, but the cave was truly magnificent, amazing, unbelievable and all similar adjectives that can be found on your thesaurus app. The staff seemed less than impressed with their amazing office because we spied a man playing solitaire on the laptop in the cave. The cave is nothing compared to getting all four aces in their slots within the first few moves! Next to him was a Suggestion Box where we mentioned that it could use more water features, a snack bar and maybe a fresh lick of paint. We wondered how many suggestions they are implementing to this natural wonder! Outside did feature a gift shop selling little gondola dolls that had 'Venezia' painted on them so clearly someone's suggestion got through.
Back on the boat we cruised around the bay and spent time on the very chilly upper deck. We looked enviously at everyone in their North Face jackets, thought of ours in our bags in Bangkok and huddled together for warmth in our long sleeve shirts. The bay was still foggy, but the view was much better from the sea and it added a mysterious feeling to the bay. The boat cut between the enormous, tree covered islands that reached up several hundred feet from the emerald water. To get a closer look at the grottos under the islands, we took out a kayak and went through openings and under the massive rock formations. The sheer height of the islands dwarfed us and our little kayak as we navigated through the rocky caves. It felt like we were discovering a new world that had been flooded millions of years ago and has yet to repopulate. We weren't up for the challenge so we kept going.
It was time to party back on the boat as our crew pumped the hits so loud that it ruined the peaceful feel of the bay. We screamed over it at a ridiculous pitch so they eventually turned it off and we were again left to enjoy the tranquility of the Unesco World Heritage Site. Dinner featured a raw egg soup and other, more forgettable eats that Ronan hated.
We awoke the next morning on the boat to our third meal featuring eggs, this time in hexagonal shapes. (Have I mentioned Ronan hates eggs?) Apart from the food, everything else was perfect. The clouds had cleared, the turquoise water shone and we could clearly see just how many islands surrounded us in the bay. We spent the ride back on the upper deck in the sunny weather enjoying the archipelago and discovering new shapes with each island. We sailed back to the mainland and (after an hour if waiting around) had lunch, which was substantially better than the boat food. There was no table with room for three people so Ronan ate with a nice family from Virginia who had clearly taken some time off from their position in the American Gothic painting. They were nice enough, but Ronan got a bit of a fright when the father held his fork up perpendicular to the table like he was holding a pitchfork.
The ride back featured a 45-minute value add stop at a place that specialized in huge concrete statues, pictures made from string, silk dresses and pyjamas (how many specialities can one place have??) and the rest of the ride was just Ronan and me gossiping while people tried to sleep. Since we were picked up from our hotel we naturally assumed we'd be dropped off there at the end. That's just not Vietnam. As we approached the downtown area, the guide told us there was too much traffic to drop us all off at our hotels (do I need to mention that they do this trip every day and know exactly how much traffic there is?) so instead they'd be dropping us off where we were right then. People could find their own way to their hotels. Then he asked to be tipped. We were the last ones on the bus so we asked if they could drop us of at our hotel on the way back to their office. I guess he was upset about no one tipping him and he said no and kicked Ronan's bag off the bus and drove away.
So, we walked all the way to the hotel that we had booked before we left for Halong Bay only to find that they wouldn't acknowledge our booking. We had asked them if we needed to book online or make a deposit and they had said no. But when we tried to check in we couldn't because they were full and we hadn't paid any money! After a long time of me trying to teach them what a reservation was, we stormed out and wandered around looking for a new place, precisely what we were trying to avoid! Now this was the Vietnam we had heard about! Frustrated, we found a hotel and went out for dinner and drinks as a last hoorah before Ronan left for Bangkok early the next morning. Ronan liked the food.
We had a great time with Ronan and enjoyed watching him experience almost everything we had experienced in Asia but in just three days: dodging scooter traffic, sleeping on hard beds, learning when to barter, turning his nose up at street food, getting charged for wet-wipes and seeing 'unmissable' Lonely Planet highlights while keeping his cool and remembering he is on vacation!
The next day we were on our own again and it was hard to get motivated to leave our warm hotel room and hit the crazy and cold streets of Hanoi. We relaxed during the day and went to a Water Puppetry show at night. This ancient art was invented in the 11th century in the rice paddies of North Vietnam. Or by a kid who played with action figures in the bath tub and would never grow up. The world may never know. The puppets depict everyday life in Vietnam at that time--they smoked, fished (losing a catch to a sea snake), farmed, climbed trees to get coconuts and waged war on horseback. Some scenes even involved jumping through fire rings (did they do this in everyday life?)! And it all took place on a stage on top of water, with the puppetmasters treading waist deep just behind the curtain. The show was backed by traditional Vietnamese music which included a 'dan bow' solo, a single string instrument resembling minature yacht, which traditionally only men were permitted to play and young, unmarried woman were forbidden to listen to for fear that they'd fall in love with the instrumentalist. That's how beautiful the music is. In related news, Vern knows how to play the dan bow.
After the show our love for bubble tea was rekindled as we found our first vendor in months just across from the theatre. We bought two for the road and pledged to come back the next day. On the way home the sidewalks were lined with Hanoians eating on straw mats on the pavement and drinking buckets of beer. This seemed to be the 10:00 street eating activity. At any given time of day Vietnamese people take to the streets to eat and snack. At breakfast time the tiny stools and tables are filled with people eating pho and drinking tiny cups of coffee, at lunch the stalls are packed with people eating noodles, soup and pork patties, after lunch it's time for green tea and sunflower seeds, then dinner is whatever's going and late night they put the stools away and drink beer on mats. Why do these people even pay rent if they're never home?!
Finally the timing worked out for the one thing in Hanoi I really wanted to see-- Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body! It was Uncle Ho's last wish to be cremated, but the government ignored that and, in the tradition of the other great Communist leaders Lenin, Stalin and Mao, decided to build a large mausoleum complex for him and allow locals and tourists to pay their respects to (gawk at) him. We walked the long route around the military area to get to the large mausoleum complex. We were herded in, single file, to get a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh under glass. I'm convinced we accidentally stumbled into Madame Tussaud's because that was not a real body. His skin was white like candle wax, and his beard looked like real hair but the hairline round back looked like a plaster mold. Ken doll hair. Or Ken's grandfaher's hair. Maybe he got his wish after all and was really cremated and now crowds come to pay respects to a wax figure. We walked the rest of the complex which featured some of Uncle Ho's old cars and a few recreations of his living spaces, but was overall not very interesting. On the way back to our side of town we were crossing a four lane highway to get to a coffee shop on the other side. Sometimes we can be quite careless about crossing traffic, because otherwise you won't get a chance to cross. We generally cross slowly so the motorbikes can see us and go around if necessary. This time we were very careful because it was such a big road. We waited ages and the left side was finally clear so I started to cross. Just then a motorbike came from the other direction and clipped my leg! He was driving the wrong way on a four lane highway and hit me! Then, he turned around in the middle of traffic to go the other way anyway! I was furious and my leg burned and I just wanted to sit down. Just then a Vietnamese girl came up to us telling us she was a student (a common scam where they ask you to go to lunch with them to practice their English and then you get stuck with $100 food bill) and I screamed 'No!' at her and told her to go away. Maybe not in those exact words. Bad timing for her. I limped home convinced that the hit had broken the skin, but I just had a giant blue bruise on my inner calf. It could have been much worse, I suppose, but I was starting to see why so many people were fed up with Vietnam!
Our last night was spent relaxing and drinking lots of bubble tea. We flew out the next day to Bangkok but not before having our tastiest street food in Vietnam--bun cha ca, which is what we had seen people eating at lunch time. The dish is noodles with strips of pork, pork patties, lettuce, herbs and sprouts dunked in a tangy broth. Yum! We absolutely loved the dish and were savoring it all the way to the airport, with another bubble tea in hand of course!