Saturday, January 01, 2011

Hanoi & Ha Long Bay (photos are of Ha Long Bay)

We arrived in Hanoi at 6am after the dreaded 24 hour train journey.....

We had booked ourselves into a 4 person 'soft sleeper' cabin which we thought would be great, but as we got the top bunks, we were not afforded a view of the passing scenery, or much room to move around. Thankfully there was a 'restaurant' car which we ended up spending about half our time in. We brought our books, a deck of cards and our money and settled in to have a few beers after we attempted to sleep for the first few hours. Unfortunately one of the women working in the car was not a pleasant or happy woman, and she told us, in Vietnamese, that we were banned from playing cards in the 'restaurant' car. At first we thought "no way, that can't possibly be what she's saying", but our suspicions were confirmed when a young Vietnamese man advised that, in fact, this was exactly what she was saying. We queried this, but he was unable to tell us why. Just nodded and shrugged. And what made things even worse was the fact that we were never given the correct change for anything we purchased. Each time we handed over our hard earned Dong, we were told that they did not have the right bills to give our change to us, and there was no arguing with them. Believe me, we tried, and lost.

I can't tell you how being caged on a train for 25 hours made us feel - it was almost unbearable. No fresh food, bar the fruit we had brought with us, and the only other food option was a huge plate of rice with barely identifiable meat and hugely over-cooked vegetables.

Fortunately we did meet and talk to a lovely American guy (from New Mexico) which helped to pass a short period of time, but not time enough.

There were NO SMOKING signs all over the train, but, of course, everyone was smoking between cars, on the restaurant cars, in the bathroom, the hallways, etc, etc - you get the picture. For me, it was handy, but with my fear of getting into trouble, it took a while before I had the courage to f the man and light up. Once I did though, it was the only thing that kept me sane.

What also made the journey difficult was the fact that I was just starting to get a cold. It was the beginning of the horrible coughs that I tend to get at least once a year. Because we were sharing a room with other people, I tried my best to stifle the coughs, but it was impossible so I had to just stop feeling badly for the others and give in to my run-down body. Fortunately, many people here have coughs due to the traffic in the big cities so I certainly wasn't the only one.

We arrived in Hanoi at 6am tired, stinky and on the brink of depression. Getting off the train, we were bombarded by Vietnamese men shoving fliers and business cards in our faces, with the names of the hotels they want to bring us to (they get commission for this) and with promises of air conditioning and clean rooms. We accepted one gentleman's offer, however after a few minutes we regretted it as we needed a moment to think and decided we were going to attempt to get into the hostel we had booked for a few days later, hoping that they would have room for us. We eventually convinced the gentleman to walk away and leave us alone and we sat down for a cup of piping hot, thick, delicious Vietnamese coffee.

Once we had our heads around things we picked up a taxi (after much bartering with numerous other taxi-men) and headed to the hostel. Upon arrival we were told that our room was not ready until the next night, and were advised of a different hostel located just around the corner, so we opted to head there and book in for the night. Unfortunately the room would not be ready until noon, so we went back to the first hostel and booked a 1 night/2 day trip to Ha Long Bay. This hostel told us that we could be picked up there at 8am and that we could leave our large backpacks with them, as well as a bag of laundry, all of which would be safe, and clean, when we returned from the trip. We were also told that, although we weren't staying there, we could come back from 6-7pm for free beer hour. "What a place!" we thought.

As it was so early in the morning and we had no where to lay our heads, we had to force ourselves to stay awake for at least four hours. We walked around until we came to a place selling pho (we chose a restaurant as we knew that we would be guaranteed to have access to a bathroom) where we ate and hung out for a bit, watching the goings-on around us. After about an hour and a half we decided to walk around the neighborhood and get our bearings as, after the trip to Ha Long Bay we would have 5 more days in the city and at least this way we would have some idea of what was around.

The area we were in was the Old Quarter, and in this area there are numerous streets, each of which is named after the particular wares being sold. These street names date back 5 centuries to when the area was divided into 36 artisans' guilds, each gathered around a temple or communal house dedicated to the specific guild's patron spirit. 'Hang' means merchandise, and the streets in our area are all called Hang - something. For example, our hostel is on Hang Ma, which means it sells paper goods. Very interesting, though the competition must be intense between the shopkeepers.

Once noon rolled around we headed back to the hostel we had agreed to stay at and officially checked in and moved our bags up. The room itself, as in the walls, etc, were, shall I say, filthy, but the bed was comfy and the bedding looked spotless. Also, the bathroom had a tub so when we took a shower the entire floor didn't get wet. Every other place we stayed had a shower head in the middle of the bathroom and a drain in the floor, like many European apartments have, which is fine, but then you're walking around with wet feet until the floor finally dries.

At first we were going to have a lie down but then decided that staying up was the best idea as we would have to get up at 6am to make the bus in the morning, and that could end up being difficult if we slept the afternoon away. Instead we did some more investigation of the neighborhood and found ourselves munching on delicious food, and when evening came, drinking 25c beers until about 9pm when we headed back to the hostel for a good night sleep. The bed was incredibly comfortable, especially after the beds on the train, so we fell asleep shortly after putting our exhausted heads down on the pillows.

Next morning we were up (me, bright eyed and bushy tailed, Luke slightly groggy) and I went to search out some baguettes and cheese for the bus ride to Ha Long Bay which we were told was about 3.5 hours. I walked around the block, found what I was looking for, as well as some water, came back to the hostel, ordered 2 cups of black coffee and brought them upstairs. We drank them, packed up and headed to the other hostel, Hanoi Hostel, where we were being picked up.

At about 8:15am the bus arrived, and we were off.

On the bus journey, we met an American guy called Mike who we chatted with for a bit, and we napped and enjoyed the views the rest of the time. A ton of people were loaded on at different hostels, so there were a lot of us, some of which I assumed would be on our boat.

Upon arrival in Ha Long City, we were shocked by the amount of tourists. We were everywhere. There was barely a Vietnamese person to be seen. A smattering of them in stalls, or selling wares from baskets, or guiding us to the boat.

We were broken up into groups - some people doing the 1 night/2 day tour, others doing the 2 night/3 day tour, and once our group was formed, we were pleasantly surprised to see that everyone was within the same age group (19-35ish) and that they all seemed nice. We were also happy to find out that Mike would be on the same boat as us, so we had a comrade.

We were shuffled to the docking area where we boarded a small boat that would take us to the Asia Cruise boat we were all excited to see. Five minutes and we were on. We were told to dump our stuff in our cabins and meet in the dining area for lunch in 15 minutes. We did what we were told and then sat down for what turned out to be a fantastic lunch. Luke and I chose a table of 3 girls, one from France, another from the US, and the third from Germany. We all chatted, got to know each other and enjoyed our stir fried squid & vegetables, cooked shrimp, fresh fruit, sticky white rice and numerous other dishes. We couldn't believe all the food they were presenting us with, and were mighty impressed. None of us were sure how good the food would be since this trip is entirely for tourists.

After lunch we had a bit of free time so we all headed to the top deck to enjoy the views of the bay as the boat made it's way from shore. Some of us also opted to buy cases of beer from women paddling around the bay in small boats loaded up with wares - cigarettes, beer, soda, candy, etc. They do this because once you are out on the boat there are no accessible shops at which to make any purchases. And after finding out the price of beer on the boat Luke and I bought a 24 case of Hanoi beer which we shared with 2 English boys we had met on the boat.

As for the area itself, Ha Long Bay is, as you can guess, a bay, in which there are an estimated 1969 limestone 'islands' sprinkled throughout the 1553 sq km's. There are a further 2000 'islands' along the coast toward China. The legend behind Ha Long Bay is that a celestial dragon and her children, sent by the Jade Emperor to stop an invasion, spat out great amounts of pearls to form islands and razor sharp mountain chains in the path of the enemy fleet. The dragons, enchanted by their creation, decided to stay on, giving rise to the name Ha Long (dragon descending), and to the claimed sightings of sea monsters.

After a break atop the boat, we were instructed to change our clothes as we were off to paddle around in kayaks in a bay dotted with fishing 'houses' which float and house the fishermen. We were transferred from our main boat to a smaller boat and were taken to this quiet bay where we boarded our kayaks and spent 40 minutes paddling around the islands, looking into caves, watching the local fisherman, etc. After that we were taken to an extremely large cave called 'Surprise Cave' or Hang Sung Sot. There are three large chambers in this cave, inside which are a few interesting rock formations -2 of which were a large sea turtle who's head is rubbed for longevity, and a 'surprising' pink phallus. At the top of the cave, when you come out, there are amazing views of the junk boats in the bay below.

From the cave we boarded the small boat and were transferred back to the Asia Cruise where we were given the opportunity to swim. Not surprisingly no one took them up on the offer as the weather was not exactly warm. We were then given free time to socialize with the others on the tour, and were told that dinner would be served at about 7pm. Dinner was great, just as lunch was, but we were served slightly different dishes. Almost everyone ordered a beer with dinner, which put everyone in the mood to head up deck for more (cheap) beers and some laughs.

Most of us went up and we stayed up there in the fresh air telling jokes, singing songs, playing guitar and generally just having the craic. Luke and 2 of the boys we met (Mike, the American and George, one of the English lads) decided to do a night swim at about 11pm once most people slowly started heading to bed. The few of us that were still up (2 German guys, a German girl, the other English lad Adam) had a whale of a time heckling them and scaring them with shouts of 'sea snake' or 'shark'. After the swim we stayed up for a while and then decided that hitting the sack would be the smart thing to do as we were being served breakfast at 8am. When Luke and I headed down, he popped in the shower and we were horrified to find that our bedding and towels were soiled. They looked like they had been thrown on the floor and stomped around on. Unfortunately as it was about midnight, we couldn't tell anyone and have them changed so we threw the comforter over the bed and slept on that. We regretted not taking a closer look during the day when we would have been able to rectify the situation, but we sucked it up, as you do, and attempted sleep. This, my friends, was not an easy feat as our room was located at the back of the boat, just by the engine which was pumping out horrible fumes and was making a racket. I think we managed a few hours of sleep, but that was it.

Morning came quickly and we all met in the dining room for breakfast, which was a buffet of toast, noodles, jam, butter, rice, eggs, fresh vegetables and tea/coffee. After breakfast we all went upstairs to take more photos of the bay and enjoy the fresh air. Unfortunately the weather was worse than the day before so we had to bundle up as best we could against the high breeze and the cloudy sky. We cruised toward shore for a few hours and were then instructed to disembark the boat if we were on the 1 night/2 day tour, which we, Mike, George and Adam were. As we were all getting off the boat Adam was stopped and told that there was not enough room so he would have to wait for a second boat. George, his travel companion decided to wait with him, smartly, so Luke, Mike, Miriam and I were taken to shore without them. At this time we all agreed that if we did not go back to Hanoi together, we would meet at the Hanoi Hostel and attempt to get everyone rooms. As Luke and I booked the family room, which holds 4 people, we told them that if there was no room in the dorms we would share our room (for a fee!) with at least 2 of them. That agreed, Mike, Luke, Miriam and I arrived ashore and were put into a taxi to go to a restaurant for lunch. We thought that this was strange as we were taken to Ha Long in a large bus with a large group of people..... When the 4 of us finished our meal, the bus pulled up and off jumped George and Adam! Relieved to see them, we assumed that we would all be getting onto the bus together and heading back to Hanoi. To our surprise, Luke, Mike, Miriam and I were instead told to board a small, dodgy looking van with our tour guide. When we got in, there were numerous empty seats so we had ample room. That, however, did not last long as we stopped at another hotel where they crammed more people in. Once the van was full to the brim, we were off back to Hanoi.

Upon arrival at the Hanoi Hostel, we were given our room, which was amazing. Flat screen TV with movie channels, 2 queen sized beds and our own bathroom. And our laundry was clean and folded, just like they'd promised.

Mike checked with the front desk to see if there was room for the 2 English lads and discovered there was not, so, as agreed, Luke and I offered the second bed to the lads and they accepted. As it was just before beer time we let the boys take a shower and get ready in the room and then we all headed up to the rooftop bar for our free Bia Hoi. A fair amount of backpackers showed up so the beer and laughs were flowing.

Once the beer ran dry a group of us went out for dinner and, of course, Bia Hoi. At 18c/glass it was really all any of us could afford......

The days that followed were filled with sight-seeing, kilometers and kilometers of walking, numerous stops at Bia Hoi places and amazing, cheap meals. The nights were filled with more Bia Hoi, more cheap meals, a jazz club, and huge laughs with new friends. By the time we were to head to Thailand, we were sad to be leaving the friends we made but excited by the knowledge that we were meeting family there!


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