Yes, I didn’t quite finish rambling on about weekend adventures in the last post. So here’s Part II.
Halong Bay is pretty much synonymous with Northern Vietnam, and for good reason, I think. After our first month of teaching we were pretty settled in Hanoi and there were a few people who had October birthdays, which gave us an excuse to go (not that we needed any justification, mind). It was a great trip, but as with anything I’ve experienced in Vietnam, it didn’t go entirely smoothly.
We were collected from our house early on a Saturday morning by a tour guide named ‘Lily’, after Lily Potter. The poor girl was clearly trying her best to be a good guide but she was grating on everyone before long. As it was early in the morning most of us were nodding off on the bus, but rather than waking us up gently when she had important things to say she would just shout ‘wake up please!’ to tell us something that was hardly necessary. Anyway, we were also told that we had to pay an extra 1.2 million because the tour was originally booked for 24 people but only 23 had turned up. Every time she brought this up over the trip we would tell her that we were not paying because the company had been informed but we were somehow still debating this right up until we were dropped off back home again.
The first part of the tour involved going in Ding Thien Cung, a large cave with rock formations and crazy artificial lighting. ‘Open your minds’, Lily told us, ‘you will see animals in the rock.’ It was pretty busy inside and after being suddenly awoken several times throughout the morning, I can’t say I was in the best mood to be looking at formations that supposedly resembled whales, chickens or John Prescott. There was also a rock that Lily told us to touch as it would make our boobs bigger. Don’t think anyone’s had successful results from that. At least we got a decent view of the bay and a nice wander by the cliffs.
Looking thrilled to be there
Never mind. We were soon sailed over to our junk to have lunch and begin exploring the bay. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the harbour as it was ram-packed with other boats and the shore was blighted with pop-up shops and concrete buildings (always the downside of tourism). However, once the boat had sailed a few kilometres into the sea the beauty and hype surrounding Halong became evident. It was a warm afternoon with a lovely balmy breeze, and the sea was flat. Happy Hour was a-go and we soaked up the view on the top deck of the boat until sunset. After a few hours of cruising through the bay the ship dropped its anchor and we were able to take a dip in the water. One member of the group was eager to know ‘who’s up for skinny dipping?!’ which was met with silence. (British prudes.) However, it was getting darker, so some items may have come off once people were in the water… I suppose you could call it ‘skinny floating’. I think jumping off the bow of the boat and then hauling yourself back up the rickety ladder to get back on the deck was the best part. We then dried off whilst enjoying a pretty tasty dinner, despite being shouted at by Lily, because (goodness gracious) those who had sat on the veggie-table at lunch had split up to mingle with their carnivorous friends. Apparently the difference of one measly meat dish was a big deal.
The rest of the evening was great fun. We enjoyed the rest of a gorgeous evening chilling on deck. Again, there was a slight drawback as it turned out that we were not allowed to bring our own alcohol on the boat, even though the tour company had told us to bring our own drinks. The boat provided a free keg of beer, but it was pretty nasty stuff. I sneaked into my room for a slightly better quality can of Bia Hanoi, but the crew weren’t fooled and proceeded to snatch the cup out of my hand to dispose of it and replace it with their piss water. Rude.
Lily insisted on staying up with us until late as she seemed convinced that we were all going to take a late night dip and drown. However, by midnight she was falling asleep and retired once we assured her that we weren’t going to do anything stupid. We were true to our word and entertained ourselves with a guitar. When we crept to bed later we found her and the boat crew sleeping on along the seating in the restaurant/bar room.
Our rooms were quite basic but, as assured by the tour company, there were no bed bugs (other friends of ours had had this problem so we paid a little extra for this luxury). Mine and Nat’s had a bathroom door with an enormous window in it meaning we had to take turns leaving the cabin when one of us needed the loo. I cannot understand why a one thought it a good design. I suppose it was a couples’ room, although I’m still not sure that I’d relish watching my partner of even 20 years on the loo. Nevertheless, it did the job and we got a decent sleep until the ‘wake up please!’ and door-banging began at 7:00am by Lily. Apparently there was a rush for us to have breakfast, do our kayak trip and get back on the boat, and ‘check out’ of our room (???)
Still, Halong, you didn’t disappoint.
As you may have gathered, things have been rather chaotic at work, particularly during September. In hindsight, I think a lot of this was us adjusting to another working culture (as well as the fact that our company trebled their intake of English teachers without employing more staff). Our employees knew that they needed to give us some TLC to keep our spirits up and so during one of our weekly meetings they announced that we’d receive 100 000 VND for our birthday and that they were arranging a trip away to the northern town of SaPa. You could argue that two days isn’t at all long enough for somewhere like SaPa, but hey, it’s a free trip.
So off we went at some ungodly hour on a Saturday morning. It took six hours on a bus, but after checking into a rather nice hotel we set off an a walk through Cat Cat village. We just missed the harvest season, and so the rice terraces fields weren’t as green and sparkling as they might have been a few weeks before, but nevertheless, the views were stunning. As SaPa is home to ethnic minorities, once you get out of the main town there’s little to blight the view; the few traditional houses are a part of the landscape. The walk was lovely although there was one slightly tense moment when we required to cross a bridge that was under repair. As always, health and safety considerations were limited, but then we made it over without a scratch so who cares. The walk around Cat Cat followed by a stroll around the town market proved to be quite a relaxing afternoon.
However, things didn’t remain so smooth. During dinner, the CEO of our company decided to grace each table with two bottles of vodka and a glass of rice wine (I’m now aware that this is potent stuff, around 50%). Of course, as any good host would do, he insisted on each table doing shots together. At first it was good laugh, toasting ‘mot, hai, ba, yo!‘ and I think the waitresses enjoyed our silly dancing. However, it later proved to be disastrous once we’d gotten past the tenth shot (although your man seemed to be holding his drink pretty well). We still managed to have fun staggering around the pretty town, admiring the craft work and old houses and doing some bargaining – Louise even got me a traditional scarf for 45 000 VND – but after more bia hoi and a trip to the pub, I just couldn’t keep up and had no choice but to stagger back to the hotel and collapse into bed.
I shared a room with Nat that night, poor woman. I’m told that after I answered the door, after she almost banged it down, I got into her bed by mistake. After that I was violently ill more times than I’d care to remember. I don’t think the details are necessary, but I needed three hair washes, a serious bathroom clean up, and had to make my bed sheets very carefully to try to conceal any evidence that I’d been ill. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to limit the cleaners’ sense of smell. I spent the whole morning in bed and missed the morning walk, and in the afternoon had to endure the awful bus back home. I spent most of it waiting for a phone call from the hotel to say that I needed to reimburse them for the ruined bedding. It didn’t happen. Phew.
Slight waste of my weekend. I don’t think I’d ever been happier to be back on my rock hard bed.
You’d think 5 months in Hanoi would be ample time to visit all the highlights of North Vietnam, but the weekends soon come and go. In fact, I would say that I’ve only really had two relaxing weekends in Vietnam so far as we’ve been everywhere. To be honest, we’ve probably checked off all the spots that we were most keen to do, but there’s still plenty of places I would happily visit. Just south of Hanoi is Ba Vi National Park which looks beautiful in the pictures that I’ve seen. Unfortunately, I won’t have time to visit properly, as the rest of my weekends are booked up, but the annual Quest Festival did take place there, so I’ve had a glimpse at the terrain.
Quest is supposed to be the biggest music festival in Vietnam, so naively, I expected something akin to Glastonbury. It actually reminded me of Guide camp (although replace the marshmallows and hot chocolate with pills and alcohol). I doubt it covered more than a square kilometre.
I’m glad I went, but I wasn’t really overwhelmed by it. Sure there were some things going for it; They had some pretty good curry stand which I had for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as it made a change from noodles; I enjoyed moshing to some crappy Slipknot-rip off metal band; We attempted some belly dancing, although doing it bare foot in a forest proved to be pretty uncomfortable; We watched a magician/hypnotist show, although he wasn’t entirely convincing so we gave up on that; We dressed up up with glitter; We swam in the muddy lake with the help of some rubber dinghies; We partied in the dome that did not stop playing trance music for the entire 48 hours that we were there. (It was fun in the evening, but when it was blaring at 5 am it I got a little tedious.)
So, not a complete waste, but probably not the highlight of my trip. To be honest, the majority of people there were Western travellers, most of which you’d stereotype as the ‘I’m here to “find myself” by dressing up as a fairy and getting high on whatever I can find’. Perhaps I’m being harsh. Either way, the people in nearby tents seemed to think it was fine to keep walking in the non-existent space between our tents and trampling on Tiffany. I was woken a couple of times to hear her shouting ‘mate, f***off! Walk around!’ The three of us also had the joy of squeezing in a ‘four-man tent’ which was like an oven. By Sunday, I had about 5 layers of sweat on me and I’d forgotten my hairbrush. The showers were constantly full so I felt like filth.
Never mind, we got a chance to chat with some friends from Haiphong before getting an unmarked taxi back to Hanoi.
Till next time 😉