Tuesday, January 17, 2006

HALONG BAY: When it comes to boats, more is more.

A full 48 hours after my last Nha Trang jam jar I was finally able to function normally again (ie: breathe, walk and sleep without wanting to vomit) and so felt prepared to hop on a boat and cruise around Halong Bay for an extended recuperation.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now present to you the golden rule of selecting a Halong Bay tour: don't cheap out. Don't even try to get a deal. Prices for these tours start at US$20 and go up to US$300 FOR A REASON. I discovered what the reason was when we got to the dock at Halong City.

Parading us past dozens of glorious looking junks with carved lions on the bow, sundecks and fairy lights, our tour guide led us along the pier.

"I hope we're on that one," said a guy next to me, eyeing off a luxurious looking barge with potted plams and sun lounges on it.

Lo and behold, a gangplank was thrown down and onto the great vessel we walked, following our guide, Hoang, which means 'king' in Vietnamese.

King of Disappointment, apparently, as he promptly threw another plank across to another boat next door that looked like it was made of toothpicks, and motioned for us to get on it. Grudgingly we all followed. And so it was that 16 tourists on a leaky boat set off for the misty waters of Halong Bay.

I get misty, just floating around...

Even in the wintry cold (and hampered by the fact that I had brought entirely the wrong type of pants for the journey) I did like Halong Bay. The Vietnamese believe its 2000 or so islands were created by a dragon descending into the waters (Ha Long means 'descending dragon') and I can only imagine what it must be like at its best - crystal clear waters, craggy rocky casts everywhere, and the sun for bathing in. Except on our boat, where most of the sun lounges were broken and others just damp from the cold.

At lunchtime they put us at tables of five and served up a plate of cucumber slices.

"Is this it?" we asked, wondering if we hadn't accidentally signed up for the Vietnamese army by mistake. We weren't far wrong.

A tiny grilled fish was produced, a small plate of chips and spring rolls and some stir fried tofu which everyone ignored. For dessert we each had a week old orange that tasted like a blackboard duster. Well, all of us that is except for the four year old French boy who I had been impressing on the bus ride earlier by attempting to translate the Spiderman theme song into French.

"Where is his orange?" his mother demanded.
"You no pay him ticket, he no get orange," the guide helpfully explained.

Because he was only four his mother had paid a half price ticket for him, but apparently this didn't cover him for food, and especially not for this orange. I don't know what they expected him to eat for two days.

"But he wants an orange! Why you cannot give a child an orange?"
"You no pay ticket, he no get orange."

This went on for some time until I began to realise that this wasn't like being in the army, it was more like being in a prison camp. Arguing over an orange? But of course everyone else was so hungry no one wanted to give up their own rations.

We arrived at an island and were shown around a cave by Hoang, who was desperately trying to rekindle everyone's spirits after the crappy lunch by pointing out various invisible rock formations ("Look! A mermaid!... See the dragon head?" "No.")

Seen one cave, seen 'em all...

Leaving that excitement behind we were directed to a path carved out of the mountainside that led to another thrilling cave. As it looked like you needed a degree in P.E to climb it, I told Hoang I'd rather sit and wait, to which he gave me a wounded look as if I had just spat in his Pho.

"Fine," he said, and trudged back to the boat.

Back on the boat I kept myself amused talking to a young English couple travelling in their 'gap year' as I had finished my book and was running out of interesting things to read in my Rough Guide ("So THAT'S where the post office is in Da Lat...").

Jenny and Ryan were both 18 and very sweet, if not a little dim. Ryan presented me with a battered quarter-read copy of a book about the Cu Chi tunnels and proudly stated it was the second book he'd ever read. Although he hadn't read it yet.

"I did write my English thesis on To Kill A Mockingbird but I didn't really read that either," he said.
"Did you just watch the movie?" I asked.
"No, my mum read it to me."

I shit you not, gentle reader. (Note: I was going to give Ryan a pseudonym to protect his dim wittedness, but given his track record I doubt he'll ever read this anyway.)

Messing about in boats

We played a short lived game of 20 questions, where it took them about 102 to work out "phone book" ("It's a book, and everyone has one, and you use it to do things, and they distribute them to you?" - Jenny, "A photo album!" - Ryan) which we abandoned because Ryan couldn't seem to get the hang of the rules ("Does it come in many colours?" we asked. "Hmm. It does but it doesn't." It was a dolphin.)

Dinner came and was much the same as lunch but with more tofu, which we all ignored again, and a quarter of an apple each. Not a whole apple, ONE QUARTER EACH. None of us could fail to notice the boat's crew seemed to be enjoying a VERY HEARTY MEEL INDEED at the table across from us - a massive steamed fish with chilli and garlic, beef stirfry, mountains of rice. I bet they enjoyed it.

We had been joined by a young Israeli couple, Emil and Sylva, who weren't keen on the boat food. In fact, Emil didn't really care for any Asian food, proclaiming it "uncivilised". And he'd spent three years in the Israeli army.

He was probably better prepared than the rest of us for the trip, given that all the electricity went off at 9pm and we had to stumble to bed in pitch blackness, tripping over the heads of the sleeping crew in the dining room, but not before enjoying magical and highly romantic views of the bay lit up by a full moon.

By the light of the silvery moon

After a semi-comfortable sleep in a bed that could have passed for an ironing board in a room whose walls were so thin I could hear Emil and Sylva breathing next door, I awoke at 6.45am to the sound of the boat's generator, which was conveniently placed right next to my head.

"At least I can have a hot shower," I thought, before remembering that I had only paid $33 and thus the hot shower would probably not work. It didn't, but it did fill the room with a lovely smell of gas instead. In an effort to not blow up the boat (although I possibly would have been doing everyone on board a favour) I suffered a cold shower, ever reminded of the Israeli army as I did so.

"Hurry! You come eat bekfash NOW!" barked the captain as he banged on my door.

Suffering a momentary lapse of reality and thinking I must be missing an extravangza of bacon and eggs or noodle soup, I rushed to the table to discover three slices of plain white bread, a tablespoon of jam and a small cube of watermelon. A CUBE. I nearly cried.

Brow beaten, I ordered a coffee and was presented with a cup of instant, with powdered milk.

It was then that I realised I was on the Viet Cong "Punish All Westerners" tour (it was probably mentioned in the small print of my ticket) and that it wouldn't stop until we were all communists. Or too tired to complain anymore, whatever came first.

Looking around the empty dining room I began to hope that some of the other passengers hadn't made it through the night, so I could eat their breakfasts. It was not to be.

Desperate for something more, Sylva asked for some cookies ("Biscuits, food, anything?") and a 3 year old packet of Oreos was produces, the only other foodstuff on board. Clearly the crew had brought five apples, one watermelon and a fuckload of tofu for the whole two day journey.

So we began the trip back to Halong City, this time with no lunch (obviously the ONE esky they had brought all our supplies in was empty), although we did pick up some more passengers at Cat Ba island (many of whom enjoyed telling us how nice their hotel and dinner had been) including the chipper American couple from my minibus-of-death. They actually turned out to be Canadian, which made me warm to them a bit more until they began a discussion of the Canadian tax system that lasted the rest of the journey.

It's nice to be back in Hanoi.

CHOOK MERNG NUM MOY - Happy New Year, and see you on the weekend. :)


1 comment :

  1. Yay Petty. Thought you wouldn't make it back alive!!

    Look forward to catching up over the weekend. Tried to send you an email but it bounced back (??). Anyway talk soon.

    Have half a day off on Friday - love to catch up in the arvo.