Thursday, December 28, 2006

Day 12 - The Dragon's Pearl I

John looking dissaffected?

We hadn't slept badly in our strange room at the Lotus Hotel, but we didn't want to pay for a place that wasn't where we didn't want to stay. First thing, we packed up and crept out. Thankfully, there wasn't anyone at reception so we just left the key with $12 under it.

We lugged our packs the 20 mins north past the lake that sits in the middle of old Hanoi. All along the shore the world and his wife was out getting their morning jerks. In several places, they'd strung badminton nets across virtually the only place you could walk. Rather than playing badminton though, they were playing a game we'd seen all across Vietnam. Using something that resembles a shuttlecock but seems heavier and a bit more flexible, they were kicking this over the net volleyball like in teams of five or six. Oh yes, we did see one game of badminton - six-a-side!

Some old ladies were leading tai-chi sessions. Other, less martially qualified old-ladies were leading aerobics workouts to what sounded very much like communist marching songs. In this, the old North Vietnamese undefeated capital of the communist victors in the American War (aka the Vietnamese War), that would hardly be surprising really.

We made our way sweatily to the offices of Handspan, the tour agency that we'd booked a two day and one night trip with to Ha Long Bay. A bit pricey, we'd decided to book with them on the recommendation of a freind in Korea who'd been on three separate Ha Long Bay tours. Their office was located deep inside a cafe in the heart of the old quarter.

This cafe stood in stark contrast to the rest of Hanoi. Pushing past the glass doors, you left the screaming world of mopeds and hassle behind you and entered a sanctuary of waffles, westerners and wi-fi. It was early but the place was packed, mostly with people, like us, on tours leaving that morning. Entering was also to leave behind one thing which, above all, makes Vietnam worth visiting: dirt-cheapness. Everything was in dollars on the menu which is a bad sign for backpackers in SE Asia usually. We contented ourselves with watching others eating breakfast. We'd already got ourselves something from a nearby bakery.

Soon though, we were bundled into a minibus and were off to fight the rush hour tide as we left Hanoi south east. Our tour guide was cut from the same cloth as all the others we had in Vietnam. As we left the city, she did a spiel about the trip and that was about it. Tour guides are allowed to say whatever they want to each bus-load they accompany as long as it includes the following: ironic comments about how long it's going to take to get there, apologies for the traffic, warnings about how many people die every day on the roads in vietnam, reassurances that the driver is the best in the company, apologies for the traffic, how many mopeds there are in Hanoi/Saigon [delete as necessary], why no one ever wears a helmet, apologies for the traffic, explanations as to how difficult their name is to pronounce and claims that in "your country" the journey that we were now on would only take ten minutes and not over three hours because of the (sorry) traffic. Apart from that, they can say whatever they want.

A long time later we were sitting on the deck of the Dragon's Pearl, a junk with an engine that was state of art and sails that were a right state. Still, they did give us a nice drink on deck and a wet towel to rid us of the dirt of the road. And the sun was out. It wouldn't last long. We were treated to a barely comprehensible speech by the chief man wearing a white uniform and then shown our cabins.

The man in white is visible on deck... (click to enlarge)

We were two decks down and had a teak-panelled nook with twin beds and a little shower/toilet. Very nice it was too. As lunch was being served we headed for the restaurant as the boat pulled away from Ha Long quay.

The attraction, according to our guide book was the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay with it's innumerable karsts rising from the calm bay. But according to the brochure for the boat in our room we'd entirely missed the point: "leaning over the railing you can feel like a character from a film" I can't tell you how grateful we were that we'd found this out right at the start. After lunch we hurried up to the sun deck to find out which particular characters we were going to feel like.

Well the sun deck should really have been named the "windy haze deck" We weren't there at the best time of year and it was pretty chilly in the wind. Unfortunately, having lured us all the way here from the four corners of the earth, the staff onboard had done their best to keep us eating our way through 17 courses of food below decks while the World Heritage rolled past. By the time we got up there, we were miles into the bay. It was stunning through (stun deck?)
Sheena takes in the view (click to enlarge)

Free filter... use your sunglasses! (thanks dad!)

The bay is immense and there are literally thousands of karsts ranging from immense islands to tiny pinnacles. In the haze they only had to be a few hundred metres away to be silhouetted. This gave the whole place a very surreal atmosphere. There wasn't another boat to be seen. It was dead quiet and peaceful. We just lay back and took it all in.

We passed through a couple of floating fishing villages on the way. These are small communities that live entirely on the water. Because it's a national park, no settlements are allowed on land. These twin girls stared in wonder at our boat as it passed their home. Apparently, they were new arrivals and hadn't yet had time to build a proper floating home.
After a while, we docked at a small island which had a beach not 50m wide. There was a path up the mountain and we went for a stroll. Curiously, only one other man apart from us from the 30 or so people on our boat bothered to climb to see the view. The water was pretty nippy so Sheena simply paddled. We managed to get 10 mins in a kayak that was supposed to be for another tour group. We'd have liked longer but that may have to be for another time.

Click to see the view from our kayak under a karst.
Back on board we chilled out as the sun disappeared taking with it whatever heat remained. Dinner was again 24 courses or something including what apparently have the honour of being one of the most expensive delicacies in Vietnam: dragon prawns. I was the only one on our table who could be bothered to fight their way into them for the scant meat that they supplied. Not bad but hardly worth the effort.

We finished the night off with a game of Scrabble with another guest as our boat nestled among the seventeen hundred other boats that ply the bay with tourists every day. Dreams of nights in secluded isolation have given way to the terror of nights of piracy it seems.

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