Two days in Hanoi goes a long way. Before leaving, I did what most other tourists do when in Hanoi, which is book a packaged trip to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is famous for its stunning aqua-blue waters and jagged emerald islands. Unfortunatly, foreigners discovered this gem years ago and it is now overrun by garrish tour boats providing the most innoucuous trip Euros can buy. (My tour cost me $20 for three days and two nights, so before I launch into my litany of complaints, keep that in perspective. What kind of tour would you expect for $20?).
The first thing that went wrong was that I kept getting split off from my group. First, I was separated from the people from my tourbus and then merged with a new group of backpackers. Then split off again at customs, merged again, and then one more time on the ferry. I think this is deliberate; it keeps you confused, off-balance and less likely to complain about the glaring discrepencies between what you were sold and what you are being given. At every drop point our guide changed. We'd meet the new one for about 30 seconds, he'd tell us his name and to stay with him, then he'd leave to check something out and we'd never see him again. For some reason everyone's passport was seized by the guides except mine, why I've never been able to deduce. We finally made it onto the boat around 3pm, a half-day behind our "scheudle". Our junk boat was really just a large modern ship painted to look like a junk.
Our new group, was composed of a mostly collection of Canadian and European tourists and this agitated Serbian guy, Z, who the day beofre had fallen off his motobike and had spent the great half of the boat trip changing bloody, puss-covered badanges and curisng in various Slavic languages. Still , the bay was beautiful, although the floating villages were hardly authentic. The boat people hawked the exact same wares, cheap t-shitys and hand-made trinkets, from their speedboats, shouting in English. Many on the boat were disappointed, but when you think about it, what would you really expect? Should the villagers stay "traditional" so we can gawk at them on a human safari? Who would want to reap rice by hand or spearfish when everyday cruise-liners pass by full of drunk Westerners snapping photos?
Anyway, it became clear right away that the reason the "all-prices included" tour was so cheap was that everything additional cost an exhorbant amount of money. This included toliet-paper, water, a towlel, and any trip off the boat. The side trips were ridiculous. You could pay $5 to go swimming for 30 minutes or kayaking for 20 minutes. We did visit the famous caves of Halong Bay, full of stalagties and stalagmites. The caves were lit like haunted houses at a community Halloween fair. Multicolored lights and fake fountains had been built inside, making the caves, beautful in thier own right, look like Indiana Jones: The Ride. Our guide told us the names of the different rock formations, all of which seemed to have recvied their moniker from a different part of the female anatomoy by the original exploers (spelunkers are a crude lot). The finale was the shadow of "Romeo and Juliet" which shown a hundred feet up on a rock face. I will admit, it did look like Romeo calling to his fair Juliet below her balacony. What was disappointing was to see that the shadow was created by an elcetric light that had been installed behind the rockmass.
After a long day of boating in the hot sun, we were unceremoniously dumped on Cat-ba island, which houses a town and some hostels and a few modern-resorts for the $20+ tours, but not for us. Like everything else on this trip, the prices of basic goods was exhorbant (by our standars anyway. We militated against this by purchasing the biggest, cheapest bottles of Vietnamese Vodka we could find and sharing them. For once, we succeeded. We ended in a twelve-person card game that was a United Nations of sorts (drinking and soccer are the only two universal acrtivites that i know of, and it helps to be good at both). After glaring at us from across the room for the better part of the night, we won over a few of the hotel staff who, after a few swigs, led us out for a night on the town. We found a nightclub, and though it was almost empty, we were greeted warmly by the remaining locals, who gave us more drinks and cigarettes (I don't smoke, but for some reason, they were convinced I did and thought it amusing to put as many cigarettes as possible behind my ears.). After the club closed-up, we followed our guide to a hidden beach behind a giant cliff-face. The walk was precarious, but well-worth it as the water was warm and there were lounge chairs to stretch out on (A near-by beachfront hotel had left them out). For about an hour, we swam in warm waters, under a sky full stars, in Halong Bay, Vietnam.
The next day, my Serbian friend and I quickly read the score. A night on our expesinve and unluxouris boat did not sound too appealing so we negotiated to stay a second night on the isalnd. This was easier than expected since there did appear to be any set schedule to this tour (I felt very lucky to still have my poassport). The monring was spent trekking up and down a large mountian. This turned out to be an authetinc expericne as the trail was really a water-rut dug alongside the incline. Usually, water wears down rocks to a shiny smooth surface: not in Vietnam. Here water sharpens rocks to serrated knife points. The jagged rocks weren't just in the path, they were the path, cutting through the dense jungle foilage at a steep enough grade to require you to get down on all fours at varying points. Great fun and quite safe when you're hungover, wearing thin sandals and in 90% humidty.
About a third of the group quit in the first leg, but not me. I never quit, no matter how dumb my undertaking. Must be the American in me. I was fortunate enough to make a Vietnamese friend along the way and we kind of encouraged each other up the mountain. His name was Phu and he was visiting his famiy in the North. Phu lived in New Zealand and it was funny to hear him speak English with a Kiwi accent. Togther, we forged ahead through the thorny vinest, slippery rocks and blinding sweat (To their credit, my Quicksilver sandals held up admirably through the whole ordeal. I'm thinking of writing the company a thank-you letter upon my return to the states.). At the summit, someone had built an observation tower that looked as well-constructed as a state-fair ride (I've begun to notice that most of my analogies relate to the state fair. Strange), but hell if it had lasted long enough to adquire such an even layer of rust, it must be stable, right? Phu and I scaled it like we were taking the high-ground and were pleased to discover that we were some of the very first to make it. However, if you've ever climbed a mountain, you know that going down is much harder than going up. Phu and I made it through this trial by giving false encouragements to those passing us going the other way. "keep going, your almost halfway there" was one of our favorites.
On the trail back, a problem slithered across our path. It was a large green snake, about three feet in length and maybe a quarter in width. I stopped those behind me and pointed it out to the group. We had a consturcive brainstorming session about what we knew of snakes. It was funny to see everyone direct their questions to Phu, as if he should know beauces he was born there. It's as if, becasue I'm from Minnesota, I should know what scent repels black bears. Eventually, we formed a plan to throw a stick at it. It worked like a charm and the reptile slithered away. We hustled down the rest of trail, imaging all sorts of creatures at our peripheries. When we reached the bottom, those who had stayed behind cheered us like returning heroes. I've got to say, it felt good. I hugged Phu like we had survived combat. Finally, this awful trip was over. We were going home, I thouhgt.
But there was still more to come.