Phenom Phen by boat to Chau Doc. Chau Doc by bus to Can Tho and again by bus to Saigon. Plane to Hanoi-5 nights moving and still no time to rest.
But I've still had time to slow down a look around a bit. Vietnamese culture is notably distinct from all other S.E.Asian cultures. You'd be surprised at how curious and inquisitive the adults, as well as the children of this nation can be. Their sence of owner-ship and personal space are practially nil, yet this creates heart-warming and sometimes hilarious interactions in the streets and markets and foodstalls. Yet the difference in culture also creates some barriers that take some patience and understanding to surmount. The Vietnamese are remarkably shrewed and cunning, and will frequently mount pointed attacks of minapulation, guilt, and trickery to part you from your hard earned dollars. It can be seriously fustraiting to be cut in line for the toilet, ATM, and store on a daily basis. Round-eyes are second-hand-citizens here. And while Cambodians will forthrightly laugh and point at the strange ways of visitors, the eyes of Vietnamese sometimes betray contempt and downright scorn. I ask you retorically, can one blame them considering their history? I'm not really sure one can or can't. All one can do is learn how to operate within the Vietnamse fishbowl.
Since everyone is trying to rip you off (except for the honest few (VERY few)) you get ripped off a lot. And each time you do, you learn what NOT to do next time. But the scams are so varied, that it takes a while on how to recognise and deal with each one accordingly. I can not now go into detail on how one has to speak and act in the market place, with hockers, with hotel proprietors, in order to ensure a fair deal. I shake my head nearly every day at how straight forward dealing with the same people in other countries has been, even when I thought they wern't at the time.
This is me on the junk boat in Halong Bay:
Despite all that being said, I've still very much enjoyed travelling here, and I've met some truely wonderful and sweet Vietnamese people. I also beleive that I really havn't gotten off the beaten track much in this country, and had I been able to interact with villages that see less tourism, I might have exposure to a greater cross-section of society not driven by money and racism etc etc.
I arrived in Hanoi and was the last to load into the airport mini-bus that takes passengers to anywhere downtown for $3. I checked into Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, which had a vibe that left me tingling with regret that my trip wasn't longer to enjoy this super fun place for more than one night. The aussie-run joint was packed to the brim with travellers of every age and description, with a surprising skew of young female travellers. The bar down stairs couldn't contain that evenings festivities, and I was assured that the ample spillover into the street was a nightly occurance. The staff, both vietnamese and Aussies, were incredibly jovial and helpful. That evening I booked a tour for a two day, one night cruise at Halong Bay.
Here's me on the Junk, with the bay stretched out behind me
I also noticed that the evening air was decidely cooler than that of Saigon, (I dew so prefer to call it that than Ho Chi Mihn City) I welcomed the refreshing cool air on my bare shoulders, for I sweated gallons in the previous hot days of travel. I was amused to see the Vietnamese working in the hotel, as well as the citizens on the street, wearing thick sweaters, jackets, scarfs, and hats.
Just after I checked in, who should I bump into but Trevor (aka, Javier), my partner in crime from Vang Vieng. He was literally walking out the door to go to the train station headed south. We greeted eachother, made promises to meet a few days on down the road, and exchanged hasty farewell-but-not-for-long hugs.
Halong Bay Junks:
I slept heavily on the top bunk of my 8 person dorm, and was the first to wake. I planned to store my pack at the hostel, as I was only going to be away for one night, and took what I needed in a plastic bag. Bag stowed, breakfast street-stall noodles were consumed, and I loaded into a mini-bus with 8 other people and endured a long 4 hour jouney to the coast.
In S.E. Asia, honking the horn is just a normal part of everyday driving. But the Vietnamse take it to the extreme. They use their horns like samari swords (not an apt metaphore-- i know) literally bullying any vehicles smaller than them out of the way. Motos yeild to cars which yeild to Busses. Woe-betide the pedestrians because no one will ever yeild to you. There is no such thing as a quiet ride though the countryside. The vietnamese have no concept of the curtisy "beep-beep" which nicely alerts you that you might be baring down on them with no intention on moving over. They LAY ON THE HORN-"HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK" and don't let go...like ever. Sleeping on night buses???....good luck, because your driver will honk his loud-ass horn at everyone he passes, whether its neccessary or not. Furthermore, the Vietnamese LOVE to customise their horns. While Buses and trucks usually blare out the loudest airhorns you've ever conceived possible, vans, taxies, and motos produce an endless variety of tunes, jingles, and rhythems as their favorite offensive-driving mechinisms.
Anyhow, we stopped halfway at a ceramics factory for 20 minutes, at which we were clearly expected to buy something. Then we continued. The countryside here was, i'm sorry to say, not even close to impressive. The fields extended on in flat banality without the pristine beauty and form of, say, Cambodian Rice paddies. Towns were expanses of industrial factorys and powerlines and pollution. Gone were the stilted thatched huts of the Cambodians, the humble bamboo dwellings of the Laotians, and the by-gone archatecture integrated into modern life like the cities and towns of northern Thailand. Soon we reached a few hills, and beyond them Halong Bay reveiled itself.
A world heritage site, there no denying that the trip here is abundantly worth it. Sure, the dock to the bay is a tourist trap, and the boats keep to a spacific part of Halong Bay that doesn't allow for much isolation or true exploration, but the bay itself is a geological wonder. The blue-green water is broken by massive limestone protrusions, many of which contain caves and provide a bird-watching paradise. The islands number in the thousands, enabling one to take innumerable pictures which can not do justice to the awsome and unique beauty of this place.
Tis also note-worthy, that this time of year it's quite typical for the morning to start out clear and blue. By noon clouds and haze start forming that inhibit the water and air from appearing as truely spactacular as they could. No biggie, just being out there was as pleasureable as can be. My cruise got off to a great start.
Another Junk in the bay: ours was a little bigger and nicer >
First of all, my boat was just beautiful. It was an entirely wooden teak boat that possessed as much character, as it did characters, as about 25 or so of the people on bored could attest and contribute. The bottom deck contained our living quarters: clean gorgeously soft beds, with private bathrooms fixed up with hotwater showers. The next level up, asended by a gracefully curving wooden staircase enamelled with carved dragons, contained a spacious, bright, and airy dining room and bar. Here, all our culunary needs would be provided by an enthousiastic staff. Those who lacked english skills could not be less proficent in smiles and intelligence and every need was asertained and provided for with little fuss. We ate our fill of 2 lunches and a dinner. Each meal consisting of fresh salads, squid, shrimp, chicken, beef, fish and veggie dishes, with no less than 6 courses per meal including fresh fruit for dessert.
our table piece for dinner: a boquet of flowers made from vegitables. And yummy shrimp to boot!
The top deck had no shortage of sunchairs for basking, socializing, and taking in the remarkable views.
I walked onto the junk boat knowing no one, but 10 minutes later I was seated for lunch with 3 vivacious and laughter-driven portuguese boys, who, since knowing eachother from childhood, pelted one another with joke after joke. I shared a room with one of them, and we spent the next 16 or so hours enjoying all the same persuits.
While eating our first delicious lunch, our Junk boat began to motor its way into the heart (or well, one of the hearts) of Halong Bay. After a pleasent hour or so, we all disembarked and asended a rocky slope to explore a cave. The interior was massive. Although I might have scoffed at lighting the interior of a cave, it truely helped one appreciate the beauty and diversity of the caves walls, roof, and floor.
Dont, our tour guide, and Croft, inside the Cave
Dont, our primary tour guide, spoke perfect english and delivered an endless supply of understated humor with the expertiese of a seasoned comedian. His enormous and handomely toothy smile was contagious. He was a truely wonderful person, one of the many on this trip who I greatly wished to get to know better.
After the cave, Juao and I (one of my three wonderful Portugese friends) hopped in a kyack, along with the others and paddled our way furiously around some of the lovely rock formations in the bay. We then boarded our Junk as the haze-hidden sun sank, while being treated to complementery local wine and fruit on the top deck. The Portoguese and I had all wanted to swim, but we were behind schedual and the air was more than brisk now. When Juao asked if I still wanted a post-sun-set swim I answered him in the affirmative with a determined nod of the head. Him and I changed into our swim suits and padded, scantily clad through the dining room, much to the amusment and somewhat shocked countanances of our fellow passengers and boat crew. Dont was overjoyed to see us however, and led us to a little balcony specially designed for one to leap into the waters from a hight of 5 meters or so. He ordered the swim ladder lowered and I was the first to plunge into the dark watery brine.
Juao followed close behind, and we laughed and splashed and couldn't help but exlaim at how much warmer the water was than their air and how good it felt. Before we knew it, the other two portugese had joined us. We made several more trips through the dining room, now leaving dripping wet little footprints behind us, to the jumping ledge. One by one and two by two, other passengers joined in the fun, until easily more than half of us, Dont included, were leaping off various levels of the junk. At one point, we got 15 of us, aged 12-50 all up on the balcony at once, and on the count of three we all plunged in simotaniously. I'm sorry I'd not taken a photograph, but I was far too busy having fun (and too wet) to be dealing with my camera.
We then scambled to our rooms for a hot shower. Feeling utterly amazing we found ourselves tucking into a lovely meal, the aformentioned porportions and presentations feeding our hungry bellies and warming our hearts and souls. The TV, behind the bar began to blaring Karioke, to the obvious glee of the Vietnamese junk boat staff, who sang song after song. They tried to get the passengers in on it, but most of us were too sober, shy, or both to participate. One by one, and two by two people started going to bed, until it was just a few of us die hards, and the Portuguese and I drinking wine and beer and playing cards, while the crew sang cheesy vietnamese karoke. Soon we were tipsy enough to sing a few well known tunes, the silliest being the theme song to Sesame Street.
The next day was spent cursing amongst the beautiful limestone formations.
Here is one of the many ladies shouting "BUY SOMESING! BUY SOMESING" who approach the junks frequently
Here are my Junk Mates
And Daniel and Diana-just the cutest couple EVER, from Malasyia.
As noon approached, I said goodbye to most everyone who was staying on for another day of kyacking and rock climbing, and loaded back in the van for Hanoi. We stopped again at the Ceramic Factory, where they still expected us to by something, and around 4pm, were back in Hanoi. I had just enough time to find a bookshop, purchase water, a newspaper, a kilo of clementines, and an assortment of other snacks and provisions for the 16 hour overnight bus ride to Hoi An.
There, more adventures would await me. But you must wait to see!!