Monday, 8 March 2010

Ain't no Sunshine...

The Australian guy next to me on the bus to Ha Long Bay was looking decidedly ill. We'd exchanged a few words when we got on the bus which pulled out of Hanoi at seven thirty AM, but I could tell he really wasn't up for a conversation - he had that dead-in-the-eyes look that you only get from a savage hangover and you'd only got to bed three hours before. There were five guys who had all been staying in the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in town and judging by the sound of it they had gone on a proper bender the night before. Pretty much at the first pit stop we arrived at to they all piled off and grabbed more beers and it was only ten AM. From then on it was drinks all the way to the ferry to Cat Ba island, and while amusing to start with by the time we'd got there everyone on the bus looked like they wanted to batter .

We'd been told before we took the ferry to Cat Ba Island that it could be a bit "badly organised", but that had turned out to be an sizable understatement. What it was actually closer to was herding cattle onto a floating container and then barking orders at them for the next four hours. Ten metres off shore the captain announced "you bring you own drink you pay us five dollar to drink". To which there was much disagreement and shouting of "this is bollocks mate" and "you are very bad men" etc.etc. They clearly waited until everyone had bought themselves a few beers and then imposed the surcharge when there was nothing you could do about it.. We refused to pay as did a Portuguese couple with kids we sat with. We were then blanked for the rest of the trip. Their own beer was extortionate and the food provided was crap, but the Aussies didn't give a toss though and after abusing the captain/pirate king got thoroughly pissed again on the roof of the boat while trying to pull a group of Swedish student girls. The stop at the cave on the way was equally as fun - with "you go in cave now - come back in half hour we leave, be quick". Inside the island cave which was clearly impressive (once,) a host of coloured lights on cycle illuminated the walls in pinks and greens. A (presumably calming) backing of what sounded very much like the theme tune to The Gallery off Tony Hart played through speakers mounted on stalactites. It was difficult to move without someones camera in your face or bumping into Japanese tourists queuing up to have their picture taken together on a pink Stalagmite that looked sort of like a Dolphin. Ha Long bay is a real spectacle - no doubt about it, but it is tourist hell. They really need to sort out the local mafia idiots who manage the boats over.

Cat Ba itself is a strange place. The largest island in the bay, its like staying in an out of season Minehead or Skegness. Think Vietnamese League of Gentlemen. Modern-ish glass fronted hotels called things like "Hotel Holiday View" and "Hotel Happy Land" look out onto a harbour and rows of small restaurants knock out very average food, as if they cant be bothered. Maybe they can't - as far as we could see its a pretty dull place to live. At night women would stand singing Karaoke in bars on their own, no audience, just them. I'd imagine you'd go a bit mad. Apparently its rammed in summer with mainland locals but the rest of the year is just a steady trickle of travelers passing through for to check the bays out.

It started hammering it down the day we arrived, adding only to the dreary English seaside town feel, but we booked a trip out Lan Ha Bay anyway, undeterred and not wanting to waste the trip. We were taking a boat out with half a dozen other guys to do some Kayaking around the limestone Karsks and towers of the bay and a few were planning on climbing and doing some deep water soloing (free climbing on rock over deep water). Luckily we got a boat with a great crew this time and an even cooler bunch of people to spend the day with - it was a real laugh. Our Kayaks were full off rain water after hours out on the sea, and climbing was called off due to conditions being too bad, but it was amazing to get out into the bay all the same, paddling around amongst the floating villages with their fish pens and sea-dogs that had never seen land. We didn't waste any time leaving the next morning however and grabbed the fast boat back to the mainland and sanity...

"I've got S.A.D. Definitely". We were in Nimh Binh, a few hours south of Ha Long and it had now been raining non stop for the last four days. "It's making me depressed". Sam was convinced that the lack of sun for all of ten days since we'd left India was taking its toll and she now had Seasonal Affective Disorder. It had been chucking it down solidly - proper cats and dogs. "Raining all ze animals!" as I'd once heard a Frenchman so eloquently put it. We had come to Nimh Binh to see the the famous caves at Tam Coc a few miles away but there was no chance of that now - the idea of more rain, spending a miserable day in plastic dollar macs sitting on an open top rowing boat and getting soaked to the skin was just not appealing. The town itself was not exaclty charming too; an industrial, grey looking place made worse by the dismal weather. You got the impression that even if was sunny, the locals would still struggle to raise a smile. So we did all you can do when your plans are rained off in a strange town - hole up in the hotel, read, talk rubbish to friends on the Internet and watch whatever American trash happens on HBO/StarTV/Discovery. I did feel slightly better after speaking to Edd from back home who was currently riding out one of the worst winters in recent years in Kiev. A ball busting minus thirty, coupled with a failing boiler and a drunken landlord who seemed to only break things every time he came round to attempt to fix them. Even though it was raining like something out of the old testament, Nimh Binh it wasn't really cold, and we were separated by 55 degrees. I'm pretty sure he would have swapped places right then.

A duff afternoons travelling is still better than an average afternoon in the office, and all was not lost. From the wreckage of the trip to see the caves we did manage to forge some entertainment in Nimh Binh, notably meeting Mr Lee, a ninety year old Vietnamese gent who now lived in San Francisco, while we were in a coffee shop across the road. He had moved to the US in the mid sixties and was back in Nimh Binh, his home town to visit family. He was without doubt the best turned out Vietnamese chap we'd met and certainly a contender for GQ's best dressed man of the year - if they had an geriatric category. We sat and had a couple of whiskeys and he chatted away about America, Vietnam and his business in San Francisco. In between he made organised notes about something or other in a leather notepad with a fountain pen in the sort of handwriting that you only ever see grandparents use. He was a fascinating old guy, and we could have spent hours talking with him and sipping whisky, only I suspect he would have drunk me under the table.
The other saving grace was the hotels menu. We'd considered venturing into the town to see what we could find on the street stalls, but by the time what was left of the sun had gone down it looked like a scene from Bladerunner; neon lights shrouded in rain - sour faced women with umbrellas everywhere and rats scurrying from one side of the road to the other, so we ordered in. The menu, had everything, pork, beef, eels, snails, frogs, catfish and even snake, which I probably would have tried if hadn't been $30 a plate. The bottles of green liquour with pickled cobras that lined the shelves of the hotel didn't do much to sell it either, so fancying something different we ordered the frogs legs along with a few other dishes. Now, I've eaten frogs legs before, in France as a kid and in the UK, but these were something else. They were huge, like the legs of some amphibian that had spent too much time hanging around Selafield or Chernobyl. I asked the waiter, who spoke good English whether these were actually frogs legs "They are specially farmed! Big frogs!". He wasn't wrong. It was hard not to imagine Olympian size frogs that could jump twenty feet in the air. I expect they must have very high walls at the farm just to stop them escaping. Anyway, they were good, a bit like chicken as everyone says but a bit more, well...froggy.
It had been a weird few days. It was still raining heavily the next morning and showed no signs of improving. Sam had a permanent frown on which said "I didn't sign up for this". It was time to head South.

View our pics:
Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba and Ninh Binh

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