Lost at Sea

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Its a cold dark evening in Hue, as we wait patiently on the platform for the overnight sleeper train to Hanoi. We see a big group of Australians at one end of the platform excitedly babbling to each other. It looks like they bought a lot of stuff on their travels as their bags are about twice the size of ours. We see two French girls in the other direction who are sniping at each other, and from the look in their faces, they've had their fill of independent travelling in Vietnam. Behind us is a line of Vietnamese ladies trying to sell their meagre range of overpriced and unappealing wares.

The headlights of the train herald its slow arrival into the station, and soon we board and find our cabin. We find out that we are sharing with two Vietnamese business men, neither of whom speak any English which is a shame. However as compensation we have 13 loud Australians sharing the cabins adjacent to ours, so there's no shortage of people to talk to. It turns out that they are all on a 3 week vacation with a travel company called Intrepid. Their trip sounds expensive, but quite a good way to see a lot of Vietnam in a short time without the stress of independent travel.

We munch on some soggy baguettes that I bought earlier in Hue. Looking around our cabin we see that it looks quite like the first class soft sleeper cabins on Chinese trains, with 4 bunks and thick matresses. However, apart from clean sheets, everything else in the cabin seems to be coated in a thick layer of grime.

We don't get much sleep that evening as the train seems to jolt around like a drunken man with hiccups. At about midnight one of our cabin-mates gets off at some station in the middle of nowhere, making a lot of noise as he gathers his belongings, leaving the light on, and the cabin door open after his departure. Another man gets on and repeats the same process in reverse.

Eventually we arrive in Hanoi, one hour late at 5.30am in the morning, and spill out bleary eyed on to the platform. We look in vain for our contact at Thu Giang guesthouse who Nguyen (from Hue) kindly called to arrange a free pick up. It is really great when you arrive in a strange place for the first time to have a friendly face there to meet you. Today it looks like we'll have to sort out our own transport to the guesthouse, and we push our way through the thick crowd of disembarking passengers, porters, and drivers to find a taxi that can get us out quickly.

Thu Giang guesthouse is not far from the station, and the metered taxi ride costs us 40,000 Dong (GBP1.50). We walk down an alley and find the guesthouse and the girl, Lee, who was supposed to meet us at the station. She wriggles shyly as she apologises for sleeping in and missing us at the station. Her youthful wide eyes and pretty smile make us feel forgiving, and I wonder if this happens everytime someone is promised a lift to the guesthouse.

Our room isn't ready so Lee shows us to another one where we fall asleep on top of the beds until about 10am. We get up and go downstairs where we meet Lee's older sister who we ask about tours to Halong Bay. We've heard that its cheaper to book a tour than travel independently to this chain of attractive islands in the South China Sea.

Lee's sister describes a couple of tours both of which sound identical apart from the prices and the names of the tour companies. We decide to wander round town for a bit to see if we can find out more from the legions of travel agents and tour companies that line the streets. They aren't able to help much either, apart from saying that the more you pay the better the 'quality' of the tour, and that you can either be in a 'large' group or a 'small' group. We decide that since the scenery will be the same its probably best to pay the minimum, join a large group, and see what we get.

Back at the guesthouse we tell Lee's sister that Kim Tour offer 3 days to Halong bay for USD$25 each, all inclusive of food, travel, and accomodation. She informs us that its an unreliable company and, if we only want to pay USD$25, she recommends that we travel with her recommended choice, Chung Sinh Tour. Not knowing any better we book up with Chung Sinh Tour - a mistake as it later turns out.

In the afternoon we take a wander through the bustling streets and enjoy the atmosphere of the city. Hanoi is cool and dry and we need to wear three layers to keep warm - this is really unexpected. In the old quarter where we are staying there is a large lake which has graceful trees planted round the perimeter, and there are many attractive colonial style houses. There's an old tower in the middle of the lake and a temple on a small island in one corner. A wooden bridge links the island with the mainland and we pay a few Dong to be allowed over. In the temple pagodas on the island, old men in berets and woollen jackets play chinese chess, and tourists pose for photos by the lake.

It all feels very peaceful, until we walk out and see two taxi drivers having a brawl by the lakeside, with all their mates watching intently to see who gets thumped. We move quickly to Thang Long theatre, which specialises in water puppets shows. There are none of the (perfectly adequate) 20,000 Dong tickets left, so we pay 40,000 Dong (about GBP1.50) for a good seat at the front. The lights dim and the musicians start to play some mesmerising pentatonic arpeggios on a selection of instuments unfamiliar to us, but which we've seen in Vietnam before. The stage is a huge bath of luminous green water that looks like a giant baptismal pool, from which various puppets suddenly emerge and dance around. We see dragons (complete with fire from the mouth), turtles, pheonix, frogs, fish, fishermen, boats, and maidens. The hour long visual and aural extravaganza is well worth the entry fee, even though we haven't a clue whats actually going on.

That evening Rachel spots a recommendation in her guide book for a restaurant called Hoa Sua, where the staff are all trainees from underprivelidged backgrounds who are being given help to get into the restaurant trade. From all accounts the French food is supposed to be very good and inexpensive. Rachel orders a tenderloin steak (medium rare), and I order a rib eye steak (medium) from the most nervous and trembling teenage waitress we've ever come across. It turns out that the steaks are both 'blue', but we're not in the mood to send them back so we get stuck in. Despite the blood, Rachel remarks excitedly that her steak was one of the best she's tasted. We can't resist ordering desserts, and these turn out to be the first really excellent ones we've had in Vietnam. The chocolate ice cream is home made and has crubmling pieces of rich dark chocolate in it. The total for the meal comes to 300,000 Dong (about GBP11.00), outragously expensive for Vietnam (and our budget), but includes starters, wine, steaks, and puddings.

In the morning we have breakfast in our hotel and at 7.30am our guide arrives to pick us up for the 3-day tour to Halong Bay. Its not the greatest of starts to the day as there are no smiles, no hellos, and he walks so far in front we can barely follow him to the minibus.

In the minibus we meet three talkative Irish girls from Dublin called Lydia (Lids), Therese (Tee), and Deirdre (Dee), who have finished college, saved up a bit and are now touring in South East Asia en route to Australia where the hope to get jobs. We also meet Juan and Antonia, seasoned travellers from Spain, Carrie and Liz, two English girls just arrived in Vietnam, and Thomas and Alexandra a French couple from Reunion Island.

On the bus our unfriendly guide, Nam, introduces himself (twice) and tries to explain the program for the next couple of days, but no one can follow his poor English, or the rapid delivery.

After three or so hours in the minibus, we arrive at Ha Long City, where we are herded out of the minibus and after a few minutes of hanging around, on to our boat transport for the next day. Getting on to the boat, we enter a large windowed lounge area where tables are set for lunch. Some unfortunate tourists who go up on the top deck are barked at by Nam to 'GET OFF' and come downstairs to eat lunch immediately. In all there are about 20 paying customers on the boat.

Lunch is simple but tasty rice and vegetable dishes with a small steamed fish on each table of six. It turns out that some of the tables are 'small group' (i.e. paid more) and some of the tables are 'big group', but we all eat the same food.

After lunch we start chugging across the bay towards the many thousands of islands that seem to grow out of the sea all around us. The limestone formations are characterised by tall steep cliffs, undercut at the bottom where there is intense wave action. Where the gradients are more forgiving, sparse green vegetation sprouts out. Standing on the upper deck of the boat with the wind in our hair passing through this strange island seascape its impossible to stop photo-snapping away at the rapidly changing scenery. Other tour boats, small fishing boats, and tiny fishing villages built on rafts are slowly revealed as we pass through the islands.

After a couple of hours we dock at an island with a number of giant deep caves. We climb up some steps and enter the largest cave that I've ever been in which has amazing stalactites and stalagmites. A concrete path has been laid through the interior and flood lights, every colour of the rainbow, are used to bring the rock formations to life. The place feels like one giant Santa's grotto, and I am sure I can see elves scuttling between the rocks.

Back on the boat we continue to sail through the islands until its getting nearly dark, and we drop anchor in a secluded spot between several wildly shaped island outcrops. Nam announces that its time to go kayaking, and warns us to be back by 5.30pm at the latest, loudly informing us that we have just 40 minutes time. Rachel and I decide to give it a go, and we get the key for our boat cabin from Nam so we can get changed into more suitable clothes incase we get wet.

We clamber down some steps and get in to the kayak, and as we're sitting there waiting for Nam to hand us the paddles, he shouts: 'no, no, GET OFF, big group, not allowed to go kayaking'. We think to ourselves that we've finally found out the difference between the 'large group' and 'small group'. Anyhow I ask Nam if we can go anyway and he screams that its impossible unless we pay USD$4 for one hour. Without committing to anything we get the paddles and head off, wondering where we should go.

We see a German man swimming in the water and find out that he's dropped his paddle and which doesn't float, and he's trying to dive down to find it. I've never heard of paddles that don't float, and so I feel sorry for the poor guy swimming around after it.

We decide to circumnavigate one of the large rocky islands near us, and we paddle off to see if we can get round it fairly quickly as its already starting to get dark. Halfway round, we see that the shape of the island is not as expected and we realise that we're going to have to work a bit harder to get back before nightfall. I remind Rachel that all we need to do is keep the island on our left hand side and we are guaranteed to get back to where we started. After three or four times rounding corners, expecting to see the boat, and not finding it, we are starting to get nervous. Just as panic is about to set in we spot the boat in the distance and paddle quickly over to it and get out.

I'm barely off the boat 2 seconds and Nam is bickering in my ear about getting the USD$4. I tell him I've only been out for 1/2 hour so I'll pay USD$2. He gets nasty and aggressive, so I decide to pay him the full amount as we have to stay on the same boat as him until morning and he seems like a bit of a lunatic. The German boy who's lead paddle sunk is being harassed to cough up 250,000 Dong (GBP 9.00).

In another fifteen minutes its completely dark, and two of the girls, Carrie and Dee, have not returned to the boat. Nam announces that its now time to leave, because we need to get to the port to drop off the people who are not staying on the boat that night. A tangible ripple of anger passes through the passengers, and especially the Irish girls Lids and Tee, who's friend Dee is missing, and the other English girl Liz, who's friend Carrie is also missing. Loosing their tempers, several of the girls tell Nam that we're not leaving until we find the missing girls.

Nothing seems to happening 15 minutes later and Nam will not tell us what is going on. The girls are trying to discuss with him what should be done, but Nam is not communicating with anyone. Lids tells him as clearly and slowly as possible that he needs to organise a boat, but he shouts back: 'you'll have to pay'. The girls then swear at him angrily, because he clearly demonstrates that he does not care about finding their friends, just about money.

At that point I decide that I ought to help out because Nam is not listening to the girls and seems to be unable to take any decisions. I ask Nam to 'find boat, get light, look for girls'. To which he answers: ' I told them 40 minutes', but eventually after asking him as calmly as I can about 18 times he confirms that he will try to get a boat.

Unfortunately our boat has no radio, no searchlight, no lifejackets, and of the crew, only Nam speaks limited English. The captain shouts over to one of the fishing villagers, who's raft house is only 20 yards away and we find out, slowly via Nam, that they have a boat which is away at the moment, but it will be back soon and will help search for the girls.

Waiting on the search boat seems to take forever, and the girls shout out their friends names into the still, cloudy night. About an hour after dark, Nam asks whether the missing girls can swim, a question that would have been better posed before he let them go kayaking. A crew member passes me and looking out to the sea, runs his finger across his throat; an interesting gesture given the atmosphere on the boat. I think its good that none of the girls see it.

After 2 hours of waiting the search boat appears, and Nam, Liz and I join the fisherman on board to go and hunt for the girls. We hope that we find them in one of the fishing villages close by, but theres always this strange thought in your head that you might find a body or a capsized canoe. It reminds me of searching for a suicidal villager on a dark winter night in the fields and woodland near my hometown, and wondering what gruesome sights I might encounter.

The search boat isn't exactly the most modern speed boat we imagined and splutters noisily at about 5 knots as we head out around the largest island. It takes a lot of communication effort to tell Nam where we should go and why. Liz and I shout out across the still dark water but all we hear in response is the barking of the dogs from the floating fish farms. We stop beside a floating house, and the dogs bay noisily as the fishing folk appear surprised at their doorways. No one has seen anyone.

We complete our circumnavigation of one island, and head back to the boat after about an hour of searching, and turning up nothing. However as we're getting back we can hear shouts from on board and we realise with relief that the girls have turned up safely.

It turns out that the kayaking pair got disorientated in the rapidly darkening night and couldn't find the tour boat. After paddling about in a panic, and being confused by the local fisherman, they eventually found another tourist boat. Despite the protestations of the staff they climbed on board. After waiting there about half an hour, they managed to find a local boat to take them back to our tour boat. The girls paid the local boat and the search boat 100,000 Dong (USD$ 6) each for their services, hounded by a chorus of 'pay, pay, pay more' from the staff on our boat.

In the evening we manage to relax and have quite a good laugh on board, discussing the coordinated rescue effort and the careful consideration for safety on the tour. Dee joins in and seems quite relaxed after her affair, but Carrie retires to her cabin and we see nothing of her all evening.

In the morning we have breakfast on the boat and Thomas the Frenchman is upset because there is only one miniscule serving of margarine on our table of 7. His dissatisfaction is fuelled by the fact that he paid USD$55 for the tour (compared to us on USD$25) and he was promised a half day kayaking and instead got 40 minutes of paddling manoeuveres in the dark. He asks for more margarine and is told a firm 'no' by the cook, so he storms up to the nearest member of staff and demands more. He triumphantly returns with another tiny portion of margarine, to which he adds all the sugar in the bowl and spreads it angrily over a slice of bread.

After breakfast we dock at Cat Ba island and check into our hotel for the next night. Nam informs us that a minibus taking us to our 4 hour trek in Cat Ba National Park will depart at 0830. As we're driving along with the toothy local guide, we veer left where the sign for the park is on the right.

We spill out of the bus in a little village on the coast and walk off up the steep hillside towards a high ridge in front of us. Juan has been to Cat Ba before, and informs us quietly that this is not the National Park. Nonetheless the views from the top of the ridge out over the island peaks and the sea are spectacular. We climb another rise before heading back down to another location where our guide tells us the minibus will pick us up. As we are heading down we meet a farmer herding a little flock of goats up. He shouts angrily at our guide and pushes some of the girls out of the way, and I am surprised to see that he is brandishing a large machete. At the bottom I discuss with the guide and find out that he is a local farmer who is upset with tourists walking on his private land. Juan is really angry because he wants to go to the National Park, and tells us that Chung Sinh Tour is trying to save the USD$1 park entry by taking us on private land instead.

The walk only lasts about 2 hours instead of the adverstised 4, so by 11.00 am we are back at our hotel in Cat Ba. Juan orchestrates a little protest in the minibus, and we all sit there demanding to go to the National Park. Nam appears and there is a lot of shouting (GET OFF). He eventually promises to phone his boss to organise to take us to the National Park. At 11.30 we get out of the minibus and go to our hotel to eat lunch. We are all starving after the meagre breakfast, and the food in the hotel is very tasty.

After lunch, Juan goes to search for Nam, and finds him sleeping peacefully in his room, having done nothing. His promises of making phonecalls were simply a ploy to get us out of the minibus, so that the driver could get away. It worked quite well because we were all starving. We chat to the hotel owner who informs us that the customers of Chung Sinh Tour are nearly always upset and unhappy, and that its hard for him to complain because he needs the business. We find out he receives only USD$3 per room and 15,000 Dong (about USD$1) for lunch, dinner and breakfast per person.

Thomas the Frenchman is again unhappy because the room in the hotel does not look anything like the one in the brochure. He animatedly preaches to a group of Vietnamese gathered around him to stop ripping off foreigners and start a 'tourism revolution'.

After lunch Rachel and I decide that if we want to go to the National Park we'd better organise it ourselves, because Chung Sinh Tour certainly won't take us there and everyone else in the group seems too upset to do anything. We hire a Honda from the hotel owner for 75,000 Dong (about GBP2.60) for the rest of the day, including fuel, and get some directions for how to get to the park.

The air is cool and we both have our jackets on as we speed along the quiet island roads through a landscape of steep limestone cliffs to the National Park. We leave the moto at the park entrance, pay a dollar each, and walk down a long straight road to get to a little path that leads up into the mountain. The air in the park is cool and fresh and theres lots of birdsong from the canopy above. We see lots of strange white-tailed squirrels rustling around in the branches. After about half and hour we come to a hill and climb a rusting tower that resembles a huge electricity pylon. The staircase has huge gaps between the steps, and at the top, many of the floorboards are loose and there are massive cracks to look down. Rachel has to sit down because she can't stand the squirming feeling of vertigo in her stomach. The view from the top is an outstanding panorama of the Karst scenery of Cat Ba National Park and we are glad that we came.

As we head down, we meet the three Irish girls on their way to the top. They have hired a moto driver each to transport them to various places in the Island, and they seem to be enjoying themselves.

I find that we can take a circular route back on the moto, and we head off along the narrow lanes to see what else we can find. Rachel sits snugly behind me on the motorcycle and admits to me that she's quite enjoying herself too.

That evening we have another tasty dinner at the hotel and late in the evening head out with the group to the only bar on the island. This Irish girls are complaining that they haven't met many nice boys since travelling, and I inform them that they are quite an intimidating bunch when they are together. We share some further thoughts on how to improve their hit rate before Rachel and I head off for the night.

Next day we have breakfast in the hotel and Nam is soon there, barking orders at us to get into the minibus that will take us down to the boat. We board the boat to a barrage of further commands and kick back for the cruise back to Halong City. We find out that the two English girls, Liz and Carrie, headed back a day early, vowing to get out of Vietnam as soon as humanly possible. The Frenchman tells me this is the only country he has not enjoyed on his world tour. The Spanish couple tell us sadly how Vietnam has changed for the worse since they were last here 13 years ago.

At Ha Long City, Nam slips away without any goodbyes and leaves us in the hands of a female colleauge. She takes us to a little restaurant where we enjoy a tasty meal. After the meal Rachel asks her for the address of Chung Sinh Tour so that she can write a letter of complaint. The girl clams up completely and refuses to give it. Under stress, from three Irish girls repeatedly asking her, she tells us that she won't give it because she is afraid of her boss Mr. Don.

After a stalemate of about 15minutes, carefully explaining that the complaint is not against her, we all agree its time to leave as otherwise we'll never get back to Hanoi. As we're leaving the restaurant, one of the waitresses whispers 'mafia, mafia' in Lids' ear, and we wonder whether this is a plea to stop pestering the girl for the address or a warning for our own safety. Ironically, I spot the company address stencilled on the side of the minibus, and Rachel hurriedly copies it down in her notebook, as the girl stares in disbelief.

The journey back is uneventful and we get back to Hanoi at dusk and spill out of the van into the old city. As we say our goodbyes I contemplate that Chung Sinh Tours has negatively affected everyones feelings about Vietnam, and has confirmed in my mind the country's reputation as a hard place to travel independently.

Rachel and I decide to find another hotel and we wander through the streets of old Hanoi with our backpacks on. Eventually we come across a man outside Especen hotel, who offers us a large room for USD$10 per night. Rachel looks at the room and we decide to take it because its huge, with a bath, satellite TV, a balcony, and the man reluctantly agrees to throw in breakfast (bread, coffee, and cheese).

That evening we meet up with Kat and Gregg from Australia who happen to be in town and we share travel stories over dinner. For dessert they take us to Fanny's French Ice Cream, which serves delicious Chocolate Ice Cream.

The next morning in the hotel lobby Rachel is annoyed because there is no cheese, only nasty 'mixed fruit' jam, and she compains to the receptionist. We have Nescafe instead of fresh coffee and it tastes horrible.

We have agreed to meet an Irish friend Olwyn, working in Vietnam, for lunch and we decide to find a cyclo driver who can take us round a couple of sites before we meet her in a couple of hours time. We meet a cyclo driver near the lake who agrees, after much deliberation, to take us to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, and over to Olywn's workplace in Hang Muiy for 45,000 Dong (GBP1.70).

Uncle Ho's Mausoleum is a huge marble and granite edifice built in a large empty-looking square in the centre of town. The design reminds us of Lenin's tomb in Red Square Moscow. We walk around, but unfortunately we can't see the mummified body in a glass cabinet because its closed on Friday's. We are instead ushered around a well preserved cluster of buildings and gardens used by Ho Chi Minh in his heyday. We feel that we really stick out like a sore thumb amidst the crowds of Vietnamese school children.

Our driver takes us down to the Temple of Literature where we see a collection of peaceful Confucian buildings that seem to be in good order. We see rows of 1000-year old ten foot tall stone stellae on the backs of marble turtles that bear the doctoral degrees of some important locals. Rachel's PhD certificate is pretty unexciting in comparison.

On the way over to Olwyns the cyclo-taxi driver decides to stop and tell us that we need to pay more to get to our intended destination. I tell him to get on with it, and he quickly resumes his cycling. About five minutes later he stops again beside a group of other cyclo drivers (presumably for moral support) and repeats his request for more money. All Rachel's frustrations of the last few days come out in a loud torrent as she tells the taxi driver at full volume that he's a cheat and a thief. The fact that she ripped her trousers earlier on the cyclo armrest gives further fuel to her venom. The taxi drivers friends look on in horror as he is torn apart by Rachel the crazed tourist. Embarrassaed, he quickly ushers us back into his cyclo and we continue the journey.

We soon meet our friend, and Rachel tries to adjust her frame of mind as quickly as she can after the taxi driver incident. Olwyn seems so relaxed and gentle with her lilting Galway accent and it only takes a few minutes to calm down. She takes us to a nice local restaurant for rice and noodle dishes, and then we head round the corner for some of the best Vietnamese coffee we've had. After a couple of hours of intensive chatting we head off to go shopping and Olwyn to get back to work. We are amazed that Olwyn can handle working in Vietnam, she even braves the rush hour traffic in her own little Honda.

We spend the afternoon shopping for presents, since Christmas is fast approaching. There are no shortage of shops and there is lots to buy as long as you want silk or bamboo.

The shopping is succesful and we head back to the hotel to dump the stuff. The owner informs us that he wants us to change rooms. I tell him we can't be bothered but he is really insistent, so I eventually do a deal with him to take another room for USD$8, two hours free internet, and free breakfast. Rachel chips in that we want cheese this time too.

In the evening we catch up with internet and email before taking an early night. We sleep in a mouldy smelling room and in the morning we head down for breakfast to find the fridge bare, so we just have jam on the bread again. The hotel owner prepares the bill and creatively tries to cheat us in as many ways as possible. Firsly he tries to charge us 10% tax which does not exist, secondly he tries to use a wildly unrealistic dollar exchange rate, thirldy he tries to charge us for the free internet, and fourthly he overcharges us for some laundry. Fortunately, I've anticipated all of this, and I show him my own version of the bill, pay him the money, and just as he's really starting to loudly protest, we walk out the door and into the street. He doesn't follow. We feel glad to be leaving Vietnam.
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