Thursday, August 17, 2017

August 14 – Goodbye Halong Bay

As I was slowly regaining consciousness after a dreamless sleep, the first thing I recognized was the sound of the air conditioner turning off – the best alarm clock available in these parts. Yes, I slept right through the 6 am sunrise experience and tai chi lessons, but it was a late night and there was a lot of beer for the system to process, so the sleep was definitely required.

The day was cloudy and completely overcast and there was a slight drizzle, with thick, dark clouds threatening nearby. We went up to the restaurant for breakfast, consisting of noodles, rice and fruit, and then met down at the dingy for some morning kayaking. Only about half of the guests decided to take in the kayaking, so we motored over to a nearby bay where there was a “kayaking centre” - huge, floating dock, dozens of kayaks, paddles and lifejackets, and a fully staffed operation. It did not take long for us to get our kayaks – Stella and I went together in a double kayak and Ana and Magnus joined up in another.

The site itself was a hong – very similar to some of the ones we explored in Thailand. This one had a large cave-like entrance that we paddled through, which then opened up into a huge, secluded bay, perfect for the hundred or so kayaks gliding through the water. It was fun, but not quite the same as paddling off your own catamaran. How spoiled are we?? Besides the kayaks there were also these large rowboats that fit about 12 people and were being rowed by the Vietnamese guides. It looked like this was primarily for the older clients – likely those traveling in the five level luxury steamers with thick wallets and thin biceps.

We paddled for about 45 minutes and then returned to the boat, and as we were leaving we nearly got smoked by another boat. The other driver had taken off at full speed, swerving wildly, and didn’t check to see if there was anybody else around him. This technique the Vietnamese use so efficiently for driving scooters in the city works fine because the overall speed of traffic is so low, but on the water it is treacherous because they are able to drive much faster. I am sure there are crashes out here all the time.

Back on the boat we were directed to gather up all of our things and vacate the cabins by 9:30 am to give the staff time to prepare them for the next group. We did so and returned to the restaurant where we chatted with the other guests, played cards, and watched the weather outside get progressively more and more rainy, until it was a total downpour. Some of the guests on our boat had actually paid for a 3 day, 2 night cruise, but David gave them the bad news that the second part of their trip was going to get cancelled because of the weather. When the weather gets bad the coast guard does not allow the tourist boats to go out into the bay, so those folks affected were trying to figure out what do to instead.

Before long it was time for lunch, so this time we sat with all the kids while Kiran and Aisha sat with the French girls and a couple of Aussies. The kids were all having so much fun together and the English boys were so polite and well spoken. Magnus had been teaching them the Magic card game throughout the trip so I could tell he was so happy to finally have somebody that actually wanted to play the game with him.

Our waiter brought out some vegetables and a tasty looking meat dish and I asked him what it was, to which he replied, “Pork.” Amar, the older bay, looked over to his dad and Kiran gave him the thumbs down, so I assumed they didn’t eat pork. Amar told his younger brother Kamil and Kamil said, “What? We can’t eat it? But I love pork, it’s my favourite food!”

The boys started eating the vegetables and rice, but then the waiter brought over another very tasty looking meat dish – pork ribs. We gave the kids the bad news. Amar looked to his dad and said, “Pork again Daddy, can we eat it?”

Kiran said, “OK, go ahead, since there’s nothing else available.”

The boys dug into the pork and started munching away. Kamil had a few bites and then announced, “I hate pork.” We started laughing.

The waiter then brought out a third unexpected meat dish, and this one was chicken! There was great happiness around the table and the two lads dug in. I must say, I was so impressed with this short episode. Their family did not eat pork, but when they were faced with no other options, dad let the kids have some, so that they could enjoy the meal with the rest of their new friends. This to me is the essence of being a great traveler – being flexible in the face of limited options, or options that you would not normally choose. This is why I can’t imagine how a person with strict food requirements, such as being a vegan, or having food allergies, would be able to handle a place like this, where your food choices are simply not as flexible as you would have at home, and the preparation standards are completely out of your control. This could make a trip truly miserable, but I suppose in the face of such challenges, one would either have to bend one’s rules, or else suffer through it. Or else stay home, and that would be a bloody shame.

As we ate our lunch the boat worked its way through the clear, blue waters, passing by these unlikely limestone structures, sometimes so close that it seemed you could reach out the window and drag your knuckles across the grey surfaces. It was too bad that the rain would not let up, as it would have been a remarkable view from the top of the boat.

Before long we were back at the harbor and waiting for our bus to arrive. The kids were busy catching crabs on the shoreline while we waited, inhaling air that was thick with humidity and diesel vapors, talking with our English buddies. We had learned that Kiran’s family was from India and Aisha’s was from Nigeria so they were telling us all about their customs, family links, travels and so on. We were discovering that we had a lot in common, and therefore had plenty to talk about.

The bus ride back to Hanoi went quickly, as we chatted with our buds the whole way, and the kids played cards in the back seat of the bus, which they had commandeered as it gave them the greatest possible playing space. We stopped for a break at yet another giant tourist centre, and this one was selling living room sets that looked as if they were heisted from a royal palace somewhere – carved from a single tree, elaborate, regal, and layered with a hundred coats of varnish. As much as I loved the chairs, they probably weighed four hundred pounds each, so they were just not a backpacker-friendly souvenir.

After saying goodbye to the rest of the passengers, and making plans to meet up with our friends for dinner, we were dropped off at the hotel Indochina Queen 2, deep in the heart of the Old Quarter. Our room was massive – it was actually two rooms separated by a door, and each room had two queen beds and its own tv and air conditioner. We exploded our stuff all over the room and had a nice long chill out session. We weren’t meeting our friends until 9 pm for dinner, but we were getting pretty hungry so I went out and secured some snacks. – four noodle bowls, one hot dog on a stick decorated with a line of chili sauce and a line of ketchup, and finally one of those fancy white buns with a salty duck egg inside, all purchased at the local mini mart for about five bucks.

We went back out into the heat and it hit us like a nuclear blast wave, instantly drawing the sweat from our bodies and soaking our previously AC-dried shirts and shorts. This is one hot city, man.

When I had described the rendezvous point to our friends as being at the north end of the lake, in a huge, tranquil area gated off for pedestrian use only, I didn’t expect that the pedestrian-only arrangement was done only on the weekends, so we arrived to a chaotic mess of traffic, making it look quite unlike anything I had described. Nevertheless, we found each other, and sat down to a lovely and leisurely meal, fueled by cold beer, rum and apple juice, and excellent conversation.  After our meal we walked over to a coffee shop for a nightcap and squeezed in one more drink before the midnight close-up. As we were finishing, we were suddenly hit by a cold wind and then the heavens opened and gave Hanoi a well needed dousing. But like I have said, since you’re soaked with perspiration already, the rain doesn’t make much of a difference, and is always welcome since it brings down the temperature and gives your clothes a fresh water rinse.

We said goodbye to our friends, as we weren’t going to see them again, but we exchanged information with mutual promises of a visit sometime in the future. Since we are so overdue for a trip to London, I think it may happen sooner than we think, but time will tell.

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