Saturday, May 29, 2010

Seasons Greetings, Part 3... Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

We climbed into the vans... and headed up into the mountains, and to the border crossing into Vietnam half-an-hour away. As we approached, a blast of icy cold air and rain started to fall. We reached the border crossing and it was very ominous. This concrete, very Soviet looking building loomed over us in the middle of a dark stretch of woods. The Communist symbols of Vietnam and large propaganda posters of sunny faced workers greeted us from behind the iron gates. Inside the room, we handed our passports over and waited until our fixer had bribed the right guy to let us thru quickly. An hour later, we were allowed to cross the metal detectors and now found ourselves in Vietnam. We walked out of the building and into the freezing drizzle to find our waiting bus. One problem, though… no bus. Mai kept trying to call the driver, but the mountains made the cell phone useless. Another problem… once you leave the building, they cannot let you reenter without invalidating your visa.

So there we were… twelve hungover tourists on New Year’s Day, standing out in rain in the bitter cold of a dark a misty Communist country without a ride.

Needless to say, some people, including [NAME REMOVED] were quite pissed by this predicament. Me? I had a blast with it! I was cracking jokes, and trying to get everyone’s spirits up by realizing just what a ridiculous situation this was! They had none of it…

After about two hours in the rain (Hah!) our bus finally arrived; slowed down by the thick fog and rain on the mountain roads. [NAME REMOVED] immediately threatened me with bodily harm if I tipped the driver. Just between you and me… I tipped him extra because other people were going to short him.

After an hour thru the mountains as we all sat for an hour in our cold, wet clothes, Mai pulled us over into a restaurant for us to use the bathrooms and get some hot tea all around. The break really helped with everyone’s morale. Especially since we knew what was to come… a solid twelve hours of driving from the Nam Phao checkpoint all the way to Hanoi. Almost the entire drive was on the QL-1A… the highway that stretches the entire length of Vietnam. Speeding along at 120kph without much scenery in one minibus just drained everyone. Once the sun set and we were all in the dark, we asked our driver if he would turn on the monitor so we could watch something. The only movie he had in the bus was “Last Stop 174”… the most suicide inducing depression of a movie about gangs in the Rio slums. After the movie, just about everyone was ready to throw themselves under the van tires. Finally… around midnight, we finally pulled into the great city of Hanoi. Before running off to our warm beds, we ran down the street and picked up some bowls of pho bo (beef noodles).

We got to Hanoi at just the right time… only two days into 2010. The city was officially established in the year 1010… making this year its 1000th year of existence. They were already prepping for the party when we arrived. We all awoke a little late, needing just a bit more sleep after the drive from hell. We walked a few blocks until we reached KOTO, a fantastic restaurant with a twist. KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One. It is a group of restaurants that are also schools. Street kids and orphans are taken in and taught hospitality, serving, restaurant management, and cooking. Our entire meal was served and cooked by a very well trained group of thirteen year olds. Afterwards, they’re sent across the world for advanced training in top restaurants and hotels… service with a smile.

[NAME REMOVED] and I took a stroll to explore the city. Hanoi is a tangled mass of people and vehicles in constant motion… most of them are motorcycles. Millions upon millions of motorcycles and scooters. We both had to learn a difficult trick… how to cross the street. When you have a massive wall of 100cc engines plowing down on you at high speed, there’s only one thing you can do… don’t stop. As soon as you step into the street, you keep moving and do not slow down… no matter what. The motorcycles all swerve to miss you, as long as you keep moving… ‘cause if you stop, you’re dead.

We checked out the Temple of Literature, where the oldest university in Asia was founded… in 1070. They still have large stone carvings that display the degrees awarded over 800 years ago. We headed north up into the city center, passing a small park with a large statue of Lenin. I had forgotten that a war was fought here up until the year I was born. The country is still Communist, but you wouldn’t know walking through the city… with exception of the huge statues.

Just across the street is the Army Museum to the American War. If you ever have the chance, learn about a battle or strife from the opponent’s point of view. The museum was almost entirely in Vietnamese, but you could tell what the little white placards were saying from the pictures and diagrams of the horrors of war… mostly from us. Captured tanks and downed American planes were parked along the side of the museum with a still intact anti-aircraft embattlement that you can climb through. The photos of devastation and helmets riddled with bullet holes, sulking soldiers and limbs blown off. It was sometimes tough to look at the images that show the brutality of the U.S. attacks. It really makes you feel ambivalent about where you are from.

A littler further down the road was the huge white tomb of Ho Chi Minh. After walking thru the large square, we simply kept walking around the city… checking out the military installations, the lakes, and the French Provencal architecture of the classic homes. We ended up scrambling up and down the narrow alleyways until we reached the Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake. I spent a good hour just winding thru the mass of locals eating street food and strolling thru the willows. We were able to find our way to Bag Street where I bought a really nice $200 trekking backpack for about $30. Plus I ate a huge bowl of incredible Vietnamese noodles with sweet spring rolls… I love Vietnam. Across the street one of our tour mates guided us to a quiet shop where we could purchase any movie or television show ever made… both legal and not-quite-so-legal… maybe. We spent a fortune buying everything we could think of… not having a selection of movies or TV in Doha makes one crave the little things… like Murder She Wrote and South Park.

Since my feet were killing me, we grabbed two bicycle rickshaws for a ride thru traffic back to the hotel. The pack of drivers saw me coming and they all tried to scramble away. Once I was on the bike, I quickly found out that if I leaned forward, the single back tire and driver would lift up off the ground and possibly go tumbling over.

After a quick nap, the group got together for our last night together. We jumped into some cabs to get to the famed Hanoi water puppet show. Unfortunately, our cab driver did not know where this famed theatre was… even though it is directly across the street from the most famous landmark in the entire fucking city. Mai was in our cab, and she started screaming at the cab driver to stop because he was lost. The cabbie finally stopped in the middle of traffic and we all jumped out of the cab without paying. Two girls were still inside when he squealed his tires and sped off… thankfully they caught up to us later. The water puppet theatre is a classic form of folk storytelling using puppets in a large pool, accompanied by several musicians playing Viet instruments and singing throughout the performance. It was really interesting, but I was a little embarrassed because the chairs were made for three year old girls… not a warm blooded American man. I was blocking the view of about four rows behind me… sorry.

A few blocks later we met up at an incredible restaurant located inside of an old timber home. We had a back room entirely to ourselves where we took off our shoes, sat on the floor, and reminisced about all the fun and adventure we had over the past two weeks. I was amazed at how much fun I had with a group of complete strangers from all over the world. We really shared a bond of close-knit travel, sleeping in the same squalor, wanting to kill all the same roosters. To all of them in our group… a huge thanks and best wishes and safe travels to all. Also, I strongly recommend both Intrepid Travel and especially our tour guide, Mai. Both the company and Mai made us always feel at home, and took great care of us. I will definitely be touring with them again in the future.

After dinner, [NAME REMOVED] and I said our goodbyes to everyone, but we had to head back to the hotel to get ready for the next day. [NAME REMOVED] really wanted to spend a few days in the northern mountain town of Sapa… I wanted to see Ha Long Bay. So we split the difference and went to both by hiring a separate tour company to handle one more week’s worth of travel. We had a bus pick us up in the morning that took us to a back alley where it stopped, the driver got out, and left us sitting alone for about half an hour. Turns out he needed his breakfast. After he finished his tea, we picked up a few more people and started out for a five hour drive to the eastern coast of Vietnam.

As we approached the water, the mountains to the north started to fade and get smaller and smaller. Suddenly, we were at the water’s edge, but the mountains just kept on going into the sea. Ha Long Bay is a maze… a true maze created by God and nature and set upon the sea. Literally translated into “descending dragon” bay, the water’s edge is surrounded by 1,960 islets of limestone, teetering hundreds of feet above the water’s surface; greened with age, algae, and ferns.

Our bus pulled into a parking lot that was filled the large touring busses and a massive swarm of tourists waiting to pull out into water. After waiting for our guide to get our tickets, we walked down the concrete steps and loaded up onto a large longtail to be ferried onto our overnight boat. Enormous boats, most three to five stories tall, were tied together along the edge of the bay. We pulled up to our boat, the Phoenix Cruiser, where the crew where on the back deck waving and smiling for our arrival. Onboard I discovered that these boats were unlike anything I had ever been on before. Made entirely of dark woods, the railings, walls, and ceilings were all intricately carved with Asian lettering and symbols. Our cabin was equipped with a full bed including a large screen television… by far the best room of the entire trip.

We headed to the kitchen area and enjoyed a sumptuous local lunch of fish, squid, and octopus. The boat slowly pulled away from the crowds and departed into the deep. The boat weaved between the narrow spaces of the limestone towers, and in the distance were overlapping formations, making a wall of rock in front of us, rising spectacularly from the ocean depths. On the roof of the boat I sat and stared off into the dark green waters and afternoon haze.

After an hour’s ride, the boat set anchor amidst a slew of islets. We re-boarded the tender ship and were dropped off at a nearby dock built into a large limestone cliff. Our group climbed a large flight of stairs carved into the rock until we reached a small cave entrance and walked in. We were at the Thien Cung grotto, a system of caves worn into the limestone from millions of years of rainwater seeping into the stone. As someone who has explored the many caves of Texas, this one wasn’t too special.

Back at the Phoenix Cruiser, an Australian family with three teen kids wanted to go swimming in the beautiful green water. Our boat crew took them up to the roof and encouraged them to try diving off the roof. Their dad climbed over the safety railing, but was too afraid to jump the twenty feet into the sea. I can’t stand to see a grown man cower in front of his kids… so I took off my shirt and started to climb the railing. At this point, our guide grabbed me and started to explain that the jump was very far, and that I probably couldn’t handle it. That was when I leapt off and did a one-and-a-half and dove straight down into the brine. The water was cool and salty, and so deep a green that you couldn’t see your own feet… it was fantastic. After my jump, the guide stared down at me with an astonished look; he obviously thought I was some lazy cripple… not the world class athlete that I am…

After an hour of diving and swimming, interrupted by the way to narrow and slippery ladder I struggle to climb back aboard, I dried off and was treated to another delicious meal in the dining room. We spent some time on the roof, gazing up at the bright, clear stars while other large cruising boats waded into our grotto and anchored for the night. Local women in small oared boats paddled next to the cruiser and called up to us, asking us if we wanted to buy batteries or Oreo cookies (I ended up buying some spare batteries and a back of Shrimp Pringles). That evening, [NAME REMOVED] and I settled into our room and fell asleep watching some of the DVDs we had picked up in Hanoi.

We awoke early the next morning for a quick breakfast and a ferry ride to Ba Hang, one of the floating fishing villages dotted among the limestone. These villages are simple huts with gangplanks, kept afloat by mixtures of barrels, Styrofoam and empty water bottles. Our guide explained that the people who live on these rafts will spend their entire lives here… never once setting foot on dry land. Between the gangplanks were nets dipped into the water where the people actually farmed their own special fish; including small sharks, abalone, and cuttlefish. Each village has prospered by the tourism industry, Ba Hang had a store of two-person kayaks that our group were renting for the morning.

Once again, my American size prevented me from sharing a kayak, and I was given a large single for myself. As the morning mist had not yet burned off, we all headed out away from the boats to explore the monoliths up close. We all silently rowed and became separated, leaving each boat the glide along in peace. I rode up to some of the cliffs and discovered that there were small caves and grottos as the water’s edge almost everywhere you looked. I pulled into one and almost got stuck, having to use my oar to force my kayak further into the rock face until I came out about fifty yards to the right of where I started… an entrance completed invisible from the outside. The serene beauty of the seemingly never-ending walls… it just takes your breath away.

Back onboard the cruiser, we had our lunch and set off back to dry land. The Phoenix Cruiser pulled into the bay and we were ferried back to land. As we were boarding our bus, we saw two members of our original tour group heading out to sea. We wished them well, and started our drive back to Hanoi.

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