Halong Bay and Hué
About a bay
The hardest part of Halong Bay was not so much getting there, rather how to get there. Every travel agency in Hanoi offers trips out there, all slightly different variations on a theme, but never clarity on the detail on what you would precisely get. In the end we decided to pay a little more and go with a quality operator, TF Handspan they called themselves, and their trip was excellent.
Costing a little more (30 dollars rather than 25- for back packers that ten dollars is a big deal) meant that the clientele was slightly more up market. We find ourselves on a bus with a slightly older crowd, none of your gap year or just-finished-university scrimpers and savers. There were 15 of us on the boat, a decent sized crowd of predominantly Auzzies, English and German.
Halong bay is a natural wonder of the world. Hundreds of green and grey rocky islands jutting up like the partly submerged spines of a party of sleeping sea monsters. We motored around the islands, taking in the sun and the beauty and talking... "Hey Maddy," said the loud Auzzies wife to her husband (his name was Mathew, but her pronunciation of 't' sounded like 'd') you shoulda broadya stubby." They do like to travel with those beer can coolers I thought. "Thad'll be roight" he replied before cracking open another tinnie. This was to be a good trip. The Australians all turned out to be schoolteachers, and Maddy was a sports teacher, based at an international school. We stopped at an island and went swimming where the sports teacher was persuaded to teach the Irish lad how to dive by his pushy English girlfriend despite the fact that he could not swim. An odd sight seeing a florescent white Irishman wearing a bright orange life vest attempting to dive off the side of the boat. More often than not spectacularly belly flopping.
Food was dished up on board, great helpings of seafood. The waiter looked like a Vietnamese Manuel from Fawlty Towers. "Ya" said the German, "I have see n zis Fawlty towers. Very funny ya, the one about the Germans. I laugh about Basil Fawlty saying, "Don't mention ze war." I had often wondered!
Swimming that night, with no moon, was fantastic. The sea provided its own lighting; with phosphoresce dancing from our fingertips as we swam. I asked the chemistry teacher what caused this, but he was unsure. So teachers don't have all the answers then...
There is much more to write about with the trip to Halong bay- it must be one of the trip highlights. But the grumbling stomach demands food and that requires me to cease writing. I must just make note of the bus trip back from Halong Bay though. Stopping at a tollbooth a woman collecting money from drivers stood by the roadside. She could have been the invisible woman. She wore an official white suit with white gloves. Completely covering her face was a white towel, with another covering her forehead, tucked underneath her cap. Thick-rimmed sunglasses covered her eyes ensuring not a single ray of light would touch her skin.
And then I started noticing a trend. Women on motorbikes, wearing shoulder length gloves, and triangular handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses, the new cowboys of the road. Their purpose twofold. Firstly to protect against pollution, but secondly to protect against darkening the colour of their skin. And there is the irony. White people flocking to the sun to get darker, dark people shunning the sun to get lighter. Will we never be happy with our looks?
Leaving Hanoi railway station they were making a film in front of our carriage. It seemed that an actor would wave at someone as the train departed. As we pulled out of the station, with cameras rolling I waved intensely and stuck my tongue out. Deliciously naughty. But amusing at the time.
We pulled into Hue the following morning. A minibus picked us up from the station; in Hanoi a smartly dressed and well spoken man gave us a sales patter about his hotel. He obviously approached all the westerners on the train, taking their names and phoning the hotel ahead, because we were met by a rep with a board with a long list of names and we all crammed into the minibus. 'No obligation ' mind. I took a look at a couple of other hotels but they were much of a muchness. We took a room in the first hotel. A good business!
Not much to write about with Hue. A trip down the Perfume River visiting old royal tombs. By the third tomb the temperature was touching 40 Celsius and no one was bothered to get off the boat. Chatted to an Auzzie postie from Sydney and his wife. About house prices. And of course the Auzzie dollar.
A couple of other things about Hue:
Rented a Honda moped for the day, cruising seventy kilometers to a beach that was nothing special.
Found a pucka Indian restaurant in town, good to eat without chop sticks for a change. Ah! But there was more to it than that...
Nothing lonely about this planet
Now we have just entered the restaurant and a blond Danish couple acknowledge us. I enter small talk with them, completely clueless as to who they are. Lindsey is similarly baffled. Oh to be the president of the USA, with aides whispering in your ear, "and this is John Doe who donated thirty million dollars to the election campaign coffers..."
We decided when the Danes left that in fact we'd not met them before; rather they'd seen us at every destination they'd been to in Vietnam. Sapa, Hanoi, Halong Bay, and now Hue. We had a mysterious habit of popping up. What must they have thought when I talked to them all pally as though we'd known them for years. Ho hum. Memory ain't what it used to be. But it just goes to show you how we are simply tourists on a well trodden route. The only difference between us and the package trippers is that we endure the hassles of booking things ourselves. And do it slightly cheaper. The dichotomy between the tourist and the traveler is an anachronism. It is irrelevant. We are backpackers; just a different class of tourist. (Wow! Never thought this travel snob would say such a thing). Travel? 'tis all but dead. The whole planet is now in the book. Tony Wheeler and his Lonely Planet enterprise have effectively ensured the planet is no longer lonely. How do you sleep at night Tony?