Thursday, 7 March 2013

Halong bay, Ning Bihn & Phong Nha

Took a 3 day tour to the world famous Halong bay (or Ha Long Bay). The tour almost got cancelled because it rained. The government got strict about it because a few years ago a boat sunk in the middle of the night killing 11 tourists. The crew just jumped aboard without waking anybody up or sounding an alarm. Although, I still don't see much sense in it. What if you're already on the boat and it starts to rain, then what happens? While waiting, I looked around at the people on my boat. Nobody inspired much interest in me, and I continued writing my blog. After a few hours, these people started forming groups, "oh-oh" I thought. Once groups are formed it's hard to make your way in. I remembered what I discovered just a few days ago, that there are no "non talk-able" people, turned off my computer, made some random comment and fit right in. The boat was beautiful (even though all boats are called "junk"), I had a room all for myself, wood finish, modern bathroom, other nice touches. We all started talking about prices. I paid $80 for a 3 day all inclusive tour, others paid $80 for 2 days. I don't understand why. Hanoi is full of agencies all selling these tours. Did they just walk into the first one and bought it? Walk in at least five, so you'll have a chance to compare especially that they're all next door to each other.
Halong bay is indescribably beautiful, something magical, something unreal of 1000s of green limestone islets rising out of water, and even 100s of boats cruising around don't ruin much of the scenery. We were enjoying the beautiful day on the deck while sipping red wine and eating fruits. Too bad it was a bit foggy though.
First day it was already too late to do much, such as kayaking, and we only had time to stop at a cave. It was the most stalactites and stalagmites that I've seen concentrated in such a small area. Our guide was picking on a fat boy. "How many babies are you having?", "What a beautiful man, do you want to marry him?", "Double portion for the fat boy" or "No food for you, you're on diet today". There are no social norms here at all.
In the evening we had to fulfil our junk name "Halong party", woke our guide up, connected a karaoke machine and started singing and dancing around. Half the people went to sleep, half of the remaining people sat quietly, and I was ordering songs, jumping, singing, dancing, without any care in the world, and that's without any alcohol. A few months ago, I started thinking why people care what others think of them, I didn't find an answer and since then it's really hard to embarrass me or make me feel uncomfortable. Just remembered a saying: "People buy things they don't need on the money they don't have to make impression on people they don't know". And I know that I don't have any voice to sing, and how many people were turning on the volume in the car when I started singing. But I love it, and I do it! They kicked us out at 10:30 :( Stuff works with no breaks, sleeps with no beds, and they need these precious hours which would be better spent in quiet than listening to our whaling sounds.
Woke up at 6am as was initially agreed upon, too bad nobody told me that the breakfast has been changed for 7:30. It's ok, I did yoga on the deck in peace and quiet with the first rays of sun. We then picked up some girls from another boat, all girls, all made up, and got dropped off on an island. We were supposed to go for a walk, it ended up being more than a hike, with some parts that you have to climb and use scary ladders. I don't think they were happy about the short dresses that they were wearing. They're sweaty, and they complain about it all the time. It was an "Yeeeeeeeiiuuuuu!!" symphony. I almost asked them if they've ever been to the gym or the sauna? Maybe not everybody is talk-able :) We reached a high point with a lookout tower. They told us not to climb it, because it's not safe. I decided to check the validity of that statement and discovered that it's pretty safe except that at the very top there are a few pieces of wood missing from the platform floor, otherwise everything is ok :) Reminded me of a phrase: If you don't take risks, you don't drink champagne. I had to reinvent it to: if you don't take risks, you don't have good pictures :)
Next was monkey island. I told everyone to stay away from the monkeys. They're cute and fuzzy, but they're evil monsters. They looked at me, and I could hear a laughter inside. I ordered coke in the restaurant, and right away I saw a monkey climbing down the roof. I know what it wants! I put the coke on the chair next to me hoping it wouldn't see it. This was not the case, it walked on the table, took the coke and sat on the fence to drink it. I didn't move or made a sound when it was near me. What monkey wants, monkey gets! That bustard, I only took maybe 3 sips :) Everyone loved it, what great photo opportunity it made. Then they stole some beers. Imagine what a can of coke or a can of beer can do to a little monkey.
Daniel (one guy from the boat) and I both can't sit at one place and we hiked up the hill for the views. No trail, we had some awesome rock climbing experience. On the top were the views, and on the other side of the hill was a resort with lounge chairs which we of course occupied. On the way back, a monkey attacked a girl on the beach for no reason. She wasn't near him at all or provoked him in any way. The monkey just run up to her and bit her leg. Now she has a deep wound and needs to urgently go to Hanoi for rabies shots.
In the evening I convinced Daniel to go to the fort, luckily not much convincing was required. I like forts, they always offer great views. But at this fort I liked the cannons, bunkers and tunnels more than the views.
Next day on the way back, most of the girls were sleeping on the deck. I don't get it. Don't they know that these places don't exist in the world??? They could've waited 2 more hours on the boat, and slept 4 hours on the bus. I'm on the other hand was happy to find out that I didn't forget much Spanish, as there were 2 girls from Spain, and I spoke to them in Spanish all the way back to Hanoi.
I swear that Asia is the only place in the world where it's easier and cheaper to take a tour. So I got a tour. It's a boat ride on the river with a stop at yet another temple. I'm moving south and this place is a few hours south of Hanoi, which is right on the way. All the trips leaving from Hanoi stop at souvenir shops, often selling handicrafts made by disabled people. Among all the pictures, plates, cloths, there are also huge marble statues, and on drive to the river, we saw the whole effect of destruction of such beautiful mountains for the extraction of marble. These were not mountains anymore, but rather ghost mountains.
This trip was much better than perfume pagoda. More peaceful, more relaxing, more beautiful, less hassle. The selling ladies tried to sell us water/cookies/candies ... when I said that I don't need anything, she tried the guilt trick on me of buying something for the lady who rows the boat. "Buy cookies and water for her, she's tired, she works very hard for you". I looked at her and asked, do you want cookies or money? She said money ... I thought so. The ladies who row the boat, do it with their legs, which is a much better idea I think because legs are stronger and the pictures are better :)
I asked the bus driver to drop me off in town from where I could take the bus south. I asked everyone where the bus station is, at the end I walked 1 km one way, just to walk 1 km back. There is no bus station! Besides that, nobody could understand what I want from them. I ask them in Vietnamese where is a bus station, and they just look at me. No wonder though, one variation in intonation and the whole word changes meaning, what if I ask them for a chicken bus or a donkey station ... doesn't make much sense now, does it? :)
Finally caught a bus on the street where my bus driver dropped me off. Apparently there is no bus station, you just flag any bus that passes and it will stop for you. I got on a very run down local bus, no space for legs, no fabric on the seats. He tells me it's 400,000. What is it a magic number?? I tried to argue with him, telling him the price written in lonely planet. He is telling me 4 times that price. We go back and forth, he's getting rude, I'm getting angry. I asked them to stop the bus and got out. The bus stood, they talked and talked, at the end motioned me to come back on. I was upset and didn't want to go on that bus anymore. It's not alright to make fools out of tourists. I took my suitcase and walked the other way with an angry face. Caught next bus, it was cheaper, though still more expensive than in LP, but I don't understand why it took much longer than mentioned in LP ... maybe because of construction work. At least that bus was a sleeping one. Arrived in mid town only at 10:30 at night. Walked alone to the hotel in the dark, freaky, not the best idea. Good that it was near the bus terminal, the only hotel mentioned in lonely planet, even there it says that no one will speak English. When I got there, they did! What a surprise! They must have read the lonely planet comment and decided to hire an English speaking person.
My morning bus was 40 minutes late, and there were no more buses going to the Phong-Nha national park that day. I had no choice but to go with a motorcycle taxi, with a backpack on my shoulders and my suitcase on my lap sitting behind the driver. I had no money left and we stopped at an ATM. Again, not a very good idea, me, my money and a driver on his motorcycle. But they're locals, not yet destroyed by the corruption of tourism, so it was ok. One hour and $13 later, I arrived in the only hotel, where I met 2 more couples of backpackers. We were offered a tour on a posh laptop for $75 each. What kind of price is that? We didn't really understand the point when we refused and just went to the pier and got the same tour for $20.
On the river the locals collect moss, I think it's morning glory, on small boats with long long sticks, all dressed head to toe in this heat protecting themselves from the sun. On the itinerary are 2 caves. We drove to the 1st one, got another boat to go inside the cave, as usual the stalactites and stalagmites are lit up with a rainbow of colors. There is water running through the cave, and a beach. I'm yet to see a waterfall, a very tall one, that would be cool :) We got back on the boat and drove an hour back. Why are we back? We have 2 caves, take us to the 2nd cave. We argue with them, they argue with us, they don't speak English, we show them the ticket for the 2nd cave, we have no idea what they tell us, needless to say it went on for a while. They got out of the boat, talked to some tourist information people, and reluctantly took us back to the place where the 1st cave is! Apparently they're right beside each other. Whose fault is it??
Took a taxi to paradise cave. It was funny as we couldn't find how to talk to the only taxi driver that we found. We tried to pantomime him the cave, a biiiiig cave, daaaaark cave!! No result ... then as a joke the 5 of us started talking to him in all the languages that we knew. He reacted to German! That was a surprise :) I don't already remember how he knew it, but he knew it fluently. Lonely planet got the description off when it described the cave as breathtaking. It should be speechless, unbelievable, indescribable! It was just discovered 3 years ago, and I think it's the largest cave in the world. 32 kilometres long, and only 1.6 are open for tourism. They built lights and a very nice walkway. We couldn't stop turning our heads and "woooooow"ing :), too bad it was relatively dark, and the pictures are not that great. Had to yell at a girl who was touching the stalactites. Isn't it common sense, don't touch stalactites, don't throw garbage around, don't kill squirrels, don't don't don't!!
In Laos and in Vietnam there are many people keeping birds in cages, sometimes in very tiny cages. My heart hurts every time I see that, and since Laos I'm coming up with plans to release them. In the evening we ate at a restaurant that had 3 cages, we had a few beers, I got enough courage, looked around to make sure nobody was looking, and opened one of the cages where the bird couldn't sit on one spot, was just jumping from wall to wall. I felt good, the other couple gave me a high five saying they dreamt to do it for a few months now, but in the morning I felt a bit bad. Some say that if a bird was in  a cage for too long, then it won't be able to survive in the wild, so what if I just accidentally killed it? In these countries birds are a status thing, when one bird can cost $20 (a 2 week income), and everybody's keeping it, not in the house, or in the back of the house, but in front, for everyone else to see. If there are 100 million people in Vietnam, and everyone has a bird, there are no more birds left in nature, and how will they reproduce? Lets just hope that they reproduce faster than the Vietnamese. 


  1. замечательный блог! создает такое позитивное, радостное настроение (несмотря на твои недомолвки с водителем автобуса:)), но ты ведь уже привыкла, что все, кто может, пытается "срубить деньги" с лохов-туристов?
    и фотографии просто чудо!! ну да, на некоторых видно, что погода не очень, ну что делать? все равно очень- очень красиво!!

  2. Yana
    Another great story from the other side of the world.
    Thank you