Wow, what a fantastic few days in Vietnam I’ve had so far. The last time I blogged, I’d described how I very nearly missed my flight to Hanoi and my visit to the Vietnamese War Museum.
After getting back to the hostel from the War Musuem and subsequent cups of strong Vietnamese coffee, I ensured I had everything together for the next morning. I had booked to go on a two day/one night boat trip to Ha Long Bay. I had seen this place on the internet and in the brouchures before I came over. It looked stunning. I hoped the weather would be better than it was when I arrived in Hanoi for a mnumber of reasons. Firstly, I have a lot of rain and cold weather living on the Wirral (I have decided it’s on the Wirral, not in Wirral. Debate over, unless anyone wishes to contest?) so would prefer a bit of sun; secondly; after being in the sunnier climes of Dubai and Thailand, I had started to get some sort of ‘tan’ and hoped to give this a bit of a top up and finally, I didn’t want to face another dilemma about picking the best out of a bad bunch of pants to wear, and try to combine with my radical trainies.
With everything stuffed in my backpack (now weighing considerably heavier due to my book buying), I padlocked the bag safely in the locker which lay below the bottom bunk. Shit…..I haven’t took the padlock key out of the bag. It was very late at night at this point and all the other people staying in my room were in bed and presumably asleep. Two things are going through my head. One; I need to be up early with those bags which are locked away and two; do I disturb the whole room now trying to gain access or do it tomorrow? I was tired and thinking of others, so thought it can wait until the morning. On another occassion, this might have kept me up all night; going over scenarios about how I will never see the bag again. Never see the precious books I’d bought again and how, I’d have to go on the boat trip tomorrow in just what I’m wearing (shorts and grey t-shirt…..it was cold. I don’t even wear that at home, but going ‘commando’ might be insensitive given the close proximity I am to strangers in the hostel) and inevitably how I’d have to use other people’s ‘lost’ shorts from the boats’ lost property box, which would undoubetdly be smelly and damp. At the time this incident happened, I didn’t think all that. I just thought ‘Oh I’ll sort it tomorrow…..hopefully.’ All this other stuff about lost property has come to me now and I’m amazed at how relaxed I was about the situation. I climbed into bed, tired after a hard day of walking and war and stuff and lay my curly head to rest.
As a quick side note about the hair, it continues to be talked about on home shores and here. It some respects, my barnet has gone global, I suppose. One woman behind the reception desk at the hostel I was at said she remembered my name because of my hair. Thanks. I hope it’s because she thought ‘Man with nice hair…..Matt’ and not ‘Man with a burst casey on his head…..Matt.’ I will never know. Maybe we can run a Twitter poll or something and see what everyone thinks?
So the next morning, I wake for breakfast at about 7.30am. I had ‘snoozed’ the alarm twice. We’re due to leave for Ha Long Bay at 8am. When I finally wake up, it comes to me…..I need to get into my locker by force. I head downstairs and explain that I need a little padlock breaking. The fella from behind the desk gets a crowbar and a hammer. I debate whether I just let him into the room alone to do it and I wait outside (like a coward) or I accompany him on his mission to release my belongings, which is going to be noisy and surely going to disturb other people. Everyone is still asleep apart from one girl who’s coming to Ha Long Bay as well. She’s gone for breakfast by the time I return. Your man kneels down, hammer and crowbar at the ready. I’m almost praying that the forced entry works first time. It’s only a tiny padlock. BANG…..BANG…..nothing. People have begun to toss and turn in their beds. I’m aware I’m pulling a face one might pull whilst driving a wide car down a narrow alleyway, hoping their precious wing mirrors don’t get scraped. My teeth are clenched together. He repositions…..BANG…..BANG…..phew! The feeble little thing falls apart. I thank him, relieved that I don’t have to wear anything from the lost property box, although given the recent fashion disasters I’ve openly disclosed, I might find something more appealing, if such a box does exist on the boat.
I have breakfast, free with the cost of the room which consists of a banana and egg and bread. I board the bus and we head out of the city. The journey is due to take about 3 and a half hours. A few hours into the journey, mountains stand majestically in the fog in the distance. The surrounding areas look deserted. To the right I see lots of buildings, most of which look like no-one has entered them for a number of years. I struggle to conclude whether some of these buildings are half finished or halfway through a demolition process. I’m excited to see that, more or less every other one has the words ‘KARAOKE BAR’ on the outisde. Karaoke? Here? In this deserted place in North Vietnam? Not just one either…..dozens. I think that Karaoke must be like Sellotape here. Highly demanded and readily available. I begin to wonder whether these karaoke dives have their regulars, like back home and start to toy around with which song I’d do, if I was to ever happen upon this place again. Do they have Dignity? Mr Bojangles? They’ve definately got Angels. My excitement reduces when I decide these establishments would be the type that have the same 20 songs, consisting of Englebert Humperdink, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Righteous Brothers. Basically it would be one of the Sunfly Karaoke Classic Hits series. Karaoke enthusiasts amongst the readers will know exactly what type of songs are on such discs.
We drive on. I see a shop with the sign ‘Pho to Coppy’ on. This long deserted road would be great if you needed to duplicate important documents, sing old songs and see nice scenary. Anything else, this probably isn’t the road for you. We eventually reach Ha Long Bay Pier. It’s beautiful. Palm trees line either side of the road. In the misty distance, you can see some of the land structures which make up the Bay. I’m momentarily distrubed to see that, attached to the lamp posts on either side of the streets are various Disney characters made of lights. Who thought that appropriate? We pull up and get off the coach and head to our boat. It’s a little boat which take us into the sea where we transfer onto a bigger boat.
The boat is great. I’ve never slept on a boat so was excited. Actually, thinking of it, that’s not technically true. I’ve napped on boats in Turkey and one crossing the English Channel on my way to Amsterdam. But I’ve never spent a night on a boat, in a cabin. There’s little rooms with double and single beds. There’s a table and chairs, a deck up top and speakers playing some sort of Hardcore European Trance music. The choice of music doesn’t fit the environment. Is it a party boat? We put our bags in and head up to the top deck. The people on the bus with me are now here. We start to get to know each other, exchanging names and travel stories so far. English, Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, Spanish and French…..all mixing together peacefully. It’s like the quarter finals of the World Cup but England have surprised everyone by not getting on the first flight home. It’s amazing how well you get to know people over the course of a few days. Travelling, you seem to bond quickly with others. I’ve known these people barely a week, but we’ve seen and experienced so much together already.
We stop off after a short while to explore some caves. They were fascinating. They were huge. Water trickled in parts and blue, red, green and yellow lights illuminate the otherwise darkened chambers. The lights and the water and my imagination transport me to a utopia. A different world. I’m brought back to earth as our tour guide points to various parts of the rockery and insists they look like men and women’s genitals. This one he said looked like a breast.
We get back on the boat and continue to sail the seas. At about 5pm, we transfer back onto the smaller boat and head off to a little hut positioned in the middle of the sea. It has kayaks tied to the jetty outside. We pair up and head off around this splendid place. I get in one kayak and warn the others that my kayaking skills are rusty at best. I’ve not been in a kayak since a five day trip to Oaklands in North Wales when I was in primary school. An eventful five days, where I was part of a group that one day had to read the weather to the rest of the class. One of the parents who accompanied us said to me ‘Imagine you’re Michael Fish.’ Aged 10, I didn’t know who Michael Fish was but remember thinking he had a funny name. Isn’t it amazing the things you remember?
Josie, a girl from Maryland in the USA bravely says she’ll accompany me. She goes behind, I’m up top. We start off OK. The water seems luke warm (who’s Luke?). We agree as a group we’ll jump in later. As we get further out, the group of about 6 or 7 kayaks begins to separate. When I say separate, I mean the rest go off ahead and Josie and I are left trailing. Our kayak keeps veering off to both sides, unintentionally. We try to straighten up. We manage that and begin to row. Then we start to turn again. First to the left, then to the right. We’re confused as to why we were struggling. We wonder how the sheep are staying upright on the steep hills above us and we laugh at our inability to get from A to B. Eventually, we come in to where the hut is, long after everyone else. The rest of the group are already on the boat ready to go. Zero man points for me. Craig Anscombe I am not.
Upon boarding the big boat again, all the lads decide to jump into the water from the top deck. I say to Adam, who’s from Sheffield and lives really close to my mate Nick, that I’ve not jumped off a boat since I was in Altinkum, Turkey. I was more brave back then. Aged 30, I am now more cautious and dareI say it, a little fearful. We get our swimming gear on and climb over the side. Go-Pros at the ready, cameras at the ready, we line up.
When I was buying my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone, the woman told me it was water proof and that occassionally when she is doing her dishes she’ll give it a wipe over with the dish cloth…..she was trying to reassure me it was water proof when I challenged her on it. All I wanted to know was; if I was to drop a glass of water on it, would it be OK? I had and still have no desire to test the theory out with a dish cloth covered in bean juice. I also realise that now wouldn’t be the time to go hell for leather testing the resolve of the water proof gadget, by filming myself jumping into Ha Long Bay. I hand it over to Maia, a girl from Buenos Aries who’s with our group. She says she’ll film my jump. One by one I watch the lads go in, they go out of sight and then reappear shortly afterwards and scramble for the ladder. Things are shouted in various languages that I’m not familiar with, but I can sense the water is colder than anticipated. I look along the line. There’s a few left to jump. I don’t want to be last, especially after the kayaking fiasco. My masculinity would certainly be brought into question if I don’t jump or look nervous. I go…..the water didn’t look that far away from the boat but it seems an age before my toes enter the calm emerald blanket that is the Gulf of Tonkin. I plunge deep down. If anyone had an underwater camera, I imagine I would have looked as graceful as the start of the Naughty Boy/Beyonce/Arrow Benjamin music video for the song ‘Runnin.’ It was cold. As I resurfaced I, like those that had gone before me, scrambled for my place on the ladder. It certainly was colder than I had anticipated and I shouted obscenities in my own language which I think were recieved and understood by my comrades. I managed to get up on the ladder at the second attempt. Some of the others hurried up to the top deck for another jump, like kids wanting to ride a rollercoaster again after mastering their initial fear. I was happy with the one jump.
After a quick shower and change of clothes, we sit down for tea (or dinner?). The food was quite good on the boat. Seafood, meats, noodle soups and fruit. Some of the fruit looked wonderful but tasted like nothing, particularly the Dragon fruit which was bright purple in colour but didn’t satisfy my tastebuds. Havea look at these prawns which did hit the spot though.
As the night goes on, it’s apparent I’m the only one not drinking. I feel like I did on Craig Anscombe’s (getting a few name checks here Skelator lad) stag do in Blackpool, when I glanced down at the table and see the other lads drinking pints of lager whilst I gulped on a Blue WKD. I was, andstill am actually, younger than the lads on that night out. My drinking career had only just begun and I hadn’t steered away from alcopops at this point. When I glanced down at that table on that particular night in Blackpool, I also see Craig wearing my grey Y front underpants over his trousers. A story not relevant to this, but is mildly amusing. I digress again.
Basically in making the comparison, I’m trying to say I felt different. This is nothing new to me, as I’ve not drank alcohol for nearly two and half years and am quite often the only personnot drinking in certain circles. Within the close proximity of the boat, however, it seems like I stand out a mile. The trance tunes have been changed for our iPods which offer everything from Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Bob Marley and Motown Classics. We play some card games and over the course of the evening begin to tell each other bits about ourselves. The question, inevitably, is posed to me as to why I don’t drink and why I stopped. I tell the group a bit of my story. Everyone was supportive and clapped. I felt embarrassed but happy to be accepted without the peer pressure which can sometimes come when telling people you don’t drink anymore. Sometimes people can lean over you, grab your head and neck too tightly, spill beer on your shoes, spit in your ears whilst advising; ‘You’ll be alright…..just have a couple.’ I am alright thanks. I’ll have a Buxton (62p each in the Tesco below me or occassionally and more preferable two for a quid).
The plan for tomorrow was to sail for a little while and then head back to the pier and back to Hanoi. The weather on the first day was overcast but it didn’t spoil the views. The hills and mountains which make up Ha Long Bay really are breathtaking. Apparently there are over 5,000 of the little clumps of land which make up the park. The weather on the second day was a lot brighter. Some of the group headed off to a private island for a second night stay. The rest of us were joined by another group who had been on the island. We made spring rolls which we would eat for lunch. My spring roll was ‘too long and had too much filling apparently.’ I didn’t even get to have it. Someone else nicked it. I hope they were satisifed with the length and were full. N.B. This is not a euphamism. T he fella who taught us gave me this verdict. They need to be small and compact. Each to their own.
We arrived back on dry land after some more sailing. The sun was out in force and we sat on a grass verge waiting for our coach to arrive. The group who had joined us didn’t seem as friendly. There was a definite ‘us and them’ mentality, although to be fair, we had only joined up an hour or so before. But they didn’t really make an effort to speak when I joined their table earlier. It was like at a wedding, where the bride’s family think she could do better (or vice versa) and the only time they’re all together is on the photos, which in years to come will be scrutinised. ‘Look at Beryl’s face on that one…..I knew she didn’t like me from the get-go. Look at the way she’s giving me hat the once over…..Bitch.’
The coach journey back was decent enough. My iPod was in full force. One tune that stood out was ‘I’ve Been Around The World,’ by Marti Pellow. It’s on his first solo album called ‘Smile.’ In it he sings the lyric ‘I’ve been around the world, and now I’m back again. I’ve seen so many beautiful things.’ It fitted perfectly. I’m not back but I am going around the world (in parts) and I have indeed seen so many beautiful things, even in the short space of time I have been away. I was connected to Marti. We’re similar. Both don’t drink anymore, both got great voices and both handsome. Haha. Another song I’ve been listening to a lot is ‘Desert Rose,’ by Sting. It was the titleof one of my earlier blogs. I am going to try to name all the blogs with the title of a song which fits the experiences or my emotions from now on. You may have noticed I had started to do this in other posts.
We got back to the hotel at about 5.30pm and headed out as a group for something to eat. I went to the night market in the evening with Adam and Shi-Yuen, the couple who live in Sheffield. I nearly got ran over by a toddler on a scooter. The footwear situation had gotten worse. The pumps I’d bought had come away at the sole on the boat…..like properly ripped. Primark can expect an email. I set out to find some wheels. Nowhere had anything over a size 9. I found one shop owner really rude. I went in, picked up a pair of pumps and asked for a 10 or 11. He snatched them back saying he doesn’t have my size and gestures for me to leave the shop. Haha. I was astounded. In other places, shop assistants will insist I ‘ll fit comfortably into a size 3 just to seal the deal. I walked over to his jeans and he said again ‘No your size’ and gestured towards the door. I was not wanted. I left.
I bought a hat and a selfie stick from the market and brushed up on my bartering skills. We made our way to the ice cream shop which was caled ‘Fanny – The Art of Dessert.’ Here is the shop sign.
A long day was drawing to a close and I headed back to the hostel, keen to get a good kip.. There was two lads in the dorm; one from California and the other from Japan. We got talking and I said I was from near Liverpool. They mentioned the Beatles and Paul McCartney andwere delighted when I showed them my graduation picture from LIPA with Macca. We exchanged travel stories, sang some of ‘Hey Jude’ and then went to sleep.
The next day we said goodbye to Matt and Laura. A couple who had been on the boat with us. They headed off for Laos. Before they left we went for an egg coffee. Yeah, you heard it…..egg coffee. I’d never heard of this, let alone tasted it. Has anyone reading this ever had one? Don’t knock it till you try it is definately an appropriate phrase to use for this. Sounds disgusting, tastes fantastic. I had one and then another later that day. My love for eggs and coffee have been combined into one mind-boggling concotion. Delightful.
I had a coach booked for 6pm to take me to Ninh Binh which was three hours away from Hanoi. There was a few of us going from the boat. We piled on and settled in for ride. The seats are recliningon the buses but at 6 foot 2, I struggle to fit comfortably into the compact space. I managed to facetime my mum and dad, albeit with a poor connection. Technology hey? Here’s apictureofthe buses. Snug as you can see.
We arrived in Ninh Binh after a 3 hour drive and were greeted by a very helpful chap who invited us to stay at his hotel. It was lovely. I roomed with a couple of the lads from France. The next we hired bikes and rcycled 25 minutes to Trang An. The sun was shining. The roads were smooth. The scenary was phenominal. It was perfect. At one point I thought ‘I’m actually doing this. And I’m allowed to be doing it. I don’t have to pretend to be somewhere else, like work or elswhere. I’m here and it’s OK.’ There was certain feeling of liberation as the wind gushed through my wavey locks and the sun kissed my skin. There were 8 of us in total. On the way, we stop. The girls up ahead had seen a man with a head set on, on what appeared to be a film set. It transpired that this part of town and where we were headed to was being used for the filming location of ‘king Kong,’ starring Samuel L Jackson. WHAT???? Samuel L Jackson was in the vicinity. I tried to get a pitcure of the set but was told I wasn’t allowed. One of the other lads managed to, so I will see if I can get hold of it and post it.
We carried on, excited at the propsect of potentially bumping into Samuel L Jackson. We arrived at the boats and parked our bikes. The fella at the car park felt my muscles and said ‘King Kong.’ He didn’t mention the trainies or the hair. Here’s the little boats we took. Aren’t they beautiful?
The scenery was out of this world. We saw three couples having wedding photos taken. I wonderif their days were blighted by the subtle bickering of both families, like I described above? The sun glistened against the calm waters. It was so peacful. I asked Josie if Maryland, where she’s from, is actually famous for cookies. She said it’s not and was somewhat confused. I explain we have Maryland cookies available in England. There’s no apparent correlation between her hometown and my occassional sugary snack. My Maryland knowledge spent, we change topic of conversation.
A Vietnamese woman uses her strength, with our aid to paddle the boat. More jokes are made at our recent maritime failure with the kayaks. There’s caves. We have to duck in some of them as they’re so low and narrow. There’s a few stops on the way. The first one we are able to climb many steep steps to a temple at the top. This is one picture from up there. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a wonderful view. We got stopped for photos with locals also.
The boat trip lasts about 3 hours or so. As we made our way round a mountain and headed back, we were the focal point of all the other boats. We seemed to be the only white tourists. They took more photos and videos of us, shouted ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ and waved. They were lovely. They smiled as we waved back. They seemed genuinley intrigued by us and happy we were there. Lovely people.
After we touched back on solid ground, I needed food. The lads headed off to find another temple and the girls and I headed back into town. On the way we see bodies of goats dismembered and on sale. Their heads, their legs, their torsos. Meat everywhere. We stopped at a local restaurant and ate. I don’t think any of us got what we orded. We were all served the same dish, noodles and beef. We ordered spring rolls, which never materialised. It was bland and dissapointing but filled a hole for now. On the way back we stopped again at the film set. Still no sign of anyone other than crew. When we got back to Ninh Binh, we headed for the street market. One of the roads would be a vegan’s worst nightmare. Fish flapped around in small buckets, crabs clasped thin air, chickens lay dead with their feet tied together and there was dogs’ heads, similar to the street-side goats on tables for sale. I only wanted a doughnut.
A quick facetime with a few loved ones back home and a few games of cards, I was ready for the night bus to Hue. The drive was going to be 11 hours. I had Richard Herring podcasts downloaded at the ready. One with Stewart Lee, one with Steve Coogan and one with Russell Brand. I listened to them all, whilst drifting in and out of sleep. The seat beds in the middle of the bus are probably the worst ones, because they’re narrower. The side ones have a bit of plastic sticking out for the windows so I debated going over to the back of the bus where there’s three beds together, but thought I don’t want to sleep by anyone who gets on further down the road, so perserved in the small cramped space I had. It didn’t seem like 11 hours to be fair, but I was gutted when I awoke at the last stop to see no-one at all was on the three bedder at the back. If it’s available on the next trip, I’m there.
Hue is cold. Not like it was yesterday in Ninh Binh. I am here just for one night, as is Rachel one of the girls I met on the boat. I am off to explore Hue and will write again shortly. I hope you are enjoying the updates and welcome the comments. They make me smile. I am amazed by how many people are reading. It is much appreciated that you’re taking an interest.