What better place to wait then on an island in beautiful Halong Bay? As many of you have or will in the (hopefully near) future receive postcards from Halong Bay, or Vietnam (we did send 67 more postcards, after all) you've probably already read my spiel. But, again, Halong Bay was majestically scenic. The 'Bay' is massive. Our tour guide said 550 square kilometres, from what I remember. There are bagillions of towering, sheer karst islands dotted throughout the calm, serene, glassy waters. It really was some of the most stunning scenery we have ever seen.
After deciding on a travel agent in Hanoi, we booked a full day tour to Cat Ba Island- the biggest in the Bay, with ample tourist structure, and then an open ticket to return back to Hanoi at our leisure- aka when our China visas were ready for pick up. Our goal was to avoid Vietnam's busy, chaotic Capital as long as possible.
'The bus will pick you up at your hotel between eight and nine in the morning,' our fast talking travel agent told us. 'Be ready.' Its akin to waiting for the washing machine repair man, or the furniture delivery guy. You have to rush be there, just in case they decide to show up at some point during the designated pick up time- but you know that odds are- they won't. They will come five minutes before you're there, or, in our case that morning, at 945am. We were getting antsy. By 'picking us up at our hotel' she must have meant, 'someone will jog by your hotel and you need to chase them down a few streets and through a confusing alley network, running just to see which alley they disappear into next, to your allocated, over-stuffed, tourist only, mini-bus.' We were the second last people to be picked up. This meant that we didn't actually have seats until everyone's bulging backpacks (WHAT do these people pack?) were rearranged, shoved under every seat, jammed in every corner and made into a wall separating the chain-smoking bus driver from the passengers. (Maybe this was a good thing). We picked up one last couple- who, although we didn't know it at the time, would later become the stars of the day. They looked pretty young. The girl was tall and lanky, sporting one of those short, one piece flowery outfits that only those kinds of girls can pull off. She had long wavy blonde hair, a nose that curved up slightly at the tip and a glare that would challenge Medusa. She was going to be entertaining, that much was clear. And she was pissed. Although, in her defense, they were picked up almost an hour late and now, on the bus they were in an even worse standing position than us- wedged between everyone's grubby backpacks, our tour guide's arm pit and the greasy bus door. This was the kind of girl who was clearly used to getting her own way- and even more clearly- that wasn't happening right now. Her poor boyfriend. Do people ever look at Jonathan and think that, I wonder? haha She pouted as the tour guide worked around her, re-arranging all the bags. Stools were pulled out for us to sit on. No worries. It was only a four hour bus ride to the port. I was so close to my neigbours that I could hear their ipods through their headphones. There was a massive backpack wedged under my stool so my legs were folded up to my chin. Did I pay for this seat or were they going to pay me for babysitting this backpack? The only saving grace was that my left side 'neighbour' -if you can call a stranger that physically close to you a neighbour- was a super friendly guy from PEI who had brought with him a sleeve of emergency oreos- which he happily shared- this was an emergency. Now that's what I call a good neighbour. Or whatever. The blonde girl was seated on a stool a couple ahead of mine. The whole bus could tell, by her constantly exaggerated fidgeting and the way she flicked her hair and sighed loudly every thirty seconds, that this set up was not ideal. After we had stopped for a break midway, her boyfriend replaced her on the stool and she lounged atop a pile of bags at the front of the bus.
We arrived safely at the port a number of hours later, ready to be out in the Bay on our adventure. Of course it didn't happen quite that way. First, we had to all stand around in the parking lot for about an hour to be organized based on what excursion we had paid for. There were people who had just paid for transport, people with lunch included, people with hotel packages and people sleeping on the boat overnight. Some people's passports had to be collected, some people had to buy tickets... blah blah blah. It was a lengthy ordeal that involved a whole lot of standing around. We were happy that we had plenty of time for Halong Bay. If we would have been on a short two or three day tour, all the waiting around would quickly become frustrating.
Finally, we were herded onto the boat, which was surprisingly nice, and were served a surprisingly delicious lunch (we had paid an extra $4 for the ticket, after all). The boats are called 'junks.' Many suit their name. It wasn't hard to imagine one of the junks sinking, as occurred with that tragedy in February. We smashed and pushed and pretended to be a bumper-boat while squeezing our way past (and sometimes into) all the other boats sharing the narrow slip. It was foggy, but even with the limited visibility we could tell we were in for a very scenic boat ride. Towering karst islands rose from the sea creating a unique, almost eerie landscape. The closer we got to the islands, the more stunning the view became. It was hard to put the camera down and simply enjoy the view. Every time we rounded craggly peaks or cut through narrow passages, it was more beautiful.
After making our way through the bay, stopping at a couple floating villages, an absolutely amazing cave and buying fruit over the side of the boat from 'travelling fruit kids' in row boats we arrived at Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the biggest island in Halong Bay and the only place with an actual town with hotels and restaurants and such. We disembarked onto a long pier and trudged down it towards where our tour guide had pointed, and there were parked buses. The pier was on the opposite side of the island from CatBa town and we had about a 45 minute bus ride ahead of us. It was 17:30 and the sun was low. The travel agent we had bought our tickets from was one of the more honest ones (or I just bombarded her with so many questions that she gave up lying) and our day had gone pretty much as she said it would. Other travellers weren't so lucky. Some had been told that they would arrive in Cat Ba town at 2pm, and therefore hadn't brought any food, and their tickets didn't include lunch. They were hungry, tired and frustrated. Understandably.
At the end of the long pier are two minibuses. We start piling our bags on the roof, as is the norm, and begin to wonder how all 30 of us are possibly going to fit in two 7 seat mini buses. Our tour guide yells from the other end of the pier. 'Not those ones.' Ok. Well at least that made sense. 'Keep Going!' He waves. So we continue walking up what is now the highway to a parking lot. There is a big pink polk-a-dot bus waiting there. This seems more likely to be our transport. We all crowd around the bus, waiting for confirmation. We really want to get going so we can arrive in town by dark. The roads are meant to be curvy, dark and dangerous without daylight. 'No, no,' says the tour guide. 'The bus will be here soon. It takes longer because the main road to town is closed and the bus has to go all the way around the island.' Ok, whatever. We have a great view of the bay, and its warm out - things really could be worse. Everyone is still in pretty high spirits, and excited to have finally arrived. Except I really need to go to the bathroom. At the far end of the parking lot, lurking in the shadows is a tiny cement building, moldy and peeling with broken wood doors. I know it's type. Its the toilet. And its going to be gross.
I meet the blonde girl on the path. She is running from the building, (prancing, really) her arms flailing, her nose scrunched, ' Do NOT go in there! Its SSOOOOOOO disgusting,' she screeched, warning me. She obviously has just got off the plane from princess-land. Sanitation is a whole new ball game in South East Asia.
Beside the bus station was a covered garage where a bunch of men were sitting around a table playing cards. Our tour guide went over to chat. About twenty minutes passed. Our tour guide came back and told us that, yes, in fact, the pink polk-a-dot bus had somehow magically morphed into our bus, and that we could load our bags in the bottom and get on. It was only a matter of time, now. We settled ourselves on the bus. Another twenty minutes passed. We started joking that one of the card playing men was our bus driver. Wouldn't that be funny. No, he was probably just grabbing a quick snack, or in the bathroom. The whole bus was into it. We could see over the garage wall from the bus and saw our tour guide intently following the game. 'Hope our driver is winning, at least,' someone joked. More minutes passed. The hilarity was wearing thin. People were becoming increasingly annoyed.
All of the sudden, the blonde girl let out a huge irritated sigh, shot up from her seat and stormed off the bus towards our tour guide. 'Way to go, Blondie!!' An American shouted as she stomped across the parking lot. The whole bus was on their feet, crowded around the windows to watch the show 'Blondie in Action.' She tapped the tour guide on the shoulder. When he turned around, she errupted. We, unfortunately couldn't hear what was said, but her waving arms, made her intentions quite clear. There was some back and forth, the card game paused, everyone stared, she yelled some more, the tour guide shrank back, she turned on her heel, her hair swatting the tour guide in the face and she cat-walked back to the bus, steam billowing from her ears.
We all cheered when she came up the bus stairs. 'What's going on?' an Irish girl inquired. 'Our driver is busy,' she fumed. 'He is playing cards!' The bus was thrown into a frenzy. Even for Vietnam, this was bad. We had been waiting almost an hour for our bus driver finish his card game!? Clearly Blondie's little charade had lit a fire under our driver's irresponsible butt- because within minutes, our bus was rumbling down the highway, driven by a very peeved driver, mind you, across the island. 'Yaaaa for Blondie!' we all cheered.
The island itself was gorgeous. It was very reminiscent of Jurassic Park, and I wouldn't have been surprised in the least if a Pterodactyl were to swoop out from behind one of the karst mountains and land in one of the lush valleys. Our week on Cat Ba flew by. We had a fantastic room with a balcony and great view, for $7/night. We had a favourite restaurant. We rented a motorbike to explore, visited a hidden cave hospital, hiked to the top of CatBa National Park, went kayaking, became known as temporary locals in the market, found a great bakery and strolled along the cliffside path daily. We (or I) bargained for cultured pearls, harvested in Halong Bay, and had a pearl necklace strung up for me right before my very eyes! We met some great people over fresh draught, and spent starry evenings, sitting seaside, comparing hilarious travel tales. It's a rough life, but someone has to do it.
Sadly, the week came to an end and the day came where we had to head back to Hanoi. I was a little nervous, as the company we had came with was less than professional and any number of things could go wrong. By the time we hiked up the hill to the derelict, out of the way guesthouse that the tour company uses as a base, there was already at least three fights in process between reception and travelers and one girl was crying. The cranky tour guide was yelling, demanding people's return tickets, meanwhile everyone had only been given one ticket to use for both directions, and those had been collected by the tour guide on the way to the island. We, ourselves had begged to keep our open ticket, to no avail. We had to ask ten times just to get our disgruntled tour guide just to scratch a hand written note or, 'return ticket' on a scrap piece of paper for us. Good thing these type of shenanigans don't really phase us anymore.
We left about an hour late and there weren't enough seats on the bus so many people were left standing for the forty five minute drive to the pier. The boat ride back through the bay was equally gorgeous, save for the random spots that flotillas of refuse staked their fluid claim on the bay. (Very sad, indeed). With only minor annoyances (like the fact that you have to buy an 'exit ticket' - with the wrong date on it, after having already bought an 'entrance ticket) we arrived at mainland pier. 'Everyone get inside the boat and bring your luggage!' The tour guide called frantically, scampering around the deck, herding people into the tiny inside area and locking the door behind us. We were smushed like sardines, looking around at each other quizzically. 'Why?' a French woman eventually asked. 'Its the law,' replied our tour guide, matter-of-factly. 'Everyone has to be inside when the boat docks because so many tourist boats smash into each other when they try to dock and the government is afraid tourists will tumble over the side and die!' Jonathan and I laughed, picturing some of the top ten worst docking moments we have witnessed in and around Georgian Bay. What a solution! It's hilarious that instead of the Junk Captains being more careful, or, gasp, actually learning how to dock the boat, that instead, everyone has to be locked up, safe inside for the whole starboard-smash docking experience! Its especially fun to watch the docking. No one cares in the least if you run, head on, into their boat. They just watch as the wooden panels creak and crack, and then push you off and on your way. Unless of course, someone else in on their way in and is eyeballing your soon to be vacant real estate at the dock, in which case they violently bump and jive to slither into your spot before you have actually even vacated it. Emphasis on the bump and the violently. Ohhh Bumper Junks!
'Fifteen minutes until the bus comes.' We were told. While we waited a constant string of women tried to sell us over-priced pearls. Didn't they know the pearls were a quarter of the price a quick boat ride away? Their bargaining skills were laughable. '80,000 dong!' They would offer. 'No, ok, then $10!' 80,000 EQUALS $10. It was the same thing. Jeez. Maybe they should have skipped the pearls and invested in a calculator! Two hours later, when the bus actually arrived, it drove us ten minutes down the road and then stopped for lunch.
A few hours into the ride there was a commotion at the front of the bus. 'Get off your $^#&@ phone!' an older Aussie was yelling. Everyone perked up to see what the sudden outbreak was all about. 'We asked him a million times to get off his phone!' shouted the Aussie at the surprised tour guide. 'He's talking on the phone and driving with one hand! Its dangerous! And when he honks (which was about every five seconds) he is driving without any hands at all!!' He was very angry. Those of us in the back of the bus had no idea our bus was being driven sans-hands. It was, in fact, distressing. Although not in the least bit surprising. The tour guide lowered his voice and scolded the Aussie, 'Don't talk to the driver anymore,' the tour guide warned. 'He needs to concentrate on driving.' ha ha! Exactly.
Many more kilometers down the road we ran into a small traffic jam. We were about twenty kilometer outside of Hanoi. Instead of continuing on in the slow moving traffic, our driver instead decides to pull over on the side of the highway. We are told that we can all get off the bus because 'there is a traffic jam and no one knows how long we will be stuck.' We pile out of the bus and rest on the guard rails. Traffic continues to move past us. Buses stuffed with locals stare out the window at us. Obviously the traffic is still moving, as it is not backing up past us. Slowly, but surely, we watch as transport trucks and buses become more and more distant. Everything was on the move- slowly, but surely. If this guy thought this was a traffic jam what would he think of the Hwy 400 on a summer long weekend? The weirdest thing about it all was that, thus far, the Vietnamese had been notorious for exactly the opposite. Not stopping for anything- and that included puppies and small children.
Again, people start to get frustrated. Many people had connecting buses or trains that evening that they were hoping to catch. As we watch the sun set from the side of the highway the likelihood of us sleeping on the guard rails seemed more probable than anyone catching anything that night. 'Lets get going!' 'Traffic is moving!' 'What are you doing?!' 'This is stupid!' And so on, came the complaints. People start trying to negotiate with the tour guide. Where's Blondie when you need her? 'Talk to the driver!' the exasperated tour guide whined, throwing his hands in the air and turning his back on the line of people that have formed to complain. The driver only speaks Vietnamese. There is a heated discussion between the highly pressured tour guide and the obliviously uninvolved in his cell phone, un-interested bus driver. 'What are they saying?' an American asks an Asian woman standing beside me. 'I don't know,' the Asian woman glares, 'I'm Thai, not Vietnamese.' Ohhhhhhh. Ouch. Jonathan and I look at each other and try not to laugh. This whole schmauze is a disaster. More traffic whizzes by. More bus loads of locals stare at the increasingly entertaining, arm flailing, curse throwing road-side show. We consider hitch-hiking. The mob of angry bus-less tourists has now started considering the pros and cons of hijacking the bus and driving themselves back to Hanoi. Someone is actually asking around if anyone knows how to drive a bus. I think the plan was very nearly actualized- until someone realized that the driver was holding the keys hostage. I was myself, starting to get a little scared when the driver grumpily stomped back onto the bus and indicated that the bus would be leaving in approximately 5 seconds- with or without us.
It was dark by the time we rolled into downtown Hanoi. The city is a confusing jumble of streets in the day time, let alone when everything is unrecognizable under florescent lights. 'Will we be dropped off at our hotel when we come back?' I had specifically asked the travel agent when we booked the ticket, foreseeing this issue. 'Of course we can do that,' she had assured us. Well, that was a complete lie. The bus came to an abrupt stop on the side of a random, very busy, Hanoi street. Immediately the driver hopped off and started unloading (ie angrily tossing) our bags from the compartment and onto the disgusting, filthy, sticky, smelly street. By the time we got to the pile, our bags had worked their way to the bottom and were hastily soaking up a nice big puddle of unrecognizable goop. Great. In an effort to save our bags from as much goopiness as possible Jonathan quickly swooped down and yanked my bag out of the puddle. What a good guy. And this is how he he hurt his back. By the time we found our hotel, he couldn't sit, stand, walk, or move. Everything that he tried to do brought him very close to tears. It was an incredibly rough night and the following day was almost as bad. We were out for a little (painful) exercise the next day and a woman carrying one of those very heavy poles weighed down on each end with huge baskets of fruit jokingly tried to put the pole across Jonathan's back-a tourist ploy she probably uses to show everyone just how heavy her baskets are. Jonathan nearly doubled over in pain and the shocked woman, having no idea what she had done, jumped back when I yelled 'NOOO!' Very loudly. It was horrible for Jonathan. The kindness of the Vietnamese people shone through, though. They brought him out a chair to sit, him gave him water and the lady with the fruit felt so bad that she insisted he take a bag of pineapple for free. Thankfully, being the young(ish), fit, champ that he is- we are over-joyed to report that his back is now pretty much healed- although he still insists he needs those nightly back massages...
If this entry seems negative- it's not meant to be. We think this stuff is hilarious. If we just wrote about all the wonderful things we saw, and how beautiful everything is- it just wouldn't be that interesting. Plus, as you may have noticed- my vocabulary is lacking in words to describe such awesome natural beauty and fleeting, yet meaningful interactions with the people we meet. Sure, at the time, some of the travel hassles are annoying, but they are really funny too. And we have learned to (mostly) have a good time with them, and enjoy each caffufel as it comes, and for what it is- without getting (too-Kristen) worked up (even if the enjoyment is mostly afterwards). Vietnam has been one of our favourite stops, and, lets face it, without all these travel shenanigans- what would we have to blog about?
P.S - Jonathan reached into his coat pocket the other day-and, as is often the case on those very lucky days when you put your coat on for the first time in a while, found a crumpled up bill. It was a 50,000 note. The funny thing is, we can't for the life of us, remember what kind of currency it is. Or therefore, how much it would be worth. Too bad it isn't dollars. That's the only thing we are sure it's not. It doesn't have any obvious indicators on it. Who finds 50,000 of some currency and doesn't know where its from? ha ha Who 'forgets' they have a 50,000 note in their pocket? Odds are, its worth less than $10- but we can dream, can't we?
P.P.S - Apparently 'The Pirates who don't do anything' are a funny Veggie Tales song? This is according to the self proclaimed 'Veggie Tales Expert' Mr. Jonathan Mooney. I don't get it either. (J: I only mentioned Veggie Tales and now I'm apparently a self proclaimed expert)