Saturday, 2 April 2011

Ha Long Bay

Friday 1st April 2011 – (White rabbits, White rabbits, White rabbits and Happy Birthday to me!)

Weather: Cloudy and misty making the skies white and hampering viability. On the positive side the day was warm with no rain.

MP3 track of the day: Happy Birthday


I got up a lot earlier than I needed to. By 7:00am I was up, washed, dressed and downstairs in reception with all my luggage. Today I had to change dorms and, due to being out all day, I had to move my luggage now. I did think that my luggage would have to be placed within the 'luggage storage area' however, once I had handed over my dorm key, I was presented with my new key and told that my bed was ready. The lift doors opened and I made my way to the sixth floor. I quietly entered the dorm, surprised to see my bed made. If my bed was made at 7:00am then, I reckon, the bed wasn't allocated last night therefore why couldn't I have moved the previous evening? I put my stuff within my locker and headed out as quickly as possible.

Instead of going for the usual 'bread with butter' breakfast I order pancakes with honey and a hot chocolate. After all, today was my birthday, and so I would have everything that I wanted. The hot chocolate was nice however the pancakes weren't that much tastier than the bread. After breakfast I went onto the internet as I awaited my pick-up. It was nice to find birthday e-cards and wishes (though, some of them being on Facebook, I cannot access them).

Shockingly my tour was running late. I headed outside and mingled with a large group of backpackers all waiting to go to 'Ha Long Bay'. I over heard numerous conversations, mostly themed around how long people were staying at 'Ha Long Bay'. Three nights seemed to be the most popular and I couldn't hear anyone saying that they were going 'just for the day'.

Time passed and at 8:45am a short Vietnamese guy came into the hostels reception. I followed him in and was informed, by the receptionist, that this was my tour guide. I followed him out to the coach. I must have been the last to be picked up; the coach was full apart from two seats on the back row and one next to a hooded, music blaring youth. I opted for the back row which, almost instantly, I realised had been a bad decision. The seat was uncomfortable and I could not get my legs into line with my body. I had to sit at an angle or, looking at a the guy to my right, I would have to put my knees next to my ears.

My initial presumption had been incorrect, I wasn't the last person to get on. An old, and rather large, couple boarded the coach and sighed. The guy sat next to me and his wife perched herself next to the music blaring traveler. Judging the guys weight I, wrongly, presumed he was American. Thankfully it turned out that he was Australian; apart from being tubby he had a small white beard, a bald head and he was wearing sunglasses. He was a rather nice and talkative chap; we chatted for most of the coach journey. We soon found ourselves on the main highway out of Hanoi. Relived to be out of the city, it was at this point that our tour guide stood up, smiled, and began the usual 'tour guide' speech. He told us his name which was a little difficult to remember, and pronounce. Fortunately he had nickname … Summer. Looking at the guy he had a great big smile, big hair and a leather jacket. I reckoned that he was Micheal Hoffman's (the guy from Knight rider) Vietnamese brother. I therefore called him 'The Hoff'. 'The Hoff' said that we were lucky today for two reasons; firstly the weather was good and secondly our driver was a good driver. Looking out the window the clouds did seem to be parting, with blue sky coming through. Also our driver only beeped his horn once during the entire journey, making him a great driver in my book. So far 'The Hoff' was proving trust worthy.

I mixed my journey between looking outside, chatting to the Aussie and trying to get comfortable. After ninety minutes we had a rest break. 'The Hoff' told us that we were half way, meaning 'Ha Long Bay' was a three hour drive from Hanoi (I had underestimated the distance). After walking up four, stone, steps I went through a huge stone doorway and into an octangle room. The building was littered with expensive souvenirs and there was a food court at the back. As I had thirty minutes I looked at all the souvenirs, uninterested in purchasing any of them, before going into the food court. I fancied a Pepsi, and so I had one.

The rest of the coach journey was uneventful. I chatted to the Aussie like before, I looked at the endless rice paddies, and urban areas, like before and I tried to get comfortable without success. The only thing that seemed to change was the weather. As we approached the bay fog came in and visibility was heavily reduced. I was glad to get off the coach; I had a good stretch and followed 'The Hoff' to the harbor front. It took a while to get our tickets but, as soon as one was within my hand, I was soon on board a vessel. The boat had two floors; the down stairs was the restaurant area. It had tables, that had linen on, and wooden benches with cushions; glass windows created an enclosure. Once out, on the bow of the vessel, there was a single wooden stair case that lead above the restaurant. This was an open, top-deck, with two wooden benches and a few plastic chairs. There were two masts erected on the boat but no sails could be found. I therefore had no idea what these masts were for.

It was now 12:30pm; 'The Hoff' announced that dinner would soon be served. I sat downstairs and chatted to the Aussie bloke and his wife. I stared out to sea, glad for the copious amounts of leg room that the boat offered. People were leaving the restaurant and heading upstairs; I decided not to as I had been hold that dinner was soon on it's way.

It wasn't.

After a short while I excused myself from the Aussies company, went to the bow of the ship, and walked up the wooden steps. Luckily there was a seat free and so I sat myself down, stretched out my legs and took in the view. The mists was strong, meaning that jagged limestone rocks came, all of a sudden, into view. The mist made the area quite beautiful, though photographing was limited.

As we approached two chains of limestone rocks seemed to part, leaving enough room for our vessel to sail through. A large sea chamber, with huge limestone mountains all around, was soon presented to us. Within this chamber there was a small floating village; we moored up to a fishery where we were allowed a quick look around before being told that lunch was served. On my table were five small bows; I sat down with the Aussie bloke to my right with his wife opposite him. A Vietnamese couple joined us which turned out to be rather useful. A large bowlful of steaming hot rice was placed on our table; the Vietnamese lady played 'mum' and dished out huge portions of rice into each of our bowls. Plates of spring rolls, tofu, egg, vegetables, squid, noodles and a small bowl of soya sauce were then placed on our table. I avoided the egg and concentrated on the spring rolls, tofu, noodles and squid … which was lovely. A marinated fish was brought later which I avoided. As tours go this had been the best meal I've had; however this was the most expensive tour that I have done. After eating I was full, but I would have liked something sweet for pudding (a cake maybe).

After this the people who had paid extra to go canoeing were give that opportunity. I headed to the top deck and sat down, taking in the view whilst chatting to the Aussies … who hadn't opted for canoeing either. As we sat there we contemplated the tour so far. Three hours to get here meant three hours back; therefore we had to leave 'Ha Long Bay' by 5pm at the latest. Considering the time was nearly three we didn't have that long left on the boat. I didn't understand why we had been moored up whilst eating lunch; we could have been driving around for that hour before mooring up to allow people to canoe. The terrain was still lovely; everywhere you looked stood huge jagged limestone rocks with water all around. For the first time within South East Asia I was truly at peace; no tuk-tuk or motorbike offers, no body asking if I want a drink, no horns blaring and best of all, very few people. It was lovely just to sit here and take it all in.

After ninety minutes we finally set sail. We were a little worried that we would exit the way we had come and that would be it; fortunately we sailed in the opposite direction allowing us to take in more of the spectacular scenery. In and out we went, passing large limestone teeth. Vegetation grew all over these rocks and it felt like a water version of 'Jurassic park'. We moored up again, but this time we were at the entrance to a cave. The Aussie couple, being rather large and their knees not being what they used to be, were a little worried about entering the cave. As it turned out they had no choice; the boat had already left the key and moored up at another point where the exit to the cave was. I went ahead, eager to see what the cave looked like.

Beautiful would be the word I'd use. The path through the cave was like a road-side pavement (without the scooters in the way), just with lots of steps. Once inside the cave the roof was extremely high with huge stalagmites and stalactites still being formed. I worked my way through this natural wonder, taking a couple of photos. The only negative aspect of the caves was that different coloured lights had been installed at different points, illuminating the caves natural wonders with 'none natural' coloured light. For this reason I still think one of the best caves, that I've visited, is within the Derbyshire Peak district. Come to think about it, I might have to visit that cave once I get home.

The cave was huge and, as I took the long staircase up towards natural light, I felt as though I was leaving the 'Mines of Moria'. I looked behind me, to make sure goblins weren't firing arrows at me, before I quickened my pace. As I ventured further, and further, towards the exit the light became more extreme. As my eye's adjusted I could just make out a sign, located at the exit to the cave, in front of me...

Souvenir Shop … buy buy souvenir for family

I almost turned back into the cave. I hurriedly walked past the retail outlets and followed the long path down to my boat – pausing a couple of times to take in the view. I got back onto the boat five minutes before our scheduled departure time. I went up to the top deck, sat down, and was surprised to see only an handful of other fellow tourist on board. It took another twenty minutes before 'The Hoff' counted the correct amount of passengers. Once off I chatted to a German couple who seemed to have spent their whole lives traveling. It didn't take me long to realised that the guy was a highly intelligent man. With every turn of the ships motor, I desperately hung onto the peace 'Ha Long Bay' provided. There are a lot of boats here however, if you get a small tour group, you can still find peace.

We docked quicker than I wanted to. The time was 4:45pm and so it was time to get back on the coach. As I crossed the road I herd a scooter blow his horn. The first time within hours and, as it continued, the sound started to grind within my head. The coach back wasn't the same as the one coming. It was a similar model but a different colour; there was a little more leg room and so I was able – but only just – to put my legs inline with the rest of my body. This coach must have had less seats than the coach coming as two tourists had to stand up. 'The Hoff' said that it was only for ten minutes as seven tourists were staying within 'Ha Long Bay City'.

We parked up outside their hotel; they got off and the two standing sat. We drove the same way back to Hanoi as we had driven to 'Ha Long Bay' this morning. We stopped at the same souvenir shop as this morning. I, being a little hungry, bought and ate a packed of biscuits. They weren't very nice. Back on the coach most people were quite; some were sleeping, others were looking out into the darkness. I thought about the tour I had just been on. Overall I had enjoyed it; 'Ha Long bay' is lovely and the peace it gave was worth every dollar. Should I have gone for the two, or three day tour? No. If the skies were blue then yes however, as it was foggy, I couldn't see that I would have gained much from staying here for longer.

Once back within the city of Hanoi I got dropped off at my hostel. I wished the Aussie a pleasant holiday and they returned the comment. I didn't go back into my hostel; instead I headed out to collect my laundry. Within a ten minute walk I had been pipped at continually, almost run over and pushed out the way by hundreds of Vietnamese people. I was thankful to be within my new dorm, at 9pm, putting my laundry into my bag. I was starting to develop a cold and so I skipped tea for an early night. Tomorrow I had to be up early as I would try, again, to see Ho Chi Minh.

As I lay in my bottom-bunk bed I thought about my 27th Birthday. It hadn't been too bad; 'Ha Long Bay' was petty good though the food, throughout the day, had been a little disappointing … and no cake! Also, with 27th Years of my life gone, had I achieved enough? No job, career or accommodation to show for 9,855 days of breathing. However I did have a degree, good group of friends, a wonderful family and a great knowledge of the world. I came to the conclusion that this wasn't too bad.

Toodle Pip!

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