Arrived in Hanoi, exhausted from the uncomfortable night train, to find nobody was there to meet me, although I had previously arranged a pick-up. I rang the hotel Central Star, and one of the receptionists reluctantly came to pick me up. It was 5am. I piled my bags onto his moped, then piled on myself, and the two of us buzzed through the tranquil morning streets of Hanoi. The city was just beginning to stir, old women were selling hot baguettes, the smoke of a breakfast promise softly streaming out of countless doorways and street cauldrons.
At the hotel I got an hours sleep, then packed again as I had to leave for Halong Bay at 8:30am. I got the minibus and it took three and a half hours to get to the harbour, where hundreds of boats were waiting to take the masses out around Halong Bay. On the way to the harbour, the bus stopped off at a typical tourist trap, the ‘handicapped handicrafts’ warehouse. Extortionately priced paintings took prominent display, hung above a selection of ceramics. One handicapped person meandered around in a daze. The people painting at the front of the warehouse were perfectly able to function, and displayed no sign of physical or mental disability. We all wandered around politely, nobody having any intention of buying anything. A hundred other buses had stopped here too. Fortunately, there was a cafeteria at the back, and I felt better after a few cups of Lipton.
I was rather concerned about the professionalism of the tour from the outset. I was convinced the two cowboys in charge of the operation were the blokes who had attempted to scam us on our first day in Hanoi. The duo, Ha and Zhung (whom I later learned was on his first ever tour), seemed friendly enough, with Zhung a little over-friendly. He refused to let me read my excellent book, Scar Tissue – an autobiography by Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – and kept asking annoying and pointless questions such as: “Do you like to read?” Perhaps I was tired, and he was only being friendly.
On the harbour platform, there was a little confusion as to the amount of people coming on our boat. We all scanned the harbour looking for our boat, hoping it wasn’t one of the tiny ones. Luckily, we were on a lovely boat with a sundeck, though it wasn’t nearly as beautiful as….The Phoenix. Parked alongside us, and rising majestically, internally decorated with white, silver-laden table cloths, The Phoenix was to become our Nemesis, following us at every turn, taunting us with it’s comparative splendour, it’s passengers unable to hide their smirks of victory.
We had a good group: Sara from New York; Blaise (Alaska); Ashley+Slade(sister and brother from Texas); Peter (UK); Phil+Emma (UK); Juan (France) and Greg and Gloria (Austria). So we had a young crowd, and we set off for a cruise around the bay. We had the first of many ‘Vietnamese Tour’ meals: Fried kang-kong with garlic, fish, noodles with pork, peanuts(?!), sweet+sour tofu,,,, and rice. Which came at the end of the meal. Not very nice, and not incredibly Vietnamese. OK at first, I suppose, but got repetitive the 5th and 6th time we had it.
Peter and Juan started knocking back the 20,000D bottles of Tiger straight away. Sara and I went on the sundeck to bare our pasty-white bodies to the sun’s ferocious glare. We stopped at a large cave at one point. It was certainly impressive, but had alas been illuminated with a spectrum of dim lights, giving the cave a theme-like air.
After this we cruised around more, and I was blown away by the beauty of the place. Islands, emerald green and earthy brown, rose out of the sea in their thousands, creating a magical spectacle. The boats had thinned out by the late afternoon, so they seemed even more captivating and barren. Some people went kayaking, but by then I had caught sunstroke due to my sunbathing and seeming inability to drink water, so I had to wait until the next day.
After taking some paracetamols, kindly provided by Emma to numb the pain in my head, and plenty of water to replace lost fluids, I felt better. The sun was setting now over the islands, and it was beautiful. At this point, we were permitted to jump in. Again, I couldn’t participate, but watched as everybody launched themselves from the top of the boat and into the warm sea.
We had dinner on the boat, then sat on the deck under the stars and the moon and drank. I abstained, the day in the sun still taking its toll. Someone had speakers, and another person an ipod, so we became the party boat, Peter doing the honours and blasting out a good variety of tunes, from Manu Chau to Arctic Monkeys. Everybody was there, and getting on really well. We had a real spirit of togetherness from that night. I returned to my small cabin at around 11:30pm, and had a good nights sleep as the boat gently rocked.