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Published: April 6th 2009
The night train back to Hanoi was so much more comfortable than the trip there, if for no other reason than the other two beds in our cabin remained empty, nonetheless, it wasn’t much comfort when the attendant woke us at 4:15 am, announcing it was time to disembark. Weary and groggy, we made our way to a taxi, and there back to the IndoChina II hotel, who had promised us a shower and breakfast, before we set off on the trip to Halong Bay we had booked through them a week previous.
The taxi dropped us off in the now quiet alleyway beside St. Josephs Cathedral and it was only when it had turned the corner that we realized the hotel was locked up tight. We knocked gently on the door, but no response. We knocked again.
Then to our surprise, the head concierge arose from behind the front counter to let us in. When we entered the hotel, we realized he had set up a sleeping area behind reception, and when we peered into the dining room, we noticed six staff asleep on the floor. We apologized profusely, and were led to a room that had not
been made-up since its tenant had left the night before. But it is hard to argue with free. We set the travel alarm clock for 6:30, barely an hour’s sleep, and passed on top of the duvet, feeling at least a little picky about sharing sheets with a stranger. (Though come to think of it, I don’t know why I assume the sheets had been changed on the night train…)
When we were rudely awaked by our alarm an hour later, we made good use of the shower, changed our clothes and headed downstairs to the dining area, which had been transformed from a hostel to a buffet, and the staff were now bright eyed and bustling about cooking eggs, pho and pouring coffee. Could this be the same room we had seen only an hour and a half ago?
We had barely 20 minutes to down our food before a young Vietnemese woman entered the hotel calling our names… and just like that, we had transitioned from our adventure in Sapa, to a new one in Halong Bay.
One of the most overwhelming parts of the Halong Bay boat cruise is not getting lost on the wharf.
Our little group of 15 tried to stay tight together in the dense throngs of tourists, following their respective guides, who in turn were searching for their ship captains.
Of course we hadn’t been informed where we were going. So when she finally found that tall quiet gentleman in a tweed blazer with a briefcase and instructed us to hand over our passports, we all felt a little uneasy. Who was this man, and would we ever see the passports again? Of course, when we discussed it later over dinner with our fellow passengers, while we all felt it was odd, none of us questioned it, and all stupidly handed over our most important documents.
So the harbour is full of a hundred of identical “junks”, and so I can’t imagine what the difference is from one tour to the next, except the price. And we all set sail down the same trajectory between the beautiful Karst mountains jutting out of the bay. Of course, we couldn’t see these mountains, as it was rainy and foggy. So we sat in the dining room and ate our meal. Later we followed our guide into a fairly extensive series of caves
inside one of the mountains, garishly lit, and much of it plastered over to keep us safe from falling stalactites. Still, as we reemerged from the cave, the fog was starting to lift, and the eerie scenery was quite breathtaking.
That evening, our boat anchored, we enjoyed dinner, shared a bottle of wine we had snuck onto the ship (so that we didn’t have to pay corkage fees) with our cabin mates, and then sang karaoke without microphones with a bunch of young Australians, annoying the heck out of nearby anchored junks I’m sure.
The next morning we discovered we were the only ones to have signed up for the extended trip, we were deposited with our guide on CatBa Island, and our junk sailed away into the morning mist. The three of us headed to CatBa National Park where we climbed to the watchtower.
Now, apparently this is the place to catch site of a very rare, gold leaf monkey, which is endangered, but unfortunately, the hikers before and after us, felt the best way to see nature was to scream, hoot and holler constantly, as though they were themselves rabid, and so not a bird nor
beetle was seen. We did however enjoy the challenged of the climb.
Like China, it started with stairs, but then switched to something a bit more natural, mud and paving stones. Occasionally, you had to clamber up some rocks, finding firm handholds, and good places to plant your feet. Sometimes a rusty old ladder was provided to climb up a small cliff face, but then the next cliff face, steeper and more slippery would be without any supports at all. We climbed up high enough to be in the rain clouds, with a view of nothing but was ahead of us, just knowing in our hearts, it would normally be a pretty good view… then we clambered back down, where our muddy and flushed appearance, was happily met by the ice-cream vendor, whose wares we enjoyed very much.
Then we got dropped off in CatBa Town and I have not much to say about that. It was only 1pm, and waiting for the day to end was an eternity. What was meant to be a pleasant stroll along the waterfront, was more an obstacle course of dodging dirty needles and nasty other things. We retreated to our overpriced and
not very clean hotel room to hide from the town. Later in the evening, we found a decent restaurant where we watched Vietnam win an Asian football tournament, hosted in Hanoi. Having entered the tournament as the underdog, the restaurant, the street, well the whole town, erupted into a party which lasted about 20 minutes. OK, it didn’t last long in CatBa. But our guide was happy to assure us that hundreds would have died that night, racing their motorbikes in elation. As we found Vietnam streets tricky to cross at the best of times, perhaps it was best to have been stuck in this town for the night, needing only to avoid the waterfront walkway.
The next morning, we were happy to board the same ship, and we sat on the top deck finally enjoying the view, as the fog had decided to lift. The junk, as though part of a junk convoy, followed a hundred junks back to the Halong City wharf, and we were able to check this UNESCO World Heritage Site off our list of things to do, and certainly no need to come back.
We enjoyed our final evening in Hanoi eating fine
On our last day we treated ourselves to the Chocolate Buffet at the Metropole Hotel. Tough Life for us.
French cuisine and strolling the streets. We picked up some clothes we had tailored for New Year’s eve, and watched the city setting up for Tet. We were both sad to leave Vietnam, yet ready to go home "for a rest", in this case to Malaysia.
***Sorry this blog is long overdue.
Welcome to March! A quick note to friends and family back home, we are well and busy (as always) with our jobs. Having confirmed our return to NB this summer, our pace of travel may become more frantic, trying to fit it all in. As always, we loves notes from home, have received lots of nice Christmas cards and even some gifts by snail mail. But if you can pop us an email update that is always wonderful.
Big Hugs to everyone!
Beth and Craig
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