Friday, January 29, 2010

Halong Baying it

Jan 23 to 25, 2010 (by Swiss)

Note: Cyndi, aka "The Slave Driver", has been on my ass since day one of her arrival to get going on blog posts. Jason, as always, has been quick to have all his blog posts ready to go, while I, as usual, am lagging behind. I just managed to get my last post up yesterday (Jan 25), followed 24 hours later by Mr. Lawton's, so the ball once again is in my court. So we'll see if I can get this thing up before our visitors leave. If I don't, I have this feeling that I'll be beaten to a pulp. So here we go.

The highlight of our visit to Hanoi was supposed to be Halong Bay. Located about 3.5 hours east of the city, it's a gorgeous collection of limestone cliffs and caves protruding from the south china sea. Our two day/one night tour included the transport to the bay, a cruise on a junkboat, meals, canoeing, checking out a cave, overnight stay on the boat, cruise back to the harbor, and finally a ride back to Hanoi.

Rise and...get rained on
As Jason mentioned in his last post, it was time to say good bye to Carl and hop on our bus for yet another rainy ride toward Halong Bay. On the bus we were introduced to our guide, Kenny, who spoke a very quick, almost nervous English while giving us the scoop on Hanoi and the usual jokes about how to cross traffic in Vietnam (something to the effect of "move slowly and consistently like a rock, cars and motorbikes will drive around you.") The bus stopped at a couple of other hotels, at one point picking up two girls from London, Kat and Liz, who would be seated in front of me. Team London was now officially on board.

Team London was trying to nap on the ride, so I offered them my jacket to use as a pillow, which quickly drew a text message exchange between Carl and Jason (absolute SMS fiends) about the lameness of that move.

We arrived at the dock around noon, after a quick stop with crummy ice cream at a travel center near the halfway mark. The weather remained pretty rainy and cold, which was not aided by the fact that we had to wait for a good 45 minutes for our water taxi to pick us up and drive us out to our junk boat.

Once safely on board, we were served lunch and were amused/annoyed by signs everywhere pronouncing a $10 corkage fee and ban of drinks other than water in the cabins. Drinks ranging from tea to soda to wine were of course available from the on-board bar, but prices were, um, extremely inflated. Luckily we had snuck some contraband on board and we quickly started devising plans on how to open our wine without the use of a bottle opener.

As the boat puttered out into the bay, we were limiting our exposure to the outside environment due to rain continuing to hit the deck. Instead, passengers spent most of the time inside chatting away. Kenny had informed us that the heaters in the room would not be activated until after dinner, and the hot water heater would be kicked on shortly before dinner. Alas, there wasn't much to do in the cabins, either.

The first activity for the day was a visitation to the Hang Sung Sot cave, one of the largest, if not the largest, cave in Halong Bay. The cave itself was quite impressive, although a tid bit overrun by toursit groups. Kenny managed to get on quite a few people's nerves as he kept hustling us along, limiting picture taking and posing time. "We are familiy", he cried, "stay together." Perhaps he was suffering the same issue as our guide to the cu chi tunnels; that is, we all look the same to him and he didn't want any stragglers to be lost. But pictures were taken nonetheless:

The second and last official outdoor activity for the day was a 60 minute canoe stint. Canoes were more wet than usual due to the rain earlier, but as Cyndi insisted, "Damnit, we're going canoeing." She may have not said it in exactly those words, but you get the drift. So Lawton and I got our pants wet sharing a canoe, while Cyndi and Matt shared their own boat. Given the cool and rainy climate, splashing/tipping games were kept to a minimum, and we actually had quite a jolly time paddling around the bay and taking pictures.

After finishing our excercise for the day, we once again resorted back to scheming on how to access our contraband. As luck would have it, our now befriended London girls informed us that another English couple on the boat had brought a wine bottle opener. I had shared a beer with him after canoeing, and he quickly agreed to make the opener available to us. Score. Here's a pic of them in the canoe - Thanks!

Our grand plan for the evening was to have dinner, have a couple of drinks in one of our cabins (Liz, Kat, and the English couple joined us in our mischief), followed by a Karaoke session on the boat's built-in Karaoke setup. We managed to accomplish the first task quite easily; task 2, however, didn't really happen as we discovered the entire crew already in bed as we ascended to the main deck around 21:30. So that plan was aborted, and Matt and I went over to the girl's cabin to chill and teach them some proper American English. Bed time came sometime after midnight, which was actually quite late given our 7 am departure in the morning.

Diesel Alarm Clock and Free Coffee
If you've ever wondered what it's like to sleep next to a diesel engine, make sure to get a back room on a junkboat. Although I was already slightly awake, the vibration and noise from the boat engine quickly turned my "deluxe" bed akin to a cheap Vegas coin operated motel bed. It was actually a good thing, as it forced me to shower and join the rest of the boat for breakfast. The food was ok, but we were pleasantly surprised that they decided not to charge us for coffee or tea, if only during breakfast.

The rain had subsided during the course of the previous day, and the weather on Sunday was acutally somewhat decent although still devoid of acutal sun. We seized the opportunity for some good ol' Kodak moments on top of the boat while slowly heading back to the port.

Lunch was served shortly after de-boarding, and unfortunately left quite a bit to desire. Out of all the dishes, the rice was probably the most tolerable. We figured we'd just have a snack and nice dinner later. So we hopped on the bus and headed back towards Hanoi.

Given this would be our last night in Hanoi, and the rain had finally stopped, it was time to walk around town a bit, score a Döner Kebab (absolutely outstanding, btw), have some Bia Hoi (draft beer served on the street for a whoppingt $0.16 per glass), and do the mandatory lake pictures. Matt and I even had some ice cream shortly after we ran across this little overachiever:

Below are some pictures from the lake and our Bia Hoi experience, including our "waitress" which may have been a tad too young to serve beer in the US.

Dinner was had on a street restaurant, where we all enjoyed beef steak with fries and gravy. We had noticed this dish all over Hanoi, and it seemed to be a specialty of the joint we were patronizing. So we gave it a shot, and it was actually quite tasty. This is more than can be said of the toilets at the establishment, which according to witness accounts by Cyndi, Matt, and Jason were absolutely dreadfull and lacking of anything remotely representing a toilet bowl. And no, pictures were not taken. It was here that we once again ran into some random travel acquaintances, this time the Danish couple we had met a few weeks ago in Saigon.

Stuffed and content, we headed back towards the hotel. I had gotten a text message from Liz that her and Kat were hanging at a pub just down the street from our hotel. So I joined them for a beer while the rest of our crew retired towards the hotel.

Southbound Choo Choo train
Prior to departing for Halong Bay, our group (minus Carl) booked some train tickets for our trip southbound to Hue. The 13.5 hour overnight trip was chosen as an alternative to a bus or airplane, and since we had four people, we scored an entire compartment to ourselves. Given that the train was leaving at 8pm, we had the entire day to bum around a bit and take care of errands.

Given that it was Monday and the US lags behind by 12 hours, I got up at 6:30 am to catch the Saints-Vikings game. Since Drew Brees went to school at Purdue at the same time as us, I've been following and rooting for the Saints over the last couple of years. Needless to say, it was a great game and I'm super stoked they made it to the Super Bowl. Go Saints!  Who Dat!

Now Jason, Cyndi and Matt had different objectives that morning, namely the visiting of the local market for gift shopping. As such, they left me behind as I was glued to the TV, and were very productive in procuring various presents and a bottle opener (we learned from our Halong Bay experience.)

We met back up for lunch, where we sampled a hot pot at a local restaurant prior to visiting a spa for massages we had booked the prior day.

Since Cyndi and Matt were on vacation, we chose a slightly swankier spot that got us a 90 minute massage and a 30 minute mineral/herbal bath for a whopping 18 USD. Although picutres were not taken, it was quite humerous to watch first myself and later Lawton hop into the herbal bath that was prepared, complete with rose petals, in a tight barrel style tub. And no, we didn't get in together, Alvin.

We left our hotel shortly before 7pm for a quick cab ride to the train station, where we boarded the train and prepared for a very uneventful journey south.


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