Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bangkok to Saigon R&R in Halong Bay, Viet Nam

Bangkok to Saigon R&R in Halong Bay, Viet Nam

My "little" brother works in Viet Nam, based in Ha Noi, so one of the benefits of finishing the cycle ride in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) was that it was only a short hop to fly up to stay with him for a few days after the ride. However the day started badly.

In Viet Nam it seems that the locals are obsessed with the quality of their bank notes, they hate to accept bank notes that have got any flaws. The night before the restaurant we were in wanted me to swap a 10,000 dong note for another one because it had a small piece of sellotape sticking a small tear on the edge of the note. Since I had only just received the note from the Hotel an hour or so earlier I refused and eventually they accepted it. I took a taxi from the hotel to the airport - it was clear that the car had seen better days, although it made a change to be in a vehicle higher up the pecking order than over the last couple of weeks.

After making our way through the traffic, we got to the airport I climbed out and it turned out the taxi driver had not get enough change for fare The fare was around 70,000dong and I offered two notes of 50,000 dong. Fortunately I had some dollars so paid for the fare with 50,000dong and several dollar notes. However he started quibbling about the condition of one of the $1 bills (notes). It was one that had come from Cambodia where the currency has definitely seen better days. I managed to find an alternate cleaner note.

After that hassle was over I went past the guards at the entrance of the airport building and went to check in. I then realised that my bright blue handlebar bag was missing, with my SLR Camera in it. I asked the check-in girl to wait and ran back round to the entrance, no sign of the taxi nor the bag. To cut a long story short I finished the check in, looked around the taxi park looking for my driver, rang the hotel all to no avail. As a friend said, it had probably already been sold in a market somewhere. It had been a great camera - I'd probably taken over 50,000 pictures with it, it had bounced all around Cambodia (as well as travelled thousands of miles) I just hope it breaks before it gets sold. On the bright side all but 10 pictures had been downloaded onto my laptop (of around 1000). I was not able to report it at the airport, partly because I could not find anyone to report it to and partly because I had to catch my plane.

As bad things go there are much worse things that could have happened on an 1100Km cycle trip across three countries, one with landmines still scattered around. I was still very annoyed - if only... Too late it was gone.

The plane was late taking off because of a sudden torrential downpour, but did not leave too much later than planned. When I got to Ha Noi I got a text from my brother asking me to ring him when I got there. He took my order for a take-away curry and told me that his driver would be waiting for me after baggage reclaim - which he was. After an hour's journey we arrived at my brother's apartment. Shortly after that the curry turned up - it was delicious, I have eaten curries in quite a few countries, although not India - this turned out to be one of the better ones - mottor panneer and goat samosas were two of the highlights.

As his mother-in-law was also staying Neil (bro) and I had one room whilst his wife and mother in law had the other - here I am 40 years later sharing a room with my brother again - how time flies :-) He has been incredibly busy all year and not had any holiday so he had booked a two day cruise for us in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage a couple of hours drive away. His wife and mother in law were staying in Ha Noi - but being of Scottish descent he had decided that it would be cheaper if we shared a cabin on the boat - twin beds though!

As you might expect being out of the office does not get you away from the work, so once on board the boat he settled down to a 4 hour conference call - 3 hours too long in my book. The boat could take up to 16 passengers, but this cruise had only 7 so it was not crowded and very relaxed. Cold drinks were available from the honour bar. Every time you took a can there was a chart to mark it off on. The crew would also serve the drinks at lunchtime and mark the chart, hopefully correctly. While the rest of us had lunch served to us in the dining room, the boat set off and the busy Ericsson executive was served lunch by his older brother. I must admit I wondered how long he would continue to get coverage - but apparently the line only dropped 5 times. We later found out why it was so good.

Halong Bay was absolutely idyllic, the boat cruised through a scenery that was straight out of a "James Bond" movie. I thought "Dr No" - think girl in white bikini - yes I am showing my age. It turns out that the film was "Tomorrow Never Dies" - so clear evidence that my memory is going.

I was now down to one camera and was starting to feel the cold, it was down to around 25C after all, a good job I had bought a fleece with me. (Ha Noi is further north after all and we were at sea). But none of that stopped me from taking loads of pictures, everywhere I looked the scenery was tremendous. Apparently some of the islands have animals such as monkeys and antelopes on them. There are four fishing villages in the area (where people live on floating houses), nearly two thousand islands and six of the islands have enclosed lakes.

It was really great to be slowly cruising around such a beautiful place, sitting out on deck, chatting and taking pictures. Oh yes and listening to someone on his phone. Did no-one tell him that the whole point of a mobile phone is that it transmits your voice, shouting is not required! :-)

As you can see there was very little wind and the water was delightfully calm.

After a while our boat came to a halt and we were offered the option of riding in the "Bamboo boat" or kayaking. As the kayaks were two-person and the conference call was still on-going Neil and I took the bamboo boat. We were also warned that it would not be wise to take a camera on the kayak, to lose one is really bad, to lose two would have meant that I would have had to jump overboard. Once in the Bamboo boat; a rather noisy, ordinary boat, that required huge amounts of water to be poured into a funnel to keep the engine cool, we headed off to see one of the enclosed "lakes"

It would have been a better bet taking a kayak, they were faster and much less noisy and you could go where you wanted.

We also found other boats doing the same activities. It turns out that the Halong Bay cruises are regulated to minimise the impact of tourism on the area. So from time to time we would find ourselves herded together with other boats. The enclosed lake was quite a sight though.

We were offered the option of swimming in the water. Those that went kayaking commented on how "mucky" the water was and since I did not have any swimming trunks I was not going to swim in my cycling shorts unless it was an absolutely unmissable experience. (Cycling shorts have padding and take on water and then take time to dry.) Every one on our boat gave the swimming a miss, so it was missable.
Afterwards we headed for one of the islands, this one in fact. There was a "Temple" at the top and for those of you not in the Cellular industry it also had a base-station on the top that allowed all of the busy executives to remain connected. (If the truth is to be told I did send some picture texts, but of the scenery!) It turned out to be an Ericsson supplied base-station, so my brother took a picture of it. I think he needs a longer break.

The views from the top were beautiful, don't worry no close-up pictures of base-stations in this blog. There were quite a few dragon flies buzzing around though.

The sea was a lovely green colour and very calm.

After returning to our boat - a two deck affair - sun deck and dining room on the top floor and 8 cabins on the floor below we dressed for dinner. No of course we didn't, we helped ourselves to a cold beer (chilled not just Cambodian cold) and sat in the sun and chatted. I know I wasn't cycling but it was thirsty work climbing the 400 odd steps to the top of the island and back again. As I have just been exercising hard for several hours a day for the last two weeks, the climb was very pleasant. A certain busy executive who has not had time for much exercise recently collapsed in a sweaty heap at the top - well sat down in a sweaty heap anyway.

As the evening sun set the boats all seemed to congregate in one bay. It turns out that they congregate in a small number of bays, but cannot just moor anywhere. This one kept getting in my way when I tried to take a picture of the sunset.

Eventually I managed to get a picture of the sun without a boat in it as well.

Although I was lucky with one picture, because they kept on piling into the bay that was the only boat-free sunset picture, here are two boats more joining us.

When the sun set the boats turned on their generators and lights could be seen around the bay, it was amazing to see so many boats when the place had seemed so secluded earlier, it shows how big Halong Bay is.

Even after sunset more boats chugged in, their lights reflecting on the sea.

After dinner there was yet more chatting, there was not much else do do. Dinner was excellent by the way. Loads of sea food and there was a rumour that we had crab and frog mixed together, whatever, it tasted delicious. Some of our fellow passengers did get a little concerned that the drinks tally was not being correctly filled in by the crew though.

It was really pleasant sleeping on the boat, we had an air-con unit, although I am not sure it was on or not. It was really peaceful and wonderful to wake up on the water. Here is the sun rising. There were quite a few small boats plying their trade and a larger water boat, presumably stocking up the tanks of the cruising boats.

Here is one of the small boats - selling a whole range of things.

Here is one of the floating villages, they rely on the Cruising trade for custom.

After breakfast, we visited a cave. The islands are limestone, which lends itself to cave formation. Neil and I grew up near the Mendips in Somerset and have seen a few limestone caves in our time. I did a bit of pot-holing as well and a common feature was water, dripping water. These caves were bone dry, they were very wet during the rainy season, but at this time of year were quite dry.

They had the usual stalagmites and stalactites.

They also had the somewhat more unusual phallic formations, apparently it was visited by young women wanting to have children, I think the red lighting is a more recent addition though.

Here Neil is asking our Cruise Leader "just exactly how does it work then?"

When we left the cave we could see that we must have been followed - a good job it wasn't a James Bond film then.

Fresh fish or crabs anyone?

Eventually it was time to head back to the port - and so time to take yet more pictures from all angles.

This time we let the other boats get ahead - no point in ending the cruise too early.

One thing that Neil did do was work out how to take videos using his camera -here is one I took.

As you can see the Halong Bay cruises support a very large tourist industry. Talking of supporting the area it was also time for Neil and I to settle our bar bill - 1 million dong.

When we got back to Ha Noi we went out for a curry - I know it was my last night in Viet Nam, but it seemed a good idea and a chance to visit the place that served up the curry I had had on arriving in Ha Noi. It was delicious once again, and the restaurant was by a lake so it was also very scenic
The next day was back to work for Neil and off to the airport for me. I went with Neil and then his driver took me on to the airport. On the way we saw one accident a scooter had been hit broadside by a car. In UK law the car was probably in the wrong- here it was probably the scooter. My impression of Ha Noi was that it was a more industrious and ordered city than Ho Chi Minh city. The streets were tidier and the traffic flow less chaotic, there also seemed to be many more people on scooters, especially during the rush hour.
Here is Ha Noi in the early morning:

Another shot - with the Vietnamese flag flying in the breeze.

At Hanoi airport I had a minor worry, when I went through immigration my extra paperwork was taken away and I had to stand and wait, most people got through in the time it took to stamp their passports, I was there 10minutes, but was not asked anything.

My return route was via Hong Kong. Whilst waiting for my flight in Ha Noi I did hear of a flight to Bangkok getting delayed and then cancelled. I caught my flight to Hong Kong and on checking in for the last leg of my flight discoved they had moved my seat booking, requiring me to be very disappointed, not cross of course, so they offered to ring BA and see what they could do. (It worked I got the seat I wanted back again) I had a nine hour gap between flights and was going to pop into the city. In the end I set up camp in the BA lounge and tried to catch up on my blog which the observant of you will realise has not been running in real time. They had a wireless connection in the airport - but towards the end it started turning to wet string.

I rang home and to my wife's relief she discovered I was returning via Hong Kong, she told me that Bangkok was closed and everyone was stuck (Note I did tell her and printed out my itinerary for her before I left.). During my wait at the airport I met quite a few people who were lucky enough to have been re-routed to Hong Kong. It turns out the Bangkok is a common stoppover for flights between Europe and Australia.

Hong Kong is a great airport though - efficient and spacious.

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