Saturday, 1 September 2012

Missed Vietnam train, Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay

Aug 2nd, 2012 - Aug 6th, 2012

Our return to Hanoi was anticipated along with the rest of the inclusives of our tour. We were dropped in Lau Cai after the ride from Bac Ha and left to our own devices for a few hours. These we used to fill our stomachs with an early evening meal along with a few beers with fellow traveller.  Satisfied we returned to collect our bags and whilst I paid one last visit to the conveniences Julian waited outside and fell into a conversation with a gentleman of advancing years, also waiting for his train back to Hanoi. It turned out that the gentleman had been living with his family as a child in Hanoi when the DMZ was formed in 1954. Together, as a family, they relocated to Saigon and initially under French protection remained there throughout the next two decades. They finally left their homeland as some of the 'Vietnamese boat people' in 1978 to eventually settling in Paris, France. He was here as a part of a tour group and must have made a fascinating traveling companion; our conversation with him was riveting enough that when I urged Julian to check his watch we discovered that not only were we three not waiting for the same train, but ours had been due to roll out of the station some 10 minutes prior. 

We made our hasty and ultimately fruitless dash across the road to the station and, of course, this was to be our first experience of public transport actually running on time in Asia. Our train was long gone towards the big city no doubt with two passengers celebrating their unexpected fortune at having a four berth compartment to themselves. A few moments of frantic panic ensued. It was Sunday evening, the busiest day of the week for trains back to Hanoi and we knew how difficult it would have been to organize our own train tickets into Lao Cai. But in Asia there are always those people on the fringe of legality prepared to take advantage of the huge amount of tourists and in Lao Cai it was no different. Within five minutes we had ascertained all tickets from the box office for that night were sold and had offers from two touts with tickets to two different stations in Hanoi. We'd have to drop down from first to sixth class but we could get back to the capital for $40.  Julian made his choice between the two scalpers and between them they did the deal whilst the other came to try and haggle with me. Eventually we had two tickets in hand; a six berth compartment to Gia Lam, the Hanoi station on the opposite side of the river from where we wanted to be. It didn't look that far on the guys smart phone and we had nothing better to do at 5am the following morning so the walk should be pleasant enough back to our hotel. The trouble with doing things in a hurry, with elevated stress levels and on the fly with language barriers to boot, is that you don't really have time to discuss options and maybe you don't get all the information available. The woman was offering two tickets to the station we actually wanted to go to, for less money and in a higher class berth whilst the guy Julian was dealing with was telling us we could hang on one station more (just pay when you get there) to get to Long Bien on the western side of the Song Hong (Red River) where we wanted to be. When all the shouting was done amidst the chaos of passengers milling around the overheated, packed station all we knew was we needed to get on 'X' train at 'Y' time to get back to Hanoi.

I don't know what it is, but with Julian as my traveling partner it's always an adventure. Whether intentional or not it's usually an interesting ride. When we arrived at Gia Lam and unable to confirm where the train was heading next (due to those aforementioned language barriers) we alighted where and when we were told our ticket was bound for. After a check of the indispensable Lonely Planet we headed off on foot, Julian leading out with his usual confidence assuring me he knew exactly where we were going. My internal compass may not always be the most accurate and Julian was relying on a handheld one, looking for "a river".  When we came to a waterway I was sure we had walked far enough and suggested we might cross it at the next opportunity that presented itself.  Out came the compass again and with finality he said he was looking for a river "a little bigger and going the other way". Coming to a T-junction and picking a direction at random we turned right hoping to reach one of the two bridges that the map showed crossing Song Hong.  Impressively he'd managed to bring us out of the maze of streets right between the two. 

The one we ended up choosing was the rail bridge. Not quite as bad as it might have been in another city; there was only a single track down the centre of the bridge and on either side a narrow road way and alongside those, walkways at the outer edges. The roads were reserved for Vietnams preferred method of travel; motorbikes.  It was 7am now and the westbound stream of traffic poured into the city; three, sometimes four lanes thick.  In those 30 minutes it took us to cross that bridge I've never seen anything like it.  As anticipated, the river was a "little bigger" than the one we'd come across earlier and across that bridge we were accompanied by a steady stream of bikes, horns blazing for reasons I couldn't comprehend.  We were the only pedestrians on the bridge, often having to move aside for moto's utilizing the sidewalks, earning curious stares and smiles from amused drivers every time we paused to take in the spectacle of thousands upon thousands of bikes crossing the bridge like a column of ants heading for the nest.  It seemed never ending and whilst we were there, it didn't. For all I know the stream of traffic is still steadily moving citywards even now.

Approaching Hanoi by foot across that bridge is something I will never forget. We paused, watching the river and the fishing boats amongst the reeds.  Beyond the rivers edge are lush, flooded banana plantations and vegetable patches clinging to the reclaimed but unbuildable mudflats of the rivers' last 400 metres of width.  More boats putted between the two sections which were split by a wide channel perhaps some 75m across.  This relatively peaceful scene might have been represented almost anywhere along the major rivers of the Asian peninsula, but only here is there the chaotic, crammed to bursting backdrop of Hanoi's old town and the constant accompaniment of thousands of moto's cruising past us at 20 kph.  It was such a sensory overload, we could only turn to each other and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. The noise, the chaos, the masses of people on bikes was absurd! The meeting of the river life we enjoyed a few days earlier as we meandered down the Mekong lay below us, whilst in front, behind and just inches away, the hubbub and hum of an Asian metropolis.  Whilst I know that one depended on the other, the visual separation between the two worlds was absolute and rigid. A undulating line of square, low story box buildings bordering the wide, rippling, green leaves of the banana trees and looking down along the sharp edge of the bridge, the mechanical thunder of a train rumbling alongside the bikes, against the gentle flow of muddied waters far below us. 

It's definitely not a walk we would have found listed in a guidebook and we certainly would not have chosen to do it with backpacks on, but this perception of the city in the morning light was so overwhelmingly "Hanoi" that I wonder if it should warrant a small recommendation in the backpackers bible.  

As we learned when arranging our visit to Sapa, tours are hard to get away from in Hanoi. It took ages for us to find an alternative to the common coach tours to our next destination. 

When you think of Vietnam, surely the UNSECO heritage site of Halong Bay is one of the first imagines that come to mind.  When it comes to visiting this stunning part of the world I had this lovely imagine painted in my head inspired by New Zealand experiences.  Renting out a kayak for a couple of days and paddling in solitude amongst the giant limestone formations rising steeping from the South China sea; precisely one of the many ways to explore Able Tasman National Park.  Agents continuously offering guided tours where every moment is strictly structured was to be avoided at all costs and I was determined to find alternative options.  Fortunately, Wiki Travel had a solution; the large island of Cat Ba, south of Halong Bay, offers accommodation and a base for the Halong Bay experience. 

Getting off the bus at a quay on the mainland appeared to be one of the most unlikely locations for this renowned site.  The hydrofoil pulled out of the port where rubbish and oil polluted the brown, murky surface. Wooden shacks on stilts served as homes and fishing bases and farms which all finally gave away to clearer waters as we headed for a mountainous mass in the distance.  Steeping onto Cat Ba island was like stepping into Jurassic Park; steep, jagged, limestone mountains rise amongst dense rainforest. First impressions during our 20 minute drive across the island suggested an almost pristine, stunning landscape.  Arriving at a sea side 'resort town' we were approached by numerous hotel operators who vied for the opportunity to quickly usher us to a sea view room for $12 per night (which we later learned was about to rise to $75 a fortnight later during a week of Vietnamese holiday).  We chose the second offer and our balcony offered a lovely view of the bay; home to many fishing boats, tour boats and floating restaurants. 

Seeking a meal as usual after arriving, we were rather turned off by the oppressing stares and rude remarks (we expect in Hanoi) coming from local restaurants and shops.  It seemed nobody was pleased to see us and were even more irritated when we asked if they were serving lunch.  Granted, it was the hottest part of the day when people usually 'turn off' for a few hours to escape the heat, and here were the two westerners asking if they would work.  

We also learned that afternoon that indeed, the only way of seeing Halong Bay was aboard a charted boat trip of which there were many at ranging prices; no option of an independent kayak expedition or solo excursion of any kind.  Evening fell and neon lights lit the boats and coastline along the harbour reminding me more a seaside resort in Ibiza with the added tackiness of Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls.  

We walked for a while following a concrete path which wound its way around the outcrops above the sea in search of a ideal spot for a sunrise shoot and soon found the sea beckoning us into its depths.  The sun had long since set so we striped off our clothing and allowed the warm salty waters to clear our sweat moistened pores.  It wasn't long however before a flashlight shone and a whistle blew.  The beach shut at sunset of course and in this part of the country, little men with loud whistles feel very important and wish everybody would just conform to the rules! Knowing full well we had invaded a private hotel beach, Julian played the incensed, misunderstanding, white boy resident tourist for a few minutes and berated the man for closing the sea, but we got dressed anyway and continued our stroll back to town feeling much refreshed after our dip.

A bus was to pick us up the following morning and when it was late our host and tour agent had to make quick alternate arrangements; a man on one of the many small bamboo row boats that ply the harbour as taxis, had us board his craft. He was paid and quickly ushered us onto the bay.  The job looks like far to much work and I can't help but wonder why he makes things so hard on himself.  The oars resemble wooden sticks with not much of a 'paddle' on the end.  He stood at the stern pushing all his weight into the ors with the mighty strength of his shoulders to transport us to a large, two decker snub nosed boat.  It was clear that this was not the boat we were initially intended to board but we managed to bag ourselves the best seat in the house, legs dangling over the bow and offering us an unobstructed view whilst we glided over the water.  As the day warmed, we chatted with others who would be amongst our company for the next eight hours hours, in particular a Canadian couple and a French lad.

We skirted around the south shore of Cat Ba and up the east coast of the island towards Halong Bay.  Cat Ba proved to be as striking as our first impression of the place had indicated and towered above us.  We flowed between islands of limestone which dotted the coastline and I started to wonder if perhaps we should have spent the extra money for a climbing excursion rather than the boat tour.  I wanted nothing more in that moment than to jump off the boat to get my hands on the fabulous rock formation offering what must be so many untouched routes. 

It was not long before my eyes could focus only on the absurd amount of rubbish littering the surface of the waters here.  Drink bottles, lost sandals, cardboard and plastic of all sorts, little bits of styrofoam and occasionally entire boxes of the stuff.  I silently morned for this place in my heart, baffled at how people can allow such an important and stunning place of natural beauty to become so badly littered by mindless actions of man.  I have been deeply bothered my entire way up SE Asian peninsula at the endless amounts of rubbish which lay in heaps everywhere and to see it here was certainly the most disheartening. 

Still, schools of fish could often be seen and spotting jellyfish soon became a game I played with myself.  Jellyfish of all shapes and sizes, either clear or purple with long dangling tentacles or short ones, the smallest no bigger than my hand, the largest about half a meter across.  Other than the floating plastic bags I wrongfully picked out as potential jellyfish, they appeared so beautiful from the bow of the boat despite how wary of them I am every time I step into the sea.  

The limestone formations grew in density; this area of 1,553 km2 is five million years in the making and consists of over 2,000 limestone islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation and each rising spectacularly from the sea offering around 2,000 inlets.  After about 3 hours of cruising through these monoliths and marvelling at their water and weather sculpted shapes, we pulled into one of the inlets along with masses of other boats. 

Alighting we followed hundreds of people in single file up stairs into the mouth of Grotte des Merveilles, one of the numerous islands which are hollow.  The temperature mercifully dipped as we descended its depths into a massive chamber of stalagmites and stalactites, beautifully lit. We followed the wooden walkway deeper into the womb of the earth to find two more caverns larger than the first, perhaps 200m deep and with a (comparatively) narrow looking exit high up the outer wall. We followed a concrete path, up and down steps, laid to show the very best of the caves features and to protect the fragile and porous rock from millions of feet that pass through here each year.  Trapsing in file with about 500 others we 'oooed and ahhhed' at the right places and tutted at those taking short cuts across the rock before exiting and dropping back down many stairs to sea level. We searched for our boat out of the many which were docked in the bay for the same daily purpose and were promptly served a lunch of spring rolls, tofu, fish, veggies and rice whilst our captain set sail for Cat Ba once again. 

The boat meandered amongst the bays until we pulled into an inlet and given an opportunity to jump from the boat for a swim followed by 45 minutes in a kayak.  Relieved to rinse off, the warm waters were as refreshing as warm waters can be and soon after we eagerly secured a double seat kayak and went in the opposite direction of everyone else.  We explored small caves, climbed up the rock and enjoyed our few moments of freedom in solitude. 

Continuing to head home we putted through floating communities which are sustained through fishing and aquaculture; the people ply the shallow waters for fish and mollusks.  In my option the islands here were among the most impressive yet I was further disheartened to find it the most polluted. Rubbish floated everywhere upon the surface and following every boat like a snail trail, the water was laden with an oily film glistening rainbow colours in the afternoon sun.  We paused briefly on Monkey Island to 'enjoy' the small tropical beach with 300 other day tourists (and no monkeys) until we were once again summoned by the ships horn and our return to port.

Leaving Cat Ba as fast as arrangements would allow, to head for the mainland south of the DMZ, our journey to Hue was split up with a three hour layover in Haiphong.  Seeking some food we found ourselves in a sort-of-restaurant where nobody spoke english.  We were offered a menu in Vietnamese and none the wiser pointed at the kebab meat slowly turning on the spit outside and ordered a couple sandwiches.  As we finished out mediocre snack two Vietnamese girls walked in, sat beside us and one, in the most unexpected of accents, stated "It's hot here, eh?". 

Surprised, we soon learned she was from Vancouver visiting her family here in Haiphong.  She has been eager to find fellow westerners, who are apparently few and far between in Haiphong and quickly took us under her wing. She ordered us some food out of what was essentially an ice cream parlour, then invited us to join her in a cab so she could pick up her car. We were soon being chauffeured around Haiphong amongst the craziness and horn blasting of Vietnamese traffic, on a whistle stop tour of the city before pausing down a back alleyway.  A local woman working out of her home kitchen was producing some fabulous aromas and just dishing up the first of the evenings buffet.  Pork prepared in a multitude of ways was on offer along with a delightfully seasoned tofu and tomato dish and the inevitable rice.  Once we had stocked up for our evening meal, our new friend dropped us off at the bus station with some of Vietnams cheapest, freshest and finest street food for our 10 hour overnight bus trip to Hue. I have no idea of the Canadian's name, nor of her cousin that accompanied us throughout that three hour layover. We didn't exchange e-mails nor even direct her to this blog. Maybe one day we'll meet again, probably not though, but what a wonderful and surprising encounter it was.  

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