Saturday, May 24, 2008

Ha Long - Descending Dragon

A long time ago, the first emperor of Vietnam arrived at this land with his entourage, and saw a dragon flying up towards the sky. A dragon symbolizes the ruler of a land, and the departing dragon symbolized the vacating of the throne of this land for the new ruler. Therefore, the land was named Thang Long - the Ascending Dragon, now Hanoi. The dragon which ascended from Thang Long descended at a bay and became rock formations. This bay is called Ha Long - the Descending Dragon. (many thanks to our wonderful guide, Tuan, for this story, and many others)

We rose early to breakfast at the hotel, and was ready by 8am Hanoi time for our Ha Long Bay tour. Our guide for this tour, Tuan (pronounced duen), met us at the hotel. He spoke relatively good English - in fact, the best English we encountered in the entire vacation. He told us that he is an Economics graduate, worked as a tour guide part time, and aspires to do an MBA in the future (good for you, young man!) We boarded the tour bus with several other tourists for the ~3-hour journey to Ha Long City.

In the bus

The bus stopped for a brief half hour at a complex which sold a variety of souvenirs, including (but not limited to...) ceramic ware, figurines, silk and silk products and embroidery. Embroidery! There was a section where the embroidery staff worked, some of them mere kids! The stitches were so delicate, fine and neat that the embroidered pieces looked like beautiful paintings. The temptation to buy definitely was strong, but for an even stronger deterrent - the prices were quoted in USD (!!!).

The embroidery section

The only things I got from that place were some postcards, at VND10,000 per pack of 10. As we were about to leave the place I found out that our No 1 kaki shopping bought a whole bag of goodies - Vietnamese coffee and their famous green bean cakes - from a little cafe adjoining the complex. (argh!!! *envious*) She was a little concerned about the cakes' freshness as the expiry dates were just a couple of months away, but couldn't articulate that concern in the language that the cafe staff could understand. She raised the matter to Tuan, and he immediately escorted her back to the cafe to inquire. Later, I was told that she failed to get 'fresher' goods, as the staff there were way louder and fiercer than our meek and gentle guide. Sigh.
We continued our journey for another 1.5 hours before reaching the jetty at Ha Long City. This was where the cruise to Ha Long Bay began.

Ships at the jetty

It was a Sunday and the harbour at Ha Long was very crowded with both locals and foreigners. We, however, were well-prepared to brave them, because Tuan had previously warned us of the immense number of tourists, and told us to stick close together, so as to not get lost. After a short wait, we embarked on our boat.

Got a chair to step on...

The boat was to take us out to the sea to explore the bay and its many curious, wondrous, glorious, *yawwwwn*, natural rockly isles and rock formations. There were so many - wave-corroded, wind-cut, strangely-shaped, extraordinarily-coloured - very much like those we saw at Phang Nga Bay at Phuket, but of an area more vast. The journey itself was great. The boat went slowly on for a couple of hours until lunch.

Lunch was served on the boat but it was nothing to shout about. I was personally a little surprised when our own tour guide Tuan served us, because the boat had its own staff. The first dish that came was a plate of prettily-trimmed cucumber, raw or pickled (I don't know because I don't eat cucumber raw and/or pickled), and the second was a plate of 6 large, juicy-looking, yummy-smelling prawns. Notice that I didn't use the word taste. That is because we didn't really get to taste those prawns. Less than a minute after the dish was placed on our table, Tuan took it away again, mumbling an embarrassed apology. The prawns belonged to another table of tourists... who probably bought a more expensive package. Gah! I don't remember what other dishes followed - too upset about the prawns. Later, one of my friends informed us that she overheard our poor misinformed tour guide getting a scolding of his life. Poor thing. Luckily we didn't dig right in before he had the chance to right his wrong (else... well, I don't want to imagine what would had happened)

After lunch, it was a relaxing couple of hours out on the decks, enjoying the scenery, taking photos and being blown into a bad-hair-day by the cool sea breeze. Tuan engaged us with very entertaining tales of the legend of Hanoi and Ha Long, and talked about life in Vietnam in general. It was great conversation, though not without random moments of difficulty. Some of those moments:

#1 Tuan said that it was not safe to swim at Ha Long Bay because there are sharks. The sharks there don't eat Vietnamese. Instead they like to eat foreigners and Malaysians because they are fatter. It was supposed to be funny, but I didn't really get the joke at first because I was still digesting his accent. And my friends, who saw that I had no reaction, gave no reactions as well. And poor Tuan didn't know how to react to his joke that tak laku. Sigh.

#2 I wanted to know if there are crocodiles at the swampy areas around Ha Long Bay. Tuan didn't know what "crocodile" was, and we didn't know how to make him understand. I tried to sign it - held my fingers out like claws and clamp both arms down like chomping corcodile jaws - nope, he didn't get it. Erm, Crocodile Dundee? Nope, he'd never heard of it. Erm, what about that Aussie croc fella who was killed by a stingray? Nope, I myself couldn't recall the guy's name. Well, OK then, I give up. Next!

#3 Do Vietnamese believe in ghosts? Tuan didn't understand "ghost" either. He thought we meant "gods" and told us about gods they worshipped. Gah! OK, you know, spirits? When people die, and *arms stretched and eyes eerily rolled up* huhuhuuuuh? Still don't get it? Ghosts, spirits, vampires! Get it?!! Nevermind. (Coincidentally, later in the conversation, he got on to talk about what people do to ward off evil spirits. He mentioned the word "ghost" too, but in the unique Vietnamese accent that we understood only because it was spoken in context)

Another hour or two were spent in such manner - enjoying the view, taking photos, talking - till we reached our next destination.

A rock
Two rocks, that they say resemble two chickens kissing (well, you see what you want to see...)

Our next destination was the "Amazing Cave", or the Hang Sung Sot (I think, because there's a huge sign bearing these words at the entrance...). This cave was the spot the dragon in the legend descended, and there were signs of the dragon all throughout the cave - or so the Vietnamese say. There were curious scale-like formations on the ceiling (the dragon's spine and / or tail), perfect circular indentations (the dragon's scales), and stalactites and stalagmites that resemble dragon's head, beard, claws etc. As I have said before, you see what you want to see. It was a really nice walk through the caves though. The air inside was so cool and so fresh. And as I walked on, I can't help but wonder how such fantastic shapes could had been formed, and what a mysterious place our earth could be. Yes, I do get carried away.

Inside the Amazing Cave

Feet of the dragon
View from the top

We were mostly ascending when going through the caves and at one point, we were close to exiting into the open when Tuan pointed to the direction and said that it was the way to heaven. We looked, and indeed it was - with the sunlight bursting in straight rays into the dark caves through the mists - it was ethereal. We then ascended towards "the way to heaven" and along the way, was a deep cavern - steep, dark and unlit, enclosed by metal bars for tourists' safety. "Way to hell!" Tuan said, and laughed heartily. Ah, it's a joke. Yes, we got that this time, and we laughed too. :D

After the 40- or 45-minute long cave exploration, we went back to the boat and sailed away. It was a rather long journey to our final destionation for the day - Cat Ba Island, not made any shorter by the way our boat sailed so leisurely on.

Relaxing on the upper deck
We changed boats - boarded a smaller one - halfway through and continued on (slowwwly) until we reached Cat Ba. In the itinerary provided by the tour agency, it was stated that we will be given the equipment to fish, and have our catch (if any) cooked along with our dinner. I was just wondering when this was going to happen when Tuan came around and started talking to us. I asked him about it and he said there wasn't going to be any fishing. Following that was a blur to me - someone showed him the itinerary, several people spoke simultaneously for several minutes, a few phone calls were made - and then, we were told that we'd be going fishing after all! This can't be right, but well, I'm not complaining (yet!).

Cat Ba was essentially a fishing village. The island, probably newly opened to tourism, was still under development. The first thing I noted about the island was how bleak it looked - the sky was grey, the sea water was murky around the shores, the buildings were worn and the roads were dusty, all set against vast unfriendly, rocky hills covered partly by greens.

The mini bus which took tourists to the hotels on the other side of the hill was a rickety old thing. It was a steep climb up and down the slopes and while going down wasn't a problem, going up was a painful struggle. The engine roared then screamed, and still, the vehicle could only manage to go on at slightly slower than andante (what the... ahem!).

The hotel was at the side of a relatively broad street, probably the main street, probably the only properly-paved street - and it was a tall, narrow building (as usual). The reception there was one of the worst I'd experienced. First of all, the young man behind the counter was ugly and sour-faced. He was perpetually scowling and was harsh and rude to our gentle and polite Tuan. He even had the cheek to suggest that one of my friends share room with a couple of other tourists. It was too damn much! In the end, instead of 3 rooms like we wanted, we got 2 - one for the 4 girls, the other for the 2 guys. Fine!

Dinner was served at the hotel, and it was the lousiest meal of the entire tour, taste-wise. I'm not even going to spend any time right now describing it!

After dinner, Tuan took us for the promised "fishing" trip. Yes, you noticed I placed the word inside quotation marks. Soon, you'll understand why. One of the rickety old bus took us back to the pier and we boarded a fishing boat. It sailed out, only to stall and park about 100m away from the shore. There, we were given reels of fishing lines (yes, lines wound onto hand-held reels - no rods) with clumps of pork on the hooks as baits. Well, I may not be an expert in the art of fishing, but I could very well tell we'd been taken for fools. Firstly, with all the traffic around us, the roaring engines and loud music (yes, our boatmen had the cheeks to blast music while we were "fishing"), no fish in their sane minds would linger there to take a bite. Secondly - well, I don't want to state the obvious but - pork was hardly the ideal bait because pigs don't live underwater! Gah!

After about half an hour's predictably futile, fruitless "fishing", the group of waterfish (us lar) were brought back to the island where we spent another half hour or so walking along its main street with our tour guide, before retiring to our rooms.

The room we stayed in at the hotel was awful compared to the ones at Hanoi. The mattresses were too soft and totally without elasticity, the door had several see-through cracks, and the bathroom was dimly lit and had ugly patches of rust or whatever all over the faucets. The sprouts of water from the shower were so wild and uncontrollable that after the first bath, our toilet paper roll was complete soaked - and unusable.

My friend nonchalantly announced that she would call the reception and ask for a new roll. And she did - seemingly without effort. I was surprised, and I asked if they didn't have problems understanding her, to which she was quite confident that they didn't. *yeah right* About 5 minutes later, there was a knock on our door. "Oh, that must be someone bringing us toilet paper!" my friend exclaimed. I got up, opened the door, and I found myself looking at a young man, the hotel staff, staring back at me with a questioning look on his face. My eyes wandered involuntarily to his hands. No toilet paper. Instead, he was holding a screwdriver in one hand, and a spanner wrench in the other. I could hardly contain my laughter. I had to show him our wet and mangled toilet roll before he understood that we needed a new roll. Gosh!

I did not sleep well, if at all, that night, and looked pretty much like a panda crossed dead fish the next day. We were served a breakfast lousier than the previous evening's dinner, and then boarded a boat to begin our journey back. The boat ride from Cat Ba to Ha Long took a grueling 3 - 4 hours.

A view of Cat Ba as we were leaving it

Look closely and you'll see the orange-coloured formation admist the vast greyish mass which looks like a man standing, facing the vast rock islet. I stayed on the upperdeck of the boat, basking in the sun, for probably an hour, just to capture this on camera!

We reached Ha Long city at noon and were taken to a local restaurant for lunch. The building which was the restaurant had the narrowest doors I'd experienced in this vacation. My shoulders almost reached their entire width. The guys had to move through them 1 shoulder at a time. The huge Westerners had to go sideways and hunch at the same time.

After lunch, it was another 3-hour journey back to Hanoi. We made a stop at another crafts and souvenirs center, but no one bought anything this time. We reached our hotel at about 4pm and had a short rest before heading out for a pre-dinner meal - well, alright, a meal, at the herbal chicken shop which we visited on our first day at Hanoi. Here, we learned our first two Vietnamese words for food - ga which is chicken, and chim which means bird (quail, that is).

Our programme for that evening was watching the water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. It took us about 15 minutes to walk there from the hotel area, and we were early to reach the place, so my food-adoring companions decided to pop in to Highland Coffee for some... well, coffee. The place was classy and modern, with dim lights and comfy sofas - much like Starbucks around here. We ordered a coffee each, and these were served with complimentary cookies. The coffees were so good we ended up buying some bags of ground coffee as well.

The water puppet show was really great, despite us not understanding a single word said and sung. The theatre, instead of having a stage, had a waist-deep pool of water at the front. The end of the pool furthest from the audience had bamboo curtains, behind which the puppeteers worked. On one side of the pool, the musicians sat with their instruments - traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. Two singers narrated and sang through the show. The puppets, attached to long poles held by the unseen puppeteers, danced and jumped in the water. It was a truly unique and spectacular experience.

Some puppets on display at the water puppet theatre

After the show, it was supper time (ahem, you would've guessed). Life is good when you're with people who made sure you're fed every two- or three-hourly. We went to:


We'd intended to have KFC the moment we saw it there, right on our first day in Hanoi. You would've noticed the Vietnamese word ga there on the sign. That's "chicken", which means ran must be "fried"! (yup, we learned another Vietnamese word!) The menu there was slightly different from what we have here. We ordered 3 different meals to be shared by everyone, and my favourite was this wrap called Sot Caesar - its filling included fresh veggies, dressing, cheese and ga chunks. Delicious!

Appetite satiated, it was back to the hotel to call it another day!

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