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Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba and Monkey Island

VIETNAM | Sunday, 2 January 2011 | Views [1115]

6 Day- Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island & Monkey Island
Departing Hanoi, the feeling that it had become somewhat of a homebase seemed absurd and yet undeniable. The smog, soundtrack of honking traffic and distant Kareoke makes it a visible headache but as it was our first port of travel, we have a certain level of attachment to it. Plus, we have successfully learnt the names of two streets which is a significant achievement in a country of street signs that all consist of the words Hang, Pho and Nguyen. Our minibus bumped its way along to Ha Long ensuring that it overtook a number of other cars in the oncoming traffic lane- this is standard, in fact, if someone was to adhere to some kind of agreed upon road rule, it would startle everyone and chaos would surely follow.
Ha Long Town is a bit of a wreck, with many unfinished three storey buildings and rubble. The harbour promises to be more but it is at this point that you remember that tourist hotspots attract the one thing we all forget about when we read the guide book or see the brochure- the sheer volume of other tourists. Ha Long attracts a massive number of people, all who are keen to spend a unique experience with a small group, cruising the aqua (truth: milky turquoise with a lot of oil and fuel pollution) waters and seeing the karsts. I believe I too held onto the conception that I would discover new caves, sail clear waters and be a part of a small and relatively secret number of people who had witnessed the promised beauty of the bay...
After an eternity of people watching, socks with sandals and the uncomfortable looks of those whose passports had been taken without clear reasons as to why, we were finally ushered down to one of the many transport boats we would embark on our trip. 
The sheer number of junks and boats out on the bay gave you a sharp pinch of reality. Ha Long bay was a serious money earner for the Viet people, they knew it and they exploited it. Insincere guides would ridicule themselves and perform the role of overenthusiastic excursion leader. The timetables were inflexible and consisted of each group being led like sheep through the sights/activities, such as 'The Amazing Cave', kayaking time (but please only take 15 minutes as we are running behind on our schedule), cooking class (roll the spring rolls so we can laugh at how crappy they look), beach & swim (we are here for 40 mins, now swim...no, no, its no cold, you swim now, 35 mins, yes). It wasn't that the activities were that bad, they just all could have been improved if there was actually some sun and not thousands of other tourists all lined up to do the same thing. Karaoke on the boat was a loud and enthusiastic event for the first night- helpfully encouraged by some well to do, college graduates of California. Both myself and Lawrence jumped on in and performed some mighty ballads that were quietly appreciated by the audience. Strangely, the microphone was handed to me first by the guides on both of the nights. I had not appeared too thrilled by the prospect of more karaoke yet they seemed to take my lack of eye contact and laughter as a sure sign that I had it in me to fully embarrass myself at a rapid rate. On the second night, I showed restraint. 
The second day of our tour posed a problem for the guide who did not know of people who wanted to deviate from the usual one night on the boat. He quickly devised an itinerary for us showing how excellent his training in hospitality had been... we were to spend the entire day on a kayak whilst he went and picked up the other tourists. After explaining that with the high probability of rain, starvation, getting lost and having an utterly shit time we were in fact not too willing to sign up for that particular field trip. With his imagination stretched to the limit, we in fact repeated the activities of day one but with a new set of tourists. How knowledgeable we appeared to those unsuspecting guests. By day three we were dropped off to the bicycling area and in truth, we had a really great ride through the national park of Cat Ba. Whilst doing so, the group of dodgy looking men (but you cannot judge which ones are in fact dodgy as there are groups of these men absolutely everywhere and to suspect them all would classify you as being beyond paranoid) had a great time going through Lawrence's bags. Luckily Lawrence had nothing of value in there but his photographic memory was sent into visual assault mode when he discovered the soap box was now suspiciously sitting in the top of his bag and not at the bottom. I actually dismissed his detective work as ridiculous, upon hearing others retell of the same experience at the same place, I am now, however, more willing to listen to Lawrence.
We met a number of nice people in our trip, Josie and Mitch from Byron/ Brisbane. Jodie and someone who obviously made a huge impression on us- from Sydney, Eric and Adrian from New York, Collette (who stalked us from our last tour of the north) and Art and Astrid from Poland and New Zealand respectively. They partied, drank, sang and hugged with 
us over the new year week. 
The two days at Cat Ba saw us hiring motorbikes, attempting to grow the worlds biggest goosebumps at the beach, having a painful massage of the shoulders and then receiving the most unbelievable hand massage from a stranger at new years, drinking and watching the collection of Sinbad movies on Vietnamese television. Lawrence is delighted to see they have a whole channel dedicated to kung fu, badly translated ninja movies or movies of heroics filmed in the early 80's with plasticine models for special effects. 
Eventually we made our way to the promised land of Monkey Island. We had seen monkeys on an earlier island and they looked to be quite tame and entertaining. (Although watching the Americans try to hand feed or pick them up was possibly most of the entertainment factor for me.)Arriving at Monkey Island was a spooky experience. There were no other 
tourists and the beach was very small. In fact, there was nothing to do but to sit in your hut and wait for meal times. 
The huts were freezing so we opted for a mixture of activities involving sitting inside, sitting outside and sitting inside but looking outside- all more riveting than the last. when mealtimes actually eventuated, so too did the realisation that food was not included in this part of the excursion and as we were on an island we would be fed only the meals that they prepared (no menus were available conveniently.) So we were told no to sandwiches, no to when we wanted to eat and to sit down as lunch would be ready in 15 minutes, a cool 240,000 Dong later and we were still not told the price of what we had eaten. As day turned to night, the shrill screams of the young boys and girls who managed the island were echoing through the island and beginning to make us feel less hospitable. After being served a BBQ with a bunch of boat tourists that got to eat and stay in the bamboo bungalows for a fraction of what we were paying we were no longer feeling at all hospitable. We decided to throw a massive spanner in the works for everyone in Vietnam by creating a ripple effect from leaving to go home a day early. With nothing to do and a promise that after finding out the bill for only one of our days eating, we would not eat again for a week, we set off for a series of small transport boats to Ha Long.
I type this entry on the bus as we slowly approach Hanoi, in the oncoming traffic lane. I feel anxious to return, rushing to relax and keen to get away from tour groups. 
No more tours, no more guides and definately, no more spring roll cooking classes once we have settled into Laos. Problem is that it takes over 24 hours on a cramped bus to get there- stay tuned and pray for us both that Lawrence locates some anti- nausea tablets before we board the 'Spew Bus'.

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