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From death defying to awe inspiring.

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 26 October 2010 | Views [2009]

Wouldn't mind waking to a view like this every morning

Wouldn't mind waking to a view like this every morning

3 days cruising on Rancho Relaxo shouldn't have to start at 7am. Being paid to get up that early for work makes such an effort sensible with the axiom 'sooner started, sooner finished'. Choosing a guided tour probably four times more expensive than self travel should have seen me carried to the waiting mini bus on silk pillows, a fresh coffee awaiting my embarkment as a reward for such an early rise. Not so, but seeing how much easier mornings are for me than Uma, made me more accepting of unfulfilled expectations.

The 4 hour trip to Halong City was great because we got to watch a live horror show right out the front windshield of the mini bus. I thought blood, gore and a 10 minute delay to clean organs off panels was virtually inevitable. I put my neck pillow on to use like an air-bag as sleep is impossible when there is a lingering fear you'll wake up in traction. Vietnamese roads are a self assembling jigsaw puzzle, a mosaic of autocratic tetris pieces. Dodge 'em cars at a Vietnamese carnival would be so dull because everyone drives on the road with the speed of the pursued, the intent to bully and the belief their vehicle is an indestructible tank. Yet, a close call every minute aged me terribly but did not catastrophically end that aging process prematurely. A Westerner could never fathom how it works because similar driving back home would get your mother insulted and your windows crow-barred.

Still, imminent disaster made for better viewing than the bleak industrial towns we passed through. The houses are a strange contrast in that some are new enough to look like the paint is still drying while the rest are old enough to be Heritage listed. The factories are concrete blisters of varying environmental carnage producing goods of debatable necessity. If it's pith helmets they're making, God bless and prosper. If it's karaoke machines, a plague of biblical proportions upon your profit margin.

From beyond the over-exploited lands, the fog, smog, smoke and hangover cleared to reveal Karst pillars of immense size, shape, number and uniqueness. The peaks pin prick the Gulf of Tonkin like stalagmites on steroids. 3,000ish islands make the region unique enough to be UNESCO listed but not quite wonderful enough to make the grade in top 7 'wonders of the world' ranking.

We'd been sold a relatively cheap tour made cheaper for choosing the 3 year old boat instead of the 3 month old boat. Perhaps years and decades got mixed up in the translation because it must have been a really rough 3 years if so. That the boats were called 'junks' probably went a long way to explaining their decrepit appearance. Most of them anchored in the harbour looked like the resulting flotsam from the destruction of a larger, more seaworthy vessel.

Fortunately we had a really good guide whose prayers to God for good weather highlighted the prevalence of Christianity in Vietnam, and the propensity of its believers to pester the top dog with mundane requests. Besides his largely unsuccessful petition, we all ended up extremely pleased with Tony, a fake name he chose to aid pronunciation and not to hide any embarrassing blunders. That was left up to Uma, still insisting on a pseudonym as she continued to create a highlight reel of entertaining misadventures.

Lunch came first and my request for vegetarian food had not made it out of the booking office so I dined on french fries and steamed rice. I gave Tony a quick lesson in a vegetarian's dietary requirements extending beyond starch and was extremely well catered to for the rest of the trip. French fries and cucumber were plentiful but the desirability of one balanced out the detestability of the other.

Our first stop for the trip started out intriguing and photo worthy but verged on mundane with repetition. A water based community whose whole village floated on foam blocks remained anchored to the one spot, under utilising the relocatable potential of their buoyant abode. Given the unrivalled surroundings, no one could blame them for failing to float too far afield for generations. If such folk fought against following in the footsteps of their forebears and weren't fond of fishing, they were fucked as job options were traded in for a location beyond compare.

The afternoon would have been a perfect time to work the tan cruising around the bay were it not completely overcast. Having fewer options made beer drinking more appealing than it already was. Indulging liberally in the local brew also made a relatively unspectacular 'Surprising Cave' seem aptly named because someone had thought of calling it that in the first place. It was interesting enough as far as caves go, but having Tony point out numerous phallic rocks and calling them 'spit guns' was trumped only by the vendor in the cave selling beer for half the price as that on our boat.

The walk to the cave was pretty taxing on Uma's sore foot and we were soon seen as the limiting factor in all the group's endeavours. We were late getting onto the mini bus as Uma had wandered off to find reality, or at least a baguette for breakfast. We were late getting back onto the mini bus at our rest stop as impending doom had forced me into a long session of deep breathing before I was able to eat anything.

Fortunately, our next fun stop was kayaking, which we were late for as well. After disembarking onto the pier, Uma decided to strip down to a bikini to save her pants from getting wet. She tried to throw them back onto the boat, but her pants mirrored the behaviour of my kamikaze camera. They tumbled down the side of the boat and splashed into the water, soaking them more thoroughly than if she had of just left them on. Had I of already been in the kayak, I would have fallen out of it laughing.

We paddled around in erratic circles for awhile, more intent of splashing each other than actually getting anywhere. Everything in the area was unique in itself, but no different to what we had seen all day. Everyone else motored off like Columbus, but we were content to float around soaking up the scenery. And soak up the water each had used like a weapon, confirming Uma's fear her pants would have gotten saturated had she left them on. Like us both, it was obviously their destiny to get wet.

Already soaked through, the next logical step was jumping into the warm salty seas from the top deck of the 3 storey boat. It was high enough to thrill, but not to terrify. The onset of twilight made it more exciting, as did a lady hanging around in a little boat trying to sell us beer on our way down. These condensed 7-11's were packed with goods and floating around everywhere, half badgering, half edifying us on the inflated prices on our own boat.

The evening was spent swapping travel stories with a delightful Belgium couple. Cloudy skies robbed us of a starry night as much as mooring in a tourist 'junk' yard. The bobbing lights all around us looked like fake stars across the water and gave the air an ethereal glow though. After 2 night caps, everything had an ethereal glow and we disappeared into the bowels of our junk for what would have been a peaceful night's sleep had we been able to turn the air conditioner on.

Tags: boats, roads, sailing, scenery

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