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Hanoi, Cai Rong, and the quiet island of Quan Lan

VIETNAM | Friday, 23 May 2008 | Views [6500]

Well hello there ladies and gentlemen (though considering there proably aren"t that many people actually reading this, it could be comprised of only one gender or the other at any one moment in time.  Likely even.)

I'm back in Hanoi again.  Yes, thats right.  Again.  I actually headed here for a one night stay direct from Sapa and met up with a couple of guys who shared the bus from the hotel in Sapa to the Train Station.  One is an AMerican guy who was born and is now living in China, named Barry, and the other guy is a Belgian fella who goes by the name of Raphael.  Both of them are fellow couchsurfers so we hit it off immediately and decided to travel together for a few days. 

We had been discussing a guided tour to the very heavily travelled Halong Bay, but after a bit of internet research and a bit of coaxing from Raph (who prefers the "off the beaten path" method of travelling) we decided to go instead to the bay north of Halong, known as Hai Tu Long Bay.  And that has made all the difference.

It was about a five hour bus trip (in which we got slightly hussled in that the final price turned out to be a bit more than the agreed upon price befor getting on the bus... this actually happened to us 3 times in one day that day between food, bus, and boat, but we soon got over it) that deposited us after a number of unknown transfers and chaotic moments in a sleepy beach town known as Cai Rong (pronounced Cai Zhong).

The plan was to get into Cai Rong by 1 so that we could catch the 1:30 ferry out to Quan Lan Island and stay there overnight, but we didn't get into Cai Rong till about 2:30.  So we found a hotel, which at 2 dollars per person per night really broke the banks, and went out to grab a bite to eat and sit on the beach, admiring the tranquility of the ocean, which was filled with all of these massive rock formations called Karsts rising out like slowly awakening dragons.  Actually there is a legend about Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay.

"There is a legend about the archipelago that in the old days when the Vietnam was attacked by foreign invaders, the God sent a mother dragon and its babies to support the Vietnamese people. The dragons immediately blew out myriad pearls and gems that turned into grand rock mountains as a solid citadel to protect the Vietnam. After the foreign invaders were pushed away, the mother dragon and its babies did not return to the heaven but stayed in the lower world. The land where the mother dragon landed was then called Ha Long, and where the baby dragons landed called Bai Tu Long. The area where the dragon tails lashed was called Long Vi, nowadays Tra Co Peninsula, which consists of many long and smooth sand banks."

The island was incredible.  On the first day we walked around a bit and then jumped in a tuk tuk filled with junior high students which took us to the other side of the island.  They kept looking at us and giggling on the way out there and then we were all dropped off at this kind of kids hangout in the woods, perhaps an abandoned school that had been taken over by the kids of the island.  The walls were grafittied with the kind of crude sex drawings so often found in places where puberty dawns, in any country.  We hung around with the kids for a while and tried our best at some basic communication but after a while decided to ignore their invitation to stay and went off in search of the perfect beach. 

Two f the more mature girls seemed to understand that we were looking for the ocean and agreed to take us there, which was incredibly kind of them as they ended up walking with us for a good 15 or 20 minutes until we got to the beach.  Finally we found what we thought might be "the beach" written about in the Lonely Planet, but it was filled with trash and there were so many bugs and crabs that we really had a bit of trouble enjoying ourselves fully.  Raph took a swim and Barry and I just read and lounged for a bit before we decided to head back into town to find some food. 

So we went to the pier where the tuk tuk drivers hang out and we were told to wait a few minutes by the only guy who was there.  Then we heard dogs barking, squealing, howling from one of the houses at the end of the pier where the tuktuk was parked.  After about 30 minutes or so we were told with hand signals that it was time to go and so we headed off up the pier to where the tuk tuk lay waiting.  There was another couple who we had met earlier on the island who were smiling and had a couple of bags at their feet.  And off we went.

Riding along in the tuk tuk was incredible.  We could feel the wind on our face, the sun hanging low over the ocean with the mountains of rock rising from out of the sea put us all at such a sense of peace that it was one of those moments where it seems that nothing can shake you from your sense of joy.  Unless the bags at your feet start yelping and squirming and barking.  Thats right, barking.  And then the man who had been smiling so broadly took off his fliop flop and began puymmeling the bag with it in a futile attmept to get the dogs which were apparently meant for supper to shut up.  I felt terrible.  I wanted to tell him to stop, wanted to pay him to release the dogs and let them go live their lives chasing rats and lounging in the sun.  I wanted to at least put my hand on the bag and reassure the frightened animals inside that it was ok, that we were not there to harm them.  But I couldn't.  It wasn't.  We were.

We made a brief stop at one of the houses on the way home and the couple got out and yelled inside to the house.  Someone came out with a contraption with a hook at one end and some kind of heavy metal ball at the other.  The man took one of the desperately squirming dogs and walked it over to the man with the metal torture looking device.  I closed my eyes for a second, expecting to hear the squeal of a dog being impaled with a rusty hook.  There was no such sound.  The first man had attached the hook at the place where the bag was tied and was adjusting the metal ball to determine the weight of the dogs.  He appeared to be satisfied with his purchase, and so we all piled back into the tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel, after dropping off the couple and their packages.  That night, I did not sleep well, and dreampt strange dreams of places where life is not as forgiving.

The next morning we woke up and decided to rent motorbikes, so that we could better explore the island of course, but also so that we could be spared the gruesome ride with the dogs and their executioners again.  Getting motorbikes was the best thing we could have done, as it opened up the whole island to us.  With the freedom of these machines under our feet, we went from being trapped on this place with its mediochre beaches and heartless butchers, to being the kings of the island.  On bikes, the villagers looked at us differently.  They stopped what hey were doing as we vroomed past.  They looked up.  They waved.  Smiled even.

With the assistance of bikes we were free to discover the island.  We found abandoned houses, untouched beaches with sand that was so fine it vibratted when you held it in your hands, water that was turquoise and not another soul on the beach.  We even found a half built structure that we were able to turn into a makeshift sade tent by laying a tarp over it.  What we found with those bikes was more than just the dirt roads to the beaches beyond the construction sight past the forest outside of town.  What we found with those motorbikes was paradise. 

Then we got hungry again.  And so we saddled our trusty steeds (ahem.  bikes.  ahem) and zoomed off into the dying light in search of a restaurant that served something other than pho.  (A brief note on pho-  Pho is a deliscious, soupy ric-noodel seasoned with everything from steak to cilantro to chili sauce, and is deliscious.  Pho has also been a  part of at least one meal a day since I crossed the border into Vietnam.  When asking at a restaurant if they have food, often the reaction is a "Pho?  Yeah, sure we"ve got Pho!"  Perhaps it is simply that "pho" and "food" sound similar to the untrained ear.  But I suspect it is an attempt to seperate us from our dong as cheaply as possible.)

And find a restaurant we did.  A comprehensive menu, including Pho, of course, as well as a number of other things we did not understand but were quite eager to try, and so we sauntered in there, still feeling a bit of the ego from riding fast on motorbikes all day and sat down.  And who walks up to our table and smiles but the women who yesterday was responsible for the murder of Lady and the Tramp.  Maybe better not to try those things we couldn't understand.  We studk with fried rice, and you guessed it.  Pho.

And that brings me back to Hanoi, where I now sit here at the cafe and write to you all about the trip.  Of course there is more to tell.  Even the downtime here is filled with new and often crazy experiences, but for now my time is running out and I still have some other things to do before I head to the station to catch the sleeper to Hue.

Hope all is well with all of you.  Until next time, I'll be eating Pho.


Tags: bai tu long bay, off the beaten track, quan lan, viet nam

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