Halong Bay After Some Delay

27 01 2011

Due to the late arrival of our train back into Hanoi we’d missed our trip to Halong Bay. It didn’t matter to me – I still had time to go on my visa and wouldn’t ordinarily have done both trips sequentially – but Michele had to get her flight in 2 day’s time. I rebooked for the next day and, after some deliberation, Michele did too. We then had a whole extra day in Hanoi so we decided to visit the Hoả Lò prison. This was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War – many American POW’s were imprisoned here – including some guy called John McCain.

The museum had no special resonance with me – the first section dealt with how the French had imprisoned political prisoners here in appalling conditions; the second with the American inmates and told how they were treated exceptionally well in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Since I’d not heard of the prison before and was unable to distinguish between the truth and communist propaganda (a lot of the words used were inflammatory and presumably were scribed by members of the Vietnamese politburo), I came away not knowing what to believe. Subsequent online research showed that the prison was notorious for torturing GI’s and thereby flouting the Geneva Convention; hardly the Summer Camp image that the Vietnamese were promoting.

The band at the water puppet show

Afterwards we decided to check out one of the water puppet shows that Hanoi is famous for. We had half an hour to wait until the first showing so, in typical fashion, we went for a quick beer at Le Pub (another chain of bars in Vietnam). The water puppet show was kitsch and bizarre but it was fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even just watching the band was a lot of fun – let alone watching the puppets (the controls hidden beneath a shallow pool of water) as they played with fire or were chased by dragons and buffaloes. I spent a lot of the performance cussing my camera which was steadfastly refusing to focus on anything. It’s never been great at night photography but I seriously needed to get it fixed.

Water puppets

After the show we decided to head back to Le Pub where we got chatting to an English couple, Ben and Krista. We had such a good laugh with them that we headed off out to dinner with them at the market. This was a Vietnamese hotpot where you cook all the noodles, vegetables and meat yourself in a boiling broth – there was a bit more chicken in the chicken than I was used to. The others all claimed they were going to eat the head but they all bottled out when it was actually cooked.

Chicken hotpot

We’d signed up for beer pong at our hostel as we went past but dinner took us longer than we expected so Ben and Krista headed home for bed and we were too late back to join in. As was becoming my normal itinerary I hung around the hostel until the bar closed and then ended up in Temple Bar for a few; but since it was an early start the next day I didn’t stay too long. We kept seeing some of the English lads from Sapa from time to time – their friend Mike had just arrived from England and they’d managed to lose him somewhere and kept scouring the bars in the area in the hope that they’d find him.

The next day I was up bright and early ready for the Halong Bay trip. This was a chance to see the fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands of impressive limestone karsts spear the sky – jewels spat from the jaws of protective dragons according to local legend. Since the boat trip was organised by the hostel and everyone was of a similar mindset it was also a chance for a booze cruise. It was extremely busy that day – two days beforehand it had been Australia day so any Aussies at the hostel had taken the previous day off to recover and joined today’s trip – and we filled two boats (there were more than 50 of us). These were linked together at the side and we set sail into the heart of Halong Bay. I always knew that the English lads from Sapa were going to be on the tour but it turned out that Greta and Sophia also came. Apart from Scottish Andrew, the whole Sapa crew was present which was awesome! And Andrew had been replaced by Mike, who the boys had finally found back at their hostel at 2am the previous night.


Halong Bay


It was cold on deck and I actually put a glove on my beer hand so that I could keep my hand warm. This turned out to be a useful reminder since Simon, our tour rep, informed everyone that no right-handed drinking was allowed – it was going to be that sort of trip! After a fantastic lunch it was time to go for a swim. I’m not a huge water baby and having seen people coming back onto the deck shivering away there was no way I was going to get in the water so I opted out. The boys and Michele all leapt off the side of the boat into the icy water below. The rest of us huddled in our coats and watched on.


The boys swimming in the bay


With the swim concluded it was time to go kayaking. I was quite happy to stay on deck drinking but I decided to compromise by drinking in the kayak. We kayaked around for a bit and then Simon led us to a cave where we parked up and went for a wander inside. It was fortunate that me and one of the other guys remembered to bring our flashlights – it was pitch black and potentially dangerous at some points. I would often wait by danger spots and guide the other people through behind me.


All the kayakers outside the cave


When we got back to the boat it was time for showers – unfortunately mine was bloody freezing so I didn’t stay under too long – and then it was time to resume the drinking properly. I chatted for a while to some Kiwi bogans – despite their weird partially shaved haircuts and the fact that they’d been drinking since the bus left Hanoi that morning they weren’t that bad – and once everyone else was assembled we played the drinking game 21 (one day I will put the rules up on my blog). This went fine until Greta decided that vodka would be better than beer – after that my memories of the evening become more sketchy. I do remember playing an absolutely massive game of Ring of Fire where one of the cards meant that you had to act like Stephen Hawkings (very PC I know). I managed to pick this card and since I was probably already losing full control of my limbs it didn’t actually take much in the way of acting ability. Eventually I decided to head off to bed whilst the party was still in full swing – I clearly wasn’t going to be able to drink much more that night!

Despite everyone saying to me the next morning “How the hell are you today?” I didn’t actually feel that bad. At one point some of the guys on the 3-day Halong Bay trip disembarked and headed off to Cat Ba island and the people who’d stayed on the island the previous night joined our boat. I played Shithead with two of the new arrivals, Veronica and Craig – at least they were playing with the normal rules which was more than the English lads were doing.

When we got back to the hostel Michele left for her flight back to Hong Kong and I was once again in search of new drinking buddies. I chatted to a Dutch guy, Nick, and his friend (whose name now eludes me) for a while but they were off to Snake Village for the evening. They tried to persuade me to come too but I had no real interest in a place where they skin live snakes in front of you and give you the opportunity to eat the beating heart from their chest so I passed up on that and stayed in the hostel. There I met up with an American girl, Nicky, and her Swiss dorm mate, Sarah. We drank at the hostel until closing and then Nicky and I went out to try to find where everyone else from the hostel was out. It turned out that everyone was in the Irish bar over the other side of town and our brief bar hops to Hair of the Dog and Temple Bar didn’t find much in the way of a party. Still, we had a good night before heading back to the hostel.