Featured image: Evening cruise in Halong Bay. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
Halong Bay, Northeast
This trip to Vietnam was cancelled twice. But because ‘three’ is a fantastic number I made sure my third attempt materialised. And since I wasn’t sure when I would visit again I decided to make a day trip to Halong Bay while I was in Hanoi. I just had to see it for myself.
Lesson: Do not do a day trip to Halong Bay.
The journey from Hanoi to the Bay was a long and bumpy one. It was yuck. A nap would’ve been nice but the driver drove like a complete ars*hole. We were in fact pulled over by a cop and later informed by the driver that some cash transaction had occurred to settle the case. “Oh God, please tranquilize me, somebody …” I thought.
Our arrival at the jetty was a non-event. The jetty is an isolated terminal on a cowboy strip. The Bay itself looked uninviting. I joined a group of strangers and got onto a raggedy boat. About 30 minutes into the sail and through the winter fog, things started to feel different: Halong Bay is really quite beautiful. I’d definitely like to visit the Bay again but next time with money and time for a few days on one of those gorgeous classic junks.
Lunch onboard was extremely simple but satisfying. Plain boiled shrimp never tasted so good. I shared a table with a conservative family from the Indian subcontinent. The parents were elderly and the children, professionals, of course.
I could tell the parents were not too pleased that their son was very chatty with me over lunch. I generally don’t like to upset people’s parents and I think I knew the cause of their displeasure. So I told them I was a physicist (which I’m not) and I might have even suggested I was already engaged to someone.
Lunch became so much more pleasant after the false disclosure. Their children and I even went kayaking together, although I chose to row on my own. I ended up venturing out solo because the siblings couldn’t quite figure out how to work the oars. I found that quite interesting considering their stories about growing up by the coast.
After kayaking we went to visit a relatively small but pretty cave where the keepers had installed colorful neon lights against the stalactites and stalagmites. There was a well in the cave where visitors threw in money to get rid of bad luck. I was looking at it when a Korean guy handed me a coin. “Go on,” he said, gesturing for me to throw in the coin. I declined, but he insisted. I must’ve looked like someone who needed to get rid of back luck.
It was quite a cool day, about 13°C, but I wanted to see the the Gulf of Tonkin in all its glory so I opted to sit out on the upper deck of the boat. There’s no question why Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s quite a sight.
I was soon joined by another young man but this time Singaporean. He was a nice chap who was quite proud of his hobby: flying small double propeller aircrafts in the Malaysian airspace. He got his flying license in Malaysia because it was “cheap”. But if it were that cheap I’d have my own license already. Flying solo is one of the five things I’d like to do before I die. But I’m quite sure I’d be dead before I can afford that.
Anyway, he showed me a video of him doing a fly-by very close to one of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic buildings. I don’t know much about flying but I know that routine was illegal. I said, “So … Would you do this (fly through a no-fly zone) in Singapore?” Expectedly, he said no. “Then don’t do it in Malaysia,” I said bluntly. We were in good terms, but I get easily annoyed when those who trash talk Malaysia for her “lawlessness” quite happily dance to the tune when they cross the Causeway.
Nevertheless we were alright so we spent the remaining part of the boat ride sharing the upper deck. He was otherwise good company. The journey back to Hanoi however was another nightmare. A Vietnamese-Australian family was late for their flight. They had to be at the Noi Bai International Airport within two hours. The journey was about three, with one toilet break. Somehow an arrangement was made and they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere where a cab driver would zoom them to their flight. I hope they made it considering all the fuss.
Halong Bay, the drive to you is dreadful but I do want to see you again. More than 1,500 square-kilometres and close to 2,000 islets, I think I barely saw you in one day. Next time I’ll bring a friend. Until then, goodnight dear Dragon.
Inside Paradise Cave. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
Vinh/Cua Lo Beach, North Central Coast
I wanted Christmas to be special so I planned it in such a way that I was on a train on Christmas day. I headed south to Vinh and was quite happy to leave Hanoi. A few days in a city is enough for me. I much rather be out there, wherever. And my oh my, Vinh is definitely out-there-wherever.
The same motel staff in Hanoi who found me sitting in the alleyway at 4:30am a few nights before arranged for my early ride to the train station. My departure was before breakfast so the kitchen was still closed before I left. But he didn’t want me to leave without eating something so he insisted that the cab driver waited a few minutes while he packed me some toast and a boiled egg. This was not good service, it was pure kindness. May God bless him.
The train ride to Vinh is a bit more than five hours long. An old Vietnamese woman came onboard half way through the journey with a big wet box of fish. I sat in the middle of the carriage where legroom was aplenty so I had the privilege of sitting with her box while she settled at the back, close to the door. There were some European travellers sitting close by and they got a bit shifty. I think they were hoping the Reunification Express would go a lot faster. Unfortunately, they were heading further south so they would be on the train a lot longer than me. It was anyone’s guess where the old woman and her box of fish were getting off.
The fishy aroma sent me on a couple of walks up and down the train. On one trip I met a Korean engineer who wanted to tell me about his work in Vietnam. He was also a fan of trains so we had that in common. But out of nowhere he asked me if I knew “Gangnam style”. Of course I did, and prayed he wasn’t going to break into a dance. Well he didn’t, but things got weird anyway. He asked me to take a photo of him using my camera. I obliged. He’s from the Gangnam district in Seoul and wanted me to have a photo of him.
I arrived in Vinh to find the train station quite dead. The town was even more dead. Noone I spoke to understood English and there were no cabs or buses in sight. I saw a hotel down the street and headed there for luck, and luck was there. The receptionist spoke a little bit of English and helped call for a cab to take me to Cua Lo Beach, wherever that was. He asked why I stopped in Vinh and my reply was simple: I wanted to get out of the city, be on a train, but not for too long. Vinh was on the map.
Vinh is also on the narrowest part of Vietnam. So that’s something special.
The cab came and we drove for about half an hour to Cua Lo Beach. There was not a single vehicle on the road. The beach town was dead-er than a dead possum. It was perfect. I checked into a nice hotel and they gave me a luxurious room. Merry Christmas!
On my first day I saw a total of two people there—the receptionist and the bell boy who doubled up as the room service guy. I’d been in Vietnam for a week and done quite a bit of walking. So I checked in and slept for a thousand years and missed a few meals. I was quite hungry when I woke up so I headed down to the coffee house, which was empty. But they had a full spread laid out and the chef himself came to serve me. He took a little bit of everything porky and served me generously.
Kosher, I found there was actually nothing I could eat. I didn’t want to be rude, after all he had personally come out to serve me. So I told him politely that I wasn’t feeling too well and would prefer a plain bowl of soup with some rice instead. He made soup specially for me and even cooked some vegetables so I could get better. I didn’t lie about being ill. I really was quite unwell. In fact I’d diagnosed myself with pneumonia. I’d gotten pneumonia before and it felt the same. Pneumonia it was.
But that didn’t stop me from walking across the street for a stroll on the beach. It was completely void of human life except for a fisherman who just came back from sea. I watched him for a while trying to make his round sampan stand. It stood for a bit until a big wave crashed into it. This happened a few times so the fisherman finally lugged his vehicle on his back and took it further onto land. And then he left and it was just me and the sea.
There’s something about watching crashing waves that tugs at my heart: The loyalty to shore.
I spent the rest of my time in Cua Lo Beach writing, napping and watching television. And boy did I watch television.
The only other person on Cua Lo Beach. Pix by Juana Jaafar.