Saturday, May 12, 2018

Hanoi and Halong Bay--June and July 2011--From the Travelogue Archives


...a continuation of the previous post.  From Saigon Airport flying to Hanoi

Tuesday June 28, 2011
I only had two small bags with me, which I decided to take as carry-ons. Although apparently the new restrictions on liquids have also hit Vietnam as well, because at the security screening I was reprimanded by one of the security woman for having mosquito spray, sunscreen, and contact lense solution in my bag. After forcing me to open up my bag, and pointing out which items I had that were prohibited, she did let me through with them in the end, but told me sternly to check them next time.

I was the only foreigner in the domestic terminal, and so I stood out a bit. I sat down at one of the seats while waiting for the plane to board, and the group of Vietnamese people directly ahead of me kept looking back at me and smiling, and they seemed like they were eager to talk to me. So I stood up, walked over to them, and asked them where they were from, only to find out they didn’t speak any English. So we just exchanged smiles and friendly nods instead.

On the plane, I was seated next to a young Vietnamese man, who struck up a conversation with me. His name was spelled Binh, although I could never pronounce it correctly even after he took the trouble of spelling it out for me.

He was 30 years old, and lived in Hanoi, but had been down in Saigon for business. His business colleagues in Saigon had made sure to take him out drinking and get him slightly drunk before he got on the plane back to Hanoi, and he was now very self conscious about this. He kept apologizing for being drunk, and was very worried about the alcohol on his breath. I didn’t mind so much though.

His English wasn’t that great either, and so the conversation was very stilted, as both of us usually had to rephrase what we were trying to say a couple of times before the other person understood. (I’m somewhat used to these kinds of conversations by now, but they still get a bit tiring after long periods.) However he was very friendly, and very eager to communicate, and that made up for a lot.

When he found out I was teaching English in Phnom Penh, he had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to go to Phnom Penh. “But Phnom Penh is so poor,” he said. “Why would you want to go there?”

He had been there about 9 years ago on business, and I’m sure 9 years ago it was much poorer than it is now. (I understand it has undergone a lot of development in the past 5 years.) He also said that Vietnamese were much smarter than Cambodians, and this was evident by how much more developed Vietnam was than Cambodia.

He also lamented to me that Americans could come and travel in Vietnam very easily because the cost of living was so much cheaper in Vietnam, but Vietnamese couldn’t travel to America because the cost of everything in America was so high. I agreed with him that this wasn’t fair.

He gave me his business card, and said he had the day off tomorrow, and so offered to show me around Hanoi if I would give him a call. And I thanked him.

He also offered to split a taxi with me from the airport, and as Hanoi airport was a bit removed from the city, I eagerly accepted this. (Since we were flying in late at night, there were no longer shuttle buses running from the airport.)

The Lonely Planet had warned that a big problem in Hanoi was the taxi mafia, which would refuse to take foreigners to the hotels they asked for, and instead take them to expensive low quality rip-off hotels (from which the taxi drivers would of course get a kick back.) I had been worried about this the whole flight over, and was more than happy to have a local with me when I got into a taxi.

On the flight over, I had flipped through the Lonely Planet guidebook to pick a hotel, and had ended up settling on the Queen of Heart hotel. It had the “our pick” endorsement from the Lonely Planet, so I figured it was my safest bet. The Lonely Planet Guide Book gave the address for the hotel, so I had copied this out onto a piece of paper which I gave to Binh, and he made sure the taxi driver got there.

The hotel looked shut down when we got there, but once we went to the door someone did eventually come down and open it. Binh generously refused my offer to help on the taxi fair, and told me it was okay.

(I’m not sure if this was because he genuinely wanted to pay the entire taxi fare himself, or if this was just a cultural politeness thing. But after he refused my first couple offers to pay I didn’t push it.)

I never did call Binh the next day and take him up on his offer to show me around the city. He seemed like a very nice guy, but I already had a tour guide in my friend Mai, and besides I couldn’t imagine a whole day spent in broken English. I would much rather have the day free to wander around and explore by myself. (I later sent him an e-mail apologizing though.)

The hotel staff told me a room was $30 a night. I pointed to the Lonely Planet, which indicated $20 rooms were available. The staff then told me all the $20 rooms were currently full, but they could move me after one night. (I’m slightly skeptical of the truth of this, but they did move me after only one night, so at most this scam only got $10 out of me.)

After checking into the hotel, I decided to get out and explore the city of Hanoi a little bit. It was shortly after midnight by now, but I was in a new city and couldn’t go to sleep without at least getting out and having a little look.

I wandered down the road.

The first thing I noticed about Hanoi was how much quieter it was than Saigon. Despite being the capital of the country, it was a lot less developed than Saigon, and there in contrast to the thriving night life of Saigon there seemed to be only a few small foodstalls open.

I wandered down by the lake where I saw some other foreigners out partying.

After walking around for a half hour or so, I decided to head back to the hotel.

Despite having my map with me, I had a very hard time finding the hotel again. This was because the hotel had shut down its front gate, and was no completely indistinguishable from the rest of the buildings. This caused me a brief moment of panic, but I was eventually able to locate the gate where the hotel should have been, and after standing in front of it for a minute someone on the other side opened the gate up and I went back up to my room and slept.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Woke up. Went down to the hotel lobby for their free breakfast, which I ate with some Irish backpackers who were just about to set off for Halong Bay.

I had the whole day free today (I wasn’t meeting up with my friend Mai until the next day) so I got out my Lonely Planet book and decided to do their walking tour of Hanoi.

Hanoi is a much smaller city than Saigon, but the narrower roads also mean that there’s not many nice sidewalks, and the pedestrians have to share the roads with all the cars and motorbikes. Everyone on Hanoi’s streets are constantly honking their horns, and I was beginning to understood why so many of my fellow teachers at Cambodia said they couldn’t stand living in Hanoi.

As in Saigon, I was also a bit surprised at how many tourists there were on the streets of Hanoi. So much for making it out to a unique destination!

I was also surprised to see not just backpackers on the streets of Hanoi, but lots of Western families with little kids. I wouldn’t have thought of Hanoi as a place to go for a family vacation, but apparently lots of people are starting to do it.

Anyway, the hotel where I was staying was right in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, so I was able to start the Lonely Planet walking tour very soon from my hotel.

I saw the Hoan Kiem lake,

and the Ngoc Son Temple. Then the Martyrs monument. I passed the theater where the famous water puppets show is. I then went down a narrow street where everyone was trying to sell me shoes, and then up to the fish market.

I went by where the local artists were making gravestones. (Apparently both a needed service provided for locals, and a touristy gimmick, because among the various real Vietnamese gravestones being inscribed you could also buy tombstones for Elvis, Michael Jackson, and other dead celebrities.)

The Lonely Planet said that the Memorial House of an old Chinese merchant was right around this area, but after doubling back several times I never saw it, so I just kept on walking.

I also had trouble finding House 102, which apparently has a fully functioning temple inside it. And the Bach Ma temple.

I did find the East Gate however,

and went down the traditional street market road.

And after a few wrong turns I found the blacksmiths street as well.

The whole time I was doing this I was so intent on staying on the Lonely Planet Walking Tour course that I spent most of the time with my nose in the book, checking the Lonely Planet and the street signs at every intersection to make sure I was still on the right course. Eventually I decided this was a stupid way to do it, and abandoned the pre-planned route for the rest of my walk around the old Quarter.

I did make a point to see St Joseph’s Cathedral,

but after that just did some general walking up and down streets by myself without being too concerned about the guidebook.

I stopped in a coffee shop a couple times to relax a bit and jot some notes in my notebook.

In the afternoon I decided to try and take in some museums.

Because of some issues misreading the map, I took a very long way to get to the museum, and ended up walking several blocks too far before realizing what I had done and eventually doubling back.

I hadn’t eaten a lunch yet and was beginning to get very hungry. I was a bit off the tourist path by now, and didn’t see many Western restaurants.

There was a local Vietnamese place. Like many of the local places, people sat outside under an awning. There were a couple of fresh faced young soldiers eating at one, and one of them waved me over.

I sat down and asked to look at a menu. The menu didn’t have any prices listed, which struck me as suspicious. When I asked how much a certain dish was, I was told 80,000 dong. (About $4, but still it struck me as expensive for this part of the world, and was more than twice what we had paid for local food down in Saigon.) All the stories people at Cambodia told me about Vietnamese ripping off foreigners came back to me, and I decided I didn’t want to be ripped off here, so I gave my apologies and left.

(I was later to find out from my Vietnamese friend Mai that food is more expensive in Hanoi because of some reason with imports or something, and that the price they quoted me was actually pretty standard. So I guess I walked away for nothing.)

When I finally did arrive at the Museums, it was 1 O’clock and they were closed for lunch. So I got lunch at a local noodle shop around the corner (where I was told the price was 80,000 dong for a bowl of beef noodles, and this time I didn’t argue it.)

After lunch, the history museum was open, so I went in there.

The museum had a lot of old artifacts on display, but unfortunately the English explanations for things were lacking. There would be English explaining some exhibits, but not others.

It’s a pity, because some of the exhibits (like ones showing the Mongul invasions of ancient Vietnam, and the Vietnamese fighting them off) looked like they might have been quite interesting if only there had been some English explanations.

Afterwards I went across the street to the Revolution museum.

There wasn’t anyone at the front desk, and I wandered around looking where to buy a ticket, until someone just directed me up to the 2nd floor. (I’m not sure if the museum was free to the public, or if I just somehow avoided buying a ticket.)

This museum was pretty interesting. I had expected it would cover the Vietnam War period, but actually the Museum actually covered the Communist revolution in the North only, so it ended in 1954.

The museum was a bit lacking in an overall narrative. Each piece just kind of stood on its own, but it was very interesting. It went back all the way to anti-Colonial agitation at the turn of the century. (There was on display a guillotine that the French used to execute pro-Independence Vietnamese.) There was a long history of the development of the Vietnamese communist party in the 1930s.

While I was in the museum, a Vietnamese girl was showing two friends around (they were Asian in appearance themselves, but apparently not Vietnamese). She showed them the pictures of Ho Chi Minh.

“Was he like the greatest politician your country has ever had?” one of them asked her.

“Yes, the greatest,” she answered, and there was such conviction in her voice.

On the walk back to the hotel, I stopped into a coffee shop for a while and read my book some more. (I’m working my way through “The Roots of French Imperialism in South East Asia” which is a fascinating book to be reading while travelling through Vietnam.)

I got back to the hotel, where one of the staff asked me if I was going to travel to Halong Bay while I was here. I told him I didn’t know, and he sat me down and tried to sell me a tour. He was really pushy and aggressive in trying to get me to sign up for it, so much so that it made me suspicious. (I would later find out from other travelers, as well as from the Lonely Planet, that having your hotel aggressively try to sell you a tour to Halong Bay is a very common experience in North Vietnam.)

I told him I wanted to wait until I had talked to my Vietnamese friend Mai before I signed up for anything, but he was reluctant to take this as an answer, and told me to just pay for it now and I could get a refund if I decided I didn’t want to go. But the fact that he was pushing this so aggressively made me worry that there were strings attached to this refund, so I didn’t accept. He was a bit put off that I didn’t sign up for the tour in the end, but I managed to hold my ground.

I went up to my room and relaxed for a bit. I watched TV as a huge rainstorm happened outside. (I occasionally looked out from my window to see tree branches falling on the road).

When the rain finally did let up, I decided to head out again.

I went a couple blocks from my hotel where there were a few bars catering to Westerners, and went into one serving Mexican food, where I ordered a burrito and a beer.

There was an Australian man seated at the bar next to me, and he soon struck up a conversation.

The Australian guy had just come back from a tour of Halong Bay, and they asked me if I was going. I told them I was still thinking about it, and they were both of the opinion that it would be a crime to come all the way to Hanoi and not see Halong bay. “It would be like going to Paris and not seeing, not seeing, not seeing the Eiffel Tower, or whatever is famous there,” the Australian guy said. “It’s absolutely amazing. You can’t come here and not see it. You can’t do it.”

The New Mexican guy also encouraged me to see it.

I finished a couple beers and then decided to leave.

It was still drizzling rain, but I walked around a bit in the rain (trying to soak up some of the atmosphere of the city) before going back to my hotel room for an early night.


Thursday, June 30

I had arranged to meet Mai today (my Vietnamese classmate from Melbourne University). I had asked the hotel to give me a wake up call so I wasn’t late, but no call ever came. Fortunately I woke up on time anyway.

Mai had said she would swing by my hotel. (When I gave her the address, she said she knew the area very well.) But she was an hour late. Eventually from the hotel lobby I saw someone who looked like Mai going down the street slowly on a motorbike looking very lost, and I went out to the road and waved her down.

I hadn’t seen her for half a year, so we exchanged greetings.

Mai invited me to hop on the back of her motorbike. She had brought an extra helmet for her, although it was too small for my head and looked pretty comical on me. I wore it anyway.

Mai asked if I had eaten breakfast yet. I had actually, at the hotel, but I lied and told her I hadn’t, and she took me to one of her favorite coffee shops for breakfast.

Up until now, I had only observed Hanoi’s traffic from the side of the road, and it was an altogether different experience being on the back of Mai’s bike and actually being part of the chaotic traffic flow, weaving in and out and hearing the constant beeping of horns all around.

Mai took me to a somewhat fancy upscale place where we had a small breakfast and Vietnamese coffee, and talked about various things.

After breakfast, we went around the lake. We road around the lake (I had seen already yesterday during my walking tour.) We stopped at the water puppet theater to buy tickets for tonight’s performance.

Back on the motorcycle, Mai took me to the Temple of Literature.

We say the place where scholars come to pray to Confucius for success in their studies, and the old examination hall where, in the old days, people used to take their exams on the old Confucian classics as a prerequisite for government jobs.

There was a tourist stand in the temple, and Mai and I walked through it. (She asked me if I liked anything, and I think may have been hinting she wanted to buy me a souvenir, but I didn’t really have any use for the tourist trinkets they were selling and didn’t want Mai to waste her money.)
An old man came up to us and pointed proudly at a picture of Ho Chi Minh, wanting to make sure we knew who Ho Chi Minh was, until Mai explained to him we were already familiar with Ho Chi Minh.

Next, Mai took me to a restaurant for lunch. It was a place that served Vietnamese food, but was more upscale than the places most ordinary people ate. President Clinton had eaten at this place when he had visited Vietnam, and there were pictures of him on the restaurant wall.

Next we went to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

From the Lonely Planet guide book, I had known in advance that I wouldn’t be able to enter the mausoleum because I was wearing shorts. But Mai still wanted to show me the outside of the mausoleum.

There was a large Korean tour group outside the place. (Mai picked them out as Koreans because she had lived with Korean roommates in Melbourne, and knew what the language sounded like. I also have a fair idea of what Korean phonology sounds like from my attempts to study it in Japan).

After passing around the mausoleum, we went to tour Ho Chi Minh’s house.

Apparently Ho Chi Minh had used to live in the old French Presidential palace,

but during the war years he had decided that he didn’t want to live in luxury when his people were suffering. So he had converted the Presidential Palace into an administrative government building and built a simple wooden house on stilts outside it. We walked through this and took pictures.

We also saw the one story pagoda (apparently very ancient and famous—unique because most pagodas are more than one story).

Then we went to the Ho Chi Minh museum.
I had really been looking forward to the Ho Chi Minh museum, because I didn’t know much biographical details about his life and wanted to learn more. But the museum was closed when we got there.

Back on the back of Mai’s motorcycle, and she took me to another temple.

Mai dropped me off at the front of the temple, and then went to park her motorcycle. While I waited for her, I watched a group of Vietnamese people standing around and using sling shots to try and shoot rocks at a bird in a tree.

When Mai came up, she saw what they were doing and said in disgust, “Why can’t they just leave that bird alone?” She then when onto explain that this bird was supposed to be bad luck according to tradition, and so that’s why they were trying to get it to leave the temple. (Although she didn’t appear to put much stock in this old tradition.)

The temple was called the temple of national defense, and apparently dates back hundreds of years.

There were these very elaborate reliefs made out of iron that depicted scenes from Buddhist mythology, and were apparently made in the 17th century. (It made you wonder how in the world people could make things that elaborate way back then.)

The temple wasn’t very crowded when we went through, but there were a few people chanting some rhythmic Buddhist prayer in the sanctuary. Mai told me it was a ceremony to contact dead spirits.

Out in the courtyard, we say a woman burning letters in a stove. Mai told me that this was because in order to contact the gods you had to write the letters, and then burn them, and the smoke would reach the gods. “The gods are spirits, so you can’t give them anything tangible. But the smoke from the letters will reach them. That’s also why people light incense when praying—because the smoke from the incense will carry their prayers up to the gods.”

I looked at the woman intently burning her letters in the fire. It sounded so ridiculous, but she seemed very serious in what she was doing, and what’s more she looked like a young, modern, well-dressed professional woman. “She doesn’t really believe that, does she?” I asked Mai.

Mai assured me she really did.

Different religions always strike an outside observer as absolutely absurd. I guess that’s hardly a new revelation.

We went back outside the temple, where the group was still trying to hit the bad luck bird with the sling shot (still without success).

Back on Mai’s motorcycle, and she took me to the biggest lake in Hanoi (forget the name of it).
The road along the lake was lined with trees, and Mai told me the road had been constructed during the Vietnam War by youth volunteers, and the trees alongside it had been planted during the same time.

We went to see a Pagoda by the lake. Mai told me it had once been an ancient Pagoda, but had been destroyed and rebuilt 3 times. The most recent time it was destroyed was during the bombing in the Vietnam War.

As we walked around the Pagoda, Mai remarked, “Last year when we were studying together in Melbourne, I never dreamed that one day I’d be hosting you in Hanoi.”

“Yeah, I never thought I’d be in Hanoi either,” I said. “I guess you never know where life is going to take you.”

There were a few other foreign tourists around the Pagoda, and I remarked to Mai about all the other tourists I had seen in Hanoi. (I had not been expecting Hanoi to be so touristy.)
Mai said 5 years ago there hadn’t been a lot of tourists in Hanoi, but that over the past 5 years tourism had really started to explode here. “It’s the off season now, so actually this is a low point for tourism,” Mai said. “You should see what it’s like here in the fall.”

Mai had a couple of appointments in the evening, so we agreed that she would drop me off at my hotel, and then we would meet up again a few hours later to see the Water Puppets show in the evening.

I decided to use this time to book a tour for Halong bay.
I thought the prices the hotel had quoted seemed a bit high (over $100) so I walked a couple blocks over. There were tons of tourist agents selling Halong bay tours.

As I suspected, my hotel was trying to vastly overcharge me. The first agent I talked to offered to sell me a tour at about half the price of the hotel. I told him I would take his brochure and come back. “Okay, but come back,” he told me. “We can match any other deal you find.”

I then walked back to the Mexican bar I had been at the previous night. (The New Mexican guy’s Vietnamese girlfriend works as a travel agent from the front of the bar).

I asked around at various prices. I told her I would be back later because I was shopping around, and she dropped another $10 of the price she was asking. She then told me if I found a better deal to come back to her because she could match it.
“You know how these things work,” she said. “You can spend all day shopping and comparing and comparing until you just lose your mind and all of these packages start to sound the same, or you can just say the hell with it and sign up for a tour.”

This actually sounded like pretty good advice to me, so I signed up for her tour. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid. I think it was around $50. (I would later talk to people who got better deals, but I think this wasn’t bad.)
She offered to have the bus pick me up from my hotel, but I said this was a sore point because my hotel had been aggressively pushing a different Halong Bay tour package on me. So we agreed I would catch the bus from outside the travel agency.

It was an early start, and I was worried about missing it. Since my hotel had failed to give me the wake-up call this morning, I had no reason to think they would remember tomorrow. (Normally I use my cell phone as my alarm clock, but my battery had been dead since Saigon).
So, I asked her where I could buy an alarm clock. She directed me to a place down in the old quarter where cheap clocks were being sold, and I ended up buying a cheap digital watch with an alarm function for $2.

I had some mixed feelings about going on this Halong Bay tour. Given that I only had a few days to spend in Hanoi, in some ways it did seem like a bit of a waste to spend them on the tourist path instead of trying to experience the local culture.
On the other hand, if I didn’t check out Halong Bay I suppose I would always wonder what I had missed.
Like everything in life it was a trade off, but I had decided to go.

I went back to my hotel to tell them I would be checking out tomorrow morning, but back on Saturday. “You’re going to Halong Bay,” the man accused me.
“No, I’m just meeting a friend,” I lied.
“No, it’s okay, I know. You’re going to Halong Bay,” he said.

He wanted me to pay in advance for staying in Saturday, which I agreed to (although I probably shouldn’t have.). There was also some confusion about how much I was being charged. He had tried to overcharge me by one night, and was a little bit hostile when I tried to point out his mistake, but after I carefully went through and explained to him where he was wrong, he did admit his figures were wrong.

I went back to my room and showered.

On the way out, I stopped at the hotel front desk to check the calendar and make sure my dates were correct. The hotel man (who had been outside) came running back in and screamed at me, “What are you looking for now!”

“Ah, nothing,” I said. “Just checking the calendar, that’s all.” I then meekly left the hotel lobby while he glared at me the whole time.

The water puppet show was at 8. I had agreed to meet Mai at 7:45 outside the theater.

Mai showed up at 8:05, apologizing for being late.

By this time, everyone else was already seated and the show had begun. So we had to make our way to our seats (which as luck would have it were in the middle, near the front) tripping over everyone else’s legs, and getting glares from everyone around us.

The Water Puppet show was traditional Vietnamese culture, although, as with most traditional culture, it was purely for the tourists. There were a few local Vietnamese in the audience, but if I had to guess I’d say it was probably 80% foreigners (including some families travelling together with their kids).

The show was lovely, the traditional music was beautiful, and the water puppets were quite good. Apparently this was a form of theater that went back 1,000 years.

The whole time Mai kept up a steady stream of explanation, explaining to me what each scene was, what it represented, and translating what the characters said to each other.
I worried at times that her constant talking was annoying the other people around us, but I figured she was Vietnamese and this was her country so I just went with it and didn’t attempt to hush her up.

After the show, Mai took me out to dinner at another nice Vietnamese restaurant.

After dinner and a couple drinks I was feeling exhausted. Mai was feeling tired too so we agreed to call it an early night. (I had to wake up early to catch the bus to Halong bay anyway.)

Friday, July 1

Managed to wake up on time and catch the bus for Halong Bay.

It was a long bus ride from Hanoi to the coast, but it was absolutely amazing. We passed a lot of rice fields, and small little picturesque Vietnamese villages. There were sections of jungle like foliage visible from the road, and mountains off in the distance—lots of little rivers running through the various rice fields. And because it was the rainy season, everything was vibrantly green.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to get good pictures from a moving bus, so I didn’t bother trying, but it was amazing.

I didn’t know anyone on the bus, so I sat in silence the ride over. There was a group of 4 Scottish guys directly behind me (sounded like they were still in school and this was their summer break) and since they were talking loudly I got a fair idea of their school life and their social circle back home.

The bus made a stop at a tourist center for people to get food, use the bathroom, and buy over-priced souvenirs. It was crowded with lots of different tourists from different buses.

There was a stand making gyro sandwiches, and I went over to get one. There was about 5 or 6 people standing in a group in front of the stand, but none of them appeared to be ordering and they were busy just talking to each other. The Vietnamese woman behind the stand waited a bit for one of them to make an order, and then just motioned to me to come forward. I assumed they had ordered already, and went up ahead to make my order.

I was halfway done explaining to the Vietnamese woman what I wanted when someone started tapping me (repeatedly) on the shoulder. A woman with a British accent said, “Excuse me, excuse me, there’s a queue here.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I thought…”

The Vietnamese woman was already making my sandwich by this time, and the British woman ran up to the counter and said, “No, no, no, stop making that one, we were here first.”

The Vietnamese woman just ignored her, and eventually the British woman gave up.

I remembered what my classmate Carl had said about his trips through Thailand, and how much he hated the other backpackers, and I reflected that on a trip through Vietnam, in spite of all the cultural differences, perhaps it was the backpackers you find most annoying. (That being said, the other people on my tour group all turned out to be alright.)

To the British woman’s credit, once she resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to stop my order, she did listen to me explain how I hadn’t meant to jump the queue, and accepted my apology.

When we finally arrived at Halong Bay, there was some concern over the weather, and for a while it looked like we might not be able to go out at all. (I suddenly realized I had completely forgotten to inquire about a refund policy in case of bad weather).

We stood around at the harbor for a time while the tour guide tried to figure out if we could go out or not. And then it was decided we would have lunch first, and see if the weather had cleared up after lunch.

We had lunch at a place across the road, and I was able to talk to the people who were on my tour group and get to know them a little better.

There were two beautiful blonde English girls. I forget their names, but they were both in their mid 20s, and on a tour of the world, and had stories about so many amazing places they had already passed through.
One of them had been an education major, and had briefly gotten a job in the public schools in England, but had found it to be such a burn-out job that she had quit after a year of being highly disillusioned with it, and was now using all her savings to take a year off and travel the world, and then try and figure out what she wanted to do once she got back to England herself. Since I had been an education major back in University myself, we talked a bit about the field and how it is really a high burn-out job, at least in the public schools.

There was also Eddie and Serrah (pronounced Sarah), a couple from England. Eddie was working a blue-collar job in construction, Sarah was halfway through University, and they were taking a few months off to travel through South East Asia.
They were both the friendliest people you could possibly imagine, so easy to talk to, and when they found out I was teaching English in Cambodia, they were very interested in hearing about how that was going for me.

And there were two Chinese Malaysian sisters—Alissa and Eleanor. Like a lot of Asian girls, they were much younger than they looked. I thought they were in their teens or early 20s, until I found out they were both in their early 30s.
They had both went to University in Minnesota (the elder one Eleanor first, and then her sister Alissa had followed her out.)
The Malaysians I had met (both in Oita prefecture and in Melbourne) had a very low tolerance for even mildly cold weather. Back in Melbourne, when the temperature dipped even slightly into the low 20s, they had started complaining like it was the end of the world and cranking up their heaters.
So I thought it was funny that Alissa and Eleanor had ended up in Minnesota, and I asked them about the cold weather. Surprisingly they didn’t seem bothered by it though.

Our tourist guide came by the table several times to tell us to wait for him and not to go anywhere without him. Actually he had said this when we were out by the harbor as well. “Boy he’s awfully concerned about this,” I said. “Does he really think we’re just going to get sick of waiting for him, ditch the tour and wander off into the village by ourselves?” (I got a good laugh from the rest of the group on this line.)

Eventually it was decided that it was safe to go out into Halong Bay.

We went out onto the dock and loaded the boat.
Although the tour guide had already checked our tickets, we had to hand it to him as we got onto the boat.
When it came time to hand mine to him, the wind blew it away and it went out into the sea. (This was my fault I think. I had let go of it before he had grabbed it.) The tour guide told me I might have to buy another ticket at the cave.

[Eddie thought this was extremely unfair, and said the tour guide should cover the cost since I clearly had had the ticket. I agreed with him in principle, but said I didn’t mind paying another couple bucks at the cave if it would make everyone happy. Allissa’s ticket had almost blown away earlier in the day but I had caught it for her, so she commented that she had thought I was better at catching tickets than that.
At any rate it turned out to be a non-issue because they never asked for it at the cave.]

All the boats left the harbor at once, and so it looked like an invasion of tourists ships all heading into the bay.
I sat up on the deck and tried to soak up the scenery as much as possible. The two British girls were sunbathing up on the deck, so I alternated between listening to their travel stories, and trying to take as many pictures of the bay as possible. (Because the ship was constantly moving, It just seemed like every couple minutes we had a new vantage point, and I had to take another picture. I’ve only uploaded onto this blog a small fraction of the percentage of pictures that I actually took. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to get cornered by me in person someday, I’ll take you through all of them.)

No one else was taking as many pictures as me—possibly because when you’ve been travelling the world for a year, you get over trying to take pictures of every last single thing.

We got to the cave, and lined up outside.
Because all the tourist boats got to the cave at the same time, there was a huge queue to get in, and actually we spent most of the time in the cave slowly walking through the designated path in a slow line. (Eleanor and Alissa joked that this was like being in a supermarket).

I was walking with Eleanor and Allissa at the beginning of the cave, but Eleanor disappeared about halfway through, and we later found out she had gotten sick of the whole thing and just took a short cut out. (She was by her own admission not much of an outdoorsy girl and had been on this whole trip to Vietnam because her sister Allissa had made her go.)

Once we got out of the cave, there was the kayaking portion of the tour, where we got a half hour to Kayak around Halong Bay.

I was paired up with Sophie again, and we shared a kayak and took it around the bay.
Because my camera wasn’t waterproof, I didn’t bring it along on the kayak and thus have no pictures to show from this. But it was really cool experience.

Most of the others stayed relatively close to the dock, but Sophie was game to be a little bit more adventurous, so we she and I took the kayak around and between several of the small islands and rock formations around the bay.

We were told that the kayaking would only last 30 minutes, and we should be sure to be back by then.  (We were already behind schedule because the tour had gotten a late start). Absolutely no one in the group had any sort of watch on, so nobody really knew when the 30 minutes were up, but when Sophie and I judged that the rest of the kayaks were heading back, we headed back as well.

While we were out kayaking I got the chance to talk to Sophie a bit, and found out a bit about her story. She is a doctorate student back in Denmark, and is doing her thesis on some sort of parasite found in dogs only in Vietnam, so she was out in Vietnam for several months during her research on it. And she was trying to take in a little bit of sight seeing at the same time, which was why she was doing this trip to Halong Bay.

When we got back, the boat went out to a spot in Halong Bay and then anchored. Each tourist boat apparently had a different spot in the Bay where they anchored for the night.

We were told this was the time for swimming if we wanted to. People were encouraged to jump off the top deck of the boat into the bay and swim around.

I had stupidly forgotten to take my swimming suit to Vietnam with me. Because the Bay was sea water, I was reluctant to jump in the water with my shorts on because I knew they wouldn’t dry off properly without being washed. (And I only had one other pair of shorts with me.)

But after watching everyone else having so much fun swimming around, I gave in and jumped in as well.

Looking down from the second deck of the boat to the water below was a little bit intimidating, but actually once you made the jump the first time, you realized how much fun it was, and you wanted to do it several times. So I did.

The two British girls were on the sun deck resting, and saw me jump off the boat several times. “Going in again?” they would ask.
“Well, I figure I might as well,” I said. “I mean, once you’re already wet anyway, why not?”

(This became a bit of a running joke, because they would say the same thing to me every time I was preparing to do another jump, and I would give the same reply.)

Also, since I was already wet anyway, I decided to make the most of it and swim around the boat a little bit.

Took a quick shower before dinner. Changed shorts, and hung out the other pair to dry. (It never did dry out properly, and in the end they had to be shoved back in my bag half wet and still smelling of sea water, and by the end of the trip they had a bit of a moldy mildewy smell to them as well.)

Anyway, at dinner we sat down at the tables, and I ended up sitting next to the English girls on my right. To my left there was an Asian couple, which had previously kept to themselves and not really talked to anyone else on the tour.

After talking to the British girls for a while I on a whim just decided to strike up a conversation with the Asian couple. We exchanged the usual questions—Where are you from, et cetera. They were from Shanghai, I told them I was from Michigan.

“I’ve been to Michigan,” the man said. “I went to Grand Rapids.”

“Hey, no kidding. That’s my home town actually.”

He told me how he had gone there for a few weeks on business, and had stayed in a hotel on 28th street, and had shopped at Meijers. (He seemed pretty impressed with Meijers.)
“Yeah, actually I used to work there,” I said.

Then he asked me if I knew a school called Calvin College in Grand Rapids. I told him as a matter of fact I did, and in fact had graduated from there. He told me he had visited the campus when he stayed in Grand Rapids, and that his boss was from Calvin College.

I became to wonder if I actually knew his boss. I had a couple old Calvin friends in China. It would be incredibly odds, but…. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Mr. English.”

“Jared English! Yeah, I know him. I know him well.” I said.

And so, this is my little “Isn’t it a small world story”. Its incredible odds when you think about it, but I guess everyone has one or two incredible coincidence stories like this somewhere in their life.

Actually it made me think about all the little decisions leading up to this connection. I almost didn’t go to Vietnam, and once in Vietnam I almost didn’t travel up to Hanoi, and once in Hanoi I almost didn’t go to Halong Bay, and in Halong Bay I could have been on any number of tourist boats, and for that matter even on this one particular boat I almost didn’t bother talking to this couple, and even then the conversation could have gone a number of different ways and we might never have even made the connection.
It makes you wonder a bit about all the near misses which must occur in life.

But here we were in Vietnam finding out that we both had this mutual friend Jared English.

The rest of the conversation was just based off of trading stories about Jared English. (It was such an amazing coincidence, it seemed like a shame to waste time talking about anything else.)

Unfortunately, I discovered my mind was a bit rusty, and I was having trouble thinking about good Jared English stories. In fact most of the few stories I could remember where usually ones in which Jared had gotten the better of me somehow (like the time he T.P. ed my house) and I had difficulty thinking of good stories which embarrassed Jared, much as I wanted to give this young Chinese gentleman as much embarrassing dirt on his boss as possible.

I had the frustrating feeling that more embarrassing stories about Jared were buried somewhere in my mind, but I couldn’t dig them out at the moment. The best one I could come up with was the one when Jared had drank too much rootbeer at a Steak and Shake, and had some digestive problems afterwards.

Other than that, I was mostly just reduced to sharing my general perception of Jared’s personality.

The young Chinese man actually worked under Jared, with Jared as his boss. He and his wife (he was on the tour with his wife) obviously had a fair amount of affection for Jared, and he had been hosted by Jared’s family when he was in Grand Rapids.

After talking about Jared for a while, the young Chinese man got the idea to try and call Jared up on his cell-phone. We went out onto the deck of the ship, and he tried to call at first, but Jared didn’t pick up. Then he messaged Jared.

“Sir, Swagman is here with me.”

With a few minutes, Jared replied. “Huh? Joel Swagman?”

“Yep, that’s me,” I answered.

The Chinese man typed back, “He said: Yeah, that’s me.”

Shortly afterwards Jared replied again. “What are you doing? Are you in prison? Don’t believe any of his stories about me!”

A while after that, Jared actually phoned up. “Okay sir, I promise not to listen to any of his stories,” the Chinese gentleman said into the phone. Then the phone got passed off to me.

“Swagman, what are you doing in Vietnam?” Jared asked me.

I explained the whole thing. Jared and I did some brief catching up on the phone. (It’s been years now since we’ve seen each other).

When I told Jared that the Chinese man and I had been exchanging stories about him.

The Chinese couple, it turns out, where actually in Vietnam on their Honeymoon trip, so Jared said he didn’t want to take up too much of his employees time on his Honeymoon. I agreed this probably wasn’t very polite, so we soon gave the phone back to him.
(Being bad with names, I was a bit unsure of what the name of this Chinese fellow was, but I think it was Liu Lin.)

After dinner, I spent most of the night hanging out on the top of the boat with Eddy and Serrah (from England), Sophie (from Denmark) and Alissa and Eleanor (from Malaysia). The 6 of us all got on quite well and formed a nice little group for the evening.

Among the topics of conversation:
Allissa and Eleanor talked about what it was like living in the United States. Eleanor, who had also lived in Maryland for some time after graduating from her University in Minnesota, and spent about 8 years in the US total, described what she perceived as US racial attitudes. “I never experienced any racism while I was in the US,” she said. “But at the same time, I never really made any close friends with any white Americans, and none of them would ever have dated me. All us Asian students just hung with ourselves because we had trouble making American friends.”

(It’s unfortunate that she felt this way. I suspect some of this was just a cultural misunderstanding. Maybe, for example, the fact that the Asian students usually hung out together in a big group made them more difficult to approach for your normal Minnesota student, or some sort of misunderstanding like that. She was an attractive woman, so I find it hard to believe that she couldn’t have found an American boyfriend. But it is interesting that this was her impression of America.)

The topic turned to American movies, and how many of them are crap. Allissa said recently she had been leaving a movie theater in Malaysia, and overheard one person say to the other person (in Mandarin) “Damn these white people, they always trick us into wasting our money on these awful movies.”
(The disturbing implication being I suppose that America’s image abroad is now being tarnished by every crappy movie Hollywood produces.)

As the only American there, everyone turned to me for my defense. I cleared my throat and said something like, “While, I’d hate to have to defend everything Hollywood does…”

“Nor should you,” Sophie asserted.

“But in our defense, we’re hardly the only country that makes terrible movies. A lot of Japanese cinema, for example, is really bad. I suspect Britain, Denmark, and Malaysia have also all made their fair share of bad movies.”

Sophie then complained about movies like “Independence Day” which always showed the Americans singlehandedly saving the world from aliens without the rest of the world doing anything.

“Well, I suppose the Danes could always just publish some cartoons that would make the aliens really mad,” I said.

Sophie laughed at this and admitted it was a good comeback.

Saturday, July 2

We woke up for breakfast at 7.

The boat continued its trip along the bay. I continued to take many (probably far too many) pictures.

It was a hot day and on the boat deck the sun was really beating down on us. So most people where hanging out in the dining area (where you could still get a good view through the windows.

I ended up getting into a silly conversation about movies with Eddie and Serrah and an Australian couple.

Eddie was sure he had seen Halong Bay before in a James Bond movie. I said that if it wasn’t already in a movie, than it should be.
(Turns out Eddie was right, according to the internet Halong Bay was featured in one of the newer James Bond movies, which I think I may have seen actually, but don’t remember. Given how many tourists appear to come through this way daily, I wonder how much money they had to pay to get rights to film in Halong Bay and clear everyone else out.)

We had lunch on the boat.

Jared continued texting Liu Lin on the phone coming up with embarrassing stories about me. And unfortunately, Jared was doing a lot better job of coming up with embarrassing stories about me than I was doing about him. Jared told Liu Lin to ask me about the time I took a bath in the common toilet area, and I did my best to explain this story. A few other people started listening in once they realized I was telling a story, but it largely bombed with the crowd. It clearly wasn’t funny to anyone who didn’t have memories of the Calvin common johns and the various associations that come with them.
Jared also later texted Liu Lin to tell him to ask me about the incident with Butterball at the Canadian boarder crossing, and it produced a similar result. I tried to tell the story, but it clearly wasn’t funny to people who didn’t know me and Butterball, and ended up being a little bit embarrassing.

After we got off the boat there was a rather long wait for the bus to take us back to Hanoi.

I exchanged e-mail addresses with Eddie and Serrah, and promised to look them up on facebook. (When you meet people you hit it off with, it is nice to at least maintain the illusion that you’re going to keep in touch, even if in the back of your mind you know you really won’t.)

At the risk of repeating myself, the drive back was absolutely amazing. If I had been driving in my own personal car I think I would have been stopping every couple of kilometers to take a picture of this or that: farmers, water buffalo, rivers, jungles. (I did make one lame attempt to take a couple pictures from the bus at one point, but they didn’t turn out very well.)

The bus eventually got back to Hanoi. I had them drop me off a couple blocks away from my hotel so that they wouldn’t see I had been to Halong Bay with another tour group (even though they suspected anyway.) To my relief, however, they didn’t hold a grudge about this and gave me my room back. (The woman at the desk was a lot more helpful than the man I had previously encountered.)

Sunday, July 3

I had the day free in Hanoi, but after sight seeing all week I wanted to just relax. I wandered aimlessly around the city for a while, and spent some time walking around the pond,

but mostly I just sat in coffee shops and read my book. I stopped in multiple coffee shops around the city, and also ate at one restaurant.

I had also intended to get a t-shirt from one of the sellers on the street. Not because I really wanted a cheesy tourist Vietnam t-shirt, but because I had been doing so much sweating this week (walking all over in Vietnam’s hot stifling climate) that all my shirts were badly in need of washing, and I was running out of clothes.

Earlier in the week, I had run into a street seller who had tried to sell me t-shirts for a dollar. I had blown her off at the time, largely just because I was annoyed at being hassled when I was trying to walk. But it now struck me that $1 wasn’t such a bad deal for a t-shirt, and I approached some of the women selling them.

They wanted to charge me $15. I offered $1, and they turned to each other and said, “Oh my god, 1 dollar!”
I attempted to negotiate them down to $1, but seeing that they weren’t going to budge, I thought I would leave. (I was really only interested in these cheesy tourist t-shirts if I could get them for $1). But I had underestimated the persistence of the Vietnamese street seller. They followed me down the street arguing with me over the price, and so I eventually settled on the price of $3. But then when I tried to pay them 60,000 in Vietnamese Dong, they insisted that 80,000 Dong was the correct exchange for $3. It wasn’t, but I was too tired of arguing, so I just gave them the money. In the end I paid about $4 for the shirt. Lesson learned is never think you’re going to win bargaining against a professional.

I went into another coffee shop for another coffee and more reading.

I was walking around the pond again, when a Vietnamese girl approached me and started talking to me. She asked me if I wanted to sit on the park bench and talk to her.

I was again cautious, because the Lonely Planet had specifically warned that around this pond a common scam was for girls to approach tourists, strike up a conversation, take them out for coffee, and then the tourist is left stuck with a huge bill.

However once again my caution was needless. The girl it turned out just wanted to practice her English by talking to a foreigner. Her name was Tam. She said she had seen me walking around the pond earlier and had been trying to get up the courage to talk to me. She was a 4th year University student studying English, and wanted to practice English.

She offered to show me around the city of Hanoi, but I told her I had to leave in an hour to catch my plane, at which point she was disappointed.

We exchanged e-mail addresses before I had to leave. (Odds are I’m never going to see this girl again, but it never hurts to exchange e-mails.)

I had a flight back to Saigon from 5:45. I went back to the hotel to pick up my luggage, and then walked over to the bus stop to catch the sky bus to the airport.

There was only one other foreigner on the bus (actually the bus was more of a van) and because it was really crowded I ended up sitting right next to him.
On the drive to the airport, we ended up briefly exchanging life stories. He was Dutch-French, and had studied literature at University in a doctorate course, and was an amateur author. He was now teaching English in Hanoi. I asked him what the teaching conditions in Hanoi were like.
Parted company with him at the airport. Also exchanged e-mail addresses with him, although he’s also another person I’m most likely not going to keep in touch with.

There was a lot of confusion about the flight back to Saigon. For one thing, we were told to go to terminal 3, but there was no terminal 3 at the airport. Secondly the plane never showed up at the appointed time. No representatives from our airline (Air Mekong) were on hand. There were representatives from Air-Vietnam there, but they didn’t know anything about their competitor’s flights. So I and a bunch of people who were just as confused as me tried to figure out what was going on. There was a French couple there who were just as confused as me, and we asked each other questions. Also the local Vietnamese were very confused.
Eventually however we did get on the correct flight to Saigon.

Because the flight was delayed, we didn’t end up leaving until 9. And then it was 2 hours into Saigon.

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