The bus helpfully dropped me by a bridge on the highway, with nothing but hills and further highway in sight. It was all part of the usual plan I think though, as there was a crowd of motorbike-taxis waiting to harass me and everyone else who got dropped here. Unlike the rest of the tourists who were showing them maps and arranging rides, I just walked off down the highway to see what I can find.
It took a lot of walking and even more sweat, but I found my way down to Bai Chay, the west side of the Halong City, along the waterfront. Quickly, I was approached by an American couple. We were all hoping to get aboard one of the tour boats for a cruise around Halong Bay that would drop us in Cat Ba island in the evening. Off we went together in search.
My two new companions were Joe and Crystal. They were both pilots working for the same airline not a million miles from each other in the south-east US. Bizarrely though, they had only met and got together as a couple whilst travelling separately in Thailand three weeks previously. As we walked down the waterfront with our big backpacks, I was concerned at one point when Crystal began lagging behind. They assured me that there was no need to worry because she was "a trooper". The name Crystal Trooper struck me as marvellous, ideal for a child's action doll, a role model for young girls everywhere with her cartoon image printed on school bags and lunchboxes across the western world.
We took a long walk south to the tourist dock and found that, although it was only early afternoon, all the tourist boats had already gone for the day. We conceded that our only good option was to find somewhere to stay on the mainland for the night and come back in the morning. We walked back north again and stopped in at a Novotel. Although an expensive option, the pilots both had corporate discounts so they were able to bag a room for themselves and one for me.
We insisted on taking a dip in the luxurious open-air pool at the front, even though the warm weather was tempered by cloudy skies. It was bitterly cold when we got in and after a couple of lengths we wrapped up warm on the sun loungers by the side and shared some beers Joe had gone out to buy. After going back to our rooms to use the phenomenally good showers, we went out to find somewhere for dinner. We went to a local place that had been recommended to us by the bellboy and it seemed alright . . . at the time.
Back at the hotel, there was time for another beer in the bar while a three-piece Philipino covers band entertained a couple of drunk businessmen. We declined their invitation to go up and join them with the singing, but the businessmen weren't always so reticent to get involved.
The next morning, after I had ridiculously treated myself to breakfast in bed courtesy of room service, Crystal phoned my room to say that Joe had spent most of the night throwing up. We postponed leaving twice until finally checking out at the midday deadline. Joe was not in a good state, but he didn't have a whole lot of options. We took a taxi to the tourist harbour, bought some tickets and waited for our boat to pick us up.
I think that the twenty other passengers were all on a package tour which included their meals and probably also included a whole lot more dollars than the official price we were paying. We were invited to buy some food from the boat's kitchen ourselves, but with my bumper breakfast and Joe's lumpy stomach, no one felt like it.
The boat crawled out into the misty bay amid a flotilla of other vessels and then sat there for an age. Finally, after everyone had eaten, we started moving. Quickly, we were at Hang Dau Go cave where we docked and everyone disembarked. Inside the vast cave were wonderful limestone rock formations colourfully lit up in a way that I rather liked but Crystal Trooper felt was rather tacky. Forty minutes later, we were out and transferred to a new boat where Joe resumed his two favourite viewing positions for the day: lying face down on the table or head on Crystal's lap.
Thereafter commenced the actual tour of the famous Halong Bay. So beautiful that the local authorities are lobbying to have it included in the modern-day seven wonders of the world, which someone with relevant authority is apparently compiling. It was pretty good and the way the rock 'islands' reached up out of the water all around was admittedly remarkable, but it was nothing to set our pulses racing. Perhaps Joe's illness had given us a mood of endurance rather than enchantment and a sunny day with clear, blue skies would certainly have brought out the colours of the water and the islands' foliage better.
Reaching Cat Ba island, the boat's passengers were emptied off at a small dock on the northern end. There was a 25km road to the main town and the package tourists all filed on to their waiting private coach. All that was left behind were us, a few other independent stragglers, some parasitic motorbike riders and a crew of workmen busy building a new, bigger dock.
We had been told that there would be a cheap public bus which we were waiting for. In the mean time, the riders badgered us to sell rides on the back of their bikes, insisted that there was no public bus and then tried to tell us the the big lorries coming and going with rocks and sand were the buses. It wasn't clear whether this final act of deception was to try to get us to pay their truck-driving mates for a ride or whether it was to coerce us into opting for a bike ride after all. Whatever it was, we waited for the real bus.
My own way for dealing with these people is to wear a hostile expression to discourage them from approaching me, to meet any enquiries with a look of total disgust plus a muttered expletive and to meet any further enquiries with a torrent of abuse. Joe tells all these bike riders that he doesn't want to go with them because "I don't want to die". At first I thought he was joking, but after a while I realised that he really did take a very dim view of the safety of these things and really did view death as a possible conclusion of taking a ride.
Over an hour later, the bus arrived and took us to Cat Ba town where we were accosted by various hotel owners before taking rooms and going out for something to eat.
For our only full day on the island, we had arranged through our guesthouse to take a guided trek through the national park. Our thirteen dollars included a bus to the park entrance, a tour guide, lunch at a village, a boat from our finishing point back to the south of the island and a short bus back into town. Waiting down in hotel reception, the bus arrived and the three of us jumped aboard. Fifteen minutes later when we got to the park, Crystal Trooper realised that she had left our tickets for the whole day back at the hotel. We didn't know the names of any guide we were supposed to meet up with or even the name off our hotel if we wanted anyone to ring back and confirm our booking.
Fortunately, a guide knew that he was expecting three more people to take his group for the day to nine, so we were able to join up and no one asked any more questions.
The trek was nine kilometres before lunch, including five climbs, and five flat kilometres afterwards to get to the boat. The path was initially asphalt, but then turned rougher and closer to lunch we were clambering up and down slippery rocks in the tropical jungle on a path that we would probably never have been able to recognise without our guide. We stopped at the top of each climb and most of the rest of the party was pretty tired but the three of us, including Joe who was still a little ill, weren't having any difficulty at all and were quietly wishing we could just get a move on.
There was an older French couple in the group. He walked at the front for long periods while she was so far to that back that I had to stop and wait for her at one point because she was drifting out of sight and our of earshot. This didn't seem very gentlemanly to me but during the breaks he made a big joke to everyone about how he was setting the pace but she was holding everyone up. She seemed to find it funny though, so no harm done.
At lunch time, we arrived in a rice farming village. Our free lunch we had paid for was at a small impromptu cafe. Plates of food and cans of drink were laid out on the tables for us to take what we wanted. The food tasted great but, at the end of the meal, the woman came over and told us that the drinks had not been free and were actually a rather expensive 15,000d. I was furious as this was nothing less than a very deliberate con. I may not always have negotiated the best price for everything, but this was the first time in Vietnam I had knowingly been actively scammed, even if it was for a small amount. If I had been alone I would have refused to pay or would have only paid a smaller price. But, everyone else grinned and paid as if it were just one of those unfortunate things,so I could hardly be the only one to dig my heels in. It annoyed me even more when we left to see some people making a point of going and thanking the woman for the wonderful meal.
The rest of the walk took us across the paddy fields, through a long tunnel and alongside a long inlet of water until we reached our boat. After we boarded, the captain brought us out a tray of canned drinks, but this time no one was assuming anything and they went untouched. Despite the drizzling rain, a few of us went up on to the top to admire the views. It was very similar to the previous day but our mood was better and we soaked it all up much more.
In the evening we went to the nicest restaurant in town. That's not necessarily a big claim in somewhere so small, but it was very good. We also met four of our other fellow trekkers from the day and had a good night chatting it over. We even tried a couple of bottles of Vietnamese red wine, and were surprised to find that it didn't taste like mouthwash.
In the morning, having bought all-inclusive tickets back to Hanoi, we took a bus to another place on the island from where a small boat loaded up with passengers plus a handful of bikes squeezed in and carried us to the main land. A bus took us from there into Haiphong town centre. Suddenly we were turfed out and pointed towards another bus down the road. Instantly, alarm bells started ringing. This being Vietnam where nothing is ever trustworthy, we didn't like standing by the roadside waiting for a bus that we had no tickets for. But, it all worked out and our new driver seemed to know what we were doing. Off we rode.