Archive for April, 2008

Apr 14 2008

Run DMZ

Published by under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

The overnight bus from Hanoi south to Hoi An ain’t a thing of beauty. On the plus side, it actually contains beds, which is a first for us on any overnight bus experience. But on the other hand, the proximity of the beds in the rear of the bus forces unwanted stranger spooning, the potholed roads ensure that half your night is spent airborne, the driver incessantly honks the loudest horn in the universe the entire night, and there is only a six-hour respite from blaring Vietnamese karaoke on the speaker system. When the karaoke resumed around 5:00am, Brittany got mad enough to climb down from her bunk, clamber over the tightly-packed rows of prostrate passengers, and make it to the front of the bus to ask the driver to please turn the karaoke off, at least until sunrise. He deemed her request worthy of no more attention than a shoo-ing hand gesture, which has been an impressively bottomless source of daily anger for her ever since.

When the bus stopped for breakfast several hours north of Hoi An at 7:00am, we stumbled out of our cots confused, sleepless, and smelling of other people’s B.O. Neither of us wanted the bus to take this meal break: having given up on the hope of sleep on the bus, we were both eager to simply get to Hoi An, and collapse at the first guesthouse we found. So when a local tourguide approached us at our breakfast table, proposing that we abandon our ride and sign up with him for a day tour of the nearby war-time de-militarized zone (DMZ), I’m not sure why we considered this a good idea. It could have been the book of reviews from satisfied customers he excitedly showed us, but I think it was probably his promise to deliver us the rest of the way to Hoi An in a minivan.

We soon learned that there was much more to our new guide than his attractive possession of karakoke-free transportation. His name was Hoa, and as a teenager, he fought for the South in what the Vietnamese know as the American War. He was excited to discover that we are Americans (weird, this never excited anyone in the North…), and he happily informed us that during the war, the American soldiers gave him the nickname, “Jimmy.” Hoa’s expectant eyes revealed that we, too, should now call him Jimmy. And so we did. I should also mention that our status as Americans earned us other special privileges, such as the admonition, “Hurry up, Yankee!” every time we lingered behind in the same way our predecessors must have. Also, we were treated to an informative audio presentation of every English-language swear word Jimmy learned from the Americans. American soldiers know a LOT of swear words. And now so do all the small children visiting the DMZ that day, whose horrified parents doubtfully banked on their educational field trip including such vocabulary supplements as “M*****f***ing son of a b****!!!” But I digress.

Our DMZ tour consisted of several minivan stops. The first was at an unmarked field, and while our driver stayed with the car, Jimmy led us down an equally unmarked path. We weren’t even out of sight of the minivan when he stopped us to point out some sort of ammunition shell overgrown by weeds. It was eerie at first to juse see it sitting there by the path, but we’d soon get used to the fact that stuff like this has, in so many places, simply never been cleaned up. And just like in eastern Laos, so much of it is dangerous unexploded ordnance. Yes, we stuck closely to the defined path after that. A path disconcertingly flanked on one side by innumerable identical trees in mathematically precise rows. I couldn’t make sense of this forest’s precision until Jimmy explained these were all rubber trees, planted to re-forest an area decimated by Agent Orange and napalm. This answered my question, but did nothing for the disconcerting feeling.

Old southern bunker (Vietnam DMZ)The reason Jimmy brought us to this field, and the reason we’d so quickly spotted old ammunition, was because this was a battlefield where Jimmy had fought years ago. He brought us to a bunker where he’d beem stationed, and invited us to climb on it as we much as we wanted. “Climb on it” hadn’t really been my first thought upon seeing the bunker, but since these are possibly Brittany’s three favorite words (that, or “More. Nutella. Now.”) it worked out nicely. It was here also that Jimmy showed us his battle scars: two bullet wounds on his legs, and a gash atop his skull from shrapnel. You could really say three bullet wounds on his legs, since one bullet left an entrance AND exit hole. Jimmy concluded this presentation with the declaration that he is an unlucky man. I suggested that, since he is still here, he is actually a very lucky man. Jimmy looked like he pondered this thought for a moment, but it could have just been gas.

Soldier Cemetary (Vietnam DMZ)Back to the minivan, and on to our next stop: a cemetary for fallen soldiers. Specifically, fallen Northern soldiers, because the cemetaries are indeed separated. The particular cemetary we visited was dedicated primarily to young soldiers, aged 16-18, and was home to far more rows of small white headstones than we managed to see in one visit. Just as the overwhelming numbers began to sink in, Jimmy told us that this cemetary was one of 72 in this area alone, a testament to the catastrophic death toll absorbed by the north Vietnamese. During our visit, many faithful visitors came to light sticks of incense at the headstones of friends and family members, and to pray at the large central monument to the Unknown Soldier.

Our third stop was a short drive away: the 17th Parallel. The selection of the 17th Parallel as the North-South division makes a lot of sense after seeing it in person, because it’s actually a river. Not much room for confusion there. More confusing is the title of “DMZ”, which is something of a misnomer in Vietnam. While it is true that several kilometers on both sides of the 17th Parallel were left neutral when the North and South divided, the title of “de-militarized” meant absolutely nothing once war broke out. The north Vietnamese poured over the 17th Parallel with no hesitation, and some of the fiercest fighting of the war happened on this contested soil. But during the pre-war years, the DMZ represented an ucompromising division. Once the designation of a 17th Parallel was agreed upon, the two Vietnamese governments gave the people of Vietnam a grace period and an ultimatum: pick your side, and make sure you’re on it two months from now. So for two months, the bridge over the river at the 17th Parallel was a walkway for people leaving home, friends, and family to get to the side they wanted, or felt they needed, to be on. After that time, the bridge was closed to all traffic, armed guards were posted on both sides, and the people of Vietnam were officially separated.

Crossing the 17th Parallel Bridge (Vietnam DMZ)Today, the bridge that once served as the only (closed) connection between North and South has been overshadowed by a much larger, modern version, better equipped to handle today’s large volume of automobile traffic. But the old bridge is still there, and open once more to pedestrian crossings. We walked with Jimmy across the bridge to a small museum that doesn’t seem to get any visitors, and we pondered a huge stone monument on the southern side of the river. The centerpiece of the monument is a statue of a woman with her small child, staring across the bridge and into the northern distance. Jimmy explained that she is the wife of a soldier who left his family to cross into the North before the bridge was shut down, and she is now forever waiting for her husband to return.

Visiting the 17th Parallel set Jimmy off on an angry tirade about the stupidity of his government. Between creative strings of English-language swearing, he conveyed the fact that the southern Vietnamese (like him) are still being punished by the government for being on the wrong side of battle. As a father, his most passionate example is that public school is free to the Vietnamese… in the north. For those unfortunate enough to live in the south, the government provides no such service. Health care is free only to northerners as well, and all these services are funded by the higher taxes levied upon the South. I asked Jimmy if he could just simply move to the North to begin taking advantage of these opportunities, and he informed me that even if he did move, the government would still know exactly where he came from, and continue to saddle him with the burdens of a southerner. Jimmy lamented that the reality of modern Vietnam, still divided in so many ways, is never what Uncle Ho wanted for his people.

Our final stop of the afternoon allowed us to check out something I’d really wanted to see ever since arriving in this country: Viet Cong underground tunnels. Well, it did and it didn’t. I had been specifically imaging the tiny hidden tunnels that Viet Cong guerrillas had used to sneak behind enemy lines and pop up, as if from nowhere, in the middle of dense jungle. Those sort of tunnels turn out to be more prevalent down closer to Saigon (NO ONE calls it Ho Chi Minh City) and I hear they are open for tourists to try and squeeze through. The tunnels we visited here in the DMZ, though, were not used for tactical warfare, but to house a hidden village of northerners! They were living too close to the border for comfort, and knew that if the southerners were to find them, it’d be lights-out. So they did exactly what any reasonable group of people would do in this sort of difficult situation: become mole people.

How some north Vietnamese lived underground (Vietnam DMZ)When I say “become mole people,” I mean it. The residents of this village carved out an extensive multi-tiered underground labyrinth by the ocean shore, outfitting it with all of the accommodations they would need to live healthy, well-adjusted, mole people lives. Ducking low, we followed Jimmy through a hidden entrance, down a dark set of stairs carved into the rock, and into the unlit world of the underground village. Beneath the earth, we visited rooms designated as family living spaces, a communal laundry room, a maternity room, and an underground well dug to ensure that the residents of this village would have to leave the safety of its confines as rarely as possible. The villagers had even cut additional staircases descending to levels many meters deeper into the earth, allowing them to put as much rock as possible between themselves and the surface in the all-too-frequent event of overhead bombing. We went down to the first two levels, but only stared down (with the help of flashlights) at the bomb shelter that composed the third, and deepest, level of the maze. I ultimately emerged from the underground complex with the realization that I’m maybe a little more claustrophobic than I’d reckoned, and with a new-found respect for the unbreakable will of the Vietnamese people. I mean, I have substantial doubts they could even get WI-FI under there. How did they blog?? I shudder to think.

Officially finished with our tour, the minivan hit the road, as promised, to take us the last few hours to Hoi An. Except somehow we ended up getting dropped off in the city of Hue, which is still a couple of hours north of Hoi An. We quickly checked out our guidebook’s entry on Hue, and found the author insisting that Hue is worth visiting for its ancient citadel with riverside pagodas. But we were tired from getting no sleep on the karaoke bus, and too grumpy to care about pagodas or citadels, so we closed that book and went to sleep. Which is why I have nothing at all to say about the city of Hue; in fact, I already barely remember being there. I worried at the time that I might later regret missing out on seeing Hue, but as it turns out, I don’t. Ha! It’s always nice when things work out. I DO know something about Hoi An, the tailoring capital of SE Asia, but that story will wait, as stories so often do, for next time.

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Apr 12 2008

Hanoi Addendum: Water Puppets!

Published by under Hanoi,Hoi An,Vietnam

I can’t believe I forgot to mention the water puppets!

The ancient peoples of Northern Vietnam entertained themselves by putting on water puppet shows! Probably in their rice paddies. A theater in Hanoi maintains this proud Vietnamese tradition with much-heralded nightly water puppet shows.

When we first heard about Hanoi’s famous water puppets, we, of course, thought, that is so lame. Seriously, a puppet show? Who likes that? Little kids or something?? How dorky!

Okay, so really when we heard about the puppets, the show skyrocketed to the top of our things-to-do-in-Hanoi list. Whatever. I’ll stop pretending we’re not huge dweebs.

So one evening in Hanoi we booked it over to the water puppet theater and snatched up the last two tickets to that night’s show (tickets that were only available thanks to a cancellation. Apparently you have to make something called “reservations.” Not sure what those are, but I’m told it has something to do with people who “plan ahead”?)

I’m happy to report that water puppets are awesome! Apparently puppetry transcends lanuguage barriers because even though we couldn’t understand a single word the narrator said, we found the show entertaining. The puppets themselves were impressive — multi-jointed, fire-breathing, water-spouting affairs.

What ARE water puppets, you ask? Instead of attempting to describe them, please enjoy the following video snippets of the show:

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Apr 11 2008

Hanoi: When we weren’t drinking bia hoi…

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

It’s not every day that you get to see a former world leader and Communist revolutionary that altered the balance of global politics. Or even just your regular old Communist revolutionary. So our final day in Hanoi was a red-letter one.

That’s right, we saw Ho Chi Minh. No, not one of the many statues or gigantic Ho billboards that litter Vietnamese cities, but the man himself.

Upon his death in 1969, Uncle Ho, as his adoring Vietnamese fans endearingly know him, wished to be cremated and his ashes sprinkled atop the hills of a reunited Vietnam – a modest request befitting a proper communist. Naturally, then, the Vietnamese decided to allocate a huge chunk of land in the middle of Hanoi to the Ho Chi Minh Complex, complete with biographical museum and gigantic, granite mausoleum to house Ho’s corpse, which they embalmed and display in a glass case for all to see.

The mausoleum maintains very limited hours of operation – just a few days a week, in the early morning – which meant that Ben and I had to be up, ready, and out the door much earlier than we typically manage to be. The situation was exacerbated because I’d stayed up working until 4 in the morning (working American hours while 11 hours ahead is seriously difficult).

But if anything is going to get my butt out of bed, it’s an embalmed Ho Chi Minh. Clearly.

To get to the HCM complex, we required the services of a moto driver, and upon exiting our guesthouse, we expected to be attacked by the legion of moto-hawkers that follow us around constantly. But we actually had to walk around for a few minutes to find one! At a nearby intersection, we saw a guy lying on a motorcycle, his feet propped up on the handlebars, possibly sleeping. We approached him and stood there, hoping that he was actually a driver and we weren’t acting like crazy people. Sensing our presence, he started.

“Moto? moto?” he said, sluggishly.

“Yes! Moto!” we replied. Even the driver looked surprised.

Thus began the painful process of price negotiation – a required part of every single transaction we make in Asia. As an American, bargaining does not come naturally to me. It’s particularly hard here, where the merchants have a lifetime of haggling experience. ‘Cause let me tell you: the art of bargaining – with its subtle power plays and clever manipulations – requires a lot of practice. Even after seven months of market shopping, haggling still feels uncomfortable for me and I have to psych myself up for the inevitable challenge before I attempt to purchase anything.

But, I will say, we are more savvy and hardened than we were seven months ago.

“30,000 dong, 30,000 dong,” the driver said, pointing first to me than to Ben.

“You mean 60,000 dong [US$4] for two people?” I said. We scoffed at the price.

“No way,” Ben flatly refused, rolling his eyes.

Step 1: Always let them quote a price first. Laugh at the mere suggestion of it.

“10,000 dong, 10,000 dong.” I said, pointing to Ben and then to myself. “No more.”

Step 2: Counter with a price that you know is lower than the one you’ll get. One-third of the original is a realistic starting point.

Now it was the driver’s turn to laugh.

“No, no, no. 60,000, good price for you.” he said.

“Fine,” we said, and turned to walk away.

Step 3: If they are not willing to come down to a price that’s acceptable for you, make sure that you’re willing to walk. If they let you go, you know you’ve passed on a fair price. If they stop you, let the games continue.

“Ok, ok, how much you pay?” the driver called after us.

“I told you. 10,000, 10,000,” I said, pointing again.

“Discount for you. I do 25, 25. Cheap, cheap!”

Here’s where we got lucky. Other moto drivers in the intersection were starting to wake up and smell fresh meat. They pounced. The first driver scrambled to keep our business.

“Okay, 20,000, 20,000. Very good. Finished.” he said, desperately.

“Look the most we’ll pay is 15, 15. One dollar each,” Ben said. The driver refused again, even though, thanks to the advice of the guesthouse receptionist, we knew it was a generous price for us to offer. Thankfully, other approaching moto drivers had heard our conversation and were more than willing to take us for that price. The first driver watched wistfully as we hopped on the bikes of two competitors and sped away.

It was a fine price, and I was more than willing to pay $1 to avoid the kilometers-long walk to the mausoleum. Is it what the locals would pay? Of course not. But…

Step 4: Keep in mind that you’re not looking to get the lowest price EVER. You’re looking to get to a price that’s good for them AND good for you.

I am far from a savvy negotiator, but I’ve learned a trick or two. Even still, it’s not uncommon for me to walk away from an exchange and realize that I was totally taken for a ride. It’s particularly hard in SE Asia where you know you’re getting ripped off, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You’re never, ever going to get the local price. It’s made easier because, really, you’re usually talking about a matter of cents. And a measly extra dollar will go a lot farther for that person than it will for me back home.

The driver I’d hired was a cheerful guy, asking me questions about where I was from and telling me about his family. I mostly grunted responses as I stared in horror at the three buses and countless motorcycles approaching us head on. I did say, “Oh my God, we’re gonna die.” a couple times. This made the driver laugh and say “many, many moto in Hanoi, yes?” It’s still amazing to me how, despite the lack of traffic lights – traffic laws, actually – no one wrecks. They simply weave around each other at terrifying speeds, honking like crazy.

He soon stopped to drop me off at a gray office-looking building. “No, Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, please,” I reiterated.

”Yes, go here first,” he replied. I looked and he was right: a small sign with an arrow pointing inside said “mausoleum entrance.”

The building turned out to be the security checkpoint all visitors have to go through before being allowed entrance to the mausoleum. It was a complicated process. We had to check all bags in a storeroom. We had to empty the contents of our pockets for examination. We had to walk through metal detectors. We had to be frisked by security guards (Ben winced as he spotted the guard’s nightstick).

“Dude, the guy is dead!” I whispered to Ben as we stood in line, waiting to be frisked. “What do they think I’m going to do? Kill him? Steal his body to try and sell on the black corpse market?”

Ben glared at me because I have the unfortunate habit of unwittingly making comments at inappropriate times that typically get us into trouble, cause confusion, and/or embarrass him. Teehee.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam
Ben outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Far more interesting than seeing Ho Chi Minh himself, who just looked white, waxy, and…well, dead, was witnessing the pomp and circumstance surrounding the mausoleum and the throngs of people that come to get a glimpse of their beloved leader.

After the rigorous security checks, we were instructed to form a straight line outside of the building and wait. Why we had to wait, I have no idea. Once the guards deemed us patient enough, we were marched, single file, through the grounds to the mausoleum itself, with guards at the front and rear of our line. We were ushered through a series of traffic gates, past the groups of photo-snapping Asian tourists outside of the mausoleum, and permitted to cross the severe white line drawn on the road demarcating the divide between commoners and guards/dead Ho Chi Minhs. I was chastised for wearing sunglasses.

Once inside the mausoleum, which is large and made entirely of thick granite, we were led up several flights of stairs and into a quiet, dark room. We walked in a U-shaped path surrounding an elevated glass case (encircled by yet another four guards), respectfully observing the embalmed Uncle Ho inside, who lay there sadly, with his hands crossed over his chest.

Obviously the appropriate response was to sing “Uncle Ho…HO!” to the tune of Ludacris’ “Yous a Ho” once we were back outside. Though no one else seemed to think so.

After a quick lunch at a restaurant we’d read about that trains and employs Hanoi’s street kids (we feel bad about constantly refusing the beggar children, so we wanted to support them somehow), we stopped by the Hoa Lo Prison, once used by the French to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries fighting against their colonizers. You may know it as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the name lovingly bestowed upon the prison when it was later used by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war (John McCain among them). Although the majority of the building has been bulldozed to make room for an actual hotel, a small corner of the Hanoi Hilton remains as a museum and memorial.

In response to growing civil unrest in colonized Vietnam, the French decided to build massive prisons across the country and lock up any dissenters. In the end, their efforts were in vain: the Vietnamese (led by Ho) eventually overthrew the French. ‘Cause if you know anything about the Vietnamese – particularly the North Vietnamese – you understand that they will be free or they will DIE. This skinny little country on the coast of SE Asia has defeated some of the world’s great superpowers. These are the people that scalped Kublai Khan, defeated the Chinese when they attempted to invade, overthrew their European colonizers, ousted the Khmer Rouge, and defeated the Americans. You don’t mess with the Vietnamese, that’s for sure.

So the first half of the museum is dedicated to the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese incarcerated here by the French, the heinous conditions of the jail at the time, and memorializing the prisoners’ nearly daily escape attempts. One room had a display of life-sized statues crowded into a long room, chained by the leg to benches, just as the prisoners were held so many years ago. In another former cell, they had a set of leg shackles that you could try out for yourself. So Ben promptly sat on the bench and shackled himself in.

ben the prisonerHe’d been sitting there for a few minutes (I think he was comfortable?), when a group of tourists walked up to view the cell. They were surprised to see Ben chained up inside, particularly when he waved and said hello. A few minutes later, when Ben decided he was ready to be a free man again, he lifted up the leg irons and crawled out. The group of tourists gasped. “I thought he was locked in!” one man exclaimed. Did they think Ben was actually a prisoner? That they keep one inmate around as a tourist attraction? I don’t get it.

The second half of the museum is dedicated to its time holding American POWs. This half of the museum is much more upbeat. Because you know what? The prisoners had so much fun here. We saw a gallery of pictures of the American pilots: in them, they were decorating Christmas trees, sitting down to enjoy a lovely Christmas Eve feast, playing basketball together, receiving packages from home, and even getting going-away souvenir gifts from the guards upon their release. It was like a family scrapbook full of warm memories. The captions made sure to point out how well the American pilots were treated, despite “oppressing” their “southern brothers.” In fact, the spin put on the Vietnamese-American War occasionally bordered on absurd (not that American history books aren’t biased) – you’ll hear more about that when we visit the 17th parallel. But it wasn’t lost on us that this room was marked on an old blueprint to be the “interrogation room.”

John McCain's pilot suit during the Vietnam War at the "Hanoi Hilton" where he was a POW
John McCain’s flight suit display

In a neighboring room was a picture of Senator John McCain on a recent visit to the museum. Sen. McCain was held here after being captured by the Viet Cong during the war, when he served as a pilot. Also on display was a black and white image of McCain being dragged out of the water after his plane was shot down, and a huge glass case containing McCain’s actual flight suit and paraphernalia he’d been wearing upon capture (along with the recently added note that he is a candidate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election). We both noted how old McCain already looked in these forty-year-old photographs.

That was enough sightseeing for us for one day (we’re not so ambitious, folks). Because we’ve had it up to HERE with harassing moto drivers, we pointedly ignored all those crowding the exit of the museum and decided to walk home, despite the distance.

Everyone who knows Ben knows that he is prone to hyperbole, and may have thought that his initial description of Hanoi’s street life was exaggerated. But, in this case, there is simply no over-exaggeration. Walking on these streets is nearly impossible. Given the throngs of motorbikes zipping through the streets day and night, you’d hope to find walking solace on the sidewalks, right?

Wrong. The sidewalks aren’t actually sidewalks as much as they are parking lots for motorcycles. And when they’re not being used for parking, they’re used for anything and everything else. Most store merchants live and work in one tiny room or building on Hanoi’s busy streets. So, say, a family owns a restaurant in Hanoi. They set up a small, wooden bed in the back of the room for the entire family to sleep on. Towards the front of the room they put small, plastic tables and stools for their patrons. Out on the sidewalk, they set up a portable charcoal grill with a wok and a huge tub of water for washing dishes. This is their kitchen, right there on the sidewalk. Or if the merchant sells glass, for instance, he or she will be on the sidewalk, their “workshop,” blowing glass. So walking down the sidewalk is less like walking and more like dodging the countless people who are eating, cooking, welding, fixing cars, ironing, building things out of bamboo, painting, sewing …

Between the sidewalks and the streets, Hanoi is one giant obstacle course.

We did eventually make it home, where we showered and napped before heading out for some good old bia hoi and fried fish, served sizzling hot to us right in the pan.

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Apr 08 2008

A Conversation at The Green Mango

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

On the second night of our Halong Bay tour, Brittany and I were sitting with two Canadian girls at a waterfront bar called The Green Mango as closing time approached. I didn’t notice a quiet waitress slowly walk up to our table, with her hands behind her back, until she inched up directly behind me and murmured…

“Escoo me.”

“Yes?”

“Engla goo?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Engla goo?”

“I don’t understand. What was that?”

“Engla goo?”

“England? No, we’re from the United States.”

“Engla goo?”

“Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“Engla goo?”

“Do you girls know what she is asking?”

“Engla goo?”

“No.”

“Engla goo?”

“Yes?”

“Yes. Ok please.”

With this, she reveals a notebook from behind her back, and opens it to show me its contents. It quickly becomes clear that she has been working to write out the Vietnamese restaurant menu in English. She shows me a page of ingredients with names like “par me sa chee” and “bas sil” and hands me a pen. I now understand: she wants help re-writing these names into proper English. “Engla goo?” = “Is your English good?”

I indicate my agreement to try and help, and the waitress pulls up a seat next to me. For the next thirty minutes, she repeats my every word, as I write and pronounce the name of each ingredient and menu item. One page of translations somehow turns into eight, but it’s all worth it when I get my reward: “tank you ve mu.”

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Apr 07 2008

Shrouded in Mystery: Halong Bay

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

Halong Bay, VietnamFor a country that’s so skinny, Vietnam has an awful lot of UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites. Foremost among these may be the jewel of the north: ancient, foggy, beautiful Halong Bay. The Bay is a short 3-hour drive east from Hanoi, but feels like a different planet. In one morning, you can leave the cramped, noisy, motorcycle-packed city streets behind, and discover a world where jagged limestone formations rise up through the water and mist, and secret caves and grottoes wait to be explored. After seven months of travel, I don’t think that anything we’ve seen can top the natural beauty of Halong Bay. If you’re searching for ghosts, sunken pirate ships, or sunken pirate ship ghosts, THIS is where you need to look first. And if the Scots still haven’t found Nessie (we’ve been away for a while), then it’s surely because she’s moved here.

It’s only natural, then, in a place like this, that mysteries should abound during a 3-day boating adventure. And now it’s time to get out your detective notebook and goofy-looking Sherlock Holmes hat, and help us solve…

THE MYSTERY OF HALONG BAY

Day 1

8:00am: Picked up at our guesthouse in a van full of other tourists, plus our English-speaking tour guide, Tain (pronounced “Tine”).

8:01am: Tain introduces herself.
Tain: “How are you today?”
Group: “Fine.”
Tain: “Can you say louder! Fine!”
Group: “Fine!”

8:30am: Our van becomes stuck in traffic on a bridge out of Hanoi due to a traffic accident. Some members of our group climb out of the van to wander around the bridge. Tain distressed.

12:00pm: After four hours of Tain’s somewhat intelligible tales of obscure Vietnamese geographical statistics, we arrive at the docks of Halong Bay only one hour late.

12:30pm: Our three-level wooden tour boat departs for adventure, and we stake out chairs on the top deck to watch our slow progression into the thick bay fog.

1:30pm: Lunch is served on the boat. Communal bowls of rice, salad, strange meats, and a fish for all of us to pick at distract us from limestone formation spotting.

3:30pm: The boat docks at an island. Tain leads us ashore and up a short climb to the mouth of a cave. The small entrance belies an enormous interior. Tain leads us through several massive rooms, all eerily ambient with colored spotlights. We marvel at curiously shaped rock formations with names like “Buddha” and “dragon,” as well as a very distinct penis that Tain insists is “finger.” Those so inclined can decide for themselves by checking out our Flickr photos.

4:30pm: Tain leads us back to the boat, and tells us our next destination is a small fishing village.

4:35pm: Instead, the boat pulls out into the middle of the bay and puts down anchor for the night. Curious indeed.

6:00pm: Dinner is served on the boat. Strangely reminiscent of lunch. While we eat, another boat pulls up beside ours, and the staff tie the two boats together for the night. For added stability, we assume.

7:00pm: Most of our boatmates retire to bed. 7:00 is too early for me to go to sleep, so we move to the top deck to have a beer with the only two other people awake: an Irish couple named Julian and… OK, I forget her name.

8:00pm: Lamenting the jacked-up price of beer on our boat ($2!), I begin eyeing our neighboring boat. I wonder what THEIR beer costs?

8:05pm: I board the other boat. Descending the stairs to our boat’s lowest level, I am able to sneak past our boat staff, hop across to the other deck, and climb the stairs to this boat’s lounge area.

8:06pm: I startle this boat’s passengers by appearing in the lounge doorway and announcing my mission. Unfortunately, price controls are in full effect: beer is $2 here as well. Fortunately, these passengers remain awake past 7:00. I hurry back to our boat with this news.

8:10pm: I return to the other boat with Brittany, Julian, and what’s-her-name. We introduce ourselves to these night owls, and all drink over-priced beer together. Everyone agrees that Irish accents are funny.

10:00pm: We say our goodbyes, hop back to our deck, and hit the sack.

Day 2

8:00am: Breakfast is served on the boat, and consists of untoasted “toast” with jam, and one omelette that the chef has managed to split between our group of twelve by making it long and skinny, and cutting it into slices.

8:30am: A new boat pulls up beside ours, and Tain rushes Brittany and me onto it. Turns out we’re the only two of our twelve who booked the 3-day tour: our boatmates are only signed on for 2 days, and must return to Hanoi today. So we shout hurried goodbyes in mid-leap between boat decks, throwing our bags ahead of us as we jump. Why, exactly, weren’t we placed in a group of 3-dayers all along? The plot thickens.

Halong Bay, Vietnam9:00am: After a half hour of trying to bond with our new boatmates, we arrive at Cat Ba Island. We now have a new guide to replace Tain, but I never do end up understanding his name. Let’s call him Jasper. Jasper leads us to pick up some rented bicycles, and then on a ride across the island to a small village. Here we meet up with a local guide, who leads us on a walk through the forest and to a small cave.

10:45am: I buy a can of lychee juice from a roadside island market. It tastes really good, no matter what Brittany says.

1:00pm: Back to the boat, which now takes us to an isolated beach nearby. The boat staff sets up a long table with chairs on the sand, and prepares to serve us a multi-course meal.

1:15pm: One of our new boat friends (a young Thai guy) finds a sea cucumber in the water. I hold him (the cucumber) and find him to be very slimy. Which explains why I accidentally drop him on his head/ass/it’s really hard to tell with a sea cucumber.

1:30pm: Lunch is served, distracting us from further beach exploration. Sea cucumbers rejoice.

2:30pm: The boat departs from Fried Chicken Leg/Sea Cucumber Beach. Oh yeah, we had fried chicken legs for lunch.

Kayaking on Halong Bay, Vietnam3:00pm: Our boat anchors at a floating kayak rental depot. Two at a time, we grab oars and climb into kayaks. Now, the tour brochure promised that a kayak guide would take us to Monkey Island to observe monkeys in their natural habitat. Monkey Island isn’t a term you want to throw around loosely with me, so when it seems like we weren’t getting a guide there at all, but are simply being left to paddle around the kayak depot on our own, I ask Jasper about it. Jasper points vaguely into the distance and says, “Monkey Island that way. You go there and say, ‘Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!’ and all the monkeys come out!” This was met with riotous laughter from his comrades. Hint: this may be a clue to the unfolding mystery.

4:30pm: We return our kayaks to the depot, after rowing rather aimlessly around the bay for the last hour and a half.

5:00pm: Our boat docks on a different side of Cat Ba Island. We all pile into a van to be driven to our hotel for the night.

5:10pm: We arrive at the 3-star hotel promised in the brochure. We all exit the van and begin to walk up the sidewalk. Until Jasper stops Brittany and me, and tells us to return to the van, because we will be staying elsewhere. Annoyed, I ask why we’re being separated from our second group in two days. His reponse: “hotel full.” Suspicious…

5:20pm: The van drives Brittany and me to our designated guesthouse down the street. It’s nicer than most places we’ve stayed on this trip, and would normally make us both very happy. But there’s the unresolved issue of the tour brochure touting a 3-star hotel, yet Jasper not allowing us inside. And it’s quite clear that the 3-star hotel isn’t full.

5:21pm: We refuse the key to the room in this guesthouse, and tell Jasper that we were promised a 3-star hotel when we paid for this tour. He doesn’t believe us, and suggests we take up any problem with our guesthouse (where we booked this tour) back in Hanoi. This, of course, solves nothing, and we tell Jasper so. His next suggestion is for us to call our guesthouse now to talk about it. Here’s a novel idea, Jasper: why don’t YOU call our guesthouse. Jasper reluctantly agrees.

5:25pm: Jasper gets someone from our guesthouse on the phone, who insists that the brochure in the lobby says nothing about a 3-star hotel. We know he is lying, but what can we do? We swallow the bitter pill and wait to fight again another day. Tomorrow, specifically.

7:00pm: A tasteless dinner in our guesthouse lobby, because we are barred from joining the rest of our group from dinner in their hotel. We’re chest-deep in intrigue now.

Halong Bay, Vietnam9:00pm: We meet up with our group once again at a waterfront bar, The Green Mango. But everyone is tired from a long day, and we all end up returning to our beds earlier than expected.

11:00pm: Sleep.

Day 3

7:30am: Breakfast in our guesthouse (included in the tour cost) consists of one baguette each. I finish mine and ask for another, but the guesthouse staff refuses.

8:00am: We load into the van, and pick up the other members of our group at the 3-star hotel. The van drives us back to the boat docks.

8:30am: Our boat departs from Cat Ba Island, and a beautiful day follows, but it’s one that is really not worth detailing on an itinerary. It takes most of the day to return to the mainland, and we spend our time on the top deck of the boat, spotting shapes among the foggy limestone formations. We arrive back in Hanoi around 5:00pm. Today’s swimming trip (as promised in the brochure, surprisingly) never materializes. What happened?

Once safely back in Hanoi, we make a bee-line for the guesthouse where we booked our tour. We find the brochure that we were shown when booking, and sure enough, it promises a 3-star hotel, as well as a host of other activities that were never delivered. With this evidence secured, we ask our guesthouse to call a meeting with the tour company, APT Travel.

APT Travel sends Jasper as a representative, and we sit down to discuss the evidence at hand. It’s very clear that a number of things were SOLD to us, but never delivered. Here’s a look at our dossier…

  • 3-star hotel: NOT DELIVERED
  • Guided kayaking to Monkey Island: NOT DELIVERED
  • 3-hour trek through Cat Ba National Park: NOT DELIVERED
  • Visit to a floating fishing village: NOT DELIVERED
  • Swimming on Day 3: NOT DELIVERED
  • Visits to Dragon Island, Dog Island, Fighting Cock Island: NOT DELIVERED

Evidence: bulletproof. APT Travel: unconvinced. After laying out this list to Jasper, he does not deny that we did not get to do half of the activities promised in the brochure, and that we paid for up front. But when we ask for a partial refund of our money, the conversation proceeds as follows…

Jasper: “Yes, but don’t you think you got a good deal? Don’t you think you saw many things for the small amount of money you paid?”

Ben: “No, Jasper, I don’t think it’s a good deal to pay for one thing, and be delivered something clearly inferior. That is not a good deal at all.”

Jasper: “Yes, but my company does not make much money on the tour. We make very little money, it’s such a good price for you.”

Ben: “Jasper, that is not relevant.”

Jasper: “Yes, but others on the tour paid much more than you. You got the tour very cheap.”

Ben: “Jasper, that is not relevant.”

Jasper: “Yes, but do you think it is really fair to get money back when you saw many things, and others pay more for the same tour, and my company makes so little money?”

Ben: “Yes. Yes, I think it is very fair to be reimbursed for things your company tricked us into paying for.”

Jasper: “Can not do.”

In the end, Jasper and APT Travel offer us a complimentary dinner in one of their restaurants in Hanoi. We have to catch an overnight bus out of town, so we do not have time to eat at their restaurant. Nor do we really want to eat whatever vile bodily substances they will surely put into our food. But will Jasper even offer us the cash equivalent of said meal? Of course not. We leave Jasper with the belief that he has received the last laugh. What Jasper does not know is that we have a website…

Solution: APT Travel is a fraudulent tour company, and you should NEVER EVER do business with them. CASE CLOSED!

P.S. Sorry for the long delay since the last real update. Blame Cambodia! (we’ll explain later)

3 responses so far

Apr 03 2008

Still Kickin…

Published by under Vietnam

Thank you to everyone who sent e-mails over the last few days inquiring about our continued existence. I’m happy to report that we both survived five days on the back of a motorcycle! Reliable internet access has taken a geographical turn for the worse, but updates to resume ASAP, picking up where we last left off…

6 responses so far

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