Ha Long Bay

I had had my pho on the street the night before, which gave me a feeling of security. So again, I tried something new for breakfast. I had banh cuon with nuoc mam chua ngot . In other words, a rice flour steamed pancake with a sweet sauce.

Chuck Norris came very early this morning because it was a long trip to Ha Long Bay. We were a little dubious about this trip, thinking that maybe it was a bit long for a day trip. Ha Long Bay is known as one of the most beautiful resorts in Vietnam, and we had budgeted two full days in our plan.

After driving an hour or two we got to the end of the road. They had wanted to pave an entirely new road between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, but somewhere in the middle they ran out of money. The rest of the road was rubble, and there was dust everywhere. Everyone riding on motorcycles had cloths tied over their nose and mouth, and everything – the bikes, the houses, the signs – was covered with dust. There were new houses along where the road was going to be, and still might be in the future. I'm sure these people got a very good deal for buying early, but by now they're probably sick to death of dusting.

We got to Ha Long Bay at around 11 AM. We got on the boat, and this time Chuck Norris joined us. We were still pretty sore about the snake restaurant, and even though we had hoped we would get another driver, he wasn't sore at us. After a lot of post-mortem discussion, we had given Manh the benefit of the doubt. He's a nice kid, and probably wasn't a conspirator.

As soon the boat started and we were out in the bay, we were followed by another boat. There are hawkers everywhere in Vietnam, and there's no end to their imagination. These people were hawking fish, however, which piqued our interest. This would make a nice supplement to the lunch they make on the boat. The one problem was that they wanted $50 for what they were going to give us! They rode alongside our boat, there was a lot of yelling back and forth. This time Manh joined in. It was contentious, and the bargaining went on for almost a half-hour. Finally,  they ponied up the goods. Duyen and Manh had just got us a huge load of crabs and prawns for $7.

On these boat trips they serve you lunch to pass the time between you and your destination. The cook added our catch to the meal he already had for us. We had crabs and prawns, eaten with salt, pepper and lime juice. There was fish with tomatoes, ginger and coriander, green beans with bacon. It was a great lunch, and we were stuffed.

As we got near the cave, we saw floating villages on the water. It's amazing, the places that people will live. Even more amazing, there were TV aerials on top of the floating houses. We got out of the boat to look at the cave. They told us we were early and would have to wait for the tour. We decided we'd go on our own. We thought we had just seen it all with the floating villages, but climbing the stairs that went up the mountain to the cave, we had yet another surprise. There was a small cave with a curtain in front of it. There, inside, was an apartment, with a stereo and tacky lacquer-and-glass furniture. I would have taken a picture, but there were people inside who were still snoring away at noon.

The cave itself was large. It had been paved, and there were colored lights shining at the wall for effect. It looked exactly like Guilin in China, and our guide confirmed that the Chinese had lent a hand in turning these caves into tourist attractions. I liked these caves better. The ones in China were extremely overdone, with loads of lights and even a CD with a skip in one part of the cave. This one was simple. It was also nice because we were ahead of the tour. We spent about 45 minutes in the cave, came out, and were informed that the tour was finished and we would go back.

This was pretty rude. We had payed for the whole day, it wasn't even 2:00, and we were being shunted back to Hanoi. Were there any other caves? Yes, but we would have to pay extra. Again, a lot of back and forth. We paid a bit extra, and took slim comfort in the fact that the people on the boat would get the money, not the company that employed them. The cave on the other side, we were informed, was Paradise. We wouldn't be disappointed.

It was a long trip, and this is when Duyen explained to Manh that we were really burned up about the snake restaurant, and that it was a really stupid thing to do. To Manh's credit, he did feel bad about it. If he didn't understand why it wasn't a great thing to do, he did least realize that it got us mad, and for at least this reason he was sorry. So we finally got to put that one to rest.

The cave that was supposed to be Paradise turned out to be named "Paradise Cave", and actually it was nothing special. If you've seen one cave with lights, you've seen them all, but we didn't have the energy to get annoyed. At least we'd passed the afternoon, and it was a good time to go back to Hanoi.

We made the reverse journey as the sun was going down. There were kids playing football in the dark, in the dust. The power was out in the village because they only get electricity on certain nights, and there were tilted Vietnamese tour buses with luggage strapped to the roof, waiting in the ditch for help. In other words, it was a typical evening in northern Vietnam. We got back to Hanoi with still a little time left over before our trip to the puppet theater.

North Vietnam has a tradition of water puppets, which is pretty original for anywhere in the world. When the rice fields were flooded, someone got the idea that you could have a show with floating, wooden puppets. Hanoi has a puppet theater with a pool on stage, and it's great entertainment. There was a story of a farmer, his ducks and a fox, and it was really done well. Even the plants were puppets – they bloomed! There was music and singing, and all in all, it was a great show. It lasted about an hour, and when the show was over we were back on the street again, right near the lake.

That night, Vietnam had played a match with Singapore. We were told that if Vietnam won, there would be a motorcycle race around the lake. Every night is a motorcycle race all over Hanoi, but we held on to the information. When we got out of the theater, there was pandemonium. There were motorcycles eight or nine deep riding around on the road, with people on the side screaming and cheering. Vietnam is a country of deeply football-crazy people, and this was the least they could do to thank the team for winning. The race was slated to go on all night. 

It's difficult enough to cross the street on a good day. This time it would prove almost impossible. We walked way, way, out of the way in an effort to cross, and finally prevailed. We sat down at a cafe, very tired, very amused, and very happy to be in the middle of the workings of a place like Hanoi. This was turning out to be a great trip.