Sunday, 7 November 2010

Hunting in Halong Bay - Halloween in Hanoi


I have been thinking for a long time about how best to introduce this third publication in my travel blog. But no other words fit the bill. The past two weeks have left me; more intoxicated than I have ever been; trembling from physical exhaustion; and with a constant yearning for just one more hour's sleep - but they have been, quite possibly, the most epic two weeks of my life.

Where to begin?

So I last left you with the words that I was off to Halong Bay (for the first time) with the group I journeyed North with. This would have been fantastic, for the scenery is truly stunning, had I not been running around the boat for 3 hours, anxiously wondering where the hell my camera was. Turns out it was on the bus, specifically where I was sitting.

Anyway, having spent the night on the coast, where my curiosity as to how much an actual massage cost left me being chased by prostitutes on mopeds, I woke up relatively refreshed for travels onwards to Hanoi. Here, I spent a couple of days doing the typical tourist thing of sightseeing and drinking cheap Bia Hois for the pricey sum of 12p.

Two sights are worth mentioning; The first was when I went to visit good ole' Uncle Ho's (Ho Chi Minh) Mausoleum. The building truly is impressive, and whilst Ho Chi Minh was not actually there due to him being embalmed alongside Mao, Stalin and Lenin in Russia, it was easy to see how much this nation revered their great revolutionary. The ironic thing is, it turns out, that Ho Chi Minh did not actually want to be canonised in such a way. True to the communist ideal, it actually went against basic Marxist principle for one 'leader' to elevate himself beyond the proletariat in such a way. But hey, I have already written a similar essay on this at uni so if you truly are interested, which I highly doubt, I'll hook you up. ^_~

Much to my amusement, there are also these white lines that create a deliberate box around the building. I took no notice of these and immediately after stepping across, I had some seriously pissed off looking guards whistling and waving at me, and I do not mean in the way a builder would holler at a passing female. In all honesty, I thought I was going to be shot, let alone go to prison.

The second sight was less eventful but was equally bizarre; the Water Puppet Theatre. This art form, it seems, has some degree of cultural heritage in Vietnam, and whilst I enjoyed it, I could not help smirking because all I thought of was that scene in Team America where Kim Jong Il hosts a big party. I mean that with all due respect, Vietnam.

After a particularly messy evening which left me stumbling through the congested roads of Hanoi completely inebriated the next morning, I had to say some very slurred goodbyes to my travel companions. It was time to move on to my new accomodation - the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in Ma May. The adventure began here.

I previously mentioned that a very good friend of mine, Russ, was going to meet me in Vietnam. You would think that after a few months apart and a rendezvous in a strange land would cause a great scene. I was also anticipating this. Instead, I woke up in an alcohol-induced delerium in my dorm room to find that very guy just stood there. It was one of my more surreal experiences to say the least. Not because I was finally meeting up with my was-to-be travel companion, but just because it was so... normal. No dramatic greetings or flailing arms, just an "alright mate" and a brief, but well meant man-hug.

We caught up in front of an Irish guy who realised he just was not going to get to sleep at that point in time, and instead he joined in the banter. He was one of the many people who indulged us in some hilarious story about his friend who managed to literally fall down the 'Mushroom Mountain' at Ko Phangan, twice. I was crying.

It took no time whatsoever for the pair of us to decide to set sail on the hostel's renowned Halong Bay tour. We had already become a big hit with the hostel staff (more on you guys later), and if the social life there was anything to go by, we knew we were in for something special. Please note that photos from around this time are missing as I am using a new memory card. I will grab some I've been tagged in over the next couple of days.

Fast-forwarding a four hour bus ride to the Halong Bay dock, I instantly knew who our tour-mates were for our uniform consisted of none other than brightly coloured sombreros. We must have looked completely ridiculous to every other tourist there, but little did they know that they were missing out.

Our first night was to be spent sleeping onboard a particularly large junk that somehow fit all 40 of us and in all honesty, the day is a blur. One minute we were jumping off the top for which those that made a particularly bad collision with the water would earn free beer (it is surprising just how tempting such an offer is). The next, we were kayaking to some beach which was apparently 'nearby'. It would have been quicker for Russ and I to have rowed to Japan due to the zig-zagging we did. I blame you Russ.

After some competitive beach football (I scored a hat-trick) and lazing on the beach, I was beginning to get to know my ship mates and after another particularly arduous kayak (my god it can be a pain in the arse), we indulged in a much needed seafood dinner. Unfortunately, it is from here that my memory becomes, for a select few of us decided to sneak away to a bedroom and drink prohibited self-bought alcohol. One of the group (Rob, the Moustached Wonder) definitely had the equivalent of moonshine for it tasted strangely of Oreos and was definitely not legit. Suffice to say, by the time we were playing Ring of Fire, I had absolutely no clue what was going on and apparently spent the rest of the night in a girl's vest top pissing in bins directly outside toilets and occasionally throwing up. All signs of a damn good night.

Having been awoken by a particularly annoying Vietnamese guy, our group were transferred over to Castaway Island for which we all pretty much spent the day recovering on the beach followed by a particularly intense Banana Boat ride. I am not sure if it is because we were the last ones to have a go, or that our squad were all lads, but Tom the Skipper certainly wanted to hurt us. Trust me; Being told as the front man to stand up and run down to the back whilst shooting across at full speed is particularly nerve wracking. It also did not help that we had spent the past hour talking about shark movies and at one point I was left stranded solo, kicking below the surface particularly hard that time.

Something happened that day that I will prefer to keep as a story to tell in person, but in short, a good lot of us bonded together to form THE HUNTERS - an incredibly cool group of people who I will most definitely be making an effort to stay in touch with. I will however mention that the evening was reminiscent of The Great Escape.

I do not know why but after another intense bout of drinking games, I got an idea into my head that I simply had to steal a boat. In retrospect this was utterly stupid, but it just felt right at the time. In the rowing boat, I got caught twice, but at this point I realised that the Vietnamese guards could not be everywhere and so I legged it down the beach to grab a kayak. Before I knew it, some guy with a torch was heading straight down the beach towards me and I ended up cowering in one of the many beach huts, only to return to Russ who had been watching the whole drama. And this was not even the grand finale.

At about 4 AM, I decided that I really needed a bottle of water. The bar had closed but I thought that if I left a note under the bar-top glass, technically it is not stealing. As soon as I stepped into the darkness I could sense a presence in the air. But I was thirsty. Having carefully stepped over the bar, I quietly opened the fridge only to immediately hear and see the most angry Vietnamese man I have ever met coming after me with some kind of bat. I darted off, half grinning, half scared for my life, and hid under my mosquito net as I watched his legs and torchlight scour the area. I will never try and take an Asian man's goods again, stealing or not. It was bloody hilarious though.

Far too soon however, the tour had to come to an end, and our very hungover group set sail and boarded a bus back to Hanoi. But the chaos was not to end there.

Immediately upon arrival, 15 of us decided to sign up for the ominous 'Snake Village Tour'. The title gives the impression of some kind of tranquil safari. In reality the night involves; a course of around seven snake dishes (including their penis); killing your own snake, ripping out its beating heart and downing it with a shot of rice wine and bile; and as many rice wine shots as you can manage. To be honest, I thought I handled it all pretty well despite nearly slicing the snake in half and being told that after being asked to boogie in the after-club I responded by staring at some motorbikes for five minutes. However, the next day I spent the morning in a very drunken blur confessing my guilt about snake killing to Dominique, one of the lovely hostel staff whilst I devoured about eight breakfast baguettes.

Sadly, I had to say my first goodbyes to some of my new-found comrades (Russ included) and the next three days were spent literally laying out on a bean bag with hope of some form of recovery. Progress was slowed by constant temptations of "just a few" with the hostel staff, dorm mates and tour crew. But at least I had some kind of rest before Halloween. Jeeeeeeeez.

The night itself cannot justly be described in words but can best be summarised as follows: -

  • My group won a pretty damn good prize for the best costumes - another Halong Bay Tour. We went as none other than the Channel 4 news team from Anchorman but because three of us had already been, we thought it only fair to offer the prize to the Brick and Veronica Corningstone of the group.
  • I spent the grand total of 60,000 Dong (two pounds) for I got free beer all night. 

I kid you not. Everyone was in such high spirits and the atmosphere was enhanced by the effort that the hostel put into its party. Let alone the fact that we were spending Halloween in VIETNAM of all places! The locals simply did not know what hit them, and I woke up in the early hours of the morning as temporary public enemy numero uno with the staff, which I would prefer to explain in person. Ha. Sorry Dan. 

Beaming after such a successful evening and a hilarious post-night, hungover discussion with my dorm mates, I concluded that it was time to leave Hanoi before the city sapped me dry, finance and health-wise. Thus, some very cool Canadian forest fire fighters, the 'Hunters' and myself headed down South on some horrible contraption called a 'sleeper bus' - destination, Hoi An.

In reality, the bus was not too bad because I discovered a little thing called Valium. Furthermore, I was hypnotized by the most sparkly show I have ever seen - a bizarre Vietnam pop-concert. The one back to Hanoi where I am currently waiting for my flight to BKK however, was an entirely different story. 

Some of you will be wondering why I  returned to Hoi An when I had already been there. In all honesty, I was simply glad to get out of a city, and this town is particularly charming. However, I did not get the R&R I needed at all because, of course, there are bars in Hoi An. One night in particular involved me being chased by two Vietnamese security guards, completely naked, after half the club decided that jumping in the sub-zero pool was a good idea. 

My mum will hate this, but I did however, get to ride a motorbike for the first time in my life which was fairly chilled out, if not for the initial flat tire that left me skidding all over the place. My Canadian escort Ben, Sonja (whom, it turns out, lives very close to where I live) and I ventured to a certain natural wonder called Marble Mountain. It was here that I saw some particularly inspiring views, despite the torrential rain which only seemed to add to the experience. 

Eventually though, the remaining Hunters (or Channel 4 News team, whichever you fancy) had to disassemble, and I was, admittedly quite sad about this eventuality. But such is the way of travelling, and I have a feeling we shall reunite in the not so distant future. As for the Canadians, this was not as such a parting, for we will be meeting on November 21st. The Full Moon Party...

God help me and ensure that I do not wake up in Cambodia or something. 

And so it is here, back in Hanoi with my darling hostel staff-friends, that I find myself anticipating my next adventure in Thailand. ETA 11:30 am, November 8th, 2010.

There is so much left unsaid that to even attempt to put my travels into prose would create an anthology, and let's be honest, this is long enough already. Besides; Some things have significantly more impact when spoken about in person. And of course, some memories I will be keeping to myself. ^_~ 

However I will provide a photograph that shall aid you in your inference...

As for my final impression on Vietnam?

Vietnam is a country that is drastically different depending on where you go. For many, this offers insurmountable opportunity for diverse experiences. For others, this means that there is no particular 'season' that one should travel there. My only regret is that I did not find the time to head towards the Mekong to get a a bit more of an authentic feel. However, instead I chose to take in the nightlife of what truly is an Asian 'Tiger' as economists say, driving towards development and progressive tourism. In many ways then, Vietnam and its people are leaving the past behind them. After all, and correct me if I am wrong, this is the longest that a war has not been fought here. As difficult and wrong as it is to make generalisations, there is validity in the common traveller's sentiment that the people are out to get your money. And why not? Us tourists, travellers, pilgrims, whatever you want to call yourself, earn significantly more than 90% of the population. But at what concessions? 

After all, the Vietnamese, whom to this day adulate their revolutionary leader, are supposed to be leaders on the communist frontier. But such a facade is hard to believe amidst the corporate Highland coffee chains, buzzing night life, and expensive beauty salons. Ultimately to myself, Vietnam, a country I loved, is a nation of contradictions. Where else will you find RC cars racing around skateboard-wielding children, soccer-star teens, and coffee-cup wielding yuppies, all under the watchful gaze of Lenin?

A huge shout-out goes towards my Gap-crew, my shipmates, my fellow Hunters and Huntresses (you know who you are), Gary Payne, McKarley Culkin, the Canadians, the Channel 4 News Team, my dorm mates (Lewis, Gareth, etc), Sonja, the Swedes, in fact, just about everyone I have met so far. And who could forget the lovely Jenny, Dominique, Romy, Dan and all the other hostel staff who had to contend with my drunken state at night, and me in my pants in the day. I have met some incredibly cool people and I wish you all the best with wherever you end up. We'll meet again. 

Dam biet.

As for you readers, see you in Thailand.

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