I’m back early from Halong Bay because Typhoon Koppu is supposed to hit the coast of Northern Vietnam (including Halong Bay) tonight. It was like an armada this morning with dozens of these vintage Chinese junks all heading in the same direction as far as you could see. Everyone was trying to get back to the port in Halong City before heavy winds and waves hit the bay.
I left off last time at the end of my birthday (Sunday night here in Hanoi), and now it’s Tuesday night (9/15). I stayed up late on my birthday trying to post a blog before my trip to Halong Bay, and then watching a few episodes of Band of Brothers. Early the nest morning I woke up, showered, carried my big backpack to the hotel around the corner where I booked my Halong Bay tour, came back to my room & laid in the A/C for about 30 minutes, paid my bill and checked out, then went back to the hotel around the corner (Cinnamon Hotel).
When I went to drop my big backpack off I had to ring the bell for about 5 minutes because the metal doors in the front on the street were still locked at 6:50am. Accept for the 5 star international hotels, all the hotels and hostels I’ve seen in Vietnam (Hanoi and Saigon) lock up their front doors over night and the hotel staff sleep down in the lobby on the floors. When people arrive they ring a bell and the staff open up and either check them in or help them to their rooms. I’ve been wondering what would happen if there was a fire – everyone locked inside. I’ve been lucky and stayed only on the second floor in all three hotels I’ve stayed at.
The front desk guys at the hotel where I’ve been staying in Hanoi don’t speak much English and they aren’t that helpful. Chanh at my hotel in Saigon was awesome and the two guys I’ve dealt with in booking my tour of Halong Bay at Cinnamon Hotel both speak English well enough and they’re unbelievably friendly. When I arrived at 6:50am and rang the bell non-stop of 5 minutes the young guy who called around to help me book the trip came out from the back with a huge smile. His eyes and hair told me I woke him up, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He hurried to open the gates and grabbed my pack that probably outweighs him by 10 pounds, and he told me to come in a sit down. He tried to get me a cup of coffee and quickly turned on the A/C without me saying anything (bonus!).
Anyhow, after I checked out of my hotel and returned to my bag at Cinnamon, I sat there waiting for the company to pick me up. They were supposed to be there at 8am according to the kid that booked it for me, but I waited until about 8:30am before they showed up. I spent the time talking to a couple staying at that hotel. They were eating breakfast right next to me and the wife started asking me about my travels and we ended up exchanging stories for the 45-50 minutes I was in the lobby. The couple lives in Montreal (he’s from NYC and she’s originally from Belgium), and they’ve traveled to several of the places Jean and I have been – we talked about Varanasi, Agra, Cambodia, etc. They’re retired and take 1 month to see a country in depth. They’d just come in around 5am from Sapa (northern hill station in Vietnam about 10 hours by train from Hanoi).
When my van arrived I went outside and realized that I’d made a mistake. The van was about half full and when the guy opened the back door to put my big pack in I saw that everyone else only brought small day packs. Looking back on it I should have taken 2 changes of clothes out of my main pack and just brought my day pack. I went to the back row of the van and introduced myself to the three people sitting on the bench in front of me. A man, his wife and sister-in-law from New Zealand. When I heard them talking I asked if they were Australian or New Zealanders and the guy turned around in his seat and said, “Kiwis, mate!”
We talked while the van drove around Hanoi picking up a few more people: a young and frowny Russian couple, and a pair of Vietnamese cousins who live in Montreal but were in Vietnam for a wedding and taking their elderly aunts on a cruise in Halong Bay.
One of the Vietnamese cousins ended up sitting next to me for the ride and we talked the entire way. She moved to Canada last year and hated the snow, and I told her about how much I hated Vietnam’s humidity. She had been a tour guide in Hanoi for several years before marrying a Canadien guy and moving over there, so she told me all sorts of interesting things along the way. She had even traveled with dozens of tour groups to Halong Bay in the past. Currently she helps North Americans who want to invest in mid-range Vietnamese businesses. She’s like a consultant who brings her clients to Vietnam to show them around, help them decide which businesses will be profittable, helps recruit staff/workers and everything else. If you designed some product, wanted it manufactured cheaply in Southeast Asia and then exported to the US for sale, this lady would help you get that done. If you wanted to open a hotel on a beach in Hoi An, she’d help make it happen.
My travel guide and the people at the travel agencies in Hanoi tell you that Halong Bay is 2.5-3 hours outside of Hanoi, but it took us about 4-4.5 hours to get there even though our driver was swerving into the oncoming lane to pass people the entire time. We stopped for 15 minutes at some tourist trap (lacquer art, silk ties, etc), but it was nice to get out into the swampy heat and stretch for a minute.
When we got to Halong Bay it was strange because our van pulled up and a guy told the Vietnamese family (2 cousins and 2 aunts) to get out. I wasn’t sure what was going on because we were all booked with the same company, Huong Hai. I got a little nervous about what was going on; everyone else was just sitting in their van seat quietly, but I got out of the van and asked what I should do. The little guy that had asked the Vietnamese family to get out showed me a list and asked if my name was on it and I pointed to my name and he told me to wait outside the van. He also asked the Kiwis to get out, and then they opened the back of the van and asked us to point out our luggage. This little guy picked up my pack and the Kiwi guy said something like “Jeez mate, how long are you stayin’?” I shoulda left that thing in Hanoi…
Tags were put on our bags and they were taken away and we were taken into an air conditioned building (I’m keenly aware of which buildings have A/C at this point). This big room was already 60% full of other people sitting around waiting. A guy came up to me and waited me to point out my name again and then he told me to wait for 20 minutes because more people were coming, then he put a little plastic card on my table and said I’d be on Junk #2. The Kiwis were on #3, but the Vietnamese girl I sat with on the drive over came up and said we were both on #2 together and she said “You are lucky. We are lucky. We are on upgraded boat and it is very nice.” I thought to myself that perhaps I was going to get what was sold to me. I’d paid the extra money for the nicest trip (boat, food, service, etc), so it was good to hear from the girl that used to lead tours that this was a great boat. Lucky it wasn’t – I paid for that luck with VISA.
Once again I got nervous after someone came in and got the Vietnamese family and they all walked outside. I knew I was supposed to be on their boat, so why hadn’t they asked me to come outside too? Again I got up and asked and they acted all surprised and said “Oh yes! You come too!” It seemed kind of disorganized, but a good sign was that my bag was already on this little pontoon boat that we boarded to take us out to our junk…
More on my trip to Halong Bay in the next post because this one is already getting long. Tomorrow I’ll be running errands in Hanoi and hoping that this typhoon (the Asian name for a hurricane) doesn’t spoil my plans to fly to Laos in a few days.
Here are some pictures from Saigon and Hanoi. I got a shot in Saigon of the sunglass touts that bug the crap out of you, a shot of wedding photos being taken in front of Saigon’s main post office, my (very) cold beer at Milwaukee on a (very) hot day, me trying to see Ho Chi Minh and then stilt house overlooking a little pond, and some street scenes in Hanoi (people making funerary floral arrangements, giving haircuts on the street, etc).