My backpacking trip to south east Asia started in Hanoi where i stayed at the Central Backpackers Hostel. This was a great little hostel where for $5 a night you got free breakfast in the morning and free beer in the evening. I originally planned on spending 3 or 4 days in Hanoi, because the Lonely Planet makes it sound like the most amazing city in SE Asia, but in reality you can see most of the tourist highlights in a day. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you the main attraction of northern Vietnam is Ha Long bay, so after one day in Hanoi and many glasses of free beer making me impulsive I made the drunken decision at about midnight to book my trip to Halong for the next morning.
Now Halong bay itself is quite spectacular, but it is swarming with tourists. Visiting here 5 or 10 years ago would have been amazing as you would have basically had it to yourself and the fisherman. But now there is literally hundreds upon hundreds of boats clogging the harbour on the mainland and the bay.
Perhaps the funniest part of the first day was our tour guide on the bus to Halong city. He was a young and skinny wide-eyed Vietnamese man which made him always look startled and shifty. I referred to him as Captain Handsome after he told us “My name is Dat, but beautiful ladies can call me handsome”, and then a bit later in the day when I said our group needed a name he said “We are group handsome!”. Now Captain Handsome’s grasp of English wasn’t the greatest which caused a few amusing moments, like when we were being given our rooms on the boat for the first night he read out several names and said “you come with me” and then when they stood up and started to follow he turned around and shouted “you sit down!”.
After a day of cruising around the bay, kayaking, visiting “surprising cave” (which Captain handsome tried to say was named because of the erect phallic rock formation illuminated with a garish red light, and was incidentally his favourite part of the cavern), and jumping off the roof of the boat for a swim we had dinner. Here was a great example of Vietnamese hospitality service. After our plates were unceremoniously dumped on our tables the boat staff sat around in the corners texting on their phones and proceeded to glare a us in annoyance if we “troubled” them by trying to get service at the bar. Our boat wasn’t much of a party boat, in part due to 3 English girls, known as the whiners, who just complained about everything and did a good job of killing the mood, so most of us turned in early with plans to get up at 5 am to see the sunrise. But before sleep there was some commotion in the corridors, which I found out later was 2 of the whiners saying they could here rats beneath the floor and refusing to sleep in their room. They spent the night up in the main dining room sleeping on chairs. I woke up at 5am only to find the sky clouded over and raining so I tried to go back to sleep. This proved to be difficult because our air conditioner was set to 18C and there was no remote to adjust it, and I spent the rest of the morning huddled in a fetal position under my one sheet shivering in our icy room.
For day 2 our group was split up and those who were only doing 1 night headed back to the mainland while the rest of us got off on Cat Ba island. The 3 whiners were thankfully amounts those who left, and so was Captain Handsome. We met our new guide Tea (or hot tea as he said for this cold wet weather) and at this point it was pouring rain. After some shrewd bargaining with a little old lady selling ponchos at the dock, I became the proud owner of essentially a giant blue garbage bag full of holes. But the rain didn’t dampen our spirits and we had a laugh filled morning cycling round the island in our leaking garbage bag ponchos, the forested sparsely populated island looked a lot like Jurassic Park in the rain. I half expected to have a pack of those frilled neck spitting dinosaurs ambush us as we cruised along. At this point our group consisted of myself, some Brits Sophie, Simon and Carla, a Canadian/Dutch couple Patrick and Jasmine, two German ladies (one of whom had had her white Haviana’s mysteriously stolen the night before) and a younger German girl Eva and her crazy grandpa Otto.
In the afternoon the rain cleared up and we headed to Monkey Island where we were staying the night. As it turned out we also of a free upgrade to the luxury bungalow ls because of all the whining the whiners did the night before (and they weren’t there to enjoy it). Sophie, Carla, Simon and I went for a swim at our private beach (which was full of labouring Vietnamese men trying to repair damage from a typhoon that happened a few weeks earlier), and Hot Tea decided to join us, stripping down to his tighty whiteys and paddling out. We made sure to get out before Tea so as not to witness his now transparent trunks.
The afternoon turned out to be eventful. Tea took us on a hike over to the other side of the island to see the moniker which give the island it’s name. And many monkeys did we see, some of us a little too close. While we all stood around going ooooo, aaah young Eva decided to get a little too close to some of the monkeys trying to get a nice photo. Two of the critters swarmed her legs pulling at her trying to get at the water bottle in her hand, and as shrieked and panicked one of them took a bite out of her leg, which I happened to catch the exact moment of on photo. Even crazier was when we were walking back getting tailed by a monkey. Most of the group had gotten ahead and bringing up the rear wad Otto followed by myself then Sophie and Eva. At one point the monkey following us climbed through the trees above us and dropped down on a rock right next to Otto. I stood there staring in shock as Otto glared at the monkey, which started jumping up and down screeching and swinging it’s arms above it’s head teeth out and ready to go. Otto, a crazy old German who’s not to be intimidated by a mere animal started getting in monkey’s face and the situation kept escalating until Otto took a swing at the monkey which then ran back up a tree screeching curses a as. Eva who was around the corner missed all of this as her grandpa got revenge for her monkey bite.
After all the monkey mayhem we headed back the beach for the advertised “Floating bar” happy hour. This turned out to be us floating in old plastic rings with little plastic cups as Tea paddled around in a kayak with a bucket filled up of some sort of punch. Not quite what we had imagined, but in the context of all the other absurdities of the trip it seemed appropriate.
After a night on the island involving a delicious BBQ, many long island iced teas, and some karaoke, we headed back to Cat Ba to get on our boat back to the mainland. As we were boarding our boat the German with the missing footwear spotted a girl who was on our boat the first day but didn’t stay the night wearing her white Havianas.