Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The end of the trip

I've been in a funk, but if Zelda can blog again, I can too. The weather here in Houston has been brutal. Judging by what I've seen on TV, it's been brutal where you live too. The economy and its impact on my income has been depressing as well. It's been really hard for me to care about anything, which has put a bit of a strain on the relationship with tattoo-girl. But I finished my extreme patio makeover project two weekends ago and am pretty happy with the results. I've got before & after photos, if I ever get around to posting photos of anything ever again. But I should finish what I started and tell you about the last few days of my vacation. I'm just going to barrel through this to get it over with, so it's long and a bit rambling. I won't be offended if you don't read the whole thing.

If you're planning to go to Hanoi, don't go on a Monday. All the museums and temples are closed. It was kind of unavoidable for my trip, so it turned out to be a whole day of shopping. I managed to find a map for my collection and we got the last of the gifts we needed for friends & family. I collect old (antique) maps of the places I visit and I've now filled a large wall of my townhome with framed reminders of my vacations. In Vietnam, it was extremely difficult to explain what I was looking for. Nobody understood that I wanted an antique map because, to them, if I looked at it, I would get lost trying to find my way around. The idea that it might be art was lost on them.

Tuesday morning we got picked up by the van from Paloma Cruises, a tour operator with whom I had pre-arranged transportation. We dashed around Hanoi picking up three other couples, then headed east out of town to the coast. Just a few minutes out of town we got stuck in a traffic jam for nearly an hour. Another hour later we stopped at the halfway point to stretch our legs and (hopefully, they thought) buy stuff from the factory for disabled persons. Vietnam is like China in this regard: If you arrange a tour with a local tour operator, you will be brought to a shop from whom the tour operator gets a kickback. The drive from Hanoi to Halong City was interesting, since I got to see more of 'rural' Vietnam. From the safe, air-conditioned confines of the van, it looks like a pretty tough place to live. We passed through the town from which tattoo-girl's father is said to hail. I snapped photos, she shrugged. Halong City was not the destination either though, and we passed through town down to docks. It looks like a cute little seaside town though.

We boarded a boat tender and porters slung our luggage. Our little boat puttered out of the "marina" (a loose interpretation if ever there was one) and into Halong Bay proper. Cruise operators here work a little differently than your typical Carnival cruise, but it's not a bad operation. Each ship has two tenders, one that operates between the ship and the marina, and another used during the day while the ship is being restocked. As the tender approached the ship, we were blown away by how cool this Chinese-style junk really was. Only 4-decks tall (if you include the open-air topdeck) with only 16-cabins, this is an "intimate" experience. After getting settled and receiving our complimentary drink (the one and only free drink onboard) the ship puttered out, leaving civilization behind. I can't say we left "land" behind because Halong Bay is dotted with thousands of little islands. It defies description, so if you can't wait for me to upload pictures, go to flickr.

We had lunch onboard the ship which was still cruising away from the mainland. A few hours later, the ship slowed and we all boarded the tender for the first afternoon's activity. The tender delivered us to one of the floating fishing villages that dot the bay. These villages are little more than a dozen shacks atop floating platforms, lashed together. The villagers spend the majority of their lives here, fishing and trading, never going on solid ground. This particular village was part of a pearl farming operation, so there was, of course, a hard sales pitch for pearl jewelry. From the village, we transfered into even smaller rafts for a tour around a few of the nearby islands, rowed by the local women (girls, really). Our rower was barely 90 pounds and couldn't have been more than 17 years old, but she maneuvered our little boat expertly around the islands and into a few of the naturally formed caves. She didn't speak English, so there was no real conversation. Tattoo-girl asked her a few questions about the bay (how deep, etc) in Vietnamese, but the girl wasn't very talkative. The whole experience was fun, but we felt a little guilty about this tiny girl doing all the work (also the reason why we never took rickshaws in the cities). Back on board the ship, a brief eggroll rolling demonstration, then a 7-course dinner that was among the best we had in the country. Unfortunately, it was probably 90-degrees in the dining room and the crew pretended not to understand us pointing at the air-conditioning units and sweating all over everything. After dinner we quickly retreated to our cabin, which had separate a/c more than adequate to cool us off. I went back out after dinner to do a little star gazing and did a little squid-fishing off the back of the boat with the crew, but I didn't catch anything. Our cabin was tight, but comfortable and we slept well.

The next day, we boarded the tender as the ship sailed back to the mainland to drop off yesterday's passengers and pick up today's and more supplies. The tender took us to a different village where we then boarded kayaks and did the paddling ourselves. As we paddled out of this village, the little children came out to cheer us on. Tattoo-girl later told us that, in additional to shouting "hello" (the only English word they knew) they were also calling us "fatty." Kayaking was incredible, as we went into a cave that passed through an island and opened up to a hidden cove, only accessible at low tide. We paddled around for a couple of hours, sweating and burning, but still marveling at the scenery. We eventually made it back to the tender, which then set off across the bay in search of a lunch spot. In an L-shaped crook of islands, we found a private and secluded beach. There were 3 couples, our tour guide, and two other crew members. The guide and crew set up a table & chairs right on the beach and proceeded to grill up an awesome, multi-course lunch of fresh seafood. Before and after, we swam in the emerald green water, picking shells out of the sand with our toes. After lunch, the tide was rising and our beach was disappearing. We helped the crew pack everything back on the tender and by the time we got everything stowed, our private beach was gone. Then began a long, slow cruise back to where the ship would be meeting us for the evening. Another fantastic multi-course dinner, though not quite as hot as the previous one, and we passed out in our cabin.

Our last day aboard the ship, and our last day in the country, started (after breakfast) with us transferring to the tender again, this time to visit a large natural cavern in one of the larger islands of the bay. This involved a little hiking and stair-climbing, but the views did not disappoint. Back to the ship for lunch and to pack, then the tender took us back to the marina, where the vans were waiting to take us back to Hanoi, after the requisite stop for shopping again.

Tattoo-girl and I could have stowed our luggage and had one more evening in Hanoi, but we really weren't interested. Hanoi had been a pretty big disappointment for us, so we were just as happy to go to the airport and wait for our departing flight. The first leg of the trip home was an overnight flight from Hanoi to Tokyo, with a 9-hour layover. This wasn't unintentional, since I wanted to take the train into the city and have another look around. I was in Tokyo in 2002 and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to sharing it with someone else. We arrived around 6am and breezed through customs. We took the express train to the city and the difference between 1st-world and 3rd-world asia couldn't be more obvious. Tokyo Station was a lot bigger than I remembered, but when we finally made it to street level, we emerged to 70-degree weather under bluebird skies, another HUGE difference from Vietnam. From the street, looking back at Tokyo Station, I noticed that construction completely covered the Marunouchi side of the building, obscuring the beautiful red-brick Victorian facade! Additionally, the East Garden to the Imperial Palace was closed on Friday, so one of my favorite places in the world was off-limits. Stunned by both of these fails, we walked around the perimeter of the palace a bit too long, wasting valuable time. We rode the subway line around town a bit but our layover was over all too quickly. We grabbed some dumplings to go at an enormous underground grocery store for lunch and headed back to the airport. I regret not having planned this part of the trip at all.

Neither tattoo-girl or I loved our trip to Vietnam. It was hot, dirty, and generally uncomfortable. We never felt unsafe or ripped off, but it just didn't live up to our expectations, which is nobody's fault but our own, I suppose, for having such expectations in the first place. When we first came home, we actually kind of hated it. But the more time that passes, the more we're both able to appreciate how unique and exotic it really was. Most tourists that we met were going from North to South, but I think our South to North itinerary was better. Saigon is an easier place to "ease into" than I think Hanoi would have been, and by the time we got to Hanoi we were a little more hardened. However, I freely admit that I tried to cram too much into the trip and that 3 weeks was just too long at one go. I thought my "sampler platter" was a pretty good approach, but that didn't turn out well. We should have focussed on one or two cities, saving the rest for another later trip. We did not enjoy our time in Hoi An or Hanoi, and were so-so about Hue. We enjoyed and would recommend Nha Trang, Dalat, and Halong Bay. Saigon is the lesser of two evils for getting into and out of the country.

But will there be other trips to Vietnam? Again, if you asked me when I first came home, I would have said absolutely not. Now, there is a distinct possibility. Personally, I would prefer to see the rest of the world first, before returning to places that I loved, let alone those I merely tolerated. But tattoo-girl's elderly father has decided that he wants to move back to Vietnam to die there and has been making arrangements towards that end. Should my relationship with her continue, I foresee a trip to bury / pay respects to him.

Up next: The photos I've been promising for over 2 months...