Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 14th September 2004

Another early start on Sunday morning, to wait around for the minibus to take me on the three hour journey to Ha Long Bay City. It turned up just after 8:00am, and then jostled through the city picking up a few other tourists. I was kept in suspense over who my companions on the boat would be - the bus picked up a couple of Australian girls and a handful of young English men (now I realise that Alan Partridge quotes are only funny when they come from my friends and how we must irritate those around us), but only a few minutes after they were picked up, the bus dropped them off at another bus onto which they were transferred. As it turned out, I was fortunate - the tour was to be a very small one, with only me and a young couple called Li-An and Wilde travelling together. They were not, as the latter's name may suggest, a couple of vacationing performers in the adult movie industry, but two residents of Hong Kong, so we had lots in common and they proved to be friendly and easy company.

Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese woman called Huong. She was chatty and informative and told us that she was actively looking for an Italian boyfriend, since she had seen Italian men on television and thought them very handsome. She was even taking lessons in Italian.

We had a huge boat to ourselves - there were more in the crew than tourists. The boat chugged off to Ha Long Bay, stopping at some caves full of the usual stalagmites and stalactites. Here Huong asked the first of many questions prefaced with the phrase, 'In your country...'.

'In your country do you have caves like this?' Before I could answer, in a mocking tone, she sang out 'Noooo!'

After a couple of hours the boat stopped in a huge natural amphitheatre, the surroundings formed by the various giant limestone karsts rising out of the water, each one wearing a scraping of foliage up the sides and on top. Despite the popularity of the place with tourists, it is large enough to mean that the boat weighed anchor in a place of relative isolation, with only two or three other boats sitting in the distance.

I jumped into the warm water and splashed around for a while, always with the slight fear that some creature from the deep would awaken, grab my ankle and pull me under. But in fact the only jaws I needed to fear were those of the young dog on board. I suffer from something that I have christened 'Stella Syndrome'. This consists of the ability to wind-up dogs to the extent that after my good-natured taunting of them, they won't leave me alone, and constantly pester me to play with them. I had wound-up the dog on the boat, and he mucked around with me, jumping up and grabbing my hands with his mouth. Then I went for a swim, and each time I climbed back on board he was waiting for me and followed me, gently biting my legs and pulling at my shorts.

After swimming I went kayaking, paddling off behind distant rocks and through the various floating villages. In the early evening I stopped paddling and drifted for a while, and watched the sun set behind a clump of rock. As I did a flock of exotic white birds with long yellow beaks flew in front of me and the moment was perfect.

We had dinner on board the boat. As we sat down at the table a huge insect careered around the light bulb and the food. The dog leapt at it, twisting his body to catch it in his jaws. He was dragged away by one of the crew, and for some reason soundly thrashed, while another member of the crew simply stretched out his hand and caught the flying menace. The dinner was pleasant, but we were vaguely disturbed by the cockroaches scuttling around the benches. Wilde said that previously she hadn't been sure what a cockroach was, which surprised me since she came from Hong Kong.

Later I headed to my cabin, a cosy little wooden box, with a poster of Britney Spears on the wall. I doused myself in Jungle Juice as earlier I had seen bugs scurrying off under the beds when I entered, and identified red ants and what I thought was a bed bug on the bed I didn't sleep on. The next morning I was thankfully bite free, but ruined this good fortune later by reading on the deck in my shorts and getting burnt by the hazy morning sun. It was still pretty painful as I went to bed back in Hanoi that evening, and I felt a bit like the English Patient, except not quite as pretentious and without a beautiful French nurse to look after me.

This evening I'm still a little sensitive. Earlier I went to see the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre, a popular tourist diversion. The stage is flooded with water and puppets act out typical agricultural Vietnamese scenes and legends, while musicians play traditional tunes. Although a remembered quote 'farcical aquatic ceremony' floated into my head, it is far from this - instead it's an amusingly surreal and colourful spectacle. Apparently the art form developed hundreds of years ago in the water paddy fields of the Red River Delta. I bet in those days the peasants watching weren't disturbed by their mobile phones going off.

62 - posted at 13:42:15

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