Sunday, December 12, 2010

Halong Bay, The Ship of (some) Fools

The journey began in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a maze of narrow streets, French colonial buildings, cafes, street vendors of everything imaginable, shops selling aromatic herbs, old people sitting in doorways, motorcycles, bikes, and wandering foreigners seeking whatever it is they seek walking incessantly along the streets. The blue bus picked them up one by one, two by two, three by three. There was the besotted banker from Hong Kong, barely able to walk,

sleeping or passed out for the entire bus trip. There was the simple-minded American “English teacher” from Saigon and his “student” who was accompanying him on this journey. There were two Portuguese couples, each with a Chinese daughter and each in Hanoi to bring home the Vietnamese babies they had just adopted. There was the serious Belgian Air Force officer making his way through Southeast Asia; the American family on their journey through Asia; the kick-boxer and her boyfriend from Amsterdam. And there was the Eurasian (she said, not me) woman from Hungary who had had too many cosmetic surgeries and injections and was too fond of drama.

From a harbor with a faint smell of urine (or strong, depending on where you stood),

they set sail on the Angelina, this ship of fools, sailing into the mist. La-la-la-la-la.

I walked up to the salon, where the Eurasian woman, Christina was sitting with our tour guide, Lucky. “I want to ask you,” she said, “Do you have medicine for me? I have, what do you call it, the sickness of the ocean. I want to womit.”

“No, I don’t have any medicine like that.”

“They have no medicine for the womit! No penicillin, no paracetamol. They have a bad business. They boolsheet.” She sits, rigid, staring into space.

What could I say? “Yeah, well, uh.”

Other people began filtering into the sal0n, each one queried similarly, until the man from Amsterdam said, yes, he had some of the medicine she wanted. She took 1 pill (of ginger, it turns out) and was miraculously healed in less than a minute – and stayed sickness of the ocean-free for the rest of the voyage. Meanwhile, the gala welcome meal began, with the waiter taking drink orders.

“I thought non-alcohol drinks are included.”

“Drinks not included."

Course by course, plate by plate the food arrived. There was cucumber and tomato salad, seafood soup thickened with a lot of cornstarch, weird little cutlets, tofu with fish flavoring, a whole fish – enough for each person to have 2, maybe 3 bites since the English teacher didn’t eat fish. “I take many medicines and they don’t agree with fish.” As we talk about places we’ve been we discover that he’s taught English in Vietnam for 11 years – 3 months on, 3 months off and has never been to Hanoi or Cambodia. “Do

they eat a lot of rice in Cambodia?” he asks. I can see we’re going to have some heavy philosophical discussions.

Christina continues to complain, the Vietnamese student is basically mute except to ask for chili sauce (via the “teacher”), my wife is starting to snarl at Christina, and the Belgian man is monosyllabic – leaving me, the least social person on the bleeding boat bravely trying to carry this shipboard conversation. “Where have you been? Oh, where are you going?” And so on.

By now we’re into Halong Bay, where several thousand

limestone islands rise up, often vertically out of the green waters of the gulf of Tonkin. I’ll let Lonely Planet describe it: “Magnificent Halong Bay … is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Vietnam’s natural wonders. The islands are dotted with innumerable grottoes created by the wind and waves … Ha long means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea.’” It is breathtaking, unfolding near and far slowly as the boat glides through the water.

After the meal we rest in our cabin to talk about the other passengers. It may just be a two day cruise, but we’re quickly into the spirit of cruises.

“Why don’t you try to be nice to Christina?” I say. “Oh please,” my wife answers. “Why should I?” “I don’t know. Because it’s nice?” She shakes her head, saying in essence, because she’s a “boolsheet” person. “Well, it won’t hurt.” She just shakes her head. Our son leaves on an excursion with most of the other passengers to climb 142 steps to a cave and go kayaking and swimming.

Then it’s time for dinner! More sparkling repartee! Christina is sitting where I sat at lunch, at the head of the table and seeing my wife’s Belgian-like one word responses to Christina, I switch places with her. Good move, CK – weird on my left, wife on my right, and the Belgian man having almost nothing to say across from

me and then the English “teacher” ... I was thinking about Mick Jagger singing, “If I could stick a knife in my heart, Suicide right on stage.” Another cucumber and tomato salad, fried fish, fried potatoes, rice, vegetables, and the piece-de-resistance, another whole fish – another 2 or 3 bites for each person. Really, pretty good. After dinner I go back to our cabin to read.

“Be sure you leave the key in the door” my wife said, so, after reading awhile I put the key in the outside lock Homer Simpson style and hang around outside to see her reaction. She was slow to come back, so missed my joke. While I was gone the Belgian man had opened up and turned out to be an interesting companion, which was good because from the start he seemed like a good guy. Our son had gone up to the top deck, so I joined him up there for awhile, talking

quietly in the foggy night – another memorable time. Photo: The freshwater lake in the middle of an island

In the morning my wife stayed with the Portuguese people to play with the babies (in her natural habitat) while my son and I went off to visit another cave. As caves go it was okay, but past the cave we hiked up a trail to an overlook above a freshwater lake in the middle of the island and surrounded by steep mountains like in an Edgar rice Burroughs book where pterodactyls might swoop down and fearsome creatures rise up out of the water and somewhere along the way the Belgian man told Christina to quit complaining, so she starts talking to me about what a rude

person he is, “I tell him he boolsheet!” and I’m like, “Uh, what can I say?” And she’s quivering with indignation, sitting at the back of the little boat (but at least she didn’t womit on the ride back

to the boat) keeping on with the breast (or should I say, falsie – why she didn’t have them babies embiggened I can’t say) adjustments.

Back from the excursion we all gather in the salon, my wife and I sitting at a different table, soon joined by you-know-who, complaining and me with my stock answer, “Uh, I don’t know, what can I say.” And finally she moves to the end of the table, thus ending another stellar interaction.

We cruise through the bay, across open water, and

into the harbor for (another gala) meal, this time at a restaurant with a vague smell of urine about and several big, wide bottles as in 2-3 feet high full of pickled cobras and assorted snakes with the tops of the bottles covered in something like Saran Wrap (I’m not kidding), this time with the kick-boxer and her boyfriend, both of them fun and nice, the vastly more conversational Belgian, and “Do they eat a lot of rice in Cambodia.”

Ah, the bus ride back to Hanoi. It starts with a new “tour guide” telling my wife and me that we need to move to the back of the bus because “Two people get

car-sick. Cannot sit in back.” My wife, diplomat that she is, says, “No.” The tour guide says “Seats in back good,” and my wife says, “No.” Guess who wanted to displace the two older people? Yep – Christina and her new buddy, the banker. So we didn’t move and the “guide” figured out how the two darlings could sit in front, Christina directly in front of me, ever ready to start it up again.

We stopped at the typical SE Asia bus way station for people to use the toilet, buy drinks, snacks, and of course there were any number of sorry-ass souvenirs. Back on the bus, Christina gets out some “pearls” and “jade” she’d bought and a cigarette lighter, holding her new treasures over the flame to test their authenticity and

when she wasn’t doing that she was fiddling with her hair and adjusting those remarkably movable breasts.

It was raining and traffic started stacking up and the bus driver tried a muddy side road, which didn’t work so there we were, backing up and around as people honked and motorcycles flowed around us in a never-ending stream. Back on the main highway, designed for two-lanes, but now create-a-lane 3 and 4 lanes wide we were part of an endless maneuvering for advantage, sometimes coming to enough of a stop that people were getting out

of buses and cars and milling around the highway and Leslie talking with the Dutch couple and me with some young men from Ireland and I was so happy that I’d dehydrated myself and didn’t have to use my pee bottle and in the back the Portuguese families singing and playing games with their children (these were some truly outstanding parents) and then, from behind the Dutch couple and behind our son sitting behind them next to the Belgian man, we hear the English teacher and his student, “la-la-la-la-la” as they work on singing happy birthday in Vietnamese and our son, the Belgian man, and the Dutch couple cracking up.

And, in a perfect ending to the trip, the bus driver and his accomplice, the “tour guide” started letting people off in more or less random places, saying things like, “One way street, cannot go. Hotel very close.” My wife said, no surprise if you’ve paid any attention at all, “No.” the guide says, “Street too narrow. You can walk in 5 minutes.” “No.” So we ended up back at our hotel, several hours late. La-la-la-la-la.


somchai said...

Soooo good. Paul Threroux would be envious.

Guess you can tick Halong Bay and tour boats

Clarke said...

Good one as always. I think I'd get along with the Hungarian 'womiter'...


Anonymous said...

You are a very good writer.

roooosah said...

I saw your response to a comment on the lonely planet forum and was wondering which cruise/junk you went with at Halong Bay. Also, where did you book the trip in Hanoi?

Thanks a bunch,

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