We were sitting at the breakfast table of the Hostel awaiting our food when interrupted by a Vietnamese man with jet black hair and coal black bomber jacket. But it was his eyes that were the darkest. Shit, was he from immigration? No, but he did order us to get on his mini van in a most aggressive tone. Our tour guide for the next three days around Ha Long Bay? We would never have guessed. We boarded his bus and while he ordered everybody to hand their passports up to the front, we studied the people who we’d be sharing the boat with for the next 3 days. At the back were a couple of Aussie girls wetting themselves with laughter at their friend, a guy, who was doing impressions from characters from Little Britain. I hope they were ironic laughs. Or sympathetic. Next were two guys who looked like they had attended their fair share of Real Ale festivals and Star Wars conventions. I like both mediums, but have never felt the need to be overweight, grow a pony-tail and wear clothes that you get free by collecting cereal tokens. Once the guide decides the passports are okay and we’re alright to travel, he flicks the switch and becomes Mr. Friendly Tour Guide, one that would pass at Disneyland. He might as well of been called that, as his name was to prove quite an obstacle on this trip. His name, I thought he said, was Ryan but everybody had heard something else. He was to be christened several times over the duration on this trip. 2 hours later we were at the pier, discussing immigration with some Malaysian guy who was on holiday by himself. He hated everybody; the Chinese, the Thai’s, the Cambodians. He even hated himself at times. He wanted to know what I made of all the Polish and Indians back home in England. Before I could give him a politically correct answer, we were boarding the Junk boat which would be our home for the next 3 days.
On board with our fellow sailors, we were allocated our sleeping quarters.
Once down in our 2 bed room, there was a knock at the door. Ryan came gliding in with broken English (a dead giveaway bad news was afoot). There had been a problem with bookings and the boat was oversubscribed. Somebody else had to come and stay in our room. It was Andrew Price, an Australian bloke. Shortly after, one of the boat boys brought down a wafer thin mattress for him and dunked it on the floor. So this was his deluxe suite that he had paid for; a small bit of leather and a beach towel for a bed. He was a teacher, and I just thought of the faces of his children if they could see him now. He didn’t give a shit and played the “that’s life, there’s nothing we can do about it” card. He was far too chilled. He took out his guitar and played some tunes. I was happy to have him in with us. It could have been worse; the hate filled Malaysian, the Little Britain fan or even one of the Real Ale Drinkers. Ben suggested seeing if we could get some free beers for the mix up, to which I agreed and nominated him the spokesman for our campaign. I would be the strategist, and Andrew our ‘Joe the Plumber’ figure, since he was the innocent victim in all of this. But we just laughed the situation off instead and talked sports. He told me that the AFL league system was set up in a way which meant the higher up the ladder a team finished at the end of the season, the less of a bonus payout they received from the authorities. The purpose was to help develop the weaker teams and keep the league competitive through increased “fairness”, but with such an incentive, most teams at the end of the season would try to deliberately finish below their opponents as it would be financially beneficial to them. Thus, the result was a contradiction to the aim of the policy, as teams did not have the incentive to develop and remain competitive but go the opposite way. This is perhaps the best way of highlighting the flaws of socialism. Where is the incentive to improve and better yourself if you receive more for less? Of course, in sport the incentive is glory and honours, but this is not always the case in society.
He was reading Lost Horizon by James Hilton and gave us a brief outline of Shangri La, and how this fictional place has been created in real life by the Chinese to attract tourists. I told him about the Shangri La area at Glastonbury, which preceded the obligatory views on China becoming the next superpower. I decided to get some fresh air up on the deck before dinner, stepping on to Andrew’s bed in doing so, having totally forgotten it was there. God I must have looked like one disrespectful bastard, but honestly I just forgot we had some dude sleeping on our floor.
Up on top deck alone though, I looked around the mountains tops that pierced through the water, some almost at eye level. I often have these moments of pure serenity when I’m left on my Jack Jones amongst such natural beauty, almost feeling drunk with ambition and optimism. I then look down at the floor which is lined with deck chairs; shame we have come at the wrong time of year for sun bathing, given many of the surrounding mountains are lost to the mist. I notice the beds haven’t been used for weeks or months, the moss and damp a dead giveaway. Not much, but the process has certainly began. One has even become an ashtray with several burn marks. But then I notice something else. One of the deck chairs is missing a cover?
One of the Deck chair covers is in my room, acting as Andrew Price’s sleeping mattress. I have to chuckle and remind myself to tell everyone later. We stop off at a bay to do some kayaking. On the jetty where we pick up the Kayaks, there are some nets with some very interesting fish splashing around. Ben says they are Cobia and when fully grown can look like sharks. He can tell I’ve taken an interest and continues to share with me his deep knowledge of the waters around here. Waiting for our paddles, I ask him about Great White sharks and the possibility that one is in the bay right now. I remember reading about an encounter Alex James had with Sir Patrick Moore, when he was asked to interview him for Idler magazine. After discussing the shape of the universe and the Oort cloud, they eventually get on to the subject of Aliens in faraway galaxies. James goes on to note “He quickly tired of my childish, whimsical wanderings, and really was just being kind by telling me stories”. This is how I imagine it being the case for Ben, a Marine Biologist having to put up with my predictable and unoriginal questions of sharks and likelihood of attack. But anyways, after that I decided that Cobia would be my new favourite fish if anybody ever asked.
We kayaked around the bay during the last few hours of twilight. It really was nice (me, aged 9). On our way back to the boat, we were approached by several women trying to sell us alcohol, but under the watchful eye of Ryan, who had said that anybody caught with alcohol from outside would be fined $10 a bottle onboard, and so had to decline. We headed back to our rooms to get ready for dinner. We could hear hushed whispers coming from outside the door. Opening our door we couldn’t see anybody at first, just the pitch black over the side of the boat. It was only the second time we opened to investigate that we realized the noise was coming from over the side of the boat. Low and behold, the woman from the jetty selling alcohol, was now in a tiny fishing boat hiding under the cover of darkness below our room. She was like a real smuggler with everything we needed. Handing the money over the side, she exchanged it for a case of beers and a bottle of whiskey. The transaction was partly out of respect for the old Woman’s entrepreneurial spirit. We discussed how it felt like being stowaways, despite our deluxe bed suite. “Speak for yourself” Andrew said dryly, and we fell about the place in hysterics.
After dinner, a group of girls from Melbourne and their friend who had been quoting Little Britain earlier came over to our table with a guitar. With Andrew on his, we all had a singsong until Ryan (some people were now calling him Bryan, I think an import from Andrew or one of the Aussie Girls) got the karaoke up and running. The Aussie girls were the first up. The Real Ale drinkers were on the table in front, and I got chatting to them. They were Austrian and presumably father and son. For some reason we got talking about what day it was. They thought it was the 15th but I assured them it was definitely the 17th. “Oh, okay” they said, exchanging confused and worried looks. What else could we talk about? I learnt from the South East Asians that to build a report with somebody, address them with their most famous fellow countrymen and wait for the response (I just normally give a thumbs up when someone shouts “David Beckham” at me).
“Try shouting Fritzl, Jozef Fritzll” suggested Ben.
Jozef Fritzl. I remember it was in my last year of university and I was tidying my room when Winters popped his head around the corner and tells me to come and look at BBC News. We were horrified and decided at the very least the country should be stripped of its right of hosting that year’s UEFA European Championship. Perhaps cancel it altogether, after all England weren’t in it. But there must be another famous Austrian. Adolf Hitler?
“Poor guys” said Ben after telling him about how they got their dates mixed up. “Imagine if they have to be somewhere in a few days having planned that this was the 15th today. And now they’re stuck on this boat, no way back, forced to try to enjoy the karaoke in front of them”.
I finally got up and sang Blur’s Charmless Man and with everybody in full flow this wasn’t going to be hard. However, one of the Aussie girls had lost her camera and just as I was warming up she wanted me to make a shout out to the whole boat to look for a missing ‘blue fuji lumix’. After doing this, and with the whole audience looking under tables and down the backs of seats, I felt less Albarn and more the bloke at a reception kiosk in ASDA. I’ve always had good luck with Karaoke. On my first holiday away with my friends in Greece in 2005, I lost my virginity with a girl from Croydon about 30 minutes after singing Last Night by the Strokes with my mate Andy on the night before heading back to London. I never thought it would happen, with me and that girl from Croydon….”
Ryan-or-Bryan told me that the Austrians were not in fact father and son, but partners. Fucking hell, I didn’t see that coming. I was sworn to secrecy not to tell anybody. “Yeah, yeah of course Ryan-or-Bryan. I’ll keep it to myself”. Haha, guess what everybody, see those two Austrians over there……….
Ryan-or-Bryan was getting very pissed and was not afraid to show it. A jovial far cry from the prison guard mentality from this morning. Meanwhile, the Melbourne crew turned out to be alright, and it was evidently clear that they were somewhat younger as they were going through their Tenacious D faze, with calls to play Tribute. Benny T, who was doing the Little Britain impressions on the bus earlier, turned out to be quite a character. I’ve always had a lot of time for characters, and care little for the “yeah, he’s an alright” sort of bloke. He had a lot of time for us too, but his affections were initially based on our accents which he loved since discovering Football Factory and Human Traffic – “the milky bars are on me”.
He knew a lot of quotes – which I’ve always got time for. The Melbourne girls were getting a little emotional and I overheard one of them say “If I die and come back as an animal it’s going to be an eagle. Y’know why? They are the most solitary animal”.
The night was still young, so we made sure the drinking commenced. We all headed to the top deck to drink, smoke, play guitar and listen to Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry (Terry was what the Melbourne girls had believed his name to be) tell us about past guests. He was all over the place. He was telling us about his hate for Malaysians and how one time, when in the middle of the night, he ordered a group off his boat and left them stranded on one of the peaks because they had told him “He below Everest”. What the fuck was he on about? Before his English had been mild, but now we could barely understand him. Like in most cases when a lazy Westerner can’t understand what a local is trying to say, we all just turned to each other with a screwed up confused face and asked rhetorically “What?”. He kept repeating it until we all got bored of him and pretended to go to bed, all heading to our rooms. Unknowingly to Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry, we were going back to the Melbourne guys room for continued drinking without his bad vibes.
Once there we played ‘I never’, where by you have to say things you haven’t done, and anybody in the circle who has, must take a large swig of their drink. The statements quickly turn to sex or embarrassing illnesses people have never had. You learn a lot of about people via this game. I wonder if they played this game on the Titanic? Maybe on the lower decks amongst the Irish and Polish.