On this day in 2011….Boat tour of Ha Long Bay day 3 #Otdi2011

19/01/2011

After breakfast, we jumped back onto the Junk boat that we’d arrived in. Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len came over and gave us all feedback forms to fill out. Alongside such statements as “the quality of the Tour Guide’s English”, there were boxes to tick with ‘Exceptional’, ‘Good’, ‘Average’ and ‘Below Average’. Argggghhhhhhh, I get it now. Below Average. Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len kicked those Malaysian guys off because they said his “English was below average”. Not “below Everest” like we’d thought he had been saying a couple of nights ago. Well considering I’ve just got that now, it was probably a fair evaluation. None of us had forgot his treatment of the French couple on the bus yesterday and he was never going to do well out of this. Me, Ben, Benny T and Andrew Price never marked higher than ‘Good’ and any positive ratings were for the condition of the boat. Ben and Benny T had a field day on the ‘additional comments section’.

day3

We got the group photo before boarding the coach back to Hanoi. Almost every house along the road had the Vietnamese flag fluttering proudly outside just like they do in the States with the stars and stripes – although with a polar opposite message.

“Ben, its Christian, the guy we met on the tubing and his ginger mate”, I noted when we stopped off at a service station.

“How many people over the course of their travelling have referred to them as that Christian and his ginger mate?”  came the reply.

“I wonder if anybody has drawn the similarities between them and a pair of Denis the Menace characters”

“Oh with their noticeable nobly knees?”

“Yeah”.

Throughout the coach trips here and on Catba Island, we kept coming across this American Man, his Vietnamese Wife and their excruciatingly annoying child. Thankfully they weren’t on our boat but they’re here now, standing in front of me in the queue of the service station shop. The kid’s far too intelligent for his age and I’m not the only one to feel that his precociousness is drawing me into a suppressed violent rage. I’m waiting in the queue to buy a box of cookies for the group, when he turns around to me, points and whispers into his mum’s ear in very good English “he plans to steal them”. His Mother forces him to apologise to me although I laugh it off and roll my eyes at the mum. I’m not laughing inside. As if by the power of God, I find his Achilles heel when I go into the toilet minutes later and his Dad is cleaning him up after he’s clearly pissed himself. He must be about 5 or 6 and far too old for this. He sees me and begins to panic, imagining all the respect and love he generated on the coach draining away. I look at him, while his Dad has his back to me, point and mime a very cold and calculating laugh. When we stop off an hour later for dinner, I whisper in his ear that “because of you, the whole coach now stinks of urine”. That should put him in his place. I think I’ve done him a favour though, as any kid his age that intellectually developed is never happy come adulthood. Now he can begin to actually enjoy his childhood and stop being an object that his parents use to get attention on holiday.

Been here under 3 weeks and Ben has already found a way to avoid the attention and constant bombardment of street sellers; Freeze. One Tuk Tuk driver would not stop hounding us for a fare and instead of the usual pleading to go away, we just froze, like statues. They didn’t know what to do, where to look. Our frozen smiles and motionless eyes made them feel very uncomfortable. We did however get caught out with the Woman who tried to dress us up as a brace of rice farmers for a photo. We were clothed in all the gear. Well, a hat and the crop carrier balancing on the shoulder. So we had to donate or buy her bananas. For the next street we walked down we decided to change our game plan.

“Right, okay, for the next one, when they approach you, just pretend you are having a fit”. It worked. Don’t try looking for this technique in the Lonely Planet. You won’t find it.

We met Andrew Price in Hanoi Backpackers for the quiz night and did alright. Most surprisingly was how much we’d learnt on our trip which came in useful. For example we knew that Vietnam’s national sport is the one with the shuttlecock, thanks to my encounter with those lads on Cat Ba Island. Also that the national animal for good luck is the turtle, from the cave tour we did. Felt like Slumdog Millionaire.

Headed for a few more beers and a few games of table football in another bar. Ben is ridiculously good. I didn’t actually know you could be good at this game, but he is. I get my single victory over him when me and Andrew Price take him on and a local lad in a game of doubles.

“No Ben, no rematch, I want to end it on a high. Victory to us. Never playing again. That was a one off. No rematch. Never. Long may me and Andrew remain as champions”.

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On this day in 2011….Boat tour of Ha Long Bay day 2 #Otdi2011

18/01/2011

Spent breakfast on the boat discussing last night’s wild behaviour and the part Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry played in it all. He had really let his hair down. So what is the style of comedy here in Vietnam we pondered? Along with Andrew Price and Benny T, we discussed what we’d do if given 5 minutes to devise a short sketch for an audience consisting mainly of the Vietnamese elderly. What would they find funny? Burning an effigy of Richard Nixon or Lyndon B Johnson? Or is that just baiting the general taste for populism? A bit patronizing perhaps? Like throwing t-shirts out at a student union, exposing our desperation to be liked. Maybe if we burned JFK that would solve both problems as it would go against the popular and ill-informed opinion that JFK was some fair play, all-American hero while also highlighting that not every Westerner has forgot that the guy was a main component of the war. We could crack jokes about how he was the first to benefit from the Kurt Cobain/John Lennon effect; Die before your time and you’ll be eternally adored by the masses. Even if it’s in the shape of hooded jumpers, pin badges and black and white portrait posters sold at Wembley Market.

The boat started to move again and we headed to Cat Ba Island for our next activity: Jungle Trek. Along with the Aussies we forced ourselves to climb through the jungle, up to the look out tower that provided a 360 view of the Island. Getting off the boat, knowing exactly what we were in for was made worse by our unsatisfactory breakfast, consisting of one swamp fish and a bowl of rice between four men. Who do you think I am? Warren Fellows?

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More and more stories from the night emerged during our climb and as we remembered the night’s events, I couldn’t help but feel a little bad that we might be ruining the walk for the two honeymooners who were trying to ignore our silly stories and concentrate on their trip of a lifetime. To be honest though, it’s hardly a great trip into the unknown. Forest Gump’s mother always said that “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get”. Well that’s true, but with these kind of organized, well beaten-path trips, the box of chocolates in question is a big box of Quality Streets that comes complete with individually wrapped pieces of chocolate in colour coded wrappers which you can cross-reference with the little guide provided to see what they contain. And those that contain nuts, are legally obliged to tell you so. Take the danger out, and you take the fun with it. No surprises, you know exactly what your getting. Just like here. Safety galore except for the rusty old viewpoint on the summit, which is only accessed via 6 flights of rusty ladders.

I was a little nervous climbing those creaky rusting stairs and the joy of the view was slightly offset by the fact that the structure could collapse any minute and send us all rolling down the hill. I’m not scared of heights, but I am scared of falling from them to a horrible painful death.

tumblr_lhztpeyJcL1qdtk9ro1_500On the way back down, me and Benny T rattled off our favourite quotes from film and TV simultaneously, him at the front of the group and me at the back. This wasn’t planned or engineered. This just happened, and what was even better was we loved and appreciated all the same quotes from all the same shows. He knew that the best episode in The Simpson is Lemon of Troy. He also agreed that Comic Book Guy had some of the best one-liners outside the main cast. He was also prone to shouting out “HEEEEYYYYY YOOOOU GGGGUUUYSSS” which I begrudgingly appreciated. I think it’s possible to really bond with somebody in a very short space of time over a mutual appreciation for the same quotes from the television/films that you both love. And to think this was the same guy who was quoting Little Britain when we first got on the coach yesterday. How my opinion of him has changed, though I still suspect him of being one of the kids at school to save his lunch money to buy that Jack Daniel’s zippo lighter on the way home. He did start talking about Xena: Warrior Princess, and that’s when I had to tell him I wasn’t “interested in all that to be honest mate”.

We all went back to childishly complaining about the long hike, like school children on a mundane field trip to a local post-sorting warehouse. Fair to say I went up that hill a man, and came down a petulant child.

We all jumped in the coaches that we had arrived in from the port. We all jumped on the one with Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len (yeah the addition of Len came from somebody else on the boat, who’d completely misheard our tour guides name), who was know back to his communist self, ordering us on. The other coaches were all heading to the same hotel, so we weren’t fussed if we got on the wrong one, as it was only supposed to be a short trip to the Hotel. Obviously Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len, did not have such a liberal approach to coach travel. He spotted an elderly French couple on his coach who shouldn’t have been. It was one of the Melbourne Girls who was sitting on her mate’s lap that gave away the fact that we had stowaways on board.

Me and Ben were discussing how much we thought Andrew Price sounded like the name of a General Manager of an Asda store when, Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len started to demand the French couple get off, so the Melbourne Girl could sit down, despite her protests that it was “okay” and that she “didn’t mind” sitting on her friends lap.

Unfortunately Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len didn’t give a shit, and went mental. Absolutely mental at this French couple, who were not causing anybody any discomfort with their presence. He had lost the argument that “one of my customers, have no seat, you get off coach”, as the Melbourne girl was know trying to show just how comfy she was nestled on Benny T’s chunky legs.

But now he’d lost the coach as he stepped up a gear and ordered the couple, who were both pushing 70, off the coach ignoring the fact we were in the middle of the dry countryside, up a uninhabited mountain in the baking sun. Where would they go? He didn’t care and ordered them off, foaming at the mouth as he did so. Horrible man. The whole coach would not back down and it was the same solidarity that has fought off countless dictators and tyrants over the years, and he was never going to win this. It was settled for the exchange of about $5. But we had seen just what was behind this man’s Jackie Chan grin, and what he was really capable of.

Ben’s Account

With many of the native people we have met in Vietnam, there appears to be a thin veil of geniality and chivalry while beneath they could all potentially be hard face, unscrupulous, mirthless and stolid bastards working behind a pain of glass at a border control checkpoint.

We checked in our bags and had a look at our hotel room, which consisted of me, Ben and Andrew Price before heading down to dinner. Exact same as we had for last night’s dinner, today’s breakfast and lunch earlier. Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len came over and wanted to know if we wanted to party with him like we did last night because “last night, real good fun, you guys the best”. Andrew Price and Ben weren’t so keen and Benny T and the Melbourne girls were quick to leave the table on grounds they were going to sleep. Truth is they were going to sneak out and head into town. They would give us a shout when they were going. After seeing Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len in action today on the coach made me feel uneasy around him now. I had already seen the sudden change from when he had picked me and Ben up from our Guesthouse in Hanoi, and did not trust the instability of the man. I passed, and headed for a walk down to the harbour by myself as it was a lovely evening. The sun had set and left a beautiful pink sky. It was peaceful enough for a group of kids to be playing a game of Shuttlecock in the middle of the road that ran parallel to the sea, using the zebra crossing as the net. They invited me along and I played with them for a while. I needed to see a bit of good human nature from these guys following that prick on the coach earlier and thought I had found it as I walked down the harbour chatting with one of the young lads. He had a cool flat, apparently, with an Xbox, a music system and a fridge full of beer. That’s where we were going now. Than came the question about how many girls I wanted and what I wanted to do with them. I called it a day with him and headed back feeling like the rich man who could never find anybody for genuine love or friendship. I don’t know which rich man in particular, but I’m sure there’s loads out there who feel like that. There’s more ways to feel like a millionaire out here than just your high spending power.

After a beer on my balcony looking out at floating nightclub in the harbour, I went to where I could actually hang out with genuine people. The Good Bar, where the Aussies were hiding.

On this day in 2011….Ha Long Bay boat tour Day1 #Otdi2011

17/01/2011

ha long bay

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.

TOP: Andrew Price plays us a melody BOTTOM: Andrew Price's bed for the evening

TOP: Andrew Price plays us a melody
BOTTOM: Andrew Price’s bed for the evening

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.

Water Gypsies arrive at our door just after dark

Water Gypsies arrive at our door just after dark

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.

The Austrians

The Austrians

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" (on the left) with one of the Austrians, in his jovial phase.....though never too far from switching

“Ryan-or-Bryan” (on the left) with one of the Austrians, in his jovial phase…..though never too far from switching

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”.

Benny T

Benny T

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.

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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.