Well, this has been an interesting couple of days - so much happening, so many sights we've seen - it's really hard to keep up with it all!
We ditched our cyclo driver around lunch time and took to walking - yes, walking! - around the old town in the afternoon. As we strolled down one street a chap on the other side of the road hailed Bruce then came whistling over to us (risking the chaos of the motorbike traffic) and told Bruce his shoe needs repairing. He was right, actually. Bruce's Mephistos have needed a stitch at one small part for a while, but how the heck that guy spotted that from the other side of the road while Bruce was walking is amazing. (Maybe he has really short kids who spot the "mark" then tip him off?) Bruce kidded him about using a telescope. Anyway, they negotiated a price of $1 for him to stitch Bruce's shoe, so they sat down on the curb and out comes his kit from a little plastic basket. It took all of 2 minutes for him to do the repair then he whips out his cleaning gear and next thing you know Bruce's shoe looked almost as good as it did when he bought them (they haven't looked like that for two years!) So then, of course, the other shoe had to be done to match it and by now there's a bit of an audience - several vendors and the lady from the travel agency outside which we had stopped - all watching the show, which began as soon as the guy finished cleaning the second shoe. To cut a long story short, the upshot was that Bruce ended up paying the guy $1 for the repair then $1 each for cleaning ("renewing") each shoe; everyone was laughing that the guy ended up with $3, but actually the shoes really do look good now. As a capper, a bit later in the day we sat down for a drink at a cafe near there and the waiter had seen Bruce's shoe event. He told us that the shoe-cleaner/repairer, prowling the street with his little plastic bag in hand and looking pathetic, makes about $20 a DAY, while the waiter makes about $60 a MONTH. Oh well, goes in the category of "it was worth it for the entertainment"...........
Night before last, after dinner, we went to a 'water puppet' show. We'd heard it was one of the things to do in Hanoi, so, when in Hanoi................... etc. It was a nice theatre and, for 20,000 dong (sounds like a lot, that's why I said it, but there are 16,000 dong to the dollar +/-) we had some pretty good seats overlooking an ornate stage with Vietnamese decor, with a big tank of water in front of the curtains. To the left and up a little higher was the orchestra pit, with a 10-piece ensemble of musicians and singers who warmed us up a bit before the main performance - yes, of course, Vietnamese music. Anyway, we had no idea what to expect but were pleasantly surprised by the performance which seemed to be a re-enactment of the (losing the sword in the lake) and the peasants overcoming hardships, along with various sea serpents and other mythical creatures. Hard to describe it but basically, these puppets are operated by people behind the curtain who stand in the water and the controls for the puppets are rods or poles under water, so we see all the action taking place on the water - and there was pretty good action. For example, two mythical looking birds performed what looked like the albatross mating dance, then produced a huge egg, that then produced a fluffy little chick - all from under water. There was a big battle and the King and his troops paraded but it's impossible to really do any justice to what was happening and the talent involved. At the end of the 45 minute show, the curtains came up at the back of the stage showing about a dozen people there, operating the rods under water - I'm guessing they had hip waders on under their traditional costumes, because otherwise they'd have pretty shriveled skin doing 3 or 4 shows a day.
Up early in the morning to be picked up at the Nam Hai Hotel by the bus taking us to Halong Bay. We booked a 3 day/2 night trip, with the first day seeing us boarding a very luxurious junk (about 28 passengers by my count on a 16-cabin boat) and joining the struggle to depart the immensely crowded wharf area - there are hundreds of boats setting out with what seems like thousands of tourists - all at the same time! It's a zoo! Most of the boats setting out are day trips, but some, like ours are overnighters. However, as soon as we'd cleared the wharfage (after physically pushing and barging our way through the crush of boats) we found ourselves relaxing in a quiet, calm dining room which, after all that bustle felt wonderfully pampered. Lunch was served as soon as we had put our bags in our cute little cabins: crab, fish, grilled pork, veggies, rice, etc. After lunch we browsed around the boat - it was delightful: We have, we think, possibly the nicest boat out here. It's junk-style with carved dragons and Chinese style roof lines but it's far from being a true junk. It has two tiny, junk-style sails but I think they're more for decor, and the overall shape is junk-style, but there it ends. It's lovely, anyway.
After cruising through numerous karsts that dot the Bay, we came to another jetty where the same zoo-like disembarkation was going on, with boats and tenders jockeying for position at a jetty, vendors in boats trying to flog stuff to the tourists and the tourists leaping off their boats with gay abandon onto whatever looked like it might be attached to the land itself (I had my camera poised the whole time but, so sad, nobody fell in the water, or anything interesting like that). We then climbed up a steep flight of steps that took us into a massive cave that, as we delved deeper into the cave, opened into a further massive cave, followed by others. It was terrific. We emerged high up above the Bay and the swarm of boats below, then trotted back down more steps and did the Kamikaze Tourist thing back into our respective tenders again. Somehow it all seems to work in spite of the bedlam. We tootled on round to another tie-up where we again anchored off, and went to a dock where those of us who wanted to leaped lithely into waiting kayaks tied up to the dock. Well, some of us did - others sort of groaned as they eased themselves in but we won't mention who those people might have been!). Like a mother duck and her chicks we then paddled off around the Bay until we went through a cave/tunnel into another, smaller bay. (We were all in doubles - I've never kayaked in the same boat with Bruce before and the sound effects from behind me were interesting - that shoulder is really causing him some suffering.)
On returning to the junk, we went topside where fruit was served and one of us ordered a gin and tonic and settled back to watch the sunset, while the other one took a T3 to ease the pain in his shoulder and had a nap. Didn't see a lot of sunset though as it's very misty/hazy out here, but still very pretty with all the karsts and moored boats. Had another very nice dinner, with our table companions being a young couple from Oz who just got engaged (while travelling) on New Year's Eve. Dinner was a very nice event. Dishes (Vietnamese) were placed in the middle of each table of four, so when the prawns came out they were beautifully arranged in a large glass goblet with an arrangement of flowers made from vegetables that was spectacular. It WAS spectacular but, unfortunately, once we realized it was real food, and crispy, fresh veggies at that, we (our table, that is) made short work of the centre-piece. Tasted great! It wasn't until after it was demolished that we noticed that none of the other tables had eaten their centre-piece and the waiters were giving us odd looks. Well, maybe they should have brought larger portions of food to our table? After dinner, the crew fired up the Karioke (wide screen tv) and the games began! Of our group of maybe 28, the majority would fall in the 23-33 age range and were Aussies, Brits and Americans. We also had a nice Vietnamese family on board (all adults) and sundry others, including a young man from Shanghai, a California/Korean father and son, etc. so quite a mixed bunch, First a Brit sang something raukus, then an Aussie got into the act (the gentle young man from our table who by now had grown horns as he drank more and more), then the youngest Vietnamese woman elevated the tone of the joint somewhat when she sang a beautiful, gentle song (with a lovely voice) about Hanoi, followed by her father also singing al ovely song in a very nice voice. Then it was back to the Caucasian bunch again who, by now, had a couple of bottles of rum on the go, not mention a bunch of beer under their belts. Our elegant, stately "queen of the boats" rapidly became the monster boat from hell as we got louder and louder, sitting there like the Mother Ship amongst all the other moored boats, but with all this noise coming from us! They were actually a great bunch of people and we were enjoying the fun, but went to bed around 11 as the party continued (with the nice Vietnamese family wrestling the microphones away from the others whenever they could). Others had retired earlier, but I doubt they were sleeping. I had to get my earplugs out around midnight which helped a bit, but I do wonder what the other boats around us made of the raukus tourists from hell on our lovely boat!
Bruce and I were up early this morning in hopes of seeing the sun rise over Halong Bay. No such luck - we had to check the compass in the wheelhouse to find where East was, as the mist, which apparently is quite perpetual here, was pretty heavy. The Karioke crowd trickled in to breakfast (very quietly) but we had to eat around 7:30 am, as those of us who were doing the second night on Cat Ba Island had to disembark around 8:30am. After fond farewells with our new bosom buddies, our tender took us to shore whereupon Bruce discovered that "I" (me, that is) had not loaded HIS bags on to the tender while he continued chatting top side. "Didn't you put my bags on???" Well, um, let me think a second - I was carrying my two bags over the railing and jumping down on to a deck that was lower than on our boat, and well, no, as a matter of fact I didn't leap overboard with all four bags clutched under my arms. So, with the exception of Bruce, everyone disembarked at the jetty and he went back on the tender to the boat to fetch his bags while we waited.
Then we boarded a bus that took our now much smaller group with another little group to a small boat on what I think is a river or maybe it was an estuary at the other end of Cat Ba Island. (Bruce felt as little vindicated when our guide received a phone call en route and told the two California/Koreans that they had left their passports on board.) We sat up on the roof of the boat for the twenty-minute ride, then, to disembark we had to walk down a steep plank on to a mud bank while two crew members held a pole so that we could steady ourselves going down there - it gave a whole new meaning to the term "hand rail". We then walked along a mud dyke towards the cliff, where we entered another cave. This one was nowhere near as big as the other and we had to duck to enter it but were able to stand up after we were inside. It had a couple of lights powered by an old generator just outside the entrance of the cave, but eventually we had only the light from a couple of flashlights and 2 headlamps that a couple of Aussie's had with them. We came then to a tiny horizontal opening that was guarded by both stalagmites and stalagtites. Only the smallest (and dopiest, in my opinion) were able to squeeze through there by crawling and slithering on their bellies but several people did go through. The rest of us loitered around there for a while as their voices faded into the distance, then finally made an executive decision to make our way back to the entrance to the cave and wait for them in the daylight.
Lunch was at a small outdoor restaurant just down the road from the boat landing, where we shared a table with the Californi/Korean father and son. Very nice people. Dad had a full career as an acupuncturist (Korean trained, which is 6 years, rather than the 3 years required in the States), and his son manages a Black Angus Restaurant in Dublin, CA. No, we'd never heard of Dublin, CA before either.
On the way from the cave our guide walked beside me and said "I have to talk to you about your hotel". (Bruce and I are the only ones from our group who are at this particular hotel and everyone else is at one other.) He went to great pains to explain to me that a Vietnamese 3-star hotel is not like an international 3-star hotel and he wanted to warn me not to expect too much, etc. etc. I was quite puzzled because the guy who booked the trip for us went on about the same thing (because we had not sprung for the "Superior" tour and had opted only for the "deluxe") and the guide on the boat said not to say anything to anyone else because we were getting a 'better' deal than the others but had paid less. We didn't know what they were on about, because we had made a decision not to spring for the superior resort so only expected a standard room but after all this stuff we certainly expected the worst. The people staying at the other place were dropped off first at a small-ish hotel on a side street and it looked like it had a pretty dark lobby. Bruce and I were then taken along the waterfront where we were surprised to turn into this big hotel, with the name that we had expected, 'Holiday View', with a massive marble lobby and marble columns and all that stuff, and then found our room to be perfectly fine with a fantastic waterfront view, and all the good stuff (like coffee maker and mini bar) and a terrace restaurant overlooking the water. Now we're really puzzled because this place seems to be far better than where everyone else is staying. ????? No complaints from us.
We rented a tandem bicycle from a place next door to the hotel to cruise the town. You could say that my feelings about tandems have been confirmed - Bruce DOES like to ride places I don't want to go, but when sitting on the back of a tandem there's no choice in the matter! We rodede down to the far end of town where there is a fish plant. Cat Ba is known for its fish oil so we can only presume that the tons and tons of tiny fish they were bringing in are for fish oil. We watched for some time as they loaded up truck after truck from boats and nothing is wasted. After shovelling the tiny fish into the truck for transporting into the plant, there were women going along the ground picking up (by hand) any fish that had fallen. There's very little traffic here - it's all boat activity - and such a relief for it to be quiet and free of traffic out on the streets after the hustle and bustle and chaos, not to mention danger, of Hanoi, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Chiang Mai, Seoul, etc.
Our final day was a bit of a drain, however. Basically, they just take a very long time getting us back to the hotel in Hanoi, so that we don't arrive until about 5pm, then they blithely ask us how much we have enjoyed our day! We were picked up from our hotel at 8:30am, back on the boat by 09:30, into the dock at Halong Bay by 12 where we had lunch in a tourist zoo - hundreds of us in one big concrete, echoing room. Back in the bus by 1:50pm then to Hanoi at 5 with the world's worst driver. We thought yesterday's one was bad, but this one took the prize, I think. I was sitting right behind him and Bruce just off to his side behind him. We could see he kept nodding off, and I kept knee-ing the back of his seat to wake him up. He was all over the road but at very slow speeds. He hasn't got a clue about gearing. He starts off in 2nd or 3rd (never ever saw him use 1st), then at about 30 kph he shifts into fourth, so we're grumbling along and when he comes to a hill he shifts into overdrive! It was a brand new vehicle - only two weeks old - and he is definitely going to see it gets old before its time. Needless to say, we didn't tip him.
We are now waiting in the lobby of our Hanoi hotel for a taxi to come for us at 10pm to take us to the overnight train to Hue which leaves at 11. More on that next time.