Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

It’s Showtime

January 31, 2009
by Stuart
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10,206 views

Hopefully the movie is now working in the Hue posting. Check it out and let me know. If it’s NOT working, please let me know what browser and platform you are using. And you thought I was on vacation…

If this works, we can start adding movies to some of the older posts, too.

I Say My Son, You Say My Son

January 31, 2009
by Stuart
2 Comments
1,994 views

Chilling at China Beach during our first tour.

Chilling on China Beach during our first tour.

It was rather awkward when the bus pulled into Danang and we were the only people to get off. All the faces of the tourists remaining on the bus pressed up against the window with expressions of disbelief. As if to say “Do you really mean to get off here? Tourists don’t go here, we all go straight to Hoi An”.

Bikes and a house.

Two bikes and a house.

Most buildings where a faded yellow patined with mold.

Most buildings where a faded yellow with a nice mold patina.

However, the lack of tourists, along with the chill beach vibe, made Danang rather enjoyable (thanks for staying on the bus, guys!). We had a great lunch – maybe the best street pho yet at a little place around the corner from our hotel – then wandered around the city checking out a few pagodas and temples.

There was a nice French colonial feel to the buildings.

There was a nice Mediterranean feel to the buildings.

Looking across the Thu Bon River at the Old Town.

Looking across the Thu Bon River at the Old Town.

That night for dinner we ate at a Western-style restaurant where the staff was deaf. The organization that runs the restaurant teaches the staff sign language as well as training them on how to work in a kitchen and restaurant. Teaching them these skills gives them a chance to make a life for themselves and become a “valuable” member of society – since most people with disabilities are considered a burden on society and kept locked away in their family’s house.

Funny sign.

Funny sign.

The famed Japanese covered bridge.

The famed Japanese covered bridge.

But not to be too depressing, I had a pizza called the Da Nang: Charcoal grilled spicy pork, peanuts, sliced hot peppers, roasted onions, roasted garlic, fresh mint, fresh basil, with mozzarella cheese on peanut sauce. Fantastic. Where you at CPK?

There were lots of lantern stores along the waterfront.

There were lots of lantern stores along the waterfront.

Artsy Fartsy.

Artsy Fartsy.

The next day we rented a motorbike and cruised the coast ending up at the famed China Beach – where GI’s would hang out before going back to combat. After eating lunch on the beach, we headed back to the hotel and got a ride down to Hoi An, a sleepy town on the Thu Bon River, to meet Shirin for dinner before her flight to Saigon.

All Tina needs is a nice cold Coke.

All Tina needs is a nice cold Coke to be satisfied.

She told us of a good street to look for a place to stay, so we had the taxi driver drop us off there and then did the hotel shuffle until finding one that was the right price. The room was great – French doors leading to a balcony overlooking the street. Perfect for hanging out and for hanging our laundry out to dry, too. And it had a shower curtain.

*     *     *

Tina and I love to spend time in bookstores, so anytime we’re in a town which has something that resembles a bookstore, we have to check it out – even if it has no English titles. So after breaking away from sunny, breezy hotel room, we walked around the Old Town then across the bridge to Cam Nam Island looking for Randy’s Book Exchange, billed as the “best bookstore in Vietnam”. Oddly enough, he might be right.

Old Town from across the river.

Old Town from across the river.

An old man in the Old Town begging for money.

An old man in the Old Town begging for money.

On the way to Randy’s, we passed lots of stores selling illegal copies of books. It was as if someone took a bunch of books to Kinko’s and made hundreds of copies. Usually the covers looked pretty legit, but once you opened the book, it looked just like a bad copy. All the stores had the same books – best sellers, Vietnamese-centric, and even lots of Lonely Planet guides – and some stores tried to pass the books off as real by pointing out how nice the covers were, then charging more.

Looking down Dguyen Thai Hoc street.

Looking down Dguyen Thai Hoc street.

Sign for a local restaraunt.

Sign for a local restaurant.

When we first saw Randy, he was sitting on the front porch of his house/store eating a huge steak and mashed potatoes. He was sitting with a friend who looked the part for an 80’s war movie: built, close-cropped hair, aviator glasses, big chin. Randy was a large man with an even larger soul patch that might not have been trimmed since the 80’s. He’s an expat living in Vietnam for the past few years because he “just had to get out of the States”. Tired of never finding good books while traveling, he decided to open a book exchange. The other guy was working in Danang and came down for dinner.

A flower salesman's bike. Yes, there is a bike under there.

A flower salesman’s bike. Yes, there is a bike under there.

Two of the millions of custom clothing shops.

Two of the millions of custom clothing shops.

After Tina and I browsed his collection – and not finding anything we wanted – we got to talking with them about our trip and their experiences in Vietnam. They both had Vietnamese girlfriends who gave them a lifeline to the local culture. We talked about how hard it was to get things for a good price at the local markets because they all wanted to overcharge you.

Detail of a temple at My Son.

Detail of a building at My Son.

One of the few remaning buildings at My Son.

One of the few remaining buildings at My Son.

Randy’s buddy said that even when he went shopping with his girlfriend, the local vendors wouldn’t give her the local price if they were together. So they had to split up, or have her to go the market alone to get the local price. They devised a plan where they went to the market, split up, the she went to a vendor and bought some food and introduced him and made a deal that she would give him the local price, and he would only shop at her stall.

My Son.

My Son.

My Son.

My Son.

Speaking of getting ripped off, and meat, I have a serious beef with book exchanges: First of all, they only do a 2-for-1 trade, two of your books for one of theirs. Garbage. Then they turn around and sell each book for almost as much as a new book back in the States. So, not only are you now out a book, but if you want to get another book – to read, then to have two books to trade – you have to pay a lot for a book they didn’t pay anything for with their stupid scheme. Basically, they have no money invested but charge as if they do.

My Son.

My Son.

Anyway…. Randy was pretty curious about our trip and said he had some helpful travel tips for Cambodia – all hand-picked places. He disappeared into his shop for about 10 minutes then came out and said his printer was broken but he could email it to me. I gave him my address and was grateful for his inside info. But then later that night, when I read the stuff he sent, most of it was where one could get the best prostitutes and drugs. No wonder they named him Randy.

*     *     *

The previous night at dinner, Shirin mentioned a early morning tour to My Son (pronounced Me Sun), a UNESCO site that was a grand intellectual and religious site back in the day, and was purposely devastated by America during the War. The point of going first thing in the morning is to have the place to yourself – before the big tour buses show up.

Tina posing behind a headless statue.

Tina posing behind a headless statue holding our LP guide.

So that morning we wandered around Old Town researching tour companies before signing up on a tour. Then we looked into cooking classes. Hoi An is a foodie highlight of Vietnam – deservedly so since everything we had there was great! – so it  is a good town for a class. The classes were run by restaurants, and it seemed like you sat with one of the cooks as they walked you through preparing the meal, then you ate the meal, you get the recipes.

A partially hidden remnant of My Son.

A partially hidden remnant of My Son.

Unfortunately, we never got to take a class. When we had previously spoke with the restaurants, they said it would be fine to could come back on the day we wanted to take the class and sign up. But when we came back to sign up the next day, they said they didn’t have enough time to buy  ingredients or get someone to lead the class. One restaurant even tried to send us by taxi to one of their employee’s sister’s house for the class.

Tina and me enjoying our last meal in Hoi An.

Tina and me enjoying our last meal in Hoi An.

Hue Too Much Fun

January 30, 2009
by Stuart
8 Comments
2,700 views

"M48 tank with artillery of the US equipped to puppet soldiers for raiding and killing the people. In the sprink 1975 campaign, captured be the Liberation Army at Phu Bai on 25 March 1975."

“M48 tank with artillery of the US equipped to puppet soldiers for raiding and killing the people. In the Spring 1975 campaign, captured by the Liberation Army at Phu Bai on 25 March 1975.”

We got off the train in Hue (pronounced “Whey”) and walked the mile or so to the street that the hotel we were hoping to stay in was. We checked in, ate at a little breakfast place across the street then walked to the Citadel – a walled part of the city which also has the Imperial Enclosure where the emperor lived back in the day. So you have a fortress within a fortress. There’s even a moat.

On the way I saw the centipede which was about 8” long. When I pointed it out to Tina, people came over and freaked out. I got a stick and tried to get it off the sidewalk and into the bushes but some man grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let me. I tried to explain that I wanted to help it, but he didn’t want me near it. Then one of his buddies came over and they got two sicks and, well, I’ll let the video tell the rest…

Along the sidewalk near the Citadel walls, people had set up an informal market by laying out some pottery, old clothes, fish tanks, and other random stuff – it was more like a junk sale. However, there was some stuff from the War for sale, too. Canteens, flashlights, helmets. But the most disturbing items were dog tags. There must have been about a thousand different tags all lined up for sale – some were for Vietnamese solders, but most were American. Tina wondered what would happen if someone who lost a son in the War came over to visit and saw his tag for sale.

Enterance to the Thai Hoa Palace.

Entrance to the Thai Hoa Palace in the Imperial Enclosure.

The Enclosure was filled with courtyards, pagodas, and temple complexes. And in contrast to China, the restoration kept everything looking old. And because of how humid it is, most buildings had a patina of mold which added to the romance and mystery, It also made for some darn slippery walkways.

Tina & Stuart

Tina & Stuart.

After wandering around the Enclosure, but still in the Citadel, we started walking to a street that we were told had some good street food. We found one of them, but the food didn’t look that good and no one was eating – which was odd considering it was around 1pm. We found a place that was kinda busy and got a table outside and ordered banh khoai – a fried rice and egg cake that is a Hue specialty. They came with pork, cilantro, bean sprouts and on the side we had lime, chills and a killer peanut and sesame seed sauce. Fantastic.

One of the gates inside the Citadel.

One of the gates inside the Citadel.

We headed to some lakes which ended up being overrun with lilly pads and people in little boats casting nets. The boats were tiny and the fisherman rowed with little paddles in each hand. But not rowing in the classic sense – it was more like a doggy-paddling motion. It reminded me of Gullum from the animated version of The Hobbit.

Wall near a pool.

Wall near a pool.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a bakery and got some yummies, then headed to a pagoda along the river.  It was closed so we sat on the steps and ate our snacks while some rain fell and bats flew around our heads. But the day was only going to get better: we stopped by a cheap Indian place for dinner. Turned out to be the best Indian food we’ve had since leaving SF.

*     *     *

Hue has several interesting temples and tombs in the surrounding hills, so we rented a motorbike and set off for a full day exploring. Tina was a unsure if I knew how to drive a motorbike and how I would handle driving through the traffic. But since it’s standard practice here to rent you the bike with an empty tank, I did a solo test run to the gas station to prove I knew what I was doing. Or at least give her the impression I did.

Pool.

Pool.

I’ll admit I was a bit wobbly at first. And I might have rounded the first corner a bit too fast, but I made it to the station just fine. After putting about three litters in the tank, I came back to the hotel and picked up Tina. We circled around the block, made it through the round about and headed out of town.

Detail of a wall.

Detail of a wall.

The road started off pretty wide – except for a sudden narrow bit over a bridge where I had my feet down and was ‘walking’ the bike across because it was too crowded to drive. And driving through the traffic wasn’t too bad because we didn’t have to make any turns or anything yet. I say “through” because even though we are going straight, there were other bikes cutting across or driving on the wrong side. So there isn’t a lot of driving “with” traffic.

Another gate.

Another gate.

The LP had a pretty basic map of the surrounds, so we bought one from the hotel that was marginally better. We could fold it up, making it easier to use then the guidebook map, and it had a few more street names.

We missed the first turn and had to make a u-turn back to the road we thought was the right way. According to the legend on the map, there was major roads and normal roads. “Normal” turned out to mean anything from a two lane road to a dirt path going through a village. The path kept going through some files, and even past a huge cemetery on a hill. We even passed a temple in ruins that wasn’t on any of the maps. It was beautiful – partially overgrown with grass and weeds. There were even cows grazing on some of the terraces.

Tina.

Tina.

At one point, while looking for the Tomb of Minh Mang, we got pretty lost and ended up driving down this rocky dirt path heading in the jungle. We passed a little stand where a woman came out of nowhere yelling, Coffee? Coffee? A few minutes further down the road, it became too muddy to continue – it had been raining the past few days – so we turned around and we back to the main road.

We tried another side road that someone suggested to us that also got muddy – and somehow took us past that coffee shop back to where it had been really muddy. So I slowed down a bit and we went through the mud and crossed a river which matched up with the map. Then the dirt trail got really narrow and took us through a village. There were chickens and pigs and little kids in the road who where thrilled to see two foreigners on a bike riding around – for the record, I assume the kids were more excited then the chickens or pigs.

Front.

Entrance to the Imperial Enclosure.

We still weren’t sure where to go next so we would ask “Minh Mang?” to anyone we passed. They would usually just point or gesture to make the next left or whatever. Then the trail got even narrower and we were riding through what looked like people’s yards. Then the trail opened up onto a huge expanse of rice paddies. We turned along the paddies and road for a while until coming upon a paved road. I stopped the bike to see where we might be on the map. At that point a woman rode up to us and asked us where we were going. Minh Mang, I said. She told us she lived close to there and was on her way home fro Hue, and to follow her.

Enjoying street food.

Enjoying some banh khoai.

We turned down the paved road as I made out some landmarks for the way back.  At this point we were riding along a river climbing up into the hillside. After a bit, she slowed down and gestured for us to pull up next to her. We started having a conversation about where we were from, where we had been in Vietnam, etc. She then sped up and we followed.

Inner wall around Tu Duc's tomb.

Inner wall around Tu Duc’s tomb.

A little later she slowed and we came along side and she said she’d like to show us around Minh Mang then have us over for dinner. Now, I wanted to trust her, and I wanted the experience of dining with her family. But I am so jaded by the constant scamming here that I didn’t want to take the chance.

As I told this story to someone later, they mentioned that this kind of invite was common, with the outcome being that the guest would be told the family didn’t have any food at home, and they should go out to eat. Well, you can guess who get stuck with the huge bill. This is also how the tea house scams in China work.

Tu Duc

Towers at the Stele Pavilion, Tomb of Tu Duc.

So, I politely said we were meeting friends that night and that would couldn’t make dinner. She responded by just looking at me with no expression. At that moment the road forked and she went off the right. I pointed to the left and she nodded once, then looked away. I thought it odd that she would make the invite right when her chance of getting out was coming up. I then felt bad for all the honest people who don’t get trusted because of things like this.

We got to Minh Mang, parked the bike where a shopkeeper would “watch it good” for me and we made the hike out to the tomb. The trail took us by a banana plantation lined with barefoot kids selling bananas. We were serenaded a chorus of little lyrical voices, singing “You buy baaanaaaaaana? Madam? You buy baaanaaaaana?”

*     *     *

By the time we arrived back in Hue, it was dusk. There was one more pagoda I wanted to see. Tina, however, had enough of the traffic so I dropped her off at the hotel and promised to be back in an hour. I took off down the road and blended in with the traffic, assimilating as best I could to the culture of the Vietnamese motorbiker. I honked, darted, ran lights, sped. It was glorious.

Tu Duc

 One of the many gates, Tomb of Tu Duc.

The pagoda was next to the highway, which followed the river. It was dark now, but still pretty warm. The highway was pretty empty save a few locals who slowed to say “hi” as they passed. I was cruising along at a pretty fast pace not worrying about seeing the pagoda since it was probably closed. I was now just riding to ride. I think I should do that more often.

Minh Lau pavillian at Minh Ming's tomb.

Minh Lau Pavillian, Tomb of Minh Mang

Cam On it!

January 25, 2009
by Guest
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1,039 views

Editor’s note: In case you missed it, one of our good friends, Shirin, traveled with us in Hanoi and Halong Bay. She is a terrific writer, so I asked her to write up a little post for our blog – and to give you readers a chance to finally read something worth while.

With muddy pant legs, unwashed hair, and the departure of Tina and Stuart for Hue, I sit on a train to Danang anticipating the second phase of my Vietnam vacation. After almost a week of trekking through the mountainous thickets of Halong Bay, toasting to frosty mugs of Tiger beer with fellow Western travelers in the beach town of Cat Ba, and sitting down to bowls of delicious pho on the sidewalks of Hanoi’s Old Quarter after experiencing the rush of dodging throngs of tour buses and hog-laden motorbikes, I’m beginning to appreciate both the charm and the sturm und drang of this country so affected by us a generation ago.

If I’ve taken anything away from this trip so far, it’s that the Vietnamese prioritize Taking Care of Business. Sure, there were guys like Cuoc, our lazy lothario tour guide from Halong Bay; but by and large, a strong work ethic here reigns. One might regard incessant begging, unrelenting street vendors, and chronic foreigner overcharging as pushy at best, but viewed another way, you could say the people here are simply direct–they don’t waste time messing around.

As we Westerners huffed and puffed our way up the (mostly vertical) Cat Ba mountains, our spry old guide hopped from rock to rock in sandals and a puffy coat, and swung from vines in a way that Cirque du Soleil can only hope to imitate. Instead of finding quiet streets and a sluggish dawn when I awoke, jetlagged, at 5:30 a.m. those first mornings, I rose to the sound of competing roosters, squealing pigs, and blaring horns in a town already bustling with activity. Where in San Francisco I might grip a friend’s sides with trepidation as we ride his scooter around town, in Vietnam the second (and third, and fourth) passengers breeze through rush-hour traffic with their hands sitting casually in their own pockets or clasped behind their backs. Hardcore, for sure.

So I know I’m in for a ride that’ll keep me on my toes all the way down to Saigon! To Tina and Stuart, who graciously shared some of their travel time with me, taught me the invaluable skill of crossing the street in Hanoi, and offered me this guest spot on their blog, I wish them a safe, fun journey and give them a heartfelt “Cam on!”

Hazed and Confused

January 23, 2009
by Stuart
2 Comments
1,946 views

Heading toward the cave.

Heading toward Hang Dau Go cave.

If there was a term to describe tour companies in Vietnam, it would be nonprofessional. I may be splitting hairs, but this is different then unprofessional – which has a negative connotation – a slight purposefulness to the lack of professionalism. What I am talking about is a lack of organization, structure, information – but all done with a smile on the face and the comfort of living in the moment. This can be amusing and refreshing until you’ve been waiting over and hour for the bus to take you to where ever it is that you are eating lunch. Only to find that the restaurant is about five blocks away.

When choosing a tour of Halong Bay, the LP warns against choosing the cheapest tour operator. Which is exactly what we did. Not for the sake of frugality, but because the more expensive tour offices didn’t seem to pay much attention to us. One woman kept stalling when I asked her the price. This is a tour she sends out daily – there was no reason to withhold the info. Unless she wanted to continue selling the tour justifying the high price tag.

It was the most crowded around the cave.

It was the most crowded around the cave.

Our tour guide was a short little man who carried himself with an unhealthy mix of arrogance and the stunned look of a substitute teacher who just started teaching high school (imagine a Vietnamese George Bush mixed with that dude from Mad magazine). The kind you lose respect for pretty quickly. He spoke only in commands: Wait here. Go eat. Kayak now. And when the going got tough he was no where to be found.

Floating convience store.

Floating convince store.

The bus from Hanoi dropped us off at Halong City where we waited in the parking lot until our guide figured out on what boat we were supposed to be. Once we got on the boat we were told it was time to eat, then we’d go kayaking then get to drop our stuff off in our rooms (we slept on the boat the first night, then a hotel on Cat Ba Island the next night). But then we learned that lunch wasn’t for an hour so we got to  put stuff in our room and had to wait to eat.

Tina and I exploring a "cave" by kayak.

Tina and I exploring a cave.

Because there were three of us – me, Tina, Shirin – we either had to pay extra for a single room for the third person, or be willing to bunk with someone if needed. We decided to take the chance and not pay the fee on condition that if it was an awkward situation, Tina and Shirin would share a room and stick me with the random person. One caveat: If the other person turned out to be a young, hot single guy, Tina and Shirin got to fight it out to see who bunked with him. If it was a young, hot single girl, I got stuck with Tina.

Sunset lost in the clouds.

Sunset lost in the clouds.

His name was Alex, and he was from Germany. He was to be my bunkmate. For the first six or seven hours of our relationship, our longest conversation went like this:

“Stuart, do you have the room key”?
“Yes.”
“May I have it?”
“Of course.”

The scenery in the bay was just like Guilin or Yangshou in China, but instead of towns and fields surrounding the limestone hills, it was the ocean. Most of the time is was sunny, but mornings and evenings were quite hazy which added to the majesty of of the peaks jutting out of the bay. And the bay was big enough that you didn’t feel too crowded even though there were lots of boats taking tourists around.

Our first stop on the tour was Hang Dau Go, an expansive cave within one of the limestone hills. We hiked up the path to the entrance where our guide handed one of the members of our group all the ticket stubs and then disappeared. We stood around wondering if we should wait for him or just go in. After about 15 minutes we decided to go in.

Tina climbing down the fire towers.

Tina climbing down from the fire tower.

Not having a guide we walked through the first chamber rather quickly, catching up with the group ahead of us. That group had a tour guide. So we all stealthy walked up and stood close enough to hear what the guide was saying. Almost simultaneously we all noticed that our guide was standing in their group listening their guide! He turned and saw us all looking at him, the smiled a “oops, you caught me” smile and kinda chuckled rather shamelessly. Then as the group dispersed he disappeared again.

Tina and Shirin enjoying drink at lunch.

Tina and Shirin enjoying a drink at lunch.

Someone saw him up ahead so we kinda surrounded him and he started acting like a guide and busted out his little laser pointer and tried to give some of the rock formations names that didn’t fit at all. “Big lion sitting”. “Old Buddah”. “Rice boat”. Soon, we all left him to go follow the other guide which seemed to suit our guide just fine. He slithered off into the cave only to be seen again outside waiting for us.

Now you're talking!
Now you’re talking!

We finished that afternoon with some kayaking around the bay followed by sitting on the upper deck of the boat as we cruised through the islands watching the sunset and heading to where we’d anchor the boat and spend the night. While we were kayaking, people would row little boats over to us filled with snacks, drinks and fruit, like some kind of floating convenience store. We wanted to buy some Pringles but everyone was charging way too much, so it became a game to see how low we could get it. One boat came over to us and I couldn’t get them low enough on the Pringles, but I didn’t get them down to a dollar for their dog.

Hiking up the hills of Monkey Island.

Hiking up the hills of Monkey Island.

After dinner, we got most the group together and spent hours playing Uno. Almost everyone knew how to play, but the more drinks and the more the evening wore on, they started to forget. My bunkmate, Alex, came out of his shell and revealed himself to be quite the player – he even won a couple hands.

One of the beaches of Monkey Island.

One of the beaches of Monkey Island.

Earlier, when we were waiting to eat dinner, and during dinner, the guide was flirting with some of the female crew members. So before it was time for bed he stopped our card game and we asked how things were going with the girl. He smiled and said he’d tell us later. Then he disappeared. And so did she.

*     *     *

Even though we were all on one boat, there were actually two groups – people going for two days, and people going for three. After breakfast, the two day people headed back to Hanoi while those of us three day-ers took a little boat to Cat Ba Island to do some hiking and then stay that night in Cat Ba Town.

A monkey on Monkey Island.

A monkey on Monkey Island.

When we got to the island, we were welcomed by a swarm of touts selling all kinds of foodstuffs. It was really hot out and Tina and I were tired of carrying our heavy winter jackets we had bought four months earlier in Saint Petersburg. So I traded Tina’s jacket for some Oreos (we were on a big Oreo kick for a few days) that turned out to be an off brand called “Cream-o’s”. Fine with me-o. I almost got a can of Pringles and some Snickers for my jacket but the woman saw the huge tears in the back and refused. I was tired of lugging it around, so I just gave it to her. She snatched it without even asking if I meant it.

After much confusion about what van we were to get in, what van our luggage was to go in, we were told that some luggage was going in one van, and some in another with a different tour group, but we would all be riding in the same van and would meet up with the other van, and our luggage, later. Confused? We were, too.

Our beach on Monkey Island.

Our beach on Monkey Island.

We drove to the trail head of a nice hike that took us up a hill with a fire tower atop. The hike was through the jungle so dense we couldn’t tell what the sky was like until getting to the top. The fire tower was pretty cool, altho most of the boards on the view platform were loose so you had to watch where you were stepping.

After the hike, and reunion with our luggage, we drove to another part of the island and hopped a shuttle boat out to Monkey Island. This place was paradise. It was a little cove with some bungalows and an open air room with a thatched roof in which we had lunch. The food on the tour was pretty good. It wasn’t excellent, but way better then I think any of us were expecting. On the island, there were hammocks, a pool table, and some beach chairs down on the shore.

How we got from the boat to the island.

How we got from the boat to the island.

There were also monkeys. One of them walked back and forth along the beach while people sat in the chairs and watched. After lunch, a few of us hiked back up in the hills behind the beach to see more monkeys. Again, our guide said he’d go with us, but then disappeared and I didn’t see him again until I got back from the hike.

A tender moment.

A tender moment.

After hiking – more like scrambling – up the trail, we reached a false peak giving us a great view of the larger hill behind. Then, along some of the rocks, across on the bigger hill, ran about 20 monkeys. They leaped on to the trees and swung around quickly out of view. Soon all you could make out was the swaying of the trees occasionally seeing a patch of brown fur poke out. After about five minutes they settled down and we didn’t see them again.

*     *     *

We boated back to Cat Ba Island and took the bus to the hotel in Cat Ba Town. Since we were back to the three – Alex was one of the two day-ers – the hotel asked us to pay the singe person supplement. I explained that it wasn’t our fault there weren’t enough people, so the tour company should pay. Then the guide came over and suggested that he and I share a room. Riiight. Then he made some joke that wouldn’t be there anyway. I didn’t want any part of this, so I asked to hotel if they had any rooms with three beds. And this being Vietnam, they did.

Jars of snake wine.

Jars of snake wine.

After checking in, Tina, Shirin and I walked around Cat Ba Town – a sleepy little fishing town on the coast. We got some oranges that were so juicy and sweet – best I’d had in a while – from a market then walked over along the shore. The road was covered in little fish that were laid out to dry in the sun. They were too small to eat, so we reasoned they were being used to make fish sauce – the base for so many foods here.

We passed a blue canvas tent with the worst karaoke coming from it, so we had to check it out. Turned out it was a couple kids standing right in front of the tv and stereo screaming as all they could. That was our cue to head back to the hotel to meet up for dinner. Along the way, a girl walked right past Tina and Shirin and gave me a card for Sai Gon Pleasure house – a “massage” parlor in town. And later, when I showed the card to our friends, someone walked by and commented that it was a good place and would be worth my time.

Little fishies drying in the sun. On the street.

Little fishies drying in the sun. On the street.

At dinner we sat by a French couple from another tour. He had just finished four years at culinary school, and she was a cook at a restaurant in Paris. Even though they were on vacation, they were doing a bit of informal research of Vietnam cuisine. They have plans to open their own place in a five years and were hoping for some inspiration. I asked them lots of questions, then explained that the Food Network was one of the best things about America. They couldn’t fathom a whole channel devoted to food. Yes, I said, it’s fantastic.

Collecting fish off the road.

Collecting fish off the road.

The hotel was throwing a party that night in the bar with free drinks at happy hour. Since it didn’t start for while, our group decided to meet at a little place down the street and wait it out. We sat outside to enjoy the warm salty air. The only thing saltier were these creepy men who would come off the street and start massaging you hoping you’d like it enough to pay for their services. They would go from table to table giving everyone a 30 second preview. Some of them even wanted you to leave with them. Sai Gon Pleasure House didn’t look so bad after all.

We went back to the hotel to discover that there wasn’t much happy about this hour. The music was loud, there was no one else there, and on the tv was this extreme motorcycle tricks show. I was pretty glad for the show because I found these stunts to be the best part of the evening.

A hazy morning on the bay.

A hazy morning on the bay.

After I had really gotten into the show, one of the guys on our tour challenged me to a game of pool. I explained that I was terrible, but he just wanted to show off to his girlfriend, so whatever. We started playing and I realized that he wasn’t that good. And the only reason why he finally beat me was because I was worse. The game should have been over in five minutes, but it took him about 25 minutes to get the eight ball in the pocket.

*     *     *

The next morning we took the boat back to Halong City where we were to catch a bus to a restaurant for lunch. When we got to the dock, our guide led us out of the parking lot and out to the street and told us to wait. Then he disappeared. We saw him across the lot taking with some girls. Then we lost him. Then he showed up and said it would another 30 minutes. The he disappeared.

Our boat. The

Our boat. Cleverly named “Asia Cruise”.

Over an hour later, he showed up on the bus we’d been waiting for – that was heading in the opposite direction then he said it would, and we were sure we’d seen it pull into the parking lot a while ago – meaning the bus had been sitting there this whole time. He just didn’t know it. Then we got on and drove about five blocks down the road, pulled over, and ate lunch quick enough to get us back to Hanoi in time to catch our train.