Strange to talk about Vietnam when we’re about to leave for India. But some tales must be told. Read on.

 

We’ve used the word “crazy” a lot on this blog. Not “crazy” like the people running America’s foreign policy. Not “crazy” like this guy. “Crazy” like weird, strange, hectic, wild: Not quite Hunter Thompson crazy, but almost. Good craziness.

 

But nothing we’d seen prepared us for the craziness of Hanoi.

 

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We came into Hanoi from Laos on New Year’s Day, or Tet, and the town was dead. At least that’s what the locals told us: dead for Hanoi being bustling for just about anywhere else. Every third shop was closed. The big markets of the Old Quarter likewise were deserted.

The best thing going was water puppetry.

 

Still Hanoi had energy, mostly provided by little miscreants throwing loud crackers around day and night. That’ll keep you on your toes. The gunshot-sounds reverberated in our heads long after we left the city limits.

 

And no matter how quiet Hanoi is, there are still thousands of xe oms — motorcycle taxis — and other bikers on the streets, honking merrily away. The honking never ceases.

 

We left shortly after Tet, but still during the week or so afterward when no one does anything, or any more than they have to. The Vietnamese essentially have one vacation annually and this was it. But that doesn’t mean tourism falls off, as we learned in Halong Bay: just that we’re expected to pay higher prices for somewhat more haphazard service.

 

Yes, tourism was and is and always will be booming down in Halong, in the northwest of the Gulf of Tonkin, a name that will ring bells for the history buffs among you. Even in the off-season, when the fog never lifts for more than a couple hours a day — if at all — Halong is a beautiful, haunting place. Surreal. Unreal.

 

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The sense of unreality comes from the karst formations, looming parabolic limestone peaks that jump out of the jade-colored water, hairy with bamboo, streaked by exposed grey and ochre rock. The topography was formed by seawater erosion over many thousands of years but looks like the result of a dramatic, sudden upheaval: knees and elbows of green monolithic karst spring one after another out of the churning water in an awesome random sequence.

 

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As part of our official tour we explored them, though somewhat perfunctorily. Time limitations again. It was enough just to stare at them for a while. After an afternoon of kayaking we were brought to a hidden grotto, a great circular lake accessible only by paddling under an immense low arch of rock. Echoes of birdcalls, but no sign of the monkeys said to inhabit some of these isolated eminences.

 

We spent the first night on the bay, on a “junk” – basically a floating hotel – arranged by the tour company. We were pursued by women in little paddle-boats fore, aft, port and starboard trying to sell us warm beer, cigarettes, vodka, Pringles. Pringles incidentally are the chip of choice throughout SE Asia.

 

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We bought some warm beer.

 

We had an onboard poker tournament late into the night and Lisa came in third, I came in second. Some punk from Sydney (just kidding, Tim) kicked everyone’s butt.

 

Our second night in Halong we spent on Cat Ba, the only human-inhabited island among the 1,900 or so that fill the bay. In Cat Ba’s mangrove wilderness we toured the famous Hospital Cave where wounded Vietcong were treated during the American War, as it’s known. New Zealand’s spelunkers would be aghast at the cavalier attitude tour groups display in these caves: touching is hardly forbidden, almost encouraged. In Waitomo on the North Island we learned a thing or two about the fragility of caves and couldn’t help remembering them now. The caves — and there are many much-visited caves in Halong — seem to be holding up so far.

 

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Streaming stalactites

On our way out of the Hospital Cave Lisa was cooed over by a group of women clam diggers who admired the whiteness of her skin. White skin is a treasured trait in Asia: a profusion of scary whitening products fills the pharmacy shelves.

 

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The women couldn’t get enough of Lisa. Then the rest of our motley crew of a tour group caught up with us. “Wait’ll they get a load of the Norwegians” I said, and I was right: a new and whiter creature had arrived to general amazement and admiration all round. It took some time to extricate ourselves from the encounter.

 

Later that night we all drank too much rice wine and made the owner of the karaoke bar regret posting his hours. Here is me, a nameless Norwegian (honestly forgot their names) and Joss, another Australian, doing a spot-on “Hotel California.”

 

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The Norwegians saved their most passionate backing vocals for Abba tunes. The biggest hit of the night? “Like a Virgin.” Every woman, and not a single man, pitched in.

 

Returning to Hanoi, we found that Tet was finally winding down. With it went any sense of tranquility we might have sought after a quiet few days on the water. Once again we were Traffic Dodgers. There was nowhere to walk: the sidewalks were covered in parked motorcycles and street vendors, and every inch of street was fair game. A free-for-all.

 

All the shops were now open, brightly lit and manned by aggressive hawkers. There were no more urchins tossing firecrackers, but the circus kept on rollin’. The horns of the xe oms seemed increased by an order of magnitude.

 

Crazy. And not bad crazy – hectic, eclectic, wild fun crazy. Unforgettable crazy.

 

We had little time to enjoy the change: we soon hopped a train north, to Sapa, a former French hill station in the mountains near the Chinese border.

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