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Ha Long Bay & Sapa

May 6th, 2011 by and

95180008The events depicted in this (absurdly long) blog post occurred between the middle and end of March, 2011, in effect “straddling” the event of the last post (ha). All photos for the Ha Long Bay portion were taken on a “Doozy Sunshine” disposable camera, which actually resulted in some great images due to/in spite of its complete lack of quality.

Part I: Ready for Something Amazing

Oh my gootness. We are behind in this blog! Deearr. Well I’ll do my best to recap this 3 day trip out of Hanoi, Vietnam. We heard many people complain about the weather in Northern Vietnam at this time but we were determined to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site–Ha Long Bay–literally “Descending Dragon Bay”. Photos of the bay are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Unfortunately we have very few photos, since, as we mentioned in the previous post, our (basically brand new) camera decided to commit suicide RIGHT before we left Hanoi.

The bay is formed by thousands of limestone karsts and isles. You can choose any number of tours through the millions of tour companies on offer. We took the (typical) lazy route and booked a boat trip through our hotel, with a few night’s stay on Cat Ba Island. En route, our tour guide leans over the passenger side seat and announces that “due to the bad weather” (it’s grey and slightly drizzly…) there will be no tour boats or public ferry going out on Ha Long Bay today. And maybe tomorrow. Turns out most of the vessels are pretty old, with no navigatonal system, so if it’s even slightly cloudy or grey they just ground ’em.

Part II: No Boats Today

Ryan and I decided to tough it out and  stay the night in Ha Long City, a total shithole of a town,to wait and see if the tour will leave the next day. We woke up and saw grey skies again and knew that no tour boats would be heading out to the island. We called “Tam”, the tour guide who was waiting with the rest of the group at their (too expensive) hotel; they were the remnants who decided to wait and still get 2 days of their 3-day tour. “Boat no leave today, maybe you catch ferry. You want ride back to Hanoi with others?”

We held out hopes of still catching the public ferry to Cat Ba Island. The weather still looked mild, though drizzly and a bit windy. The word was that the government was wary after the drowning deaths of 12 tourists in January (which apparently had nothing to do with weather). We figured if no tours were running, we could at least wait out the weather a little more and hopefully book a tour through the bay in a few days.

After a long taxi ride, several offers to take us immediately to Cat Ba for “very fair” price, lots of waiting in the drizzly weather, and having to force our cab driver to stop so he didn’t take us back to his house so his wife could shove us on a boat for the aforementioned “fair price”, we managed to buy a cheap ferry ticket and sat waiting for our boat for the 1.5 hour cruise, with the only other prospective passengers: 30-odd uniformed members of the Vietnamese military.

As we were waiting, we kept saying to each other “I hope THAT’s not the ferry”; referring to a “ship” sitting neat the ferry dock. We held out hope that the actual ferry was on its way. Then, lo and behold, our chariot arrived. It was the damn barely-a-boat contraption we had seen earlier. Part of what had so worried  us earlier is that there was not a single place for a passenger to sit, and definitely nowhere inside except the wee control box up top. As it was in the low 40s, rainy, and all we had were light jackets, we were worried.

Then it got worse. As soon as we got on board (and the Army drove their vans on) we made a bee-line up the two stories to the control box. We had been sitting outside for the several hours at this point and were ready for any small comfort. The boat crew immediately made it clear that were weren’t allowed inside, which became the all the more frustrating as he stood to the side for each and every soldier to file in, all of them making pantomimes of extreme cold, eg. rubbing their hands together and blowing on

View from the Ferry's cabin

The only surviving photo from inside the cabin, taken somewhat discreetly (though it's pretty hard to disguise the horrible winding and clicking of a disposable camera).

them etc. Courtney and I stood outside the window on the top deck, the only ones standing outside, as the boat pulled away from the dock. I was pissed and started feeling stubborn; “I’m just gonna go climb in one of their cars then!” I thought. But Courtney was persistent, knocking on the door and making the same “I’m cold!” motions the soldiers had made. Some of the soldiers just waved back cheerily through the window, seemingly oblivious to our pleas, until finally, one of the crew members let us inside.

We arrived at dock to find a large group already waiting for busses; apparently their tour boat had come over no problem (we never figured out what the hell was going on for those few days)! Earlier, we had been determined to wait for the local bus and avoid the scammers who offered rides (we were 30k from town) for $7 per person. However, now, soaked to the bone, we attempted to slide in with the tour group when their tour leader ordered them onto the busses. But the previous scam artist helpfully pointed us out and had a chat with the tour guide, so that the price was magically the same as had been quoted earlier. We paid it.


We arrived in Cat Ba Town, and here’s where the blog post gets short… This place was just miserable. There’s much to do when it’s not hovering around 40; there are trails, rock-climbing and a National Park that we were set on visiting. As it was, we were just trying to stay warm and dry some clothes out in our room at the Cat Ba “Dream” (it’s totally a dream if you are a fan of black mold and residing on the same floor as a tour group of shrieking children).

And so the next few days went; all the restaurants kept the doors open, apparently thinking that if you closed them tourists would think the restaurant was “closed” as opposed to “warm”. This resulted in us eating in our room twice (one time from Duc Tuan; even eaten from tin foil, this was one of the best fish meals of my life).

On the third (or fourth, or whatever) day we booked a tour, weather be damned. It left the next day and we jumped on a boat with a couple Frenchies and a half-dozen Germans. The first stop, where we learned that this tour would be completely different than the one we were sold, was to MONKEY ISLAND. The day before, Courtney had been warned about Monkey Island by an expat who owned a restaurant in Cat Ba town. “Whatever you do,” he had said, “DON’T GO ONTO MONKEY ISLAND.” According to this guy, 6 tourists had already been bitten by the monkeys in March alone; like so many other “Monkey Islands” we had heard about (in Thailand and Cambodia), the monkeys become a tourist attraction, tourists come and feed the monkeys, the monkeys get aggressive… So, when we reached the island, we declared our intentions of staying on the boat. “The guy told us NOT to go onto Monkey Island,” we said. “Come on, be adventurous!” the Germans said, making us feel weak and very American in our preoccupation with things like safety from rabies.


A clue as to as to what befell Monkey Island? The sign reads "To Sell Food For Monkey"

We got off the boat. The monkeys came closer and closer, nibbling on pieces of trash, as our new friends edged closer as well, snapping away with their cameras, until finally the monkeys finally ran off into the depths of the jungle. That excitement over, we waited in the rain for the boat to return, wandering through the ruinous buildings on the island, which apparently had been the headquarters of some sort of natural park (that is, until the MONKEYS took over). There was not one building without broken windows or a generally dilapidated and weather-beaten appearance. We kept saying to each other, “this is probably what Jurassic Park looked like after it closed”.


Doozy of a Jellyfish

After the boat returned, we went to a cave with a concrete, well-lit walkway, had some lunch, which was awesome even though it was prepared in the back of a tiny boat by a perhaps teenage cook, and headed to a floating fishing “village” to do some kayaking. Miraculously, at the very moment we stepped off the boat it stopped raining. We hopped in a double kayak, confident in our abilities having done this before and… wait, what the hell? We couldn’t control a thing. We both paddled at the same time and would go left, or right, or in a circle. The rest of the group zoomed around the Bay like pros, and we were struggling to catch up, and getting soaked by our paddles in the process. We did this for an interminable amount of time until the guide set us free and we could return to the boat. On the way back, experimenting with various magical incantations and reverse-logic (“maybe if YOU paddle on the right and I paddle on BOTH sides, we’ll go STRAIGHT!”) methods, Courtney pointed out a plastic bag looking thing beneath our boat. To our amazement, heaving just under the surface, was the biggest jellyfish either of us had ever seen outside of an aquarium. We snapped a photo with the disposable camera and returned, now soaked, to the boat. Thankfully for my pride, no one else seemed to avoid the dousing. We spent some of the remainder of the trip on the top of the boat, since the rain was still holding off for a while, and this was just breathtaking… we wished we had been able to stay outside the entire time.

After we got back from the tour we decided to give it one more day to get sunny so we could tour the park. When we woke up it was still awful and cold, and the power was out in our area of town, so we said “Screw this” and decided to try and catch the early boat. On the bus as we headed the port, both of us holding mental middle fingers up to the Cat Ba, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in over a week, bathing the island in a ethereal glow.

Sometimes, no matter how stupid and trivial the reasons are, it is hard not to feel sorry for oneself.

Part IV: Overstaying our Welcome- Sapa

After a return to Hanoi to dry off on the only sunny day in March, we headed to Ninh Binh. Somewhere in our Hanoi trips we had to renew our visas, since we were about to overstay our 30 days. Then we returned back to Hanoi again, struggling with whether we should visit the last place left on our Vietnam list: Sapa. Since the weather had been so unrelentingly awful, we were somewhat persuaded to just call it quits for Vietnam and head onto Laos, which neither of were really ready to do (which was strange since Vietnam had done nothing but dump rain on us for the last three weeks). After several sessions of the usual SiggMaxcy Indecision Committee, it was decided that we would head to Sapa on the overnight train, spending a night in Bac Ha, since we were just in time for the Sunday market that our German Ha Long buddies had told us about. Our departure was delayed a day since the sleeper cars were all booked up for the day we wanted. but that just left more time in Hanoi, and I would never complain about that (except for the incessant honking).

Before leaving, we hauled our bags to Quan An Ngon for one last meal. After we finished another excellent round of fancy-ish street food, we left for the nearby train station. When we boarded the train our faces both fell; there was not one, but two small children in our cabin (we ain’t kid haters, I swear). In the end, the family turned out to be the best cabin-mates we could have, even though neither of us probably slept very much at all in the end.

IMG_3337We got off the train and hopped on one of the many minibuses waiting to ferry tourists to the Sunday Bac Ha Market, where each week all the hill tribes from nearby would congregate. The villagers in the hills of Northern Vietnam consist of many different groups, among them the H’mong (who are also spread throughout Laos, China and Thailand), Red D’zao, Flower H’mong, Muong, and many many more, all of them known for their colorful and interesting traditional clothing. Even though none of them are actual ‘tribes’, you will still hear highland groups commonly referred to as ‘hill-tribes’ through most of Indochina.

Simply put, Bac Ha was an awful, disheartening experience. We had breakfast at the hotel we planned on staying at, where we got nothing we asked for and were charged for things we never received. The minibus which took us their was also heading to Sapa the same day so we just went back and told we’d be joining them. Then we headed into the market.

IMG_3307It was still early, so it was quiet and one could wander the stalls mostly unmolested. After bargaining unsuccessfully for a few blankets, we headed to the livestock market, which Courtney tried to walk as quickly as possible through, especially when we hit the puppy area.

We decided to sit down at one of the small stalls and have coffee. The market soon started to fill up with busloads of tourists, and so we started to figure out just what kind of a tourist circus/charade we’d let ourselves get into. I take that back, we still had much to learn about the level of tourist bullshit we had gotten ourselves into. I noticed that the coffee making woman had two glasses out for coffee; I told her that we only wanted one. As we waited for the coffee, we nibbled on some peanuts and dried coconut that the coffee-stand women had actually put directly into our hands (as in, grabbed our hands and put the food directly into them). Having been in Vietnam for well over a month, we were somewhat used to this sort of unnecessarily forceful behavior. A Polish couple from our minibus sat down next to us and started ordered some drinks as well. we should have known we were in trouble as soon as the vendor waved off a Vietnamese couple tried to pay publicly, she waved them off so we wouldn’t see the amount (usually this just means we’re paying the “tourist tax”, overpaying from the locals by 5,000 dong or so, which is a quarter). So we got up to pay, and the women informed us that the total was around $15. For coffee. In VIETNAM. When we balked, she explained that the tiny plates of peanuts that we were given were $5 each (not to mention $3 for 2 coffees, plus a $1+ for a water. In VIETNAM). In the end, not wanting to cause a scene (of “lose face” as they say here), we paid, as did the Polish couple. In the end, in our ridiculous, petty way, we got our revenge: every time I would walk past her coffee stand, I would walk up to any tourists and let them know that their peanuts could set them back more than their night’s accommodation. The market was now officially a tourist zoo; a soon as someone would step into the market, they would be completely surrounded by women selling cheap mass-produced version of local handicrafts.

The only good thing I have to say about the Bac Ha Market is that they probably don’t eat THIS: [flickr video=5658229006]

Tourists ServicedSo we were the only ones who were early to the minibus, waiting impatiently to get the hell out of there. By the time we arrived in Sapa, some of the frustration with Bac Ha had worn off, and we were able to appreciate its dramatic beauty, which is not unlike  a Swiss resort in the Alps. We suddenly realized why so many tourists decided to congregate here.

IMG_3454The mini-bus did it’s normal stop at the predetermined hotel, to try and lure anyone not having reservations, before dropping us at the Cat Cat View, one of three in the “Cat Cat” family of hotels. Once we sorted out which Cat Cat we were supposed to be staying at, the receptionist took us to a series of rooms. Considering that this was to be the most ($30!) that we had spent on ANY accommodation in the entire country, we were determined to be happy with this, especially given the temperature outside; we assumed we’d be spending a lot of time here. After showing us a couple decent rooms, she took us to the elevator and hit ‘7’, which was strange considering all the hotels we had seen had only a few stories. The elevator opened up to a rooftop patio (read: ‘magic garden’) with trees and flowers, which continued on up a series of stairs. At the top was the hotel’s restaurant, 3 levels of mountain-view rooms, and what was to be our own personal terrace and the most spectacular view we could have imagined. The room was nice in the shabby way of a nice hotel that has such a gorgeous view doesn’t really NEED nice rooms. And it had a fireplace. It was kind of like the hotel from the ‘Shining’, but since that type of place speaks to our Pacific Northwestern-ness, we were pretty thrilled.

IMG_3407The next day we rented a motorbike, to be ready in case of a break in the weather, which came for a few hours in the afternoon. We rode up to the Silver Waterfall with a picnic lunch from the ‘Baguette and Chocolate’ cafe, and after that rode out towards… well, we didn’t know, but near the end of the days’ wanderings Courtney was challenging park rangers in a ping-pong match.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Even more so than Bac Ha, Sapa is billed as the place to go for ‘trekking’; this word usually means not only ‘hiking’ but also ‘visiting villagers in some pathetic search for the exotic’. This activity seems to take place in all those above-mentioned areas, from Northwestern Vietnam all the way to Northern Thailand (where we had first heard about it). In Sapa, however, the tables have turned. The business of trekking has proved so lucrative for many of the surrounding villages that you will literally get stalked by persuasive women in traditional garb. As soon as we left our hotel the first day, there was a H’mong woman and young girl. They quickly introduced themselves in broken English but said nothing more; we said hello, and moved on. Then we noticed that we were being followed. We did the usual; we changed our route. Then when they continued to follow us we stopped and politely told them that we weren’t going to buy anything and so they were wasting their time. Every once in a while someone from another ethnic group would approach us (usually this meant getting physically run into while the vendor shouted “You buy meeeee? Shopping?? What your name?” in a sing-song voice), but our little duo held on. After telling them a few times that their time was wasted on us, we finally ducked into a (power-less but fireplace-warmed) restaurant for lunch and we were soon joined by the Polish couple who had come into the same place by chance. We pointed out our stalkers. They seemed confused, as if they hadn’t been harrassed at all since they arrived. When we left lunch and said goodbye to the couple, they continued to follow us to every place we went in town, never saying a single word. That is, right until we were entering our hotel… then the sale pitch began, even though it was the same one we had heard a hundred times from everyone else. We can’t imagine that this sales technique had worked before (though we were tempted a few times to just buy something if they would go away).

That night we lost power a few times… 3 times proved to be the magic number for power loss in the coming days.

I’ll make this last bit real quick… Our third day we visited the “village” of Cat Cat. Surely at one point it had been a real village, but situated as it was a single kilometer’s walk from Sapa, that point must have been long ago. Though the villagers seemed as destitute as many others we had seen, all the walkways had been turned into concrete sidewalks, and the village center had become a “cultural performing arts center”. Every home now sold the same mass-produced “authentic” handicrafts. It was one thing to see how the Vietnamese government (who handled the concessions for all the villages, you had to buy a ticket for each and it was never stated how much the villages received) exploited the minority groups for their tourism potential, it was another thing entirely to see the tour-bus folks blithely handing out candy to the dirty-cheeked village children and taking their pictures, as if the one thing they needed was some tooth-rot in exchange for an appearance in someone’s “Exotic Trip to Asia” scrapbook (they should just sell pictures of dirty half-naked babies at Scrapbooks ‘R Us). The next day… sigh… we motorbiked out to one of the villages (sorry other travelers, I can’t remember which) that the tour companies sell “treks” to, just to see what these chumps were purchasing. Once again, it was a trip to a town that now supported itself fully on tourism; we watched as the folks got out of their minivans and “trekked” to the village, where they were immediately accosted by dozens of vendors. Not that our cynicism exempted us from this, it just made us bike right on through… I’m sure there are interesting cultural experiences to be had through conscientious and responsible tour agencies, but we sure didn’t see any.

On the way back, passing through a rural crossroads where vendors usually waited for minibuses to empty out, we remembered, “mangoes!” We had bought a bunch of tiny mangoes to give to any children we happened upon, prompted by our over-sensitivity to the candy-giving (and probably guilt from our own motorcycle/orphanage trip. ugh). So we turned around and headed back to the crossroads, where a couple of women waited with a group of children. Here it is, my ridiculous brain imagined, our one interaction in Sapa that won’t be dictated by a cash transaction. Just people, right?

Courtney was talking to the children and handing mangoes out, while I parked the bike. As I approached I began to make out the children’s words.

“Money!” they cried, grabbing at the mangoes, “Money! Money!”

One Response to “Ha Long Bay & Sapa”

  1. Little Babie says:

    HAHAHAHA. omfg. That last story gave me da giggres. Wow. Okay, so there’s a lot to take in, but this really was a great post, I loved it all. I can’t BELIEVE the 15 dollar coffee/peanut story. holy shit! How incredibly irritating. Love the CatCat hotel stuff, sounds amazing…I can’t wait to see more pics of the view.


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