We stayed on a boat one night, when we visited Halong Bay, about 3.5 hours from Hanoi. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a large bay with innumerable limestone formations that are little islands poking out of the water. Its not quite certain how they are formed, though there is,mostly, a consensus that they are spectacular. (There are 0ver 3000 such islands including those in adjoining Cat Ba National Park)
We cruised around on the boat, ate, chilled, kayaked, and at night the boat was anchored at this spot, designated for boats to bob around overnight. It was quite beautiful, despite the occassional waft of diesel fumes and very distant (and very occassional) sound of a karaoke from one of the boats who believed that was the best way to spend your evening in such a beautiful place. It was a unique experience, and quite something else.
The chairs squeak, almost bent out of shape by your weight. They are made of plastic, just like the tiny low stool in front of you that serves as a table. That plastic is worn, even a little stained. Your legs squeeze because you are low. But you could just stretch them out, resting on the edge of that greyness of the road. Then rest back on the only slightly precarious little chair and sip some cool beer. Its fresh, its tasty and its dirt cheap.
And who said there’s no ambience?
Look, there’s that cyclo passing by with a grumpy passenger doing a disservice to his holiday. That Vietnamese woman carrying her load, one of many, has a look of calm strength about her, tempered with world-weariness. Don’t miss the policeman. He’s appeared again, after taking a break. He stands there, seemingly immovable and unflappable, surveying the scene with obvious authority and apparent indifference. Wait for him to leave, and they will put your stools off the pavement, and back on the road. Another bike zips by and the blur leaves you looking at the beer-drinking across the road. Laughter, stories being exchanged, backslapping, contemplation, observation. Whoa! That was a loud horn. You’d almost stopped noticing the traffic noisily whizzing by you, weaving its way around tourists and vendors. Oh, there’s another scooter stopped in the middle of the crossing. Those girls haven’t quite figured out which way they need to go yet. The other scooters, bikes, cars and cyclos weave around them as they ponder the decision. They are about as bothered as the little bundled baby who has passed out on his mother’s shoulder as she crosses the street. The little girl at your shop, however, is having a bad day. She wails inconsolably in her brother’s arms. You look at her and make faces. She ponders you like a new toy before deciding you are not quite appealing. Her grandfather (?) soothes her.
But the guy next to you has caught your eye. He strikes up a conversation, soon listing out his ‘been there’ list around the world. Not much later he is making earnest efforts to tell you he, an American, hates George Bush as much as you do; and that ‘they’ are out to get all free thinkers and speakers in America. Whatever is this world coming to. But just when his conspiracy theories begin to sound paranoid and jaded, there’s this Israeli bloke on your right, recommending the sugar buns that smiling lady is selling. (5000 dong for two, and you take them). He tells you his name in almost perfectly accented Hindi, and proceeds to gush about your country where he spent six months. An enthusiastic Englishwoman tells you about the fair trade business she has set up in Rajasthan. She looks a bit like a hippie who has discovered Indian ethnic clothes, to good effect. The American is feeling left out, he nudges you with a comment about that very girl harking back to Woodstock days. The summer of love, he wistfully says, though you doubt very much he was there.
Somewhere between talk of India, America, Israel and Vietnam; Himalayan herbs, kind strangers, beautiful fabric and powerful Enfields, your mind stops to notice it all and smile. Isn’t this what its all about?
Oh, look at that- your next beer is in your hand. Its fresh, its tasty and its dirt cheap. Everything else is free.
bia hoi= fresh beer
very cool piece on Bulgaria.
Um, do they smoke there?
That day, we hired a bike and rode around, above and below Sapa. It was fantastic, the freedom. About 15km from Sapa we visited a minority village called Ta Phin. Past the village centre, which is accustomed to and expects tourists (though we saw none), we went further out. The rather narrow road led us through terraced hills and occasional huts. Then we stopped. A tiny stream babbled, a man with his plough walked in the distance, a few buffaloes were herded away. D spotted an abandoned hut- it's porch a place for us to sit and do nothing in the shade.
This most delightful girl found us at the abandoned hut and lit up our biking break with her giggles.
Some wonderful excerpts on unplanned travel in this article
"But why, I asked, would a robber of tourists be driving about with aTwo (inspiring?) pieces on very appealing train trips by the man in Seat 61 here and here.
gigantic lorry-load of hay? Could we not just accept a simple offer of
hospitality at face value?"
"Let's drive to Russia," I said.
"Too far - we won't get back in time," she said
"Having to spend an afternoon in a cafe on a rainy day, or at a station waiting
for a train isn't a hardship, its a a chance to become part of the rhythm of a
place, if only for a few hours. "
And a handy piece on internet security on the go.