An Eagle’s Hullabaloo in Hoi An

Perhaps I’m being unfair by suggesting that Danang is entirely populated by touts and scoundrels, yet my assertions appeared to manifest, when it required some very colourful discussions and a few minor scuffles, just to travel the short distance from the train station to the bus station. Here, things got decidedly worse, as a prolonged land war was needed to secure a reasonably priced ticket to Hoi An. To call our vehicle a chicken bus, was praise well earned. Every space was utilised, with bags of produce, vintage bikes and smelly cooking equipment filling every space. The staff were also interesting. Any passenger carrying a bag that could contain saleable items, was hasselled for extra money, which got extremely close to violence at times. It took ninety minutes to bounce roughly twenty five kilometres, before we were dumped, in what seemed to be a paddock.

Beautiful Hoi An on Dusk

Beautiful Hoi An on Dusk

After asking for directions and receiving many differing answers, we managed to walk several kilometres and find our hotel. It was a difficult morning, but well worth the effort; our accommodation was akin to Nirvana, with a huge sumptuously decorated room and tropical gardens surrounding a pool and ambient eating areas.

The true heart of the old port town ran along a stretch of the Thu Bon River and was a couple of kilomtres from our hotel. We walked this distance initially, but soon realised the benefit of hiring push bikes. This provided us with some terrific fun as we interacted with the multitude of other cyclists, despite our often being on the wrong side of the road. Our only real mishap occurred on a trip to Cu Dai beach. Half way there my chain snapped in two, which forced Katie to ride all the way back. Help arrived in the form of a motorbike, which meant that I had to sit on the back and pull the pushy behind as we weaved through the traffic.

Hoi An

Hoi An

For most travellers, Hoi An is about kicking back and enjoying the fabulous restaurants, the colonial French architecture with the local colour and traditions, but we discovered that it had even more to offer. It was here that we participated in the first cooking class of our trip, which included a visited to a local communal garden for herbs, another trip to purchase ingredients from the local produce market, then yet another trip, this time to the countryside, where we learned to create little plates of Vietnamese bliss. We came home by boat and the obliging old boatman, let me steer the mighty craft all the way back to Hoi An.

The next day we headed off-shore for some scuba diving around the islands. The visibility was good and the ocean didn’t disappoint, as numerous species of fish of all shapes, colours and sizes, swam around us in abundance. We even saw some large schools of yellow fin Barracuda. The dive was a huge deal for Katie, who suffered a life-long fear of deep water. Her face looked grim on the outgoing boat journey as she fortified herself to face the terror of a real life nightmare. With true courage she entered the water and sometime later emerged with a memorable smile. After conquering her greatest fear, she calmly entered the depths for a second dive.

After valiantly defeating the oceans we set out on the first of our progressive dinner courses, utilising differing restaurants throughout the town. We also caught up with Monique, our favourite Dutchy, and some fellow travellers we had met along the journey. On the way to our last restaurant we felt a strong desire to phone home. The news brought us undone. We found a quiet patch beside the river and both wept for Ben; a beautiful boy who had fought bravely and now travelled another path that the living can’t see.


Plastic Jelly in Ha Long Bay

After leaving Hanoi, our three and a half hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, provided us with a picturesque view of the landscape and the many people who tended the farms and animals along the way. However, my serene feelings became severely blunted, after witnessing the body of an old man and his mangled scooter, lying without dignity beside the road, in the middle of a bridge. I couldn’t help thinking about the children and grandchildren that might be awaiting their beloved grandfather’s return. Nothing seems more of a waste and tragedy, than a road accident.

My mood began to lighten a little as we arrived at the dock, not far from Ha Long City. Here we gathered our gear for the porters and crew, who then transferred us by Tender to a beautiful looking old Junk called the Marguerite. I remember trying to act in a nonchalant way, as another crew member escorted us to our very luxurious room, with ocean views on both sides, as if we always lived in such a grandiose manner. However, I couldn’t sustain my princely pretentiousness, as we enthusiastically accepted our complimentary drink and the five course lunch. I quickly gave up all of my ridiculous pretences, as we began to meet the other guests on the boat, who seemed just as impressed by the lavish surroundings.

The Marguerite

The Marguerite

Once we got under way, we began to receive our first glimpses of the famed Ha Long Bay scenery. All around us, jagged limestone monoliths, partially covered in jungle, rose straight out of the water, which provided a splendid contrast of milky white against the emerald green of the sea and the clear blue sky.

That afternoon the crew herded us aboard a smaller craft and ferried us to the Surprise Cave, which despite the crowding of tourists, provided us with some interesting experiences. Choked by the multitudes, we felt relieved once we made it back into the sunshine and jumped at the opportunity to go kayaking beneath the cliffs.

On our arrival back at the Marguerite, we discovered a competition, whereby the contestants must brave a jump from the first, then second and then finally, from the third floor of the junk. Obviously, we needed to ‘show up’ all of the Europeans and win the day for Australia. Who wouldn’t want the winning cocktail and the recognition one received, for winning the as yet, unrecognised world championship of junk diving?

Picturesque Ha Long Bay

Picturesque Ha Long Bay

Oh my dear Lord … when I finally stood atop of our craft, the watery world below seemed to be an awfully long way down. Finally, I found my courage and launched myself into the air; flying un-majestically, off the roof of a rocking Marguerite; legs and arms flailing to hopefully soften the expected pain of the landing. Instead of a prolonged fall, I hit the water almost simultaneously and suffered the shock, as I plunged under the surface.

Surprised, I found myself in water that felt as hot as a winter bath and apart from my ungraceful fall, it was almost an impossibility to sink, because the water contained so much salt. After our initial shock, we continued our attempted gold medal performances for most of the afternoon, assuming that the amassing jellyfish populations were all harmless. Apparently one species of the jellies, didn’t sting, whereas the other kind could be extremely dangerous. Good timing with the advice guy!

That night, as we waited in the dining room for the evening feast, all of the lights went out. In the darkness we spotted candles bobbing along, as a procession of crew members approached, presenting us with a decretive cake, a beautifully carved watermelon and a dozen red roses for our anniversary. Wow … The sweet girls at May De Ville did it again.

The next day we boarded a smaller boat, for a trip to a pearl farm in a very heavy downpour. The staff there, soon lost interest in us when we wouldn’t buy any pearls. Fortunately, the day turned into a stunner, so we launched some kayaks and began paddling through tight caves with hanging stalactites … and to our considerable delight, after moments in complete darkness, we discovered amazing hidden coves and wonderfully idyllic lagoons.

After this, we enjoyed some more swimming from our launch, until one of the two French guys in our group, jumped from the water, yelling that he’d spotted one of the dangerous jellyfish nearby. We all rushed from the water and hung out over the edge of the boat for a look at the killer. Soon after, my wife began to laugh and three grown men cringed into silence. The perpetrator turned out to be a plastic bag, which eventually became a humorous topic of conversation for us all, heightened by a decent Chilean white wine and a delicious lunch. Katie relished the moment, by suggesting that the Frenchies and I looked like the three Musketeers, courageously clinging to each other by the boat’s rail; cowered by the horrors of a submerged shopping bag. Yeah, very funny.

That afternoon, we went to a small white sandy beach for some more swimming, before returning to the Marguerite for a round or two of G and T’s. The competitions continued that evening, with everyone wanting to be the first to catch a fish from the back of the Junk. Unfortunately, due to copious amounts of medicinal alcohol, the only living thing that got caught was a poor woman in a row-boat, who was trying to sell us some of her wares. She was more than a little annoyed and didn’t seem to accept my story of a wayward cast, or my sincere apologies.

Our last day on the boat consisted of a visit to a little floating village with a population of about one thousand, seven hundred and something souls. This small community even boasted a floating school and a bank. As we prepared to leave the Marguerite, Katie and I received handshakes and hugs from the entire crew of our junk; genuine friendships formed in a matter of days, such is the nature of the North Vietnamese.

That afternoon we bounced our way back to Hanoi, accompanied by the retelling of many tales about our luxurious and enjoyable adventures. On arrival, we felt like we just needed to soak up more of the Ha Long Bay memories over a pleasant dinner, but further adventure awaited and prevented us this intended extravagance. We rushed to gather our remaining gear and headed off to the station for the overnight train. Despite our tiredness, we felt excitement at the prospect of visiting Danang and the old port town of Hoi An.

The Night Train to Hanoi

After a noisy, jolting overnighter on the train from Sa Pa, we arrived in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, at the ungodly hour of 4.30am. As the train doors opened, wild yells and angry arguments could be heard, as numerous touts and cab drivers jostled for the arriving business. Amongst this bedlam, we managed to negotiate our taxi fare from an initial 120,000 Vietnamese dong to 80,000, then back to 100,000, and finally all the way down to 50,000 dong, without actually saying or doing anything. Eventually, we arrived in a dark alley, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, so we happily gave our bemused taxi driver a thorough dressing down, whilst getting soaked in the pouring rain. After wandering for a while in the darkness, we finally discovered the May De Ville hostel, up the street, in another tiny alleyway. Apparently, 50,000 dong only gets you so far.

Our Hanoi adventure may not have started well, but events soon changed for the better. The night shift manager happily checked us into our room at 5am and even said that we could help ourselves to a free breakfast at 6.30am, when they began serving. Feeling much better about the state of our world, we dumped our packs and decided to head back out in the pouring rain to experience Hanoi and the lake, before it got too busy. This provided us with an interesting view of the old city, watching all the stall and shop owners setting up for the day, as they opened their shutters, put out their wares and received their deliveries, including very large blocks of ice, which seemed impossibly big for the bicycles they arrived on.

Hanoi in Motion

Hanoi in Motion

Later that evening, we went about experiencing Hanoi in full swing. “You buy from me” rang out in a constant cry from each street vendor; selling everything from bananas and pineapples, to t-shirts and even zippo lighters. Here we learnt how to cross busy streets without being skewered by the multitude of motorbikes, travelling in every direction, on both sides of the street and the pavement. An old women carrying two heavy baskets, balanced on either end of a yoke, provided the lesson. Even though her back was bent from the weight, she seemed to negotiate this madness, as if she were out for a leisurely evening’s stroll. So we closed our eyes and very slowly wandered out into the traffic. Amazing! Rather than die horribly, the traffic magically maneuvered around us.

After a lot of hinting, I became acutely aware of the next day’s major event; our second Wedding Anniversary, so we asked the staff where we could find a really great place for dinner. That evening we dined in a lovely Italian restaurant, but later, when we arrived back at the hotel, we thought that someone had broken into our room. Then we noticed the items on the desk. The staff had, of their own accord, organised a very decadent looking cake and a single long-stemmed red rose for our anniversary. To say how marvellous they made us feel, is quite the understatement.

Fisherman in Boat

Fisherman in Boat

The next morning we walked out to West Lake for a look at the Pagoda and strolled the streets outside of the Old Quarter, spotting a posh looking French restaurant along the way. We decided to come back there for dinner later on. It didn’t disappoint. We picked out the most impoverished looking Cyclo driver from a loud competing bunch, who rode us very slowly through the traffic, towards our destination. It might well have been romantic, except that our very elderly rider tired visibly, as we proceeded, so we ended up paying him for the entire journey and walking most of the way. Eventually we dined on tempura crab, roast duck, salt & pepper squid and beef with lemon grass.

On the walk back to our hotel, we heard a voice call out “Ken” from within a large unruly crowd and we found ourselves looking at a tall, bespectacled guy, who seemed to know us. After a few moments of befuddlement, we finally recognised Danny, the traveller from Alsager, who we met at the top of the chair-lift in Dali. We also spotted his lovely partner, Michelle, so we joined them for a few beers and traded travel stories, before heading back to the hotel.

The next day we’re to be picked up early by Tien; our guide for the next three days on Ha Long Bay. Could this place be as wonderful and picturesque as they say? Tomorrow will tell us for sure.