Junk Up, John Wayne
My Indochina Junk tour picked me up at my Classic Hotel at exactly 7:30AM. Isn't that the best name?
Very fitting for how I'm feeling these days. I had everything ready to go - each item of clothing packed strategically so that my outfits for this 3 day ocean tour would not overlap with or soil the outfits planned for the mountainous 3 day tour that followed directly afterward. Once again, story of my traveling life, I brought too much clothing. This travel faux pas was causing me to try and wear everything at least once to justify hauling it all over the country. If I couldn't at least do that, then I was desperately trying to figure out if I could be at peace deliberately leaving it behind. I had decided that my life could go on in a normal, facing forward fashion were I to leave my white summer sandals behind. So that's exactly what I did. I strategically placed them in one of the bottom dresser drawers, way at the back... so it looked like I forgot them.
Pretend.. in order to get them out of my life... on purpose.
I don't know if it's the atmospheric change, the altitude, onset of menopause, leftover manifestation of the frequent plane rides, a life threatening diesease, retaining of water or just weight gain... but my feet and ankles aren't as attractive and photo worthy as they once were. Bloated. And due to this bloating, these shoes were killing me. Wearing them was like "fat guy in a little coat."
It was liberating to bid them adieu... But, as luck should have it, I wasn't downstairs in the lobby 7 minutes before one of the staff members came barrelling towards me, waving my sandals in the air enthusiastically!
"Hey lady! You forget!"
Turns out Not so sneaky me...
Stupid shoes. Why couldn't this have happened with my bathing suits? That would have saved me a boatload of hassle. I spotted a trash can nearby... so my shoes got filed there.... goodbye forever.
Never make fun of someone with fat feet.
And with that,,, I climbed in to my Indochina Junk Luxury van and embarked on my 3 day Ha Long Bay / Bai Tu Long Bay tour! 'Luxury' was definitely the proper descriptive word for the van. Large, comfortable & reclining lounge chairs, spacious, air conditioning, water bottles available, WiFi... Very posh. When I was first doing my research in to visiting Vietnam, I happened to come across the popular and traditional "Water Puppet Theatre". If anyone had asked me prior to my trip, if I had been interested in attending one of these productions, my hand would have shot up in to the air so fast, it would have made heads spin. There were a few times I considered booking one of the evening theatres for dates I knew I would be in Hanoi... but I always stopped myself. Figured that the hotel would have a better idea on where I should go.
Price, quality, location... etc... Just so happens, lucky lucky us, that there was a water puppet show included on our way to Ha Long. The place had a little outdoor pond theatre and we were scheduled to watch the show before having lunch. You may wonder, "What exactly is water puppetry?" ... in a nutshell... it's the most humdrum and tedious thing you'll ever experience. This is time spent that you will NEVER get back. On a more explanatory note, it's a water-based show with colourful wooden lacquered puppets that are controlled by people behind the screens. These strange little painted creatures bounce up & down and back & forth ... accompanied by loud, screetching music and a high-pitch narrative.
Unfortunately I don't understand one single word of Vietnamese, so I can't really attest to this narrative being interesting, educational or amusing. To me, the tonal nature of the songs sounded completely off pitch... but who am I to judge? In saying all of this, I refuse to be seen as one of those people that can't appreciate culture and time honoured traditions, but all that kept running through my head was;
Help, I'm going to die here.
Someone please save me.
You know those moments when you ultimately KNOW that something has to eventually end... but you just can't envision it ever happening.
If the pond puppet show wasn't bad enough, at the end (when we finally thought we were free at last), some lady and man jumped in a rickety old rowboat and cruised through the pond singing back & forth to each other, some random traditional love ballads. I don't intend to be so incredibly negative, but had there been a brick wall beside my face, an indentation of my forehead would have been there One good thing came of this.. I won't be spending money to see another one. Someone suggested that this was probably a lower grade performance and some of the major theatres would probably put on a more high quality production.
Nope. Not buying it.
Our next stop was a doozie as well. Being forced to stop at random locations is all part of booking tours and I've already had my fair share of them while I've been in Vietnam. These stops are usually large warehouses merchandising overpriced items and dedicate the entire frontal section to showcasing handicapped workers working diligently. I think that this is all done to appeal to our sense of empathy therefor forcing everyone to buy more. All done on commission, of course. This particular warehouse was highly over staffed and many of us remarked that if they were to let 3/4 of their staff go, they could significantly drop the prices and would probably end up turning a nice profit. Standing there, working out the currency exchange in my puny little brain, I managed to figure out that a small bag of gummy bears was $6. Pringles were $5. Water was 35,000 - 3x what it normally is. I saw a shirt there that I was very tempted to buy as a gift... but I could not justify spending that amount of money in a location that pissed me off so much. Pet peeve #1 - over-attentive staff following you around, watching your every move... no matter how many times you told them that you're 'just looking'.
... I ended up just handing the shirt back to one of the annoying clerks and walked out. It was too much.
What an added bonus for our tour... not only did we stop there on the way to the boat... but we also stopped on our way back. After a couple hours of driving in our Luxury Van, we finally reached the dock, where we all loaded on to a little boat and were ferried out to sea to meet the Dragon's Pearl. From luxury van to luxury boat.
Ha Long Bay - a natural wonder... and it did definitely did not disappoint. It was spectacular. We were going to be cruising through Ha Long Bay and making our way to Bai Tu Long bay... slightly off the beaten track and slightly less touristy. I immediately fell in love with this boat. Maybe it was my bedroom that made me fall fast. So classic and beautifully decorated in an almost hand-crafted traditional design, large bay window... then you head out and meet up with two large & welcoming sun decks, indoor and outdoor dining room, bar... Beautiful boat. Decadent. Luxury. Bliss.
Did I mention the complimentary silk kimonos? ...ready to be worn... hanging in the bathroom... I can no longer go back to budget backpacking... nor can I return to the likes of my dirty Hue hotel. I've crossed over the extravagance line and unfortunately for my poor bank account, there is no turning back. The bathroom door was a bit sketchy and it took a bit before I got used to it. Whenever I would close it, it would make a sound similar to that of someone either trying to enter or exit.
"Great," I thought, "Now I have to deal with a ghost in the room."
Turns out it's just a squeaky crap door. Allow me now to introduce Tom... our tour guide.
Now I'm sure that Tom was a very nice guy when placed in a social setting with family and friends... but... he was a lousy tour guide. He was absent, methodical, unengaged, detached, stoic AND the best part... we think that he studied English from John Wayne. There was just a unique choppy swagger to his articulation... I took a video, but not sure if it did it justice.
The other crew members had interesting names - obviously self proclaimed - 'Mr. Tip' was our bartender/supervisor and 'Chicken' was our Chef.
You can not make this shit up.
We had a little meet and greet with him on the second day and one of the passengers asked him what his favourite dish was to prepare.
"Anything with chicken."
They did provide us with a short spring roll demonstration and then let us loose to roll our own before throwing them in to the deep fryer. A few times we got scolded for putting too much of the ingredients in to the rice paper before rolling. This is very bad because the outside will cook... but not the inside!
Interestingly enough, I was one of the really good rollers. So I have a bit of a dilemma in my life right now. Actually I have quite a load on my shoulders compared to this menial little thing... but still...
Remember how I stepped in shit the other day? One of my stellar moments in Hue. My shoes still stink. I have washed them repetitively, dried them with an actual blow drier, left them on the balcony to air out...
...the stench will NOT go away.
I have to keep them with me through AT LEAST the next leg of my journey in case there is any trekking. BUT... if they still smell after that, I will be forced to say sayonara. Unfortunately this seems to be becoming a bit of a pattern with footwear for me. I do have to sit back and laugh at myself sometimes...
I brought a shirt that I can't wear without a strapless bra...I didn't bring a strapless bra.
I brought 2 skirts that don't match with any of the tops I brought.
I brought 4 dresses... have only worn 2 and bought myself 3 more.
I brought 2 bikinis and 1 bathing suit and I've gone swimming once... and everyone knows the grief these have already caused.
Now I'm throwing away tight sandals that squeeze my foot fat and I'm trashing Sketchers that reek of dog shit. Actually... I don't really know if it's dog shit. With 46 years under my belt on this planet, I'm fairly confident that I'm more than familiar with the smell of dog poo.. and even I can't be certain that's what it is. That's the real reason they might be left behind. One of the ladies on the cruise offered me lavender oil to try and cover up the stench, but to me, that's like spraying Febreeze after a #2 visit to the toilet.
A temporary masking... hardly a solution. I can justify having to fork out another $120 for new shoes due to the undisputable fact that I stepped in feces, I can justify it even more considering the feces is unidentifiable... I keep saying I will think about it, but I know what's going to happen. I'm going to stroll in to Vancouver airport, wearing flip flops in the pouring rain. November.
Not my first rodeo.
Every single article or piece of information that I read about both Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, painted this picture of 'emerald' waters and thousand of towering limestone islands topped by rain forests.
Tower limestone islands. Yes. (1600 to be exact)
Rain forests. Yes.
Emerald water? ... meh... I don't think that I would venture as far as to boast 'emerald' waters... though iPhone filters can do magic on a cloudy day to a crappy picture! (let my photos stand as living proof of the power of the filter). The waters are murky. They are nothing really enchanting, nor inviting. Tourism also boasts fabulous scuba diving, but I find that tough to believe. We had seen the anchor come up from the ship a few times and it was full of that thick bottom mud sludge. I made mention about how it would have been interesting to have seen the bay waters in the 1960's, before they became over-fished and a prisoner to tourism... not to mention becoming a major dumping ground for litter, waste, diesel and gasoline.
I'd imagine they were 'emerald' green...
Kayaking was fun. Miracle of miracles, I managed to stay in the boat. My first venture out, I was alone in a two person kayak... terrified that I was going DOWN. I didn't even bring my camera for photos- that's how confident I was that I was going to be bottoms up. Later on in the journey, I managed to secure my own yellow solo cruiser. It wasn't a luxury kayak... not exactly the most comfortable on my poor bum and mostly I just wanted to just go back to the ship a few times and grab a pillow for my sore ass... But enough about my big bum...
What about the sea life?
Funny you should ask... fascinating actually...
purple shore crabs - crawling along the slippery rocks of the islands.
two humongous jelly fish - that apparently would only slightly sting you and not kill you.
a star fish - which led to a major debate in whether or not it was alive.a sea snake - small... yet still nothing I'd want to encounter in the water.
... drum roll...
...a dead mouse...
A marine biologist's dream.
The dead mouse caught the attention of our crew more than any other creature seen. Along came a small clutter of floating debris... sticks, seaweed, litter... dead mouse...
If there is one thing that screams, "Go have a shower," it's the site of a dead mouse floating along casually right next to you while you enjoy a refreshing dip in the emerald waters. There was this one beach that we ventured to during the second day. We climbed up in to one of the up top caves that families used to live in. In the 60's, the Vietnam government designated the entire bay as a Renowned National Landscape Monument... and then in 1994, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fishing families that once lived in these caves were forced out and the government funded the building of various floating fishing villages throughout the bay. I can't remember if the families were forced out in the 60's or the 90's... I think it was the 90's.
We all made our way up the stairs to the cave. Single file, up these narrow, steep stairs- the cave seemed to be at the very top of the Cliffs of Insanity. Once there, for what seemed an eternity, we endured John Wayne's long winded, choppy and well rehearsed scripted speech about the area. I remember thinking that if he didn't stop talking, I was going to jump off the cliff and into the abyss. Finally we were given leave to explore. Funny though- the lights weren't on and John Wayne had to yell down to the crew below to turn them on. Not entirely sure what he was yelling, but it was loud, repetitive and sounded quit demanding. Not sure he's an all time favourite with the staff either.
This particular beach was sandy, clean, enticing us to swim... and it was hot... but we were told that we were forbidden to swim here. At one of the rare moments that John Wayne surfaced, I asked him the answer to the question confusing all of us...
"Why can't we swim here?" He pointed towards the horizon, to where a few other ships were anchored, and said to me, "You see those other boats?"
I replied, "Yes."
They were hard to miss.
John Wayne just looked at me and repeated what I'd said, "Yes."
And that was my answer. "Yes."
So... none of us swam there. After lunch, they did provide us with the opportunity to take a full hour and explore this stretch of beach that probably didn't exceed 30 metres. Thank God for the maybe dead and maybe not dead starfish we all found and spent the majority of our time poking and prodding.
The meals were absolutely lavish. 9-10 courses. You can catch this line in the video above... but when John Wayne announced that there would be 9 courses for lunch, Jack (one of the passengers) piped up immediately, "But the brochure said there would be 10". There was no such thing as a light lunch or light dinner. It was actually too much. Even for breakfast, we were served Chicken noodle soup to start, followed by lemon coconut loaf, toast, egg omelette, vegetables... etc etc. Although on the final morning, we were greeted by a big bowl of Coco Puffs on the table. Reading the itinerary in regards to meals was comical.
7:00 - Morning view of bay landscape.
7:15 - Have cup tea or coffee.
7:30 - Enjoy breakfast in fresh air.
8:00 - Relax on junk.
I just envisioned all of us, following the well thought out plans precisely, single file... View 15 minutes.... check. Coffee... drank it... check. Fresh air breakfast... check. No room for dawdling. There's a system here... don't mess with it.
It's fresh air time, God Dammit!
John Wayne always made a point of letting us know how long it took for the cooks to prepare our food. At first we couldn't figure out if this was because they wanted our admiration, a good review or our money... Guess it didn't take too long to figure out that perhaps their true intentions lied more with the latter two... I wanted to raise my hand a few times and mention that it would probably drastically cut down on the meal preparation time if they were to cut cilantro out of the dietary plan. The first night was gruelling, That green crap was on everything. Everyone was encouraging me to say something... but I decided to endure the pain and suffering.,.. At one point, our chef brought up some food art, which was interesting and very well done. It was different objects (ship, doves, dragon) - all carved out of various fruits and vegetables. All edible.
John Wayne drove it in to us how long the chef had worked to make these for us... hours and hours...though I suspect they were probably made last week and kept in the fridge to bring out and impress the guests on each ship. No of us actually 'ate' them... nor was it presented as an option. Oliver was the only kid on the tour and he was brilliant. He was obsessed with meat on a stick... and that's all he wanted to eat. Good thing was that he wasn't really picky- he would pretty much eat any kind of meat... as long as it was served on a stick. He was also slightly obsessed with my hatred of cilantro. Everything green that came out of the kitchen, became a shout out warning in my honour- be it dill, basil, green onion... he had my back. Our group was a good mix. I was the only Canadian, so obviously was quite a few notches above the rest when it came to looks and intelligence :-) There were also 4 France French and 8 Americans. Everyone was very friendly and we all got along well. I do have to add, the price of wine that accompanies luxury is atrocious. I'm grateful that I had the smarts and inclination to bring my own wine on board... and I'm the only one that did. The crew of the Dragon's Pearl was fabulous. They worked very hard all day and all night to ensure our happiness. They were always on - attentive, accommodating, friendly...
John Wayne... not sooo much.
But that was definitely reflected in the tip!
On the last afternoon, we ventured out to visit one of the local fishing villages in a "rustic boat". We were rowed around the limestone islands jetting out of the bay, through stalagmite caves... had a small tour through a local oyster farm. John Wayne seemed bored that we were even there and I'm sure he was chomping at the bit to get back to the ship. I did not buy any pearl jewelry,.. although there was a lot... and they certainly did showcase it. Not cheap either. In regards to the death of my father, I have definitely had my share of breakdowns. Lots of tears. There are also bouts of pure animosity - and moments that I become so enraged and resentful, that I just want to explode. Then suddenly sadness, grief and regret will engulf me. But onwards and upwards...
Keep smiling :-)
When the tour was over, we all said our goodbyes and headed back to Hanoi. I was so tired of rice that I actually did a Google search for the 'best nachos in Hanoi.' I've gone almost 3 weeks without them... the time has come... I found a place called The Chop and I headed there as soon as I had checked all my luggage in to my hotel room. Nachos were calling...