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Entering Ha Long bay

We were up and out early today for our tour out to Halong Bay. As we walked through Hanoi just after 7:30am the town was still very quiet and just waking up. It is the first time we have seen shops closed and shuttered as people here seem to stay open late into the night. We made our way down to the Kangaroo Café where we ended up waiting until about 8:30 for our tour to leave. The cynic in me thinks that they only tell you to get there so early so that they have a chance to try and sell you breakfast before you go.

Our guide for the tour was a young chap called Hieu and he explained what we would be seeing over the next two days. In total there were eleven of us in our group and it was a good mix of people. There were three young Irish people, Vivien, David and Jason, who are also travelling for a year mainly in Asia, Australia and North America; a young French couple who kept themselves pretty much to themselves; Ann and Daphne, sixty year old British cousins travelling together for the first time; and two fortyish friends from Australia, Cheryl and Catherine who is doing voluntary work in Danang further south in Vietnam. It made for quite a convivial group.

The bus out to Halong Bay took about three hours. Once we were out of Hanoi proper there were signs in the countryside of the ever increasing population they have here (it has doubled in the last thirty years). On the outskirts of town large housing developments are going up with houses wedged up close to each other and not a lot of space in between. Hieu confirmed that it will mainly be poorer people who will be moved out here but that there are fast bus connections so it will be easy for them to get back into town.

Along the way many people were out busily working away in the fields. The area seems to be mainly used for growing rice and the fields spread out as far as you could see. Unlike in China and Laos the people working here had on waterproof waders for tramping through the muddy fields. They seemed to be taking seedlings from a small dense patch of green and spreading them out more thinly through the rice fields. It looks like boring and hard work as everything is done by hand with people bent over for what must be hours on end.

The only exceptions to the rice fields were odd splashes of colour where flowers were being grown. Bright yellows and reds brought a flashing contrast to the seemingly never ending green. The houses here surprised me by their size and their ornate style. All with balconies and painted in bright colours they looked as if they would be quite at home in a small Mediterranean village. At a few places we passed small graveyards on raised up patches in the middle of the rice fields. I decided not to spend long thinking about whether it was good to have rotting corpses so near to the main crop for the family.

Our route took us along the main motorways and at pretty much every junction motorcycle taxis were waiting to take people from the buses that stop along the way to their final destination. Once we were out of Hanoi the traffic thinned, but not so much people stopped using their horns every few seconds. It seems to be more a way of saying “I’m coming up behind you” than “get out of my way”. Whilst in town the rule of the road seems to be “go slowly and give way to anything bigger than you” the rules on the motorways seem to be less clear and Hieu confirmed that there is a high accident rate.

Most people who ride motorcycles do not like wearing helmets so accidents when they happen turn out to be nasty ones. The government are trying to change people’s mindsets to get them to wear helmets. Their tactic is to remind people that whilst helmets may stop the ladies looking beautiful while they are on their bike, apparently a main reason for not wanting to wear them, it is much better than being permanently disfigured due to an accident. The road was in pretty good condition and for most of the way also had two lanes so it was frustrating that a journey of less than two hundred kilometres took over three hours to complete. Because the traffic on the roads is so chaotic the speed limits are kept low so our average cruising speed was probably below fifty miles an hour.

At about the half way mark we pulled in for a pit stop and our first stage managed retail opportunity of the weekend. Our bus was one of several all full of tourists all on their way to Halong Bay. Hieu told us that the place where we have stopped was set up by the government to provide jobs for local people who have been affected by the Agent Orange chemicals dropped during the American war in Vietnam. It was very geared to tourists and there were clothes, textiles, bags, paintings, embroidery, pottery and jewellery on display and on sale. You could but anything from a traditional dress outfit to a large painting to decorate your home.

It was like a large warehouse full of tourists being pursued by people from the shop who were trying to encourage you to buy. There were signs everywhere saying that to protect their designs you could not take photographs but Stef sweet talked a lady into letting him take one photo. I think she was convinced he was going to buy an embroidered picture, which he had no intention of doing. I put a donation in one of the many conveniently placed collection boxes. There were few signs of people actually parting with cash but there were an awful lot of western tourists all with the same look on their face just wanting to move on.

Back on our bus we soon all started to feel a drop in temperature. The information for the tour advises you to bring sunscreen, hats, insect repellent and your swimming kit so we had come prepared for a warm sunny weekend. We soon realised that leaving our fleeces and socks behind in Hanoi was a bit of a mistake and that the cold, grey overcast weather we were seeing was not likely to change by the time we hit the coast. We were not alone in coming unprepared although I think we had the fewest layers out of everyone on our bus.

At Halong City the bus pulled up at a large hotel and we all tramped out for what was a very generous and tasty lunch. Inevitably here we saw all the same people who were at the shopping stop earlier. We headed down to the waterfront to board our boat which was an old fishing junk that has now been converted for tourism. It reminded me of the kettuvalam we had been on in Kerala in India although this was much larger and the accommodation was made of wood not bamboo.

With only a maximum of twelve in our group ours was one of the smaller boats in the harbour. Downstairs were the cabins and on top was the lounge/dining area and a small open area at the front where you could sit and enjoy the view. Our cabin was one of the ones at the front which meant we had a good nights sleep free from the diesel fumes smell from the engine. It was a small but comfy cabin with a bed, air con/heater and a bathroom with flushing toilet and a shower.

We were met by the crew with friendly smiles, warm towels to clean our hands and glasses of fresh juice and before long we were off, just one of many boats all leaving the harbour and heading in the same direction. Halong Bay is famous for the limestone karsts rising up from the sea, a similar sight to Yangshou in Southern China but much more spectacular due to its size. There are just under two thousand islands formed by the karsts in this area which has now been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This gives it protection from development which is now restricted to just a few islands. Most of the islands are uninhabited but they would be a rock climber’s paradise with sheer faces dropping down to the sea.

It is a hard sight to describe. Soon the other boats that had left the harbour at around the same time as ours had disappeared from view and we had the illusion that we were on our own sailing through this area. It is just full of limestone outcrops. Hieu confirmed that they had been created by natural erosion as the sea level used to be much higher than it is now. The only disappointment was that it was a grey and dreary day which zapped all light and colour away from the karsts. We did not complain for too long though as people who were here a little over a week ago could barely see anything at all the fog was so thick.

For about an hour or so the only other people we saw were local fishermen. They have moved away from their traditional bases living in caves on the islands and have now set up floating fish farms. They have a square shaped pontoon with the farm in the middle of the square. A small house is set up on one side of the pontoon where the fishing family live. Here they farm fish, prawns, crab and squid.

Our first stop, along with all the other boats, was at a network of three caves named by the French as Cave of Marvels. There is a reasonable climb up from the boat dock to the entrance before you reach the caves. The ceiling of the first caves looks like someone has come in and dug out the cave with a big ice cream scoop. It has a fresh water pool in it and the remnants of some stalactites and stalagmites, the columns themselves long falling foul of souvenir hunters. The second cave was much the same but the third cave was huge.

As you walk in you cannot help but see a very phallic looking piece of rock protruding from a large stalagmite in the middle of the cave. The artificial red lighting ensures that you cannot miss it as you go by. The cave itself stretches back a couple of hundred metres and it was cavernous. A paved walkway now trails around the cave and signs ask you not to stray off the path. It is a shame that it is so stage managed but from the number of tour groups ahead of us and behind us it is an understandable concession to safety, although it left you feeling you were on a tourist conveyor belt.

One section of the cave floor looked like an underground water tunnel had collapsed and caved in. Hieu confirmed that parts of the floor get flooded during the rainy season. He also pointed out to us various shapes and formation in the rocks around the cave, some of which you needed a good dose of imagination to make out. There was a tortoise, a couple kissing, and a woman praying to Buddha to name a few. These caves are where the fishermen who are now on the floating pontoons used to live. They not only provided them with shelter but also a source of fresh water. The official story is that they were moved out to protect the caves but I suspect it is more to do with the lucrative tourist business.

Thousands of tiny islands, Halong Bay

From the cave exit a viewing platform gave great vistas across the bay, and another retail opportunity. The path from here back to our boat was a raised boardwalk a few metres above the waterline and here too an enterprising chap was after tourist dong. He had a small boat lade with water, beer, soft drinks and snacks and was peddling his wares to the tourists on the boardwalk above.

More fresh towels and very juicy mandarins awaited us as we got back on board and set sail for our next stop. With conditions not being warm enough for a swim the alternative afternoon activity is a steep climb up one of the karsts to a small viewing pagoda at the top. Here, as we saw in China and Laos, the steps were pretty big and high, odd for a country that has such little people. It was a long climb up but certainly worth it for the views from the top. It must be an even more stunning sight on a clear day. Back down at sea level I crossed the small beach to dip by toe in the water and see if it was of swimming temperature. It certainly was not cold but it definitely was not warm enough to make me, or anyone else, want to go for a swim.

Back on board we cruised around for another hour or so until we ended up in a quiet bay, surrounded by karsts, where the crew moored up for the night. There were three or four other boats in the same bay but considering how many other tourist boats we had seen at the caves and island where we stopped we had a real sense of isolation and remoteness. We sat outside and chatted to the Irish Trio, Ann and Daphne while watching the night draw in, all trying to persuade each other and ourselves that it was a warm evening. The cold finally took its toll and we retreated into the comparative warmth of the lounge area.

Another generous meal was dished up in the evening and was washed down with slightly too much beer and wine. After dinner we started to play cards with Ann and Daphne but then abandoned our game to join up with the Irish guys to learn the game they were playing. It is called Twenty Five and suitably reinforces the reputation of Irish logic. What is in essence a simple trick taking game is made more complex by the ranking of the cards differing whether the suit being played is red or black. I am sure the alcohol fuddled our brains and made it seem more complex than it was but even so it was good fun and a great way to while away the evening.

I have tried below to explain the rules but I am sure there are variations and nuances that I have missed. Apparently it is a very popular game in the part of Ireland they come from, Galway, and normally up to nine people will play in each game. It sounds like it is a really popular local game and whole evenings are dedicated to playing with up to eighty one people playing in different games at the same venue in a night. Gambling on the side is not unheard of and in the run up to Christmas people play to win food and gift hampers as well.

The rules of Twenty Five, an Irish trick taking game

The game can be played by two to five players. Each person is dealt five cards and the top card of the remaining deck is turned face upwards to show which suit is trumps. The player to the left of dealer starts. Subsequent players must follow suit if they can, or if they wish they can play a trump card. The winner of the trick turns their card face down. Play continues until all five cards have been played. Five points are awarded to the winner of a trick and the winner of the game is the first person to score twenty five.

So far so good and the game seems straight forward and easy. What makes the game more confusing is the ranking of the cards. The ranking of red cards from highest to lowest is King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine etc down to ace as the lowest. For black cards it is King, Queen, Jack, Ace, Two, Three and up to Ten. The trump suit ranking differs again. The highest card is the five of trumps, followed by the Jack, then the Ace of Hearts (irrespective of which suit is trumps) with the remainder of the trump suit following the ranking as appropriate for black or red.

If you hold the Ace of trumps in your hand, you may pick up the card turned over that declares trumps and discard a lower value card from your hand. There are a few other special rules like this but we cannot remember what they are!

The game allows for a fair deal of strategic play. If you are to the left of the dealer and you have the five of trumps, it is the best card to start with as it flushes out most other trump cards strengthening your ability to win more tricks. As a player approaches the score of twenty five, the others all start to play strategically to prevent them from winning. There are also variations where you play the game with a partner.