Virtual meanderings

Category Archives: Ha Long

Getting to China | A must-read

The rain

It’s early morning. I am standing at a street corner and the rain is making me and my backpack wet. I am waiting for the bus from Hanoi to Nanning, China.

Around me is a merry crowd of Chinese people. The Chinese carry huge sacks – they probably came to Vietnam to buy stuff and are now going back to sell it. Luckily, if I succeed getting on the bus (I have no ticket, the crowd around me is big and getting bigger), I won’t be travelling on my own. Anna is going to Nanning as well.

Who is Anna? Well, the person who told me about this bus, of course.


         It’s early morning at the hostel, the day before. It’s breakfast time and I’ve just come down to the buffet area. Sitting at one table are four people – two girls and two guys – whom I’ve seen around the hostel the previous days. One of them is the agitated Canadian girl, who is not agitated anymore. They invite me to join and this is how I first meet Anna.

While we eat, we have the usual travellers’ chat where one’s been and where one’s going. I mention that my next destination should be Shanghai, yet I have not figured what the best way to get to there is just yet. Maybe by train?

Maybe not, says Anna. Turns out Vietnam is Anna’s last stop (after travelling around southwest China, and Laos) before heading back to Beijing. Her school is about to start. Anna is a Master’s student at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, and can speak decent Chinese (and many other languages for that matter, thanks to her Polish/German background). She tells me about a bus from Hanoi to Nanning for only $15. This is less than half the price of the train ticket. Anna is taking that bus and then flying to Beijing – domestic flights in China cost less and are plentiful. As for me, I could easily get on a train or fly to Shanghai from there. Read more of this post


The Tempest (international edition!)

When I woke up in the morning, I certainly did not anticipate any more surprises on that trip. After all, I’d arranged to stay with my current group, do whatever more sight-seeing there was to be done with them, and go back to Hanoi.

But during breakfast our Vietnamese guide came in the hall and announced that our boat would be heading back to Halong main pier. A typhoon warning had been announced on the radio. The original program for the day was to be cancelled – or at least significantly altered.

Typhoon approaching, Halong bay, Vietnam

        The water in the bay was deceptively calm, but the sky was not (for another such extreme marine adventure in Thailand, read my earlier post here).

As our junk boat drew nearer the pier, we joined dozens and dozens more junk boats headed the same way. The ocean waves looked innocent enough because the bay subdued the force of the elements but the weather was progressively getting worse. The junk anchored offshore in a line with many other junk boats and we began waiting. Finally, a motor boat arrived to pick us up and tranpsort us to the pier. We were then told to walk to the big souvenir/snack covered area some three hundred meters from the pier and wait (until a transport would become available to take us back to Hanoi). More tourist groups came after us, flooding the place.

Souvenir shop @ Halong, Vietnam
The age-old Vietnamese saying goes:”Typhoon warnings good for souvenir business”

In the meantime our guides were making phone calls to their company’s headquarters and talking in high-speed Vietnamese. Finally we were told that they’d arranged a van to pick us up. It would be here in about an hour. The catch: it could not fit everyone and two people would have to wait for yet another transport. In the meantime, those who would be picked by the van would have their scheduled lunch in the snack area.

Wouldn’t there be any compensation for the failed second-day program? – the Western European tourists began asking (the elderly Singaporean couples said nothing). The question kind of pissed the Vietnamese guide and he said “you signed for a two day-trip, and the second day you were supposed to have lunch on the boat, right? Now you will have it here, but this is all the difference. What compensation?” Read more of this post

@Halong Bay

Junk Boats, Halong Bay, Vietnam

        Junk boats did not dock directly at the pier. As you see on the photo they anchored nearby and tourist groups were brought onboard on regular motorboat. So were we. We then gathered in the junk’s main hall to get our cabins assigned. In the meantime our junk boat left the harbor and sailed into the bay, graciously gliding between hundreds of Ha Long Bay islets. We were served lunch.

Junk Boat - Dining Hall, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         My companions at the table were a French couple in their early forties (who turned out to not be a couple, but a male and a female friend on a holiday together), and girl from Singapore that carried around an expensive camera and shot photos with it. The four of us hit it off well and started chatting. On a side note, our whole group was 20-24 people – some elderly couples from Singapore, a Japanese guy, myself and some more Europeans, mostly French.

Cave, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         We were done with lunch when the junk boat docked at one of the biggest islets in the vicinity to visit its huge cave. Long ago Ha Long islets had been under the ocean level. While they were gradually rising from the ocean the waves had eaten up their soft rock, forming huge caverns. I guess many of the islets around also featured caves but size mattered – the bigger the islet, the bigger the cave. The bigger the cave, the better. Right? To enter inside, we first had to climb a steep staircase uphill. The entrance was about a hundred meters above the ocean level, offering a beautiful view far into the bay.

Halong bay, terrace view from a cave entrance

         Read more of this post

Organized or freestyle? Organized be it this time…

I can only handle about half an hour of sign language a day (on a good day, that is).

In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos I was seldom in a situation where no-one knew any English –it only happened once or twice. But enter in Vietnam and it is a different story altogether.  It is easy to circumvent the language barrier when you want something to eat, or when buying stuff. Street sellers, a practical folk, will stick a calculator in your face and pinch the price they hope to extort from you for the object you pointed your finger at. You will laugh back at their humorous suggestion (politely, of course), and then pinch your own counter-suggestion. Repeat three times. Deal.

Vendors near Halong Bay. Vietnam

               But try finding out a particular location, or when a bus to a particular place leaves, or asking for directions to get from A to B, etc. The GPS won’t save you. The Internet won’t save you. Nothing but proficiency in Vietnamese will.

And you know why? Because in Vietnam people leave their own life, rather than catering for tourists, that’s why. Tourism is growing fast, but no one is betting the future of the country on it. Say, back in Vang Vieng in Laos, I could not help but notice that 100% of business in town revolved around tourists. Same thing in Siem Reap in Cambodia (home to Angkor Wat). Not much different in Thailand.

Getting off the beaten track or traveling to remote places on your own may not be the best idea in Vietnam just yet (this is also true for the other countries I mentioned but here you really feel it well). You must be a person of great patience who does not mind waiting for a bus that doesn’t come and when it does, it takes you to the wrong destination where you have to find a place to spend the night before going back and there just isn’t any. Or so I imagine, since I never tried things that way.

Truth is, if you really want to see yourself free as a bird in Vietnam, that bird better buy a motorcycle for itself. Being able to move from A to B with your own transport is a game changer. Read more of this post