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woensdag 25 maart 2009

Ha Long Bay

Last weekend we (I, my girlfriend, my sister and her boyfriend) spent an evening and half a day with my sister's biological family in a village about 15 km outside of Hanoi. As always we were greeted with a warm welcome, which (of course) included an enormous amount of food and quite a lot of alcohol. There's no better way for fraternizing with the uncles than getting drunk together on the home-brewed ricewine. They call it wine but it's actually hard liquor containing at least 50% alcohol. It's always a bit surreal visiting them. They're my extended family in a way, and I'm treated as such, yet at the same time they're not really family. I know all the faces, I recognize kids that have grown since the last time I've seen them, so it all feels familiar. On the other hand I don't see them enough to be able to create an actual bond. Plus there is the language barrier. Nonetheless, surreal or not, I've had a lovely stay, and it was nice to see everybody again. My sis' big sister has gotten married in the meantime and is raising a ... well to be honest, a rather chubby little boy, who's absolutely delightful. The kid brother has turned into a rather tall young man and the little nieces have become charming young women. It's been six years since the last time I was here, and it'll probably be a lot longer before I'll come back. So, we need to bring grandma over to Belgium in the near future, now that we still can, for to experience a European culture shock and to see where she sent her granddaughter so many years ago.

Monday morning Hammy and started a 3 day-2 nights tour of Ha Long bay. Ha Long is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the site for the James Bond movies The man with the golden gun and Tomorrow never dies. It's a very typical thing to do in Vietnam, but that doesn't make the bay less beautiful. The problem you might have, is choosing the best option out of the myriad possibilities to visit the site. There are hundreds of travel agencies and hotels offering cruises. And all of them offer more or less the same thing, ranging from prices between $30 to $300. The more or the less can be found in slight variations of the itinerary, but most importantly in the services and levels of luxury that are offered. Although you have to take the 'brochures' with a grain of salt. You never really get what they say. Hence the expression 'same same but different' (those of you that have been to South-East Asia recently know what I mean). First of all, although there a gazillion different agencies, the're actually all working together in some way or other. At every tour we've done, we got lumped together with people from 'other' tours. That doesn't really pose a problem as such, but a little intellectual honesty up front wouldn't hurt. We were promised seafood dinner and lunches. To us that means an abundance of crabs, shellfish, squid, etc. To them it meant two scampis and some squid. There were two french girls who had been promised foot massages on board. No foot massages. We and a Canadian couple paid for a double room, upon arrival on the boat the guide just asked who would like a double room like it was up for auction. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Of all the choices we had we settled for a tour with one day and night on a junk, and the second day and night in a bungalow on Monkey Island for the modest amount of $95 per person. In total this made $190 or 3 325 000 vietnamese dong. Being in Vietnam makes you feel like a millionaire sometimes.

After a three-hour bus drive we arrived in Ha Long city. The harbour there is completely filled with boats, almost all of them now are styled after the old style junks. Although the weather forecasts were favorable, the sky was cloudy and grey. During the morning we could only make out the silhouettes of the islands around is in the dense fog. We boarded the boat and after the room lottery we ate (not so seafood) lunch. There were a little less than twenty other people with us. All of them (Germans, Canadians, French, Singaporese, Australian, Vietnamese) quite nice (apart from our guide, who was an annoying pushy twat), so that was an added bonus. After lunch the fog had lifted somewhat. After a small kayaking excursion, there was an opportunity to enjoy the surrounding scenery on deck. Ha Long Bay is made up of an enormous amount of islets (and a couple of bigger islands) with varying sizes. These islets are made up of dissoluted layers of limestone giving the area a particular shape and feel. These limestone karsts (as they are called) consist of pointy rocks with trees and bushes growing on top of them. It's quite amazing to see how these plants have found a way to grow on such a barren surface. In that afternoon gloom with low hanging fog in the distance, they had this very special twilight zone look to them. Unfortunately there wasn't any sun, but fortunately this also gave an extremely cool effect cruising round the bay.

The next day we were dropped off at Cat Ba Island for a small trek to the summit of the Viet Hai mountain. Being part of large group, which had to follow a guide gave it a bit of a school outing kinda vibe at first, but we quickly forgot about that when the climb became steeper and steeper. At first there were rocky steps, along the way these steps became craggy rocks. Again, it was fortunate not to be too warm that day. On the summit we could climb a rickity rusted promontory, which was missing a landing at the top. The view was exceptional from up there.

In the afternoon we were dropped off at our bungalow resort on Monkey Island. And the first thing we see while walking to our bungalow, was a monkey chilling on the gravel road. That afternoon was extremely chill. The resort is entirely made out of bamboo and is situated on a small beach in a secluded hamlet. Peace and quiet all over. Just around the corner of a large rock there are a few other beaches where the other tourists are dropped for a short visit, but the they stay on their side. This creates the illusion of a small paradise, especially since only we and another couple were staying there for the night. Up until the moment when they guys from the bar decided to blast nineties style crappy house music. I was obliged to ask them to turn it off.

In summary, our trip was absolutely lovely. OK, there were a few details service wise that could have been better and some of the things that were promised weren't delivered, but on the whole I think we got good value for money. Now we've only got a few more days left in Hanoi to do some last minute shopping (including tailor made suits) and to check out Minh's Jazz Café.

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