Tuesday, July 31, 2007

July 28-31th: Constant movement

So we’re a bit behind on our blog posting and we promise to catch up—it has just been a bit difficult as we have spent the last several days in a state of continual movement – some relaxing, some not so much. First, we took a scenic and mostly tranquil overnight cruise in Halong Bay, a tidy three hour bus ride from Hanoi. And yesterday/today, we spent roughly 30 hours en route from Hanoi to Bejing, confirming by bitter experience that the pleasures and vagaries of air travel are universal.

Day 1: To

Not to be denied a breakfast in the capital, we got up early to grab a couple pastries and Pho Bo (beef soup) before hopping in the minibus to Halong. The trip was a trip. It’s not easy making your way through Hanoi’s clogged streets in a bus nor navigating among the trucks and mopeds that crawl along the highway, and our driver’s primary weapon in the battle was his horn, which he used somewhere between frequently and always. Wayward pedestrian? Honk. Passing a moped on the right? Honk repeatedly. Slow truck blocking the way? Sustained honk. Empty intersection ahead that might just possibly provide an opportunity for someone to cut in? Honk. Cow in the road? Slam on the brakes and honk. And so it went. Our group was a mixed bag of Euros and two Thai women with a German man in tow (we liked this crew – the Thai ladies had orange Lance Armstrong bracelets that said “Long Live the King” and could/did play most of the US Top 40 on their cell phones). As various sources had promised, we stopped halfway to Halong at a “Workshop for Handicapped Children,” where we – along with maybe 50 other minibuses full of trekking Euro and Asian tourists – could buy all the latest Vietnamese souvenirs for a mere 500% markup. No handicapped children in sight.

We arrived in Halong, along with several hundred other minibuses, and got marched like tourist cattle onto one of several hundred wooden junks, jumping and weaving from ship to ship to get to ours at the far end of the pack. We noted the designation by the local tourist authority (see picture) – had that third star fallen off, or been forcibly removed? Ultimately a good symbol of our journey – a sneaky two-star downgrade of a three-star experience. But quite a lot of fun nonetheless!

After sitting around at the dock for an hour and a half for no apparent reason, the boat took off for Halong Bay. The bay itself was, as promised, gorgeous with Dr. Seuss-like cliffs rising straight out of the water. The sun was shining and we sailed along, making a couple stops for a visit to the amazing/surprising cave (these are actually 2 different caves but our medium knowledgeable tour guide called the one we visited both) and for some kayaking. Finally docking for the evening mid-bay, we jumped off the roof of our junk (we’ve all got our junk, and our junk was not that nice but good enough for 2 days in the sun) and swam in the extremely warm bay waters. The water temperature was perfect by Babi’s standards.

We finished the day off after a beautiful sunset and a mediocre dinner by falling asleep on the roof of the junk, amid the stars and the still water (and ignoring the errant cockroach). Quite lovely.

Day 2: From

The morning got off to a tense start. After a meager breakfast of untoasted bread and a little egg (again, cooking was not our boat’s strength), our guide announced that we would be cruising to a beach for a different swim – only to aim the boat a mere 500 yards away from where we’d spent the night. We rose up in tourist rebellion and got ourselves instead a morning-long cruise around the wider bay – which is huge – taking in some of the thousands of islands and observing the local floating fishing villages/villagers at work. Along the way, we picked up a few folks who’d spent the previous night on Cat Ba Island (one of whom, it turned out, had just finished at Oxford, where he had an acquaintance of EB’s for a prof, and was about to start work at Bain), got checked out by the local police, saw a boat full of extremely drunk Chinese tourists (at 11:30 am, mind you), and then cruised back to the dock to meet our return bus toward Hanoi. No major incidents on the return, other than a fuller bus and a second stop at a second workshop for handicapped children.

Back in Hanoi mid-afternoon, we raced to squeeze in a reprise of all our favorite Vietnamese foodstuffs – the bun ca, the pho, the cha ca, some jackfruit and custard apple, the thick-as-molasses (and tasty) Vietnamese coffee, some fried duck spring rolls, did some shopping and wandering, and collapsed, full and happy, at the hotel.

Day 3+: In Between

It all started on such a good note: we got up good and early (we had to leave for the airport at 6:45), saw a wide range of Vietnamese morning exercise rituals by the lake (from badminton and group tai chi to an impromptu lakeside freeweights session and miscellaneous nonsensical repeated gestures – anyone know the health benefits of whacking your arm against a tree or vigorously rubbing the underside of your throat?), and even squeezed in a last pho run before getting in our cab. The cab ride itself was a caricature of third-world driving – constant beeping, wildly creative maneuvers, blatant disregard for traffic signals and common courtesy, all choreographed by a driver no more than 19, singing along all the while to Vietnamese and then American top 40. At the airport, we got right through the line, more or less right on the plane, and right off the ground on time. And that was about the extent of the things that went right.

Turned out our flight had a stopover in Guangzhou – no problem there, just get off the plane, go through customs, get back on and off to Beijing. Only once we were back on, we sat on the runway for 3 hours (then and throughout the subsequent adventure, we had to press hard for any information). We then flew to Beijing, only to circle above the city for an hour after they announced we would be “landing shortly,” and then found ourselves diverted to…well, somewhere else…to land. An hour of sitting on the ground followed before they let us into the terminal to wait (turned out to be Shijaizhuang, a small town of 3 million about 300 km from Beijing). There, we spent the next six hours in a constant state of anticipation while our Chinese co-travelers got increasingly aggressive and nasty with our airline stewardesses-cum-captors. And of course the bilingual announcements had stopped when we got off the plane, so we got our limited information through my (Josh’s) very limited Chinese and second-hand information from a few kind travelers – a bonding experience between us and the one other English-speaker, a woman who headed UNESCO’s efforts in Vietnam and a bright spot in a dark trip. Finally, around 1 am, they told us we could either terminate our flight and find our own way to Beijing or take a hotel for the night. We opted for the latter, took an hour-long bus ride into the city, shoved our way to the front of the mob to get a key to what turned out to be a truly nasty hotel room, and spent an unpleasant 3 hours (~2:30-5:30) “sleeping” before heading back to the airport for our delayed flight. Just to add insult to injury, that flight was 30 min late off the ground – and when we finally landed, it took them another 30 min to get us a set of stairs and a passenger bus to head to the terminal. But in the end, we succeeded in getting to Beijing, and we couldn’t have been happier as we haggled for our long taxi ride to our hotel.

More on life in Beijing to come in the next installment…

9 comments:

Ron said...

I regret your travel complications but my summertime shorts are wet with laughter. Did your guide or did the daughter of Jane Fonda take the glam shot of you both plunging from the junk into the bay?

Amanda said...

I am totally late to the party on this blog but loving it. Josh - I am jealous that you are getting to shuo Zhong wen...

Bates said...

Wait! Air travel is bad these days?? I love the images of the morning exercisers. I hope you find amy and jon soon and resume lots of eating.

ime said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY EBS!!!!!!!!

cmeg said...

Hmm, makes the PA and NYC Transit Authority seem like they know what they're doing!

Adventures in travel.....

fishwatch said...

Happy B-day EBster!

Ali said...

holy hell. how do you stay in such good spirits? you're such troopers.

Ali said...

And Happy Birthday Eebs!

Will Barley said...

wow. those pics are ridic. i havn't read any words on your blog yet because that takes me longer but the pics are amazing.