Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Halong Bay

Our first day in Vietnam was spent in Binh Ninh. There isn't too much to do in this city except get acclimatised to the manic motorbikes. Charles wasn't too happy when the driver left us to get our own bags at the hotel. In effect this meant 'left it to me'. I had no problem, but this was to be only one grievance in a long line of problems with the driver.

I made the most of this one night stay and when I saw goat on the menu I had to order it. Nothing too special, I am afraid.

The next day, however, was spent far more idyllically. Bypassing Hanoi, we went instead to Halong Bay for a boat ride. The port was packed when we arrived, both with boats and tourists. By lunchtime we were settled on our boat and tucking in to a seafood lunch. Then, as we chugged out into some of the world's most fantastic scenery, all foliage speckled limestone pillars and islets, all we had to do was relax. True, the weather wasn't the best. It was hazy and things got cool soon. Nevertheless everyone felt it warm enough to sit up on deck and read and gaze at the view. To me it brought back memories of Milford Sound and sailing around the icebergs of the Antarctic. It was that special. People do live here, on boats and floating platforms, we saw many families, but with the outspread Asian sails of their vessels, this just added to the whole picturesque effect.

We stopped off twice, once to visit some large caves, and second to climb to the top of Tetop Island. Halong means 'Descending Dragon', a beast that once saved the locals from the Chinese and stayed on having enjoyed the scenery. The caves seem the perfect lair for such a beast. Steep stairs, usually blocked by obese tourists, lead up a cliff face into this vast limestone crypt. Inexplicably bins shaped like penguins crop up everywhere, while the garish lighting sometimes makes you suspect this is some huge Hollywood set. It is a measure of the Vietnamese humour that one rocky outcrop shaped like an erect phallus is lit up red. Everyone entering is told to look for the 'red rock'. Hmmmm. Nevertheless it is worth the visit.

Tetop Island is named after a visiting Russian dignitary (a former astronaut, I believe). A beach, probably nice in warmer weather, greeted us, but Phil, Annabel and I bypassed it and the local music bar and walked to the small pagoda on the crest of the island's hill. It was something like 400 steps, and there were times I sought an oxygen mask, but it was an enjoyable climb and the view that rewarded us was good. Again unwelcome tourists (you know, not us, the bad ones) made it very crowded though.

Once back on board the boat, a sinsing was attempted on the top deck. With scarcely any light, Phil strummed on a guitar while everyone resorted to humming corny songs once they realised no one knew any lyrics. Zoe, on the sunchair beside me, read using a torch strapped to her head. By strategically tilting my book I managed to read 'Cannibals' by the residual light. Eventually though we all gave up and went for dinner.

After dinner, the Vietnamese showed once more how 'Carry On'-style humour is universal as we watched a dvd of 'hilarious' ads and Internet videos. Zoe dug 'Over the Hedge' out of her rucksack which filled up the rest of the evening.

Next morning we left at 8.


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