We woke to my phone alarm at 6.00am. Tanya woke up in the horrors and insisted it was 7.00am and we were really late. I checked my phone three times while Tanya peaked out about time zones being different and Hanoi must have been 4 hours instead of 3 hours, until I snapped and said find the clock in the room and what does it say? Tanya rolled over and while I was still in a track start position ready to bolt and she announced – “It’s 6 o’clock”! And the farm suddenly calmed! Jesus Christ woman! That was how our day started on the way to the junk! It was the usual pack up and breakfast. I learnt at breakfast NOT to eat salted eggs again ever in my life, it tasted like some horrible smell from the streets of Hanoi. We stowed our bags and checked out with some confusion that we’d see them tomorrow.
The staff were too polite to suggest anything else. We walked around the corner to “Handspan” the tour company that we used to go on the “Treasure Junk” on Ha long bay. Sparkie started up her travel agent yarn to the staff where they informed her they were actually on the junk for two nights and not one. It was a Sparkie panic as she realized she’d only packed for one night and told the hotel we’d see them tomorrow. Sparkie WHAT THE HELL! I was pretty lucky that I had packed an extra set of good clothes to go to dinner in. There was a bit of wheeling and dealing, a call to the hotel to make sure they held our bags for two nights and not one. Then we were off on a 3 hour drive to Halong bay. Our guides were “Mee” and “Zoom”. Mee was very informative however the only thing I actually retained was that there are 1969 islands in Halong Bay and its world heritage listed.
We had a stop at a craft place. The signs said that disabled Vietnamese people made the works and we walked through a large room where probably about 70 people were working on large silk embroidery pictures. None of them looked disabled. One of the staff asked if I was a teacher, I’m still not sure why. At the back of the place Tanya and I found a café and we tried our first Vietnamese coffee. Well fuck me it was strong. When the woman poured it out it looked like black tar or oil engine oil. Tanya has her coffee straight black. Even the Vietnamese lady gave her a quizzical look with some a few raised eyebrows and explained – “It very strong you want water”? There was a bit of muttering between us and the conclusion that we’d better considering the locals were suggesting it, it must be bloody strong. I asked for mine with milk and sugar. The lady chugged sugar syrup into my coffee and a dash of milk. So we walked off with extra hot coffee and took the first sip. Needless to say there was some rapid face pulling and contorted facial muscles.
We pulled up at the harbour and had a drink at a little pub across from a hotel while we waited for the tender to come to pick us up. We met the rest of the tour group while we waited and had a drink. There was Marco who was in the travel industry and was checking out Handspan and he later secured a contract with them. He was from Rome and an authentic Italian man. There was a Brazilian couple Vincent and Thais who actually live in Amsterdam just outside the city circle. And then there was Inga and Leo, both Dutch retirees. Inga worked as a legal secretary and English translator for the courts and Leo was a retired GP. While we were waiting a local commotion erupted straight across the lane from us. A little delivery truck drove in and then reversed back a bit and took out an oval shaped sign. The plastic Perspex signage smashed out onto the road. The skinny little Viet driver jumped out and had a quick look and drove forward. By this stage two guys came out of the hotel to have a look. The driver was unloading some boxes when one guy from the hotel literally kicked him up the arse when he turned around to get another box from the truck. When he turned back he coped a decent right cross to the cheek. The driver didn’t miss a beat, he put the box down then the second guy kicked him square up the arse as well and followed with another right cross to his head. What I found amazing was that there was ZERO retaliation from the driver he coped it and continued on with his business. There was hardly even a word spoken between them, just a few filthy looks from the hotel guys.
After the street entertainment and the cold beers the tender was ready to take us off to the land of “Jack Sparrow”…. Well that’s what it felt like! The scenery was a misty mysterious sand limestone rock formations with caves and the possibility of cheeky monkeys watching from above. The sea was relatively calm with a hot breeze. The trip out to the “Treasure Junk” (I’m still sniggering at the name… Maybe Misser Clarke will find his junk full of treasure). Anyway, we were fitted with the tender lifejackets which were less than new, none of the zippers worked but the clips worked. The afternoon was a full program, it was checking into very cute little cabins on the first deck with two large windows. Lunch was about five courses of amazing food. We were stuffed and we ended up on the sun deck, I absolutely crashed but woke myself up snoring shortly after. Then we were on the move again with a demo on how to kayak.
Mee told us the legend of Halong bay, which literally means “Descending Dragon” and the main land mass Hanoi means “Ascending Dragon”. It was the mythical descending dragon that created Ha Long Bay. The scientific creation explanation was a lot more clinical and less interesting. So we were off in double cockpit kayaks to explore some nooks and crannies of the bay. The Treasure Junk goes further out into the bay to avoid the large populated areas that are swarmed with tourist boats, we were the only ones around. “Zoom” cruised around and took us to a cave we could kayak into. I think out little “Zoom” takes the descending dragon a little too seriously and was quite hawkie of the caves around the place. We got to one stop and he told us to go have a look and you could see the light at the other end. The adventurous Australians that we are took it on without hesitation. Once we got right to the back of the cave we realised that Zoom had NEVER been to the back of the cave at all. Once we got through a skinny bit the cave opened up into a large dark area. The light he was talking about was just the reflection of the water on the back wall of the cave. We could have actually turned the kayak around in the space but it was too dark to see if there were any other sharp edges to get snagged on, so we reversed out. Mee had told us that if we were lucky we’d see monkeys on the cliffs above us, we did see some amazing bird life. We were keeping a good eye out but the only monkey I encountered was Sparkie my travel kayak front man. The bay had a lot of rubbish floating around and the crew gave us some nets to collect some of the rubbish we came across. We’d paddled around for a while and were heading back around an island when we lined up two pieces of rubbish ahead of us. The Brazilians were next to us. I made the call to Sparkie to get the chunk Styrofoam on the ‘starboard’ side. That small suggestion started a chain of unexpected events. I steered us over, Sparkie leant over and picked up the chunk of Styrofoam, she turned it over and there was little crab hanging on for dear life. Ha Long Bay came immediately to life with an exceptionally loud squeal from Sparkie. The Styrofoam and the crab when flying across the water to the direction of the Brazilians. The crab hit their kayak only just narrowly missing one of their cockpits. The Brazilians had a good rock up in anticipation of receiving a flying crustacean. I could hardly paddle I was laughing SO hard! Sparkie point blank refused to pick up any more rubbish in the bay after that.
We paddled back, parked up the kayaks and then jumped off the tender for a swim. The bay water was quite warm and there was a bit of a current around us. There was time for relaxing and a shower before some sundowners on deck. We had a short cooking course on how to make fresh rice paper spring rolls AND THEN a SEVEN COURSE dinner! Oh my god we were stuffed. After the spring rolls, we had pumpkin soup, Seafood skewers with a Mornay sauce, king prawns, BBQ spare ribs, Yam bean salad, fruit and crème brulee. Then we asked for coffee! I opted for the ‘western coffee’ and not the Vietnamese version considering the form it took earlier that day. The instant (I think) western coffee tasked like an ashtray and I couldn’t drink it. The Vietnamese coffee even smelt better than what was on offer in my cup. After dinner it was happy hour and squid fishing! We caught a crab. This time Ha Long bay didn’t get screamed down, Sparkie could see this crustacean coming at her so she handled it like a water police pro! Then she managed to terrify Mee when she found Sparkie hanging off the back of the tender trying to light up phosphorous in the water. We chatted to Inga, the Dutchie, for quite a while before I finally dragged socialite Sparkie to bed.
We slept through the Thai Chi lesson on the top deck. Breakfast had the best view! It was dreamy with light morning mist, a subtle warm breeze, peach coloured morning sun light and potpourri tasking, moustache shaped chipolatas… yes weird I know!
We were off again for about three hours of Kayaking and visiting some little hidden beaches. It started reasonably ok until Sparkie pointed out that we kept drifting to the right and it was royally pissing her off. As the rear motor it was now my problem. I could confirm that yes we did have a rudder however I couldn’t find the pedals for it and the rudder wasn’t actually in the water. Zoom saw our predicament and asked if we wanted to use it. Sparkie confirmed quicker than a light strike, however I said to him that I couldn’t find the pedals. I’d found the straps but no peddles. After some direction from Zoom I found the pedals halfway up my thigh. Clearly they’d been set up for a VERY small Vietnamese person. I had to let the straps out by about two foot so I could actually reach them with my feet. The next Vietnamese person to use them will probably have the same problem as I did and won’t be able to find the pedals because a GIANT Caucasian person was in the kayak before them. Anyway, Sparkie was happy after that and we cruised around pretty easily. We visited two little beaches and Kayaked through some caves and arches. We pulled up at a smaller boat that invited us for lunch. Sparkie jumped off the top of the boat for a swim but this was a drawn out process, she got up there only to find she couldn’t quite stand the height OR the heat on her feet so she was stuck between being scared of heights and burning the soles of her feet. Eventually she jumped with another squeal into Ha Long Bay.
After the morning Kayaking and a feed we were totally spent! We’d just gotten back to the Junk and we fell asleep on the sundeck. We only just went downstairs in time for a massage. I went first which turned out to be an interesting experience. First the Viet lady giving the massage was standing above me on the bed and the light above her blew and she totally let fly with a tiny scared shriek and then asked me if I was ok. I told her I was fine and that the light had just blown. I asked if she was ok and there was some exchange of broken English. I have no idea what she actually said. The massage was pretty good until the end. I wasn’t expecting her to pull my hair, and I certainly didn’t expect to be punched the forehead! I was slightly stunned by it and before I could actually really reacted she’d slipped a few into me. Apparently this is a ‘traditional Vietnamese’ massage. I didn’t tell Tanya until she came out, I thought it best to leave the surprise to her just like I’d had.
I went and found Tan chatting to “Tu” who was like the Junks floor manager or Concierge in the sitting area next to the bar. He was happy to keep chatting so we switched and I sat down for a yarn with him. We covered the usual trip plans and he asked how we’d found Hanoi. I told him what we’d gotten up to in the one day. He asked what food we’d tried and joked about if we’d had any dog. At which point I told him about the ‘chicken’ roll we’d had the day before. He said it could have been dog, but then I described the meat to him as being grey, really tough, grisly and it had some sort of marinate to it and that they had given us a choice of that or roast chicken. Tu then announced – “You ate Cock”! I nearly choked and burst out laughing. Apparently the tough old rosters are prepared differently and their skin is very tough and grisly. They marinate it in some herbs and spices to try and tenderise it and the meat is typically coloured grey. This would explain why the woman in the shop offered the roast chicken, obviously the better cut of meat than eating ‘cock’!
I was literally on the edge of my seat hanging for Tanya to finish her massage so I could tell her that we’d eaten “Cock” in Hanoi. I killed the time writing some notes and saying hello to the new pommy guys on the boat that had arrived that afternoon. I was on the deck having a drink when Sparkie finally came up from her massage. I told her the story from Tu and we were in raptures. What we didn’t realise was that the pommy boys had heard us. We officially met them all at another little cooking class on deck before dinner. Their names were Matt and Bill. The others were a family of three, more poms and three antisocial German girls. We sat with Matt and Bill for dinner and swapped stories. We’d started telling them about our only day in Hanoi at that stage and Bill suddenly said let me guess, “You ate cock”? They were nice boys and really easy company. It was another 7 course dinner and after one cocktail we were off to bed after a big day around the bay.
The next morning we woke to the Junk rocking and rolling with bad weather. Harbour Master Sparkie declared we were swinging around on the anchor and it couldn’t be good. After about ten minutes of lying in bed like a pair of lazy koala’s, we shot out of bed after I said, “If we sink we’d better get our passports in the dry bag just in case”. And with that we moved! We’d heard stories from the last two days about another Junk called the “Paluma” that had been owned by the company and they sunk it. They sold the Junk and then they’d sunk it another two times. Plus given the fact that Junks sit quite high in the water and are quite unstable on the sea worthy stakes. Now when I’m packing a dry bag for a pending ship wreck I put in the essentials in. For example, passports, mobile phones, swiss army knife, the relevant currency and credit cards. A camera if it’ll fit, considering it has a built in GPS I thought that was a good addition. I’d packed the rest of my stuff and I came back to find Sparkie’s additions to the dry bag survival kit – cotton buds and flushable alovera wet wipes!!! What the hell! If we did get ship wrecked Sparkie was not getting picked up without clean ears and a clean date! Anyway, we didn’t get sunk on the junk and the morning went as planned. However, other ships and boats weren’t allowed to leave the main harbour due to the bad weather. We had breakfast on deck and we straight off to have a look at the floating village. We felt so sorry for the little skinny Viet guys that had to forward row us in a head wind around the corner to check out the floating houses. One of the houses had number 48 written on it and I couldn’t help but wonder if the address would come up on google maps. We came back around the pearl farm and the skinny Viet rower took off that quick that we didn’t even get a chance to tip him. After a quick look at the pearl farm and the lady boy with exceptionally long fingernails displaying their processes we made it back to the Treasure Junk just as it started raining.
After brunch we check out of the cabins and caught the tender back to the main harbour. The bus was ready for us and we were off on the very uncomfortable 4 hour trip back to Hanoi on a bus that was clearly built for midget legs and not ones that average over 170cm. We stopped at the same place for a break and we ran into another group that could only be described as loud, obnoxious, barefoot, singlets, tattoos, fresh off a night of cones faces, basically contiki wankers. We had a laugh with Bill and Matt about what things you could catch from that sort of tour. After the break at the disabled place we stretched our leg out across the aisle and tried to get a snooze. A snooze was impossible in the crazy traffic of the highway into Hanoi. There were roadworks, weaves, beeps, dogs, cows, more beeping and lunatics on motorbikes carrying Christ knows what.
That was the end of the Junk and we were back in the busy sticky bustle of Hanoi. It had some light rain going on. We checked back into the Tirant Hotel and we got ANOTHER upgrade! This time to a room with a balcony overlooking the street.