We have got a lot to tell you! On Monday we flew from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (Laos' capital and biggest city) and onto Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Oliver, a very likeable English chap was in our airport taxi and also traveling onto Hanoi, and he became our companion for a few days. The Luang Prabang airport is tiny of course, and was quite a funny place. Our boarding passes and passports were inspected by a room full of customs officers (actually, one guy was looking at documents, and about six more uniformed men were hanging out and telling jokes). In the waiting room was a money box that didn't say UNICEF or Red Cross or anything, so we are sure it's beer money for the hard-working customs officers. When our prop plane arrived, a hand-written sign with the flight number was hung on the door onto the tarmac. Our 35-minute flight was fine, but our first hour at the Vientiane airport was miserable. It is the most dingy, depressing, uncomfortable terminal we have ever seen. Upstairs was a giant room with folding chairs and beat-up tables that served as a restaurant. The food was lousy, and of course was not what we thought we ordered. We didn't expect the airport to be much, so we thought that was it. We were about to settle into some yellow Beer Lao chairs near a snack bar whose clerk was asleep on three chairs, when I stepped outside and saw what looked like another terminal. It turned out to be very basic, but felt like the nicest airport of our lives in comparison. There was a descent restaurant/bar that we hung out in until they turned off the A/C and all the lights at...2:30. There are no flights leaving or arriving in the afternoon so all the check-in counters were closed, and there were people buffing the floors and painting walls. Eventually, more white tourists joined us, and it was time to check in. We spent another hour in the departure lounge, which included filling in a form for the tourism board that asked -among other questions - how satisfied we were with the sex tourism industry in Laos! Another short flight landed us at the unusually dark Hanoi airport. We were met by the taxi driver sent by our hotel (which they later tried to charge us for, but we've since learned that that's how it goes in Hanoi) and spent a harrowing 45 minutes narrowly avoiding motorbikes loaded with families, pigs, mattresses and other such logical things. Oliver needed a place to stay and the man at our guesthouse told him with a straight face 'I think it is good that you stay here tonight and do my tour of the city tomorrow.' He ended up staying despite the cajoling.
The next day we set off to do some business - namely to book a tour to Halong Bay and figure out how we would get to Hue, our next stop. In a Western city these things might have taken an hour, but not here! Walking in the Old Quarter is next to impossible. There are sidewalks but they're impassible due to parked motorbikes and people's shops, restaurants, and just hanging out that simply spill out into the street. So you're meant to walk in the street, with motorbikes streaming all around you. When it's time to cross it's best to walk slowly and deliberately so that the motorbikes can weave around you! Kate was led across one big road by an old Vietnamese man and has since been only crossing when she can follow a local across! When you're not fighting your way across the street or around a sidewalk restaurant you have to fight off all the cyclos and moto drivers who are sure that since you're white you shouldn't be walking but that they should be overcharging you to take you wherever you're going instead. At times these guys can be pretty persistent which makes moving around even more of a challenge. And then there are the ladies who seem to be sure you need some fruit or bread, they'll follow you down the street! It's funny, we really thought that Vietnam would be more like Thailand in that things happen generally when you think they will and you can expect to get something that's pretty much like what you paid for and people leave you alone when you say 'No, thanks.' But in fact this place is much crazier and we're looking forward to getting back to civilized Thailand - who would've ever thought we'd say that!
So we made our way to half a dozen travel agents (there are at least this many on every block here) to find out about trips to Halong Bay. We discovered that all of them were offering nearly the same thing, which included only a couple of hours of kayaking and most of them had inflatable kayaks! The one company that was unique (albeit more expensive) was Handspan Adventure Travel. They promised 3 days of kayaking and 2 nights at their private beach base camp so we chose them. More about that later. Also on Tuesday we decided to buy an 'open tour' bus ticket which means we can ride these tourist buses all the way to Ho Chi Minh City and jump on an off as we please. Sounds good but apparently they hassle you quite a bit to stay in their 'sister guesthouses' along the way. We'll see. The other options didn't sound great either so we chose the bus. We'll let you know tomorrow how that went! That afternoon we met up with a couple of Americans that Oliver had met in Laos who are living here in Hanoi. It was nice to chat with them about what they think about living here, especially since that seems like such a crazy idea to us!
On Wednesday we actually got around to doing some touristy things and saw a couple of temples, one of which was the site of the first university in Vietnam, established around the 11th century I think. We also saw a water puppet show. It was a pretty neat art form. The music was a bit loud and the audience was all foriengers but we were glad we went. It's tough to describe but basically the puppeteers stand behind a screen in a couple of feet of water and the puppets are on sticks that are underwater. Check out the picture, hopefully you'll see what we mean. Apparently this was developed by farmers when the rice fields flooded. Pretty cool.
That night we had to do one last minute thing online but of course the internet at our guesthouse was down. So Raime went down the street to the sister guesthouse to use theirs, and less than 50 feet down the street was approached with an offering: 'Hello hello! Lady massage!' I said no thanks and picked up my pace.
We were up before 5 am the next day to head out to Halong Bay. We weren't sad to leave this crazy city and our guesthouse manager who was openly rude when Raime said we'd booked our tour with someone other than him! It seems that if you don't take advantage of all the services offered by someone here, you're quite rude. Anyhow, we had to take a van, a ferry, and a small boat but we finally arrived at the Handspan base camp. It's on a tiny island in the middle of Halong Bay, right on the edge of the national park. The tide was too low for the boat to drop us on the beach so while everyone else kayaked to shore we swam! The water was warm and blue-green. It was great. Our room was a small bamboo hut with a couple of mats and mosquito nets. Apparently no one is allowed to live on islands in Halong Bay but Handspan gives the government enough money, supports a primary school, and does cleanup projects so they're allowed to stay. But there are rules - like no concrete buildings allowed. Hence the bamboo huts. But despite the basic lodging it was paradise. We woke up to the sea lapping at the beach, and we sat in the moonlight looking at the crazy shapes of the islands. That afternoon we headed out for a couple of hours of kayaking and swimming at another little beach. We saw a bunch of tourist boats like the ones we would have been on if we hadn't sprung for the Handspan trip and we were so glad we did. The boats were loud and smelly and our kayaks were clean and quiet and we could explore all kinds of little beaches, caves, and lagoons. Definitely the best way to see the bay. After a night in our cozy hut and a couple of huge meals we were back in the boats. We explored all morning, which was really great. The bay and all the islands, caves, and lagoons are incredible. Then we met a big boat for some swimming, lunch, and relaxation before we were back in the kayaks. We saw a floating village where 600 people live who fish for a living - there was even a primary school there! There were also a bunch of '7-11's on boats' otherwise known as women who rowed up and tried to sell us cookies. The next morning we went out on the kayaks again and felt our arms beginning to argue with us about all this activity! We enjoyed a couple of hours of paddling until we had to fight our way into the wind and back to the base camp, which is when our muscles really started to burn. But a swim and a toss of the frisbee on the beach made us feel lots better. Sadly we had to get back on the boat after lunch and head back to Hanoi. On the way back we were crossing a bridge which had no shoulder and on which tons of motorbikes, buses, trucks and cars were speeding along. And there, pulled over to the side, was a couple sitting on a motorbike nuzzling and presumably enjoying the view! Amazing. Anyhow, we had a wonderful couple of days with Handspan. Our group had 9 people, along with us were a couple of Danish women who are working in Bangkok, an English family with 2 kids who are living in Hanoi this year, and an American woman who's traveling Asia. It was a fun group which made the trip even better.
Today we're treading water until our bus adventure tonight. Our one English channel showed 'the Day After Tomorrow' last night and '3 Men and a Little Lady' this morning - classic films, really. But the best part was that they would continually just cut out! Raime eventually figured out that the trick was to turn the TV off and when you turned it on again the movie would be back for about a minute until it did it again! Doesn't that make sense? This place is really nuts. We're not looking forward to the 12 hour bus ride but at least it will bring us to a much smaller city.