Sunday, July 27, 2014

Too Cool for Halong Bay

One of the main annoyances tourists leave Vietnam with is the tours. In Vietnam, it's common to be told that a tour is the cheapest/ best/ only way to see a certain place. And, in the case of Ha Long bay, that's largely true. The problem is that the tours make you feel like you're simultaneously at a British boarding school, circa 1950 ("Now you relax for twenty minutes!"), and that you're getting unscrupulously scammed. I would hazard a guess that badly organised and dishonest tours are one of the major reasons for Vietnam's pitifully low tourist return rate

I didn't want to show my friend that side of Vietnam (authentic as it may be), but I had to admit that Ha Long bay is indeed incredibly beautiful. Solution: Just north of (in)famous Halong bay is it's nerdy, quiet little sister - Bai Tu Long bay. 

What are you looking at Tobias?


On the day we were due to "get up at six a.m., I mean it" in order to catch the bus to catch the boat to Quan Lan island, we found ourselves old and hungover. Tobias looked miserable and I shared my ancient wisdom with him, namely: "I don't believe in torturing yourself on holiday." We went back to sleep and left the house a cool six hours behind schedule, meaning we had to overnight at the little port town of Cai Rong. The views we woke up to are pictured above, so our sloth was well rewarded.


The days in Quan Lan were exceptional. It's school holidays, so the place was packed out with Vietnamese families throwing themselves into the sea and adorable, happy children. Westerners were few and all had to touch on the horrors of Ha Long at least once. There is something pretentious about being the kind of traveller who actively avoids the places other tourists go, but there is also something enjoyable about it. It never ceases to amaze me how you can have a tourist hub like Ha Long and less than one hour away you have a completely other world. Tourism is incredibly condensed and site specific. Years ago, my friend and I walked about 500 metres from Khaosan Road in Bangkok (a street I no longer stay near, but still find fascinating) and found a bustling, local market where the factory workers were eating their breakfast. They forced us to join them and try their food, and told us they'd never eaten with a white person before.

In any case, Quan Lan is big enough for a good few days of motorbike adventure, but also small enough to 'understand.' I find islands so relaxing in that I can, after a few days, visualise the whole space and orientate myself in relation to the things around me. 
It feels deeply comforting. 

What is that in the water?

One Tobias, joining in the day-time karaoke

Minh Chau beach: two competing families sing karaoke at each other. 2pm.

The drives we had aren't really done justice by my photographs or my words. Above, Tobias rolls along a dirt road. Below, the earth bursts with green after some rain. The trip back into 'town' was over rough mud roads, with a bit of sliding and nervous laughter on my part. In general, we had the kind of holiday which is absolutely wonderful to have and which leaves you not much to tell: a holiday where you swim in the sea three times a day, eat fresh grilled fish and motorbike in the rain past children who yell "hello!"

Colonel Mustard ready to vamos

Storm rolling in

Quan Lan beach

Some back roads

Hidden behind a hill: the yin/yang

And if you still really want to see Ha Long bay, you can always take the boat from Quan Lan direct to Halong city, via 1.5 hours with the cutie pictured below and Ha Long bay serenely drifting past, out the window, without comment. 

Colonel Mustard visits imperial Ha Noi

I can't tell if this post is a love song to my dear friend Tobias (alias: Colonel Mustard) or to what appears to be the official colour of the Vietnamese state.

Either way, it is embarrassing. 

Looking dapper in the dapple

My favourite cafe is near my house on Yen Hoa (a lane which winds around grand old Tay Ho/ lake). The gentleman who runs it is pictured below, in the fatigues, with his vast and impressive stereo collection, from which he plays the greatest hits of the 20s, 30s and 40s. 

We also had the good fortune to luncheon with David McCaskey (I want to say 'esquire') at one of the best (and, incidentally, well known) pho places in Hanoi. Pho is usually served for breakfast and dinner, and not lunch, but no one tells us what to do. Also, David is a man who literally wears sock garters on a normal office day. Inspirational. 

Before Tobias arrived in Hanoi I described him to my local friends as 'Colonel Mustard' - given his dual qualities of wearing a lot of mustard coloured clothing and his general Colonel-like demeanor (this really came through on our rural island adventure, featured next). In any case, on this particular day he was wearing my favourite of his shirts so I made him stand in front of various government buildings/ the Presidential Palace. The end.