Sunday, January 19, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 13 – Back from Mong Cai, lunch at Tien Yen, and the long road to Ha Long

I luxuriated in the early morning with a hot water soak in my precious bathtub, reflecting that three days of basking in luxury have seriously handicapped my ability to sleep just anywhere.
The way back to Tien Yen was already known and as it often happens it seemed a lot shorter the second time round. The only thing new was that I stopped at a shop to have the oil changed and the air pressure in the tires checked out. I was setting myself for the short wait when the three older mechanics called me to the back of the shop to have a tiny cup of tea (a friendly custom that I have found throughout Vietnam). We made small talk the best way we could, considerably amused by my largely useless phrase book (this phrase book has attracted considerable attention in different circles, and often times the little book is kidnapped as one of my hosts peruses its pages completely mesmerized).
At about this point I realized that I had left behind my most important asset: my wrinkled and soggy road map! From there on I have been on the look for a new map, just to realize that in a week I have not seen a single newspaper, book, or magazine. Gas stations do not carry maps (did I already tell you that gas is 25,000 dong per liter, and that my tank has a capacity of little more than two liters?), so I am at a lost on where to find a new map. Ha Long is fairly touristic, so I hope I can get a new one there.
Back at Tien Yen I stopped for lunch at the same place I had stopped on the way in, and had another fabulous meal: A stir fry with clams and bamboo shoots, and a second stir fry of some unknown marine invertebrate with delicious veggies.
I had another 80 km to go before Ha Long, and the last 40 km were pure hell. I felt I had gone back to Hanoi, with its crazy traffic and its diesel fumes. I have figured out the hard way that the only consistent traffic rule followed by cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrian alike: It is your responsibility not to hit anyone else. Outside of that, anything goes, so pedestrians cross the street without looking, cars and motorcycles make unexpected u-turns right in front of you, bicycles weave merrily across the traffic lanes, motorcycles jump in front of you or even come against traffic! Now, admittedly I am a rookie driver, but I have taken to heart something I learned in my motorcycle training course: Anticipate, rather than react. That means that you should be aware of your surroundings, and anticipate where problems might occur so you are ready to take evasive action. It is a great piece of advice, and I am sure it has saved me at least a dozen times every day; it is exhausting, however, and with 10 km still to go I was tight as a knot.
Finally I came to what I though should be Ha Long (they don’t think it necessary to use signs such as “Welcome to Ha Long”), but the shoreline was nowhere to be seen. Instead I was in the midst of a busy commercial boulevard, and almost started hyperventilating when I saw a sign that if I kept going straight I would get to Hanoi. So I turned left, and in a few blocks I came to a waterfront promenade that was as different from the crazy street as day is from night. Yes, this is why Ha Long Bay is described as being one of the most beautiful bays in the world!
My stress having dropped by many notches I cruised the boulevard looking or a suitable place to spend the night. I did find a comfy hotel, but have definitely stepped down from my life of luxury. My window has a generous glimpse of the bay, however, so I will settle for location over bombastic splendor. By the time I was settled the sun was already on the horizon, so I went for a quick walk to take some pictures and find a place to eat. I found a very nice restaurant with terrace sitting looking unto the bay. I thought I had ordered fish, but instead I got a half bamboo with thin-sliced beef marinated in the most delicious mix of spices. Then nothing for a good 15 minutes. OK, I thought I had ordered rice and vegetables, but maybe the 12-year old girl who took the order had not understood (actually, I am pretty sure all the waitresses are young women, bur they are so thin and petite that they could well be girls). Then came a plate with cucumbers and jicama; very yummy. Then nothing, so after a judicious pause of about 20 minutes I asked for the check. Dramatic pause as my waitress went to prepare the check. Then she comes with a whole roasted chicken (suitably dismembered)! And I don’t even like chicken! So I had her put it in a couple of boxes and brought it home with me. Now I know what I am having for lunch for the next two days.

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