Friday, December 25, 2009

Traveling Mishaps

Just recently Joel, Jorge and Natalia came over from the US for a little traveling. So, it is completely appropriate to show them the sites. First on the list is the gorgeous Ha Long Bay area.

Now a thing about traveling. It is often said that the journey makes the trip and not so much the destination. Well, I have to say that getting there is half the battle and if you are lucky you will happen upon some great adventures, as was the case with us.

Getting from Hanoi out to Cat Ba Island is really a chore. Normally we would have about four transport transfers from big bus to little bus to speed boat to little bus until we get to the town of Cat Ba. But, this being the winter season and in a country that is in constant flux, I was thrown off course a wee bit. Our normal big bus let us off in the middle of Hai Phong City where upon we had to hike out to the ferry terminal-a local ferry that takes us directly into Cat Ba town. Now you're saying, "that sounds convenient!" I was thinking of the same thing but upon seeing the ferry boat for the first time, I was kind of nervous. There was this mad rush of humanity along with livestock, motorbikes and hug bags of goods, including fresh rice noodles. To say the boat was packed is an understatement. Stuffy doesn't begin to describe it.

Luckily we found ourselves out on the bow of the boat where at least there would be constant airflow. Here we found other westerners looking for the same thing. (In fact, this was where we met Ric and Deanne and asked them to join us on our adventure.)

As the boat motored out of the harbor and out to sea more locals came up front to get some fresh air, and we, really my friends minus me-being a normal yellow face, became a curiosity. Serving as interpreter I helped the two groups communicate:

"Where are you from?"
"How old are you?"
"Would you like a smoke of fresh tobacco from my bamboo pipe?"
"How about a taste of our home made rice whiskey?"

The first couple of questions were asked to find out if the westerners were friendly enough. Then, when it was determined that we were, the locals proceeded to get us drunk and high. These tobacco pipes are common everywhere in the north. They offer smokers a way of concentrating the tobacco flavor and potency. Ric attested to this. Then there was the whiskey which needs no explaining. Though, I will have to admit that I did indulge in the stuff. Normally the smell of this is so nasty that a mere whiff would send me overboard, but this didn't smell like turpentine. It was mildly alcoholic in aroma and just sweet enough going down. It was great and I later found out that because of this "great" taste many expats considered this the most dangerous of the local brew. Why? Because before you know it you're bent over the toilet regretting that you are an adventurer and cursing at the bedeviled natives who are trying to kill you.

This didn't happen of course to us but the stories of traveling expats getting completely smashed with the locals are legendary amongst the Hanoian community. I'm sure the local vietnamese are circulating the same such stories too.

Anyway, we had a really nice time out on the bay. I've been taking folks to this little beach with a bunch of bouldering. Nearby we could kayak through limestone archways or explore the little lagoons.

Cat Ba, Lan Ha, Ha Long Again from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

After getting back to Hanoi we immediately headed to the train station to catch the overnighter down to Hue, our next stop. This is where the next mishap occurred and it was entirely my fault.

Before leaving for Cat Ba it would've been smart to buy our train tickets but I figured that we'd have 4-5 hours to buy these before the train departed. But, 4-5 hours were not enough to get the soft sleeper cabins. These tickets were already sold out. We'd have to sit with everyone else in the coach lounge for.....10 hours. Now ten hours doesn't sound bad when you're flying half way around the world but 10 hours to just go 300 miles? I began to panic with the thought.

Luckily the others offered no criticism of me nor sympathy for me. They simply said, "if that is all they have left then we'll just go."

So we regrouped back at my house before returning to the train station later that night. Yet as we were walking out of the station I heard this loud and obnoxious local screaming into his mobile oblivious to others around him. I could tell he was drunk by the way he slouched in his seat and the way he was waving his hands wildly. And as we were waiting for a cab out in front of the station the lout came out front but this time not screaming as loudly. Maybe someone annoyed with him inside told him to go outside and talk? I don't know.

And when we got to our seats inside the train, minutes before it was to head south, who did I find across the aisle from me? From here on out I will refer to him as Native Son.

Son is a Hanoian. He was traveling south to look at some business prospects and see some old friends. And as we got to know him the misperceptions and the mild "coach" discomforts faded away and were replaced by the sense of adventure that all travelers get when they, as Joel and Jorge were fond of saying on this trip to Vietnam, "are deep!"

Here is Son making a newspaper cigarette.

Native Son from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Let me clarify this next one. Son was in the army and from what he told us knows many patriotic songs. When he saw the group of sailors at the front of our cabin he asked if they had a guitar, apparently like all army troupes here do. He said, "since you're all going to sea I'll serenade you with a few songs."

What followed wasn't noisy locals annoying us like many do because to Vietnamese and many Asian societies, being loud with friends means they're having a good time and a good time needs to be shared.

Vietnam Railways from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

This to me was a great big epiphany. Traveling mishaps will push one's conventional boundaries towards, get closer to, those of the people and places you are traveling in.

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