I slept for three or four hours on the train to Hanoi, I’m sure I slept because of the shock I had at being woken at four by the door being slung open and a man shouting HANOI!
This was a terrible shame because I had the most beautifully haunting tune gently infiltrating my consciousness from the loudspeakers in the carriage, and if anyone can suggest how I might find out what song it was I’d love to know. I’d love to be woken like that every day.
We’d not seen anything of the journey because we had top bunks and the window was beneath us, but we did have a neon lit advertisement hoarding to look at. This was set into a wooden box with sharp edges on the wall, about an inch from my head.
I had a trepanning whilst I slept and now all my evil spirits have been released, so that’s a good thing.
Nel comfortable, on her Nel sized bunk. I wasn’t so comfortable.
Hanoi looked like a photograph taken through a lens smeared with Vaseline, but that was because my eyes were full of sleepy juice.
We’d decided that we were going to head to Cat Ba instead of sticking around in Hanoi for a day, there will be time for that later and I’m sure Bjela and Evan will show us best places to shop an that. We just wanted to get somewhere to relax for a while.
We took a train to Haiphong from Hanoi, which, though we’d been told it leaves from a different station in Hanoi, left from the same one. In fact, so far as we determined, there’s only one station in Hanoi.
More misinformation, but it worked out well for us. We just hung around outside the station til six after visiting a street cafe and drinking horribly strong green tea.
For an hour we fended off people trying to take us to hotels, or offering us taxi rides, dry baguettes, fruit and veg, postcards, or motorcycles to rent.
I like it that shaking your head and smiling, and a hand gesture works.
And talking of hand gestures, it makes me smile that every time we ask for tea, waitresses flick us the V’s.
Of course it’s not rude here, they’re just asking if we want two teas, but it’s surprising how shocking it is to have someone who you don’t know, who you feel as though you’ve not even had the opportunity to offend yet stick two fingers up to you.
Every time it happens – and we’ve had someone flick the Vs at us every day now, several times a day for about five weeks – I get arsey for a millisecond, until I rember. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong and its their way of showing they don’t like us. They probably snigger when they turn round ‘heh heh heh, I just gave them the V’s and they don’t realise’
The lady at the ticket office didn’t flick the Vs at us but she didn’t seem happy to see us either.
We were hanging about in the waiting room when she turned up looking like she’d been up all night rowing with her boyfriend or something. She didn’t seem to be in high spirits and sold us two tickets in a way that suggested we should just fuck off to Haiphong and leave her alone.
The Haiphong train left from platform nine, which meant we had to walk across eight sets of tracks which were littered with what I will delicately call ‘human debris’.
Turds, I will call them indelicately. And toilet tissue. Toilet tissue? Don’t you mean bog roll?
Yep, that’s what it was. It seems the toilets do empty onto the tracks.
Delicately picking our way across the tracks like sheep traversing a cattle grid, only with rucksacks on, we made it to platform nine with no shoe clinkers.
The unhappy ticket lady had sold us hard seat tickets, but they were only three dollars for a two and a half hour journey and the hard seats were surprisingly comfortable.
There was one other passenger in our carriage, there may have been only one other passenger on the train but he was Vietnamese and shorter than the seat so you couldn’t really tell that there was anybody there at all, but there was a member of staff doing some embroidery in a seat opposite and down a bit, and another member of train staff watching her until she lost interest and fell asleep.
People fall asleep easily everywhere. Go to the market and the stall holders are asleep. Until you walk by, and then they’re alert as a whippet who thinks he might have just heard you insult his mother.
‘You buy something?’ It always feels like an order. ‘YOU. BUY SOMETHING!’
What, a crab? I don’t want one.
We’ve got less tense about things. At first it was stressful and it felt like if someone told you to buy a crab then you had no choice and you look around helplessly wondering how to get out of the crab deal, but now we’re completely at ease. Completely. And I know that there are people around who would steal your wallet, and your camera if they got the chance but I also know that I’m careful enough to not have to worry about it too much. Westerners we’ve met have told us that they thought we maybe live here. We’ve not gone native or anything but I don’t feel as stupid or naive as I did three months ago.
Where was I?
We got into Haiphong and found a cafe for an hour. Haiphong is the fourth biggest city but it seemed quite pretty. We’ve even got used to crossing the road now, stepping out into a flurry of motos like you’re walking in front of a firing squad. Just passing through lads, don’t mind us.
We ate omelets and drank tea while we tried to figure out how to get to the harbour from where you take a boat to Cat Ba island. Google maps is fine if you know where you’re heading and what direction you’re heading in. It’s good if you know what direction a road with an unpronounceable name is in, but the problem we’ve found is that you head for a road called, for example, Ton Duk Phuon, or something, and by the time you reached the next street you’ve forgotten what the street name was and have to look it up again. The words are so foreign they don’t lodge in your mind. If it was called High Street, or Main Street or bleedin Avocado Shoe Street it would be easy, but you have no frame of reference for a word that seems to us like an arbitrary collection of vowels and consonants to fit into.
Well, we found it anyway, and chatted with some Americans who were just returning from Cat Ba and heading to Hanoi hoping to get a sleeper carriage. We wished them good luck with that, you really need to book at least a day in advance but they might have got lucky.
There were a couple of Europeans too who’d stayed in an eco hut in the middle of the national park.
We wanted to find a place with food and a bar, and perhaps some company, preferably within walking distance after how ever long it had been since we’d had those things. Somewhere that mentally ill people are allowed into.
We booked a ticket with a company that run from a different pier but that was ok because they ran a bus to the fast boat service and then another bus from the pier on Cat Ba to Cat Ba town, where the hotels are.
We had to hang about for another couple of hours or so drinking tea but that was ok.
The ferry crossing was indeed a fast boat. Apparently you can get a hydrofoil service but we’ve not seen any and this one was pretty quick.
A man who smelled of alcohol who spoke no more English than I do Vietnamee seemed to be trying to tell me to get back onto the bus, pointing at me and then to the bus we’d just got off and I couldn’t figure out whether he was being arsey with me. Blue eyed devil go home or something, so I listened to him out of politeness and ignored him. When we got to the island he offered me a drink. Odd.
The ferry took us past those seabound karst formations but not very close and the weather is actually quite gray and misty, disappointingly.
There was a bus waiting to take us to Cat Ba town and some people waiting when the bus stopped to take us to a hotel, who we declined.
Half of Cat Ba is a national park. Half of Cat Ba Town is hotels but it’s clean and pretty and there are fishing boats out in the harbour, loads of them.
We found the hotel that we were looking for, the one that had loads of good reviews on trip adviser and it’s twelve dollar with breakfast. Not too bad at all, and the sink is fastened properly to the wall! I check.
Cat Ba town was hewn out of the limestone, and we know this because we saw some men doing some hewing.
I say men but they were actually completely utterly and incontrovertibly not ordinary men. No, these were crazy men, and I can say this with confidence because they have to be to stand about eighty feet up on the top of the limestone cliff with big drills, shearing off great lumps.
We stood back and watched them, me through my fingers and with my mouth open aghast. There was an Asian man watching too, don’t know if he was Vietnamee but he too was aghast, and it takes a lot to aghast an Asian. These crazy men even stopped to pose for a photograph. Nutters. Completely, utterly and incontrovertibly.
Men doing hewing. Look closely, they’re smiling at Nel taking pictures. It’s surely more natural to be grimacing in these circumstances.
There’s a shop that sells all manner of dead things in bottles, like the snakes, but these also had starfish and other sea creatures in to make a snakey seafoody drink. There was also bundles of dried geckos, the big beautiful spotty ones, and bundles of some kind of dried marine snake, and god only knows what they’re for.
Snakey, seafoody refreshments
Please feel free to make up your own caption, I don’t know what to say. The best wins a dessicated gecko
The best wins two dessicated gekos
Dull and overcast but better than dull and overcast back home somehow
They dont make them like they used to
There’s also a market selling beautiful and tasty sea creatures and the stuff that’s available in any Vietnamee town that’s not a tourist destination, when you go away from the sea front.
I’ve been plagued with ‘prickly heat’ rash on my hands, the very hands that prod this screen here so diligently for our friends back home but also for our own diary.
I’ve found that hydrocortisone helps, so went into a pharmacy to get some. The old lady pharmacist took a look and got out some cream. Ok, how much? Twelve and a half dollars. Twelve and a half? What?
I’ve said before that I understand we’re going to pay more than the locals for stuff, but twelve and a half dollars?
I said no, too much and walked away. She went to pass me a calculator to write down a figure, which is the way they do it here but we just walked away.
I don’t like the calculator thing and I don’t do it because if they ask a ridiculous figure and you halve it, it’s still half ridiculous.
She could have probably made a hundred percent profit but she was trying to make thousands of percent and putting her feet up for the rest of the week. No doubt she thought we’d just arrived in Vietnam and don’t know anything, so instead of making a fair profit, she lost a sale, it doesn’t make any sense.
I’m sorry to say that Nel got drunk last night in a bar.
Oh no, it was me, Nel didn’t get drunk. Let me put that straight. We met a likeable Scotsman who’s a writer in Hanoi and who comes here for a break now and then. I expect we’ll see him again over the next few days.
We’re meeting up with Evan and Bjela in Ha Long City on Friday and taking a two day cruise round the bay. We met them on our first week in Cambodia on Koh Rong Samloen, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll remember they’re English teachers living in Hanoi. We’ll go back to Hanoi with them for a couple of days before we head off again.