Home Again

Well we made it all the way home finally. Our house is as it was (seriously we had a few people stay a while and I don't think they touched anything). Even the junk mail I dumped on the kitchen table was still there. Sigh. The only change was in my garden, which was just beginning to look nice when we left. Most of it is now dead.

Last night I accidentally stayed up until 4am. Will have to reset that clock when I get the chance.

Once I get Photoshop CS4 installed, I will be able to upload plenty of photos to the blog. We can reminisce about how happy we were.

It's funny being home. I went to look for a jumper (Melbourne is cold!) and was overwhelmed by choice. I have way too many clothes all of a sudden. Also I'm trying to keep everything as neat as possible, as I have a great head start. So far this is going well, except for over on Paul's desk where there's currently one bowl, one tea cup, two spoons and a glass half full of Milo. I won't say anything until we run out of cutlery.

So stay tuned for some depressing anecdotes of life in Melbourne, and some more photos of the trip.

Bec
Melbourne

Not Dead and Not Stranded

Woot! We made it to Darwin without much incident. The pilot did turn on the seatbelt sign at one stage, and we were all going to die, but it turned out ok.

We filed off the plane to the sirens of the fire alarm, and were informed 40 minutes later that we didn't need to evacuate. Baggage took a while but not too long, declared all my wooden tidbits to the amusement of our friendly swat team guy. This time only the Asians were drilled about their business in Vietnam and Australia, it's nice to see some racial profiling by a (ginger) security worker every now and then.

Meanwhile, at the Darwin domestic terminal, Paul and I are stalking Paul Macurio (I don't know how to spell his name... I'd google it, but he might see. *edit: It's Mercurio) Paul is more interested in the camera guy and his equipment(pun intended).

We've spent more money than we have in a week on a coffee, a juice and a sandwich, despite the fact that we're getting breakfast on the plane in half an hour.

See you all in Melbourne. Or hell. Depending on how the flight goes. (And on what you think of Melbourne.)

Observations

With only a few hours until our exit from Saigon, I think it's time to reflect, summarise, and make sweeping generalisations about the three countries I have visited.

1. Cambodia has a garbage problem.

A big one. A waist deep one. As soon as our mega bus crossed the border, we started noticing roadside rubbish piles. The cleanest spots we found were probably Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville (I will mention the conditions of this statement momentarily) and the Angkor temples.

So Sihanoukville did have a rubbish problem, but it also had big bins for businesses and we did witness a garbage truck actually collecting garbage. I say Serendipity Beach was clean, and it was, and we were surprised by this. The however is a large one and it comes when you walk down the beach beyond the wall to wall restaurants and you see some sand. This is where the rubbish ends up. It spreads until the tourist spot starts up again 4km down the coast. The bottles and cans are collected by very young children, under the stern eye of their grandmother or something. Everything else stays on the sand, or ends up in the water. The spread of litter is thick and it goes far.

The Angkor Park is pretty well maintained, and relatively clean, if I remember correctly. The word relatively is the important one here, as it means in comparison to the waist deep rubbish piles we saw in the rest of the country.

2. Vietnam has an attitude to garbage problem.

This was best evidenced in Sa Pa, where I tried to pocket a wrapper in front of my H'moung homies Zi and Chi. I intended to carry it around with me all day, and put it in my little rubbish bag when I returned to my room.

Chi stopped me. 'You throw it in the gutter!' She took the wrapper off me and demonstrated.
'No, you need to put it in the bin!'
'No people sweep it up. People pay.'
She was referring to the varitable army of street sweepers you see employed all over Vietnam. These guys walk the streets pushing rather large wheelie bins sweeping up rubbish and collecting it from businesses. The streets are pretty clean as a result of their work. However, a short walk to the edge of a ledge in Sa Pa will reveal a waterfall of rubbish, decorating the side of the hill. This gets blown or washed out of reach of the street sweepers and ends up in the waterways. No one seems to see this as a problem.

3. Cats in Cambodia and Laos are hunted for their tails.

Not really. But every cat we saw in both of these countries had a big problem with their tail. Either it was completely missing, cut in half, bent in half, bent in thirds, broken in three places and twisted in a coil (we named this one Pussistence) or completely mangled in any number of other ways. It was a bit of a hold your breath moment when we crossed the border between Cambodia and Laos (finally) and we saw our first Lao cat. The mangled tale syndrome, we found, was not limited by the border.

From what we saw, Vietnamese cats are free from this condition.

4. The SE Asian mantra is "Anything you can do, I can charge money for".

Be it finding a room, a shoeshine, transport, laundry, carrying of bags, locating train station platforms... It's all on offer for a price in SE Asia.

5. It is plainly evident why the singing bird was caged.

Caging birds is a big thing in SE Asia. In homes and businesses, they are caged for their birdsong. They even cage the ugly ones, like indian miners, as their song is still impressive. Although I am still unclear as to why they cage the pidgeons.

At temples, the tiny cages are not much bigger than the tiny birds. They are sold to tourists and worshippers, so they may be set free for good luck. I have it on biblical authority (source: lonely planet) that these birds are trained to return to their owners, to be recaged and resold.

6. It is plainly evident why the caged dog is quiet.

In Hoi An we saw a cage full of dogs strapped to the back of a motorbike. The same cage would have housed about 15 chickens, all crammed in. This time it held three dogs, all crammed in. They looked like the neglected down-trodden dogs you see on RSPCA ads, only these ones had no looks in their eyes of 'Why!?' They were raised in these conditions and will die in them. Not a sound from them.

7. In all three countries, if you don't want a ride on a motorbike, clearly you are in want of marijuana instead. And if (in the unlikely event) you do not want marijuana, surely you are in need of opium.

It becomes a habit of chirping out a sing-song "No-thank-youuu" in response to the moto driver's "Hello moto!". When they follow with a more shady "Marijuana?" your habitual sing-song reply seems out of place.

8. SE Asian children are sadists.

How many dogs have I seen chased and kicked and tormented by children over here!? Also we witnessed a gecko shot to pieces (literally) by two kids sporting a pellet gun with a laser sight. At a hill top temple in Luang Prabang in Laos, a boy carried around his caged bird all day instead of releasing it for luck. We saw him swinging the little cage at his side as if it were a bag of lollies. There seems to be no general lesson of be nice to animals over here.

9. There is no water shortage in South East Asia.

People in Australia are publicly lynched if they are caught watering down their front step. People in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam not only water their front step, but also their entire driveway, and the road outside their house within a ten metre radius.

Guesthouse Review

The sale of this tee paid for about two thirds of a night at the following guesthouse.

NHU Guesthouse
Saigon, Vietnam
$8 USD per night

Includes:

A sign!

A sign!

A precarious three story climb up ladder steps.

A precarious three story climb up ladder steps.

Two single beds (can be pushed together!)

Two single beds (can be pushed together!)

Hot and cold water showers

Hot and cold water showers

An adorable basin

An adorable basin

A balcony

A balcony

A bird's eye view of the alley

A bird's eye view of the alley

Cable TV

Cable TV

A table!

A table!

Guesthouse Review

The sale of this tee paid for about two thirds of a night at the following guesthouse.

Nice Dreams Guesthouse
Dalat, Vietnam
$11 USD per night

Includes:

Saigon Again

Four days in Dalat and we can't wait to get home. One afternoon in Saigon and suddenly we're in no hurry. We found (were shown by a crazy lady in a blue shirt with a badge on it) an awesome little guesthouse down three alleys, each one smaller than the last. We're up three flights of tiny ladder stairs (I have no idea how we're going to get our bags back down!) in a room with cable tv and hot water and a tiny balcony from which we can jump to three of the neighbouring buildings. Two opposing fans create a nice tornado above our bed. This is good as it is really hot again. Saigon apparantly has two seasons, wet hot and dry hot.

There are two long term guests staying in the other rooms, a Canadian on the second floor and an Australian on the first.

Tomorrow we will eat as much Pho as possible and maybe take a sun sauna. Good for the complexion.

Bec,
Saigon

Honeymoon Capital of Vietnam

...

First impressions of Dalat are a disappointment! Maybe we're comparing it too closely to Sapa. Maybe we got dumped in the ugly part of town. Lonely planet said we might be forgiven for thinking we'd walked into the French Alps at springtime. Dalat is certainly on a hill, but I see no other comparison. I did see one nice building from the bus ... And we haven't checked out the lake yet, or the golf course next to the lake which is about three times larger than it's neighbour.

Apparantly there are some nice things to see out of town like waterfalls and stuff, but out of town is so far! And the moto drivers are so shifty and annoying.

On the upside our room is nice and it comes with free internet (hence the long and whingy post) and free breakfast. This will either kick arse or totally suck, I will let you know tomorrow when I abuse the internet resources a little more. On a side note, my keyboard has no letters, so please forgive the typos.

Our connecting bus sorted itself out in that I don't know how it works but it always seems to kind of way. Our 6.30pm sleeper bus was nearly an hour late, and when it did arrive it had a brother. This caused much confusion. Finally we board to find that the only beds available are the ones in the back row, which means we sleep hip to hip with 3 strangers. Paul didn't whinge when I flew in and grabbed the window bed, because he is my hero. 4 people had to sleep in the isle, but got isle mattresses and blankets. The back row was very hot and very bouncy and it was hard to sleep without getting the ocasional concussion.

We did get dumped at a hotel in Nha Trang, but it was only three doors down from the tourist office we needed to be at. This was closed as it was 5.30 in the morning, so we sat in the reception area of the hotel and lifted our feet while they mopped the floor. At 7.15 the tourist office opened and we got our tickets confirmed. 15 minutes later our bus rolls up and 1 hour after that we had finished collecting people from all over Nha Trang and we were on our way.

We arrived in Dalat at about 3pm. A long journey.

Stay tuned for the final days before home home home!

Bec
Dalat

To Dalat!

We've spent all our money on clothes and shoes (even Paul!!!) and now have no room to put anything. I'm scouring jetstar's website for baggage allowance rules - it's not looking good!!

We have joined the ranks of the lazy and purchased an open tour ticket that goes: Hoi An - Nha Trang - Dalat - Saigon.

The Hoi An to Nha Trang leg is another sleeper bus, and we're catching that tonight at 6.30. Suddenly feeling rushed, we're going to skip Nha Trang and jump straight on the Dalat bus. Assuming the first bus takes us where we're meant to go (the bus station) this won't be a problem. However, if the bus driver does what bus drivers usually do (dump us at a shitty hotel not quite in the centre of town) then catching the connecting bus might prove a bit difficult. I will inform you of our adventure from Dalat. Or Nha Trang. Depending on how well it goes.

Overnight Bus Review

Due to the impending end of our adventure, I fear I am running short on accommodation to review. Hence this overnight bus review! The sale of this tee paid for not quite half this bus ticket.

Camel Travel Sleeper Bus
Hanoi to Hoi An
18 hours
306,000 dong (US$18)

Includes:

Thavisouk Guesthouse Review

This one's a bit late but here's a review of a guesthouse in Vang Vieng, in response to the sale of this tee. The sale got me one night at:

Thavisouk Guesthouse
Vang Vieng, Laos
50,000 kip (US$6.25) per night

Includes:

Hoi An

Back in Hoi An and it is hot again! One week in Sapa and you forget that the earth revolves around the sun. It's quite nice being back in the heat. Things dry quickly. Drinking cold water becomes a spiritual experience. You don't have to wear much and I may even get a tan.

The drawback of being in the heat again: during the cold I wore my entire wardrobe and this afforded me more space in my bag for things and trinkets, which I filled with no trouble. Now I have nowhere to put my long pants, my jacket, my gloves, my jumper. To make matters worse, I am in the tailor capital of the world and fully intend to purchase another full wardrobe even though I have nowhere to put it. Oh the humanity.

Things have changed in Hoi An. They have paved the road. This is amazing news and as soon as Paul and I noticed we started dragging our feet and walking in zig zags and saying things like "so luxurious!"

One drawback of Hoi An is the local's enthusiasm for making a sale. People come into a restaraunt and talk to you all freindly like and then say I have a shop not far from here maybe you take a look. Well and good but when you politely decline, they persevere, and when you politely decline again, they persevere, and it takes a firm and possibly a little rude (in my book) No for them to go away.

Our hotel (that's right, hotel not guesthouse!) has an information book in the room that mentions these touts and recommends we approach a shop without them as the price is likely to be higher if we are escorted. Well and good if they follow you for three blocks down the street, the street is just fair-game and it's our own fault for being out and having money on our person really. But these touts are most annoying when you're at the back of a restaurant trying to eat noodle soup (this is splishy and requires concentration and is embarrasing if you get any on your chin) and this person is standing at your table, insisting that you come to their shop.

The lady who sells drinks ourside our hotel tried to get me to go into a shop across the road that is apparently her friend's. She also gives me a business card for another shop after drawing the letter A in the bottom right hand corner. "Show them this and you will get a discount," she says. But I'm pretty sure I heard "Show them this is you will get over-charged and I will get a cut."

Tomorrow I will dive in (i'll just have to chose a shop at random I guess) and get some shirts copied, maybe a new jacket and maybe some pants and maybe a dress and possibly some skirts. Maybe also a different kind of jacket, and maybe some more shirts and some shoes. We'll see.

Today we are mosying around town on bicycles with no brakes. This is semi-ok if you go really slowly and are willing to sacrifice your foot in order to avoid the motorbike, but for the beach run I think we should get better bikes.

Bye for now,
Bec
Hoi An

Pickpocket

Before I tell you how awesome Hoi An is, I'd like to tell you about my brush with a pickpocket!

That's right people, ever trusting, it will never happen to me Bec was very nearly robbed in the streets of Hanoi by a local pickpocket.

So we're walking along looking for Stamp Street, where the guys make all the stamps, and a guy selling postcards crosses the street and starts walking along next to us, holding a handfull of postcards. Paul is on my left, my cumpler bag (totally hard to open without the whole street hearing it) is hanging on my right side and next to that is an over enthusiastic guy trying to sell me postcards. I look at him politely, look down at his postcards, look back up and say no thank-you. He keeps walking along, a little close for comfort. This is irritating and down-right rude so I'm less interested in being polite to him now. He's fanning out the postcards, which are conveniently obscuring my bag from my view. He actually drops one, and I'm not sure if this is intentional, as I bend down to pick it up but he gets it himself. Maybe there was a team, and a second guy intended to get to my bag whilst I was distracted. If so it didn't work. So he picks up his postcard and keeps fanning.

Here's the lesson: any good tourist not interested in buying things off the street knows to look straight ahead and keep walking. Don't look at the item being sold or you've bought it. This is exactly what the pick pocket is after, he'll only need a second or two of a steadfast tourist glaring at the horizon to make off with their wallet.

BUT! Even though this guy is clearly an arsehole, I am oh-so polite that I glance down at his postcards once more, intending to say a firm no thank-you and quicken my pace. Looking down I notice his right arm is way far under the postcard canopy, he's in up to his elbow. I see this, and he sees that I see this, and in an 'oh shit' reflex he withdraws his arm way too quickly (novice) and I click. It took me a while but I got there. Paul also sees this and looks at me for confirmation. I nod, and Paul, my hero, jumps between me and the would-be theif, and with a protective hand on my shoulder, points at the guy and says go away. Meanwhile I'm checking my bag for wallet, iPod and SLR (hard to steal but I'm checking) . It's all there.

Clearly he his sprung, and this guy still tries to get in close and show us postcards. Three finger points from Paul and he concedes defeat and disappears. I only wish I had gotten all up in his face with finger pointing too, and words like police and theif and some internationally recognised swears. I also wish we had hassled him to the point of making a scene. Let his neighbours know he is a pickpocket. Tape a sign to his back. FOR SHAAAAAAME. But no, we just high-tailed out of there.

Lesson two: Crumpler bags kick arse. I think if I had any other bag at my side, this guy would have had an easier time getting in. My trusty crumpler, with its space-aged hardcore velcro, its clips and its super sturdy fabric, this guy should have known better.

By the way

On a side note, we are catching an 18 hour sleeper bus to Hoi An this evening. Two nights of travel in a row. We are hardcore.

Will attempt to post in Hoi An, assuming the tailors also have internet!

Escape from Sapa

Leaving Sapa was harder than we thought! We moseyed on over to the 'official' train ticket office to find that the fare back to hanoi was 50,000 dong more expensive than the fare to Lao Cai. When we started pointing to the price sheet and what not (amongst ourselves) wondering what up with the price hike, the woman about to sell us tickets walks over and says 'Full, go to Binh Minh hotel.' We ask 'Huh? Where? If it's full (it must have filled up since we walked in the door and the woman must be getting live updates from her telekenetic antenna) how can a hotel sell us tickets?' She gave no further information, as to how this was possible or where this magic train emtpying hotel was located.

Off we go back to our own hotel to ask them for tickets. 'We have tickets available,' they say, 'cost is 300,000 dong for hard sleeper.' Our hard sleeper fare from Hanoi to Lao Cai was only 140,000 dong for the top bunk, and we knew that the bottom bunk cost 170,000. We ask why is it nearly double the price and we are told 'booking fee'.

'Bugger that,' we say and head over to a mansion like building we spotted on our wanderings with a sign that read 'Tourist Information'. I'll take a moment to mention this as a wonderful haven of free internet, free maps, free museum, free booklets and acurate information that is not biased toward ripping you off. Amazing. This should be a tourist attraction in itself: honest organisation in Vietnam. Am I going to far there? No.

We approach a nice lady at a nice desk and ask if we can buy train tickets there. She says yes, but only super amazing private cars with schmancy wood pannelled walls and photographable bathrooms. Price, I will tell you, was 300 - 350,000 dong, the same price out hotel tried to sell us public dump tickets for. We say 'Oh. Too nice for us. What about the public hard sleeper?' She writes us a little note and pins it to our sleeve and then sends us to the lake.

We're told to look for Binh Minh II Hotel, which shares a building with the actually official government office that sells the proper train tickets and will even print the real thing out for you. Finally.

We find this building with not a lot of trouble (by now we're about 2 hours into our search for train tickets). The man behind the window bars, however, is less than helpful. We find out very quickly why the bars are there - so people can't leap through the window and strangle him.
'Hard sleeper?' we ask oh so politely.
'Full' he says.
'How about tomorrow?'
'Full.'
'How about thursday of next week?'
'Full.'
'How about mid april?'
He looks at us rudely.
'We're in no hurry.' I smile.
'Full,' he says.
This is when Paul cracks the shits.
We harrass this guy for half an hour, trying to get it out of him why he won't sell us a ticket. And why the only ticket he will sell (seat not sleeper) is twice the price it should be? This is where he goes all quiet and stops answering our questions. He makes a phonecall (to a hotel I think) and I speak to a nice lady who says we can come back to this guy in the morning and buy a hard sleeper then.
'He says it's full.' I say.
'He doesn't speak much English.'
Right.... 'How much for this ticket?'
'Can I speak to the man again?'
'You can't tell me the price?'
'I need to speak to the man first.'
Great. I hand the phone back to the man who says a few words and hangs up. I ask him the price and he says 'Full.'
We waste yet more time trying to unscam the scammer but eventually move on. We go around town looking for hotels with tickets for the train. All are redicously priced.

The cheapest we find is 250,000 dong. By now we have lost interest in saving money and decide to get this ticket. The woman makes us wait for a phone call and then we are told 'Full.' We get up to leave (no thank-you's this late in the day [did I mention it was the next day by now? Yes our search for tickets went for two days]) but another woman stands up and tells us to wait five minutes. The first lady says something along the lines of 'But I just told them it was full.' And they argue a bit, then turn to us and tell us two different stories. Paul has left but I stand my ground and try to get this straight. 'You say full. You say five minute wait. How is this possible?'
Suddenly the woman who says wait changes her mins and says 'Full.' She's lost paitience with me. Why not just tell me to get bent, get out of her shop? Why does she actually attempt to tell me the train is full? Again with the telekinetic antenna.
'It's not full,' I say. 'I will wait five minutes but I must go and tell my boyfriend.'
'No you wait here!'
'I'll be right ba-'
'Full.' She waves her hand.
I very nearly punch her but leave instead.

Our solution to the ticket hawking in Sapa was to catch the bus to Lao Cai without a train ticket and buy one at the station. Our suspicions are confirmed there, where we are told the hard sleepers are full. The railway must pre sell, or just reserve, every sleeper ticket for hotels and agencies to sell at double or more the going rate. How can one direction of travel be so simple, and the other be so corrupted? I cave and buy a soft seat ticket, proud that I have paid the correct price for at least something in Vietnam.

Prior to 2002, foriegners were charged, officially and legally, up to 400% the local rate for any ticket in Vietnam. This system was abolished, but I can see there was no effort needed in getting around it.

What gets me is the flat out lying to your face that we so often encounter from people. Of the three countries I have visited (whopping I know) 99% of this has occured in Vietnam.

Sorry to rant - but the people need to know!!! Try and buy your return ticket in Hanoi or good luck getting back without paying double.

Back in Sapa!

After a very noisy train ride, and an over-priced bus ride, we are back in Sapa. The train ride was ok in the end, we each got a top bunk (the coffin sized one) but I rediscovered my super flexibility and not only managed to climb up and get in, but also fold in half and thirds in order to reach my bag and rearrange my blanket. Surprisingly, Paul was less happy with the situation than he was the last time. I also slept really well, and only woke up thirty times. Every time the train made a new noise I would wake up and brace myself, convinced we were going to derail. But we didn't!

So Sapa is COLD. Here is a photo of Paul (again) to illustrate the weather.

We arrived yesterday and found Chi pretty quickly. Zi had received my email and had sent Chi to find us. Chi showed us a good market stall and we got some Pho for breakfast, and then headed off on an overpriced moto to the bottom of the valley. There was a Hmoung festival on to celebrte the new year and I'm beginning to think 'ethnic minority' might be a bit misleading. The place was full of Hmoung people from all over the place. I don't know how many there were, but there were lots.

They has various games and challanges set up, inluding "Climb the muddy bamboo trunk to get the candy at the top" which was great fun to watch.

There was also "Catch the goat while blindfolded",

"Walk along the swinging bamboo bridge and try not to fall in the mud", "Run to the top of the hill carrying the coloured flag", "Throw the ball and flag at the absurdly high target", "Palm of Fury" (Paul's name for two guys pushing againt a short bamboo pole) and everbody's favourite "Tug of war". It was a lot like a school fate. I kept asking Chi why each challenge was on and she kept saying "for fun!" like I was some kind of idiot.

After the Hmoung fete, we walked up the mountain (one hour) to Chi's house where she and her mum cooked us lunch. We ate rice, stir fried morning glory (tasted like bacon!), a boiled potatoe dish and a yummy looking bowl of "fat meat" which was mostly fat. This was leftover from the new year goings on, where (I think) a pig is killed and the meat is divided into thirds, one for the house, one for your neighbour and one for an offering. I definately read this somewhere, but it may or may not apply to the Hmoung people. I don't think I could get any info out of Chi, as she likes talking about interesting things. Certainly there was an emphasis on the fat, rather than the meat. We caught a moto back into town and found Zi, and we shared a bundle of rice that was wrapped up in a banana leaf. Chi's mum had warmed it up on the fire before we left and it was still steaming when we opened it.

Chi's house was a rather large two story wooden barn-like constuction with a ladder to the second level (where corn and straw was drying). It had a compacted dirt floor and one lightbulb which was powered (barely) but a hydro-electric setup at a nearby waterfall. We passed this on the way up, and Chi pointed it out. It was this amazing clear water rushing over rocks and pebbles, right over the road and continuing down the mountain. There were a few other houses next to Chi's (we were halfway up the mountain - well above the road) and a whole lot of rice feilds and veggie gardens. We were entertained by three puppies and some ducks and chickens while we waited for lunch.

The weather yesterday cleared up quite nicely and it was beautifully sunny in the vally. Sunny enough to reburn the hole where Paul's nose used to be, and to turn my red ski-mask into a heat mask. If I thought my skin could power a lightbulb when my back got burnt on Don Det, I am convinced I could have powered my laptop with my face by the end of yesterday. I went to bed with a plaster mask of wet tissues stuck to my nose and forehead. This you might imagine was horribly conflicting because the rest of me was freezing cold.

I had the ingenious idea of getting a room with two beds and therefore getting two doonas! The single beds are always rather large so we're sharing one bed and two doonas - awesome! We bought some thich socks and mega gloves today from a lady who wouldn't let us leave until we bought something. Although we really wanted to look around she kept dropping and dropping the price until we really couldn't say no.

Despite the cold, we're going to spend as much time as we can in Sapa. Maybe another sunny day will happen by.

The Story

Ha Long Bay. Amazing scenery, astounding scams and amazingly drunk captains.

Where do I start!? I guess it will have to be at the beginning and that way I can save the best for last. This may take a while.Our minibus journey to the dock where we were to meet our boat would have been completely eventless if it wasn't for the 7 Englishmen (and women) who held the bus up while they fought with their hotel owner about the rate of their room. Whenever we're planning an early bus trip, Paul and I endeavour to check out extra early in case of a dispute over the balance. The Englishmen were arguing that their room should be cheaper than the agreed price because of a broken shower, and the hotel guy was saying had they reported the problem he could have put them in another room. This went on for half an hour. Half of the English crew had already boarded the bus, and were verbally abusing the driver every time he tried to move the bus, who despite being unable to speak English, fully understood their tone. We were parked illegally and the police were making their way towards us and the driver was understandably panicking. This small detail escaped the English and they were convinced that the driver was trying to leave without their friends.

So, an hour late we are finally on our way. Three hours later we are at the dock and a few extra people join our group and we get a new guide. More seemingly needless waiting and we finally board an ok-looking boat. Lunch is served. Paul, my hero, politely demands to know where the vegetarian food is (we booked this in advance) and our guide points to the dish of plain rice, some french fries, some slices of cucumber and a plate of spring rolls. "Vegetarian, Vegetarian, Vegetarian, Vegetarian." Great, I say.

Of the four or five scheduled activities, we end up doing only two of them. The first is a visit to a pretty massive cave, that has disco lighting, suspiciously unnatural pathways and water fountains, and some bins that look like penguins.

Back on the boat we cruise past some floating houses, complete with cats and dogs and hammocks. We are shown a hole in an island and are told that this is the second cave we are meant to visit, but as it needs to be visited by boat, it is not included in the price of our ticket. At this point I'd like to explain our tour cost. Paul and I paid $33 per person, the Englishmen paid $36 and some nice boys from Boston paid $45. We all understood that our tour included two caves and all entrance fees were covered. On principle Paul and I stayed on the boat. Luckily so, as the cave was unremarkable and the boat that got everyone there was a bit of a hazard. While we wait for them to return we got a great view from the roof of some fruit sellers floating by on their boats. We were careful to keep out of sight, less we be harassed into buying.

At 4.30 we drop anchor at the back entrance to Cat Ba Don't Get Me Started Island. We're told dinner will be at 6.30 and to entertain ourselves until then. The disappointment is we're next to about 5 other boats and some floating houses and a dock full of boats and minibusses. As you might imagine, our view of the bay is a bit interrupted. Also a let down was the massive generator that was for some reason on the roof of the boat, right next to the relaxing deckchairs. How's the serenity.

Dinner looked a lot like lunch and I'm beginning to be thankful that I smuggle Pringles aboard.

Our rooms are nothing like the picture but aren't all that bad so we figure day one has gone as ok as one can expect a tour to go. The drama really starts on day two.

For some reason the kayaking part of our tour (that's the only other scheduled activity we got to do) has to happen at 7am and before breakfast. This is what Ha Long Bay looks like at 7am.

Of course there aren't enough kayaks and the life jackets are all broken and I wouldn't be surprised if they actually sank in the water. The kayak 'tour' consists of our guide pointing to the kayak and then pointing to the bay and saying 'Forty minute'. Paul and I take off, determined to make it all the way around at least one island. Aside from the small detail of our kayak being full of water, we had an ok time. When we get back, however, we find an arguement has boken out over a missing oar paddle. One of the English guys lost the end of his oar as soon as it touched the water and it sank straight to the bottom of the bay (no idea how deep). Our guide is trying to explain to Dan that because he stole the oar, the local that hires out the kiyaks wants him to pay 500,000 dong to replace. The 6 tourists on the trip all agree that the kiyak guy can get bent and that Dan shouldn't have to pay for equipment that was already broken when it was handed to him. The price is also so absurd that we smell a scam. The kayak guy is pissed and won't 'permit' the captain to leave. By now it's 9am and we're meant to be heading off for our next crappy sight to see.

As breakfast was meant to be at 8, we start to think that maybe starvation is a part of their tactic. But eventually cold eggs and jam and some slightly stale bread make it to the table. The captain goes around to all 16 of us and takes orders for tea and coffee. He somehow thinks he can remember it all in his head and when three people miss out, they enquire about their coffee and the captain cracks the shits. We figure he's under pressure about the kayaks or something.

Still we are expected to pay 500,000 dong for a flakey oar. No one feels the need to go anywhere so we all grab our ipods and books and head up to the roof to sunbake. Here is a picture of the stand off.

FYI, bring sunscreen to Ha Long - Paul no longer has a nose and I look like I'm wearing a bright red ski mask.

Things get heated downstairs and everybody joins the fight. After a couple of hours (I wasn't joking when I said stand off) the price gets lowered to 200,000 dong and still we tell them to get bent. I decide that I should get some of this on camera, in case this is a scam. The captain looks really pissed that I'm filming and I make a point of getting the rego of the boat on the camera too.

Four hours later we still haven't gone anywhere and we begin to refer to the situation as a kidnapping and to the boat as the scam boat. I consider grabbing a bed sheet and painting HELP on it with soy sauce, but it seems a bit early in the day for that.

At this point our captain abandons ship. He and two other crew members get picked up by a speed boat, and get taken to a floating house about 200 metres that way. We are told that they have gone to get drunk. I realise now that the house he went to was the house of the kayak scam guy. Either the captain was in on it, or he was seriously trying to get some peace keeping talks going. Whichever it was, the English give in and decide to pay 100,000 dong. Our guide attempts to call the captain. No answer. The remaining crew hang their heads out the window and scream. No answer. After about half an hour, two of the Englishmen get sick of waiting and decide to swim over. Here is a picture of them climbing aboard the floating house.

I fully expected them to find a boat full of half ended oars over at the floating house, but they didn't. About half an hour later they all come back and the captain is visibly drunk.

The Englishmen pay the kayak guy his money, but he has something to say about it. I think he was asking for more. The captain seriously gets angry here, which makes me think that if it is a scam he's not in on it. Here is a picture of another crew member, whose identity has been obscured by a mobile phone. Photo was taken by Paul, who accidentally broke a toothpick, and offered to pay the girl 10,000 dong for it.

As half the day is gone, we head straight back to port, forgetting about the rest of the tour that we all shelled out for. I say straight back, but after only a few minutes it is apparant that we are zigzagging. I'm not kidding when I say we nearly ran into two mountains a tanker, and actually did collide with the tail end of a touris ship a lot bigger and better than ours. It was bloody lucky we didn't sink. There was a very slow boat chase after the collision, when our drunk captain still had hopes of getting away with it. But the better tourist boat had a little faster boat attached to it, and thankfully it wasn't so smashed up that it couldn't catch up to us.

We all started waving our arms and screaming help to the guys that pulled up along side us and boarded. They nodded sympathetically and supervised our return to port. I don't kno why but they let the drunk guy continue driving. Ahead of us were hundreds of boats all docked or waiting to dock. I had no hopes of getting to the pier dry. We did in fact manage to miss all the boats on the way in, but when it came to approaching the pier, it was a twenty minute back and forth adventure that ended with us colliding into another boat. I could smell the alcohol on the captain from 4 feet away.

Did I forget to mention the meat cleaver? As we were pulling in, one of the drunk crew members emerged from the kitchen with a giant silver meat cleaver hidden behind his back. We all flipped out, as you might expect, and our guide also looked pretty scared. Meat cleaver guy hid it in a pot plant just behind the cabin, and as soon as we hit the peir we all scrambled off as quickly as we could. No one wanted to stick around and be part of the dispute resolution that was going to take place between the two crews. May I also add, that the crew that boarded us were all in uniform and had probably radioed the police like any good professional.

And did I mention the irony!? They scam us for a pre-broken oar and then smash drunkenly into a snazzy boat and try to brush off responsibility. I couldn't have written it better.

The only shame of the day was that Paul and I were the only ones with an obligation to get back to Hanoi by 9pm, as we had a train to catch. I would have loved to sit it out all night just to piss off the captain. But then I suppose he wouldn't have gotten his comeuppance by crashing into a boat whose captain could afford lawyers.

A post scam boat update: I think we have the scam confirmed as we met a nice New-Yorker who lives in Melbourne who caught our train to Sapa - their boat had a broken oar worth 500,000 dong too. The poor guy who was holding it actually coughed up the whole lot without much arguement. Poor sucker. I just wish we'd heard of a flakey oar scam prior to our incident. Shame shame.