Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Halong Bay - Monkey Island for New Year

The journey from Hanoi to Monkey Island (a tiny island resort a mile off Cat Ba Island in the South China Sea) passed surprisingly without difficulty.  The trek involved two taxi rides, 3 bus journeys plus 2 boat trips, which in my book was a recipe for disaster but it all went without a hitch.
Admittedly, the first bus ride from Hanoi to Haiphong was a bit hair raising.  Size is everything on the roads in Vietnam and as buses tend to be among the largest vehicles on the road they bully almost all other traffic out of the way at high speed.  You rarely find anything overtaking a bus.  However, that doesn't seem to stop people blindly pulling out in front of them resulting in frequent violent braking.  

We started to become acclimatised to lunatic driving as long ago as Russia when we we first encountered the overtaking ditch into which traffic is forced by faster more impatient drivers.  Mongolian roads are memorable mainly for their potholes, and Chinese roads, particularly in the big cities, are just huge highways packed full of every vehicle imaginable where lane markings exist for decoration only.  At least in China pavements are usually provided for pedestrians' use meaning you only have to venture out into the roads to get to the other side (something that chickens and dogs are capable of doing with admirable skill and regularity).

Our little beach hut - home for 5 days!
In Vietnam, the provision of pavements is patchy and when available not confined to pedestrian use.  Where there is a pavement, it will usually be used for scooter parking or outdoor dining.  Much of the time you are forced to walk in the sometimes narrow roads where traffic approaches from all directions.  

It is becoming increasingly apparent that bicycles, motorbikes and scooters are exempt from the general principles of any highway code (if any such thing exists) and they are able choose to travel on whichever side of the road is more convenient to them at any given time and therefore as a pedestrian danger approaches from all angles.  It takes some getting used to. 

And it is just as hair raising to be a passenger on a bus.  The driver has his hand permanently depressed on the extremely loud horn, bullying other road users, accelerating quickly and braking sharply and generally driving fairly recklessly.  After several uncomfortable hours of heightened anxiety you breathe a sigh of relief when you finally reach your destination in one piece,

However, all connections were made according to plan and by the time we boarded the tiny (and I mean tiny) ferry to Monkey Island we were more than ready to enjoy a bit of relaxation and isolation far away from the madding crowd at the small island beach resort.  Incidentally, the description “ferry” is misleading; it’s really a battered old flat bottomed boat with an engine but it is rather grandly referred to as "the ferry" to and from Monkey Island.  The main point is we reached our final destination unscathed.

The gardens surrounding the huts
Monkey Island Resort is the only accommodation on the otherwise uninhabited island.  We should also explain that the term “resort” is a bit of a misnomer and, as was explained to us later by the manager, can lead some people to expect a level of comfort and service normally provided by more expensive establishments adopting that description.

Monkey Island Resort comprised a main brick building with the reception area downstairs and the bar and restaurant upstairs with a large deck and views over the bay.  The accommodation itself was little more than a bunch of fairly basic beach huts of various sizes set along the beach or dotted around the beautiful gardens.  It is a resort in the nicest sense of the word (as far as we are concerned anyway).  It catered mainly for the backpacking market and were priced accordingly between £30 and £75 a night depending on size and location - expensive by "budget" standards but amazing value for the location. The most expensive huts were raised on stilts, right on the edge of beach but at £75 a night we couldn’t justify that sort of expense. 

If you look closely you should be able to
spot a kite - they refuse to pose for camera shots!
We had gone for the cheapest option within the gardens but our little beach hut was lovely, clean and perfectly adequate. 

The weather was fairly warm while we were there but mainly cloudy so not exactly sunbathing weather, but definitely "chill out and relax" weather.  We had a little rain at night but the days remained dry which was perfect for us. 

Monkey Island is just off the south coast of Cat Ba Island in Lan Ha Bay.The resort itself is built into a natural bay surrounded by hills. 

We never did actually see a monkey on Monkey Island.  Some fellow guests said they had been assured by the manager that the monkeys weren’t allowed into the resort.  I believe something was lost in translation.  For one thing, wild monkeys aren’t known for their obedience, and neither can they read the “Monkeys Keep Out” signs, if indeed, any such signs exist.  And the other thing was that I was woken up the first night by the sound of something rather large landing on the thatched roof of our little hut and the blood curdling screaming which accompanied the thud convinced me that the culprit was a monkey.  You see, I know what monkeys sound like.  We had encountered dozens of them in Zhangjiajie National Park in China and they are very vocal creatures.  Our hut must have been on the “monkey run” through the little resort, because this initial loud thud was followed by lots of other loud thuds, and I had the distinct impression several monkeys were running across the roofs of the huts. Maybe the manager was right and they were only allowed in the resort after dark.

A beautiful full moon which peeked through
the clouds on the our first night
Anyway, the resident dogs clearly were not impressed by all these trespassing monkeys and above the sound of monkeys screaming I could hear dogs scampering around outside and howling and barking like the Baskervilles but, with the best will in the world, the dogs were not the creatures using our hut roof as a landing pad or making the loud monkey-like screaming noises.

This commotion woke me up at about 1.00am and to begin with I was a little alarmed because it was really very loud but Paul contentedly slept through all this mayhem and refused to believe me when I recounted events the next morning.  However, the monkeys and dogs repeated these antics on our last night on the island and this time Paul was awake as we both lay there expecting a monkey to drop through the roof onto the bed any minute.  So while we never saw a monkey we heard plenty!

The "ferry"
Being the only resort on the tiny island, we were expecting prices to be a little higher than on the mainland due to the fact that we were effectively a captive audience.  We were not disappointed but prices were still cheap by western standards.  We considered stocking up on beer on Cat Ba Island but as Paul pointed out, we couldn’t really get that much beer on the "ferry", so we just bit the bullet and paid the extortionate price of 40,000 dong ($2) for a very small can of beer and hang the expense.

The food was fairly reasonably priced apart from the seafood barbecue buffet which, again, was relatively expensive for anyone on a budget at $15 a head.  Unless you’re a Wooky, of course, and meticulously plan ahead.  You could eat as much as you liked and there was salad, chips, a variety of spring rolls, as well as barbecued pork, fish and oysters.  It was absolutely delicious and Paul organised his meal using two plates;  one for the meat and fish, and another for the other stuff.  And he went up for seconds.  And thirds.  We definitely got our money’s worth!

One of the houses in the floating village
The oysters in particular were amazing.  I don’t really like raw oysters (or raw fish generally as it seems a bit like culinary Russian roulette to me) but these oysters were barbecued in their shells, smothered in a delicious sauce and were mouth wateringly good.

The day after we arrived the resort laid on a short boat trip around Lan Ha Bay so we got up early and headed out on the ferry at about 8.30am.  We sailed around limestone karsts rising steeply out of the water, through floating villages, on the calm waters of the bay for a couple of hours before heading back to the island. It was all rather lovely and peaceful after the mayhem of Hanoi!

On our second day we caught the ferry to Cat Ba Island.  Once again, we were up early as the ferry left at 8.30am again.  It was only a 10 minute trip around the corner (or whatever the nautical equivalent is) and from the small harbour we had to catch a car or motorbike taxi over the headland to the main town.

This was similar to our "cruise boat" but larger and
at a glance, more seaworthy
Cat Ba Town is generally described as pretty ugly but we actually thought it was a nice little place.  It did of course have hotels along the seafront but not huge high rise buildings as you are led to believe (unless you consider a 5 storey building does a skyscraper make).  It is a working fishing village with a bustling tourist trade and really quite pleasant.  We spent a couple of hours pottering around, stopped for coffee, Paul bought a fishing rod, stopped for more coffee and then caught the ferry back to Monkey Island with a new batch of guests who were fresh off the bus from Hanoi.

We also used our trip to the bustling metropolis of Cat Ba Town to visit the pharmacy and buy some painkillers and some more immodium.  I left Paul to pay for the items and asked him afterwards how much he was charged.  The immodium had cost about £30 and I seriously thought he had been done big time until he told me he had actually bought the whole box of 100 tablets.  I expressed the opinion that I thought this was a tad excessive but it was a good deal and if we got short of cash then we could always sell them.  However, I seriously doubted we would need that many tablets.  It effectively meant that we would be taking at least one tablet each for 6 weeks in total throughout the rest of our trip.  Surely we wouldn't need that many?  Time would tell...

While we were staying on Monkey Island we decided to take a day trip around Halong Bay.  We had read and heard of all the scams, rip-offs, and even sinkings (due to badly maintained boats, overcrowding etc) but it was quite cheap for a day out so we arranged one through the manager at the resort who arranged for us to take a day trip through her friend who ran a hotel in Cat Ba because it was cheaper than the deal offered by the resort (by $10).  We paid $35 each but had to be up early (again!) to get over to Cat Ba Island, and meet up with her friend and board the boat there.

Some of the scenery around the bay
We duly crawled out of bed at 6.30am, had breakfast and then jumped on the ferry at 7.30am for Cat Ba a bit bleary eyed.  The sea was a little choppy that morning and it was the first time they actually asked us to wear life jackets.  We caught motorbike taxis to the main town where we were met by the hotel manager.  Money changed hands and we were promised a day cruising around Halong Bay, caves, kayaking, and a seafood lunch.  It all seemed a rather exciting prospect.

The manager then walked us across the road to the harbour where the boat was moored and we embarked.  All the boats in the area are of the flat bottomed variety, kind of junks (but with a motor instead of sails) and there was an inside area with bench seating along each side and tables through the middle.  Upstairs was an open deck with 4 benches, which seated about 8 people.  The waters around Halong Bay are fairly shallow which is why they all use flat bottomed boats to navigate around, but these types of boats seem quite unstable compared to other seafaring vessels (in my very limited experience).  We tried to ignore the fact that we could spot neither life jackets nor lifebuoys.

More scenery around Halong Bay
When we climbed aboard there were 12 other people already seated inside so everyone shuffled up and we joined them.  We just about fit comfortably on the bench seating quite comfortably.

We all sat about chatting amongst ourselves for a few minutes then another half a dozen people arrived and duly climbed on board.  We all shuffled up a bit more and everyone managed to squeeze in to the downstairs section.

A little more time passed before we spotted another group of huddled next to the boat.  At this point we all looked at each other, presumably all thinking the same thing.  Seconds that group all proceeded to step on board ; three or four managed to wedge themselves into the lower cabin, while the rest were directed onto the top deck.  Rather alarmingly, every time someone stepped onto the boat, it swayed unsteadily from side to side. 

The "ferry" anchored for the night in the bay
As this last group boarded we counted 10 more people which meant that there were now 30 of us crammed onto the boat, plus 3 crew.  Once we were all settled down and lodged into place, balanced evenly around the boat so that it stopped keeling from side to side, the captain started the motor and off we went.

We left the main harbour and passed by the smaller harbour from where we caught our ferry to Monkey Island.  By then we were quite familiar with the area and we had a sneaking suspicion we were heading towards Monkey Island.  Sure enough, Monkey Island soon loomed in our sights and we found ourselves heading back to the little island, towards the deserted beach just around from where we were staying.

It was at this point that Paul turned to me and uttered the prophetic words “I’ve got a feeling this trip might be slightly crap”.  But we were in good spirits and waited to see how things would turn out.  If nothing, it would be interesting to see how our fellow passengers (mainly European)) would react to events as they unfolded.

Paul looking very serious in his panda hat
Eavesdropping on various conversations we gleaned that a stop at Monkey Island to see the monkeys was part of the day's itinerary, something which they had conveniently neglected to inform us, knowing that we would consider this particular stop a complete waste of time and money.  

We approached the beach and the crew had several (unsuccessful) attempts to moor the boat but the tide was in the wrong place and the sea was a little choppy.  After 10 minutes, they gave up and off we set again.  Five minutes later we rounded the point and found ourselves heading straight for Monkey Island Resort.  Waiting on the jetty to join the trip were a French couple we recognised from the resort.  At least they looked refreshed as they didn't have to get up with the sparrows!  We had left the island almost 2 hours ago and we were now back at the exact same point.  We looked at each other and burst out laughing.  It seemed Paul's suspicions were spot on and this trip was indeed going to be a bit crap!

After loading on the extra two passengers (which meant we were now 35 in total on a boat that was appearing more unstable as the morning wore on), we set off again around the bay.  We covered a lot of the same ground that we had on outing the previous day and it was pleasant enough but we were beginning to wonder whether it could get any worse. 

The serious business of buying
a fishing rod and tackle
We stopped to visit some caves and it was at this point that we came to appreciate just how precarious and wobbly our boat was.  As people were making their way down from the upper deck and everyone in the lower deck began standing up waiting to get off, the boat suddenly keeled sharply to one side.  I, for one, seriously thought we were going to capsize but the boat eventually steadied, and we all filed off rather tentatively

We made our way through the cramped caves, out the other end, around the hill and carefully back onto the boat again.  People started to shuffle around a bit, which was very unsettling as every time some simply stood up, the boat started to rock violently from side to side.  Everyone seemed to be aware of the precarious nature of the boat although the crew seemed unperturbed by all this movement, which we had to take as a good sign but I clearly wasn't the only one who looked a bit anxious and concerned.

A further stop was made in a very sheltered bay where a few other tourist boats were anchored.  These boats were all, without exception, larger, and had far fewer passengers than we had.  In fact, one boat nearby had a small group of 4 sitting at the table in the lower deck and they clearly found our predicament amusing and there was a lot of laughing and pointing going on.  We were so many crammed on to such a relatively small boat it must have looked very funny (even if it was a tad hazardous).  If we suddenly keeled over and sunk to the bottom without a trace before their eyes, I bet they wouldn't be laughing then!  

However we just laughed and waved back, quite resigned to our predicament, although others in our party were displaying telltale signs of getting a bit cross:  sulky looks abound and a bit of squabbling could be heard.

A more seaworthy vessel taking a break in
Monkey Island Bay
The boat was anchored in the sheltered bay and those that wanted to went off kayaking.  We chose not to go, as did quite a few others (we went kayaking another day from the island), on the basis that there were so many people to cater for, it would have just gone on for hours.  We figured the more time we spent on this poor excuse for a boat, the greater our changes of drowning.  We sat around enjoying the scenery while the crew set up for the seafood buffet lunch.

And it was the seafood buffet lunch which proved to be the last straw in Paul’s book.  His sense of humour will see him through unless and until food is involved.  The seafood consisted of one small bony fish between 6 people, a lot of cucumber, a tasteless tofu dish, a few spring rolls and some rice.  As Paul pointed out, one bony fish does not a seafood buffet make.  The whole day was really becoming a farce.  Paul regretted not bringing his fishing rod along.  A couple of the tiddlers he threw back the day before would have doubled our fish portions!

However, we managed to keep smiling.  In one way, we are lucky that we are on a long trip and that one bad trip is not the end of the world.  The vast majority of tourism in Vietnam consists of people on a 2 or 3 week holiday – usually their one holiday a year -  and if just one of their trips turns out to be a rip-off, awful, and life threatening to boot, then they can begin to foster resentment and quite rightly so  This was certainly the case with the young French couple who were also staying at Monkey Island.  They were on a 2 week holiday from Shanghai where they currently live and had paid $5 more than us for the trip (from another hotel in Cat Ba Town) and they had discovered that others had paid a lot less.  She in particular was angry and quite upset although he could see the funny side.

A heron fishing
Paul by this time had gone into full comedy mode.  It was the fish that did it.  A fish, he claims, that even a cat would reject.  In fact, he questioned whether it was originally fed to a cat, and we had been served the cat's leftovers.  He clearly wasn’t happy with the description provided to him and ranted a bit about Trading Standards.

After lunch we set off again and cruised around a bit, through the floating villages, back to Cat Ba to drop some people back, before finally pitching up at Monkey Island and managing to moor near the beach where the monkeys live.  We were down to about 20 people and they tried to squeeze us all onto a little boat (smaller even than the "ferry") that was clearly only built to carry about 10 Vietnamese (so probably 5 westerners).  We watched as they all crammed onto the little boat which would carry them to the beach.  We decided not to join them (we didn’t need a guided tour of Monkey Island, after all).  We were not sure the boat could fit on another two people (one being a 20 stone Wooky) and it was dangerously close to sinking so we chose to wait  on the boat with the French couple.  

The French girl really was really in a sulk by now.  She wasn't happy that they had paid $20 more than others on the same trip, in the morning they had waited for almost an hour for the boat to turn up, and obviously the seafood buffet wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. 

A Wooky fishing
However, after about 10 minutes as we were sat on the upper deck enjoying the sunshine we were all brought bananas by one of the crew.  We have since discovered that this is a recognised common Vietnamese ploy.  They know they are ripping you off, they know they are risking your lives overcrowding the boat so much, and they know that you are far from impressed with the food and by now getting a bit angry.  So they bring you a banana and that makes everything all right.  We thought it was funny however Mrs French was not amused.  I quite felt for her actually because I think she was more disappointed than anything but we tried to see the funny side.  After all, the boat stayed upright which, on several occasions after the first scare, I wondered whether it would.

All this excitement took place on New Year’s Eve and that evening we chatted to an Australian couple who were staying on Monkey Island as part of a 2 night Halong Bay tour and we compared experiences.  They had paid quite a bit for their trip, and had changed boats three times on the first day.  Their first night on the boat was freezing as they were only provided with a sheet and although the air conditioning unit was set to heat, any benefit was lost through the cracks around the windows that they couldn't shut.  Their food was appalling, buy they too had been provided with a free banana so considered themselves suitably compensated.  Despite the fact that they had saved for a long time for their 3 week honeymoon and had spent quite a lot on this romantic boat trip, they definitely saw the funny side as we compared stories of our experiences.

Serious business, this fishing lark!
A large group of Indonesians had arrived at the resort on New Year's Eve and they were provided with a buffet on the beach while we had our usual seafood buffet for dinner.  By about 8.00pm we were wondering whether we would actually make it until midnight.  There was a rumour that there was a party planned to begin at 10.30pm so we decided to wait until then.  It was a struggle but the beer helped!

As 10.30pm came, the owner of the resort stood up (although it was hard to tell as he was a very little, very round man) and flanked by his two daughters, one of whom provided an English translation, he gave a little speech welcoming and thanking his guests, wishing us all a happy New Year. 

Complimentary wine was handed out, cake was dished out, and party games were organised.  Contestants were chosen by picking paper out of a hat.  The first one involved an apple being dangled from the ceiling and couples lining up either said, and after being given the signal they had to work together to bite chunks out of it and the first one to bite it to the core causing it to fall to the ground won!  I can’t remember what the winner got but everyone got a free beer for participating.

The apple game on New Year's Eve - it's hard to
capture the mayhem on camera
Another game involved pacing towards a dangling gong blindfolded and attempting to bang the gong.  You were allowed to pace it beforehand and onlookers were allowed to provided encouragement and directions but it was much more difficult than it looked. 

Paul and I drew the short straw and took part in a game which involved me holding a baby’s bottle full of beer under my armpit, standing on a chair, and Paul having to drain the bottle as quickly as possible.  Now, you’d think that this would be a walkover for a Wooky but no, I have to report that he did not win and when a clear winner emerged, he simply grabbed the bottle unscrewed the top and necked the beer!

All this shenanigans brought us very close to midnight so we actually made it to see in the New Year but retired to our beach hut about 5 minutes later.  The excitement had just been a little too much for us and we were knackered.  At least we didn’t have to get up at a sparrow’s fart the next morning.  It was an interesting and fun evening, unlike any New Year celebrations we have ever experienced.

The manager playing the blindfolded gong game!
We spent the rest of our time pretty much doing nothing.  Paul went fishing a couple of times but only caught tiddlers that he threw back but they were very pretty fish.  

We also went kayaking one afternoon and circumnavigated the island, which sounds very impressive but the island really was tiny.  We watched black shouldered kites soaring above the sea, and saw lots of herons up close fishing off the rocks.  We were followed by schools of hundreds of tiny fish must have been alarmed by the kayak because all along our route, they were jumping out of the water, dolphin-style which was just amazing to watch.  I am sure it was the kayak that scared them but Paul kept saying, there must have been a bigger fish chasing them (cue the Jaws theme!).

When we left we were dreading the bill for our 5 days stay.  When it was presented to us it came to just over 11 million dong.  I nearly passed out until I realised that it was only about £330 in real money.  The manager refunded us part of our money for the nightmare boat trip when we mentioned the overcrowding - she apologised and insisted that the boat should have taken a maximum of only 10 people!  I'm glad I didn't know that on the day.

All in all, it was a lovely break and although expensive by Vietnamese standards, still ridiculously cheap by western standards particularly when you take into account the stunning location.

Leaving the island for the last time we jumped on board the little ferry to being our journey back to Hanoi  where we were catching an overnight train to our next stop Hue, slowly heading south (and hopefully where the warm weather was lurking!).  It had been a perfect place to escape the madness of Hanoi and recharge our batteries.

1 comment:

  1. not impressed...paul said drinking beer of tits.