By Dean Johnston
March 22, 2009
"That was the most frightening thing I've ever experienced", breathed the young Englishman with a small shudder.
The Setting: Ha Long Bay, Northeast Vietnam, a small island in Cat Ba National Park known ominously as....Monkey Island...dum dum duuumm…
The Scene: Feeling hot, lazy and ill-dressed for hiking Laynni and I lounged on the beach. Meanwhile five others, all young, male and palely British, worked their way through thick jungle up the steep cliffs slightly inland.
The Shakedown: Closing in on the summit they noticed a couple of cute brown monkeys perched in the nearby branches. Cameras were powered up, videos began to roll. Meanwhile the crowd of little primates continued to grow, some behind them, a few more hovering above, until suddenly, as though in response to some prearranged signal, they shot forward as one.
The unwitting hikers fell back in shock, only then realizing they were surrounded. The ensuing chaos was partially caught on a still-running video camera amid stumbling, shouting and frantic attempts to extricate determined little paws from packs, bags and cameras. Eventually they managed to fight free and scramble down the sheer rocks, bursting out of the bushes onto the beach like Lost survivors fleeing from an unreasonably dangerous cloud of smoke.
As the stunned confusion wore off they surveyed the damage. One guy with multiple bites, one missing backpack, a number of cuts and scrapes, several missing flip flops and a unanimous feeling of "What the f*#k just happened?" The missing backpack apparently contained several valuable items so a couple of the guides decided to brave the monkeys and ventured back up to search. Roughly an hour or so later they returned.
"We have good news and bad news. The bad news is we were unable to recover your passport, wallet, camera or phone. The good news is we have your left flip flop."
Welcome to Ha Long Bay, an otherworldly expanse of limestone islands covered in jungle and riddled with caves and lagoons. We were on a three day, two night trip that included cruising the bay, jumping off the boat into the surprisingly warm water, kayaking, biking, all the seafood we could want, and no extra charge to get up close and personal with the local monkey population. Very enjoyable trip, stunning scenery, and the comfort of knowing we wouldn’t be anywhere near England a month later when a camera mysteriously arrives by mail, its memory card filled with hundreds of lewd shots of monkey penises.
But we seem to have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves so I’ll go back to the beginning. We spent less than 24 hours in Bangkok before flying to Hanoi, in northern Vietnam, where we found it somewhat difficult to get used to the heat and staggering humidity. We were kind of expecting it since we arrived in September, the tail end of the hottest, wettest time of year. Of course, that didn’t make the sun any less harsh or keep our clothes from sticking to us like that persistent bit of plastic that comes off when you peel a band-aid. Of course, for the first fifteen minutes or so after getting off the plane that insane heat was actually quite a welcome change. It turned out that our supposedly no-frills Air Asia flight apparently did include one important frill – an air conditioner powerful enough to cryogenically preserve every 55 year old white guy in Thailand. My wife Laynni spent the entire flight curled in a ball with her hood up and cinched tight around her face, while I, foolishly wearing only shorts and t-shirt, spent two very painful hours shivering and swearing like I'd just had unprotected sex with Britney Spears.
Hanoi itself is a fascinating, energetic city with its central Old Quarter set around beautiful Hoan Kien Lake. The narrow, "bustling" streets (a favorite term of guidebook writers) are choked with stalls, shops and people and appear as though they haven't changed in decades. The entire city literally buzzes with thousands upon thousands of mopeds. Two of the more important forms of self-expression in Hanoi appear to be helmets and face masks, which both come in a huge variety of styles and designs. We even found entire stalls devoted exclusively to masks for small children, all decorated with cute things like puppies and frogs. I guess the theory is that if your precious bundle of joy somehow emerges unscathed after being wedged helmetless between you and the handlebars while hurtling through elbow to elbow traffic it would really be irritating to have them die of something as silly as air pollution.
The lakeside paths and benches are popular at all times of the day and night, especially with joggers who still warm up the way we did when we were seven years old getting ready for Phys Ed. - rapidly swinging their arms in circles until their shoulder joint actually make churning noises, holding their hands straight out from their chest while violently trying to kick their palms, capped off by some wild swinging of the hips and vigorous twisting of the knees. A surprising ritual at first but by the time we left Vietnam the sight of a shirtless Vietnamese man energetically abusing his body while serenely staring off into the distance had become one of our most memorable images of Vietnam.
Some other enduring sights and experiences:
Throughout the country, small determined women wearing pajamas and large, conical bamboo hats (possibly the most practical invention of all time) tended fields, transported immense loads of produce through heavy traffic on rickety old one-speed bicycles and maneuvered twice their weight through the crowds using bamboo baskets tied to the ends of a stick draped over their bony little shoulders while, nearby, large groups of men enjoy tea, noodles and camaraderie at the local cafe.
Sudden, unexpected downpours routinely caught us off guard, leaving us to marvel at the way the hundreds of taxi drivers we’d been fighting off all day managed to mysteriously disappear just when we finally wanted one, drenched and huddled under some narrow awning with the same look on our faces as in that dream where you're at the high school dance and suddenly realize you're not wearing any pants.
The polite and cheerful but doggedly relentless sales force. On the beach, leaning back on our elbows in the sand, waves lapping at the shore, clouds drifting overhead, palm trees waving lazily in the breeze. A diminutive woman wearing jeans, a hat, flannel jacket, face mask and wool gloves approached us directly across the sand like a little Arrow of Destiny.
"Hello! No mad, be glad! Have a look, no money to look. Cheap, very cheap. Hello, don't be lazy, be crazy!"
She takes several "No, thank you’s” as an invitation to sit down and join us. Then the waiting game begins. She looks at me, I look at her, she looks at me, I look at the ocean, she looks at me, I look at my book, she looks at me, I sneak a glance at her, she's still looking at me, I quickly look away, I turn back, she holds out a packet of postcards....I look at the sand. Several minutes pass, she suddenly rises, gathering all her baskets in one easy motion, trotting off with a smile.
"I come back later"
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