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Thursday, March 15, 2012

If it's Wednesday, I have no idea where we are

After just over three months on the road, it’s a daily, sometimes hourly struggle to remember what day of the week it is.  The normal Monday-Friday workweek routine back home is completely gone.

The passage of time during our trip has instead been marked by location segments.  We started in December with a two-week stay in Fiji, then one full week in Auckland.  Since then, we’ve never spent more than five nights in one place, (that was in Singapore) and it’s frequently two nights and often one night.  That has especially been the case in Vietnam.  

We got into Hanoi on a Saturday, spent two nights in our hotel in the Old Quarter.  We then took an overnight train to Sa Pa, spent two nights in the hotel there and then took the overnight train back to Hanoi Thursday night.  After another night in the same hotel in Hanoi, we took a four-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, spending the night on a boat amongst the beautiful rock formations.  The next day, we took the bus back to Hanoi, hung out for about four hours before taking the overnight train to Hue.  That's a busy few days, and we were ready to slow down some as we headed south, which is the game plan a lot of people have back in the States.

Once we had made up our minds that we would be stopping in Viet Nam, we were certain that Ha Long Bay would be one of our stops.   It's described by many as one of the most beautiful spots in a beautiful country.   The bay is filled with thousands of rock formations rising out of the water, and more than 250 boats take tourists on excursions, some of them day trips, most over night.  The tour guides and some tour books claim that there are 1,969 rock formations but that's inaccurate.  That number has been used for a little over forty years, since 1969 was the year Ho Chi Minh died.  

Our boat for the night was the Alova Gold.  We boarded it at the busy wharf in Ha Long City, which was bustling with hundreds of other tourists getting ready to get on boats of all shapes, sizes, age and seaworthiness.
I think I've made the statement previously that as a swimmer, I make a good golfer.  I can technically swim, meaning I can move my arms and legs about to propel myself through water, but I can't tread water.  So I've never been that confident or eager to get on boats, especially without a lifejacket on.  But after a quarter of a year on the road, and being in a wide variety of travel situations, I wasn't anxious at all.  I did make a mental note of where the life jackets were stored, but felt fine as our skiff chugged it's way out to where our boat was anchored, belching out gray smoke that matched the skies above.

Our boat had a nice solid look, and I felt confident that our 24-hour cruise would not meet the same fate that happened to a tourist boat in Ha Long Bay a little over a year ago.  We didn't tell the kids about that unpleasantness until after our tour was over, not wanting them to be up all night, listening for water creeping into the engine room, which Ben and I were bunked next to.  I did briefly consider sleeping with a life vest on, or at least in the bed next to me, but I didn't want Ben to stop thinking of me as a fearless international traveler, so I left the life vests in our cabin untouched, but within reach in our cozy quarters.
Annie and Marley were in the cabin right next to Ben and me, one floor down from the main gathering spot for drinks and the very generous meals.  We spent a good deal of our time talking with Paul and Jen, an Australian couple who had their share of world travels to share with us.

The tour including the option of going swimming if the weather was good, but since it was cloudy and in the mid-50s, that idea was tossed overboard. Instead the boat docked near a beach, where the group climbed the estimated 500 steps up to a lookout that provided a scenic view if not the oxygen masks we were hoping for following the steep ascent.
The other afternoon activity option was kayaking.  Marley and I passed on that, while Annie and Ben teamed up and explored some of the hidden coves in this area that is supposedly inhabited by dragons.

If they saw any dragons, they're not saying, but they do occasionally exchange what can only be described as knowing glances.  Dinner featured a chance for the passengers to help make some fresh spring rolls, which I think was just a way for the chef to get out of a very labor-intensive process.  Still, he cooked them to perfection and we managed to get some bread and butter for Marley, so she was happy.

In fact, the next day, the crew gave Marley an entire loaf of bread and some pads of butter as a going away present.  

The following morning dawned with grey skies again, but that didn't effect our final activity before heading back to the wharf and getting on the bus for the four-hour ride to Hanoi.  The skiff took us to some beautiful caverns that wound deep into the mountainside 

After about a half an hour or so of wandering through the path carved into the cave, we emerged to find a surprise:  three monkeys hanging on the rock face of a cliff.  
I'm no monkey expert, but all three seemed to have some sort of inherent sadness, as if they had recently lost a fourth member of their group.  Still, they were fun to see as we said good bye to Ha Long Bay, and hello to another busy bit of travel in Viet Nam as we started to point our adventure to the south.

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