After a safe lunch on board the ship, Francis and set out again to explore this port, still wondering what prompted Crystal to bring us here. We decided to follow the directions that the local tourism person had given us originally. Reaching the shore in the tender, we were again approached by the locals trying to sell us on their driving services. One very brazen guy on a scooter went as far as to grab Francis by the wrist, trying to persuade him to board his scooter. Not sure how this guy saw that as working out, considering there were two of us.
We walked, and we walked, and we…
We began our walk down the main road along the coast. The area is interesting. You can see that there was, and maybe there still is, a booming tourism business. There are a range of hotels, from the larger, 5-6 story structures that may have at one time been very nice, to very small, completely run down structures with ragged curtains blowing through the windows. I should probably also mention that there are many structures that appear abandoned, as if someone once had an idea for a large resort, but the construction ended when they ran out of money. As you proceed down the coast, you eventually come to some much larger hotels. They look like ones that you might find in Atlantic City, but not as well kept.
As we walked. cabs and other locals would slow down and yell out to us offering their services. The coast was lined with all sorts of little shops and kiosks, most closed, none extravagant. We eventually reached the tourism “Night Market.” This was one of the sites that the local tourism woman had emphasised. On our first pass, we didn’t venture in, opting instead to continue our long walk. But, we did stop for the first of the many souvenir vendors.
The art of haggling
We had already been approached by many women selling souvenirs, but this young lady was very delightful; we’ll call her Kim. Kim did not force herself upon us in the same way as others. In fact, while we were talking with Kim, another vendor tried to lure us away. What caught my eye at Kim’s stand was an olive green military style cap with a large red star and Viet Nam on it. Yes, it is completely communist, but so what? Just because a country has different ways from ours doesn’t mean that the people are bad. She offered me the hat for US$5 (approx. VND100,000). Now I could have talked her down and haggled over it, but to me, US$5 was a very reasonable price, and I can afford that, so I bought two. I then looked at the wide array of shirts that she had, and they were very nice embroidery work. I saw a navy blue t-shirt with a map of Vietnam hand-stitched and the names of the major cities in both English and Vietnamese. I thought it would be a perfect gift for my nephew Andrew. (Andrew, I know you are reading my blog. Try to act surprised.)
I indicated the hats that I had already bought and pointed to the shirt indicating that I wished to make a package, she said US$18, I said US$16, we had a deal. This might be a good time to mention how you discuss money with folks when you have the language and exchange barrier. First, as I mentioned, the US Dollar is the preferred currency here. While you will see that the vendors do have stacks of Dong, they also have large wads of Dollars. They will take a calculator and put a number on the screen. You look at the screen and either accept the offer, or clear it and put in another number. This process goes on until you have an agreed price.
Francis and I both have a similar belief: it is important to barter and haggle, but that is not an opportunity to abuse the situation. If a price seems fair, accept it; you don’t have to keep going and get it down to nothing. We are traveling on the most luxurious passenger ship at sea. People on board are multi-millionaires, and they will push the situation to no end. Could I have talked Kim down more on the hats, yes; but, US$5 was a perfectly fair price, and what would that extra US$1-2 have meant for me? Nothing in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes it is the responsibility of those that have to just give in and pay what is fair. Francis and I are not rich, but we are honest; and, perhaps by not being such a greedy and hard American haggler, we might show people that not all Americans are out to bankrupt people.
The Red Star Six Flags
We continued on our way, kind of hoping that we might find a boat tour out into the harbour, but it wasn’t looking promising. Most things appeared closed. I’m not sure when their peak tourism time is, but it did not appear to be now. As we walked, we came across the Cong Vien Hoang Gia Royal Amusement Park, the Disneyland of Hon Gai, well…maybe not. You could see that there were the shadows of many fun times here, but it definitely looked as though it had seen it’s glory days way in the past. Pr, maybe it is just our western eyes looking at it. There were old museum buildings, some small amusement rides like a child size merry go round, and a sweeping buccaneer type ride. We eventually found a pier with a cheery rusting sign that read “Enjoy Your Trip.” Perhaps we did find a harbour tour. As we walked out, we saw that a large gate was locked across it, and many boats lay beached on the sand. Looked like we were not going to get anywhere on this pier.
We continued on our walk, eventually reaching the point of no return; a point that just seemed to say we had run out of things to see. My estimate is that we had walked about 2miles, maybe 2.5. There was a large hotel that looked as though it may have been built during the French Colonial days called the Royal Hotel. We turned back.
I’d also like to point out something interesting about the security guards/ police here. They are all appropriately uniformed, and they have very cold faces on. But, when you catch their attention, smile and wave, they will return the smile and wave back. At first, they appear as though you have caught them off guard and that they are not sure how to respond. I guess that not many western tourists smile and wave.
The oyster pluckers
As we walked back towards the pier, a woman on the beach caught Francis’ eye. Francis appears to have always been interested in the National Geographic photography, because he is always trying to capture those type of casual moments. This is great for all of us, because Francis and I are sharing putting our photos in one large bin so that we both have access to them. He has caught such great casual everyday moments as three elderly gentlemen playing some sort of board game while seated on old crates, and a fully shrouded figure with a traditional hat on standing perfectly still beside a scooter, almost like a ninja. Here, he was interested in these women on the shore.
We didn’t realise that there was more than one until we got down on the edge of the embankment. These women were fully covered in old long smock like coverings, some in plastic rain ponchos. They had the traditional pyramid like hats that we think of for South East Asia. They were covered in the muddy smudge of the oceans bank, and gently stepped around looking at each rock structure. When they found what they were looking for, they would place their bucket on the sand and take a hammer and begin to work. Francis didn’t know what they were trying to do. After a few moments, I realised that they were harvesting oysters. Each appeared to have their own area to work, and they would gently tap the oyster off of the rocks. You could hear the tap tap tap of the hammer against the volcanic like stone.
We continued on our way. One of the more bizarre structures we had noticed was a portable aluminium like structure with worn, peach coloured doors and a white plastic roof that read “Super Ecology Toilet.” The doors, however, were a good 2.5 feet off the ground. Now you know this made me think, “What the hell is that?” I then noticed that there was a set of portable stairs on the side. Our guess is that these are port-a-potties that were shut down for the season. It did get our attention though.
We eventually reached the Night Market on our return trek. We wandered through, thinking this might be a good spot to strike some gift deals for friends back home. Sure enough, it was. Francis finally found a deck of cards from Vietnam, I found some items for a few special people, and it only cost a few dollars.
And dusk set
As dusk set on Ha Long Bay, we made our way back to the ship, but that didn’t mean that the night or the Vietnamese experience was over. Tonight, Crystal had arranged for some local performers to come aboard and put on a show of traditional dance and music. It was really delightful. These were not professionals, at least not by Western standards, but the talent was absolutely incredible. Along with a corp of dancers, there were four musicians. The musicians played comprised of a bamboo flute player who doubled on the drum, a guitarist, a woman who played a native instrument like a marimba made from bamboo tubes. However, the instrument that fascinated Francis and I the most was one called the Bau.
The Bau is a single string instrument that, from a distance, looks like the musician is playing a Therimin. They use both hands, and you can’t really see the string or them striking it. It produces the most unusual and ethereal sounds. The range is amazing. One of the most fascinating tunes that they played on it was “Hotel California.” The sound was ever more haunting played on this amazing instrument.
Well, after a late dinner, it was time for bed. While there was a some time available to go ashore in the morning, it just didn’t make sense, as we would need to raise anchor and head to Chan May near Da Nang. Tomorrow, we will reach our new anchorage in the morning.
More to come then.