It only took a few moments. The inky blackness, for hundreds of metres, encircled the boat. Lights, as though twinkled by fairies, displayed the nearest dormant boats, angled and spaced from one another. In front of them, the lights spread down the water in oozed channels until they fell into the darkness. A rustle of stiff gentle breezes broke the crisp night air. The rest was silence.
The Vietnamese boat crew showed no mercy. If you were not up, ready, and out of your cabin by 7:30 am sharp, you would be kicked out. They had to tidy the rooms and change the bedding for the next group to come on board. This news would not go down well with the majority of the party’s participants.
There is nothing, in the long run, to be gained by excessive drinking. The dregs that remain are isolation; a certain disillusionment with reality. Some had not made it back to their cabins, so crashed out on the restaurant floor, or lay spread eagled on the one or two sofas after breakfast. The expressions of others said it all: forlorn, desolate. The company of others did not work as well. The 8:00 pm happy hour had come and gone. Being caught drinking a can of beer with the right hand; having to down the liquid using the left, went unheard. Even hat-wearing Steve, used to heavy drinking, confessed it had been too much.
The Vietnamese who control the cruises, know how to use this type – and Halong Bay – as a place to aid and abet Westerners to cash-in. Some of them end up getting drunk. Even though the setting is not exactly suitable because of its simplicity and quietness, it helps the country’s economy. Everyone’s sponging off everyone else. It’s how the global market works. There is not as much tourist pandering to Western tastes in China; maybe it is not needed as much there. Besides, it has its own flocks of tourists who outstrip the foreign visitor by a mile.
All Vietnam’s symbols that celebrate and commemorate the country as a socialist state: yellow stars emblazoned on red flags, propaganda slogans, the adoration of Ho Chi Minh, are exactly that – symbols. If Vietnam truly were socialist, it would be left out in the cold. It’s people would be starving like some of them are in North Korea.
I took solace on these thoughts, having squashed into a green mat on a wooden recliner, and began reading my book about hitchhiking through Japan. I marvelled at a limestone wall towering above the water: flat, like stretched rubber fabric.
The dirty, gray and polluted outskirts of the capital, particularly after experiencing Halong Bay’s bracing air, caused Hanoi to lose some of its lustre. However, I went out to enjoy the city’s bright lights surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple glowed as though burning coals had been placed along it. A couple of rats scurried by the side of the water and the traffic was in full swing. I also booked a 40,000 Dong seat to view a water-puppet performance for the following day. Any visit to Hanoi is incomplete without seeing this spectacle.
Beforehand, I’d checked into the Old Hostel, situated down a back alley. It has two sections: the main reception area, and another accommodation building a few yards opposite on the left. I opted to sleep in a dingy dorm in the lesser area.
A pleasant obliging Vietnamese assistant opened the door, showed me a spare upper bunk and a vacant locker, although not before a guy occupying the bottom one, smothered in the bedding, vented a loud grumpy “SHHH!!” interrupting her uninhibited talk as she put the lights on.
The bathroom, rather pokey, had me cleaning the inside of my toilet bag with some difficulty, as my shampoo bottle had accidentally opened, spilling out some the contents. The bag was still wet as I proceeded to drape my towel over the side of my bunk, blocking out some of the view of the lower bunk’s occupant which caused a curt response.
“Move your towel! Look, its dripping! I don’t want it in my face! Put it over there! Put it outside! Not on me!”
“Sorry,” I feebly apologised.
Right, it was in the ‘wrong’ place, and is a large towel, although it was not dripping. That was from the toilet bag which was still in my hand while I was placing the fabric, but he could have asked nicely. Pleasantness costs nothing, unless this guy who is past middle age, has not heard of it. I hope I would not encounter more of his ilk during the rest of the trip.
I left him to hibernate with his laptop beneath the bed covers.