Saturday, May 8, 2010


Billy Connolly once observed that children don’t really appreciate scenery. You have to learn to admire nature’s beauty and that process takes years. If I was a kid, I’d probably tell you that Ha Long Bay, in the far northeast of Vietnam, is just rocks sticking out of the sea. I might also add for good measure that the Mona Lisa is just a painting of a moody-looking woman.

As it is, I think that the bay is one of the most magnificent landscapes ever crafted by nature’s hand (and I mean that in the metaphorical, not religious, sense). That's why I’ve happily spent great chunks of the past three days puttering around in a tourist boat admiring hundreds of limestone outcrops. And I didn’t even mind about having to share a room.

I knew this was going to happen, of course, having pondered the question in Hanoi of whether I should shell out the extra cash to ensure my own room on the organised tour. I harboured the hope that I’d be the only single person there anyway but as it turned out, there were three others: a youngish guy called Todd who prosecutes murder cases in Washington DC and had taken the rare step for an American of having a month off work; a 67-year-old Berliner called Joachim, or Jo (‘Yo’) for short; and a young North American whose name and nationality I didn’t catch and who I never really got to know.

It took four hours by minibus to get to the harbour in Ha Long City and we finally boarded a boat at around 12.30pm. For once I’d eschewed the cheapo option and taken a mid-range excursion, figuring that £40 for three days was still very inexpensive. The food they served us on the boat was plentiful and high quality, although the soft drinks and beers, which weren’t included in the package, were at least twice their normal price. The cabins they assigned us were pleasant too and the main guide spoke good English.

During the day we stopped once, to explore a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites softly lit in various colours. The rest of the time we just gawped at the bay and chatted. This was something of a departure for me, as I’ve hardly had a conversation with anyone since January. All I do is walk around, look at things, check into hotels, order food and turn away unwanted hawkers. This time, though, I struck up quite a rapport with Todd and my roommate Jo. Both were fascinating, well-informed blokes.

Next morning we stopped at Cat Ba Island and boarded a bus for the short journey to its national park, where we‘d be doing a two-hour hike. So far, so good. However, I’d brought all my heavy luggage, including a rucksack full of valuables like my laptop, because when I booked the trip at the hotel in Hanoi no-one thought to tell me that I could leave some of it in storage. Now I was told that it wasn’t safe to leave valuables on the bus. So I insisted on climbing a 225-metre hill with the rucksack on.

Were it not for the view, I might as well have exercised on a step machine for an hour with a pile of bricks strapped to my back. Eventually I made it to the top but by the time I’d staggered back to the entrance I was fucked, frankly. Utterly wiped out. To quote Robin Williams: “I was sweating. I was like Marlon Brando eating Thai food.”

Fortunately we had the afternoon to ourselves in Ha Long City and had transferred to a hotel en masse. Not being interested in beaches, I confined myself to my room for a few hours and downloaded photos from my camera.

Over dinner, Todd and I agreed that travelling was a great way to lose weight. “You use up a lot of energy just sweating,” he said, which in my case explains a lot. Here’s how I looked in Bangkok on 15 January

and yet a mere six weeks later, at Angkor Wat on 1 March, I’d gone from Hardy to Laurel.

I think my weight has more or less stabilised since then.

Jo, by contrast, told us he gained weight when travelling and that the Vietnamese were fascinated by his belly and tits, frequently asking if they could poke him in the stomach. The two of us went out for a drink that evening and I listened intently as he talked about his impoverished post-war childhood, his travels in Asia in the 1960s, how he’d taught German to the Japanese and his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Unlike me, with my email, blogging and Skype, when he left for Asia and Australia as a young man he had to pretty much wave goodbye to European society for months and years. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am.

I’ve decided I’d like to get a year’s teaching experience in China and that, for now, I’ll simply carry on travelling until it’s time to fly to London from Bangkok in July. With that in mind I’ve booked a budget flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of this month and will head north from there to sample southern Thailand’s beach resorts and islands. Phuket, why not?

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