Hanoi, Vietnam "Pardon Me, Do You Serve Boiled Crap?"

I deleted Spider Solitaire from my laptop. Now I’ve just gotta delete Freecell and I might actually start writing once in a while.

Since Brad got here six days ago, my nights have been one long DVD marathon. Hanoi has one of the cheapest and most extensive bootleg DVD markets in the world. The selection at most stands puts Blockbuster to shame. Not only do they have movies that just came out in theaters two days ago, they’ve also got really obscure arty stuff from as far back as the ’50s.

Orson Welles’ lost classic: Lady From Shanghai? No problem.

Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train? They’ve got both the 1939 original and his own 1954 remake.

It’s a movie geek’s fantasyland.

They’ve even got movies that don’t exist. Nicholas Cage in Snake Eyes 2? I doubt anyone ever pondered making it, but they’ve got it. The sequel to Amelie? I’m sure the cast and crew would be as surprised as anyone to find it here.

The packaging of these discs is never less than creative. Perhaps concerned that the depressing character study of an emotionally alienated widower wouldn’t appeal to a wide enough audience, they took the cover for About Schmidt (a close-up of Jack Nicholson looking tired and poorly groomed) and
inserted a gun in his hand. One small change and – Bam! – you’ve got a whole new movie.

The pull-quotes from reviews indicate a not-quite-proficient grasp of the English language. Emblazoned above the title for Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris is New York Newsday’s sterling accolade: "I’d rather have been watching the original." The LA Times declares that The Core is "The most disasterous film since Armageddon."

My favorite game is trying to figure out what movie is actually inside some of the more mysterious packaging. For example: a film called Everybody’s Fomous starring Mark Wahlberg and Meryl Streep, with a plot synopsis that sounds a whole lot like The Truman Show. The fact that it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2001 doesn’t make things any clearer, but from the picture on the front I’m pretty sure it’s Rockstar.

The most challenging one was Sasquatch: Return of the Killer starring George Clooney, John Malkovich, Reese Witherspoon, and Vin Diesel. I was stumped until I found that it had the plot synopsis of Return of the Killer Tomatoes, which did in fact star a young and embarrassed George Clooney.

After my trip through Malaysia and before flying up to Hanoi, I decided to take a break from this crazy rat race, step off the merry-go-round, and have myself a little vacation on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand. I went on a tip from a backpacker I met in Borneo. He said there’d been frequent whale shark sightings there in the last couple weeks, and it was a nice place to relax.

Don’t ever listen to backpackers. They know nothing.

Koh Tao and its two neighboring islands, Koh Penang and Koh Samui, are located in the Gulf of Thailand, a few hours by miserable ferryboat ride from the Thai peninsula. Together they form the central backpacker Mecca of Southeast Asia.

The thing about the ferry is that the Thai are very small people. And beyond simply being small, they’re also used to taking up very little space. That is why, I’m imagining, it seemed okay to them to design a boat interior with the purpose of sheltering 30+ people as a single, open, unpartitioned space. And since it’s an overnight ferry and the passengers would be lying down the whole time, they decided they could make the ceiling only three feet high.

The result, by western standards, is what we would call a slave ship.

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It was while bumping my head on every crossbeam between me and the exit that my irritation with Thailand burst from its cocoon and reached a fully mature state.

Anyway, the island of Koh Tao is an extraordinarily inexpensive place to visit, and is flush with the niceties of the western world. You can hang out on the beach, you can get pizzas and burgers, you can watch movies, you can drink beer, you can go clubbing, and you can do it all on about $20 a day. It’s spring break year round.

I’m sure that’s an exciting prospect for someone out there. Not me.

Most visitors to Koh Tao seem to stay for at least a month or two. Lord knows what they do after the third day. I had enough trouble filling the first two.

I went on a horrendously crappy cattle-call dive trip. They took us out on one of those monster catamarans carrying about a hundred divers. Almost everyone was going for certification. They booted us into the water and we swam in circles around a murky pile of rocks that was probably once the home of some really nice coral.

The thing that really pissed me off was when the idiot captain actually managed to land the boat on the reef. We slammed into it about a dozen times before moving clear, and when I looked over the side, the damage we’d done to the rocks was clearly visible. I wanted to strangle the guy.

I know I was completely missing the point of Koh Tao. I understand what I was supposed to be doing there. I just didn’t have any interest in doing it. I’ve pinpointed the thing that pisses me off about most backpackers: it’s the utter lack of curiosity about their surroundings. It’s not about where you are, it’s about what you can do and how cheap you can do it for. That’s why these people are traveling the world. That’s what they’re spending their parents’ money on. If you ask me, they’re the ones missing the point.

I’m such a fuddy-duddy.

So I hopped the next slave ship back to the mainland and caught my flight to Vietnam. Before Brad got here, I spent a few days kicking around on my own. Hanoi is a bustling place with lots to observe and puzzle over. You don’t really need to tour the sights – though there are several to be toured – the Old Quarter of Hanoi is one big living museum/gift shop that you can spend days wandering around with no clear goal or destination. And if you don’t have a map, you WILL spend days wandering around.

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The Old Quarter used to be a main center for trade in Vietnam. The 36 streets are each named after the product that was once sold here. So when translated into English, you’ve got Shoe Street, Onion Street, Leather Street, Tin Street, Coffin Street, Pickled Fish Street, and so on. If they were to update the names, they’d be more like DVD Street, PlayStation Street, Poorly-made T-Shirt Street, and Cheesy Ceramic Sculpture Street.

The place goes back at least four hundred years, but what you see of it today was mostly built during the French colonial period. They made it as much like provincial F rance as the y could manage. The streets are narrow and cramped. The sounds of motorbikes and car horns bounce back and forth along building faces, creating echoing tunnels of retro-metropolitan white noise. People are everywhere, frantically going about the business of doing nothing of any importance. Most of the activity is focused on the tourist trade, which has been growing steadily for the past ten years. At its peak though, there was never more than a sparse scattering of foreigners. With the recent SARS scare, business is way way down. The result is a whole lot of people aggressively going after the very little business to be had.

The Vietnamese are very poor. The income from industrial and agricultural labor offers subsistence at best, so it’s a depressingly viable option for them to join the phalanx of others who spend their days chasing after white folks, incessantly badgering them to hop on a motorbike or cyclo for a ride that will hopefully yield a shiny new dollar.

A quick breakdown on the economics:

The currency in Vietnam is called dong, which goes for about 15,000 to the dollar and is slipping steadily. An average daily wage in Hanoi is around 20,000 dong. This is enough to get by on with a reasonable standard of living.

They know that most foreign tourists scoff at prices in the $1 to $2 range. It’s a completely meaningless and disposable quantity to us. But to them, it’s the difference between one day’s pay and two day’s pay. With this knowledge, they’ll eagerly attempt to charge 50,000 Dong for something that should cost around 5,000.

It goes way beyond simple overcharging, though. One of the most fascinating things about Vietnam is the craftiness and invention that goes into their myriad scamming techniques. It really is a national pastime. It can be infuriating, and I do get quite worked up about it sometimes, but for the most part I just marvel at the lengths to which they’ll go. The nice part is that the most they’ll ever try to get out of you is a couple bucks. So you really can just sit back and enjoy the show.

The barrage begins the moment you walk out of the terminal and doesn’t stop until you leave. But getting out of the airport is always the worst. That’s when you’re most oblivious and vulnerable. That’s the baptism of fire. I’m learning that it’s a universal law in developing countries: they nail you getting out of the airport.

Having been to Vietnam before, I was feeling a little cocky that I could handle things. I remembered the name of the hotel I stayed at before and knew it was reputable. I figured that would make me immune to the cabbies who’d try to take me to the hotels where they get a commission.

I didn’t realize what I was up against.

I walked to the cab rank outside the terminal and was shuffled by several handlers into the cab at the front of the line. It seemed to be the official way of doing things. I didn’t realize the legitimate airport taxi service with standardized rates was a few meters away.

That was my first mistake. My second – and this is forgivable only because I’d just gotten off the plane – was forgetting to settle on a price before getting in the cab. I only remembered a few minutes into the drive. The driver told me it would cost 200,000 dong ($13USD), which I knew was outrageous. I told him to turn off at the next highway exit and let me out. I would find another cab that was more reasonable.

After attempting to ignore me followed by some hemming and hawing, he came up with this suggestion: he’d take me to the hotel, I’d go inside and ask at reception how much the taxi should cost. I’d already specified which hotel I wanted him to take me to, so it seemed unlikely he would be in collusion with them. I didn’t really want to get out of the cab and have to find another one out in the middle of nowhere, so I agreed.

I got to the hotel, and surprise surprise, they said the cost was perfectly reasonable. I sheepishly handed the money over and got my room.

A couple days later I notice the sign above my hotel was Kim Sum, not the Camillia Hotel that I requested. I inquired about this at the front desk and was told that Camillia is the English name. In Vietnamese, it’s Kim Sum.

Eventually I realized that was a load of crap. The Camillia was a few blocks away. The taxi driver took me to a place where he had a deal going. They pay him a cut for driving me there and cover his ass for overcharging me. The taxi should’ve cost me $10USD. So really it was no big deal, but I was still fuming at the hotel for taking part in the scheme.

Despite that, things at the Kim Sum Hotel were reasonably pleasant at first. The staff was exceedingly friendly. When I expressed an interest in learning Vietnamese, I got a private lesson that went on well after I’d completely lost interest. They would constantly ask what my plans were and if they could help arrange anything. This was tolerable until the manager knocked on my door, came into my room, sat at the foot of my bed, and started aggressively trying to get me on a tour package.

That really pissed me off. I’m fair game out on the street or even in the lobby, but don’t try and sell me stuff while I’m lying in bed.

Anyway, there were numerous other schemes that take a really long time to explain, but I’m realizing this subject is getting kind of boring. Some of them involved several different parties and took place over the course of several days.

The short of it is, as a tourist, you can’t really trust anyone in Vietnam. You can buy goods and services, negotiating prices and things like that. But any time anyone tries to befriend you and help you out in some way, it’s guaranteed that sooner or later the hammer is gonna fall. That was the experience I had over and over again. I’m not saying it’s a terrible place or the people are bad or anything. They just have a passion for squeezing money out of tourists, and I can’t really blame them for that.

Traffic in Vietnam is an amazing thing. It still mystifies me how it works, and that it works at all. The core ingredient on which the whole system is based is the Vietnamese love affair with the horn. They absolutely cannot get enough of the things.

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Who needs traffic lights? Who needs stop signs? Who needs to ever stop at all? Just bang your horn and everyone will know where you are.

Turning a corner? Bang your horn.

Passing someone? Bang your horn.

Slowing down? Bang your horn.

Hell, why not just keep your hand on the button constantly. That’s what everyone else does.

I once saw a guy blazing down an open road with not a vehicle in sight and he had his hand was on the horn the whole time, just for the simple joy of it.

There are almost no traffic lights in Vietnam. No one ever stops in intersections. They rely on the belief that if they’ve hit their horn, the guy coming the other way has had fair warning. Not surprisingly, this results in frequent accidents. I snapped a shot of this one about three seconds after it happened.

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What keeps the stakes low is that everyone is on scooters, so there’s not a whole lot of mass in the equations. I witnessed three accidents firsthand and in none of them was anyone injured.

Accidents are a lot more serious when everyone’s driving SUVs.

It’s astonishing what people attempt to transport on their scooters.

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There’s pretty much nothing they can’t load. I saw one woman carrying about a hundred live chickens with their feet tied together and stacked about a meter over her head. And when it comes to packing other humans, the sky is the limit. I’ve seen as many as five people squeezed onto one bike. The typical four person family arrangement has the father in front, the elder child behind him, the baby rotated the other direction and resting onthe mother’s lap, who sits all the way in back.

I wish I’d gotten more pictures of this phenomenon, but it’s kind of hard when your target is a moving vehicle.

I decided to spend one of the afternoons before Brad arrived doing some leisurely museum-hopping on my own. I went to the Ho Chi Minh museum, which isn’t so much a museum as an abstract retelling of his life story using random symbols and imagery. Knowing very little about Ho Chi Minh’s biography ahead of time, I endeavored to piece it together using the material on hand.

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Here’s what I learned:

Ho Chi Minh was an enormous man made of bronze. One day, while waving vacantly at his tiny countrymen, he was struck with the sudden desire to eat oversized fruit replicas. He hopped in his all-white Ford Edsel and stepped on the gas, only to discover that it was chained to a wall. Just then, a stone pyramid burst from the ground and snapped the chain, sending Ho Chi Minh’s car hurtling down the road, whereupon it crashed through the front door of his house and severed the head of his brother, who’d just returned from Guernica, where he contracted a disease common in that area that causes peoples’ features to drift across their faces in an abstract yet artistically pleasing manner.

I think I pretty much got it right.

The museum also showcases Uncle Ho’s desk fan.

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And a portrait in which he looks even more like the Asian Colonel Sanders than usual.

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Next I went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where they’ve got him stuffed and displayed just like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. I guess it’s some kind of thing with commie pinkos to do that. Anyway, I couldn’t get within a hundred paces of the entrance. The guards who stand there round the clock gave me a nasty look for approaching.

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Throughout the day, men kept coming up to me and gesturing down at their crotches insistently. They’d whistle or yell as I passed by, then point down below as if to make me aware of their endowments. It was really starting to freak me out. At first I thought they were just being rude, but I began to suspect that it might be some indication of a thriving and apparently uninhibited gay scene in Hanoi.

As it turned out, they were trying to tell me my fly was down.

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Badminton is huge in Hanoi. In the afternoon, the sidewalks fill up with people smacking birdies back and forth. A few are lucky enough to have courts and nets, but the majority just make do with a temporarily seized portion of sidewalk. This forces the pedestrian tourist to dodge and weave his way from block to block in the already crowded city.

The badminton-playing is one example of a general habit in Hanoi that’s really interesting; people pretty much spend their entire days out in the street. Most of them don’t appear to be homeless. Usually they’re right out in front of where they live. Maybe it’s that the interior spaces are just too small to do anything in, or maybe they prefer to be social. Whatever it is, they cook, eat, work, play, and even sleep right out in plain view. It creates an atmosphere that takes some getting used to, but ultimately I found it really neat. Up until about 10 o’clock every night, the city is absolutely buzzing everywhere you look.

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Those chairs are a pain to sit in, by the way. Not designed for the robust Caucasian ass.

Here’s a small collection of fun items found on the menus at sidewalk restaurants. I apologize for their blurriness. I felt it necessary to provide evidence and this is the best I could do.

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There was one item I wasn’t able to photograph because I forgot my camera that night. It was "Boiled Crap." One might presume they meant Crab, but who knows.

For a very long time, I’ve been needing to acquire a Russian visa for a much later leg of my trip. It’s something I’ve been dreading ever since I learned how incredibly difficult it is to apply. There are forms upon forms to fill out, with fields as ridiculous as "List all the countries you’ve been to in the last 10 years, including every city you’ve visited." I also need a signed invitation to visit from someone living in Russia, a copy of my plane ticket proving an intention to exit the country, and a whole mess of other strange requirements. The task became no less intimidating when I showed up at the Russian embassy, which is about as foreboding of an edifice as I can imagine.

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The curved steel spikes pointing outward along the gate are a particularly nice touch. And the building itself, a cold concrete block with tiny, shielded windows, betrays the Soviet flair for the bland and crushingly oppressive.

Needless to say, my papers were not in order. They were very far from being in order. I was laughed at for even showing up.

Still and all, it was neat being an American visiting the Russian embassy in Vietnam. The fact that that’s even possible made it a fun journey.

A few days after I arrived, Brad showed up. The rendezvous wasn’t without some turmoil. I went out for dinner shortly before he was to arrive and ambitiously asked the guys at the front desk to take his bags into my room, which we’d be sharing, then have the cab driver take him to the place a couple blocks away where I was eating.

When Brad didn’t show up, I assumed he was too tired to come out. What actually happened was the guys at the front desk, after assuring me they’d understood the instructions, ignored them completely. They checked Brad into a separate room and never mentioned to him where I was. I explained that Brad was to stay in my room, we moved his bags, returned the key, and assumed the matter was settled.

When we checked out, we were surprised to discover they were charging us a full night for the half hour Brad spent in a separate room. The room had been used, they explained. It had to be cleaned, the bed had to be made, and these things cost money.

I hit the roof. I told the guy he was insane and no hotel in the world would even dream of pulling a stunt like that. The guy said we had to pay, cause if we didn’t it was coming out of his salary. I replied that he was a liar, and that it didn’t matter anyway cause it wasn’t our problem. He could charge us for the nights we owed or charge us for nothing, cause we were leaving.

He realized there was nothing he could do. The matter was settled.

God, that felt good!

I’m learning that anger, when properly channeled into righteous indignation, is an extremely useful thing.

Before leaving Hanoi, Brad and I checked out some more museums and stuff. Most of it was pretty boring, but I loved this sculpture outside the Air Force Museum.

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It’s debris from all the American bombers and fighters that crashed during air raids.

I should probably show some respect. Clearly a lot of pilots died in these wrecks. But I couldn’t help digging the aesthetics. It looks like a scrapyard on Tatooine. Let Chewbacca loose in here and he could build another Millennium Falcon.

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This anti-aircraft gun has an interesting history. It was built in the USA and given to the USSR to help fight the Japanese occupying China. After the war, the Russians left it with the Chinese, who then passed it along to the Vietnamese for use against – that’s right – the USA.

It’s the Forrest Gump of anti-aircraft guns.

Actually, it’s more like the Little Big Man of anti-aircraft guns, but that’s maybe a little obscure.

We went to the water puppet theater, which I thought was kind of lame.

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The gimmick is that they use the water to conceal the submerged poles and levers controlled backstage by puppeteers. It’s a thousand year old art form and the puppeteers train for years to hone their skills and blah blah blah. I wasn’t impressed. Give me a week and some wading boots and I can shake a stick back and forth as well as any of those guys.

Puppetry is big all over Southeast Asia as a way to charm tourists and sell handcrafts. It just doesn’t cast much of a spell over me. The Muppets. That’s as far as I go.

We went back to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, but an old man outside came up and told us it was closed for a national holiday. He said we’d have to come back tomorrow. We shrugged and headed off, then the guy yelled to us, "No wait! Suddenly, it’s open! Come back!& quot;

We turned around, and sure enough the doors were open and people were passing through. The national holiday had passed. What a relief!

That became our joke for the rest of the trip. "I’m tired. Let’s go back to the hotel. No wait! Suddenly, let’s eat!"

I’m told that in Vietnam, it’s considered attractive for women to be as white as possible, and they often aspire to meet this double standard by behaving like vampires.

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To prevent tanning, not an inch goes uncovered when outside. They wear gloves that extend up to their shoulders, rimmed hats, sunglasses, and bandanas across their faces. On top of that, a lot of women spend money they don’t have on daily applications of completely useless skin whitening cream.

But before we all go condemning the men, I’d like to inject my strong suspicion that most Vietnamese guys couldn’t care less about white skin. From the few conversations I had about it, I got the distinct impression that it’s a self-imposed beauty standard created by exposure to western women.

And before we go blaming good old American cultural imperialism, it must be acknowledged that the Vietnamese are exposed only to the movies, TV shows, and magazines that they bring in illegally through pirating. The government deliberately keeps all western media conglomerates out. No one is shoving Nicole Kidman or Pamela Anderson down their throats…although what an interesting image that makes.

No, we can’t put all the blame on men, and we can’t put all the blame on American movies. Some of it has to go toward the women themselves. I’m sorry ladies, I know how much you hate direct accountability, but you’re going to have to own up to being just a little bit insane about your preoccupation with appearances.

There are a few things guys are hung up on. We all know what they are. But just like shiny hair and manicured toenails and trimmed eyebrows, white skin isn’t one of those things.

It’s nice being able to write this stuff thousands of miles away from anyone who’ll yell at me.

By the way, they all know white people quest for darkly tanned skin. They find it equally ridiculous.

I touched on a thing before that I want to elaborate on. Vietnam really doesn’t have any markings of the United States of Generica. Apparently when the doors opened up in the early ’90s, companies like McDonald’s and Sony pounced on the country like dozens of invaders before. And just like everyone else, they eventually got booted out. The government decided the companies were an evil influence that they didn’t need, so they simply closed down all the stores and took down all the signs. Investors lost millions, but there was nothing they could do about it.

I can’t help but find that really admirable. These Vietnamese are a fierce and wiley little people.

Here’s a blind guy who makes his living playing the nose flute.

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After a couple more days in Hanoi, Brad and I set sail for Halong Bay. I visited Halong on my previous trip to Vietnam a few years ago, and was itching to go back.

Halong Bay is a maze of over two thousand limestone rock formations jutting out of the water in close proximity. The islands break the current, creating a placid and serene interior dotted with floating fishing villages.

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We spent our first night on Cat Ba, the main tourist island in the center of the bay. We found a bar that let us pour our own drinks and pay by the honor system. That was good fun.

The next day we hired a ferryboat with a crew of two to take us out into the islands and drop us off in a kayak to explore for the afternoon. After the kayaking, we would go back to the boat and spend the night onboard.

They dropped us off right near a place called Monkey Island. Some of you may have heard of my past experience on another Monkey Island in Vietnam. This was a different place; much less elaborate, but still pretty damn entertaining.

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The island was little more than a single small, thoroughly monkeyed beach. They came up to us as soon as we hit the shore, curious to see if we had any food. At first things were pretty tranquil. I kept my distance, but Brad had no hesitation about letting them approach.

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When food didn’t immediately materialize, the monkeys got a little pissy. They started grabbing and scratching.

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The scratching soon turned to biting, and then things got ugly.

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Brad kept his cool throughout. He even remained calm while the monkeys leapt on him, crawled up his arms, and started clawing at his face. I was, of course, no longer taking pictures by then. I was running and screaming.

With an angry monkey on each shoulder, Brad realized the situation had become dire. He twisted and contorted, trying to shake the monkeys loose as they became more and more aggressive in their attempts to take him down. It was sort of like that scene in Fellowship of the Ring when they were fighting that giant cave troll, with Brad being the giant cave troll.

He managed to get the monkeys off him. They fled for the hills, but not before giving him some bloody mementos.

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A few rabies shots later and Brad is perfectly fine.

Before we moved on, I got the idea of approaching them from the water to take some pictures. I stood waist-deep in the water, a few feet from the pier on which they hung out, feeling perfectly safe and out of their reach.

As soon as I got close, they leapt in the water and came charging at me.

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Who knew monkeys can swim?

So we left that island, shaken but amused, and spent a few hours exploring the bay. That was fun.

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We got back to the boat shortly before sunset, ate dinner, drank some beers, and went to bed.

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The night on the boat sucked. We tried sleeping on the deck, but it rained, and we didn’t retreat inside until after our sheets were thoroughly soaked. Then came the problem of mosquitoes, which were incessant and couldn’t be held back even after hanging mosquito nets. It took several hours for either of us to get any rest.

Spending the night on the boat was a bad idea. My fault. Sorry, Brad.

The next day we wandered along the suspended walkways around Cat Ba that give access to some nice beaches.

I only mention that as an excuse to show this last picture.

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So that was the Halong Bay trip. It was nice, but I must confess that discovering Palau kind of diminished my sense of it being such an extraordinarily beautiful paradise. My standards have risen.

We’re back in Hanoi now and about to depart for Ninh Binh, Hue (pronounced "Hee-oo-ay"), and all points south.

This entry was really boring. I apologize. I had a lot of ground to cover and a lot of rants to get off my chest. I’m glad to have finally gotten it done, but it was pretty weak. Sorry.