Tour De Force Round 4
Hello again fellow scribes. We had made a booking to visit Ha Long Bay and set off in the mini bus on the one and a half hour trip to Haiphong and from there to Cat Ba Island which is the launching point to visit a UNESCO protected site that consists of almost 2000 limestone islands. Halong means "Dragon descending" and was formed when a dragon spat out divine pearls that formed a barrier against an invading Chinese fleet. Once the enemy had retreated, the dragon settled in the bay and its scales converted into rocky islets. Sounds pretty impressive, but I am just quoting from the tourist guides so bear with me.
The tour company was pretty slick and everything went accordingly and soon we were on the houseboat that would take us on the day long trip of the bay. These boats are pretty cool and everything is done in a very relaxed fashion. The bar is a self help affair with everything done on complete trust and one would have to be a real shit to take advantage of this situation. As you drink a beer one simply makes a mark against your name and then pays at the end. The crew were rather excited to show me the record held by an Austrian gent a few weeks before, only 6 Tiger beers. Don't play..I passed that mark only a few hours into the cruise and was thereafter known as Mr. Tiger. All in all we had a great day cruising between the islands, swimming in the South China Sea with a floating bar serving mulberry wine while avoiding the jelly fish and then visiting Surprise Cave. To get to the cave we had to climb hundreds of stairs up the side of the cliff face and there were many aching calf muscles when we finally got to the top. Initially the cave was a major disappointment, hardly the size of a small house, but then we went through a fissure in the rocks and wow..before us was a massive cavern whose blue and red lighting made for an ethereal scene and I fully expected the cast of the Lord of the Rings to appear. As with many other places in SE Asia there was also the phallic shaped stalagmite illuminated in red light that drew the normal laughter and camera flashes, mostly from the female tourists. Exiting the caves one has a panoramic view over the bay with its fishing families living in their small floating houses with the red flag flying as usual. The colours of the crabs and other seafood they harvested was amazing and one could buy a bucket full and have them prepared on board.
Comrade Ha and the case of the missing questionnaire
The highlight of this excursion now occurred as our tour guide introduced his replacement for the rest of the trip, who we soon called Comrade Ha. This guy was hilarious without even knowing it. He was fanatical about timing and order and gave us many a laugh as he roamed the boat panicking about everything.
"Ha", we asked, "have you always wanted to be a tour guide?"
"No" he replied, his face turning grim, "I wanted to join the army!"
"So I could hit people!!" he exclaimed as his eyes flashed and he swept his imaginary whip through the air.
Comrade Ha's name was then firmly entrenched. Mooring at Cat Ba Island at the end of the day we had the choice of sleeping aboard or going ashore. We chose the latter as although having nice cabins, they were a bit cramped. Bad choice as the hotel we were crammed into was undergoing renovations and the drills and hammers kept it up till into the night and again early in the morning. The evenings entertainment was provided by the boat children and what amazing little rogues they were. One would have to get up really early to even have a chance of pulling one over them. Their English was very good and their sales pitch would have brought a tear to the eye of the best Indian tailor as they boxed you into a corner where one could not say no. A classic scam was asking the tourists if they had any coins from their country because they were collecting them. I saw many Euro coins being happily passed over as well as various denominations from other countries (including my own) and when I thought about the exchange rate into Dong, I realised they were into a good little deal. Those that promised to buy something "the next day" were greeted by these loveable scamps waiting outside the hotel the next morning. No escape!
Comrade Ha had instructed (ordered) us to collect our passports from the front desk at 7:15 am and then have breakfast before boarding again. We dutifully obeyed and were all seated at the breakfast table when Ha appeared and scanned over the scene. The one empty seat stood out like a large inflamed pimple on a teenagers face and Ha's face began to twitch in agitation.
"Where is your friend?" he demanded pointing at a young English guy.
"Er..he is still in bed" the guy stammered.
"Why? He must be here!" Ha almost shouted.
"He had a bit of a bender last night and wanted to sleep in a bit".
Ha turned and dashed up the stairs returning shortly with the offending character still rubbing the sleep from his eyes and trying to smooth his ruffled hair. I swear if they still had re-education camps (maybe they do in Comrade Ha's home village) this poor blighter would have been whipped through the door and forced to walk there. He then made the next mistake of sitting down at the table and trying to get some coffee for his hungover body.
"Have you got your passport yet?" Ha demanded.
"No, I will get it after breakfast", the errand lad replied.
"No, No you must get now!" Ha was shaking with anger and frustration.
"Ok, Ok just give me a break!" and he got up to do his bidding followed by Ha while the rest of us roared with laughter.
After being herded back to the boat and running the gauntlet of boat children we set sail for the mainland. We were then "requested" by Commander in Chief, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, Viceroy Ha to assemble in the lounge area to complete some forms. The forms in question were needed by the tour company who would forward them to the institution that was training the tour guides for evaluation. We had to fill our names and passport details on numerous pages and envelopes and answer questions on the proficiency of the company and the guides themselves. Being dutiful Comrades we did as we were told and Ha collected the forms. We had just started to relax and enjoy ourselves (not that we weren't enjoying the drama) when Comrade Ha stood up and cleared his throat loudly. Something was wrong, and a deathly silence descended onto the boat.
"We have a problem!" Ha announced fixing us with his stare. "I handed out 15 questionnaires and I have only received back 14. Where is the missing questionnaire??"
We all looked at each guiltily and it truly felt like a scene from a whodunit movie. Another Brit put up his hand and told Ha that he had filled in one form on behalf of himself and his wife and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"I know, I have taken that into account, there is still one missing!" he said as though trying to explain Quantum Physics to a retard.
Eventually after another long guilty pause a hand was raised at the back of the boat and the guilty party owned up. After being brutally interrogated he said that he did not feel like doing it but relented and good Comrade Ha had his missing questionnaire. I think our laughter could be heard in Hanoi where we were going to before making the trip North.
Thank you Ha for really making the trip memorable, you were actually a great guy and I hope you see the light soon….
(To be continued….)
I don't know if I would be queuing up to get on a boat with Mr Ha.