April 06, 2004


After four days of stagier at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, I filled my day pack with the bare essentials and headed off for a little excursion to Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Virtually everyone tells you that no trip to Vietnam is complete without seeing this natural wonder. The mini bus rolled around the corner just as I was finishing up my morning bowl of Lake Snail Soup, consisting of thin rice noodles with a tangy tomato-tinged broth and snails the size of golf balls. You grab a handful of amaranth, saw leaf and rice paddy herbs and toss them into the steaming broth; as they wilt, their aroma intensifies then dissipates into the savory abyssr.

As I board the bus, an American couple chidingly asks me about my meal and whether it was worth keeping the bus waiting. "Snails, and absolutely" I said. "For breakfast!" they exclaimed. "Sure, why not”, I replied. We discussed the wisdom of eating snails instead of pancakes or a bowl of fruit and shared snail stories. When I was about four, my playmate and I used to trample around our backyard in LA. She had an oral fixation and put everything in her mouth, from rocks to lighter fluid and, of course, the snails that slimed their way up and down the backyard wall. I never took part in that snack, but I remember the rather odd sensation of stepping on them with my bare feet -- crunchy, sticky and ultimately unpleasant.

About an hour out of Hanoi, we pull up to an ugly white-walled warehouse and the driver announces that we'll be here for 45 minutes. We all look at each other with pure puzzlement. Nobody seemed to need the rest stop, especially given that we had just boarded the bus. Turns out it's a factory where they weave fabrics that, I guess, needs a little business.. We gather outside the entrance in defiance and watch as bus after bus enters the parking lot. At one point, there are about 15 buses -- that's about 200 disillusioned tourists, all tired of being prodded, begged and hassled into buying, bartering or refusing goods or services.

A few hours later and two listenings of the White Stripes Elephant CD, we arrive at the port. There are just a few docks with hundreds of boats about five or six deep packed up against them. It reminded me of a cluttered parking lot of a large outdoor concert. We climb over several boats before reaching ours. It's a tired old wooden-hulled vessel with three floors and a yellow dragon mounted proudly at its bow. We slowly ease out into the bay, while I take a quick spin around my new home. It's funny how you can take a two and a half day cruise with all meals and lodging included for a mere $25 and still be judgmental about your abode. The bottom floor has small, but rather cute cabins. Above that is the dining room and kitchen. The communal lunch is actually pretty good and it gives us all an opportunity to share our travel stories. There are twelve of us, but couples only get one tale between them – they are all hideous, self-serving and pretty much similar to what you’re reading right now. We quietly indulge each other until it's our turn. After lunch we head up to the deck on the top level; it's like a back yard with lounge chairs, card tables and potted plants. It's just lacking the outdoor grill and volleyball net.

I begin to get a little excited as the guide tells us about the legends of Ha Long Bay. The heavens sent mother dragon down to earth to protect the Vietnamese from Chinese aggressors. With all of her dragonly wisdom she gave birth to thousands of limestone children, which created a maze of Islands and inlets making it difficult for the Chinese to pass through. "Was there a male dragon too?" a Brazilian man asks. "No, the mother dragon did it on her own with a swish of her mighty tail” is the response.

Just as we’re settling in to our stretched-out towels and ice cold beers, an excruciatingly loud grinding noise comes from the engine room. The immediate reaction from the international brigade was laughter, as the crew grabbed long bamboo poles and started stabbing at the water. Behind the boat was a large oblong-shaped trail of muddy water -- we had hit land, right smack in the middle of the bay. I nabbed a pole out of curiosity and reached down to see to see how deep it was – maybe, about 15 feet. Other boats cruised by as the driver, tour guide and chef stood on the highest deck and screamed for help waving shirts and banging on pans. The American couple and one very drunk and thoroughly amusing gay guy began singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song, as the Germans, Swedes and Aussies joined in. It's comforting to know the whole world is corny and just out for a good time. The singing evolved into a very loud poker game in five different languages. Chants of "Give us your beer" to passers-by were shouted across the bay, as the consumption of the only beverage on board made it scarce supply. All-in-all, we were there for four hours -- the tour of the caves and numerous other activities all lost on a sand bar. The only people at all concerned were our Vietnamese hosts.

When the tide had risen high enough for another boat to rescue us, we were once again on the move. As we approached the sheer grey cliffs of the islands, the sun began to fall, the orange hue filtering between the soft darkened peaks. We passed sedately through hundreds of islets and sea coves resting quietly in the blue-green sea. The small group separates, perhaps wanting to enjoy the moment alone, as we pass a few fisherman paddling by in long canoes. From around the next island, a large Chinese style boat appears. Its expansive sails flutter gently in the wind, as it moves slowly against the backdrop of the now ink black limestone rocks. I get restless around tranquility. I'm more at ease on a busy intersection on 6th Avenue. I do some deep breathing I learned in one of my two yoga classes I took in Brooklyn and try to settle into something Zen. One-by-one, the stars trickle out, filling the sky with a brilliant sheet. After awhile, I go find the Americans and we talk about how our misfortune allowed us to be the only boat to witness the sunset. Why is it I find more pleasure in this realization than in the natural beauty of the world? That's okay -- it was a bit like staring at a sensual woman you knew you could not touch. As we neared Cat Ba Island, the slumber party resumed. It was silly, but so is our obsession with beauty.

Posted by runawaychef at April 6, 2004 01:29 AM

The textile factory you were dragooned into visiting is a tourist-board dictated must-stop on the way to Ha Long. Apparently compulsory. The textiles, it should be pointed out--are made by amputees--victims of still-present land mines from the war.

Posted by: bourdain at April 10, 2004 08:34 PM

are you on your way back here? I am going to miss reading your journal. where are you now?

Posted by: Linda at April 11, 2004 09:30 AM