Friday, November 22, 2002

Halong Bay

Friends: Back in Hanoi for a day after a two-day outing with a tour group to Halong Bay, about 100 miles away. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the symbols of Vietnam--a cluster of nearly 2,000 islands, most of which are just jutting spires of limestone. For a mere $27 we were driven to the bay in a mini-bus with 15 others, fed lunch, put on a boat for a three-hour cruise with a stop to explore some extensive caves then deposited on Cat Ba Island, put up in a hotel, fed dinner, given breakfast, spent another three hours cruising amongst the islands back to the mainland, fed lunch and driven back to Hanoi. We thought it was a remarkable deal until we learned there were people in our party who had only paid $15 for all this. We paid extra to insure we wouldn't be crammed on a boat with too many people, but it turned out we didn't need to do that. But we weren't upset, as it was a marvelous experience and we met some most fascinating fellow travelers.

It is amazing how cheap things can be here. There is intense competition amongst the tour operators in this so-called non-capitalist country. Besides the outing to Halong Bay, there are many others tours on offer off into the surrounding area of Hanoi. The Vietnamese are exceptionally well-organized and even more exceptional in their desire to please. There is a factotum we call Igor at our hotel who goes double-time to meet any of our needs. This morning he gave Laurie and I a motorcycle escort, clearing traffic for us, as we bicycled to the train station to check in our bikes so we wouldn't have to worry about that tonight when we board the 11 p.m. train to Hue, some 500 miles south of here. We'd much prefer to be biking, especially after being confined to a bus for eight hours the past two days, but it's over 1500 miles to Bangkok and we don't have quite enough time to bike it all and see what we'd like to see before our Christmas Eve flight home. Those two bus trips of four hours each were almost torture, having to look out at the scenery and not being able to experience it and be a part of it. It was the first time we had been confined to a bus since we departed Bangkok 1,500 miles ago. We felt greatly deprived. I felt similarly as we cruised amongst the hundreds of islands of Halong Bay. I wanted to be out kayaking, propelling myself, as we saw a few doing. But it was still a most relaxing and uplifting experience to lay back on a boat and be mesmerized by the intoxicating scenery that could have been designed by Gaudi. At times I felt as if I were floating through Alaska's Inside Passage, though all about us were a stream of wooden boats with dragons painted on them carrying 50 or so passengers. Halong Bay isn't merely a tourist attraction. The Vietnamese come to see it as well, especially in the heat of the summer. It was too cool and overcast for any swimming this time of the year.

I had to pull myself away from the non-stop conversation of our group, a hard thing to do, and sit on the roof of the boat for some solitary communing with the scenery. Laurie and I were paired up with a retired Israeli couple, the only others in our group of fifteen who had also inadvertently paid the full price, not realizing they could have bargained for a better price. The husband had immigrated with his family to Israel from India when he was five years old. His wife had immigrated from Tunisia. His braided gray pony tail hung nearly to his waist. We stayed up late talking with them on the balcony of our hotel, nibbling on snacks they had brought from Israel. Two 60-year old Australia men, vacationing together separate from their wives for the first time, were equally fascinating. Our group also included a woman from Paris of Vietnamese heritage, a 25-year old Englishman who'd been on the road four months and had vowed to make his next trip a bicycle tour, a Canadian guy traveling with an Irish woman and a Swiss woman.

The Swiss woman was an actress/director, mostly in theatrical productions, though she had also appeared in a couple of movies. She had yet to see a movie in her travels and meant to the evening we returned. Laurie and I have also gone all this time, nearly six weeks now, without any cinema, a travesty, since it was cinema that had brought us together over a decade ago working as volunteers at the Facets cinematheque. When we returned to Hanoi, the three of us rendezvoused at one of the few supermarkets with an assortment of Western food at the tip of the lake at 7:30 to see something, anything. There were two nearby theatres to choose from. Laurie and I had already checked one of them and it's fare was something non-Western. Nadja, like me, didn't care what we saw. We needed a movie-going experience. Nadja regularly attends Switzerland's premier film festival in Locarno each August. It has an international reputation and is renowned for its free evening screenings in the town's grand plaza on a giant wall, an experience that is high on my list of things to do. "Lagaan", the Indian spectacular of a year ago featuring cricket, was launched at such a screening. Nadja has also attended Berlin's film festival, as I have on two occasions. One of those years, we were both there, though we couldn't pinpoint if we had attended any of the same screenings.

The movie at the first theater we meandered to had started 20 minutes earlier and was the final screening for the night. We couldn't determine what it was, other than it had won an Oscar in 1994. We considered going in late, but decided to give the other theater a look, even though it was going to be something in a language we didn't know and without subtitles we could read. Laurie bowed out at that point. Nadja and I arrived at that theater at 8:40. Its movie likewise had started at eight and was the final screening of the night, even though it was a Friday night. We had no idea what nationality the movie was or what it was about. The ushers at first tried to turn us away, even though we were perfectly happy to pay full price to see the last half of the movie. Evidently they figured the movie wasn't for us. They spoke no English and we obviously spoke no Vietnamese, so they were trying to save us. They didn't realize we just wanted to experience a Vietnamese movie theater and Vietnamese movie audience and have the pleasure of sitting in a large dark room watching images flash on a screen regardless of the language being spoken. Maybe it was our persistence or maybe Nadja's blond hair and big screen good looks, but they eventually let us slip in to the last row under the balcony.

The theater wasn't even a quarter full and most everyone was sitting in the back of the theater. The characters on the screen were Asian. We quickly learned it was neither sub-titled nor dubbed. Instead a woman's voice on the sound-track translated everyone's dialogue, a presentation that neither Nadja or I had ever experienced. I had been told that the majority of the movies shown in Hanoi are Korean, Chinese and American. It didn't seem to be Chinese. It was certainly polished enough to be Korean, a national cinema that is thriving and has been a force on the film festival circuit the past few years. If we understood Korean we would have been able to understand the barely audible dialogue of the characters under the voice-over. The biggest surprise was that this wasn't an action movie of any sort--no violence or gun-play or car chases or even sex. Instead, it was a sensitive love story of a couple of 20-year olds who argued and cried and reconciled. A few of the audience trickled out, but we sat and glowed in the novelty of this experience for the hour left of the movie. There was no fidgeting from Nadja. I could see her at rapt attention beside me. She was a movie-goer extraordinaire to be enraptured by this. Nadja had said the Swiss see more movies per capita than any European country. She was certainly proving her devotion, though she admitted that she didn't know if any of her friends would have endured this.

Afterward, we sat at a cafe along one of Hanoi's many lakes, as the nearly full moon shined down on us, going on and on not only about our love of movies but of skiing, something she learned to do before she learned to ride a bike and an activity I devoted several winters to.

The only biking I had done all day was riding a few blocks from the hotel Laurie and I last stayed at to the one we had been transferred to, but it was still a great, great day. Tomorrow, if our bikes make it to Hue with us, we get to ride over Sea Cloud Pass, the only climb on the 1,000 mile Highway 1 that links Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Later, George

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