Hello from Catba Island! a fairly large island in Halong Bay, about four hours’ bus ride and two hours’ boat ride from Hanoi. It’s gorgeous here, and much nicer than Hanoi…lots of open space, not too many people, no aggressive moto drivers, and generally much more laid-back. And the scenery is *amazing*. Halong Bay is peppered with beautiful limestone islands…the name means “Descending Dragon” in Vietnamese, and refers to a legend that said that the islands were created by a dragon (or maybe more than one?) fighting and lashing randomly throughout the bay. I think; I need to look it up in the guidebook.
At any rate, the specialty of Halong Bay is limestone caves…amazing displays of stalactites, stalagmites, and giant stone columns where the two meet. We passed through the biggest grotto today…instead of big single stalactites like you see in the U.S., there are thousands and thousands of tiny ones, like fingers running down columns of white limestone. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I took loads of photos and will post them when I get a chance–possibly not until I return to Thailand, though. Connectivity here isn’t very sophisticated, and I expect Laos will be worse.
Tomorrow we’re doing a long hike through the island, visiting a minority village (I expect this to be a tourist trap), going to some more caves, and I forget what else. The day after, we’re going for another cruise through Halong Bay (which is beautiful in its own rights) and then busing back to Hanoi, where I’ll catch a bus to Laos. (I’m not looking forward to that bus ride; four hours on a bus to Hanoi followed by 20 hours on a bus to Vientiane sounds awful. I’ll probably check into a hotel and sleep for an entire day afterwards.)
As you have probably gathered, I’m on an organized tour for this part of the route…part of a group of 30-40 tourists cruising around together. One of the neat features of traveling solo is that you have the option of traveling any way you like…by yourself, in small independent groups, on a prefab tour; so you can tailor your journeying to suit your mood. I have thus far tried all of them (except traveling with a permanent travel companion 😉 ) and they all have their ups and downs…good for different purposes.
Group tours are nice when you want to take a vacation from traveling…you don’t have to worry about finding food, shelter, etc. yourself, and you get plenty of company. In short, you don’t have to worry about anything for as long as the tour lasts. This can be really nice after a couple weeks of battling through the underbrush of a total-mayhem Asian city trying to find sights, fend off moto drivers, etc. yourself. The downside to group tours is that you’ll have no meaningful contact with local people at all–you’re effectively in the West for the duration, since your fellow tourists will mostly be Westerners.
(Of course, this can be a good thing as well–after two weeks of speaking crude English patois, with no verb tenses and no prepositions, it’s wonderful to have a good long discussion of philosophy of science, current movies, etc. with a native English speaker.)
The net of it is that group tours are great when you want to take a “vacation” from traveling, especially in places where local culture is not the focus. (Diving in the Similans, for example; or here in Halong Bay.)
Down from the group tour is the small independent group, usually two to five people who’ve met, decided they like each other, and decided to poke about together. The advantages of this method is that you’re in control of the itinerary, but there are several of you to pool expenses, figure out where you’re going, argue with taxi drivers, etc. (If you have never tried negotiating with a moto driver, believe me: you want the moral support.) The downside is that you have to get along with your fellow-travelers, and as long as you’re with them, everythign you do needs to be negotiated.
(This is one of the reasons solo travel is so much fun: you can join a group just as long as you fancy, then take off on your own, so you’re not *really* stuck.)
Then you get to solo travel. There are two kinds of solo travel: you by yourself, and you with a local guide. The upside to having a local guide is that it gives you a really good opportunity to meet people, get to know the local culture, and so on. (My guide yesterday took me to his parents’ farm, where I got to see lychee trees, meet his family, and watch someone kill and pluck a chicken (eating it afterwards was more complicated…I was NOT prepared to find half a chicken head (including the beak) in my bowl!) I also got to see his flat–which was *awful*; an unheated concrete bunker worse than any slum tenement. Rates a 0 on the Tien hotel scale–but now I know how poor people live in Hanoi.)
The downsides of a local guide are (a) it’s expensive, and (b) I have yet to find a local guide who hasn’t either tried to extort more money from me or bizarrely decide to parent me the entire time or (I think) try to seduce me. (I think that’s the Asian-male thing going…acting as surrogate parent/brother/boyfriend, depending on which they think they are.)
The overall effect is not unlike spending a day going around with a Tech guy back in the bad old 7:1 M/F ratio days…once they attach, they don’t want to let go–although, in their case it’s either because they want my money, or they have chivalrous delusions about protecting me, or they like going around with a rich heiress. (Which is basically what I am; even if my monthly income weren’t about ten years’ salary for the average hotel guy (which, shockingly, it *is*–this is a very poor country), I’ve got this ultra-seductive blue passport, highly attractive in its own right. Either of those aside, I also spend more money in a day than they earn in two weeks, so hanging around with me is a good way to enjoy Western luxuries, expensive dinners, etc.)
All of which would be much more tolerable if they didn’t feel compelled to treat me like they would an Asian girlfriend/sister/whatever, i.e. cosset me, escort me everywhere, and tell me what to do. For about eight hours, this can be kind of fun (especially after days of fighting off moto drivers–ugh). After that, it’s utterly infuriating–usually by the second day, I want to strangle the guy. So guides have their definite ups and downs.
Last on the list is “real” solo travel, striking out and around on your own. This can be really enjoyable or a total fucking nightmare, depending on what you’re contending with. I would say that in the city, solo travel is a nightmare; in small towns, solo travel can be quite enjoyable. Basically, you have to manage everything yourself–so you have to fend off moto drivers, find restaurants, locate your hotel, and negotiate around the area on your own.
In small towns this isn’t a big deal–there isn’t much city, you can orient by major landmarks, and there are fewer tourist sharks (aka moto drivers). In the city, it can be a total nightmare. There is nothing quite like trying to find your hotel in a rabbit’s-warren of tiny streets, none of whose names match your (outdated) map, with a bunch of moto drivers hassling you on every street trying to take advantage of the hapless tourist. Spend a couple days at it and even a saint’s temper will snap, I guarantee you. On the other hand, on a nice deserted beach, or in a small town like Hoi An, wandering around on your own can be marvelous. You can poke into odd corners, spend an afternoon sitting on the wharf, and do whatever you like without inconveniencing anyone.
So anyway, after a week of trying to deal with various Asian cities, I’ve decided to join a group tour and take a vacation for awhile. Catba Island is really nice, too–I may “stop out” from my vacation and take an extra 1-2 days here. Quiet, beautiful, and wonderfully relaxing after Hanoi.
Incidentally, I’m quite smug today after finally beating the Hanoi boys at their little game: last night, coming home, a moto driver tried to charge me $2, I negotiated him down to 5,000 dong ($0.33) in about thirty seconds, by walking across the street and approaching another moto driver. At the hotel, he tried to demand 7,000 dong–but I called his bluff by saying I’d go into the hotel to get exact change. (The game here is that if you don’t have exact change, they hand back only as much change as they feel like giving.) When I checked out of the hotel, they tried to bill me for four nights, claiming I’d checked in on the 31st–I pointed out that was total bosh, since I’d spent New Year’s Eve in Hue. (Then they tried three days, but I eventually got them to remember that I’d arrived yesterday.)
After that there was a little pleasantry with the laundry itemization, during which my laundry bill mysteriously went from 19,000 dong to 13,000. So hey, it took me a day and a half, but I’ve figured out how to cope in Hanoi.
Too bad I leave for Laos in a day or two…I imagine they’ll have a totally different set of tourist scams there. Ooh, am I looking forward to them. (Not.) When I get back, I’m going to open up a training school in San Francisco for scam artists, just to vary our local collection of predators.
(Come to think of it, I should spend a day or two in the city acting like a clueless Canadian tourist, just to see what our local “game” is. I’m sure it would be quite instructive. 😉 )