Monday, 6 July 2015

Quan Lan Island: the Long Walk to Nowhere (aka Coke never tasted so good)

Quan Lan Island, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam
Our boat ride through the bay landed us on Quan Lan Island, where we were tuk-tukked to the Ethnic Travel lodge and shown how to make spring rolls for dinner. A fun experience, though I was hoping they would show us how to make an everyday meal - Cong told us that spring rolls are only eaten on special occasions. 
In the morning we ate a steaming hot bowl of phở bò (beef noodle soup) and the group was supposed to take a bike ride through the island. Having never fully learned to ride a bike, I thought I could pick it up right then and go for it. How wrong I was. With an hour or so to get the hang of it I'm sure I would have been speeding along the dusty streets, but we were told that it was unsafe. Instead, Cong took us on a walk to see a nearby beach. Of the three beaches on the island, this one was the second most built up due to its proximity to the main town. In typical Vietnamese fashion, a man was doing something sketchy with power cables on the road there. 
Cong rested in the shade of an open air cafe and watched our bags while we took a dip in the sea. I was glad we decided to use a tour service as we participated in activities we'd never be able to normally: we wouldn't be able to swim or kayak at the same time, as one of us would always have to mind the valuables. 
Once we dried off in the sun a little, we joined Cong for an iced juice made from cane sugar. It was much too sweet for my tastes, but I drank it all to cool myself. 
I quickly learned that the sunscreen I applied wasn't going to do its job properly, as I was sweating so much that it looked like milk was running down my face and arms. I therefore bought a hat from a store on the main road: a practical green one with a chin strap. Many tourists like to buy the conical hat worn by local farmers, but they're made of stiff material and wouldn't fit into a bag easily. (Also, the conical hats are only worn by women, so it's fairly amusing to see male tourists walking around in them.)
Resting in our room during the heat of the day, we were left to wander alone in the afternoon. Knowing there was a fishing village down a particular road, we took a walk. On the way, we saw a large graveyard with brightly coloured tombs by the side of the road. The majority of farmers are not buried in a cemetery, but on their own land as their body remains closer to their family and they don't have to buy a plot.
The road was under construction, but that didn't stop everyone driving on it still. We saw a tuk tuk become stuck in a mound of gravel, and all the passengers piled out to help push. Luckily there were no "road legends" here; Cong explained them as motorcyclists who drive very fast with no helmet in an attempt to look cool. 
After walking a considerable distance with no sign of a fishing village, we stopped at a floating house for a glass of cold coke. It was a timely refreshment and we would have grateful for any iced drink. We were starting to grow accustomed to the heat, but walking for hours without shade in that kind of humidity will transform anyone into a puddle of sweat. 
Venturing back out from our shaded bevvie break, we took a peek around one last corner but saw nothing resembling a fishing village so we turned back. The sun was descending, casting a golden haziness over the countryside. Farmers worked the land and their water buffalo grazed. Some motorcyclists that passed asked "Hello, motorbike?" as they had space to offer us a ride, but we were determined to do it on our own steam (and they'd try to charge us an exorbitant amount for being tourists). 
Though exhausted from the walk, we quickly took a look at the pagoda along the main road and I averted my gaze as soon as I caught sight of a monk (I've heard that women aren't supposed to interact with the holy men). 
We were in charge of acquiring our own dinner, but the restaurant Cong recommended was full. Surprisingly, a staff member from the restaurant (who spoke no English) led us down the road to another establishment where he ensured we were seated and presented with menus. I found this effort of his generous as he could have simply turned us away, leaving us to fend for ourselves. At first we thought we'd need to guess what the menu items were, as they were only in Vietnamese, but they scrounged up a menu with very brief English translations. Though we were completely out of our depth, we enjoyed our meal and were satisfied knowing that we were eating traditional, non-touristy food. 
The next morning after breakfasting on crepes with fresh mango slices and lime juice, we visited the least developed beach on Quan Lan and were entirely on our own. Yannick swam while I read a book in the shade of a pine tree and got a fright each time a pine needle fell onto my arm, believing it to be a centipede (for no particular reason - I just hate centipedes). Overall our trip to Bai Tu Long Bay was relaxed and stunning. 
However! The drive back to Hanoi was once again hair-raising and at one point we were pulled over by the police. (Brief background to the story: it seems that the reason driving in Vietnam is so hectic is that everyone drives at different speeds as they like, so everyone is trying to overtake someone else at the same time.) Our driver had become annoyed at that there were so many cars in the fast lane that he wanted to overtake. Seeing the slow lane empty, he pulled out and was immediately flagged down by a man in uniform. They talked for some time, and when the driver came back he pulled in to a petrol station and asked if we needed to use the bathroom. We declined, and he went instead. Cong explained that the driver had argued he wasn't overtaking in the slow lane, which is illegal, but instead needed to use the station's facilities. I'm assuming he still had to pay a small bribe. 
I will miss the people, the scenery and the food here but not the traffic and beurocracy.