The Vietnamese are big fans of the Valentine’s Day. At an English-language bookstore in Hanoi we meet a young fellow choosing a novel about love for a potential girlfriend. The whole affair must be important because he did a thorough internet research on love books. The nominees are “Pride and Prejudice”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Since he hasn’t read any of them, he overcomes shyness and asks for advice. The choice is a bit difficult since we know nothing about the girl. I’d pick Bronte but that might be too depressing. Dealing with the aftermath of divorce in “Eat, Pray, Love” is fit for a different age group, and “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a 50-50 kind of thing — it can get the action going or end the date with a knuckle sandwich. In the end, it’s Jane Austen; we hope the British classic will manage to put a smile on the girl’s face.
Valentine’s Day is last year’s snow to us. Yet, ironically, our next stop will involve romantic karst rocks “rising majestically from the sea”. We’re talking the biggest Vietnamese attraction: Ha Long Bay. Two Hungry People break the mood though and decide to make a detour. Foregoing the “2 day 1 night luxury junk cruise” shenanigans we opt for a plain passenger ferry. This involves going way north-west, to Cai Rong, and taking a boat to Quan Lan island. The next day it’s another ferry back to Ha Long City. The route is completely different from the package tours and focuses on the adjacent Bai Tu Long Bay, which is equally beautiful but less popular. The weather’s awful, so we’re not counting on the scenery anyway, at least not all that much. During the trip to Cai Rong we change the bus two times, which is a commonplace practice here. When there are only a few passengers left, the Vietnamese drivers co-ordinate with local colleagues going in the given direction and transfer the travelers, presumably to finish the day early. It does not involve more money (it’s always safe to ask) and works reasonably well. We get on our final, very local bus after sundown. It’s cold, dark and gloomy. The bus smells of vodka. We haven’t seen any tourists for a long time. A few tipsy passengers are already on board. Some elderly drunk starts making a raucous but he’s rather quickly dealt with by a younger, yet much more aggressive woman. After a couple of exchanges, she gets up and in few short words puts the fellow in his place. The next sounds he allows himself to produce are that of vomiting.
We reach our destination safe and sound. The town, actually an island connected to mainland with a bridge, seems to be at the end of the world. Further are mostly mountains, then China. We already very hungry when we encounter an eatery. Even though it’s closing, the owner invites us in, while being overly nice. It rouses my suspicions but I don’t object. This appears to be the last chance to have a civilized meal after a very long bus journey. Even though the owner doesn’t speak a word of English, we proudly order in Vietnamese: hello – hot pot – shrimp – calamari – vegetables – rice noodles – beer one – thank you. The atmosphere’s merry, and after we’re served the owner is on the phone telling a colleague how the foreigners came to his place. He describes everything in detail – I can hear Ba Lan (Poland) and the contents of our hot pot. But when it comes to paying, the royal guests deserved a royal bill and we’re charged 500 thousand dong. It’s the equivalent of $25 or the average daily budget of a backpacker in Vietnam. The situation is awkward. We manage to get the price down to 300 thousand, which is a bit more than a hotpot would cost in the capital. It’s our first resto rip-off. In the end a quick comparison to prices back home lets us put the unappetizing experience in perspective.
In the morning we walk to the picturesque Cai Rong harbor. The rocks rise up right next to the boats and there is plenty of action on the pier. Baskets full of oysters are being carried around, maybe containing pearls that are grown in the area. Being in a bit of a hurry, we mistakenly buy tickets for a speed boat instead of a lovely wooden ferry. On board the landscape passes by us very quickly and the cold wind on the deck limits the photo-taking potential.
On Quan Lan it’s out of season, we see only two western couples there. The electricity is out and our room’s very cold. Luckily the sun comes out and we go for a walk around the village. There we see an old temple made of old timber blocks that are coming apart with age. It has heavy shingles on the roof making it a bit concave. At one of the houses the owner is running his power generator and listening to karaoke songs full-blast. I think the whole village can hear it. He’s home alone, right in front of the TV. My strategy for surviving a shower in the cold bathroom equipped with a tiny hot-water tank is to wash in stages. I have to put my clothes back on to wash my hair. The evening of Valentine’s Day is spent under two quilts and a sleeping bag. The heating does not work, the electricity is out for the night anyway. It’s turned on only for a few brief evening hours.
In the morning there’s no breakfast because we’ve overslept a little and the owner doesn’t want to hurry and serve us. We get on the speedboat (this time there was no choice) still hungry and the cold wind chills us to the bone. In Ha Long we have a lukewarm bun cha but later find a very pleasant tea-house to warm up. I’ve gotten chilled so many times that my immune system’s weakened. When we reach Ninh Binh I get the stomach flu. Maybe it’s Ho Chi Minh’s revenge. Or Saint Valentine’s…