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Erin in Asia

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Hovering in Halong

It had been almost a week since Beau had left for the States, and I'd started to go a bit stir-crazy waiting for information about my new volunteering placement in Hanoi, Vietnam. I was truly alone for the first time in my life, and I had a short — one week is short, right? — bout of self-pity. Walking through rainy streets, I thought about our last days of luxury and gluttony at the Daewoo Hotel where we ordered room service, laughed and lounged in fluffy white robes, and sunned by the pool. I watched other tourists, thinking, "Look at those lucky foreigners with their friends, having fun. They don't know how good they have it."

Finally, I started to snap out of it. I needed to take action. I visited the Revolutionary Museum (purposefully avoiding the viewing of Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body at his mausoleum), tried to find friendly faces in a local expatriate bar, and logged an embarrassing number of hours at the internet café near my guest house. But still I didn't meet anyone to spend the time with.

As a last resort, I booked a tour. Surely a tour would get me some quality bonding time with fellow travelers, some beautiful landscapes, and some exercise and fresh air. I would be an outgoing, independent, traveling woman. Everyone I met would be impressed by my self-confidence and bravery.

I walked around the noisy twisting streets of the Old French quarter, past Hang Dao ("silk street") and on to Hang Bo ("basket street"), in search of a tour company. Finally discovering what should have been called "backpacker street," I found a tour company and chose a two-night, three-day boat tour to an island in Halong Bay. The photographs of the place were amazing — I would cruise past islands of sheer limestone jutting out of the sea, then I would sleep on the island and go trekking. More importantly, I would meet some travelers and work on the kickass tan I had started at the Daewoo. The bus would pick me up the next morning at 7:30 am.

At 7:10 am I was closing the last zipper on my bag when the phone rang.

"You go to CatBa today?" asked the front desk clerk.


"Okay, the tour bus is waiting."

What? But I was way ahead of schedule! I rushed downstairs to settle my bill at the guesthouse. Waiting for the exchange of money and papers and passports to be complete, I looked outside and saw the tour bus waiting for me. Great first impression. How am I supposed to make new friends to ease my loneliness when I make everyone wait and appear insensitive and lazy? When they find out I'm American, they'll nod with disapproving understanding.

Sheepishly, I climbed aboard the bus. Expecting to see angry French and Australian faces, I instead found what appeared to be a large Vietnamese family. Having already checked my ticket with the driver, I knew it wasn't a mistake. I couldn't believe it. How, in a town full of tourists on my way to a major tourist destination, did I pick the company that takes all the locals?

 I slumped into a seat behind the family and took heart that there were still empty seats. I began chanting to myself, "Please pick up some more foreigners, please pick up some more foreigners."

Keeping my fingers crossed, I watched as the bus pulled up to another hotel. A white couple emerged. Yes! I smiled at them as they walked past my seat; they smiled back. Three hotels and six foreigners later we were on our way. By the time we reached the coast for lunch, I had had several hours of interesting conversation with a guy from England.

At the restaurant we foreigners sat at one table, getting acquainted over a set meal of steamed fish and vegetables, rice and . . . French fries!? Looking over at the other end of the room, I swear I saw fresh whole steamed crabs being served at the locals' table.

Suddenly, our guide blocked my view of the crab and leaned down to say something to the guy from the Netherlands. From the frown on his face, I knew something was wrong.

"The boat has been cancelled. You can't go to the island."

"What does that mean?" we asked. "We have to turn around and go right back to Hanoi?"

The English guy I had been talking with on the bus turned bright red and hissed at the guide through tight lips, "I specifically asked you this very question yesterday. I asked you, ‘Do you ever get to Halong City and find out the boat is cancelled?' And you said, ‘Never. It never happens.' Those were your exact words. This is unacceptable."

The guide said that it was true and that we now we had two choices. We could 1) stay over night in Halong City and try to go on the tour the following day, or 2) stay over night in Halong City and go back to Hanoi in the morning. Neither option was acceptable to us, and we told him so.

Nervously, the guide hurried away. While he was gone, we discussed the situation and looked up Halong City in the Lonely Planet guide book to see whether it was worth staying:

    ". . . the sorry/dismal town of Halong City. . . . All in all Halong City is, aside from some impressive views of the bay, well, yuck! Unless you plan to partake in the sleezy joys of this cheesy attempt at replicating Thailand's Pattaya, there is no good reason to visit Halong City other than as a launch pad for boats."

That settled it. My weekend of fun and friend-making was quickly coming to an end. I didn't even really care about seeing the island, but it was going to be difficult to make friends if we just turned around and drove angrily back to Hanoi.

When the guide returned, face flushed and crumpled into a nervous frown, he announced with a trembling voice, "You have to stay here overnight. My manager said that there is no bus."

"What about the bus we came in?"

"The tourists have to use it. The tourists are coming back from the island and this is their bus back to Hanoi. You need to go take your bags off the bus."

Although normally passive and Ghandi-esque (or maybe cowardly) when faced with disappointment and confrontation, I felt emboldened by my new English friend and the fact that this injustice was shared by many. I swallowed hard and murmured, "We don't have to get off the bus." I was so quiet I didn't think anyone had heard me until I made eye contact with an older guy from Bangkok. He was clearly thinking the same thing.

We headed toward the big green bus, and my heart began to race. I knew I was going to stay on, if I could get on. One of the guides began handing luggage out the window, and I feared they wouldn't let us on. But I continued walking, passing the guide and a throng of yesterday's tourists waiting to get on the bus.

I climbed the bus and went to my seat, standing as others followed me on to the bus and started to grab their bags. The Bangkokian and his wife sat down with determined looks on their faces. The sit-in had begun! After the others whispered and weighed options with their partners, they all decided to stay. We chatted excitedly and waited to see what would happen next.

Soon, the tourists waiting outside started to board the bus. When they saw how few seats were left, they looked confused. Some went back outside to talk to the guides. Our guide came back on the bus and looked at us.

"This is not your bus. This is their bus," he said shakily. He was obviously coming apart.

"Fine, then get us our bus, and we'll leave as soon as it comes," the angry English guy took the lead.

"No. Cannot. You get off this bus."

"Not until there's a bus waiting for us. You go tell your manager to get us a bus, and we'll happily get on it. It's very simple. I can help you hire a bus in five minutes. Problem will be solved."

After two hours of conversations like this, arguments with guides, policemen, and the other group of tourists, another bus came. Our brave leader went to check it out.

"There are fifteen of us, and only seven seats on that bus. We're not taking it."

The guide finally lost it, yelling in Vietnamese and English and almost crying. "There's nothing I can do!"

The Englishman repeated his mantra: "Yes there is. As I told you two hours ago, I can help you hire us a bus. We can be out of here in five minutes."

The problem was, a hired bus would cost money, and our group was already expecting refunds for our current bus. We certainly weren't going to foot the bill for a hired bus, and the tour company didn't want to lose money.

We all sat still, unwavering. Having been swindled enough times by transport drivers, jewelry salesmen, and various street vendors, this was our chance to get back at the tourist industry in Vietnam. We would show them that tour companies could not treat people this way, charging us money and leaving us stranded.

There was a buzz of energy around us, the adrenaline induced by the confrontation making us chatty. We shared travel stories and learned about each other's lives. There were pairs from the Netherlands, France, England, Scotland, and a pair from down under (Australia and New Zealand); we were uniting against our enemy. We bought and shared baguettes. (Baguettes are, incidentally, one of the best things about the French occupation of Vietnam. The other is the French Colonial architecture.)

Finally, another bus pulled up. It had enough seats, and we transferred our belongings and ourselves to the new bus. As we exited the original bus, the tourists we had displaced and inconvenienced mumbled that they were glad to see us go. They didn't understand the importance of our actions, our principles. We were representing travelers all over the world!

Unfortunately, we weren't doing such a great job. The new bus was a decoy. The bus we had exited rolled out of the parking lot on its way to Hanoi. Our new bus sat quietly still.

After another hour and a half, the real bus came. This bus was not the air-conditioned, VIP coach to we had become accustomed. It was a local bus, hot and crowded with people and cargo. We squashed in and sat down for the long ride back. All we could do was laugh. We weren't sure if we had won or not. We discussed refund strategies and whether we would need to go together to get our money back. We joked and slept and shared snacks.

Finally at 8 pm, we arrived in Hanoi.

As we were getting of the bus, the pair from Australia approached me. "Want to go to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum with us tomorrow?"

"Sure, I'd love to!"


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Vietnam is officially quite proud of "Uncle Ho," leader of their Communist revolution, and they honor him by displaying his embalmed body in a glass case. Never mind that he had specifically requested to be cremated, stating that land was too valuable for dead bodies and should be used by the people for farming. (Indeed, people are doing just that. You can see headstones popping up out of rice paddies all over the countryside.)

Most attractions and services in Vietnam have two prices: the local price and the considerably higher, foreigner price. Interestingly, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum gives preference to outsiders. Foreigners get to jump right up to the front desk, moving way ahead of the hundreds of locals standing in the hot sunshine. The line stays this long all day. It moves slowly, people shuffling quietly and stone-faced as though in a funeral procession.

Eventually, you enter the building and move up the stairs to the room where his body lies. Unsmiling, uniformed guards are everywhere. Visitors must wear sleeves and long pants. You do not stop to stare at the body but look at it as you slowly circle around the glass case.

Uncle Ho looks pretty good. They send him to Russia every year for a makeover. The Russians are apparently talented at this because they also do Lenin and Stalin

Copyright © 2001 Erin Neel