Rain, Rough Water, and Loneliness

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8pm, August 6, a hotel on CatBa island.

I'm now some 135 klicks from Hanoi, a three and a half hour train ride, and three and a half boat ride away.

With the waiting in between, it basically took the whole day. Yesterday, ended up not being so exciting. Went to the Lonely Planet Cafe, bought a bottle of Coke and then headed "home" before another final dinner at the Smiling Cafe. The hostess, I learned from Chris, is 19 or 20, so I don't feel so bad about being attracted to her, though I was sure she was younger.

I put my bag on a wet floor there and had the contents of my bag spread over the table to prevent the from getting wet. There was a French woman who had been living in Hanoi for some time and a visiting friend. They looked at all my journals, papers, letters, and books, and ask, "you are a journaliste?"

"Well, a writer," I said, a bit hopefully. This is a different sort of fiction I'm creating, one in which I hope life imitates art. I'm always asked what I want to do and I always think to say, a writer, but the confidence is not there, too afraid of failure or just putting something out that is second rate.

I don't just want to write, I want to write WELL. Like James Joyce deciding he didn't want to be the second best vocalist in Ireland, so decided instead to be the best novelist in Ireland (of course he didn't live in Ireland did he?).

I might not quite be like that (I have no illusions about being the best writer anywhere- maybe the Antarctic?), but in any case I have now started to say that I am a writer. It's not like I am doing anything else right now anyway.

Dinner done, I came back and packed for this day, ran and up down the stairs asking the hotel boss things: can I pay later? can I store my bag? is my laundry done (I've done laundry by hand before and it's not fun, so avail myself of a laundry whenever there is one)?

I was out for a quick stroll and then back again. Chris was there and we chatted a while, he was leaving tomorrow as well, but later. I gave him the hotel fee, my address, etc.

We seem to be two of the few loners about, everyone else seems to come in couples. We have a little more loneliness perhaps (though Chris does a better job then I of talking to people), but then we have a little more freedom. He has been bouncing around Hanoi on a scooter, going a bit further afield. If I get stuck in Hanoi on the way back (I.e. I can't get tickets for the train to the border) I may do that as well. We both agree that we would rather meet Vietnamese than other backpackers and he's doing his best to learn a bit of the language. He will be here longer.

We parted the next morning, or I should say, that I did- at 5:30am- off for my train to Haiphong. I walked most of the way and then became a little panicked when I got a little lost and was beginning to wonder if I would make it to the train station on time. So I asked a Cyclo driver to take me the rest of the way. It turned out to be all of a 100 yards. I knew it was close, but didn't know how close. Stupid me fails to follow his instinct yet again.

The train ride was okay. Hard seat, but the train wasn't very full and, unlike what I've heard of China, the seat was assigned. I sat across from a guy and his nephew. I talked a little with the Uncle: 33 years old, unmarried, had lived in Germany for 7 years. The conversation broke down after that, which was as far as his English and my phrase book would take it.

The nephew, perhaps six, curled up and tried to sleep. I read and wrote a postcards, watched the countryside roll past: green rice paddies lined with tall trees, dotted with water buffalo, people with their conical hats and rain gear bent over working, an old mangy horse, chickens wander about, low lying and goods filled sampans and barges float low on the rivers, the water all brown with soil.

The temples are all yellow here for some reason.

An island in the Red River just outside Hanoi, looking only recently up from the water, slowly being converted to more rice paddies.

(Meanwhile here in Catba I scarf down cup after cup often. I'll never sleep)

It rained a lot as we traveled and we arrived in Haiphong in the middle of a downpour. The train station yard was awash and people were clumped under the eaves. People slowly trickled out of the train station and yard as the rain slowed to a drizzle. I said goodbye to the Uncle.

I bought ferry tickets in the train station. There and back. They were more pricey than what the Lonely Planet said, but then the book is a few years old. Surprised, I should not be. Everyone gripes about it, even though the book itself expressly warns people that it is most likely going to be out of date. But maybe they didn't read that bit.

I walked the two kilometers to the ferry dock. I had plenty of time. Cyclos drivers were all clustered around the train station and the few food standsin the yard and every one of them seemed to offer me a ride. I just wanted to walk though after being on the train for so long.

The town was quiet, a Sunday afternoon or just no one wanting to be out in the drizzle, the streets nearly empty until I got near the dock. I found, well, I should say was waved into a cafe near the dock by a beautiful woman all in yellow.

She, her friend and their boyfriends "interrogated" me. Two could speak English- the cafe waitress and her fiancee. They stared at me unabashed until they got a little used to me. There weren't many other customers around so they had time to sit with me. The girl in yellow and her husband took after a while though.

I sat there for nearly two hours, amused at least. All the standard questions asked and answered in detail: where you from? How old are you? Do you have a girlfriend? When will you get married do you think? What do you do? How much money do you make? American economics? Do I like Vietnam, and Vietnamese? Where have I travelled? Etc.

We said warm good byes and I left for the ferry.

It was a bit daunting at first, crowded with people. I wondered if I'd have a place to sit until I realized that many were hagglers trying to get last minute sales in.

I eventually bought gum off one girl, but another became angry with me. She said that I'd told her I would buy from her, something about saying it in Halong Bay, "why don't you buy from me?" I did my best to ignore her, not knowing what she was talking about, but then she had this tag along, a little girl of about six who kept repeating "I come to fuck you, why don't you buy from me." Somebody had been cruel to teach her that, she no doubt had no idea what she was saying. My face must have been beet red, and all I could think of to do was ignore her as well.

Then there was this beggar who came around, a boy of about 8 maybe, who sang with a most beautiful voice, holding two spoons together and tapping them on his leg as accompaniment . I couldn't ignore the hat that he stuck in my face so I gave him some money. The girl saw though and brought her accusations back "why don't you buy from me." This time, I tried arguing which didn't help. "I never said I would buy from you," I said. "Yes you did", she replied and then repeated many more times, "I think you crazy". She stormed off too my relief and soon all the hagglers left the boat. Maybe she has learned this is the best method to get money: bludgeon people to death with guilt. Even if it's not real.

Another bemused old man sat across from me and watched the whole process with a wee smile. He sat with his legs folded up underneath him and asked questions through a young woman who sat next to me. She was a student and knew a little English.

She asked the usual questions but was not a very good translator and didn't try to explain much of what the old man was saying. He seemed to find amusement in a great deal of things. It might of been that they thought I understood. I liked listening to the course of their conversation, watching them when they spoke, and couldn't help but laugh when they laughed, which was often.

The old man and the young woman were the most animated. They talked about me most of the time I think- how handsome I was, how long my legs were and a rehash of all the questions, maybe thinking I'd be a suitable match for the young woman judging from the one time she left something untranslated, blushed, and giggled nervously.

Others got involved in the conversation as well. An older woman sitting next to the window with lots of bags piled around her, and a little girl who stared at me, mouth agape, when she thought I wouldn't notice, only ever speaking when spoken to. I only got her to smile by offering her a piece of chewing gum.

I walked around the boat taking pictures when it wasn't raining. They had a horrible time with the windows, very badly installed so that they couldn't be kept up the whole time. Rain was often coming in, and it we would pass through sudden downpours.

Much of the bay that we sailed through had land on it, though I would swear that on the map it was all open water. Delta water perhaps, or reclaimed land. It seemed very rich in any case with lots of green fields. I think Vietnam is one of the worlds most densely populated countries, so it's not surprising if they've been reclaiming land.

We cut through wide channels of water, passing an occasional freighter that would look as though it was landlocked because you could not see the water it was sailing through. Lots of Russian ships.

My "friends" got off at another island called Cathai. Which was the last bit of land before more or less open ocean. We skirted the southern coast of Catba island, and I stood out just of the side of the front deck, riding the swells and avoiding getting splashed by the bow spray. I thought it was fun, like a roller coaster, but other did not think so. A crewman nudged me, laughing and pointing to girl behind me leaning over the rails retching.

The island was gorgeous, light green to green hills, all steep and jagged with cliffs and pocked with caves, like what you would expect of China from Chinese landscape painting (indeed this area is referred to as the Guilin of Vietnam). My kind of place and I became more and more happy the more I saw of it. I was dying to get out there.

on the ferry

Storm clouds chased us the whole way out there and the mainland disappeared in the haze of distant rain.

We put ashore in a almost circular bay crowded with house boats and small fishing vessels. There were a couple hotel people waiting for the boats arrival looking for customers like me and I bargained my way into a room for 11 dollars a night.

The price was a little high and I suspected that I was at the place a Dutch couple told me about in Hanoi where you could rent beach huts but I wasn't sure. Later I found out my instinct was correct and I felt stupid again. But it's not worth it to move now, because I want to explore inland and don't want to spend all my time on the beach.

Catba Island is a large part a national park. It has lots of caves, wildlife and as described before a beautiful landscape. Not so sure I'll bother with Halong bay. I do however want to spend an afternoon or a morning on the beach, if the weather was only nice.

I did walk to the beach, you actually have to walk through this long, low and narrow tunnel, lit by a few light bulbs. It twists through a range of hills and brings you into a little hollow with a pond and a path taking you up and then down to the beaches.

There is of course a small fee.

The second beach was less crowded and I talked to an older American guy who had been running a teaching seminar. He'd been teaching English all over the place: Siberia, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, now Vietnam.

We talked a little about Vietnam, the war and how the people here had been affected. He'd heard a number of war stories, about fellow Vietmanese teachers escaping from death, how one guy had made AM radios and movement detectors from parts scrounged from down US planes. Vietnam could be a good model for recycling- except for the garbage part.

But why they don't hate us is still a bit of a mystery. How can they forget something so easily that American people can't. It was their country after all. But maybe that's why the Americans can't: having been so badly affected by something that we didn't have to get involved in. The subconscious acceptance that the whole thing was a gross mistake.

The Dong is so annoying. I have to keep reminding myself that 1$ is 11,000 dong. I keep thinking 30,000 is a rip-off for anything. But it's not. I thought my dinner of 42,000 was expensive. But great seafood, rice and beer for less than US$4.20 is incredible. I would have paid up the nose for a similar meal in Taiwan.

And by the time I get the hang of it I'll have changed currencies!

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