So I’m currently on a 30 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane. The bus has been stopped for a while now in a place near Ninh Binh and they are currently loading it with someone’s belongings. I am assuming that one of the new passengers is moving house, and when I say this I mean that it appears that they are literally loading the bus with a house that somebody has torn down and broken into individual bricks, slates, slabs, stones, etc.
Maybe this is how things work here… You buy or build a house and when you want to move you just tear it down and shove it on a bus to your next desired living location. Probably not. Seriously though, I’m not sure the bus is going to be able to move after they weigh it down with all these bricks! I’ll be able to write a whole book by the time they finish. At least if we get lost and stranded for some reason we can build ourselves a shelter. Let’s look on the bright side!
Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal
So Christmas just happened! When I’m not stuck in an airport in Nepal with food poisoning (last year), I am usually at home with my loved ones, stuffing my face full of turkey like the majority of the British population. But this year I decided that instead I would embrace my inner loner and head off to a small island as far from the Vietnamese mainland as you can get with as few tourists as possible.
So I rent a motorbike (a pretty good one, regardless of the fact that it refuses to start before I set off):
Come on guys, let’s get this thing going, I’ve got an island paradise awaiting me!
…and I head for a town called Cai Rong where I will leave by ferry the next morning for my island paradise known as Co To! Or so I thought…
I arrive at a hotel in Cai Rong and the rather friendly (non-English speaking) Vietnamese man asks me where I am heading the next day and starts listing some islands. Well I assume this is what he is listing. Maybe he was just listing the names of his children? Maybe he is just a really proud father. Anyway, so I’m like…
“No, I’m going to Co To”
“No Co To”
“Hotel. Yes hotel”
“No Sir, I realise that this is a hotel. I want to go to an island called Co To”
(I show him a map and point to Co To Island)
“Co To? Oh NOOOOOOO! NO CO TO! NO NO! NO CO TO, NO!!!!”
Well finally he had understood me which was good. Progress! But all of a sudden he had switched from being Mr. Happy to Mr. Loud Shouty Face. He was acting like I had just told him that his wife was ugly and that he was an idiot for naming his children after Vietnamese islands. He calls over his family members by probably saying something along the lines of…
“Everybody come here immediately, this white punk thinks that he is going to Co To tomorrow. Please tell him to kindly go to hell in a language he understands”
I explain to one of his daughters that I want to go to Co To the next day and that I have booked a hotel on the island and apparently the price of the hotel includes permission to enter Co To.
They all speak Vietnamese.
I don’t understand a lot of Vietnamese. Well, pretty much none. But I know what ‘no’ is and during this conversation with his family about me this man just keeps shouting ‘NO!’ in Vietnamese. Jeez mate, take a chill pill, your wife isn’t really ugly and your children have wonderful names!
Ok so I end up calling a tour guide with whom I had booked the hotel and he translates to me that Co To is in fact a military island as it is so far from the mainland and so close to the border between Vietnam and China. Therefore, as a foreign tourist you need a permit. He tells me that people usually go there on tours and not on their own. Regardless, he assures me that I can still go but I must apply for permission in the morning at 6am and then get on the boat at 7am. Great.
Is This A Brothel?
By the way I just have to break up this story to show you some pictures from the room that I was staying at in this hotel. This is the bathroom wall:
As you can see, the bathroom ceiling is covered in mirrors and there is also a huge mirror next to the bed.
Maybe I’m staying in a brothel, or maybe it was decorated by Peter Stringfellow’s Vietnamese counterpart. I can neither confirm nor deny either of these claims.
I thought that it was strange that there was such a difference in height between the bathroom and the bedroom ceilings. Maybe in the bathroom, they are two-way ceiling mirrors and that’s where the voyeurs pay to sit and watch from above. Whatever the case, I don’t think I will be touching anything.
Back To The Quest To Get To Co To…
So in the morning a man comes to pick me up (half an hour late) to take me to an office that is closed and gives me an empty form which he tells me not to fill out. This is all perfectly clear so far, so when are we going to Co To?
Apparently I must not fill out this form!
Another man then turns up dressed in army gear and tells me to get on his motorbike. Errrrm ok, this seems normal. We drive to a large government building and we must get off the bike before we enter and then wheel it into the premises. He talks in Vietnamese with some rather official looking people, and we get back on the bike and drive back to the office that is still closed.
We stand outside. No-one speaks English. I have absolutely no idea what is going on other than the fact that I must not move from where I am standing.
Eventually the office opens and we go in and sit down at the end of a long table with an officers hat on it and lots of paperwork…
All looks rather official! So I’m guessing that this is the hat of the guy that I’m going to have to bribe to get me onto this boat. Well by this point the boat has left already actually. But I persevere anyway.
Tea? For me? Maybe they were expecting me!
A man comes out and regardless of the fact that he is clearly the first person all morning to be able to speak English, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to speak to me and that my mere presence bothers him.
He hands me another blank form all written in Vietnamese and tells me that I must fill this out:
Anyone got a Vietnamese-English dictionary I could borrow?
After more conversations in a foreign tongue, the meeting is adjourned and I am one step closer to going to Co To right…? Wrong! We all go outside and stand outside the office like we are waiting for something.
“What the hell is going on?! WHEN AM I GOING TO CO TO!?”
I phone the travel company again and give the phone to the moody bastard and force him to explain to this guy what is going on so that he can then translate back to me. The man finishes on the phone, hangs up, hands me the phone and stands there in silence. Well that’s helpful.
“WHEN AM I GOING TO CO TO!?”
I phone the guy back and he says that I have to be accompanied by a tourist guide to go there and also it appears that I need a signature of a tour company and that I must go to the police station to get approval. Long. So I speak to the miserable bastard once again and he whispers back to me that I am not going to Co To, lights up a cigarette and stands there smoking. A job well done he is probably thinking to himself.
So I give up on my dream of being a massive loner on my (almost) deserted island for Christmas. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
I make a dash back to somewhere a little more touristy and decide to be social and go to Cat Ba Island instead. On the way I order ‘Fried chicken with chicken’.
Can’t get enough of that tasty chicken!
And so I meet some awesome people, make friends and party it up for Christmas! And I couldn’t have done any of this without the Vietnamese government refusing me entry to the military island known as Co To. They probably thought I was a spy due to my James Bond-esque appearance. Yep. Totally likely! That’s what I will put it down to. So I would like to express my thanks to Mr. “NO!”, Mr. Army Motorbike Man Who Wheels Motorbikes Into Govt Premises, Mr. Moody Whisperer and each and every other person who tried to help me that morning. I may sound sarcastic, but actually it seemed as though a lot of the guys were genuinely trying to help me get hold of this permit.
So because I never made it, here is an artist’s impression of what Co To may or may not look like (click to make big!):
And The Moral Of The Story Is…
There is a moral to this story – no matter what your heart is set on doing, always be willing to open yourself up to new possibilities. Don’t focus on what might have been and instead look to the future and make the best with what you have got. I was upset at first when I was refused entry to Co To, but decided not to dwell on it and instead look forward to what I could do instead. First world problems.
Here are some photos from my Christmas time on and around Cat Ba (where they sell barbecued cat) Island… oh! It has just dawned upon me: Cat Ba. Cat Ba(rbecue)! This is a life changing moment! Sort of. Anyway…
Santa Claus climbing on Christmas Day!
Don’t look down! I wasn’t even very far up to be honest. Climbing over deep water on Cat Ba on Christmas Day.
And after a long ride in the rain back from Cat Ba to Hanoi, my bottom half/quarter looked like this!
My Converse were quarantined and they are currently being washed.
Look! Crystal is smiling on camera! Apparently this is rare. One of the lovely folks I met in Cat Ba.
Me looking totally gangster. Standard.
This is the moment when the little people finally caught themselves a giant.
And now I am in Vientiane in Laos! Here is the moment when I crossed the border. That’s not me by the way. I’m not Asian. Just thought I’d clear that one up.