Wednesday, 18 May 2016

ha long bay day - 23/4/2016

By the morning the weather had lifted enough to make a trip to Ha long Bay a possibility for a few hours. Perhaps a bigger factor however was the fact that my mood, soured and angry from a run of bad luck seemed to have lifted over night. My camera, broken, was just that, a broken camera and whilst frustrating to the extreme that it had come this far and then failed so close to the end, I was determined that it wasn't going to spoil the journey. Besides I still had a 24mp on my replacement z2 which would be good enough for a few snaps, and that of course was going to be better than nothing.

I still kept playing though, in the morning it received more hair dryer treatment over the course of a few hours, and I played around a with it in-between packing up to see if there was any life in the old dog at all. My mind was now set in a tech, experiment mode, devoid from frustration and emotion, but still unable to give up fully on something that was again starting to show slight signs of life.

At first it was whirring, vibrating and clunking, displaying a generic "camera error" screen on the inside, but over the course of those evaporating hours it was showing signs of changes, if not improvements. By the time it came to check out of the room, the vibrating and whirring had stopped, but looking through the viewfinder the camera would only last a short while before the view dumped downwards and the error message was once again displayed. However, occasionally it would stay on long enough for me to get a picture or 2 and I'm well aware that it is just a camera, a mostly inanimate object without it's own heart or soul, but I started to get the impression it was really trying to get there, almost like it didn't want to get left behind. It was like the camera was determined to show that it had been it's journey too. I was willing to give it a chance and placed it into the rubber, waterproof bag that I was taking out for the journey to the bay, leaving the rest of the luggage in the hotel reception after checkout to pick up a few hours down the line.

The bus we caught a little down the road took us directly to the boat station, a different place that we had disembarked the night before and thanks to some calls that Lan had made earlier that day,  we were rushed through the ticket buying process before then being escorted through the packed hall and along the quay to wait a short while for our boat to arrive. A longer wait then presented itself as we waited for the boat to accommodate it's allotted fill of passengers and the tour operators moved busily outside sorting what they needed to sort, organising what they needed to organise until it was time for us to set sail without sails. By the time our boat slipped it's moorings and floated lopsidedly, I quipped that our 4 hour boat trip was now down to just over 3. It wasn't all wasted time though, the Korean "lady" on one of the tables opposite using the extra minutes here to fill up her phone with a couple of hundred MB's of seductively styled selfie shots, complete with mid session "check" and push up before he friend finally joined her and helped her get things right.

Out on the open waters our boat moved effortlessly over the flat, calm waters, gliding towards our first port of call. It may have only taken half an hour to reach but this was plenty of time for more selfies to be taken by Korea's finest and for the 2 middle aged Japanese fellows sat on the same table to sink a few cold bottles of beers, each one seemingly better than the last. I was just happy to have a coffee. Instant, black and with sugar, the one available (but not completely diabetic friendly) option, it was still coffee and filled one of  my 2 needs at the time. An Insulin injection boost now needing to provide the mean to process it being the other. The camera worked, then failed, then failed before failing again. I packed it back into my bag as the boat came into dock.

We were given an hour to wander through network of caves, the occasional drip on the head causing a brief distraction from the spectrums of colour used to highlight the enclosing attraction, as well as the winding path to lead you through safely. For a brief moment when the power failed the caves were plunged into absolute darkness and you could hear by the sudden silence that  everyone had completely stopped, as though playing a giant game of musical statues with the trigger being the absence of light as opposed to music and with motion only resuming again when power was restored. This provided the most excitement that the caves had probably seen for a while, closely followed by trying to guess which Korean "Pose" would be waiting for you around the corner. Somehow, no matter how many times we managed to pass them through the often narrow pathways, they always managed to end up in front of us again.

The second cave we were due to visit was closed for maintenance so we sat in the sun on the harbourside benches, taking in the unique views and waiting for the rest of the time to pass by before departure. With a few minutes to kill I again pulled out the camera from it's waterproof bag, opened the battery and memory card flaps and set it to sit in the sun for a few minutes. This was one of the few chances that I had been able to give it to dry and, no matter how fruitless an endeavour it might have seen, at this point I had nothing else to try. It sat there for 5 minutes in the strong natural heat before it was time to disembark. The sun in these parts is powerful, but maybe I hadn't appreciated just quite how much.

Back on the boat I flicked the camera on. It didn't grumpy or whine, nor did it error or fail. The rear panel was still as dead as ever but the camera had again performed an act of Lazerus like proportions.  Tracking was little iffy and autofocus was not as responsive as it should have been, back in body but not in mind maybe, but it was enough for me to do what I wanted, and that was just to capture a little bit of the waters on which we floated, the boats, the life and the scenery around. I resisted the temptation to give it a coffee to help bring it around.

As we sailed the waters over the next few hours, the camera improved, the Japanese drank and the Korean models carried on shooting each other, complete with mid show costume changes, Ha long Bay itself is much as you would expect it to be, with t's still waters edged with limestone rocks and cliffs giving the place it's famed look and feel. One of the criticisms you might hear is that the place is too busy with a crowded feel, but personally this isn't an opinion I shared. Busy I guess is correct, with the tourism industry naturally feeding off the desires of people to see these places of outstanding natural beauty meaning a steady stream of boats ferrying people along the same stretches of water, but crowded it isn't. The islands around may prove to be quieter than the tourist hotspots, and as I had witnessed the day before, were no less stunning. If you want a tourist trip, well you get that here but you want to get to something maybe more quiet and serene, well it's possible to find that here too, or only a very short distance away. It had taken me over 2 years to get here from my last failed attempt, and I stand by the sentiments I felt at that time, It's sometime more about the journey than the destination........

Although.........sometimes the destination helps too..

After we had safely returned to port, we made our was back to the hotel and collected our bags from the lobby for the bus trip to our next destination 50 km's west.  A small hotel on a large dusty road that would eventually lead us back to Hanoi, I only woke from my sleep twice on the hour long ride. Once as I nearly fell off the seat as I cusped my bag dozily between my tired shorts dressed thighs poised on the edge of the bench, the other as the driver shouted out that we had reached our destination, with me then hurriedly gathering my bags up and sloping off the bus rather haphazardly on to the side of the highway outside.

As the bus pulled away into the distance and I hoisted my bag again onto my shoulder. It dawned on me that my cap, my trusted servant for over 2 years which I had purchased over 2 years before in Cambodia had now carried on it's trip without me.

I wish it all the best on it's future travels.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Cat Ba - Ha long 22/4/2016

In the morning when we all met down stairs for breakfast, the colourful blanketed clear skies from the night before had been replaced by a duvet of grey and drizzle. Due to business commitments, Duong and his family were going to be heading back to their hometown of Hai Phong, where as Lan and I would be catching the bus to the ferry point on the island, to then catch the ferry up towards Ha Long bay. Over the course of the next half hour or so, as Lan booked the bus and I ate more rice, the rains went from light to moderate and then to "not very nice at all".

The first bus we were shepherded on to, we were shortly shown back off again as it wasn't the right one for us and we waited for a further twenty or thirty minutes as buses came and went, with everyone asking the same questions to those in charge*. "Is this our bus"? Nobody seemed to know.
Finally a big, old, dirty bus parked outside and everyone was rushed towards it, their luggage slung into the baggage compartment below with the exception of mine, there was simply not room.  Patiently outside, everyone got wet a party of Chinese tourists were led from the hotel and escorted on first, followed by everyone else no matter or age, sex or physical ability. When the seats were full, everyone else had to stand, and when the was no more standing room, I was given one of the front seats at the expense of a guide who then crouched in the footwell infront pushed against my backpack. With everyone then uncomfortably on board, the signal was given and we embarked on the half hour trip to the harbour.

Reaching speeds upwards of 4 mph as we traversed up the steep slops out of Cat Ba and the occasional gear shift down not going quite as the rally driver in the seat had hoped, the challenge was now on to make up for lost time on the rest of the journey. With the windows inside starting to mist up and the windscreen being increasings battered by every harsher conditions, the flats and the downhills gave the driver every opportunity to prove his mettle, as he slung the coach from left to right and back again in order to keep the coach on the tarmac away from the steep drops that at times lined the road. I've never been on a coach where I have felt the wheels sliding out through lack of traction before, but I'm sure this wasn't a new experience for all. The guys at the front all remained chatty throughout where as I just kept looking at the map on my phone and accompanying GPS position, relaying this information back to Lan who was lost somewhere further back, sat next to someone wearing Eu du stale tobacco. When we arrived at the ferry point the rain fall had made "Torrential" and everyone jumped the puddles outside the coach steps to get into the shelter a few steps away. Most of the bags followed shortly after the people had made land, I had carried mine with me before hand, being as to leave it in it's position at the front of the coach would have meant it surely being trampled by the heard of Chinese tourists that would be shortly coming through, probably before everyone else had a chance to move.

At the ferry point we were told that we would have to wait for the rain to lighten before being able to board the waiting boats, so I took this opportunity to get all my electrical items into a waterproof bag inside my rucksack just in case. It was a bit of a rush as the Vietnamese don't tend to be much good at giving you notice of when it's going to be time to move, just that it's time to move but now with everything re-packed and my new 30,000 VND red emergency poncho donned, I was ready whenever.

It took a while, but the rains halted we were shown to our smaller "link up" boat that would be taking us to the larger one which was floating out just a small distance away. With the rain now stopped I thought it safe enough to get out the Camera and try and get some photo's, noticing a little bloom as i pointed up towards the bright outline of the rock above us. With the odd bit of water now splashing in only from man pushing his canvas roof up on the boat moored to the side of us, I put the camera away waited for the off on the wet wooden benches. Poncho's are marvellous things.

After waiting for what seemed an exorbitant amount of time for the little bit of paperwork apparently needed by the captain, we bobbed on over to the bigger vessel and scrambled aboard, first being shown along a narrow corridor on the base of the boat before being then turned around and shown upstairs to the larger, dining area surrounded by glass windows and filled by a number of different tour groups. After I managed to stop swearing and cursing about the complete lack of organisation skills, and as a Vietnamese Spring Roll Cookery Class was starting for one of the groups I unpacked the camera again, ditched the poncho and headed outside to watch the journey unfold from a better vantage point. 

Halong Bay and it's surroundings are renowned for their landscapes. The pillars of limescale rock rising and reflected in the still waters around. As the boat moved slowly through some of the smaller gorges, it was hard to not be impressed with the scope and the scale, even against the faux dramatic backdrop of grey. The sky's lightened up for a while, before darkening again, bringing that damp chill feeling with and as we made out way to port we all knew that the rain was coming back with a vengeance. 

And vengeful it was. As we sat in the room waiting to leave, we were told that there would be a wait again until the rains lightened up. With no stay yet booked and the likely hood of the weather continuing in the same manner for the rest of the day, we booked up a hotel online and waited for the time to disembark so we could get a taxi outside and just get to where we were going for the day.

After 30 minutes the rains were harder than ever, and at this point we were told it was time to go. As we left the boat onto the steps outside, it was clear that this was a very bad move.
There was no taxi rank, no shelter, in fact nothing but muddy roads and a signs of delayed construction opposite. Apparently in order to get more people to visit the area in which we now found ourself, the disembarking area had been moved from it's old area in Ha Long itself to this area about 10km away, deciding to worry about little things like shelter and transport afterwards. With Lan trying to call a taxi on the phone, I decided to walk on in the hope of finding some shelter, my feet now soaked from walking across roads that were rivers and the rest of me and my belongings being swamped from the deluge above.

We found a shelter abut 5 minutes walk away, and huddled under there to wait with a large number of others. The taxi that Lan had called eventually arrived, handily parking with it's passenger door in front of a lake sized muddy puddle but I guess that was not his problem. Twenty wet minutes later we reached our hotel, checked in and headed up to the room to dry off. 

It's a funny moment when you unpack you bag and everything is wet to different degrees. from the "better wring that one out" of the items nearer the surface, to the "it's a little damp but I can wear it" stuff that was more protected in the middle. With clothes hung up or airing my attention turned back to may camera, which in the rush to disembark had been placed inside my smaller rucksack, not thinking that I was going to be stood out in the downpour equivalent of Niagra Falls with no where to hide. It's felt damp and as I switched it on it vibrated in my hand, a motor trying to do something inside maybe, but whatever it was wasn't normal. I quickly flicked it off again hoping I hadn't caused it further damage, but realising that it was probably in a very bad way. I dropped the battery out the bottom to cut any power, and it was damp with signs droplets of water. I did the same with the memory card and the same conditions applied. damp with visible signs of water.  I think it was here I swore, but I'm not sure If I had actually stopped swearing for the last 4 hours anyway.

So the camera was dead again, I was soaked and there was no heating control in the room in order for things to air properly, clothes or electrics. It's seemed the the trip had just been lurching from bad to worse for the last couple of weeks and it was difficult to keep sight of anything positive at that time. Maybe it was tiredness or exhaustion, but I seemed to be unable to deal as well I should with this run of bad luck, my mind stuck on the patch of negatives of the recent past rather than the wealth positives from the trip as a whole.

I mounted the camera on it's tripod. opened it's doors and flaps and then turned on the hairdryer on cool settings with t's hose blowing hair from below. The dryer would shut itself off after 30 minutes max and I would then let the camera to stand and rest. 

Do not rinse, just repeat. 

And resign yourself to the fact that from now on in, it's camera phone time.