As I write this, I am without a belt, shivering in freezing Hanoi.. Normally, not a big detail but for some reason this minor detail sums up the abysmal day of travelling I've had. It's probably worth putting it all in perspective, and there are 150,000 other people who have recently had a worse time in the water than I possibly could have had, but regardless - I need someone to whinge to, and what better people than the fine folks who stumble across the blog whilst looking for something better to read.
Okay. A here's what happened. Whilst cruising down the beautiful Halong Bay a couple of hours east of Hanoi, there are various sites along the way. The area is rich was wonderous scenery, steep cliffed islands, deep caves, strange animals and some of the dodgiest house-boats in Vietnam. Cruising out through these various sites into the South China Sea is the best way to escape from the pace of Hanoi. It's a cold destination, particuarly in the middle of winter, and requires several layers of clothing to see the place in comfort.
As part of a cruise ship of 16, we stopped along the way to head to a series of caves which jut out into the sea. To enter requires a low-lying motorised raft, which sees about 10 people huddling on deck and the driver navigating through various narrow cave entrances. After seeing the various caves, we headed to back to the cruise ship to continue the journey - and this is where the fun began.
As is often the way in Vietnam, moving from the raft to the cruiseship was a haphazard, risky venture that relies largely on local know-how rather than any sort of safe passage. The raft floats freely beside the cruise-boat, and the passangers make the 1-and-a-half metre vertical leap with the aid of a small handle on the deck and plenty of helping pairs of hands on both the raft and the main ship. Somehow, it works. Most of the time.
I was second last to make the journey, and the person before me need to be lifted part of the way. As I did this, and she had her hands on the side of the boat ready to pull herself up, strange things started happening below. The small raft started drifting away from the cruise-boat, and with nothing to anchor is down, is started drifting away. At this point, I was in an impossible position. Without the person in front of me properly on board, I couldn't let go, otherwise she would drop down into the water. But if I hold on any longer, then I will be unable to regain my balance with the boat sliding out underneath. Being the chivalrous idiot that I am, I kept pushing the person in front up, and the inevitable happened. I plunged a metre down into the near-freezing South China Sea.
As I finally surface with a nose full of salt water, I see two things that scare me. In front of me is the backside of the person I was pushing on board, and she is holding on dearly to the side of the deck with the aid of half-a-dozen pairs of hands. To help, all I can do is try and push her further up, but with nothing below my feet but water, any attempt to push her up makes no difference to her, but simply pushes me down. Damn physics. At this stage the commotion of deck is slowly spreading. Initially there were just a few passangers on the side of the boat, and the boast staff were too busy drinking/smoking/hammock-testing to help. My (I think quite reasonable) calls for a buoy were met by an indifferent shrug of the shoulders by staff.
By this stage, everyone's interest turns to the raft and its young driver, who would be a big help in ending the ordeal. However, in the cool way that Vietnamese people deal with a crisis, he had taken his payment and was leaving us as we were, and was now 30 metres away and heading away from us. As the screaming from the fellow passangers on the boat become impossible to ignore, the raft finally turned around and returned to help. Eventually the person in front managed to haul their way onto the boat, and I am floating freely, with jeans, jacket, wallet, camera, and assorted extras there to keep me company.
After a minute a buoy is thrown in the water to help me rest my furiously spinning legs. Then a ladder is thrown down the side of the boat, and I managed to climb up, exhausted, shiverring and heavy from my unplanned South China Sea swim. Ushering me into the kitchen of the boat, the staff became rather panicky at what had happened. These cruise boats rely on good reputations and tips, and they sensed that both were being put at risk.
The damage from this Monday morning ordeal was significant. With my pouch around my waist drenched, tickets, money and passport were in a pretty ordinary state. My camera was no longer working. My jeans waterlogged, and my jacket - absolutely vital at this time of year in this part of the world - heavy and wet. My pride - seriously dented.
After arriving back in Hanoi this afternoon, I was desperate to dry everything before a flight scheduled for tomorrow. Unfortunately, drying-machines are a luxury here, and clothes-on-the-line is the method used by all the laudaries. With the temperature strugging to hit double-figures and the sun mysteriously absent, drying takes days if at all. After approaching one dry cleaner, and getting a response, which, roughly translated was "Ho, ho, ho, you silly white boy think we can dry that, not fucking likely, ho, ho, ho", I crossed the road in desperation and walked into a quiet hairdressers. After trying several times to mime a blow-drier being applied to my clothes and getting blank stares back, I plonked down 15,000 dong (about a dollar) and reached for the drier myself. One way or the other, I was going to get that stuff dry.
And as for the belt - in the confusion on board, and the ill-fated attempts at drying it all, the belt went missing, a fact that was only discovered when back in Hanoi. And so I venture into the night, the shops closed, my pants revealing plumbers-cleavage, shivering in my jacket. You gotta love this city. Tomorrow, I leave for Taipei.