Alex James - Our visit to Ha Long Bay

Matt and I are quick to make plans. After some detective work we discover all the other volunteers also have the week off. We start composing our itinerary: first thing tomorrow we will hop on a train and visit Harriet and Michelle in Hai Phong. We’ll stay the night there, then, with the two girls, jump on a bus up to Halong Bay. There we will meet Mel and Alice we’ll find some cheap hotel. The six of us will then get on a boat to Cat Ba Island and wile away the time lapping up the sun, sand and surf on the beaches.

It was a good plan. Annabel and Jenna, also living in Hanoi, tagged along. The next day we were ready to get the 9.30am train to Hai Phong. We learn the Vietnamese word for ‘Train Station’, jump in a cab and head off. We arrived at the station, approached the counter for our tickets only to find that we were at the wrong train station. There’s only one train to Hai Phong a day. Our whole trip would be thrown out of whack if we didn’t get to the right train station before our train left. We rushed outside to a taxi, big backpacks weighing us down. “I feel like I’m on The Amazing Race.” quipped Annabel. We conveyed to the driver that he had to be quick. He smiled ‘Ok, yes, ok.’ We made it to the right station just in time. We hadn’t sat down before the train started moving.

Hai Phong is a nice quiet town. Michelle and Harriet had a very good set-up. We went to a small bar that night and the Australians convinced the Brit, Michelle, that we had no idea Princess Diana had died. The next day we got on a bus to Halong Bay. I got talking to a man from Korea. He said he was 32 but was clearly in his late 40s/early 50s. He had come to Vietnam to ‘hunt girls’ and ‘find his darling’. He could speak Vietnamese, English and Korean fluently. I didn’t think to ask what other languages he could speak. We arrived at the bay and found a nice hotel that cost around $5 each. I stumbled upon some German med students, invited them out for a drink only to discover they were more dull than a frankfurter. An awkward night was had. We all went to bed pretty early. The next day we managed to bargain for a good price for a boat to Cat Ba Island. 130,000 dong ($5.50) each – down from 280,000. The ride was magnificent. Mountains emerging from the water, floating communities of houses, some selling fruit. God knows how.

The Germans were on the same boat. Eye contact was avoided by both parties. As we came into the port it became clear why we got such a good ticket price. The boat dropped us off on the wrong side of the island. How would we get to our accommodation? Well, by motorbike of course. A fleet of drivers were waiting for us. We hopped on one each and zoomed off. The scenery of the island was beautifully ethereal. It puts Pandora to shame. Weaving through great mountains oozing with flora, climbing up and swooning over lush valleys. My favourite part was the thin stretch of road slicing through a huge lake, domed by looming mountains on either side. We got to our hotel and spent 4 days and 3 nights lapping up everything the island had to offer. We went kayaking and found a secluded beach. I got horribly sunburned, my shoulders are still peeling. We kayaked back to the mainland, all ready to turn in, however, we meet a Scottish couple who showed us a bar with some amazing views. The Germans were there. Of course.

It was a fantastic holiday that I won’t soon forget. However, all play and no work makes Alex a dull boy. So I’ve now settled into my teaching role at the uni after 2 weeks of schedule changes and confusion, (a new timetable every 2 days, literally) but that’s all behind the scenes.  The students are great. I tend to just have conversations with them, as opposed to covering the work in the textbook. Some students have excellent English so I spend plenty of time trying to extract information about the culture, what they think/know about the government, what their world view is. It’s all fascinating. I try my best to get the students who aren’t as good at English to speak up and participate a little more, but it’s tricky because they don’t have the confidence of the more fluent ones. I assume this is every teacher’s challenge. But when I find a solution I’ll let you know!

So now I’m 6 weeks in and there’s no turning back.

I’m not sure what’s ahead of me but I know I can’t wait for it. 

Quick facts
Capital: Hanoi
Government: Republic
Language: Vietnamese
Population: 88.1 million
Religions: Buddhism
Timezone: GMT +7
Climate: climate, with humidity averaging 84 % throughout the year
Currency: đồng
"Discovering Vietnam and how radically different it is from England (I really did fall in love with it) has also made me want to travel more and explore the world and all it has to offer. I would never have been this adventurous had I not been on this placement; it’s really opened my eyes to the world."

Marianne, English teacher