Hanging around in Hanoi for 5 days waiting for my visa to China seemed a waste so I booked an overnight stay on a boat in Halong bay, the legendary Karst formations that create thousands of island over a 1500 square kilometre area east of Hanoi. There was just one problem that I could foresee and that would be my lack of passport. Every place that I have stayed in Vietnam has required that I produce my passport and in some cases hold it overnight until I leave. As my passport was at the Chinese embassy awaiting a visa I made sure that I had a photocopy of the information page as well as a photocopy of the Vietnam visa. I was assured at the time of booking that this would be okay so I turned up the next morning and awaited the bus. I had been told to be at the tour office between 8 and 8.30, so I turned up at 8 and waited for the bus which failed to turn up. Things were not getting off to a good start. At 8.35, after a phone call from the tour operator the bus arrived with one seat left. Apparently they had not been told to pick up from the office as most people had asked to be picked up from their hotels instead. Oh well, at last we were on our way. It was a three and a half hour bus ride to the boat dock so we had a rest stop at a conveniently placed souvenir site. There's a surprise. Finally reaching the boat we clambered aboard and were sat straight down to a great lunch with dishes galore, many from the sea.
Once out in the harbour we headed for an island with a cave full of stalagmites and stalagtites. If it hadn't been for the fact that I had visited two spectacular caves a week earlier then I may have appreciated them a bit more. However, there were four boats full of tourists all elbowing their way along the narrow, and in places slippery, walkway so it was a bit of a relief to exit the cave again. Back on the boat we then made our way to a mooring point where we were able to take to the water in kayaks. Dinner followed our return to the boat which was again a large, multi-dish affair. The offer of cake sounded good but as we had to pay an extra two pounds a slice no-one bit (sorry I couldn't resist that one). As the sun went down the rooms were allocated and we all settled down for the night. That is until we heard a loud scream followed closely by slamming of doors, some shouting and pounding of feet. Apparently one of the seven young ladies that I had been left with had seen a very large cockroach in her room. It took a while for her to calm down once the crew had managed to catch it and throw it over board but no doubt there were many more on the boat that we would be unaware of.
Once back in Hanoi I caught up once again with Grace and David and listened to their plans for the next few months. David has arranged to meet his sister in Chengdu in a couple of weeks time which means that they will be catching a train from Kunming, whereas I want to head into the hills and then the mountains and experience the Himalayan meadows that I have been hearing so much about. From Chengdu Grace and David plan to ride north and then west to Urumqi in far West China and then cross the border into Kazakhstan. From there it's a matter of catching a train in order to get through the country in the allotted one week that the Kazak visa allows. Then fimd a boat to take them down the Caspian sea and across land into Turkey and then Greece where David is meeting his Father in August. When I said that it sounded a great route they began making suggestions about accompanying them. The time scale is right for me but I am not sure if it is possible in that time. Especially as Grace is talking about stopping for up to a month and making a film along the way. It's something I am going to have to think about over the coming weeks.
There is a large park within the city which is dedicated primarily to the memory of the great man himself, Ho Chi Minh. Despite wanting nothing fancier than a simple cremation Ho was embalmed and his body is on show in a huge marble mausoleum within the park. It's frequented by thousands of people every day coming to pay their respects. As the sight of a body in a glass case is not high on the list of sights to see I declined to pay a visit myself, but did go to the Ho Chi Minh museum, another huge soviet style concrete building. It's full of memorabilia regarding different aspects of 'the life of the founder of modern Vietnam, and the onward march of revolutionary socialism' (Lonely Planet). It's heavy on abstract ideas and has a lot of modern conceptual displays which are hard to decipher. Unfortunately there are not many descriptions in English so I was left wondering what a lot of it was about. Apparently the Ford Edsel car (a commercial failure) bursting through the wall is supposed to signify Americas military failure. And if you managed to decipher that one without help there are many more similar displays to confuse and confound you. One thing that baffled me most of all was the background music that filled the museum. I knew the music but I couldn't place if for a couple of minutes until I realised it was the backing track to the Carpenters song "We've only just begun". Perhaps it signifies the ongoing struggle to promote the aforementioned onward march of revolutionary socialism. 
One last thing to do in Hanoi is to collect my passport with my visa for China. I duly went along and collected it and then with a grin as wide as the road I made my way to the international post office to see if there was a package to collect for David. We had visited the post office the day before but it had not arrived and as they were heading towards China that day I said that I would make one last try the next day before I too set off north. Striclty speaking it is only the addressee that is allowed to collect post restante packages but the woman there agreed that because David was with me and told her I could collect the package if it turned I could produce a copy of his passport and take it away. Unfortunately she was not on duty the next morning when lo and behold the package arrived. Trying to convince someone that holding a photocopy of someone elses passport allows you to collect their mail when neither of you speaks the others language is not the easiest task I have ever undertaken. Eventually one of the backroom staff who spoke English intervened and suggested I came back in the afternoon when the only remaining woman not working at that moment would be back on duty. So, with a couple of hours to while away I took one last ride around the city and found a few more sights previously hidden to me.
Returning to the post office after lunch I eventually found the woman that I had spoken with the day previously who confirmed that David had given me permission to collect his mail. Ok, I thought, let's get it and head north. There was one last problem though. The woman in charge had to make a point that normally this would not be allowed and that registered mail had to be collected by the person it is addressed to. Only once I had gone and photocopied my own passport would she let me have the package. It was 2 o'clock before I was able to set off, straight into the heat of the day.
As I found my way out of the city I had a huge grin on my face though. CHINA. I've always wanted to go there and now with a visa in my passport I was finally on my way. Just a few more days riding and the border would be in sight. Vietnam had got off to a very shaky start at the hotel on the first night, was not helped with the constant assault on my eardrums while on the road but for all that it was starting to redeem itself. The Ho Chi Minh highway was a wonderful road to ride, some of the places I have visited have been among the best of the trip and now I had a visa for China. All in all it's been an experience. Let's hope that China lives up to my admittedly high expectations.
 





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