Sunday, 8 October 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 4

Vac (Vietnam) - Hanoi (Vietnam) - Cha La (Vietnam) - Bai Chay / Halong City (Vietnam) - Halong Bay (Vietnam)

After returning to Hanoi from an outlying village, The Amazing Race 10 headed off to Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site and perhaps the best-known tourist attraction in northern Vietnam.

The racers’ clue directs them first to the bus station (“ben xe”) across the Red River at Cha La.

The only bridge at Hanoi used to be the celebrated Long Bien Bridge, whose patchwork appearance is the legacy of the repairs and replacements of bombed-out sections that kept the bridge in service throughout the American War.

Photo of bridge with bicycles and train

Today there are newer bridges with more room for cars. But despite the racers’ frustration with the inability of their taxis to go faster than the rest of the traffic, there’s not much any driver can do to push through traffic like this without hitting other people or vehicles.

Photo of car in motorcycle traffic

Driving a four-wheeler through central Hanoi is about like trying to drive an eighteen-wheeler through downtown Boston, San Francisco, or midtown Manhattan. Even on the largest boulevards, there are few gaps large enough for a car to squeeze through between the two-wheelers.

Photo of motorcycle traffic

From Cha La, the racers take the most common tourist route to Halong Bay by way of the road to Bai Chay (part of what’s come to be known as “Halong City”).

If you ever want to make this trip yourself, and have a little extra time, I’d recommend the less touristed alternate route by train and hydrofoil, via Haiphong and Cat Ba.

Photo of train at Hanoi station

There are several passenger trains a day from Hanoi to Haiphong, and there’s even a stop at the north edge of Hanoi’s old quarter (the original “36 streets”) where many of the nicest mini-hotels are located, in addition to the main Hanoi station. It’s slow, but it’s a great way to see the scenery and life along the tracks.

Photo of bicyclists crossing railroad tracks

Despite being the third-largest city in Vietnam, Haiphong is the least-touristed major city in the country. Yes, it’s a smoggy industrial city and port.

Photo of barges and boats in port at Haiphong

But it’s also a friendly city with a pleasantly low-key welcome for visitors.

Photo of Haiphong street with cybercafe

Haiphong has a rich colonial and post-colonial history, some older hotels that haven’t yet been renovated to death, bustling street life, and the distinctive cosmopolitanism of a place where the other foreigners you meet are more likely to be sailors or merchant mariners from Russia, North Korea, or China than “Western” tourists.

The second leg of the journey on this route, by hydrofoil from Haiphong to Cat Ba, is faster and more comfortable. No matter how luxurious the bus or car, the ride is always limited by the quality of the road. In the USA, most ferries are for short river crossings, so we have little exposure to fast or long-distance water transport. But in the Second, Third, or Fourth World, a good boat can provide self-contained comfort on the journey, at sustained speeds greater than most trains or buses.

The racers were directed to the “hydrofoil harbor” at Bai Chay. But there they boarded conventional (imported-looking) motorboats. Viewers of the race never saw a hydrofoil. The “Russian” hydrofoils used in Vietnam look and feel more like wingless airplanes than boats, both from the outside and in the passenger cabin and seating.

Photo of hydrofoil backing away from Cat Ba dock

Many of them were actually made in East Germany and other countries, but they are the same as those used on rivers and lakes throughout Russia (such as for the ten-hour, 700 km run the length of Lake Baikal) and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc. Cruising speed is a smooth 70-80 km/hour (45-50 mph). The engines are sturdy but fuel-inefficient (not the highest-priority for oil-exporting countries like Russia or Vietnam) but loud. So bring earplugs if you want to sleep — not that you’d want to sleep with beautiful Halong Bay going by your window.

Cat Ba Island forms the western margin of Halong Bay. It’s mountainous, with few harbors or buildable sites along the steep shoreline, few roads or cars, and only dirt-bike tracks into the interior (remember what I said last week about motorbikes?), most of which is included in the Cat Ba National Park nature preserve.

In such a setting, the main town of Cat Ba could hardly have remained untouched by tourism. A line of new mini-hotels rings the harbor, backed up against the cliffs.

Photo of Cat Ba town

Yet despite the influx of tourist money and “development”, Cat Ba town and its harbor continue to be dominated by the life of the sea: fishing, smuggling, small-scale piracy, salvaging (there are lots of wrecks in typhoons and fog), etc. Ferrying tourists around Halong Bay is only part of the mix, and a large proportion of the population lives aboard their boats.

Photo of boats in Cat Ba harbor

As it was the last time the race was in Vietnam , the challenge for the teams involved rowing small woven, tar-sealed “sampans”.

Photo of a sampan

The racers struggled. Rowing a boat looks easy when you see it done by a local child. So does bicycling, but if you’d never done it before, you’d have a hard time. These children who rowed us around on Halong Bay, near where this episode of the race was filmed, live on the water, know the local winds and currents, and have had years of boat-handling practice.

Photo of boys on boat

What the racers don’t seem to have done was to take a few minutes first to study how local people were performing the task, before trying it themselves. If they had, they would have noticed that these rowboats are always rowed by one person handling both oars in sync, not by two people handling separate oars.

In the race, of course, there were a production crew and medics standing by. In real life, even on protected waters, you can get in real trouble, real fast, if you don’t know what you’re doing in any boat, even if looks like child’s play.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 8 October 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Hey Thanks for the great information!

Posted by: jonna, 28 October 2008, 21:39 ( 9:39 PM)

Just wanted to give you a shout from the valley of the sun, great information. Much appreciated.

Posted by: Anonymous, 18 November 2010, 22:17 (10:17 PM)
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