It’s the weekend on Cat Ba island, not to mention the Vietnamese summer, which means there’s a vibe on the beach I can best characterize as Spring Break meets Butlins meets the coach tour from hell.
I am watching a stream of cheerleaders doing their schtick to Avril Lavigne on our tranquil beach as hogs roast in the background and thinking, of all things, how much we English and the Vietnamese have in common.
There’s the tendency to invade neighbouring nations and pretend they were part of us in the first place. There’s the general talent-show lack of irony (think child rappers in sequined suits that up the viewing ante from disturbing to frankly traumatic), coupled with a fervent belief in the national sense of humour.
There’s the utter bloody rudeness, surreally combined with an eye-gouging sensitivity to courtesy (or respec’) from others. And getting on a bus in Hanoi involves the kind of vigorous elbow action that would put the London rush hour to shame.
But, my god, when it comes to tourist scams, these guys sooooo totally kick our flaccid Western arse.
I’ve written before about the sort of Alice in Wonderland feeling that the Vietnamese tourist scam in full quasi-official, Communist-bureaucratic mode induces. The mixture of utter bewilderment with slow-dawning rage coupled with a sort of abstract awe, a genuine admiration for the rare combination of creative grifting with sheer, barefaced persistence.
It’s not an entirely pleasant experience. It’s one of the reasons I bailed from the country halfway up the coast last time we were here. And it’s a real shame that that feeling will be, for me, forever Vietnam.
The journey which brought Z, me and his dad, who is with us for the fortnight, from the wonderful city of Hanoi to the lovely island of Cat Ba, provides a classic example of this.
We need to get a taxi from our guesthouse to Long Bien station to get the 9.30am train to the city of Haiphong to get the 12:30ish boat to the island of Cat Ba.
The taxi, predictably, was not straightforward. But I called the chap on his “innovative” route soon enough for us to make the train, which was a lovely ride.
We arrive in Haiphong. A chap whose vehicle is not a metered taxi touts for our business. We’re in a rush. The price seems fair (probably double the going rate, but we’re foreign, it’s cheap, we’re in a rush, who gives a toss?).
“You want the Cat Ba boat?” he says.
“Yes,” I say. “We want the Cat Ba boat.”
“We will need to go fast,” he says. “The boat is leaving soon.”
Following our previous experience, this is a good thing to hear.
However… This is the third time I’ve hit a fairish price first offer in Vietnam, and every time there has been a catch. So when the chap drops us at a sort of kiosk affair, my eye is pretty jaundiced.
Now, this set-up looks to the unjaundiced eye official enough. It’s two ladies, a clipboard and a desk, under a parasol, on a corner of a road, who appear to be selling tickets.
Somewhere, however, at the back of my mind, it begins to dawn that this is not, precisely, a port and I cannot, precisely, see a boat.
We unload. Pay the driver, who talks to one of the ladies, an officious type with narrowly plucked eyebrows, a Croydon facelift and a scarlet and black striped top, in Vietnamese, and departs.
“You want the Cat Ba boat?” asks the lady (henceforth, for ease, the Red Queen).
“Yes,” I say.
“The boat is full,” she says. “You need to get a different boat. I can sell you tickets here.”
“How much?” I say.
“300,000 dong,” she says.
“That’s too much,” I say. “Is there a boat tomorrow?”
“Two slow boats a day,” she says. “9.30 am is also full.”
“Well,” I say, thinking Haiphong might not be too bad a place to spend a day, push comes to shove. “Can we buy tickets for the 12:30 boat tomorrow?”
“No,” she says. “No tickets on sale. You get this boat.”
At which point, my bullshit meter begins to blare. “I’m going to the port,” I say, and head down the road to where I assume the port must be, and where I hope some sort of connecting boat will be waiting.
Behind me, Z’s dad, who has not been to Vietnam before, plus is from Brisbane, not London, with all the consequent laidbackness that entails, plus is understandably keen to get to the beach, is hollering, “Wait, wait! Let’s see what she has to say!”
We are — well, no, more accurately, I am — on the verge of a minor family contretemps, when the Red Queen pulls out a map. “The slow boat takes five hours,” she says. “You come with me. You take a bus to here. A boat to this island. A boat to the next island. Then a bus. One hour total.”
Faced with four separate vehicles, Z’s dad’s laidbackness comes into its own. We trail, en famille down through IndoChine buildings and banana trees to where we believe the port to be. The feel of the street is remarkably suburban. But, lo!, there is the Red River on our right.
“What do we do now?” Z’s dad asks, adding, for good measure. “Fuck that! Two buses and two boats!”
“We find the boat,” I say, tensely. “It will be a big boat.”
Z’s dad is 6’3″. “I can see a boat,” he says. His expression turns dubious. “What do you mean by ‘big boat’?”
I stand on tip-toe. I can see what looks to me like a perfectly decent boat. To him it presumably looks like twenty metres of rusting metal with plastic bags stacked on its roof and some folk playing cards up front.
“That’s the boat!” I say. “Let’s find the entrance to the port.”
The port is, it appears, more of a very stunted sort of pier along a long estuary lined with refineries and container ships. But it has an office! A boardroom! A schedule for sailings! All sorts of official port stuff!
All empty. We wander the deserted rooms for a surreal couple of minutes.
Never mind, I think. All we need is someone who actually works there, and we are away.
We emerge from the boardroom, abandoned but for a teapot and six small handle-less cups. The Red Queen appears in front of us, teleport-style. “No, no,” she says. “You can’t take the boat. The police have seen the boat. There are too many people. No tickets! No more tickets!!”
“I just want to find out what other boats there are,” I say.
We pass her, into the terminal for the port. It is not a large port. There is no one official to be seen. Apart from a lady with an official-ish blue shirt who looks to me very much like the Red Queen’s clipboard holder from a hundred yards back.
We make it through to the dock. The boat doesn’t look that full to me. Z’s dad sensibly suggests we just get on it, already.
A chap pops up from the hubbub of water, sweetie and steamed bun vendors in conical hats, reassuringly clad in chinos and buttondown shirt. “No, no,” he says. “The boat is full. You go with this lady. Take the hydrofoil. Very fast.”
I am looking, desperately, for anyone remotely official. A middle-aged man appears, also in long-sleeved shirt and chinos, but, in this case, with a badge. He nods and smiles at the other chap in the chinos, as if to say, “He speaks English. He’ll sort you out.”
“The boat is full!” screeches the Red Queen.
Z has been trailing behind with his new backpack and is, to lapse into Californian, totally like whatever, until he notices a vendor with some chewing gum.
“Mum!” he pipes up, with peerless timing. “Can I have some Doublemint chewing gum?! Pleeease???!!!”
“No!” I say. “We need to get on the boat.”
“That boat over there?” asks Z, pointing to the vehicle now about ten metres and three scamsters away from us.
“Yep,” I say.
Z’s dad takes the initiative and starts a forward movement towards the boat. I look imploringly at the older guy’s face, then his badge, then his face.
Something seems to click and he waves us towards the boat.
It is Z’s dad who points out, after the event, that all conversation, even that between the three compadres, was conducted in English, a language of which the man with the badge spoke none.
The Red Queen appears again, blocking the gangway. I am by now rather freaked out by her mobility. “You need buy ticket!” she says.
“Well, I’m not buying a ticket from you,” I say, both feeling and sounding rather cross. “You’ve just been telling us there are no tickets. You’ve told us you can’t sell tickets for tomorrow’s boat. We nearly missed the boat because of you! Why would I buy a ticket from you?!”
Z’s dad makes shushing noises. We board.
I am on the verge of throwing my toys out of my pram. Z is upset about his chewing gum. Z’s dad only wants everyone to be happy. Or me to chill the fuck out and Z to be happy.
We set up at different ends of the boat and I pick up my photocopy of The Quiet American.
Z’s dad wanders over. “Holy shit!” he says. “I feel like I’ve been scammed! I just bought tickets from that woman.”
“What?!” I say. “The one in the red and black shirt?”
“No,” he says. “The one in the official-looking blue shirt. I only just realized she was the one with her at that desk.”
“Did she give you tickets?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “But she did write our names down on her clipboard. And now I’ve just seen that guy with a badge going round selling tickets.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, you’re on your own with that one.”
“It’ll be fine,” he says.
Anywise. He is correct. The guy with tickets is selling to locals only, and we paid full foreigner fare (it’s standard on Vietnamese buses and boats for foreigners to pay more than the local price, which, given the disparity in incomes, seems, to be honest, only fair).
The boat journey itself? Really rather lovely. In fact, if it weren’t for the prelude, I’d be waxing bloody lyrical…