Meet Joe Brown: the funest man in South East Asia

Aye, aye, captain Brown
Aye, aye, captain Brown

Hundreds of Hanoi travel agencies offer package trips to Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction; Halong Bay. While they have different schedules, durations and cost, essentially they all include the same thing: return bus trip from Hanoi (four-hours each way) and sleeping out on the bay in a traditional Chinese junk.

Every day there is a mass exodus of tourists from Hanoi that head down to see the bay, which stretches from mainland China in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin and is filled by thousands of limestone karsts and islands that leap out of the green waters in various sizes and shapes.

We jumped aboard one of these trips with low expectations. But as it turns out we got super lucky as our trip was also patronized by a Mr. Joe Brown: Englishman, amusement arcade owner, parish councilor, comedian, loud mouth, piss head and all round good guy.

Joe Brown is a big kid stuck in the body of a thirty-two year old. A little pudgy with a slight limp, he plays the role of the jolly fat man with assured confidence, always laughing, cracking gags and playing the fool. A smoker and drinker, he loves to talk. It doesn’t matter what about, just as long as there is conversation.

Proudly English, Joe was able to look me in the eye and tell me that England was the most beautiful place in the world. The fact that he is a modern day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up is proved by his choice of profession; amusement arcade owner.

Joe is also a parish councilor and on our walk through a super impressive and incredibly well lit limestone cave in one of the Halong karsts he told us about the recycling scheme he had implemented in his village. We also heard about his plans for developing his parish, one included planting hundreds of shrubs in the shape of a giant airplane so that it can be tagged on GoogleEarth.

Like they did every Christmas, Joe and his Thai wife had spent the previous couple of weeks visiting her family and were doing a bit travel in Asia by the time we ran into them. She looked incredibly unhappy for the bulk of the trip, probably something to do with the fact that her mother had died a couple of weeks before and she was shit scared of boats. Joe tried to ease her pain by getting pissed, wrapping a towel around his head and blasting out some karaoke with the boats crew right outside of her room until 3am. She did perk up markedly the next day but I think that was more to do with leaving the boat.

Joe has spent the past five years building up his tolerance to chili to the point were he has “given up illicit drugs because chili and prescription pills are enough”. He definitely loved his chili, coving everything we ate (surprisingly enough of the food on the boat was palatable) with spoonfuls of it. Joe also enjoys dabbling in a bit of sleep deprivation as it “does strange things to your mind.”

He convinced our guide to let him skipper the boat, he sang for us, drank with us, made us laugh and shared his story. You’re a good egg, Joe Brown. Halong Bay was a much better place when seen with you.

Happy times in Hanoi

The crowded streets of Hanoi
The crowded streets of Hanoi

Our minivan sluggishly made its way through the gridlocked streets of Hanoi’s Old Town. A sea of red and movement surrounded us; no matter where you looked people were waving flags. They waved them while standing on the street, waved them while hanging out the windows of buildings, waved them from the back of motorbikes and out of car windows. The people of Hanoi were celebrating. The Vietnamese football team had defeated Singapore 4-1 to qualify for the final of the South East Asia Games.

This spontaneous outburst of nationalism made blatantly obvious that Hanoi is Vietnamese through and through. The city was a definite a change of pace from sleepy old Laos. The streets are tight (as opposed to the wide boulevards of Saigon), busy and loud. Motos, cars, bicycles and street hawkers jostle for position on the road. Everywhere you look life spills from the tightly packed tumbledown buildings onto the street. People sit, eat, talk and laugh.

At first glance it appears chaotic but there is a kind of ancient intimacy about it. A feeling that it is the way it has always been and always will be. If Saigon is a teenage kid, growing fast and looking to get somewhere in hurry, then Hanoi is a mature adult, comfortable in its own skin, but still learning new tricks.

We enjoyed evading death whilst wandering the streets. Soaked in the hustle and bustle. Had fantastic Pho (noodle) while men smoked their opium pipes around us. We were subjected to the standard hotel scam. And just like every other foreigner visitor to the city we booked a trip to Halong Bay.