Vietnam: Take 2 – On to Halong (Bay)

Just to make it clear, Vietnam seems to break up most of their syllables with capitals. Halong is technically written Ha Long and it’s Ha Noi. Plus they have a series of seriously funky doodads all around their letters to give each syllable at least five optional pronunciations. It might mean ‘duck’ or ‘I am going to drive over you with a hydroplane’ or ‘what a sunset.’ Since I find it easier to remember to type Halong rather than Ha Long and it’s my story let’s get to getting along to Halong (Bay) that is.

***

Day 3 (10/08/2010)

Up early to visit Halong Bay. The hostel runs a drink-fest of a tour and as I watch them mill about bleary-eyed and hungover, attempting to muster enthusiasm as they don their rainbow-banded sombreros, I realize I’m very pleased I didn’t choose that option. Don’t get me wrong, it could be fun. Hell, I know it would be fun. At least the first night. The next morning, not so much. Drinking until dawn usually means sleeping deep into the afternoon. So all those bonus options they use to convince these early 20s travelers to sign-on for, generally go unused as an extra hour’s sleep proves preferable to hiking a mountain or seeing monkeys on an island.
I’ve been there, done that, got the liver scars to prove it.

Instead I opt for the upscale couples cruise – the Amber Road. Why a boat cruise is called a road I don’t think to ask. I may not want to know.

Have I mentioned how loooooooong Vietnam is? It takes four hours to get to Halong Bay. Packed into a bus with a driver, our guide, me and eight Dutch people. Through a driving monsoon deluge. Luckily the rainy season of Vietnam appreciates brevity, as it rains for two hours or so and then stops. (Vancouver, please take note – especially during winter and spring.)

Driving in the deluge.

By the time we reach Halong Bay the monsoon has abated and the sun prepares to reappear and scatter away the dark clouds. Halong Docks are a milling, teaming zoo of humanity. Crammed to the gills with tourists being  herded like schools of fish by squawking seagull guides to one of the innumerable tenders to escort them to their junk. And each junk bears a striking similarity to the one beside it.

We are eventually prodded onto the Phoenix I of the Halong Phoenix Cruiser (Fleet). And the room is luxurious, shame it has two single beds, clearly this is the ‘just friends’ or the ‘going solo’ or ‘this trip ruined our relationship’ cabin. I knew this would be a couples cruise, but the Chinese family is a surprise. The three children prove boisterous but they eat so much sugar over the course of the day they crash and are done by 10PM.

This would definitely be a better cruise with a partner, but it proves rewarding in other ways.

Phoenix Cruiser Luxury

The room is all mahogany stained wood with Vietnamese patterns and decor. Mom and Dad would love it. The boat also has the best shower I’ve seen in Vietnam (in either trip.)

On the boat I am traded from the Dutch couple I met on the bus and am placed at a new table with two couples; one German, one Canadian. Turns out the Canadian pair grew up in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia at some tiny high school I’ve never heard of – University Hill (?) She’s pure Canadian (well, as pure as any Canadian can be – we’re all originally from Somewhere Else) and he’s from Columbia. Not British Columbia the province of Canada but the country of Columbia, but he’s been in Canada long enough to be as purely Canadian as I am. Canada is a country of imports after all. Both are teachers in Canada and are finishing up a year in Japan.

Ah Canada, population 33 million, those living abroad… probably over 10%… let’s estimate close to 5 million.

The Germans are teachers too, special needs teachers. I’m the only sham of the five as I’m only a pretend teacher in Korea. They all have real qualifications. And all four might be better traveled than I am. That’s rare. And cool.

The first day of a Halong Bay tour underwhelms. There are boats everywhere. It’s like Hanoi traffic, only on water. It’s hard to truly appreciate the beauty of the bay when every way I look there are at least a half dozen junks bobbing up and down upon the murky green sea.

The Vietnamese are an ingenious people. Many people live on the water full time; fishing and fish farming or paddling about in wooden bathtubs flogging junk food and drinks to the tourists on the junks.

After a leisurely cruise through the karsts, we climb on the smaller tender to visit the ‘Amazing cave’. The cave isn’t overly amazing. It’s pretty enough, but our guide needs to work on his routine. It was too short and too monotonous. Easy for me to say, you should hear how fluent my Vietnamese is!
Other guides delivered better banter and sounded more natural and less rehearsed.

The Amazing Cave of Amazingness

The highlight of the cave was not the dragon on the ceiling or the lover’s heart but the Aussie beach bum in our group, fiercely clutching his plastic bag of beer. I’d later find out why, over the course of the day he never had an unopened can in his grip. (He has throat cancer and this trip is pretty much his last hurrah.) I’m glad I opted not to comment on his fixation on his bevvies, which for me is a bit of rarity.

(Also, having visited Carlsbad Caverns 25 (yikes!) years ago, these are three little grottoes, which while pretty, aren’t quite Amazing!)

Now for kayaking! I’m by myself. It’s better than being forced to be a third paddle. Eventually someone find me an unbroken paddle!
Win and win.
Our guide (Hung) sets out to go around a pair of karsts, as I’m the last one in a kayak I think ‘screw that’ and paddle between the two karsts. Plus, the awkward and uncoordinated Chinese father-son pairing means I can set my own route and pace and still be confident I won’t be the last one to check in. (If only there had been an Amazing Mat!)

Kayaking the karsts

I admit, I enjoy kayaking. I’ve only done it a few times but there is something serene and tranquil the ease with which a kayak skims atop (glass smooth) waters. (Yah, I’m not a kayaker or white water guy at all but a nice still body of water plus a kayak is joy.)

Apparently I missed the monkeys on my self-made route, but here’s a confession. I don’t really like monkeys. Okay, they’re cute enough but I don’t immediately gush for them. I had as much fun paddling about and investigating the floating villages. Makes me think of Brad’s ‘Deluge’ setting and my floating village concept. When I make my way back, I end up at the wrong dock but luckily it’s easy enough to navigate* to the proper one.

(* by navigate I mean bang and crash through docked kayaks.)

I needn’t have rushed back as the Chinese father-son pair take ages to return. I could have seen some monkeys! My leg ‘goes to sleep’ (cramps up) during kayaking and there isn’t much to be done for it while on the water; however, when I step onto the dock I can’t walk. My leg refuses to respond to my brain’s commands. When I try to take a step it’s like dragging  a lead stump and my joints seem to be reversed. For a good 5 minutes I crouch down and knead the blood through my veins. A guide helps out by… giving me a charlie horse to my good leg. Thanks. A six inch gap between docks is WAY too great a distance for me to safely bridge.

The upshot of waiting for the wayward pair is that the dock as a fish farm and the Chinese family buy some fresh fish for dinner. Cool. That should be a tour option, even if it makes a bit more work for the Phoenix Cruiser staff, freshly bought seafood for dinner from straight on Halong Bay! Watching the farmer get bit somehow by a fish was funny too.

Then the pirate boats arrived. They aren’t pirates but they had the look and feel about them. Especially since one nearly rammed our much smaller tender! When the father and son finally appear – I suspect the son gave up and dad paddled them back to the dock – we can’t leave as our port bow gets wedged under the bow of the dragon pirate ship. Much sniping back and forth in Vietnamese ensued.

The rains held off so back at the ship, before dinner, we go swimming. Hardly swimming, as the water is so salty that it’s impossible not to float. The youngest Chinese girl wants to be in the water with her mom but doesn’t want to get out of the boat. Ah, the tribulations of a two year old.

Yes, I'm an idiot.

Because I’m an idiot, I dive from the top of the ship. Not my smartest decision. I tweak my neck a bit but that’s it. I’m fortunate really, because honestly, what’s a 30 foot dive into Halong Bay from atop a wooden cruise boat really?
The water is warm, though salty, and is a milky green I think from all the eroded limestone karsts that proliferate Halong Bay – and is the reason so many tourists visit it. It’s me, Deigo, Matthius, Carla and a long haired Kiwi who is the head chef on a oilrig. There are so many varied jobs in the world. We all just float about in the water, talking until we’re informed dinner is about to be served. Oddly, the current seems to shift in the bay and it takes some effort to stay abreast of the anchored ship. Clambering out of the sea proves tricksy as the ladder has lost a fight with something and is bent and twisted at the most awkward of angles.

Set menus are fine but… I wouldn’t mind being able to choose my meal.

The conversation is lively as the five of us fall into an easy rhythm and have much in common. A few drinks after dinner as we talk out under the night sky as the other boats bob and glitter on the water a reflection of the stars scattered throughout the heavens.

After a full day of travel, kayaking and swimming, sleep comes quickly, easily and early.

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One thought on “Vietnam: Take 2 – On to Halong (Bay)

  1. I love your Vietnam photos. Some amazing shots there, particularly on the water.

    I think good travel is about finding that balance between the wild parties and the genuine sight-seeing. I’ve yet to do a trip that covered both, but I’m going to make it a goal for 2011.

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