After a few lazy days in Hanoi, we were off to Halong bay, a UNESCO world heritage site and probably the #1 tourist attraction in Vietnam. These tours were as common as scooters, especially in the tourist district, but we took one recommended by our guesthouse hosts for two nights. Ours was all inclusive of 6 meals, 2 nights and an activity on the second day.
Early on our appointed morning we were whisked away in a packed minibus (that’s why I had to leave adorable english speaking girl) (and which also became more packed for part of the ride because the driver wordlessly stopped to pick up a Vietnamese woman and her child under an overpass and drive her along for awhile and just as wordlessly dropped her off somewhere en route) on the 2 hour drive to the bay.
We arrived, after a souvenir shopping break thinly disguised as a toilet break, to an absolutely huge, just-built glass and concrete complex that was the headquarters of all of the Halong bay tours. Since the activity became so popular, the operations are now heavily regulated by the government and they all must leave from the same place at the same time and have the same rules. We sat in a waiting area for a few minutes while some embarrassingly rowdy American teenagers, clouds of cheap Bia Hoi floating around them, chest bumped and yelled drawled english at each other.
The arranged activity for every tour (including our rambunctious American friends) on the first afternoon was visiting the “Surprising Caves” and kayaking. We walked through the caves, which were named surprising because each of the three caverns as you go through gets larger and larger. To be fair, the last one was impressively large. Also surprising: the lighting choices.
Then we had an arranged activity of kayaking where we sat in a leaky fiberglass kayak and paddled around the bay in a puddle of water, barely avoiding crashing in to the hordes of other tour groups doing exactly the same thing (Obviously, previous kayakers had not avoided skewering other kayaks (or things) because the tip on both ends of our kayak was broken off. Hence the puddle of water). The waters were a circus of activity, crisscrossed in all directions by clueless tourists in yellow and red kayaks while the countless junks formed a guard ring around the bay to prevent us from escaping.
So anyway, the caves were nice but the whole area was a roiling hotbed of tourists, everyone’s favorite place to be. I know it’s mine. So I wasn’t too sad when our allotted time was up and we were shepherded back to the larger boat to clean up and prepare for dinner.
Dinner was nice and served family style so we got to know some other people on the cruise. At our table was a German couple who were vacationing from their jobs at BMW and an international steel reseller. Also aboard was a married New Zealand couple who were sheep farmers and who saved up for a vacation each year in an exotic country where they could drink themselves silly, and an Asian-American from Texas who looked, acted, and sounded a lot like a friend I have, including having the same name. There were also three guys with an extremely heavy British accent. I basically couldn’t understand them. They kept mostly to themselves and their “girlfriends” who all who happened to be asian with heavy Thai accents and tiny clothes. Just sayin’.
Funny story: We thought it would be nice to have some wine on the boat and the boat, of course, sold wine, but at $40 a bottle we weren’t sure whether it would be worth it. So as luck would have it a tiny woman in a tiny canoe comes paddling up with all sorts of things heaped in it, most prominently Oreos, beer, and wine. This wine was only $15 and of course you can get very reasonable wines for $15*. We surrendered our 20 bazillion dong into her proffered basket ended stick and she shuttled up the wine. It was authentic Vietnamese red wine which we now know tastes like vinegar. We couldn’t even get the happily drunk New Zealanders to take it. Not worth it.
So the next morning we had our kayak portion of the trip. I was a bit skeptical because my upper body strength is about equal to that of a hamster and kayaking all day sounds like something that I wouldn’t exactly excel at. But somehow we had signed up for this, so off we went in our kayaks, Jason and I in one and our guide in the other.
Well, despite all of my nay-saying, this was the absolute best part of the trip. First, we were alone. The first day there were other junks in every direction, as well as the other guests on your boat. But in the kayaks, we left all of them behind. There were no other group members who chose that itinerary so we were alone with our guide. And similar to our Laos kayaking trip, once you get down so close to the water, everything takes on a new, more impressive perspective. Everything is seen on a grander scale. The rocks that the ship couldn’t approach too closely you’re now right underneath, dragging your hand along the pocked surface and marveling at how much taller they’ve become. The diagonal striations of the rock which looked so delicate from the deck are now wider than your body. The distance between the islands that seemed so puny is now a gaping chasm through which your poor arms have to paddle.
The water was different too. Closer to the shores, the murky green water gave way to shallow and clear pools where the shapes of pebbles formed and then shellfish** and wee spiky sea urchins and tiny crabs. Our guide gingerly scooped a sea urchin out of the water and placed it on our boat to inspect. It didn’t do very much I love being able to inspect animals close up***. In the deeper, murkier waters we would also occasionally see jellyfish lurking under the surface. What amazing and alien creatures. I tried to poke one with a paddle (gently!) but it’s really hard to precisely control a kayak when there’s a current and the jellyfish is moving too. Unless you’re our guide. Then you’re a pro.
(^This photo gets a caption because you might not be able to tell, but that ghostly form is a jellyfish!)
The best part, though, were some lagoons that were reachable only through small rock tunnels that a large ship could never get through and might even have a hard time spotting. Drifting through the passages, we remained quiet and listened to the plinking water and the echoes of our paddle strokes and marveled at the water-pocked form of the rocks above us. Through the otherworldly passage we entered picture perfect lagoons where the sun filtered through the dense jungle on top and shone on still waters. No people in sight. No boats. Only the occasional remnant of a campfire to remind us we weren’t the only people in the world to discover it.
We arrived back on the main boat to a different crowd of people, had dinner, and immediately fell asleep from the exertion of the day. The next morning we were shepherded into other group activities—a hike to the top of Cat Ba Island and a “demonstration” about how to make spring rolls****. We were shuttled back to the docks and back to loud, hectic Hanoi, wondering how the calm, majestic island peaks we experienced in the kayaks could exist so close to such chaos and how long they could last.
**Farming oysters is a lucrative livelihood for many people that live in Halong bay. In some of the sheltered coves they grow naturally and you can stick your hand down and grab one. Don’t do that, though. They are sharp. I cut myself.
****Another story: at our lunch table that day were a high ranking US military husband and Kyrgyzstani lawyer wife. This guy (claimed he) had two passports, one obtained illegally in Kyrgyzstan so he could travel “off the US government’s record” and had advised some very, very high ranking officials against certain actions that had turned out catastrophic to the US. He looked like Tony Stark.