Published: July 13th 2005April 7th 2005
The Dragon Pearl
Our luxury Chinese junk that calmly and quietly took us around Halong Bay.
Ha - "descending"
Long - "dragon"
Little did the Vietnamese know that in just two short days the name of their beloved jewel and soon to be biggest tourist attraction would be renamed.
And so Operation Descending Stella begins...
I awoke in a haze of darkness and unusual silence. The haze because of a night pushing my luck with Hanoi's famous, "bia hoi" (draft beer), the darkness because the two windows in my $6 per night room faced a building that was no more than 18 inches from my hotel, and the unusual silence because there were no high pitched motorbike horns blaring as they consistently do from 6am to 1am every day. After checking the time, 5:40am, I had a look outside to find an interesting variety of life. The first thing I noticed was a woman who I had almost tripped over. She was stooping on the side of the street with two big baskets of, what looked like, glowing oranges. Next to her and on down the street were about a hundred more women stooping down on their haunches with baskets full of everything from lilly flowers to pineapples to raw meat. There were also
Sun Deck - aka Stella's Playground
On top of the boat where many attempted to escape Stella's reign of terror. She must have planted a homing device on me as moments of solitude were quite rare.
women tossing ingredients into huge cauldrons of steaming hot soup. Perhaps it was coincidence or my mental status at the time, but as soon as I stumbled onto the street, the decibel levels of their voices and the noise seemed to rise tenfold.
As their squawking continued, I noticed a few people across the street making some interesting looking gyrations. Could this be exercise? It looked almost too painful for it to be, but indeed, that is exactly what it was. One gent was doing quick leg lifts that looked almost robotic. I would have surely pulled a hammy if I attempted his methods in such a forceful motion. Another lady looked as if she was a puppet, swiveling back and forth with one arm going as high as her opposite shoulder, while the other wrapping around her lower back. I think these methods are leftover teachings from Uncle Ho and his communist party. The looked like a bunch of marrianettes.
After walking past Pinocchio and friends, I headed for the Handspan travel agency to get on board the mini bus to Halong Bay. It seemed like a diverse group of people would be going on the trip, so I
Yep, there's our little hero again. I think she was sulking because her Dad wasn't around to beat up.
thought I was quite lucky. Little did I know that this sentiment was about to change in just a few short minutes.
I thought nothing of it when an Australian couple and their two kids, aged 7 and 10 hopped on board the minibus. After all, they looked pretty cute and relatively well behaved. The father and his daughter, Stella, sat in the back next to me while the mother and son, Claude, were up front. Aside from the unfortunate names their parents stuck them with, they seemed like ok kids....at first. There were 12 other people on the trip, unfortunately, not one of them was from the States, but then again, that didn’t matter too much to me.
The tour began with our guide telling us the itinerary and some history of Vietnam and, of course, Halong Bay. It was evident we were in the north when the words, “The Imperialistic American’s” were used when she described the bombing raids over Hanoi. After she was done describing the version of history that she had been taught, we still had about 3 hours more to go until we reached the port in Halong Bay. To fill the time and to
Really nice room with air conditioning and a proper bathroom.
make the trip more enjoyable, she requested that we introduce ourselves. Most of the couples let their partners do the talking for both of them, so when it came to the Australian family, we all figured one of the parents would talk for their kids. Nope, no such luck with this family. So, after the first minute of slightly cute gibberish, one would think mom and dad would step in and tell Stella to finish up. Instead, they let us have five more minutes of listening to their darling. I guess it was their special treat to the rest of us on board. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be their last. Thanks to mom and dad for letting your kid speak about My Little Pony and how many teeth she currently has. If it weren’t for her stimulating and highly educated views about the people of Vietnam, it would have been a real bore (thick sarcasm).
I can't put my finger on what made me dislike this family more. I’m a pretty tolerant person, especially when it comes to kids. Plus, I had headphones and thought I could completely zone out from this distraction. Maybe it was the fact that the
This is where we ate 7 course meals as a group. The food was delicious and the chef was really great at carving vegetables into flowers or other shapes. It's too bad he didn't meet Stella.
mom and dad let their daughter run up and down the bus, crashing into people about 50 different times, without apologizing? Maybe it was when dad finally did say something, like, “sit down” or “be quiet, Stella,” he was good enough to let his daughter vent her frustrations about his commands and hit him in the face repeatedly, pull on his hair, kick his shins, and basically abuse the hell out of him. Great discipline skills, dad.
Ok, so we were going to be on a big boat. Once we get to the boat, I will not have to see little Stella or her parents anymore...right? right? Please say yes. As we boarded the boat called the Dragon's Pearl, a huge Chinese Junk, we were given room assignments. Don't let the name fool you, this boat was gorgeous from top to bottom. My room was in the back and there was only one room next to mine. Phew! The chances are slim to none that the room next door would contain the Aussie family. But, as soon as I dropped down on my bed to rest, the door in the next room closed and all was silent. I could
We cruised through this floating village where several generations have spent their entire lives. They lived off of fish from the bay or making monthly supply runs to the nearest port which was about 2 hours away.
here the door close very well, so that told me the walls were incredibly thin. Continued silence....YES!!! No Stella.
After a few minutes my bliss was rudely interupted by a high pitched whine..."Why does Claude get to sleep in Dad's room!" As these words shivered down my spine and shatterd my serenity into a thousand pieces, I couldn't hold it in anymore. "God Dammit!" I thought. I sprung out of my bed and headed right for the sundeck that was three stories up from the room. Surely, I could find some peace and quiet up here. So, I broke out my journal and started to write as the boat traveled through a very serene landscape. A landscape of calm green waters interrupted only by huge limestone rock formations that jutted abruptly from the sea. Those in the distance were covered in a thin layer of mist which added to the pleasant ambience. Indeed, this was a perfect time to write in my journal...nothing could be more thought inspiring.
Only one page of thoughts into it when the pitter-patter of a little person came up from behind me. Well, maybe mom and dad told her she had gotten away with so
Quik-E-Mart on water
This is one of the women who followed us around on her row boat trying to make a living.
much on the bus, that she has to be quiet on the boat because people paid good money to enjoy their tour.
"CLAUDE!...COME UP HERE!...Let's play tag!" Come on Claude, tell your sister your too tired...come on Claude...come on. "Be Right Up!" he yelled.
Kill me...kill me now, were the only thoughts in my mind.
Perhaps it was time to strike up conversation with the rest of the people along for the ride. A couple from Singapore and a guy from England were talking when I pulled up a chair and introduced myself. This was far better than the poor bastards suffering up on the sundeck under Claude and Stella’s reign off terror.
As I sipped on some Bia Halida (Elephant Beer as they have called it), we wound our way through the limestone rocks and even through a floating village.which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. As we entered the village on this massive boat, you could see a few ladies scurrying in their row boat dingy’s loaded down with every type of soda, beer, cracker, fruit, or vegetable you can imagine. Something caught my attention about their futile chase. Perhaps it was that they rowed
Some views of the bay and the limestone rocks from the boat.
forwards, as opposed to rowing backwards. Perhaps it was that they really weren't trying all that hard to catch up with us. This had me thinking we would see them again and they knew it, too.
Later, we boarded smaller boats off the back of the Dragon's Pearl. Yet again, I lost out because the first boat was filled up and I had to get on board with you know who...little Miss Stella and her non-disciplining parents. We were headed for a small cave in one of the limestone rocks. The cave was fairly low and what lay on the other side was a hidden paradise. Enclosed on all sides was a lagoon of the most beautiful kind. On all sides were green covered walls of rock well over 400 ft high. When the guide shut the engine to the small boat, you could hear bird calls echoing from one side to the other. Then you could here Stella's piercing vocals from one side to the other, and back again, and again, and again. She was so close to me....all I had to do was lean a bit to the left and in she would go. She'd be flapping
More images of Halong bay.
around gasping for air and I would just sit there with a frozen smile on my face. Perhaps mom and dad would panic and dive in after her? I'd really be smiling, then. The other members of the boat would roar up in applause and we'd be on our way back to the Dragon's Pearl as me as their savior, the one who sent Stella to the bottom of Halong Bay. Those on the tour would sign a petition to have it renamed to Hastella Bay. Ah, what a beautiful thing an imagination can be. "Mom, Claude is splashing me!" were the last words that echoed off the walls of paradise as we headed back to the big boat. =(
After dropping anchor in the bay amongst several other Chinese junks, out came a 7 course vietnamese meal that was served up in a very classy dining room by very good waiters. This was first class for sure. I was in need of some serious sleep as the night before was quite short. It was off to bed to escape the nightmare Stella had provided.
At the crack of dawn, I awoke to what I thought was a
Sung Sot - Amazing Cave
One of the places we got off the boat was at the "Amazing Cave". The artificial lighting gave it a more glamorous feel, but there was no exaggerating how big the cave was.
baby crying. Couldn't be a baby, there were none on this boat, I thought. Then again, it was early and the sleep did a great job in erasing the Stella virus from my memory. Ok, I'm getting some breakfast, some coffee and some enjoyment out of this trip I thought to myself. Dragonfruit!!! Troi oi! My favorite of all favorites was sitting on a plate on the patio deck. After gorging myself on several pieces of
heaven, I finished it off with a café, hoping it would be weasel coffee, but to no avail. My cue to move on was when my Aussie friends came on up to have breakfast. Up to the sundeck I went to enjoy the morning views of Halong Bay. It was the morning that afforded the most picturesque scenes. Thankful that I had found some spare batteries, I began clicking off some photos of the surrounding area. Low and behold, along side our boat came those floating village people. One old lacy had the nerve of bringing along her baby grandson and pointing to him in an effort to get some donations. Great way to treat your grandkid, lady...using him as bait for the tourists.
Sung Sot - Amazing Cave
Lots of stalactites and stalagmites formed several interesting shapes, all of which had some sort of vietnamese legend behind them.
By any means necessary, I guess.
After a brief visit to a tremendous cave and a quick jaunt up 171 huge steps to a pagoda that sat on top of one of these limestone rocks, we were on our way home. I had another chance to lean Stella into oblivion while at the top of the highest pagoda in Vietnam, but I put my money on nature to take care of this as I knew that the way down these steps was far more dangerous, especially to the little legs of a 7 year old. Sure enough, sweet justice came just before we reached the bottom of the stairway. A little slip on a crooked step and tumbling on down the last 10 steps went dad and Stella. Although the torture to the ears of her crying was going to be tough to bare for the next few hours, something inside me felt some satisfaction. Of course, there were no injury's, but I think good ole dad took a few more kicks to the shin from his sweet daughter.
I fail to mention some great things on this trip, but felt writing about my 7 year old friend
After a visit from an astronaut named, Ghermann Ti Top, a hero of the former Soviet Union, Ho Chi Minh named this island after him. The pagoda at the top was where I almost held a sacrificed of young Stella.
might make a more interesting story. I have not had a chance to write lately because I've been on the move a lot. After Halong Bay I took a night train to Sapa and spent the weekend there. I will have another story about that area shortly. I have moved south to middle Vietnam and I am currently in Hue, loving a slower lifestyle and the girls dressed in ao dai. "Ao dai em di do mai voi?" are the words I yell at them as they gracefully float by on their bicycles and motorbikes. Ah, angels on earth.
Stay tuned for future episodes...
LZ - Sapa
LZ - Hanoi (Part 2)
LZ - Hue
(LZ means Landing Zone in case you were wondering)
Mark T. Lewin
MTL Enterprises - Ao Dai Division
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