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Published: February 17th 2011
Ha Long Bay - Boat Rides and New Friends
I'm on a bus, driving down the 'highway' back to Hanoi, after having spent the last 24 hours on a beautiful boat, cruizing around the jaw-dropping UNESCO world heritage site, Ha Long Bay.
The trip started out uneventfully, a mini-bus came to pick Trung and I up at 8:30am yesterday morning. Its a 3 hour drive to the coast and Ha Long City, and we stopped 1/2 way for 'refleshment and high quality merchandise' the place was called the 'Ruby Palace' it was as good as the name implies...
Our tour guide was very nice, he kept us informed the whole time, and guided us through the ticket process and right onto our taxi-boat, 20 people crammed onto a small 'junk' in a harbour filled with ships.
Our boat promptly backs into another boat. Something is wrong with the rudder and our 'captain' is yelling in Vietnamese at the very large boat we've run into and are apparently stuck against. The tires hanging from the big boat invade our boat's personal space, people get bumped in the back of the head. The 'captin' is tring to push us
from the other boat using all his strength. I hope he doesn't fall in the water, leaving 20 stranded, confused tourists to fend for themselves.
He gets us unattached from the larger boat, adrift in a sea of junks darting this way and that. Something is still wrong with the boat, he disappears and we hear hammering. The engine starts up again and we're off!
Our ship appears through a gap in the crowded harbour, its a 3 storey, red wood junk with two traditional sails. White linen umbrellas and white lounge chairs can be seen on the open top deck.
There's a staff of 4 on the boat to greet us with cool wet towels and fresh orange juice in the dining cabin. So far so good!
Trung is the unofficial translator between the boat staff and the other tourists, and as such, he gets us a room on the upper deck at the front of the boat. Its a nice room with two single beds and a sizeable bathroom with an actual shower stall!
The others on the boat include a Danish couple, a Chinese couple, an Aussie family of 5, a Koren
couple, and a Vietnamese family of 7.
Our day starts after check in, the boat raises anchor (manually, via two 15 year old boys hauling an old rope), and we start chugging our way across the bay, along with another 50 or so similar boats.
Lunch is served while we cross the bay, consisting of an entirely seafood meal, and one big fish with head still attached. Trung and I sit down with the Danish couple, who are just finished highschool. They are definitely not impressed with the whole fish laying on the table, freshly roasted in all it's glory...
Ha Long Bay is on the East coast of Northern Vietnam and is dotted with thousands of extremely tall, steep sided islands. The limestone in this area has formed these 'karst' formations and it is why people come here.
The standard fog of Vietnam obscures the view over any great distance, but the outline of the beautiful islands can be seen in the distance. Its a pleasant, calm, 25 degree day, perfect for lounging and watching the world go by.
It seems like all the boats are heading in the same direction across the bay,
about a 10 km ride. We reach a small cove away from most of the other boats and drop anchor, surrounded on all sides by huge mountains of vertical sandstone cliffs, some thousands of feet tall. The tiny boat that taxied us to the ship is still attached to the back, we're all instructed to hop in to go to 'a cave'.
The cave is jam-packed with people, I expect it to be some tiny, one-room cave jammed with tourists. We have to walk up about 200 steps to reach the entrance. At first sight, I was right, it is a tiny cave jammed with tourists. There's a pathway that you have to stay on while you walk through the cave, one way in, one way out.
The first room is pretty impressive, about 1000 sqare meters, or about the size of a large house. Our guide motions towards a small hole in the side of a wall and says we can continue that way, or we could take the path that leads up some stairs. The Koreans, Trung and I decide to take the small hole, me first. Once I've jammed myself in, my body blocks out
all the light; good times. It turns out its only about 10 feet long of awkward, tight body positions, then we're out on the other side.
The next room is cavernous, I'd guess about 800m long and 200m tall. There are just as many tourists here, but they're spread out because the room is so huge. Red, green and white lights illuminate the fascinating detail that can be seen everywhere. A huge stalagmite rises from the centre of the room.
As we wind our way out of the cave, we can see the sun has come out in the bay. The fog is burned off and the islands can be seen in their full glory. Its an amazing view. The bay we're in has a small fishing village off to one side, below a gigantic, sheer cliff face (I'd guess about 500m tall).
we head across the bay in our small boat towards the floating village. I think the village exists to maintain a fleet of Kayaks for the tourists. Trung and I quickly don our lifejackets and jump into a Kayak. Thank god for our friend Maya, who taught us both how to Kayak!
islands in the bay are best viewed up close with a Kayak, we venture in and out of a couple of caves, and laze around our bay people watching for about an hour. The sun is setting in the distance, framed by looming mountains in the distance and its a perfectly warm day. I didn't know we were going to be Kayaking, so my jeans are soaked, but it's worth it for this experience.
Once we get back to the boat, the guide tells us we can go swimming, and jump off the top fo the boat, if we want. Trung and I are game, and we get our swim suits on. When we get on the roof, not a soul has joined us.
Eventually, after much looking and thinking about it, the 18 year old Aussie son walks up the stairs to jump with us.
Trung set his camera to continuous shooting, and I jump off with the Aussie. Its actually farther than it looks and I got a nose-full of salty, green water. The water is freezing. In the end, Trung chickened out about jumping from the third level, so we go down to the
second deck. The rest of the aussie family is watching, and Trung complains about the peer pressure! lol So long story short, I jump off the second level for fun again, and we both go get ready for dinner.
Dinner is... more seafood. When I say seafood i mean, squid balls, squid stir fry, fish stuffed crab shells, fish cakes and another fully-there, giant Asian carp. Mmmmmm.. The Danish aren't impressed, and the Aussie dad gets mad and tells our waiter that his daughters don't even eat seafood. They get a stack of bread with preserves for dinner..
After dinner the guide tells us its time for Karaoke and dancing! No thanks. Trung organizes a card game on the upper deck, under the stars. The lights of other boats in the bay reflected in the perfectly calm water reminds me of home.
The Aussie kids and the Danish couple join in for a game of cards, but we don't communicate well and its dim lighting, so we give up on cards and just talk into the night. Their mom reminds us of my Aunt Brenda, so we call her Brenda (I think her name was Ruth). Everyone
has a different story, and a different rote through Vietnam, and its really interesting getting to know them. The Danish are headed to Sapa tomorrow night. Trung and I already have tickets to go up there, so we're going to try to all get to the train station together and head up there.
The next day is an early wake-up and check out of the room. The boat staff clean all morning while we're lounging on the upper deck watching the bay go by. Trung talks with one of them and learns they get 4 days off per month. Otherwise, they actually live on the boat. Im not sure where all the money is going, Trung and I spent $60 each for this cruise, which included transportation and meals. I get the feeling not much goes to the boat staff.
The Koreans are a great couple. She has a polaroid camera and takes pictures of everyone for us to keep, and writes on all of them so we can remember who she was and where we were.
There's a 'traditional' fishing village about 1/2 way back to Ha Long City. We stop, and for an optional 100,000VND,
we can take a bamboo boat ride, rowed by a local, through some caves. We agree to the price and jump on one of the round boats (they look like oversized wicker baskets, and are about as sturdy as you think a floating wicker basket would be...
They take us behind the floating village and through a hole in another sheer rock face. The 'cave' is really about 50 feet long, and opens to a fully enclosed cove with sheer cliffs on all sides, the sight is truly amazing. The second cave is similar. The woman kind of understands what we're talking about on the boat, Trung picks up a conversation and she tells us she has two kids, a 4 and 2 year old, they all live in the floating village and go to school in a floating school. She makes about $50 per month doing this job. I do the math, the 6 people in the boat payed 600,000 dong, and she is paid only 1,000,000 dong per month. Where does the money go? She says that 50% of our money goes to the school. She is working so that her kids can go to elementary school.
Trung and I give her about 30,000 dong extra.
Our time in Ha Long bay comes to an end with 7 new friends sharing a traditional Vietnamese lunch in Ha Long city, everyone has photos of eachother and facebook addresses for later. Some of us will continue on together, and some of us may never see eachother again, but we shared the experience together and had a good time doing it and that's what this trip is all about.
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