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Published: March 26th 2012
HAVING SPENT TWO EXTRA (unwanted) days in Hue we just barely had enough time to breathe in Hanoi’s heavy, wet air suffused with the faint smell of flowers. When we arrived it was a chilly 50 degrees and rainy. It reminded me of New York City on a fall night – narrow lanes lined with hip shops, restaurants, and dark bars surrounded on all sides by a large, reverberating city. We only had the evening to stroll around as we were leaving in the morning for an all day tour of Halong Bay. After grabbing dinner and a cup of coffee at a neighboring restaurant which was housed in an ancient shop house we took a stroll through the streets to get a feel for the city. An older woman wearing the infamous conical hat walked by with two buckets of fruit each dangling from a board worn over her shoulder. A young Vietnamese girl stepped out of a hair salon with a new asymmetrical cut. Old men with wrinkled faces sat on plastic chairs next to travelers sipping beer in the cool night air. Couples sat across from each other slurping down steaming bowls of pho. The merging of
culture, of time, of age, was very present here. We slipped into a dark bar with bright red walls (Mao’s Red Bar) and ordered a drink. The crowd was young and hip – a mixture of locals, ex-pats, and travelers. We sipped our drinks, watched the interactions of the crowd around us and wondered what it would be like to live here in this seemingly thriving, multicultural city.
The following morning it was “go” time once again. We hopped out of bed and into a shuttle van with a handful of other passengers. Ideally, we would have explored Halong Bay at our leisure – spent three or four days on Cat Ba island and really took in the stunning horizon of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Instead, we did it all in one day. Three hour drive there. Afternoon tour. Three hour drive back. Quick and dirty, like a rendezvous with a prostitute. Sorry, Halong, you deserve better. We tumbled out of the van around 11am into the harbor in Halong City (a gray, sloth of a town). The first sight of the bay made me inhale sharply under my breath. It was breathtaking, literally. Even in the
gray light the cragged mountain peaks rose majestically from the turquoise water to create a dramatic, mystical landscape. Within minutes we were comfortably on board a two story boat with a dozen or so other passengers, and we were off. It was like floating through a watery wonderland – slow and dreamy. After a couple of hours we docked for lunch (another uninspiring meal of white rice and blandly flavored fish) on a floating platform and got out to walk around. A woman with bright fruits floated up to sell her exotic wares. In the center of the platform were several makeshift fish tanks with strange, scaly beasts swimming around inside of them. Some of the tourists from other boats picked out fish and had them cooked up for their afternoon meal. A dozen or so local women pulled up in row boats, offering to take tourists for a ride through some of the surrounding caves. Many of them took them up on it. Travis and I opted for the free kayaks instead. We paddled off, through the liquid turquoise and got an up close look at the cragged peaks that had formed our horizon all morning.
everyone was back onboard we were shuttled to a nearby beach where we disembarked again. Together we climbed up a steep staircase to the entrance of Dau Go Cave. What I saw before me was downright shocking. It was a monstrosity of a cave! A Technicolor cavern with red, purple, pink, blue, and green lights contrasting dramatically against one another, creating the most striking of images, like a psychedelic painting by Alex Gray or the set for the Big Rock Candy Mountains. “The grotto of wonders”, the sign out front said. The stalactites and stalagmites came in innumerable shapes and sizes – there were cauliflower shaped stones, long dripping icicles, deep moon like craters, broccoli heads – all accented by a different vibrant color. The textures and weird, foreign shapes were a photographer’s dream. Travis and I lingered there longer than anyone else. When we finally emerged all the other passengers were already on the boat waiting for us, but I didn’t even care, I wanted to spend every second I could in the cave.
That night, after a three hour ride back to Hanoi, we went out to get dinner. Feeling lazy and tired, we opted for
a touristy place just down the road. For the first time in 5 months we both ordered burgers, and they were as delicious as I remembered them to be. As we were walking out several large mice scampered past our feet. I laughed, thinking about how people would react to this in the States, but here it seemed perfectly normal. Even though Vietnam is probably the cleanest country we have visited other than Singapore, it is still Asia, and Asia for all its booming economies and modern skyscrapers, is not as obsessed with cleanliness as America. The following morning we woke up early and hopped on a flight to Bangkok. When we arrived we were groggy and tired - an all too familiar feeling at this point in the trip.
To see more pictures from Halong Bay check out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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