From Ha Noi we traveled around 130km east to Hạ Long Bay. I was really excited about this trip. When I first researched Viet Nam I came upon the famous images of the limestone karsts and islets perched like pearls in the emerald waters of the bay. The karsts are the big draw, they have been worn down by the sea into pillars and interesting shapes and the water has teased caves and archways into them. I'd wanted to see them for years and had high hopes for the Unesco World Heritage site.
Hạ Long Bay is gorgeous even from land but the best way to experience it, we'd been told, was by boat. Tours abound from day trips on rustic fishing boats to luxury week long cruises and everything in-between. Matt booked us a 2 day trip on a reproduction of a paddle steamer named the Emeraud that cruised the bay from the turn of the century until it sunk in 1937. The boat and the rooms were very luxurious and definitely made up for the scorpion-in-the-sink situation at the jungle lodge.
But all in all we were left a little cold by the whole experience. In general,
tour operators and companies in Vietnam are not particularly innovative. If an area or excursion succeeds then copy cats jump on the bandwagon and offer the exact same tour. After having knowledgeable guides in Sri Lanka and Borneo that really enhanced our experiences we were surprised when we first arrived here. I want to be clear that this is only our experience but the guided tours we've taken in Vietnam have most often left us with more questions than answers, and some of the information seemed to be off the cuff and confusing. As a result we have done most of our exploring on our own though it has been difficult to access areas outside the general tourist trail - some areas are overrun with tour operators while others seem to be completely ignored. If something is deemed a tourist attraction it is mined until the very last bit of value (in the form of tourist dollars) is sucked out of it without any seeming attempt to try anything new. There have been exceptions of course - Oxalis Adventure Tours
offered a terrific tour and the guides were very informative and seemed to really enjoy the questions and the group - but generally
we have been left feeling that once we've paid up, they just wanted to move us through as quickly as possible.
The crew of the Emeraud was young and had a lot of energy, but they couldn't surmount the drudgery of the same routine which had been performed many times over. We were lucky it was low season because a lot fewer boats were on the water but even so we were never far from each other. They all follow the same cruise passage and stop at the same sites to do the same things. The activities are scheduled and you are encouraged to adhere strictly to the plan - hustled from one activity to the next with not much time to think about whether or not you'd like to participate.
For Matt and I who have been lazily making our way for months now, we found all of it a bit jarring. The sites were tired and over-developed. One of the stops was Sung Sot Cave and the floor was paved over with a concrete path and stairs. Coloured lights illuminated the walls and ceiling and there were spots where it looked like stalactites were removed so
there would be ample head room. After our incredible experience at Nha-Kẻ Bàng park and the untouched caves there, we were disheartened to see this but we dutifully shuffled through with hundreds of other people. In an attempt to find a little peace and quiet Matt and I rented a kayak at the next scheduled stop (pearl farm) to paddle off on our own for a bit, but the water of the bay was dirty with oil slicks and plumes of rubbish everywhere. It seemed to us as if the bay has been used heavily and without much care for a long time.
But even with all that it is impossible to discount the raw beauty of this bay. The karsts are breathtaking. We met a lovely English couple that we sat with at meal times and made plans to meet them when they would be in Hội An a few days later. The food was very good on the boat (though the drinks, including water, were prohibitively expensive) and it was fun to relax in the shade and watch the gorgeous scenery flow by.
Once we docked, the trip back from almost the top of the country
to the centre was long and dusty. We arrived in Hội An late and opening the door were slammed with a hot house and a bad smell. Apparently the power had gone out shortly after we left and that caused our fridge and A/C to short circuit. Everything in the freezer had melted and some of the food had gone bad. We spent the night throwing everything out - the chickens next door had a field day - and scrubbing out the fridge and freezer. Then we tried to sleep in a stifling hot room with all the fans pointed toward the bed. The next day our landlord brought in a repairman and by that afternoon everything was working again.
Ah! Home sweet home.
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