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Published: August 28th 2013
Ha Long Bay is a beautiful part of Vietnam. Consisting of thousands of limestone karsts that have gone through millions and millions of years of formation, the bay possesses a primordial beauty and embodies the legend of dragons spitting jewels into the water to create formations to protect the mainland from invaders. With the battle won, the dragons made the bay their home, hence the name Ha Long, meaning “descending dragon”.
We debated whether to do things ourselves, as we usually like to do, or go with an organized tour as our guide book suggested, claiming that it would actually be cheaper and easier. We were finally persuaded when we talked with a Brit who lived there who’d stated that he’d done it both ways and agreed with our guidebook, but did warn us to do some research, meaning, visit a few tourist agencies. So, we went on the hunt and, after doing the most research we’d ever done when booking with an agency, we booked what we thought was a good deal. The process was the same everywhere we went: the travel agent would remove from somewhere under her desk a book describing the tour with glossy,
shiny paper that displayed boats in the most perfect of conditions. Life in general has taught me that nothing is glossy, unless you’re spending serious money, so I just nodded me head. We finally made a decision based on price and the fact that the travel agent seemed like a nice Vietnamese lady with a husband from Ohio (I would find it hard not to trust someone from Ohio, right?). The tour consisted of a bus, then a night on a small cruise ship, then one night on Monkey Island in the bay before returning to Hanoi.
We were picked up by a tourist bus from our guesthouse in Hanoi. As soon as we sat down in our chairs, our tour guide, first ensuring he had the right people, handed us a note. In short, the note basically stated that we’d received a very good price for this tour and “please, please do not discuss with other tourist.”
“Intriguing…” I said looking at Klaudia. Perhaps our research finally did reap some rewards? Then I remembered the time we went white water rafting in Nepal: we did not receive a note, but the guide did
inform us of the same thing, that is, we’d paid less than everyone else; when I’d inquired from the others in our raft as to how much they paid, it turned out we paid the highest. At this point, you probably understand where my stream of consciousness was going. Did I really pay less, or was it a simple ploy to keep my mouth shut because I’d actually paid a lot more than everyone else? And for those of you that know me fairly well…well… (Klaudia wanted me to add “I am cheap”, but I refuse to do so). The fact that everyone receives a different price for everything – absolutely everything - in Asia consistently messed with my head.
Our bus arrived at Ha Long City in around three hours. We boarded our ship, which obviously was slightly more rundown than the glossy pictures would have led you to believe, but which was completely suitable for our needs. In other words, it wasn’t bad: it was clean, any blotches were of the superficial kind, and we received the room in the back of the boat, which had its own little balcony. As the boat sailed away
into the bay, the karst formations jutting from the water reminded us of Thailand, except that is was our first inkling that we’d find Vietnam much prettier. And we did, throughout. In the future, if I’d have to choose between visiting Thailand or Vietnam, I’d go with Vietnam in a heartbeat.
We sat around on the boat benches as we sailed around and through the thousands of karst islets that make up the beautiful scenery of the bay. We sailed to and visited Sung Sot, or “Surprise” Cave. It was indeed a large and spectacular cave, reached by walking up hundreds of steps surrounded by jungle vegetation. It was, of course, also touristy with hundreds of visitors and with colored lights hung everywhere to dramatize the long stalactites hanging from the high ceiling. But I’d “explored” secluded caves in Vang Vieng, so my expectations were not great at this point and I did my best to enjoy myself despite the crowds. Later, in kayaks, we visited a small fishing village in which all the homes floated in the middle of the water amidst the islets. All the buildings were connected with wooden sidewalks and bridges, making the
village an islet in itself. We kayaked passed the village to arches and caves in the formations, which led to striking secluded pools surrounded by small mountains.
Back on the boat, we sailed away from the village while having a few drinks on the top deck. It didn’t take long for everyone to begin jumping off the top, which was a good 15 feet above the water, when our guide informed us that we could swim a bit before dinner. A few jumps and drinks later, we had a nice dinner of spring rolls, chicken curry, and various noodles. The only thing lacking was good company, which consisted of nice people, but of the “clicky” kind, including ourselves. Maybe they were frightened of my beard, which had begun to grow uncontrollably - the wild homeless look was what I was going for in India, but, glancing at the mirror before retiring early for the night, I finally managed it five months later in Vietnam. As we made an effort to sleep, we endured the one drawback of this trip: sitting out there in the middle of the water with us were several other boats and, though ours
had a quiet crew, many of them were definitely party boats with karaoke onboard. Reading other blogs about this exact trip, you’ll realize that it’s very difficult to choose which type of boat you’ll be on: it all depends on the people onboard and, as I mentioned, ours was a bunch with not a lot of interaction. Things stayed quiet, which we personally prefer, but several of the boats around us were enjoying some carousing. Christopher Hitchens, on giving young people advice on how to drink, once said, “It is not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain”. That, instead of drunken nights in front of a karaoke machine, is more my style, but with my wife added in.
We arrived to Monkey Island Resort, the only resort on the island, in the early morning. Before arriving, however, we made a quick visit, based on someone’s request, to a cave hospital on Cat Ba Island. The hospital, drilled into the side of a mountain, was used by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and saved thousands of North Vietnamese lives. It was eerie walking the hallways, seeing barren
operating rooms made of stone. There were tunnels everywhere that led into different caverns or outside, including one that was more like a slide that dropped into a pool of water for a quick escape from bombing.
Once on Monkey Island, we were hoping to do some kayaking to the surrounding islets, but the waves were too high that day. Instead, we went on a short hike to the top of the island for some exquisite views, solidifying the area’s beauty for us. Afterwards, we swam off a small beach. While in the water, a woman noticed an injured duck floating along, quacking loudly. We weren’t quite certain what to do with it, but finally decided on a plan to surround with a few more other tourists that joined us and then force it to the beach so we could inspect it. Just as we were beginning, an island local jumped into the water, submerged himself, then caught the duck from underneath. We all looked at each other in apprehension; someone finally said, “He’s going to eat it, isn’t he?” Sure enough, the local walked onto the beach, brutally broke the duck’s neck and headed home. In
Vietnam, it’s all food.
The rest of the day was spent swimming and visiting different areas of the island. We had a great buffet dinner serving grilled sausage, beef and pork and many other dishes. We took a walk on the beach before retiring to our little grass hut, which, happily, had AC. The next morning, we had, to my pleasant surprise, pho soup for breakfast. Later that morning, we headed back on our boat to the mainland.
In terms of the price of the trip we’d paid: I asked around, and discovered that we did indeed pay less; but, I never know if it’s just a conspiracy everyone’s involved in except for me. But Asian price discrimination aside, Ha Long Bay lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful bays in the world.
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