Monday, July 25, 2011

Ha Long Bay (July 15-17, 2011)

Ha Long Bay View
It was a hokey tour, but the place is enchanting.  After watching the movie Indochine, Ha Long Bay became a “must-see” place on my bucket list. I looked into trying to get there via train to Haiphong, but realized I would still be a great distance from where I wanted to be.  So, the simplest solution (and cheapest) was to book a tour.  All hotels in Hanoi offer such tours and after talking with Giang at the Thu Giang hotel, I signed up for a $65, two night tour.  The first night was sleeping on a boat (junk) out on the water and the second night in what was to be a hotel in Cat Ba Island.  It was a good deal and the place is enchanting, especially in the fog and even in the rain.  I would expect it to be nice in the sunshine too, but I didn’t get to experience that.  

I always take a photo of my bus
to make sure I get on the right one!

The trip began early on a Friday morning as I was picked up by the tour company and hauled my stuff off into a minibus.  Soon, the bus was packed with people going to experience Ha Long Bay.  Of course, there is not just one mini-bus with 30 plus people heading east, but hundreds of mini-buses crowding the highways east of Hanoi!  Sitting next to me was the father of a Korean family (the wife and daughter sat in the seats in front of us).  We talked a few minutes, until we ran out of English.  He taught me a few basic Vietnamese words.  His Vietnamese vocabulary consisted of six words, about the same number as I knew, except that all mine were food related and his words were relational.  How (mhieu), thank you (cam on), I’m sorry (sin loi) and hello (sin chao).  I showed him photos of my family and he introduced me to his wife and daughter and after we got to Ha Long Bay, I never saw them again!  As we got out of the bus, we were divided up like sheep and goats, based on what kind of trip we had signed up for.  Some were down just for the day, others for one night and others of us for multiple nights.  Some of us were staying on a boat for the night, others staying in hotels.  It is amazing how the tour guides kept up with everyone as you are often moved from one group to another based on your tour and the needs of the tour group.

My junk for a day and night...
After the great divide, I was marched off with a new group of people onto one of the hundreds of junks waiting at the docks around Ha Long City.   We stowed our luggage on the boat and sat down for lunch.   On my boat was a Swiss family (I didn’t ask about their surname, figuring that if it was Robinson, it might be a bad omen), a couple girls from Germany, three guys from Great Britain, another couple from Great Britain who’d been teaching at an English school in Bangkok, two guys from Texas (Alan will be attending law school at Notre Dame in the fall), a guy and girl from Argentina and a guy from Chili who was linked at the hip to the girl from Argentine, and a few others.  Joining us was the tour guide, the cook, the captain (he looked about 16) and a deck hand (he looked to be about 12).   We motored slowly out into the bay as we were fed lunch.  The highlight of the trip was the food—it was all good with the exception of breakfast on the boat which consisted of a fried egg and four slices of (untoasted) white bread.  

After lunch, we joined in with half the population of northern Vietnam who just happened to be visiting Hang Sung Sot or “Surprise Cave” at the same time as we were there.  The cave would have been truly spectacular had there not been more people at one time underground in that cave than in all of New York’s Subways.  The hoards of people were rushed through as our guide, who had a vivid imagination, pointed to the likeness of all kinds of animals in the formations.  Somehow, it all centered on dragons and turtles with an elephant and a bride and groom thrown into a mix that supposedly related to the prehistoric legends of Vietnam’s creation. 
The highlight of the cave tour wasn’t underground.  It was getting on and off the boats!  The boats dropped off their passengers at one dock and then moved to the other dock where they picked up their passengers after making it through the cave.  This wouldn’t have been a problem except that there were more boats in the water around the cave than there had been around Normandy on D-day (we just didn’t have people shooting at us).  It was all one massive game of “bumper boat” as they jockeyed for position by pushing other boats around.  It’s amazing that with all the bumping and ramming, a boat doesn’t sink or (more likely) a deckhand looses and arm or leg.  It was a delightful mess to watch!

After the caves, we were taken to a fish farm (I’d seen enough fish farm already), but there we also got to kayak.  According to the brochure, it was to be for an hour and a half, but since we were running late we only got 45 minutes, which was enough to paddle through some caves which was pretty neat.   As the odd man out, I was by myself (every other else was paired up) and one of the few who had any idea how to do this.  George, the guy who’d been teaching in Thailand, asked me, “I bet you do this for fun, don’t you.” 
When the time was up, we were back on our boat and, after dropping some people off on Cat Ba Island (they had signed up for a tour with accommodations on land), we putted out into the bay and dropped anchor.  We were told we had a hour to swim before dinner and most of us made the best of it, jumping off the top of the boat into the water below, trying not to land on a jelly fish (there were a few that we spotted).  Afterwards, we had a nice seafood dinner with octopus and fish and a delicious mango salad among other treats. 
I was supposed to share a berth with another passenger, but somehow there wasn’t a room for me and they ended up sticking me in a bunk room with the three guys from Great Britain, which was okay, but not what I’d paid for.  As compensation, the next day cancelled my bar bill which included all of one beer and one bottle of water.  Had I know that was the deal, I’d brought a round for the house. 
After dinner, the cook turned up the music so loud that I retreated up on the top deck…  The bass must have been all the way up for the boat just shook.  Others in the group, like the Swiss family, headed to their berths to escape the throbbing beat.    
“Isn’t it nice out here,” the tour guide said as he joined me on the upper deck and pulled out a cigarette.
I shook my head, acknowledged that it was, as I peered into the dark fog that was soon to be supplemented with smoke.
“I really like it out here on the water,” he continued.  “It’s so quiet and peaceful.”
“Did you say what I thought you said?” I asked, shouting over the music.
A little while later, the music was turned down a notch.  I expect the tour guide said something to the cook, but it had started raining and I was tired, so I headed to bed early and was asleep before ten.  It rained all night, at times hard.
The tower at the top of Tetanus Trail
The next morning the rain had stopped and I was up early, doing some writing and watching the morning light make its way through the fog.  Then, after our fine breakfast with an abundance of white bread, the South American contingent and I were taken to the docks at Cat Ba Island (we were on the two night tour) while the rest were taken back to the main dock for their trip back to Hanoi.   There, we were mixed up with a bunch of other people and taken to the Cat Ba National Park where we got to climb 330 meters in the fog, to a sight that would have truly been amazing if we had more than a 100 meters of visibility.  Instead, we all risked tetanus and got incredibly muddy for the satisfaction of knowing we were at the high point on the island.  The trail was steep and in many places steel ladders and rails had been installed.  But since this is a jungle and it rains and is foggy all the time and the steel didn’t happen to be stainless (nor had it been galvanized or even painted), we climbed ladders and held on to rails that had rusted out and left jagged edges.  I renamed it the “Tetanus Trail”.   The highlight of the climb was the guide, who spoke absolutely no English but was the most helpful guides I’ve come across.  He ran up and down that mountain, keeping up with everyone, all while pointing out things in nature.  At the top of the mountain, as we waited everyone to arrive, he showed me how to make a whistle out of a leaf.  Tipping isn’t always done in this part of the world, but I decided that he deserved one.
After we got down from the mountain, all soaking wet, we were taken to Cat Ba Town.  On the tour bus there, we were told that we had the afternoon free.  If we wanted a nice beach where we could lie out or swim, there was an optional trip to Monkey Island.  But at that point, the heavens opened and didn’t look to be slowing down at any time soon.  I don’t think any of us went to the island.  Instead, we had a great lunch and I took a nap and wrote some in the afternoon and, getting cabin fever (and once the rain slowed to a drizzle), walked around the harbor (Cat Ba Town is basically a fishing village).  Dinner was also good.  At night, the Vietnamese who’d come to the island for vacation was out partying.  I walked around and had the honor of having one of the local pimps try to set me up.
“Where are you going, you want a xo em?” a guy on a motorbike asked as he pulled up beside of me.
“No thanks, I’m just walking,” I answered. 
“You want a girl, right,” he asked, showing his pimp strips. 
“No,” I said, continuing to walk. 
He followed me, telling me about the nice girls he could provide. 
“No,” I said again, this time forcefully. 
“What you have against girls,” he asked. 
I started to explain that I have nothing against girls, but then realized I didn’t need to provide an explanation to a pimp, nor did I need to be polite, and told him to get lost.
The next morning, my roommate, the guy from Argentina, was up early trying to find the South American Soccer finals on TV.  Argentine was playing Uruguay.  Unable to find it on TV, I lent him my computer so that he could keep up with what was happening and went for a walk, watching the fishermen bring in their catches to the wharfs.  Afterwards, we had a great breakfast, followed by a crowded mini-bus ride across the island.  At the docks on the other side, we were put on another boat with more people we didn’t know.  As we rode across the bay to Ha Long City, I sat up top, soaking up the little sun that was trying to break through the fog.  There, talking to Marie, I learned that my trip could have been worse. 
As we were sitting on the launch to take us to the junk that would take us back the Ha Long City, a number of us were talking and two of us realized we were both from North Carolina (and both had James Taylor on our ipods).  As we talked, Marie entered the launch, saying “it’s good to hear English spoken.”  She then said something about the “trip from hell.”   On the junk back across the bay, she was in the deck chair next to mine on the upper deck.  As we “sunned” under a foggy sky, she told me the full story.  Marie, a tall freckled redhead from Seattle, is living in Hanoi and has a two year contract to teach interior design at a local college.  She has only been in the city for a little over a month and this was her first weekend escape.  Unlike the rest of us, she had done her research and signed up for a tour on a particular boat.  But, as they were dividing the sheep and goats at Ha Long City, she got put onto another boat, one that consisted of a Vietnamese family who’d gathered for a reunion.  The only other non-family member (outside the crew) was a Korean college student who spoke little English.  “They were nice,” she said, but not being a part of the family, the two of them were left out.  Marie was on a one night tour, and the afternoon was mostly rained out.  Their kayaking had been cancelled due to lightning; the swim in the bay was also cancelled. 
After we arrived at the docks, a new guide (my fourth, if I counted correctly) led us across the street to a restaurant where we had another wonderful meal.  Then we were loaded back onto mini-buses.  Marie and I sat together talking about living in Vietnam, her work (before the economy tanked, she had a job designing the interiors of yachts, which in my book ranks up there with a mattress tester as an ideal job), politics (even here, the American debt crisis is a topic) and church (she’s very active and a good friend with her Catholic priest in Seattle).  On the way back to the city, as we had done on the way out, we had a 20 minute bathroom stop at a place where they sold handicrafts and snacks. Not being interested in the high price crafts, I brought a package of ten post cards for 20,000 dong ($1) and an ice cream bar for 10,000 dong (50 cents).  Such was my contribution for a clean bathroom and free toilet paper.
As I said, Ha Long Bay is an enchanting place.  Leave it to tour companies to transform the enchanting to hokey.  Some things are universal.


  1. Another great post. Thanks. This one would have put me to the test. I don't much like crowds of tourists. Your analogy to sheep and goats sounds apt.

  2. Swiss family Robinson! lol. Sailing on a Junk. is there anything exotic you won't be doing? Man.

  3. Universal indeed! I am glad you are finding people with whom you can talk English now and then.

  4. Always the problem with much breathtaking scenery. Everybody shows up to gawk at it. Some places, it's easy to escape, e.g. Yellowstone. Others its near impossible. It sounds like this bay is in the latter category.


  5. It all sounds enchanting to me, Jeff. lol at Swiss Family Robinson. :)

  6. Love the new Diggs my Brother. Thanks for keeping me posted. I'll fish for both of us--you do the traveling, and we'll meet back and talk about it!

    Be Blessed as always!,


  7. Continues to sound like quite an adventure! Thanks for continuing to share your experiences and allowing us to travel along with you in a second hand way.

  8. No matter what, it sure does make for interesting experiences.. ones you'll never forget. Wonderful photos.. what an adventure.

    I'm sorry I don't comment as often as I'd like. I'm finding myself on the go a lot this summer.

  9. Haha. Love the Tetanus Trail. Gorgeous pics, as usual. Thanks for continuing to share.

  10. Wow! I'm reading these posts from latest to earliest, but it doesn't really matter because your adventure was fantastic! By the way, your photos are really good!