Halong Bay is a magical place. Its rocky islands are so picturesque, yet photos don’t do them justice. I had so many people tell me how amazing the place was that I was afraid I’d end up disappointed. But the place lives up to the hype.
I opted for a two-night, three-day stay – one night on the boat and one on Cat Ba Island. I was really glad I did, because the second night really made the trip. We had a good group on the boat for the first night – an international mix that included folks from the UK, Israel, Chile, and even a group of Americans who were good fun. I really haven’t met that many Americans in my travels here, so I enjoyed a dose of the energetic and, at times, teasingly combative banter that I’m surrounded by at home.
On the first day we did the standard tourist loop, seeing a cave, a small beach with a good viewpoint, and getting time to kayak. They warned us about jellyfish in the bay, and true enough I got a small sting while swimming at the approved beach. Just a little brush, really, more perplexing than painful.
Kayaking has never been my strong suit, so I was actually relieved when my kayaking partner, Adrienne, confessed that she is not the strongest paddler. We made a fun, if not slightly pathetic, team. We could never quite figure out how to go straight (except in reverse), but coordinated our stroke timing perfectly. At one point our group found a narrow rock cave that our kayaks could just barely scrape through. Of course we got a little stuck, but instinctively coordinated our butt skootching perfectly to get ourselves through. Kayaking was slightly redeemed for me by this excursion.
Unfortunately when I was getting out of the kayak, my camera fell in the mucky water at the bottom of the boat. One of those things I saw happening before I stood up, but was too trusting to actually take steps to prevent (like checking whether my camera was securely in its pouch). I was hoping that a night in a bag of rice might revive it, but even after picking out the rice that got itself lodged in the battery compartment, my camera wouldn’t move pass the “set date” screen. At least I didn’t lose any existing photos and would have time for camera shopping once I returned to Hanoi.
That night we bought a bottle of cheap local whiskey from the woman paddling by in her basket boat; it wasn’t half bad for $6! While the other Americans pooped out after belting out pop tunes on karaoke (of course the boat had karaoke, it’s a national pastime here), a group of us stayed up drinking and talking under the stars. We ended up in some deep theoretical discussions spawned by a word association game Matt (the Brit) started. This is what I love about travelling – it doesn’t matter where people come from, if you take the time to get to what drives them, what they believe, you can quickly feel connected to those who were absolute strangers just hours earlier.
The next day we went to a natural pearl farm, which was interesting for a tourist trap. Then we had to part ways with the majority of the people on our boat since only me and Matt were doing the two-night trip. We were joined by two Canadians – Jenny and Jacob – and ended up making a fabulous foursome. We had a boat all to ourselves that day and became fast friends. Before lunch we stopped in a little cove where there were no other tourists – the only other boat within sight was a small fishing boat in the distance. This was a reportedly spot with no jellyfish, so we were able to jump off the boat and swim to a private little white sand beach. And, shocker, I actually jumped off the second level of the boat! Anyone who knows me knows I’m afraid of jumping off high places (goes back to me almost failing my childhood swim class because I froze in fear on the end of the diving board). But after some encouragement (Matt questioning “what could possibly happen?” and Jacob retorting “you could break your neck on the way down…”) I pushed past my fear and went for it. Of course the anticipation is always worse than the act. It was no big deal after all. But I was still proud of myself. And that secluded swim was an absolute highlight.
I was actually surprised at how developed Cat Ba Island is. I guess I was expecting something that felt more remote. But it was still small and relatively untouristed (well, at least by whities; lots of Vietnamese tourists about). While everyone else napped I headed to the beach, since I knew it’d be my last ocean swim for a while. It was pretty empty on the beach when I arrived, and I did my usual routine of renting a shaded chair (the whitening products are looking more logical by the day here). The uniformed guard at the attached restaurant asked me where I was from. For some reason I said Canada, because honestly you never know what you’ll get when you say American, and everyone asks, it’s just what they do. He then invited me to sit with him and his friend for a cup of hot green tea. Not what I crave on a hot day, but you don’t say no to such things. He didn’t know much English but we communicated in the way you do in that situation (smiles, nods, etc.). He wanted me to have a drink, but I communicated that I really wanted a swim and to come talk to me after.
So I “swam” in the most intense waves I’ve seen anywhere here – not a swim so much as dodging the unrelenting waves (over one, under the next, repeat). When I dragged myself out of the water, true to his word the guard came over with what looked like a pre-packaged bottle of green tea, but turned out to be homemade rice wine. He gave me a tea cup full and when I started sipping he corrected me – this was a shooting alcohol, and, man, does it burn! He then did a shot himself and offered me another, which I politely declined. He sat for a while then took his leave. These are the interactions that make me love this country. Now, would he have been so nice if I’d said I was American? I’ll never know.
That night the four of us went out for drinks, meaning to make it an early night. Yeah, that never works. We first stopped at a cute sidewalk bar, but were quickly overwhelmed by the electro-pop karaoke blasting from inside. After a quick spin through an unimpressive night market, we found the seemingly only bar catering to Westerners and staked out a table on the balcony overlooking the harbor and the main street. We were there for hours, of course. We traded rounds, and at one point the boys played pool and foosball while me and Jenny got some quality time together. After many drinks, laughs, and a melon-flavored shisha (yum), we headed out. Had the best hotdog ever (who knew mayo, chili sauce and cucumbers are good on a hotdog?) and walked towards home.
After dropping Jenny and Jacob at their place, me and Matt happened upon two empty hammocks in the harbor-front park. Since Matt had never been in a hammock before, we just had to have a sit. We ended up lounging for about an hour, chatting and relaxing. I was actually surprised I didn’t see sunrise from that spot, given how comfortable it was and how tired we were by that point. Regardless, it was a great end to a fun evening.
The next day we headed back to Hanoi, and I had to say goodbye to the magic that was Halong Bay. The place is beautiful and special, but the people I met there really made the trip!