Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Happily Hanging in Halong (aka Alliteration is Fun!)


I landed in Hanoi, hoping to spend one night and then catch a boat to Halong Bay. What I had not hoped for was the nasty, rainy weather that greeted me and threatened to stick around for the duration of my visit. I checked into the hostel and went to weather.com hoping for reassurance- rain for the next five days. Obviously, they were hacks and did not know what they were talking about. So I went to wunderground.com- same answer. I tried a couple other sites, none gave me the answer I wanted. I started talking to people returning from Halong Bay trips. What did they know?

I was not sure what to do. The idea of boating, kayaking, snorkeling and hiking in the rain didn't really hold a lot of appeal. But when was the next time I was going to be this close to an almost natural world wonder? Like an idiot (because, really, there is no other word for it) I toyed with the idea of skipping Halong Bay. But, then again, rainy days amidst the hustle and bustle of Hanoi didn't sound so good either. It was one of those odd conundrums that felt very real at the time but looks pretty ridiculous in retrospect. World famous nature site vs. lively cosmopolitan city? Oh, the horrors. Particularly when there was nothing to prevent me from doing both.


I came to my senses and, discouraging weather sites be damned, I booked a three day, two night trip aboard the Majestic Junk. This is a ship, modelled after a Chinese Junk, that is on the higher end of the budget options, making it more likely to have both a younger crowd than the upscale ships yet better food and accommodations than the super-cheapo ones.

Day 1: After driving around Hanoi in a comfortable minibus picking up all 12 passengers, we settled in for a 4 hours ride, in intermittent rain, to Halong City. Our guide, Long, pointed out the obvious, that we might get wet all weekend along...but then again, we might not. Already, he was far more optimistic than everyone else I'd spoken with. He also explained a great deal about Vietnamese history and traditions, making the ride go by quickly.

I'd imagined that this weather was going to keep most people away, as it had in My Son, but one look around the port in Halong proved that I was way off. There were easily 20-30 junks floating in the bay, awaiting passengers and just as many tour groups on land waiting to board the tender boats. Trying to guess which junk was ours, we saw some vessels that were obviously nicer, others that were clearly shittier and most that fell somewhere into an ambiguous middle ground. Ours was one of the latter. We recognized it when we saw the pervy-sounding slogan in big bold letters "Welcome to the Magnificent Junk" emblazoned along the upper deck.

By the time we boarded what turned out to be our surprisingly nice new abode, the rain had stopped and the sun was making a valiant effort to appear. We were welcomed by the crew and assigned cabins and dining room seating arrangements, basically one table for vegetarian, another for non-vegetarians. I'm proud to say us veggies constituted almost half the group. I was, however, the lone solo female in the group, meaning that I lucked into a private room without having to pay the single supplement.


Our tasty welcome-aboard lunch was periodically interrupted by Long announcing the names of seemingly-random karsts, or limestone rock formations. The one pictured below is called the "Fighting Cocks". Why, I have no clue. It looks like anything but fighting cocks, yet the name seems to have stuck so there's no point arguing it.



Our first stop was an amazing and surprisingly large cave with three chamber bursting with colorfully lit-up stalactites and stalagmites. It's name: the Surprising Cave. It's other name (depending, it appears, on which company you book your tour through): the Amazing Cave.





We returned to our boat and continued to an island that, using the same naming-logic as that of the cave, should have been called the Island of a Million Steps. Instead it is named Titop Island, in honor of a Russian astronaut by that name who once visited with Ho Chi Minh. This island is where you find red-faced tourists, going either on their way up or down the bazillion steps that lead to a hill-top lookout. It was here that we got the worst weather of the day, and that was no worse than a mild drizzle. An inordinate number of people, mainly guys, found it hilarious to say something along the lines of "Halfway there!" when we were clearly almost at the top. Perhaps shortness of breath negatively impacts my sense of humor, but each time I heard that I wanted to give them a quick shove into the bay below. Fortunately, the view made it easy to forgive and forget the wanna-be comedians.


We were back on the Majestic Junk in time for sunset. Sitting on the upper deck, drinking a glass of wine and gazing at the scene in front of us felt practically unreal. Halong Bay has the kind of beauty so immense that is hard to completely take in, even when it is staring you in the face. I had to keep reminding myself that I was really here and not on elaborate movie set. Even if the following day brought a typhoon, it was already well worth the effort.




Day 2: When booking a Halong Bay tour, there are three options that are usually offered: 2 days/ 1 night; 3 days/ 1 night on the boat, 1 night on an island and 3 days/ 2 nights on the boat. The accepted wisdom is that there is not much to do on the island plus I love sleeping aboard boats, so I went with option #3, as did Tony, a British computer-programmer who I'd met at the hostel. Everyone else, chose one of the other options, so the morning was a time of transition and good-byes.


Amidst the commotion, Tony and I were transferred to an awaiting kayak. It was a dinky one, with no cockpit for storage. There was nowhere to store a camera where it would be easily accessible and I didn't want to wear it around my neck,for fear of capsizing, so although we were soon kayaking through spectacular scenery, I was unable to photograph any of it. This decision proved sensible when we encountered a group of kayak circling around one spot and learned that they were trying to find a camera that one of their members had dropped in the water. Considerably less sensible was our guide, a local squirrelly guy that our company had outsourced us to, who insisted on spending over an hour trying to retrieve the sunken treasure. Tony and I had initially tried to help out but soon saw the futility in the exercise and hung back, taking in the scenery. We were also taking in what was threatening to become an absolutely beautiful day. Against all meteorological likelihood, we had sunshine starting to peak out, making the clouds look a lot less menacing.

We eventually kayaked over to a small boat, where a cook with nothing but one burner and a couple of pots and pans was preparing an impressive multi-course lunch. I think that the plan was for us to have lunch and then continue kayaking, but in between our lazing on the upper deck and the staff's heated card game below, we were soon running late. In an effort to make up time, we ended up hiring an oarswoman to take us for a ride around the floating village, instead of trying to do it ourselves. What resulted was a quicker visit than I had hoped for, but one with the opportunity to take photos and focus on this bizarre water world that its inhabitants have created.




The local schoolhouse. 


As I have lamented before, no tour is complete without a shopping stop. This was already the second day, we were already past due for one and squirrelly guy did not disappoint. He took us to a pearl farm where bored looking employees quickly got to work inseminating oysters and harvesting odd colored pearls. Tony took a perverse delight in the knowledge that, as a man, he was going to be spared the hard sales push but, when it came time for the store visit, I don't know who was more apathetic, me or the saleswoman. The end result was that neither of us could really be bothered with the charade and I was able to wander out of there in relative peace.




By this time, the day had turned positively gorgeous.  I still have no idea how this happened. Every site I had looked at had predicted otherwise, but why question it when we could simply enjoy it.  By this time, our doofy guide had hopped on another boat and left, leaving us with the non-English speaking crew. After a lot of shrugging and gesturing, it was decided that they would take us back to our boat to await the new arrivals.





We were so relaxed lounging on the deck, watching amazing scenery that could never get old that ten people managed to arrive via tender boat, unload and settle in before we realized that they had arrived.


As with the night before, after dinner, a small group of people attempted to fish for squid off the rear of the boat. The first night, I stayed away, lest someone actually catch a squid and I instinctively find myself compelled to wrest it away and attempt to save it. The second night, I knew better. No one was going to catch a thing. If there is a single squid in the area, he knows to stay the hell away from the bay full of tourist-filled junks.

Day 3: Cue Annie Lenox. The rain had come again and this time, it had an attitude. No matter, though, because all that was planned for this day was our return to Hanoi. We were rejoined with Long, who had been in Cat Ba island with the group from the first day and after comparing stories, we all made our way back to the harbor. We ran in the rain to the waiting minibus and after a leisurely lunch stop, settled in for the four hour ride back. During the drive, it already seemed so foreign to me that I had almost missed out on what turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in Vietnam and all because of some pesky promised precipitation that perchance petered out.

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