Halong Bay and its descending dragons

Bouncing around inside a minibus a hundred kilometres from Hanoi, with my vertebrae doing their best to separate with every pothole in the road, I had occasion to question my judgement. Since my judgement is notoriously suspect, that’s not an infrequent thing; it happens at least daily, and sometimes hourly. Not completely surprising, since travel does broaden the mind, after all. Anyone who can survive travelling for nearly a year and a half with their confidence in their own judgement intact hasn’t been to anywhere interesting. But still, I’m getting a little tired of hearing my private interior voice ask Was this really such a good idea?

Especially since it had been a headache to arrange all this in the first place. Navigating the infinite and subtle strata of Hanoi’s scam tourist agencies hadn’t been any fun at all. The longer we spent at it, the less confidence I’d had in any of them. We’d finally given in to the badgering of the agency attached to our hotel, thinking that at least they wouldn’t be able to pretend not to know us if we came back and confronted them after a bad experience - which is a thing that happens to a sizeable fraction of Halong Bay package tourists.

Normally we wouldn’t have bothered with a package tour in the first place; it’s not at all the way we do things. But we were running out of time; due to meet our Japanese friend Sayaka halfway across the country in less than ten days, we didn’t have the luxury of slow travel this time. So after all the warnings and all the hassle, I was hardly shocked when the desk girl at our hotel chirpily told us that we’d been ‘upgraded’ to a different boat. There’s a huge secondary market in boat-tour seats in Hanoi, and regardless of what you’re told up-front, you’ll never know what boat you’re going on until you’re on board. You’re at the mercy of luck to some extent, and of the aggregators to a much greater extent. But naturally the desk girl assured me that our ‘new’ boat was much more luxurious and we were getting a much better package than we’d paid for.

Spare me, I thought at the time, and I was still thinking it now as we bounced along - inasmuch as thinking was possible between the jolts. In the minivan with us were six or eight other tourists, a mixed bag of all nationalities. It was very early in the morning and everybody was bleary, cranky or both - except for Sheryl and an irrepressibly enthusiastic Malaysian Chinese man named Wong. Headache aside, it was impossible to stay surly in the face of his bubbly good nature, and that distracted me until we got to the docks at Halong City.

Having had a taste of Vietnamese-style chaos in Hanoi, I was expecting the huge mobs of tourists all milling about the docks, having been dropped off within the same quarter-hour by minivans of their own. But I was surprised at the brisk efficiency of the orange-shirted guides who somehow managed to get the thousands of bewildered, flushed and red-faced sightseers sorted into lines and waiting at the correct quays for the little barges to take them to their cruise boats - excuse me, to their junks. Nautical I am not - I can’t say these were proper junks or not, but they were roughly the right shape, although their little sails wouldn’t be much help for actual propulsion.

I don’t ask a lot from a boat, to be honest. If it has one pointy end, some way of moving, and it doesn’t sink I’m generally happy. Even so, we’d spent more money than I was happy with for this jaunt and I was really hoping that ours didn’t turn out to be crawling with rats or awash with sewage (reports about both of which I’d heard, for some of the cheaper companies). The boat threaded its way through the dense flotilla of wooden ships until it reached ours, and we scrambled over a ramp and into the junk.

The desk girl hadn’t been lying; we really had been upgraded. The ship was all in rich dark wood, and our cabin was much nicer than any of our hotel rooms have ever been. Any lingering doubts vanished when the tour guide buttonholed us to ask, sotto voce, that we not tell any of the other passengers how much we’d paid. It was a nice feeling, for once, to get more than we’d paid for. Could it be that we’d won for once, and that we’d really gotten the better of the dodgy agencies? I’ll never know, but it would be good to think so.

There was some remaining extortion to be discovered, naturally, and it came in the form of corkage fees. Like all cruises everywhere, the Halong Bay boats have onboard bars, and everybody knows that tourists like to drink. And in another example of the ongoing move and counter-move in the battle that is the Vietnamese tourist industry, when the boat companies realized that their passengers were declining to pay their inflated prices and bringing their own hooch on board, they decided to start charging them for the privilege - to the tune of $1 per bottle of water, $2 for soft drinks and $5 for beer or liquor. This is roughly the same price they were charging to buy the stuff outright at the bar. But we’d been warned ahead of time and kept our booze hidden the whole time. Clearly, saving money wins out over class every time, in our case. Some people didn’t care, though; one American couple ran up a $55 bar tab without realizing it. That’s just the price of a few drinks back in Toronto, but it’s enough to live cheaply on for a week, here.

But y’know, when the fleet began to break up and get under way, it suddenly all became worth it. This is the way you hope it goes, when you’re stuck in the middle of the scamming and the haggling and the bullshit. Halong Bay, truly, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Little overgrown green limestone islands stuck up tooth-like from the warm jade water in strings and clusters like jewels sprinkled across the bay. The weather was perfect. The air was clean and the sky was endless blue. The Vietnamese have a romantic legend about dragons fighting invading Chinese: Hạ Long means “descending dragon”. We cruised through the bay for three hours, threading our way between the islands. Sheryl and I spent the time on deck, getting sunburnt taking pictures - we’re not used to the sun anymore, after China’s overcast skies.

After lunch (for which we were obliged to share a table with a middle-aged Russian couple who despised us for reasons we were never able to discover) the boat pulled up at the first stop on the bill, the “Amazing Cave”. It was definitely big, I’ll give it that - a huge multileveled sea-cave that thousands of years of tides have eaten into the side of an island. Generations of traffic, mud and flooding have left only the larger, blobbier limestone formations. A concrete walking path wound through the caverns, all illuminated by coloured spotlights. Sheryl and I got away from the tour group, which we always try to do in caves, and went off on our own, and Wong joined us later to shoot some photos.

After the caves we got to take some little kayaks out around the islands for an hour or so, and see some of the rock walls, cracks and crevices up close. The water was calm and as flat as glass, except when we had to fight the wakes of the cruise boats and sampans in a narrow channel between two islands. They weren’t what I think of as “real” kayaks, just cheap plastic floaties to sit on top of and paddle with plastic oars - but it was still enough work that my shoulders remembered it the next morning.

We tied up the kayaks and waited for the junk at a floating fishing village - a fascinating place. I’m not sure what I expected a floating village to be - maybe a bunch of boats tied together? A century ago, it might have been - now it’s more like a lot of flat rafts floating on air-filled barrels and massive chunks of styrofoam, with shacks built on top and the fishing boats tied to the edges of the rafts. Nets hung beneath the rafts, and mesh-lined holes were cut into the planks of the… floor? deck? to hold swimming seafood waiting to be sold and eaten - eels, cuttlefish and fish of half a dozen species. I’ve never seen a live cuttlefish before, they’re really neat. They have strange goat-like eyes with slotted pupils, and they were curious enough to tentacle my finger.

A fiery sunset was accompanied by an astonishingly complimentary glass of (equally astonishingly) hideous red Vietnamese wine, and all the passengers jumping off the top deck of the boat into the water. It was beautiful, swimming in the sweat-warm water and watching all the islands and boats turn into dark silhouettes against the purple sky. After dinner Sheryl and I lay on deckchairs in the dark for hours, listening to the slapping of the waves against the hull, drinking our cheap smuggled vodka and watching little black bat-shapes flitting between us and a million, million stars.

We were the only ones awake early in the morning. The crew had had a party after we went to bed. We hadn’t heard them, but their comatose bodies sprawled amidst empty bottles and splashes of puke told the tale. We stepped gingerly around them to the top deck to watch the sun come up again. Just before dawn the whole world was lustrous with a directionless pink mother-of-pearl glow. Women in little rowboats paddled from ship to ship, their tiny vessels stacked with boxes and bags like floating convenience-stores. None of them looked impressed to be awake that early. Yawning, bored, and in some cases leaning back and rowing with their feet, they left silently diverging deltoid wakes on the flat water, and the first sign we’d have of one approaching would be her pointed conical nón lá (leaf-hat) appearing over the ship’s railing. As the other passengers came up blearily onto the deck,the sun rose and turned the calm water into a silver mirror. The islands in the distance were a perfect study in atmospheric perspective, stepping back from sharp bright pinks to blurred purples and violets in the distance.

The cruise back to the harbour was no less spectacular than on the way out; Halong Bay truly is a jewel of Southeast Asia. I’d have liked to spend longer, but the train was waiting. When we reached the docks at Halong City, the guides refused to return the passports they’d confiscated at the beginning of the tour until all the passengers had settled their various bar tabs. The minibus ride back to Hanoi was broken up by a 45-minute stop at a a hugely overpriced souvenir shop in the middle of nowhere, so that “the driver can have lunch”. I wasn’t about to buy any wooden elephants or cork-carvings or whatever other junk they were selling (in fact, I didn’t see a single tourist out of five or six minivans buy anything at all) but I was happy enough to have a break from the bumpy road.

When we reached Hanoi we said what turned out to be a temporary goodbye to Wong (he was destined to become a recurring character in our travels) and returned to our hotel to wait out the time until our train that night. When the staff asked if we’d had a good time on the cruise, I was genuinely happy to say yes. Halong Bay is worth the hassle and the scams. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

December 24th, 2010

Nice to see you posting again….

December 24th, 2010

Thanks Bill. We’ll see if I can keep it up.

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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