To take a break from the constant drone of the bustling & smoggy city of Hanoi, I got away on a three day, two night tour of the mysterious, beautiful, and much quieter, Ha Long Bay.
This wonderful landscape of limestone cliffs enshrouded in mist cascading into the gentle waters became a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1994. By the way, since I never knew, UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
It’s not the cliffs themselves that make Ha Long Bay unique, but rather their sheer number. This huge bay is dotted with nearly 2,000 mostly uninhabited jagged limestone islands. Created over millions of years, tectonic forces slowly thrust the limestone above the water-line. During this process waves lapping against the stone carved out a number of huge, striking caves.
Over the ages, Vietnamese fishermen with too much time on their hands began to see shapes in the stone islands, and named them accordingly — Turtle Island, Human Head Island, Chicken Island and so on. But one of the most fascinating cultural features of the bay is the floating fishing villages, where houses are set atop barges and the inhabitants catch and cultivate fish year around.
My tour, as well as hundreds of others, consisted of a ride on a ‘traditional’ (but rebuilt copy of course—like everything you buy in Vietnam) junk boat. A junk is a traditional Chinese sailing vessel.
After we walked down the dock and then precariously climbed over several other boats, we hoisted ourselves aboard our shiny wooden decked and trimmed junk. It was nicer than I expected. There was a large lounge/dining room and an upper deck with lounge chairs and potted plants. I shared a double room with a French gal and it was larger than many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. For $75 I was getting two nights lodging (one on the boat and one at a 3-star hotel on an island), three lunches, two dinners, and two breakfasts, plus the tour guide, all transportation costs, and activities—quite an amazing value.
The bay is really a magical place. It was so peaceful compared to the city we’d left behind just hours ago. It was nice and quiet out here—well, except for the one hundred or so other tourist ‘junks’ that sailed around us following just about the same route.
Oh, and one other thing that just seems impossible to escape in Vietnam? The Hawkers. Even out here in the calm, quiet waters, tiny women in tiny boats approached.
“Excuse me. Please buy something from me. Oreos? Ritz Cracker? I have snack for you.”
These women were tireless and the most persistent salespeople I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps they should come to the states and try their hand at pharmaceutical sales… they could make a fortune. Well, considering the fact that most middle class people here earn about $50 to $100 per month, working anywhere else could make them a small fortune. If you bought something, they would toss it up to you in the boat and you would try to get your money down to them without it drifting into the water.
On the first day we docked at one of the many islands and took a tour inside what I think is the most amazing cave I’ve ever seen. They call it the “Surprising Cave” and once inside you can see why. There are three main caverns in it and each one gets larger than the next. The walls were illuminated with colorful lights to show off the limestone formations really adding to the overall coolness. Stalactites grew down to meet their friendly stalagmites all around us.
Our boat held twelve tourists—a really nice small group for a tour like this. As I’ve learned, most times, it’s really the group that makes the tour and not the tour itself (barring any huge tour issues). We had a great international contingency: An Australian couple from Melbourne who I became quite fond of (too bad I met them after I stayed there!), a cool Canadian guy that was taking some time off before he returned to Toronto after living and teaching in Taiwan for two years, a girl from France who was in Hanoi volunteering, a Japanese student, a quiet Korean guy who was also here to volunteer, a friendly, fun couple from Germany, and a British family traveling throughout Asia for seven months.
Today, this area is a booming tourism zone. Tourism in general really just got started in Vietnam about ten years ago. So, you can imagine some kinks are still not completely ironed out… and even when they are, the folks here just don’t have the years of experience to make it a completely smooth sail, pun intended.
As I’ve said, the tour and accommodations were beyond my expectations and that was a really nice surprise, but they are still learning the tourism ‘ropes’ here. They sometimes give the customer the minimum of what’s expected and they certainly don’t know the phrase “the customer is always right,” yet. There were two amusing examples of this:
- I paid about $15 extra for what this tour company called the “VIP” tour. It meant I was supposed to be on a slightly nicer boat and the second night’s hotel would be three stars instead of two. Well, it turned out that about half the folks on my boat were not VIP—so I guess there was no real boat difference. BUT, these non-VIPers would be charged to use the air conditioning units in the rooms because it was not included in their tour. My A/C use was included in my VIP treatment. Well, the tour guide, Linh, a very effeminate Vietnamese guy who majored in English but we could barely understand, made sure to pull me aside to tell me that we could use the A/C when I was in the room, but my French roommate, who was not VIP, could not use it alone. And he was not joking. All the VIPers were handed their A/C remotes and would have to return them the next day. It was quite hilarious.
- On the final day, the couple from Deutschland, Anya and Bernard, accidentally broke their key off in their room lock. The guide said they would have to pay for a whole new door knob/lock. It was a very awkward situation. We all knew back in our respective countries, the hospitality etiquette would be for the manager to apologize to them and just get them a new key. But here in ‘Nam—the customer broke it and would have to pay.The cost was going to be US$10 because the staff claimed they would have to replace the whole thing. I spoke up and asked if we could just get some pliers and remove the key bit from the door. Luckily, one passenger had a multi-tool and just a few minutes later Bernard reappeared with the end of the key. So now all they would need is a new key. They continued to contend it was very expensive and wanted about 50,000 Dong. Now this is only a little more than three dollars, but it was the principal. We all knew that here in the world of cheap copies, there was no way a duplicate key to a cheap lock would cost that much. Everything here is about a quarter less than it would be at home.
Anyway, back to our fun getaway. After a scrumptious meal of many courses and much seafood, we hung out chatting as our boat dropped anchor for the night amidst the sea and stars. Silhouetted against the night sky were the forms of dozens of looming limestone cliffs—it was surreal.
The next day we was an active one—cycling in the morning on one of the islands and kayaking in the afternoon in and around some of the caves. Not only was the bicycle ride a warm-up to my upcoming two-week ride through the country of Vietnam, it was also quite an eye-opening experience to see ‘real life’ for many here.
We cycled through farm fields and into a small and very remote village on the island. These people are truly self-reliant—growing, killing, and cooking their own meals is a daily way of life. And yes, I must tell you, that I saw firsthand one of the staples of their diet—dog. It became evident rather quickly, as we rode past the small mud and thatched homes, that every single one had dogs and puppies laying around their cement slab of a ‘front yard.’
As I cycled by, I thought to myself, there is no way all these people could have or afford to have these dogs as pets. So, I rode up to Linh and asked him if they were in fact raised for eating. Not only did he say yes, but he said he’d tried it and said it was “quite tasty.” Now before you get too upset, all I can say is this:
I am a very big animal lover. I would and could never hurt an animal or kill one myself to eat. This is not to say I don’t realize where the meat that I eat comes from. Believe me, I continue to think about becoming a vegetarian and struggle with my hypocrisy all the time. I try to do what I can to eat organic and free range animals, but again, I do not do this all the time. I understand we eat meat. I am fine with this; it’s just animal abuse that I am not fine with. If animals have a peaceful and happy life and are killed in a humane way, then I think this is okay. I still could not do it myself, but I think it is okay. No suffering of any kind is the key.
So, back to Vietnam: These dogs were all hanging out roaming around freely and seemed happy. If this is part of their diet like cows are part of ours than I guess that’s just the way it is. These dogs were not domesticated and were not wagging their tails at any of us. So, all I can say is: it seemed okay. But of course, I also tried not to think about it too hard. I guess last year was a pretty crappy year for dogs in the ‘Year of the Dog,’ and, for this year’s pigs, I don’t think it’s any better.
So, speaking of eating, in the middle of the day, our boat pulled right up to a deserted sandy island beach, unloaded a table, chairs, white tablecloth, and china, and we had a lovely lunch on the beach. It was all quite nice—prawns, chicken, fried rice, tofu, calamari, and fruit. As I write this, I’m also seeing the complete ironic contrast of our fabulously luxurious easy life compared to the poor villages we had just waved to only moments earlier. I guess we at least have to remember to be thankful for all that we really have and to give back when we can.
That night we slept on Cat Ba Island in what was probably the most luxurious hotel I’ve stayed in since my beach time in Australia. Of course, here, it was only $25 a night, but it had regular Western rooms with TV, fridge, A/C and a big, but incredibly hard bed. We dined in the hotel restaurant and relaxed for the evening. The following day after a series of boat changes mid bay, we returned back to the harbor where we had started and boarded our mini bus back to the hustle of Hanoi. This time I was prepared for the full-on assault of the city and it seemed just a little tamer then when we left… well, not tamer, but I knew what to expect.