The past two days have been spent aboard a wonderful boat in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, which is about a 4 hour drive from Hanoi (although it is not all that far kilometers wise from Hanoi). Halong Bay is Vietnam’s answer to Milford Sound in New Zealand (if you’ve been- I’m sure it looks similar to other places as well) and is made up of 3,000+ islands in the Golf of Tonkin, which has recently (in 1994) been designated a World Heritage Site (thanks again Lonely Planet). There are lots of tiny islands covered in vegetation and the occasional beach, as well as the occasional fishing community and actual communities that live on the water in houses upon oil tanks.
My booked with a backpackers tour recommended by my guidebook and met up with my group at 8:15am. I wasn’t sure who I was going to end up meeting but much similar to my previous experiences with these sorts of trips, I found myself to be the only American. There were several people from England (hi Jo, June and Craig!) and a couple from Australian, two girls from Ireland (hi Paula and Anne!) and several other couples, one of which were on their honeymoon from Hungary. We set off on our drive and the weather was not the best of weather, just cloudy, and our tour guide Anh (I think that was how it was spelled) started things off with a sort of pop quiz/trivia session that really made everyone at ease I think and allowed us all to introduce ourselves.
The trip out to the Bay was fun but also long and we finally made it to our boat around 12:30. We boarded as the group from the previous day boarded our bus to head back to Hanoi. The boat that we boarded was a smaller boat that was going to take us out to our Traditional Junk boat that we were going to be on for the night. So we headed out into the Bay away from the city. We made it to our Junk boat which was awesome--it had probably 5 or 6 levels to it! Our sleeping cabins were full on hotel rooms, with showers and bathrooms and I even had two beds to myself! It was very posh, and I think that we were all impressed. We joined a family from, I think, Belgium with two cute little boys, one of which kept shouting “Mama, mama” practically the entire boat ride. They were very sweet and were absolutely sure that we were on a pirate ship.
Lunch started around 1:30 and we were all instructed on where to sit (for some reason we had to sit in these seats but it really didn’t seem to make a difference) and sat down to a buffet style meal that was really good. I ordered an orange juice which tasted sort of suspicious. More about that later.
Anyways, after lunch and getting to know the rest of the group, we cruised on for a while. We spent that time taking it easy on the top of the boat where there were lounge chairs and everything. No complaints so far! We headed over to a cave called Hang Sung Sot, which is also known as the “Amazing Cave” and it was, well, pretty amazing! Due to the wind and the water, there are lots of caves with stalactites and stalagmites. There were three parts to the cave and each part got more and more amazing (more ooohing and ahhhing as you went further in) and the third cave had this “amazing” phallic rock that was illuminated by a bright pink light. There was no way of avoiding it, you walked right in and BAM there it was. Of *course* you had to take pictures of it just to say that you did! The caves were interesting and when we headed back down to the boat there were locals trying to sell things to us (and unfortunately children trying to sell shells from the reefs) and we wondered how much money do they actually make just sitting in their boats waiting for tourists to come out? That is when we realized (as we saw a young girl approaching in her boat) that the woman’s’ boat was an actually shop and that she sold goods to people that lived on the waters, not just to tourists.
We headed back out into the bay and saw a neat pagoda on the top of an island (which to our disappointment wasn’t anything of religious nature--just put there for tourists to have something to climb up to and look down) and ended up anchoring for the night. The scenery was spectuacular and due to the weather there was this amazing foggyness around the islands which gave everything much more of a wonderful feeling to it all.
A few of us, being the brave and bold women that we are, decided to go for a swim and headed to the back of the boat (much to the amusement of the people working on the boat) and swam out into the water, which I have to say, wasn’t at its warmest temperature, but wasn’t all that bad. Plus it was super salty so you hardly had to do any work at all to stay afloat. After our swim there was a little while before it was time for dinner, which again was a repeat buffet similar to that of lunch but with different foods. It was nice because unlike a typical buffet where you go up and help yourself, sampler plates were presented at each table so that everyone could take a little bit from each plate and try everything.
I was feeling alright at this point, and even after dinner when we played a couple mean card games of B.S. (otherwise known as bull sh*t…) and another game called Lives (I think) which is a lot like the American version of Uno. Around 11 o’clock it was off to bed, but I found myself not feeling too well. I couldn’t fall asleep for the life of me and had this horrible feeling that something else was going to be keeping me awake, and it was going to involve the bathroom. You get the picture.
What I didn’t expect was the sound coming from my closet around 1:30 am. Scratch scratch scratch. Oh god, what is THAT? It sounded JUST like a mouse. I almost immediately turned on both of my lights and jumped out of my bed (my bed was right next to where the sound was coming from). Then it started sounding like it was scratching around in a bit of plastic. Scratch crumple scratch crumple. Oh god, its in my TRASH CAN! My trash ban was just a paper basket at the end of my bed with a plastic bag in it and a lid on top. It didn’t seem to be moving, but I had to check to see if it was in there so I opened it up and didn’t find it (luckily!) but the scratching continued. I decided that it must be in my closet so I slide the door open and tried my best to shut it and lock it and that’s when it SLAMMED back open, making this huge banging sound that I was sure woke up everyone on the boat. Sure enough, I could hear Paula and Anne talking in the room near mine. Oh man. Well, the mysterious creature lurking in my room stopped scratching for a while, but then started up again and I got my closet door shut and locked and stuffed a towel in the crack that was left between the door since it didn’t shut quite all the way, and I figured if that mouse or whatever it is is going to get out, its going to have to work at it.
I got back into bed but not for too long since this is when all of the fun in the bathroom started. It stopped periodically throughout the rest of the night and I was able to get a little sleep between trips. I awoke around 5:30am and spent the rest of the waking hours commuting and just not feeling well. Around 7:30 I decided that I needed to ask someone to help me because I had forgotten my anti-you-know-what medicine back at the hotel in Hanoi (of course) so I was desperate.
I found Craig, Jo and June up on the top of the boat and June came to my rescue with her supply of intestine-paralyzing medicine and I sat upstairs on the top of the boat for a little bit before making my way back down to my room, where to my horror I had run out of toilet paper (too much detail? You can stop reading you know) and I had to get creative in my bathroom (which was also a wet-room--basically a room that you could shower in and use as a bathroom). You get the picture. Anyways, I skipped breakfast and after a while decided that fresh air was probably a good idea. The problem was that I was feeling horribly nauseas even though all of the other symptoms were disappearing. It wasn’t the rocking of the boat that’s for sure (the water was dead calm, we hardly even rocked anyway) and so we all figured that it must have been the strange looking orange juice that I had ordered for lunch the day before that made me ill, since the rest of the group seemed just fine.
We spent the rest of the morning cruising along back to the shore of Halong City (next to the Bay) where all the boats come and go and saw plenty of touristy boats and fishermen and watched in a amusement as our boat attempted to “park” along with several other boats, which really meant all trying to go up to the dock at once and then backing up when there was a spot available then, as Joan put it, “parting the red seas” to get the boat through, as out boat pushed the others out of the way. We got back onto our bus (which was dropping off the next group from Hanoi to go on the tour) and we headed over to a restaurant for lunch (again with the nice buffet however I didn’t eat too much and stuck mostly with the vegetables) and then a short walk on the beach. Then it was another 4 hour or so bus ride back to Hanoi (by this time it was raining) and I was feeling not so hot but surprisingly wasn’t sick on the way back. I managed to nod in and out most of the way back which was good because I felt much better getting more sleep since I hadn’t had much the night before. We made it back to Hanoi and I said goodbye to my new friends who were off on a train trip to Sapa that night, and planned to meet up with Paula and Anne for a drink before heading to the Vietnamese theater. I wasn’t too sure if I would be up to sitting through the play, but I really wanted to go because I had finally met some really great people on my trip to hang out with! Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling better when they showed up so I opted just to have a drink (Sprite and water mind you) and talk with them for a bit before they headed over to the Hanoi Opera House which was right next door to my hotel to see their play.
It was good thing that I didn’t go because I went straight up to bed and to sleep, which was at about 8:45pm with hopes of feeling better in the morning. Despite the minor set back of feeling ill, these past two days have been a blast and it was so good to meet other people and spend some time away from hotel life under the stars (they were there, we just couldn't see them becuase it was cloudy) and in the Bay.
(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.