It's hard to pick just one favorite part of our trip, I suppose like picking a favorite child or type of cheese (impossible!) but if I had to make, say, a top five list, Halong Bay would surely secure a spot. It was, I think, what I had most been looking forward to and - despite a rocky (pun!) start, blew my expectations ... out of the water.
So why don't you come Halong on a virtual journey through the misty seas of Vietnam. I must warn you this is quite Halong post, so get comfortable.
I am a moron. And could do this ALL DAY.
Ok! Moving right...yep...HALONG!
One thing we learned about Vietnam, the cities serve as hubs for tourists to do activities and trips out of town. In Hanoi in particular there about as many tour companies as there are motorbikes running all sorts of adventures, with Halong Bay being one of the most popular destinations. There are tours at all levels from party boats with backpacker youths (my nightmare) to majorly swanky ships with formal dining rooms and dance floors and the whole nine. We opted for one riiiight in the middle, run by Vega Travel, which we read about on Natalie's blog - she seems normal and cool and travels all the time so we trusted her recommendation. And they were great! Mid-level pricing, delish food, a small group of 20/30-somethings who were totally up for beers on the deck...but still tucking in by 11 PM. Perfecto!
The company picked us up at our hotel at 8 AM on the dot and drove us and the rest of our group - 13 in total - from Hanoi to the Halong Bay, about 4 hours or so. The drive was gorgeous, our first taste of the Vietnam countryside: bright green rice fields, water buffalo and towns popping up in clusters along the main road. At about noon we rolled into the Halong Bay Tourist Harbor...literal actual name, "Tourist Harbor," ha! They know their crowd.
The next 30 minutes were not my finest, I was in a bit of a tizzy. The space was overflowing with tour groups, the day was so foggy we could barely see five feet in front of us, our captain was running late and I couldn't tell if the other people on our boat were cool. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip for so long and was all stressed that we'd be on a crap boat with a slow captain and a bunch of weirdos, so foggy it wasn't worth it.
My worry was, as it usually is when I'm in a spiral, for naught. Our captain arrived oh, six minutes late, puttering into the harbor on a small boat that would take us to our larger Junk Boat where we'd spend the night. We had to walk down the narrowest, slipperiest stone steps to get on the boat - probably the most dangerous thing we did all trip, ha! Our Junk Boat was perfectly nice with three decks - one on top for sunning, a middle deck with a covered dining room and bar, and bedrooms downstairs. Our room was just about big enough for a double bed...
... goofball photo bomber not included.
We had a super tasty lunch in the dining room as we headed out to sea. I was feeling sliiiightly calmer but the the fog continued to hang low - we couldn't see anything on the horizon and I kept half expecting Johnny Depp to ride out of the mist.
Alas, he did not. But something even better happened! The sun began to tentatively peek from the clouds and around us we saw dark, hulking rock shadows rising up from the sea.
The effect is truly impossible to capture in photos and almost more impossible to describe. The water is a deep blue-green, with rocky grey crags - called karsts - rising up as far as the eye can see. Some karsts are joined into island formations, others standing alone and most covered in lush greenery. It never fails to amaze me how new life can grow from cold rocks. Nature! We all sprinted from the dining room to the top deck, running from side to side snapping photos.
The rest of our trip turned out to be SO MUCH better than advertised. We knew there was a vague plan to "see some caves and kayak." I thought we'd just kind of look at a cave and paddle some kayaks around in a circle and call it a night. And I was still stoked about that! Instead we boarded our small boat again and puttered to one of the karsts where we (and, admittedly, eleventy-zillion other tour groups) were led into a series of three glacial caves, each bigger and more impressive than the last. My photos came out terribly so I won't subject you to that mess but I can best describe the landscape and size of the caves as..intergalactic. I felt as though I was walking on the moon. Or maybe in the moon?
I'm a really good writer.
Oh here's one photo that is worth sharing, from the third and biggest of the caves, nicknamed "Surprise Cave." The surprise is that rock jutting out of the lower left which looks either like a pointing finger orrrrrr, yes, a boner. And bonus: the finger/boner is pointing right up into a hole in the ceiling. And that's what the tour guide said, I didn't just make that up because I'm a perv!! That's really why they call it "Surprise Cave!!" What a country!!
The best part of this was the group of middle-aged, conservatively dressed Indian women behind us YUCKING it up. They could not get enough of this boner rock. They were hooting and hollering like they were at Thunder Down Under or something. I was rolling. Live it up, ladies.
After the caves, we boarded our lil' boat again and zipped over to a floating dock, where we suited up in life jackets and hopped (well, tentatively lowered ourselves) into kayaks.
We paddled around the bay and the karsts, close enough you could touch them. We were out for about an hour and our very slight delay in leaving The Tourist Harbor had us at a major advantage. Dusk was just beginning to fall and all outher tour groups were heading back in as we were going out, leaving us alone on the water. We paddled under a natural tunnel in one of the rocks, opening up to a serene lagoon surrounded on all sides by steep, rocky walls. Our whole group fell into a revered silence as all around us, nature came alive: birds calling, water lapping against the rocks, breeze moving through the trees. On one bank a group of monkeys came out to play and we paddled over to watch them, there were at least a dozen little guys climbing trees and swinging from branches, while a stern and stout older monkey sat on a rock and stared us down.
I didn't bring my camera with me on the kayak and, though I could have snapped a million photos, I'm glad I didn't have it. It wouldn't have been possible to capture it all.
It was, and you know I don't usually go down this road, spiritual. I actually had goosebumps. Sitting there in our little kayak, surrounded by such largess of nature and history was a powerful and moving experience and one I hope to never forget.
Eventually we shook ourselves out of our nature-induced trances and paddled out and into the bay, headed towards a lone rock with another natural tunnel in the center. As we paddled, a terrifying black boat came out of the mist and passed us close on one side...and moments later, a police boat approached us from the rear. It was terrifying and exhilarating...must mostly terrifying. The cop spoke to our guide in Vietnamese and I think he was just telling us to make sure we got home before dark. We were all sure we were in the mists of some kind of terrifying sea crime. We navigated our way through the narrow rocky tunnel and aimed our kayaks back to our boat.
After a quick shower break, we re-joined the rest of the group above deck for dinner, kicked off with some DIY spring rolls.
After dinner, our tour guide did some magic tricks, which was both cheesy and adorable, then we brought our beers up to the top deck. Even in the dark, the Bay remained magical, nearly silent save the water lapping against the side of our boat. You could make out the twinkling lights of other boats docked near us and, though pitch-black, you could just make out the gigantic shadows of the rocks around us. Some of our crew were fishing for squids - for squid fishing, you throw a light into the water, they circle around the light and then you scoop them up into a net. One of the crew caught three and I was amazed how gorgeous they were - their skin was flecked with bright neon, they almost sparkled. My how I would have loved to bread them, deep fry them and dip them in some aioli. MMM.
We woke before 6 the next morning to watch the sun rise and it was less of a sunrise than a gradual lightening of the mist, but that made it all the more magical. Coffee helped, too.
After a hearty Western-style breakfast (including BACON!) we once again hopped in our little boat - would we call it a skiff, maybe? - and skiffed it to another karst, where we climbed some steep steps to the tippy-top for 360 degree views of the bay. Behold!
Clearly a popular spot!
I can only imagine how unbelievable this must be on an even clearer day. Even with the many other tour boats, it felt as though we were utterly in the middle of a no-mans land, surrounded by rocks. We hung out on the beach, put our toes in the sea, before heading back to our boat.
We spent the rest of the morning gently cruising back to the Tourist Harbor. This ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip, just so relaxing and gorgeous. We laid on the deck and snacked on fruit and coffee, read books and took a million photos.
All along Halong Bay there are floating fishing villages, pictured above. Fishermen live and work right on the water, constructing homes atop floating docks. It's a remarkable, tough lifestyle and I would have loved to learn more. We saw many other fishermen rowing around the bay - often rowing with their feet! Like Boat Pose in Pilates which I can barely manage for ten seconds - they take to a whole new level. Incredible to witness.
We arrived back at the harbor around 1 PM and, of course sun came out through just as we were leaving the bay! It would have been nice for some brighter days but oh well. I spent the four hour journey back to Hanoi alternating between eavesdropping on the fancy European couples in front of us discussing how they're travelling for 6 months "just to clear their heads" and making deeply racist comments against Muslims and reading Outlander, an A++++ historical sex novel which I'll discuss at length another time. So basically I was in heaven.
We rolled back into Hanoi early evening, took quick showers, where I washed my hair for the first time in three days, ew, and then we hit the town. We first stopped for beers at our favorite spot Pho Co to watch dusk fall over the lake and then took to the streets to test out the knowledge we gained in our food tour to find some dinner.
We were bold.
Perhaps too bold. We found ourselves a table down a little alley at what seemed a fully authentico local spot. We'd heard a good way to tell how clean/safe a restaurant will be is to check out the local clientele. This spot was packed with well appointed, yuppie types so it seemed ok. We gorged ourselves BBQ pork, quail with the heads and feet still on (B has a beak in his mouth in the photo above, ew!) and crab noodles, plus beers and these cucumber sticks that they put on the table. Are cucumbers the olive garden breadstick of Vietnam?!
Perhaps it was that the food was cooked right there on the street...perhaps the cucumbers were washed in local water...perhaps we just had it coming. Regardless, we were in for a RUDE awakening in about 12 hours or so.
But I'll save that tale for the next installment. You surely won't want to miss these stories of vomit and diarrhea, all of which I'll share in great detail, as I have no filter and many problems.
xoxo Liz Ho