A quixotic trip through Vietnam’s Halong Bay (and pictures from our travels in Vietnam at the end of the post).
Swarms of motorbikes dart through the streets of Hanoi like nihilistic dragonflies careening toward a bug zapper.
Crazy traffic isn’t a new encounter for Joanie and I (crossing Jakarta’s smoggy, wide thoroughfares required guts of steel) but in Hanoi, motorbike minions clog the Old Quarter’s narrow, shop-lined streets like plaque choking a smoker’s heart.
We walked up and down the streets, talking with travel agencies, haggling for the best price to arrange a trip to Vietnam’s UNESCO-listed Halong Bay, where more than 3,000 islands and limestone mountains jut from the Gulf of Tonkin like heaven’s teardrops.
Joanie and I had vowed to avoid organized tours, but after talking to other travelers, calculating the price and our time constraints, we decided on a 3-day tour, including one night on a houseboat (actually called a junk, but we’ll get to that later) and a night on Cat Ba Island, the only inhabited island in the bay.
We booked the “deluxe tour” - $20 more than the economy but the boat looked better appointed as did the accommodation (boy were we wrong) and also an 22 hour overnight bus trip to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we’d catch immediately after returning from our bay tour.
Satisfied, we wandered Hanoi’s frenetic streets, grabbed a quick dinner and called it a night.
I woke up early the next morning. Raindrops lashed the window and the world brooded. Not ideal weather for a nature cruise, but hopefully at the coast, sunny skies waited.
The guide rushed us out of the guest house, saying we were holding things up, into the overstuffed mini bus. Naturally my legs were squashed for 3.5 hours – the only relief a bathroom break at an overpriced craft center. I don’t say shop because in Vietnam, these centers are like Wal Mart for souvenirs – everything from towering marble sculptures and inlaid jewelry boxes to silk robes and embroidery - with a twist.
Pardon my cynicism and I am glad they are providing one of the few employment opportunities available in the country, but the fact that many of the working artisans are handicapped is advertised like victory pendant screaming “Gilt us your money!”
Unfortunately there wasn’t room in the bus for a 6-foot marble bust of soaring dolphins (let alone my legs) so I left the super center empty handed.
An hour or so later, we arrived to the port in Halong City to catch the junk boat. The guides rushed the group: a few Canadians, Germans, Portuguese, Spaniards, Brits and Americans, off the bus into the now humid, chilly - but not rainy - afternoon.
The boat was late.
Boats plied the harbor, mahogany colored, three story, around 75 feet long with large roof terraces and glass enclosed dining/bars. Our boat, the Haolong Party Cruiser arrived and we willingly walked the plank aboard.
After a quick orientation describing the tour, we realized things had changed: we’d spend the first night on the island rather than on the boat. No problem - we can roll.
The boat motored into the bay, passed towering karsts - steel grey and denuded, others bearded with greenery - to a small harbor with caves to explore.
Everyone jumped off the front of the boat onto the rudimentary cement dock and hiked up the stairs. Joanie forgot something in her bag and was grabbing it so we were the last two on the boat.
The deck hands shouted at me (us) “Hurry Up! Hurry up!” and scowled. Finally, we climbed ashore, up the stairs and explored the first cave. Stalagmites illuminated in a jellybean assortment of colors poured upward.
A second cave on the island, the one described by the guide as “dirty” and not worth visiting turned out to be less polished with towering ceilings and bats swirling and screeching through the air. Definitely worth the detour.
We rushed back to the boat, assuming we were the stragglers, but it was missing. Then a small ferry took us to our boat anchored in the harbor.
We wait. And waited some more until the guide told us our junk had broken down and a replacement was en route.
Hours went by, the sun faded into a starry night.
The positive: we met our shipmates (or fellow captives), commiserate about the weather, about the broken boat, getting yelled at for drinking beers we purchased on the island (that cost 1/3 of the price) rather than the boat, and waited.
Finally, the new boat arrived to ferry us to away but first we had to tow the broken one to a nearby harbor for repairs.
A coke bottle-think rope was connected to the stranded boat and we putter into the bay. But something goes wrong. The strained rope slackens and spits its tail, hitting a crew member in the head knocking him down (and possibly out) then the AWOL boat slams into a construction barge, shattering a blue plastic water reservoir as it helplessly bobs in the bay. Meanwhile, water gushes from the cracked cistern as the crew members struggle to control the boat.
Eventually after a few more near fatal bouts of bumper boat, we arrive at Cat Ba Island’s harbor for a 30-minute drive to our guest house.
Our deluxe tour, already tarnished, gets a near-fatal shellacking when we see our room: dirty, unpainted walls, TV from 1992 – but it has hot water and an overpriced mini bar.
We head down to dinner where the new “guide” loses his temper at the group and shouts at us for not being quiet as he tells us the “program” (again, different from the one we signed up for).
We eat dinner – mediocre food of rice and veggies (there were meat options though) – and head to a convenience store for snacks as a cold rain pelts the town.
For breakfast the following morning we’re served a small baguette (very common in Vietnam and Laos as they were French colonies) and butter and jam. Naturally, I was still hungry and walked into the kitchen to ask for a second. The guide, standing behind a table full of baguettes, ignores my question and asks how much I paid for the tour. What this has to do with getting a second baguette I don’t know but after a back and forth, I tell him off and stalk away, fuming and hungry.
Next on the agenda: hiking in Cat Ba National Park.
We check out of the room and were rushed onto a bus. The Canadian couple was missing and we tell the guide we need to wait so we can check on them. His reply: If they’re not here they must not want to go, and we leave for another hotel 5 minutes away that’s much nicer than ours, but shares the same name.
More travelers board the bus (American’s from the Silicon Valley) but something’s wrong. The hotel lost one of their passports. So we wait.
Why we couldn’t wait to check on the missing Canadians, probably has something to do with how much we paid for the tour, but I will never be certain. None the less, someone from our group runs back to our hotel and grabs the Canadians who didn’t have an alarm. An hour and a half goes by and the passport problem is finally sorted.
Onto the national park for some hiking.
Situated in the center of the island, surrounded by lush, jungle-coated mountains, we climb to a slick peak crowned with a rusty fire tower. The guide said it would take an hour to climb up (in reality: 30 minutes and 10 minutes down) and we wait for the bus back to town.
It eventually shows up. A death trap on wheels: rusted out floors, shattered windows, mangled seats.
After a quick lunch at the hotel we have a few hours to explore the island: it’s harbor full of wooden fishing boats, sandy beaches surrounded by mountains and karsts erupting from the bay.
3:30 rolls around. Time to catch the bus to the boat where we’d be sleeping that night. Everyone’s at the meeting spot but the bus is MIA. We end up waiting an hour and a half for it to arrive. The plan was to watch the sunset from the boat, but by the time we get going the sun is setting through the bus’s muddy windows.
Once on board the boat, our new guide seems polite and friendly. I’m sipping on beers smuggled aboard from the island and they don’t give me any trouble. After a decent dinner we play game after game of Liar (what we’d call Asshole), watch the stars dance in the sky as the boat floats in the harbor.
Our cabin was small but comfortable – the hot shower it was supposed to have: barely a drip. The blanket – a thin sheet that kept us shivering during the 40-degree night. Good thing Joanie's a human furnace. In the morning I woke up early to watch the sunrise on the bay. It slowly crested the mountains casting its buttery glow on the peaks, craggy like spines on a lizard’s back.
Breakfast, then back to Halong City. But first we explore a floating fishing village and it’s surrounding grottoes by kayak, something we were supposed to do on day one. A scene from the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies" was filmed there and as we paddled through the turquoise water surrounded by the towering karsts, I finally felt a sense of calm.
...That was quickly shattered by the deafening roar of the drive belt snapping in the small ferry returning us to to our junk (house boat). Did I mention it was also belching smoke and taking on water?
Wow – could it get any worse? Luckily a fisherman passing by offered us safe passage back to our junk boat and to Halong City we went. A quick lunch at a mediocre restaurant where the help was bitter, then back to Hanoi were we’d catch a bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Hanoi’s snarled traffic slowed us down even more and by the time we reached the center, it was after 6pm, the time our bus was supposed to pick us up. Rather than drop us off at our tour agency as we’d paid for, we were let off (I should say blown off) by the new “guide” and told to walk there ourselves.
At this point, I wanted my money back for the tour – to complain about the poor service, waiting, missing the highlights – but we were in such a hurry, the agent who sold us our tickets freaked out and grabbed two xe om’s (motorbike taxis) to take us to the bus. We jump on the bikes, my backpack pulling me backward, waiting for a big bump to toss me off the back, and after a harrowing trip, was dropped off on a dark street and are told to pay the motorbike drivers.
No way – we’d already been ripped off and paid for all transportation to Laos. So we started to argue. The guy, who ends up taking us to the bus depot, keeps grabbing my arm and Joanie’s shouting at him, “Don’t touch my boyfriend! “ “Don’t touch him!” as he demands money to pay the drivers who he claims are his friends.
The motorbike drivers speed off angry and empty handed and the remaining guy continues to demand money.
Already feeling victimized and desperate to get to the bus, I throw him the money (around $1 USD which he pocketed) and off we go on the back of another motorbike - through the cold night to the outskirts of Hanoi.
He lets us off outside a dusty motorbike dealership where a pack of backpackers with no idea what’s happening await. Clouds of dust pour through the smoggy air, and cars whiz by. We’re directed onto a mini bus, which we all stuff into.
The minibus takes us to another dark street, under an overpass where we alight and wait.
As we’re standing there, the world is illuminated by vehicles passing headlights. I stare directly into the eyes of the guy who’d brought us and tell him (in English) that it made me sad he was such a disgusting human being. Did he understand me? Probably not, but from the glare I continued give him, he got my drift.
A little more waiting and the bus arrives. We’re rushed on, shouted at by the attendant that the police will cause trouble if we don’t speed up.
And as the bus driver barrels ahead, slamming on his horn, swerving around motorbikes and slower traffic, I’m glad he’s rushing.
I finally understand why everyone here is always in a hurry. They must be desperate to get out of this place too and just can’t wait.
PS: I apologize for not posting pix on our Travellerspoint blog (and making you click through to my blog), but please understand that the site more or less appropriates ownership and usage rights of the images, something I'm not willing to share