Another morning in Hanoi filled with traffic, another late pickup. In a city overflowing with people, arrival and departure times are approximate, to say the least. As long as the driver is on the way…well, the only thing to do is just get comfortable. Zack used the time to run across the street and grab a breakfast banh mi sandwich – the best banh mi we had in Vietnam. Turns out waiting wasn’t so bad, but the bus ride that followed ranked high on the misery list.
The minibus was clearly designed for those of a shorter stature than four average sized Americans. Everything in Asia is smaller, so by this point, we weren’t surprised, but we were squished in the back row. I’m not sure if the driver didn’t realize he was driving people that were still alive, or if he just hated tourists. Either way, we got a roller coaster ride as well as transport. Along with the stifling temperature, it made for a nauseating ride. At least along the way, we stopped at a rest area with delicious Vietnamese iced coffee!
Boats, boats, everywhere. They bustled about the harbor, big and small, expensive and ramshackle. Like the city, people moved everywhere, small ferry dinghies taking them to and from the larger cruise junks. We soon boarded our own, happy to begin our two-night adventure on the water.
Lunch was served as we motored into Ha Long Bay. The meal was massive, the waiters placed plate after plate before us. Excited to begin our journey, we ordered “buckets of fun,” cocktails in small buckets with swizzle straws. We tried to sample each dish as we moved through the bay, and were soon full to the gills. Nineties party tunes played in the dated formal dining room. We laughed and joked enjoying a mish-mash of cultures.
When we arrived at our anchor spot we were all told to get bathing suits and shoes on for an excursion. The dozen or so passengers piled into a smaller junk and we zipped over to the Surprising Cave. We took our place in the shuffling crowd.
Surprising, indeed! Colored lights lit the cavernous natural hall and stalactite and stalagmite formations were everywhere. Our tour guide stalled our group as he pointed out every little formation and what it resembled…dragon, kissing dragons, baby dragon…you get the idea.
As we entered the cave I finished my water. I was so hot, then cold, but mostly hot. I tried to breathe evenly, but I grew more and more sure I needed to vomit. Looking around, there were no rubbish bins – just a famous cave. I grew more nervous and felt worse. Finally, we came out of the cave and the crowd and waited by the pier. I sat down to await our boat wondering why on earth I felt so awful. Did I suffer from seasickness all of a sudden?
Ah, at least on the moving boat there was air flow! In just a few minutes the boat captain, still in nautical whites in contrast to the worn-down boat, deposited us on another, floating pier. With orders to return in twenty minutes, we all chose double kayaks and headed for a cave tunnel to see it up close.
In just a few minutes we paddled through the wide tunnel and emerged into a round cove. Jungle covered cliffs rose hundreds of feet above us. With the short cave as the only entrance and exit, the round cove was almost completely enclosed. We glided on the still water in awe of the natural beauty around us and imagined fantastical movie plots taking place in this peculiar spot.
Zack and Kyle wanted to swim, so they hopped out of the kayaks to explore the depths below. It didn’t take long for another boat’s tour guide to scold them and wave his arms in anger. They clambered back in our kayaks and we slowly made our way back toward the dock, taking every last minute we could in the cove. Although only quick visits, we were glad to see such gems.
When we returned to our mother ship we met other passengers and reported for our cooking class. Well, it wasn’t so much as cooking as taking turns rolling premade mix into spring roll wrappers. The staff didn’t let us leave until all the spring rolls were prepared, taking advantage of the free labor. Another massive dinner followed, this time accompanied by unexpected cruise music – the soundtrack from the movie Titanic. Perhaps the crew had a dark sense of humor or didn’t make the connection, but it made for another kitschy experience.
After lounging on the upper deck watching the stars and other boats we returned to our room to find unwelcome guests, little cockroaches skittering in the bathroom. Zack fell right to sleep and I passed the worst night of our travels so far. I fitfully tossed and turned sleeping only in short bursts filled with feverish nightmares of giant insects and warped realities. The mostly waking hours were achy and alternately freezing and sweltering.
Here we were on a Vietnamese junk in some of the world’s most stunning natural wonders and all I wanted to do was crawl into a dark hole and pass out. What I would have paid to be in a hotel or house rental!
Morning dawned and we piled into a small boat for a short ride to Titov Island. There we made the ten-minute climb up a stone staircase to the top of the island. Although clouds were moving in we enjoyed expansive, stunning views over Ha Long Bay. Ten minutes later we realized our good luck as a deluge arrived and everyone ran for cover.
The rain passed within minutes and we made our way to the pier. We caught a larger boat for our day of cruising around the bay after spending only forty minutes on land. This would prove to be the pace of the day, cruising throughout the bay making several stops, all coming in under an hour.
I found a lounger on the top deck and made it my home as we motored, peering out at the karst jungle cliffs underneath my hat. The view was so unique and so beautiful I was soon taking picture after picture around each verdant corner.
We stopped at a spot for kayaking. Tessa and Kyle took to the water while Zack and I, eyeing the old kayaks and lack of shade, stayed aboard. When they returned with reports of jellyfish infested water (preventing a swim break), crappy kayaks, and a generally sweaty experience we were happy with our choice.
After another hour we approached another dark cave. The guide advised bringing our smartphones for light as part of the cave would be very dark and require crouching and crawling. We looked at one another. This would have been useful information when we asked what we would need for the day at breakfast! In our little group of four, we had four headlamps sitting safely in our cabins along with our smartphones left behind to prevent water damage.
Shaking our heads, we climbed down the wooden ladders into the cave entrance. Indeed, we explored a couple of caves crawling through their tiny entrances and trying not to fall in the slippery mud. Everyone worked together sharing light from the few cellphones among the group. It was quite the experience ducking through tiny openings that revealed large caverns through the other side.
We continued on our way, having lunch in the dining room en route to the next excursion. Seeing and smelling the feast had me feeling ill once more so I took advantage of the empty top deck and snagged a lounger in the shade to continue my semi-nap. Soon everyone else joined me and we all played Tetris with the loungers trying to position ourselves in the constantly moving shade.
Tessa was the only one of our crew that embarked at the final stop, a working pearl farm. Zack, Kyle, and I lounged and relaxed in the shade chatting and enjoying the view. She returned with hilarious stories of the characters on our tour group and their horror at tossing oysters to the fishes after killing them to extract the pearls (“No, you eat them!” (The tour guide explained you can’t eat them after they die.)) Soon the boat set off for the final leg.
The views had been astounding all day – uniquely shaped islands popping straight up in every direction. Greens as dark as can be giving way to aquamarines and emeralds surrounded us. Silky water brushing right up against rough limestone rock which led to a carpet of jungle on top – every island had the same features but somehow they all seemed amazing.
Although the entire day had been gorgeous, it couldn’t compare to our late afternoon leg. The sun dipped lower and lower into the sky casting the island cliffs in dramatic relief. All of the colors and textures were more intense and the vistas had much more depth and complexity. Fewer boats were in this section of the bay making our transit more peaceful.
Once again, I had come up to the top deck a bit earlier than the others. As I sat there a crewmember came up next to me and we began chatting in one of the highly valued shady spots. He was from Ninh Binh and we chatted about his family and the Autumn holidays. Shortly afterward more people came up to catch the final views. Some wanted to discuss more political topics with him and I moved away to the railing joining Zack.
Finally, we arrived at the central island we had visited in the morning to catch our taxi boat back to our respective overnight boats. We approached the crowded pier wondering how we would fit. The answer was simple – push! Boats clambered for spots by simply wedging in and out, pushing against one another for spots.
We watched in awe as the big wooden beams groaned in protest and crews jockeyed for space hollering at one another and wielding their hulls like bumper boats. No wonder all the boats looked so rough. Finally, we hit the pier and the crew rushed us off the boat. If the roads of Vietnam are chaotic the water is crazy!
Our second night on the boat was a repeat of the first, but perhaps even more fun as we all chatted with the only other English speakers on the boat, a couple about our age from Taiwan. Perhaps it was the Benedryl from Tessa or my body was exhausted from fighting whatever pathogen was wreaking havoc, but I slept like a log that night, and the next morning for that matter.
Unfortunately, as we remained dead to the world, a rainstorm raged outside. Zack’s phone was slowly being soaked in a pool of water from the leaky ceiling. Just a few hours later, Zack left mine on the boat! Luckily, the crew took him back to get it and we only lost one phone on our cruise.
By the time we arrived back to Hanoi, we were all pretty done with boats and buses and taxis. As soon as we arrived at the Sheraton we were whisked up to the lounge to check in while we enjoyed dinner and cocktails, the perfect welcome for bedraggled travelers. Our snapping turned to chatting and laughing as we all relaxed. Excited by the impressive spread, we all had our fill before going back to our clean, dry rooms.
Our cruise on Ha Long Bay was definitely an experience. Although it wasn’t the most peaceful or luxurious of cruises, it certainly wasn’t boring! The natural features and views were stunning. It was sad to see so much trash floating and so, so many boats everywhere (one of them ours of course).
My view is of course tainted by my personal experience of feeling physically rotten. On the downside, my ailment continued for a few more fitful nights and nauseating days. On the upside, at least I don’t have to worry about motion sickness. That would really hamper our adventures!
In the end, we all agreed we would do it again, but not in the same way. Better yet, I’d rather explore some of the quieter bays of Vietnam.
Check out our video for more scenes from the trip!
© Cheers Life Partners 2018