Halong Bay

23 Sep

After arriving back from Mai Chau at around 6:30 PM, panic ensued. We had one more night booked at the hostel and needed to figure out what we were going to be doing the following morning. While I knew I wanted to do Halong Bay – a popular limestone island filled destination off the coast of Northeast Vietnam – I couldn’t decide which tour to do. The hostel we are at has a Castaways tour – a massive party boat that takes you to a beach where you engage in a massive three day binge drinking affair. While not a stranger to the drink, I didn’t want to participate in senior year spring break round two and wished to see more of the islands. On our Mai Chau trip, a couple of Irish guys we met recommended Ocean Tours, so I quickly got to googling for an email address to inquire about getting on a tour the following morning. I sent an email at around 7:15 PM and hopped in the shower. By the time I had gotten out I had an email response to come down to the office to pick up the tickets by 8:00 PM before they closed. We ran down to the office just in time and booked three days and two nights on their “Cocktail Cruise.” The drinking theme surrounds any Halong Bay tour here, apparently.

We left bright and early the following morning with a group of people on a bus that took us to a speed boat, which dropped us off at another boat in the middle of the water. This rickety boat, while not a luxury cruise ship, served its purpose and had two different levels with excellent view of the surroundings. What made me choose our tour over other tours was the fact that our tour went all the way around Lanha Bay as opposed to a straight shot into Halong Bay, giving us a more time on the boat to see many of the over 1000 islands surrounding Cat Ba island (the main island where we would venture to on day three). 

The whole boat ride was surreal the moment you entered the bay. I seriously could not get over how amazing it was. The water is the perfect emerald color and the limestone islands scattered throughout wear little hats of green. forest. We were blessed with the most perfect sunny day and sat at the front of the boat dangling our feet off the edge nearly the whole time. If I could do that boat ride forever I think I would. 

Our first stop was for kayaking in Lahna Bay, just to the south of Halong Bay. Here, Angela and I learned we do not excel at kayaking together as we navigated between three different caves, some so close to the water you had to duck your head. One of the caves also had bats, which were a little frightening as they swooped past your head, and another had the sun hitting it at the perfect angle, making the water completely see through. 

After kayaking the boat went further out in the bay and anchored, allowing us to swim. I was introduced to the saltiness of the water after jumping off the second deck of the ship and swallowing a mouthful. It was so salty that floating required very minimal effort. The salt was definitely welcomed as a cleaning agent for all my motorbike wounds. They had the oddest floating toys on the boat – about eight floating red reindeer – that they threw into the after for us to hold onto. Yet, trying to hold onto a floating reindeer with a fat middle and four legs proved more difficult that floating yourself – go figure. 

After our swim we headed to Cat Ong Island, where we would be staying for the next two nights in guest homes. At first glance the place looked like a paradise destination for honeymooners, but, as is the case with most guest homes in Vietnam, it was more of a facade. See, the thing that I cannot get used to after Mai Chau and Halong Bay, is the idea of living more or less as one with the outdoors. Of course, not having air conditioner makes it pretty impossible to have a closed off home, but I truly miss having a bug-free, noise-free, walled-in place to simply be. Here at Cat Ong, the main building didn’t have any walls and the bungalows had full length windows that opened up to let the breeze in, which was highly necessary given the heat of Vietnam. The fear of mosquitos and malaria is with me permanently and I was constantly covering myself with Off wipes, adopting the strategy of keeping the used wipes in my pockets, bra, pants or shirt for extra protection. Spiders were everywhere and I have seen caterpillars of all shapes and sizes, including an about four inch black one with neon orange legs that looked like it had to be a gag insect in a Halloween candy basket – except it was moving. For the first night we stayed in a bungalow that did not have a working overhead fan, which required us to keep the windows open during the night risking mosquitos everywhere while still sitting in stagnant heat. Safe to say I did not sleep, thought I was going to throw up from the heat and then thought I was seeing people and monkeys walking through the room in a delirious state. The second night, however, they moved us to a room with a working fan, which allowed us to get some slightly less sweaty sleep. But, bugs and dramatics aside, the place was clean enough and you looked out the front windows to a view of the ocean. So certainly, it could have been much worse.

For dinner that night we started with spectacular barbecued oysters and shrimp as a special welcome, followed by a less spectacular main course. We then played games for the Mid-Autumn festival, a special celebration in Vietnam. After some foolish ballon and ring toss games, we ended the night with a round of Kings withsome special house rules. I definitely think that I have some good new Kings rules to come home with. 

Unfortunately, the second day was a lot less entertaining than the first and had me wishing we had just done a one night trip. After breakfast we did a climb to the highest point of the mountain. While the climb itself would not have been that difficult, the day was already so hot at 9:30 that we sweat endlessly. By the time we reached the top and were in direct sunlight, I was yelling at people to go back down while the tour guide insisted we take pictures. Simply was not happening under my watch given that I thought I was going to faint. I worked my way down that mountain so quickly and ran, RAN, to a 1.5 liter water bottle. After the disaster hike we had hours to spend on the beach which, since the beach was small and rather dirty, was too much downtime. The strip of beach had half burned aluminum cans scattered throughout which was not only dangerous, but extra troubling because we figured they must just burn all the garbage on the island, including aluminum and plastic. Safety first kids. That’s Vietnam for you.

Later that day we walked around the mountain using a different route to get to the sunset side. Why Bing (the tour guide) told me to wear flip flops I do not know because I thought they were going to break and I was constantly slipping. At the sunset side we swam a little in the water and got about three minutes of sunset before the sun went hiding behind the clouds. We then took a fishing boat back to the sunrise side of the island and had dinner, where Bing answered all my questions about religion in Vietnam and the beliefs of the people. Around Vietnam I noticed a lot of shrines with incense, not just in temples or public visiting areas, but in stores, people’s homes, etc. Bing explained that these shrines exist as shrines for ancestors and shrines for gods – always kept separate. For instance, a shrine in the kitchen would be for the gods who provide food, so that they always give you enough food to eat whereas a shrine in the living area would be for the ancestors. They also believe that you cannot move the shrine unless you get permission from the ancestors, which is achieved by lighting an incense stick and making sure it burns all the way through. If it does, you’re good to go, if it stops halfway through, you’d be crazy to move that thing. I also asked about the fear of parents, that if the younger generations still have this fear resulting in extreme respect to their parents or if they have westernized and developed a more rebellious nature. He said that they definitely still have the fear and that they believe if you don’t treat your parents with respect, they will come back to haunt them after they die. Sorry Mom and Dad, please don’t do that to me. 

On the third day we got back to the action. After breakfast we took our bags, said goodbye to the island, and took a boat to Cat Ba island to go to the National Park, where we climbed to the mountain peak – Dinh Ngu Lam. Just as in Mai Chau, there was an extensive amount of stairs in extensive amounts of heat and humidity with little water left in my bottle. We climbed up 205 meters to the observation tower, followed by a little bit more of a hikemeters nearly straight up to the peak of the mountain. As always, the view of the park and the minuscule Cat Ba town was worth it, as was the breeze. When we returned to the bottom of the mountain with shaking calves, we went to the mineral lake, which collects the always cold mineral water from the mountain in this large reservoir looking area. Apparently the people believe this water heals all your skin problems, except motorbike cuts, scratches and burns apparently. Swimming in that water was heavenly and I can confidently say it was the only time I have been cold in Vietnam. After stopping off for a lunch of meat with vegetables, rice, French fries (you read correctly) and spring rolls – the standard meal they like to serve us foreigners here – we took the speedboat to the bus, which I am currently writing this on, which will return us to Hanoi, where I will be handing in a massive load of laundry to be done tomorrow so I can stop wearing dirty clothes and start feeling human once again. Also I must say, in the process of writing this I have killed a spider on my leg, a fly on my seat, and an unknown yellow bug on the window – maybe I’m getting the hang of this outdoor living after all. 


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