Escape from Hanoi*

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ok, I’m aware that the whole point of going to Hanoi was, you know, to see Hanoi. Not to leave after two nights. However, after wandering the old quarter of the city all day on Sunday it became abundantly clear that I did not need another three and a half days there. My original plan was to take a simple day-trip to nearby Halong bay, which had been recommended by a friendly hasher in Hong Kong, but every agent I talked to said they did not recommend such a short visit. Even the LP was adamant:

“Don’t even think about a day trip to Halong, as the real beauty of the bay is best experienced from the deck of a junk over a gin and tonic as the sun sinks into the horizon.”

Well the gin and tonic thing sounded pretty good, and since I’d already determined I could live a happy and fulfilled life without four whole days in Hanoi, I decided to go for the two day, one night option. I was nervous because the number of tour companies in the tourist quarter of Hanoi offering these kind of trips to Halong Bay is exceeded only by the number of 7-11s in Hong Kong. I checked with three or four different LP-recommended places and the prices for the kind of cruise I was after ranged from $40 to $125. It was impossible to tell the difference, though one could assume that the quality of the boat, food and possibly the company on the $40 trip would be decidedly more down-at-heel than the $125. In the end I booked through my hotel, despite the fact that the LP specifically recommended against booking through your hotel… daring! My trip cost $100 USD and included the three and a half hour bus ride between Hanoi and Halong City, a private cabin on the boat, two lunches, one dinner and one breakfast, sightseeing around the bay, kayaking in the bay and an English-speaking guide for the whole shebang. I handed over my weary credit card and crossed my fingers.

Well, it was great. The boat turned out to be really nice, and my cabin was better than almost any hotel room I’ve had on the whole trip.

My Cabin. Niiiiiice.

The other people on the boat turned out to be lovely as well. It was a diverse group, from Australia, England, Scotland, Denmark, the US, France, Germany and Malaysia, and all ages from little kids to retirees. I ended up taking my meals with the three American women, Erin, Joan and Wendy, and with Stefan from Denmark and his friend Kelvin from Singapore. And though it seems ungracious to say it, I had longer, easier and more enjoyable conversations with that gang right away than I had with my Intrepid China group after three weeks.

The reason Halong Bay is considered a “must-see” site in Northern Vietnam is all about the scenery. Remember the karsts in Yangshuo? Well Halong Bay is crammed with the same formations, but instead of rising out of the land like they do in Yangshuo, they’re little tree-covered islands dotting the bay. Officially 1969 (according to satellite photography) islands fill the bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, though the LP claims there are more than 3,000. Whatever the number, they are impressive to look at.

Karsts in the mist. There was a LOT of mist.

Once we arrived at the dock at Halong City, it quickly became clear why there are so many tour agencies in Hanoi selling cruises to Halong Bay. It’s because there are an enormous number of boats there. Keeping them all full of rich western tourists would keep a thousand thousand travel agencies busy. There was never a time when I couldn’t look out from the deck of our boat and see at least a dozen others and sometimes as many as twenty or thirty. And at Halong City there must have been over a hundred.

Here’s a look at the assembled throng near the most famous cave at Halong Bay.

We took a small tender boat from the dock at Halong City out to our big boat – the Amber Gold Cruiser. Once on board we enjoyed a welcome drink (tasting suspiciously like Tang) and checked into our cabins. Then we had a beautiful seafood lunch with shrimp and other fruits du mer, and beer, and fruit and coffee. It was a nice spread and I had a good time chatting with Erin, Wendy, Joan, Stefan and Kelvin.

After lunch we steamed off to one of the major sites in the area, the Amazing Cave or Hang Sung Sot. (Once again, like with Chinese, I’m omitting all accents in these Vietnamese words. In Vietnam the accent business is even more complicated because there are six different tones for each vowel sound instead of four, and some letters look like they’ve got two different accents on them. Yeesh.) Hang Sung Sot is called the Amazing Cave or sometimes the Amazing and Surprising Cave. It’s actually a series of caves – the first one is small, the second larger, and the third is positively massive. That’s the Surprise. “Hey, there’s a cave here. Hey! There’s another one through here and it’s even bigger! Hey, this is surprising, there’s another cave…” You get it. They’re all gratifyingly cave-like, filled with weird rock formations and stalactites and stalagmites.

It’s a bit hard to get your bearings in this photo but if you look in the bottom left corner you can see some people, so that gives you an idea of the scale.

The cave was fun, and the local people have given names to a lot of the odder rock formations, so we got to try and puzzle out why one particular blob of rock might be called the Lovers when it could just as easily have been the Fighting Dragon or the Shopping Cart or the Pile of Dirty Laundry. I guess it’s all about your perspective.

Back at the water’s edge the more sedate members of the group got back on the tender for the trip to the big boat. Us younger, fitter types hung around for an hour of kayaking around the area. We got fitted up with somewhat dodgey life jackets and put into two person kayaks. We were also strongly cautioned not to let our paddles fall into the water because, bizarrely, they had steel shafts, which meant they would not float. Now I’m certainly not a kayak paddle expert but this seems to me to be a grave design flaw. Also it made the kayaking a real workout because it was a bit like you were paddling with a barbell. Nonetheless, off we went. I was paired up with Erin, and we had some fun exploring a few of the islands up close. I was even brave/foolhardy enough to take my camera with me in a leaky ziploc bag, so I got a few photos while we were paddling.

Wendy and Joan doing their upper body workout.

The most interesting part of the kayaking was when we made our way to a little fishing village. Our guide Quang (again… no accents, and I’m not even sure if that’s the right spelling. Sorry Quang!) had mentioned we’d visit a village, so I was imagining a cluster of shacks on a shore somewhere. But of course that’s not a very efficient sort of settlement for a group of people who need to go where the fish are, and the karsts don’t really have shores at all anyways because they rise almost vertically out of the water. The village Quang was talking about was actually a floating collection of houseboats that could move wherever it needed to. Some of the dwellings looked like proper little houses, and some were just small boats with a bit of covered cabin area. They were all tiny, and looked quite ramshackle, kept afloat on plastic barrels or chunk of foam. And there was garbage everywhere – this was a sad theme for our whole trip on the bay – slicks of floating debris snaking their way across the surface of the water. It was sad.

Visiting the village was another of those fascinating but uncomfortable experiences. We paddled, essentially, right into these people’s front yards. It felt incredibly intrusive and though I wanted to take a thousand photos I only took a few, and none of them were great. We were greeted by some enthusiastic children, but I could sort of sense the adults were fed up with living on display.

A long view of several of the houses.

After an hour of paddling we got the tender back to the big boat. There was enough time before dinner that I was able to lay about in my cabin reading for a while and even had a short nap, which was positively luxurious. Dinner was just as tasty as lunch, and there was plenty of beer (drinks weren’t included in the package price, but at a mere 30,000 VND per beer – about $1.50 – they weren’t expensive either). We sat around the table chatting for a long time, and it was fun and easy and great. I even had the promised gin and tonic, though the misty rain that was the background to my entire time in Vietnam meant there was no lounging on the deck or picturesque sunset that night. Still, I took myself off to bed feeling pretty pleased with my lot.

There was a nice breakfast in the morning, and no scheduled activities while we headed back to the dock at Halong City. This in itself was a small miracle. Usually these kind of tours are crammed with activity, so having a whole morning to lounge around was fantastic. In another small miracle, the weather had cleared up some so we were able to sit up on the sun deck and enjoy the scenery. Though in this case the term “sundeck” was a bit of a misnomer because it was still terribly grey. (I never saw the sun the whole time I was in Vietnam.) Still, it was a comfortable and relaxing time chatting, reading, mingling and taking photos.

Me with crossword, novel and iPhone. All set.

And I was able to take a bit of time out of my busy crosswording, reading and dozing schedule to snap a few photographs. I like this one best.

Tiny Vietnamese boat with large rock.

Too soon it was time for another tasty lunch and then we found ourselves back at the dock at Halong City along with a thousand other boats. We waited quite a while to disembark, but it was a pleasant wait with more chatting and exchanging of email addresses. Along with Erin, Wendy and Joan (who will feature in the upcoming Hanoi post as well), I met Cheryl and Andrew, Australian ex-pats who are living with their adorable kids in Kuala Lumpur. They gave me some good tips on things to do in KL and promised to pass on some contacts for the hash there. The bus ride back to Hanoi was long, but made much shorter since we were now a bus full of friends with lots to talk about.

And what did I learn from my trip to Halong? Well, as I’ve experienced before on the felucca in Egypt, the sailboat in India, and the cruise boat on the Yangzi, life on a boat, regardless of the size of the vessel, is relaxing and generally worth the effort. It’s a great way to watch the world go by, catch up on your reading, and unplug for a while. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out for other nautical opportunities from now on. I hear there’s an overnight boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai in northern Laos…

*For the cryptic crossword fans, the alternate title of this post is “Worthless eastern vessel (4)”, whose answer is also a fair description of the quality of the clue.


Anonymous said...

Not bad. It's economical. How about, "The tip of a knife supplants ecstasy in spring month revealing an Asian dhow." Too cumbersome?

Unknown said...

I can hardly keep up with this blog lately! Stay cool in Laos!

And wow, only two months to go until you reach a year! You must be exhausted and excited and everything in between. You should consider putting your writing talents to use on a book about your adventures. I love reading travel memoirs, they're better than tour books, IMO.

Pam said...

Anon: A bit clunky, if you don't mind me saying. I think less is more. How about "Oriental floater revealed just under new key, initially"?

Do I know you?

Anonymous said...

Much better. Nice work.

I remain,

Winnipeg Hasher will court half a lady.

Pam said...

How many letters? Come on, you have to play by the rules!

Laura C said...

It's so strange, but I swear my office is filling with the smell of fish as I read your post. I can feel I'm there a bit, but this is ridiculous (and don't try to tell me it's some fancy iPhone trick!).

Pam said...

Ah, I get it now. Thanks for playing, "Courts half a lady (5)"

- Pam

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