Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A boat ride to beautiful Halong Bay

July 5th. Up early today to get ready for my trip to Halong Bay when I encountered my first big "beastie" (Scottish for bug!) of my travels. A giant (and i'm not exaggerating here folks honestly!) cockroach in the bathroom of our dorm. Stamped and shouted till it ran away... feel sick just writing about it but hey, needed to have a shower and you can get cockroaches in high class places too! (of course mine was a $4 a night job so probably slightly more chance of seeing one.. ewww must stop talking about this!).

Anyway, got on my minibus and headed off to magnificent Halong Bay. When i had been looking into different companies to do the trip, there are so many places you can book with, so many prices and options so its kind of a stab in the dark if you go for the mid range price to see what you actually get.. hmmn will it be a cracker or something that is falling apart around me - wait and see folks!

Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage site, with more than 3,000 islands rising from the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.. definitely one of Vietnam's natural marvels. The islands (only 900 of them are named) are dotted with so many grottos created over hundreds of years by wind and waves, and there are tons of caves, again naturally made, that fishermen and local people use..... Just a wee bit of history.....Ha Long means "where the dragon descends into the sea". The legend has it that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it ran towards the coast, its giant tail gouged out valleys and crevasses; as it plunged into the sea, the areas dug up by its tail became filled with water, leaving only bits of high land visible (thanks Lonely Planet!).

Anyway, we arrive at the port to board our junk.. it is complete bedlam and one of the reasons why people don't like doing tours like this, myself included, is that you feel like its such a zoo, every one herded into buses, then boats and you don't see the real things around you - just the farang/tourist rubbish! Unfortunately, this is really the only way to see Halong Bay so you just have to suck it up and jump on your junk! So you would think there has to be a process to this madness, but no, it looks like everyone and their tour guide is just hunting for their boat - and hoping its a good one. I thought we were in luck when we were told to board a specific junk - wow this looks great! Then of course we were just boarding that one to get across to our boat. Yes, our boat. No gorgeous teak deck chairs on the top deck, just a rusty chair and 2 scabby looking inflatible lilos - that hadn't been puffed up in a long long time! Hmmn oh well, we had a good group, the weather was gorgeous... who needed a deck chair right!

We had a lovely Lebanese couple, Sana and Hadi, now living in Canada, Nasima, a gorgeous girl from England with a very exotic background including Saudi Arabia (who i have seen in a bunch of different cities as i've traveled up the Vietnamese coast!), Simon from Australia, Brad from Canada now living in Hanoi, an Israeli family of five, and Chris and Becky from London (who we later found out were also on my overnight bus from Hue with Nasima - see, small world!).

After a nice lunch on board, those of us staying on the boat (just 6 of us!) checked out our cabins. And yes, no surprise, I got locked into mine! Why do these things happen to me? At first i shouted quietly, not wanting to bother anyone, the i realised no-one could hear me - duh! So eventually the crew tried to open the door (which i hadn't even locked!).. couldn't do it. One of them came in through the window and tried from the inside - no luck, even with a gigantic machete which had obviously been used for lunch and still had some left over food all over it - yum! So - there was no alternative.. i had to shimmy out the window, walk along a skinny bit of rotting wood(remember this wasn't the Titanic folks!) with my backpack and camera etc... to get to the kitchen at the back of the boat.. in my flip flops!!! Hilarious....after i got out of course!

After this little bit of excitement, we headed off to the Palace of Heaven cave and Wooden Stick grotto. Interesting names eh! The caves were a tad surreal. Almost looked Disney-esque cos they had tons of coloured lights around and we were a bit suspect of some of the rocks that looked mysteriously like cement. What! Me - a cynic! The official story is that the cave was found in 1994, when a fisherman, sheltering from a storm, fell into it......or something like that..hmmn still a bit fishy if you ask me! After seeing the grotto, we dropped off those folks who were staying on Cat Ba island instead of on the boat. So the gang of six - Sana, Hadi, Nasima, Simon, Brad and I were quite delighted to have the boat to ourselves. We sailed some more - and its hard to really describe how gorgeous this area is - and then parked (is that what you say for a boat - hmmn maybe anchored?) and we headed off to kayak for the afternoon! As there were a ton of boats "parked" at the small beach, we decided to make a break for it and kayak way out behind a big island for some solitude.. it was gorgeous out there, no-one else around.. just us and the beautiful views, the water and our kayaks (which were rubbish cos when we tried to paddle back in at the end of the afternoon, they just kept spinning around and around.. it took forever.. and no it wasnt us, definitely the kayaks!).

Back on board, the brave boys decided to jump off the top of the boat.. ccrrazzzy stuff. After that excitement, it was time for dinner. Great time until of course i spotted the resident - RAT!!! A big white rat that casually walked down the stairs and shimmied past the door to the cabin as if it owned the place. Thank goodness it didnt come in but was a tad freaked out by this - ahhhh!! Anyway, couldnt have something like that put a damper on our trip PLUS it was the Portugal - France game on at 2am so Simon, Nasima and I decided to stay up and chat; amazing the chats you have with complete strangers - I know I've said it before but it's so true. People seem to feel so much freer talking about life, loves and the meaning of the universe with people they may never see again... or is that just me (teehee just kidding). Then we decided to be crazy and go skinny dipping. First time EVER for Nasima and I (not sure what is more embaressing, the fact i've never skinny dipped till the age of 38, or that im writing about it here.. hmmn but don't worry mum)! It was a very carefully executed plan where no-one saw anyone. It was pitch dark, everyone was asleep apart from us and we took extra caution that even between the three of us we didnt see each other.....of course Nasima and I were nervous wrecks... not that she needs to be, being a gorgeous girl AND a personal trainer. Me - well, that's another matter hence the cloak and dagger formalities! Anyway, have to admit it was quite lovely.. and where else would you skinny dip at 1am if not beautiful Halong Bay in Vietnam!!

July 6th. Phew tired today! Up at 7am for breakfast and then we sailed to Cat Ba island, where those of us staying an extra night (Sana, Hadi and myself) headed off for a few hours hike into the Kim Gaio Forest and up to the Ngu Lam peak. Gorgeous scenery... so lush and green and, oh yes, hot! But great to do some exercise at last... can't believe im actually saying that but definitely true. At the end of the hike, there was a wee snack bar in the forest, with a big well where everyone doused themselves - or each other - in freezing cold water. So of course we jumped right in. Think Sana quite enjoyed throwing this over me - brrrrrr but fantastic after all that heat!

Saw this lady drying her rice in the sun on our way back to Cat Ba town.. just liked the shot! So it was off to the beach for us next. Yah..think this might be my first beach in Asia .... not a classic but definitely nice to just hang out and relax a wee bit..... Quite funny actually. We sat there for a while, with very few people on the beach (really hot today!). Next thing, its around 5pm and suddenly the beach is invaded.. i mean tons and tons of people poured onto the sand from nowhere. Apparantly, Cat Ba is a big holiday destination for Vietnamese people, and they don't like to be in the sun during the day (smart people unlike daft farangs!).. so it was so funny to see the families arrive. The men traipsing down the street in their swimming trunks, very comfortable, the women, most of them still fully dressed who just paddled when they got to the water and watched the children; even old fashioned photographers running around taking family portraits for people.. sat and watched the fun for ages.....

After dinner, i went for a potter along the promenade and surprise, surprise, met PanPan from Hanoi in the street, so we headed off to a floating bar for a wee beer or two. Hilarious as all the boys working at the bar, chatted to us for a bit, but were much more interested in getting back to their kareoke.. these people LOVE kareoke. Doesn't matter where it is, what time it is, they will sing their hearts out - and they did. Of course they tried to get us up to have a go but i decided to take a rain check this time.... walked back along the promenade and thought that Halong Bay really was quite a lovely place after all!


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