We finished our time in Vietnam with a bit of a misadventure in the extraordinarily beautiful and justly renowned Halong Bay, a World Heritage Sight about 150 kilometers (I’ve taken to thinking in kilometers, which are used here, although I cannot for the life of me (KK can, of course) make the conversion to miles in less than a minute’s times) from Hanoi.
It’s a massive archipelago of jutting limestone karsts and islands that sprout from the green sea. Halong means descending dragon, a name it was given by French expeditionaries who swore they saw a Loch Ness type dragon in its waters, or so we were told. The karsts and islands, with jagged fissures and blankets of green rainforest, are quite astonishing, although for the duration of our time there it was overcast, and at times thundering and pouring, so the whole scene, unless you were English or morose, became a bit dreary.
Dreary isn’t quite the word for our bus trips to and from but it’s in the neighborhood. The picture above shows our bus going to Halong – a 5-1/2 hour ride on the local bus that took on more and more passengers. There are no scheduled stops other than the start and end points. The way it works is an energetic young guy sits by the rear door and any time he sees a prospective passenger (which seemed to mean pretty much anyone standing around looking as though they needed a ride) he flings the door open and bellows at them. Amazingly, he’s right about half the time and one or several persons get on. The photo above shows the bus about 2/3rds full.
There are close to a million tours offered from Hanoi to Halong Bay — ranging from 1-day to 3-days/4nights and in price from $30 a person and up. KK and I, but mostly KK — because my preferred choice was to spend much too much money getting a boat of our own and directing it anywhere we wanted to go — decided to save money by just getting to Halong City on our own and then finding a private junk captain to take us out. Here’s what happened (nothing really dramatic, by the way, just a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of doing the same thing). And by way of a preview, on the bus home today, similiarly crowded, the woman behind me spent half the journey throwing up on the floor. Yep, that’s right.
So, first we were dropped in the middle of a highway, set up on by avaricious motorcycle and taxi drivers, dropped in Bai Chay (part of Halong City) at the first hotel whose name we frantically dug out of our guidebook to show we weren’t ignorant tourists but seasoned travelers. Then we took another taxi that drove erratically and fast after a man in a pink baseball cap on a motorcycle who led us to another hotel, at which I was invited to sit at a table set for tea and cigarettes. A man rushed in soon after from the street, unloaded his briefcase full of brochures and nearly convinced me to hire a private junk for two days for $500. “Take it anywhere, do anything, it’s yours,” he said.
Smelling a rat, we made our excuses and wandered off, found a restaurant where we ordered some of the worst food we’ve eaten on this trip (though served by some of the sweetest people) and told the restaurant’s owner, a gorgeous woman in high heels and butterflies painted on her toes, that we wanted to hire a boat. Calls ensued, a cell phone was pressed to my ear — “My name is Son,” a man said, “I will be there in 5 minutes.”
He leaped from a taxi. Unloaded his briefcase on the table and — talking all the time on his cell — described to us the luxury junks his family owned and how “comfortable” he would make us.
“You have two sons,” he said to me, grinning as Dante and Langston, growing bored, somehow toppled their chairs over at the table beside us. “That’s good luck, my friends tell me.”
We haggled like veterans and ended up with a deal that included a free night’s hotel stay, dinner, breakfast lunch and dinner the next day aboard the luxurious Dream Voyage junk along with 16 other people, a night aboard and a bus ride home. All for $480, (about the same as a private boat). He put us in a taxi, paid our way to go to the bank — he would only take cash — where we withdrew 7 million Dong.
Feeling comforted and successful we checked into the hotel, which was worn but perfectly confortable. A little balcony from our room looked down in to the lobby of a sleek new hotel next door, where bellmen in green uniforms walked an ampty lobby all past designed white chairs they could not sit in. We strolled the boardwalk that night. It was lit by green lanterns and the silhouettes of junks in the harbor promised us a dream day to come. It was a scruffy commercial fishing port turned tourist town but there were no tourists anywhere; a massive night marketplace trafficking in souvenirs of every sort was completely deserted. Empty horse drawn carriages wheeled past us, again and again, turning circles in the streets. A woman parked her bicycle; it was laden with tight cages in which ragged kittens and puppies were miserably hunkered — perhaps knowing their fate on the dinner plate; she fed the puppies spoonfuls of yoghurt.
After all that. the voyage, such as it was, came as a bit of a letdown. We set forth in a cattle call scene at the Bai Chay Tourist Port, in a drenching rain, from a harbor so seething with junks that one could, for a moment, image the scene of a century ago. Still, after all our wheeling and dealing we had ended up with every other tourist to Halong Bay. And for a brief moment we feared we were going to be sharing a junk with a very unpleasant American girl traveler who never took of her sunglasses and used the word “dude” unceasingly as she made fun of people she couldn’t understand. KK started making deals with higher spirits.
In the end, she wasn’t aboard and our fellow passengers were very nice: a Montana woman and her high school sophomore daughter; a Vietnamese American man and his family (he works for U.S. Homeland Security); a French woman traveling with her mother; a group of Singaporeans just graduated from university, with whom Langston sang Karaoke late into the night (in the dining room, which was right next to our bedroom). We explored a cave that was about three million years old or something like that — three progressively larger caverns, the last of which was about the size of Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, in which astonishing stalagmites and stalagtites were formed — some looked like those delicate ripples of chocolate that adorn fancy cakes; another that resembled the goddess Quan Yin, or, as our guide Nam pointed out, like Mother Mary, depending on your point of view; another called the Happy Man (figure that out yourselves).
Here’s the entrance to the cave — which is called the Surprising Cave — visible about 5 or 6 stories high up the cliff face.
We exited from the other side of the island, or karst, I’m not sure which it was:
Then, in the same pouring rain, we kayaked and jumped into the sea from the decks of the Dream Voyage (the water was salty and a bit dirty, but it was getting dark).
The Dream Voyage herself though was, up close, a bit dowdy, with cracked and lifting deckplanks, broken wicker benches, erratic lighting and air conditioning; poor food and expensive drinks. And Halong Bay, breezeless and humid beneath a gray sky, and more to the point, crowded with other junks doing exactly as we were.
In the end, I suppose, that, aided by the weather, was the letdown. We had fallen for the guidebook portrait of an idyllic, sun-soaked exploration of green waters and beautiful limestone islands. What we encountered instead was thousands of other people just like us, more or less, who were looking for exactly the same thing. All under the wing of guides who, while pleasant enough, had done this a million times and who, for another thing, had grown up under communism, which made them, it seemed to me, inflexible. And then on the bus ride home that woman kept throwing up behind me. All in all, it was more fun writing about than taking part in. And that’s it for complaints, because after all, we are here with little else to moan about than that.
Tomorrow, at 5 a.m., we depart for Laos, a country closed for the most part to visitors since 1975 until very recently. Hanoi has endeared itself to us tremendously, OUtside, the streets are still full at 11:30 p.m.. Here’s the scene outside out hotel:
Scooters and people eating on tiny stools, brains being cooked and served, jamming the sidewalk all the way to our hotel door.
P.S. Oh, the Mango Gum in this post’s headline refers to my Vietnamese, which I’ve been practicing to no apparent avail. While we were out on the kayak, paddling around a little floating fishing village, I haioled a little girl on a floatinf dock. How are you, I called out. “Baan Kwa Khong.” Excitedly, she waved us toward her, and rushed inside, rushing back out with her mother in tow. “Baan Kwa Khong,” I called out again and again, delight to have established this contact.
‘You want mango gum,” she yelled back,. “We have.”
“Baan kwa khong,”
“You want mango gum…”
and so it goes.