Travel Journal

Vietnam Part 3.5, Ha Long Bay, 4/18-4/20

(Wednesday 4 May 2011) by Joanne Chang
My favorite memory of Ha Long Bay is sitting on the top deck of the junk (boat called Tender Sunrise) in the dark with George, the two of us alone while the rest of the group sings along to bad love songs in the dining room below. Similarly bad karaoke surrounds us from nearby boats, and it reminds me of the night at Burning Man when we clutched each other for dear life waiting for the music to stop. I love it though, because it's ridiculous. It's horrible and fascinating that the thing to do is come all the way to Ha Long Bay and turn this beautiful, peaceful place into a 1000-boat karaoke festival. We wonder why tourist boats think this is what we want, and yet this must be what we want because everyone is doing it. I also love it because George is here, so I don't have to explain to him why Ha Long Bay is such a strange place. It came at the recommendation of every person who's been to Vietnam without hesitation, which I don't dispute because it's truly beautiful if you don't look in the water (lots and lots of garbage, booooo), and don't mind sharing the bay with 1000 other tour boats. This is mass tourism at its finest. Boats everywhere, kayakers everywhere, tourists everywhere, tour guides conducting them here and there telling them when to sit and when to go, when to pee and shower. If you aren't traveling with a large group, joining a tour is the only reasonable way to go, so this is what we did (it's what everyone else does too!). And I guess that's part of the Ha Long experience, this is Tourist travel. The boats are honorably named "Tourist" and the guide calls us "My Toursists", and it's funny at first that they think we like this name but I understand now. What we often take for granted, the ability to travel out of our country and be a tourist somewhere, to have the freedom, time and money to do so, is something they only dream about. Us independent travelers with our nose in the air about being a Tourist need to realize how lucky we are to be here at all. That said, it is still painful at times. And a good test of patience. And, quite impressive the coordination efforts that go into moving this many people in and around the bay via boats, buses, kayaks and water taxis like clockwork.

A look at the pictures proves how beautiful Ha Long Bay is. Limestone rock formations piled on top of each other in the horizon, beautiful massive caves, and surprise beach vacation #2 at Monkey Island, a little island off Cat Ba, where we spend our 2nd night. The sand is white and soft, the water is blue, we have a fancy seaside bungalow on the beach and it reminds me of all the times I stayed in a bungalow and wished George was with me. I bail on the organized monkey hike in the afternoon (hit my quota of tour activity for the day) and have a peaceful yoga session on our front deck looking out at the water. It's awesome. It's even more awesome when George comes back from the hike, I'm still giddy about the fact that we get to be together right now. At dinner we order a bottle of Dalat red wine and chat with an Aussie about Asia's history and get some good tips on Sapa. Also in our group is an Italian/French couple with two young children traveling for 5 months throughout Southeast Asia. They are in their final leg and look amazingly happy, relaxed, and in synch with each other. Inspiring!

We wake up early on Monkey Island and take the boat-bus-boat-bus journey back to Cat Ba, Ha Long City, then Hanoi. It takes over 7 hours. We go to the 'bun bo' place for dinner (beef with noodles), buy some local fruit snacks and hop on a night train to Sapa.


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