Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Swayed by our guidebook as well as online forums, we find our way to the organizer for our trip to Halong Bay. Following the devise that “that one is as good as any” doesn’t always hold true, especially for what may be a once-in-a-lifetime detour to this famous bay, we opt for an established company. Although more than a couple comments described the Australian owner as rude and strange, we hope that he knows what he’s doing.

The company turns out to be a café slash travel agent. Therefore, conveniently, the meeting point on the morning of departure is the café. A handful of other travelers crowd the little venue, and we speculate whether they might be our companions for a couple of days, or if they’re going elsewhere. The hired bus to the coast is an hour late. Travelers tend to be on time for excursions already paid for, not risking missing the ride, and wanting to make the most out of the trip. Local transporters tend to have a more flexible attitude. There’s little incentive for them to stress, and they know their customers are not going anywhere. So we wait.

The three-hour unspectacular ride to the coast from Hanoi goes by quickly, despite the delay. Maybe it’s my strong burning daylight aversion, constantly looking a step or two ahead rather than enjoying the moment. Are we going to miss out on something? Are the other tours getting the better boats? Which vessel are they putting us on? I’ve head of the junk boats, but can’t really imagine what they will look like up close. Despite being a timetable junkie, I needn’t have worried. We’re not missing the boat. It’s waiting to take our group, and only our group of a dozen or so foreigners, to the bay.

As the port fades away in the distance, the rocks shoot out of the water. Stand-alone rocks, in the hundreds or thousands, towering over us. It’s hazy and quiet, and the scenery is bizarrely beautiful. The rocks seem to be in perfect harmony with the elements, as if creating a maze of passages to confuse the intruder. But our captain knows his way. He’s probably done this for decades, maybe centuries. Maybe he grew up here, expertly navigating the rocks in his little canoe as a boy. Maybe the skill and the trade was passed on to him through generations. Or maybe he’s just following the stream of other junk boats going to the same place.

There’s plenty to see, but plenty of time. Why was I worried again? I forget, and acknowledge that the crew knows what they are doing. Every day they bring tourists like ourselves to this unforgettable place, and every day they manage. Instead I focus on the scenery. It’s like a fjord, equally beautiful, but not quite the same. It’s as if a giant, or whatever mythological creature would be the Vietnamese equivalent, didn’t like the fjord that was Halong Bay at the beginning of time, and smashed it up into pieces. Small pieces for a giant, but to a human massive rocks or mountains sticking out of the water.

The sun peaks through the haze, occasionally, creating a romantic, almost surreal, shimmer over the horizon. There are a couple of hours of daylight left, and well into the maze, we anchor at one of the rocks, and are given two choices of activities; either climb the rock to the top for a magnificent view, or jump into a kayak and paddle around the bay. We opt for the view, and trek the large number of stairs to the top, or near the top. The birds-eye view of the bay is indeed spectacular. Rocks everywhere, from here to the horizon, although clouds merge with the rocks at the horizon, making it difficult to assess exactly how vast the bay is. There’s a beach at the bottom of the rock we’ve climbed. Not a beach like “The Beach”, but a perfectly adequate strip of sand, that in the summer could very well be packed with tourists taking a break from cruising.

We enjoy the evening meal, deliciously prepared by the versatile crew, getting to know our co-travelers. There’s the middle-aged gay couple, two ladies from Australia, pleasant and sophisticated, constantly carrying their Kindles. And there’s the British family, on a side-trip from their home in Kuala Lumpur, enjoying the Christmas break with their boys. Both parents are teachers, and the dad, dressed in his Celtic Glasgow jersey, gives his boys math problems to solve where others would have given their kids comic books or electronic devices to play with. A unique experience, meeting unique people. As the guests withdraw to their cabins, the crew switches on an ancient television set in the corner of the room. Maybe the Vietnamese karaoke is a sign, or a hint, that it’s bedtime, and that the crew now needs to let loose. Walls on a junk boat are thin, and I wonder if the singing will keep us awake. I needn’t have worried.

Morning, and already time to start the trek back to port. But first we get to visit a cave on one of the rocks. It’s a rather impressive cave. Our travel guide doesn’t give us much information, maybe due to lack of English skills, or lack of knowledge, or simply because the cave actually isn’t that interesting. Nevertheless, it’s a perfectly nice cave. Caves add mystery, even darkness, to a place. Although it makes sense that with all these hundreds of rocks there would be the odd cave, it’s almost as if it’s not fair to other sights in the country. The rock formations are impressive enough, but maybe they could have put the cave on the mainland somewhere, making it into a tourist attraction in its own right. Should have thought of that, ancient giant.

Back on shore, we’re bussed to a restaurant. It’s lunch-time, and we’re happy to be fed. But maybe, unjustly so, we expected a venue in the style of what we’ve just experienced, with lush rocks and deep water and ancient junk boats. Overwhelmed by the experience we’ve just had, the large and empty restaurant is almost an anti-climax. It’s functional and square. Halong Bay is everything but.

The three-hour unspectacular bus ride from the coast to Hanoi goes quickly. We arrange to meet up with some new acquaintances at the café slash travel agent. And at no point during the trip to we meet the infamous Aussie owner.