Ha Long Bay is the most famous of Vietnam’s attractions and since we have time to kill while we wait for our Chinese visa, we decided to do a 3 day/2 night tour of the bay. We got picked up from our hotel in Hanoi and then spent another hour driving around filling the bus up with more backpackers. It was a three and a half hour drive to bay, which was broken up with a not-so-pleasant stop at a handicraft warehouse. It seems that every tour we’ve taken in Vietnam always stops at one, although they never tell you. They just take you and stop at one against your (and every passenger’s) will. Five or ten minutes is never an option, despite the fact that everyone just goes to the bathroom real quick and spends the rest of the time standing around fending off Vietnamese salespeople. Anyways, we finally did make it to the boat and had lunch as we started out into the bay. We asked if we could put our bags in our rooms, but our guide said not yet, because the rooms weren’t clean yet. So we ate lunch and enjoyed the spectacular scenery. The bay’s unique feature is the hundreds of small islands that rise straight out of the water. Someone at our table noticed the boat had way more people than rooms and asked our guide about it. He said that some people onboard were just doing a day trip. Kind of odd, because that would imply we’d have to go back to where our boat launched from, I thought. I didn’t say anything because I figured getting a sufficient explanation would be futile anyways. So we happily ate and admired the bay as we glid through the water.
Our first stop was an island with several large caves. We disembarked and entered the first one. Despite only being discovered a decade ago, the place was totally developed. You might think that’s a weird way to describe a cave, but imagine a paved path running through it and colored lighting illuminating the walls and geological formations. Joylani likened it to something at Disneyland. It was kind of like that, complete with fake waterfalls and fountains inside. I was pretty happy to get out of there. Although our guide told us not to because we didn’t have time, Joylani and I went to another cave on the island. It was probably the biggest I’ve ever seen and way cooler than the Disney cave. Back on the boat we made our way to a fishing village, which consisted of individual floating shacks grouped somewhat near each other. We opted to take a short little raft ride around, which was okay until we tried to get off and were told there was a 50,000 dong required donation per person. Afterwards, we asked if we could get our room, so Joylani could change clothes. He said 15 minutes. “Why?” we asked. “15 minutes.” That was kind of the breaking point with our guide. The needless stop at the handicraft factory, the overcrowded boat, the pointless directions he gave us (go here, don’t go there, stand over there) all for no apparent reason and then trying to charge us extra for things when the tour was all inclusive, and then not giving us a room (although they were all clean and nothing would change in the next 15 minutes because the crew was sitting around doing nothing all day). Joylani and I had a little “talk” with our guide. He gave us our room and we went to change. When we came out (around the time he said we’d all get rooms), the guide was telling some people on board that plans had changed. It turns out everyone on the boat was told they’d sleep on the boat that night, but the tour company had just overbooked the boat and was making some people stay on the island that night. That’s why he didn’t want to give us a room until 15 minutes later, so he could kick us off along with the half dozen others he made get off. After dropping the poor souls off, the boat went offshore a bit and we jumped into the green water. We swam for just a little bit, before climbing into some kayaks. Joylani and I paddled around for about an hour. I think we have the same conversation 2-3 minutes into our kayak sessions everytime we go out: “I don’t think kayaking is our thing.” “Yeah, I don’t think so either.” Yet for some reason, we always do it if given the chance. It was nice to get off the boat and just have some time after arguing with that guide all day though.
can you find Joylani in the HUGE cave?
One thing I’ve learned to avoid at all costs is getting Joylani mad, because you do not want to be the target of her anger. Usually I try to deal with frustrating people in order to save them. On our trip, I try to calm her down a bit before she takes her complaints to people. Even at home, I tell her to calm down and go easy on the inept customer service reps every company employs. It takes a lot to get her angry, but if you’re shady enough to incite her anger, you probably deserve what follows. After ripping into the tour guide a little earlier today, he was extra polite and always asking us if we’re okay. Maybe he was just humoring us, but maybe he was just practicing self-preservation. To the bigger picture, Vietnam is seemingly more and more like Nepal. And not in a good way. We’ve been continually lied too, made the targets of scams, and it’s the only place that we’ve both gotten visibly angry at people. (Joylani wants me to write that sometimes she calms me down too)
The second day of the tour was more awful than the first, which is hard to imagine. Joylani woke up puking in the morning. Which continued once we disembarked the boat and got a bus to visit Cat Ba National Park on Cat Ba Island. Joylani checked into our hotel on the island and slept, while I went for a more strenuous than expected hike in the park. It was a pretty steep trail than went up and then down, up and then down, following the bumpy geography. There was a fair amount of climbing over rocks and it was incredibly hot. I’m not exaggerating when I say its probably the most I’ve ever sweated. My shirt was completely drenched down to the horizontal line where my pants came up to. Sweat was almost streaming off my chin most of the hike. Everyone else looked the same though; shirts sweat-soaked down to their belt-line and dripping sweaty faces. Joylani gave me quite the look when I arrived at the hotel. The views from the peaks we scaled on the hike were phenomenal though. The geography was very very unique. Unfortunately, I developed a migraine and slept on and off until the next morning. Its kind of worrisome because although I’ve frequently gotten headaches throughout my life, I’ve had two bad migraines in the past week. Hope its not related to when I bumped my head really hard on a boat in the Gilis. The hotel was clean, but sheisty. They didn’t even turn on electricity until 7, despite the fact that it was million degrees outside. Joylani and I did go downstairs for dinner where we met two really cool Malaysian couples, but Joylani couldn’t eat and left early to do some barfing.
Day three was finally better. Joylani felt better and my headache had gone away. We ate an early breakfast and took a bus to the boat. We cruised around the bay for awhile before finally heading back to the mainland. The whole trip was a somewhat of a microcosm of our time in Vietnam thus far. The bay was really cool. Not so unique that there’s nothing else like it in the world, but it was pretty cool. But despite the bay, the frustration of our tour being a scam operation, the hassle of having to deal with our guide and other shady people, and both being sick made the trip memorable in the worst kind of way.