Halong Bay

[June, 2007]

The second half of the organized tour I’d purchased in Hanoi was the infamous tour of Halong Bay, about 4 hours from the capital. So it was that I found myself sitting in the lobby of my ‘hotel’ half-asleep, wondering what I’m supposed to do at 5 in the morning. The night train from Sapa had arrived in town about a half hour earlier, and I managed to wake up one of the sleeping hotel workers to somnambulously let me in before passing out again.

As with most hotels I’d seen throughout the country, there is always at least one person sleeping on the floor in the hotel lobby, ostensibly for security. In this, the friendly ‘brother-run’ mini-hotel that had already given me the run-around (see first Hanoi post), the entire gang was splayed out like flotsam in the lobby. Too tired and confused to make a fuss, I set my luggage down and checked my email. Only when a fellow trekker from my Sapa trip arrived twenty minutes later did I realize the ridiculousness of the situation. I was supposed to amuse myself until 7:30, when I’d get to shower and change in a room whose occupants were supposed to check out at 7, before catching an 8am van to Halong Bay. When this sunk in we both got mad and I managed to get a bed and hot shower down the street at a ‘sister hotel’ (of course). Now, don’t get me wrong. These guys work really really hard all day long dealing with customers, making likely thin margins on whatever package tours they manage to sell. I appreciate the effort they put in. However, it’s all about the principle of managing expectations. Don’t sell me on a room if you’re gonna ask me to move later that day because you’ve overbooked and you’ve already sold me a tour. Likewise, when booking the tour, realize that I’m gonna get back into town at the ass-crack of dawn and have a place for me to crash. Don’t fall back asleep.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be staying at this charming little place when I’d get back from my boat trip.

In any case, the trip to Halong Bay departed on schedule, and after catching up on sleep I watched the changing scenery roll by. The area is known for the hundreds of craggly limestone mountains jutting out of the water, nearly identical to those in Gui Lin, China. Scattered throughout the bay, they create freeform bays in which mostly tourist boats meet for kayak rides, swimming and sunset watching.

Our modern version of a junk set off from the mainland straight to a heavily visited island that features well-lit, colorful caves. Though impressive in size and formation, they host swarms of slow-moving tourists and get old pretty quickly. Our regimented day on the boat was followed by a kayaking session and swim, including twenty foot jumps off our boat, followed by dinner.

Following a stunning sunset, slow-paced night of dominoes and wine, we were taken the next morning to Cat Ba island, where the first item on our agenda was a strenuous hike up into the limestone hills. I’d been warned by people in Sapa that the trek is exhausting and mediocre in terms of views, so I was delighted when my fellow passengers were, like me, in no mood to hike. So we found ourselves killing a couple of hours by the foot of the trail, playing dominoes and watching a very buff, uniformed Vietnamese official show off his biceps by doing pull-ups on a tree branch. Much better than hiking in that ridiculous humidity for a seemingly unremarkable view.

After a day at the beach on a nearby island, we spent the night at a hotel in Cat Ba town. Despite having the charm of the typically gray, generic beach-side strip dotted with weathered 70s-style hotels found anywhere in the world, the town is bustling with seafood restaurants and cheap-jewelry peddlers, and is evidently popular with Vietnamese tourists.

Our group at one point included a man who works at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Saigon, and evidently much better off than the average Vietnamese family. For a while I entertained the idea that this man, along with his wife and family, were the real-life government minders I’d so hoped to get upon setting foot in this country; that his company polo shirt and near-perfect English were a disguise, and his wife, who said not a word, was secretly taking notes while observing the rest of us. Alas, my kitschy reverie, fueled by travelogues from the nineties was but fantasy. Vietnam is, as I am reminded time and again during my visit, a rapidly-emerging economy; another Asian tiger or dragon nipping at Thailand’s and China’s heels; the number two exporter of coffee in the world. Still, our new friend’s stilted questions at dinner that night — “So, how do you like traveling in Vietnam?”, “Do you find Vietnam easy for tourists?”, “How safe do you find Vietnam?” — had me questioning his motives. Perhaps he was in fact an undercover officer of the Tourism Bureau. Or, perhaps, he was merely one of Vietnam’s new middle-class, working long hours at a foreign accounting firm and vacationing like the westerners do with his wife and five year-old son.

The next day it was time to head back to the mainland for a final meal (and birthday cake for Andrea) and ride back to Hanoi. On the way back I pondered everything and nothing. The cheezy tourism of my last two trips. The random, friendly people I’d met over the past week (not to mention few months). Along the highway we passed by single-story foreign-owned factories producing aluminum parts, inkjet cartridges and garments, all for export, and all hopefully sweatshop-free. We passed by rice fields occasionally interrupted by small, disorderly cemeteries, rectangular headstones jutting from between the plantations only to disappear into the distance. Small towns occasionally lined the highway, their narrow plots allowing for slim, multi-story houses resembling the colorful tombstones on their outskirts; some are ornate, with large bay windows, roof-top glass domes, spires… They too disappeared as we drove on, one after another, until they stopped disappearing and simply turned into the sprawling capital.

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