I must apologize in advance for the wall of text that is about to follow. Due to some hardware and bandwidth constrains there will be no pictures for a while, either. So just bear with me, eh?
After a brief stint in Hanoi, staying at the Paramount Hotel, where the wifi was dead and the rooms were nice, we booked a tour to Ha Long Bay. The hotel offered us some fairly exorbitant rates, about 150 to 200 bucks a person, but we were right on one of the main backpacker streets of the old quarter, so there were plenty of competing travel agencies around, so we got our trip booked for 87 dollars from Lily’s Travel Agency, a deluxe package that was supposed to include a better boat and a nicer hotel. The trip itself was a three day, two night affair, one night on the boat and one night at the hotel on the Cat Ba island.
The start was pretty inauspicious. The pick up service was late, and the characters on the bus thoroughly dodgy. Once we got to the harbour the going got weirder. Our guides turned out to be a bunch of conniving bastards, and we got lectured not to ask uncomfortable questions cos they are “busy”. Fine. Our questions produced some results though, because we did eventually get separated from the rest of the pack and assigned a marginally nicer boat. It even looked somewhat similar to the pictures in the unrealistically glitzy brochures we were offered at every travel agency. Identical brochures, mind. After boarding the boat (and having lunch while the stereos were blasting incredibly shitty techno mixes of christmas songs) we were taken to the first sight on the cruise itinerary, the caves.
The bay of the island was packed with white cruise boats identical to ours, but the caves themselves were impressive, huge and very airy and full of all that cavey stuff, stalagmites, stalactites, weird rocks shaped like cocks and boobs that our insane and incredibly annoying guide (by this time dressed as a santa claus) was all too happy to point out. The guy behaved like a bag of dicks that he apparently was, his speech full of “gangsta” affectations and ridiculous swagger. He noticed our dour demeanors and tried to “cheer us up”, but that only made it worse. We tried to keep as much distance from him as possible, and enjoy the caves without distraction. We shared the caves with about a billion of other tourists though, so distraction was not easy to get off the menu. By this time quiet despair was beginning to set in, we were pretty certain that that was it, we were ripped off and stuck on a cruise from hell…
An hour later we cruised deeper into the archipelago, leaving most of the white tourist boats behind, and there we had to grudgingly admit that the place was extraordinarily beautiful. I thought that after the gorgeous karst islands of Thailand we would be somewhat disappointed in Ha Long Bay, but we shouldn’t have feared. Their beauty was different, more rugged and stern somehow, the water a cool milky blue-green, the skies overcast, giving it all a more temperate appearance. Thai islands were never so numerous and varied, either. This place truly deserved its place on the Unesco natural heritage list.
Next on the itinerary was kayaking. We stopped at a beautiful bay, surrounded by islands, home to a floating village of fishermen. The kayaks were old and beaten up, the GRP patched and cracked. I’ve never kayaked before, but it proved to be a piece of cake, didn’t even tip the thing over. We skirted the shores, and even rowed our kayak through a crack in a small karst island, the mass of it hanging over us. Will definitely have to try kayaking again, although learning better rowing technique is a must, mine was atrocious.
Afterwards we got assigned to our cabins. We were taken to one side before anyone else, and quietly got handed the keys to “the best” room, which proved to be quite delightful, albeit somewhat identical to all the others. We were further placated when the ratsy guides showed up with a bottle of bubbly and two glasses, as well as a vase of flowers. We locked ourselves up in the room, and enjoyed the gorgeous archipelago floating by, sipping our “champagne”, which tasted exactly like the fake south Russian “red wine” made by mixing powders and spirits with water. And afterwards it was time for the weirdest christmas party I’ve ever seen.
It all started with a dinner (all meals were included in our trip), after which two of our ships got tied together and we mingled on the other one, listening to all kinds of crap music really, really loud. A strange semi-melted cake featuring baby Jesus in a grotto was brought out, and the drinks started flowing. The guides were drunk as skunks already, one did a really good impression of the “Gangnam style” dance, and all went rather well, until a massive speaker dropped off its perch and landed on a side table, crushing it and the glasses on it. That put a damper on things, and the boat staff along with the guides had to sober up and clean. We got evacuated to the other boat, the one our cabin was on. The party turned dull then, it was too loud and dark, the strobe was driving me insane and most of the foreigners disappeared somewhere. So we retired as well, around 11pm, took a warm shower and went to bed (the thumping music thankfully stopped around midnight).
The following day we moored at Cat Ba island, home to countless species of endangered wild things and a natural park, with trees and stuff, as well as pretty hills that we later climbed. Part of the group, with one night deals, took the boat back to the Halong City, and we continued onwards to the nature reserve on a rickety pink bus. The reserve was staffed by a few old people, one of whom was elected to become our guide. He did show us which way to go, but other than that was absolutely worthless, scaring the wildlife away with his monkey imitations and “funny” hoots and hollers. He didn’t speak any english either, so couldn’t tell us anything about the park. Not that it is in any way certain that he knew anything about it.
The park visit culminated in climbing a hill, a fifteen minute climb perhaps, on top of which stood an ancient look out tower. It was probably put there back in the glorious cold war days, maybe during the Vietnam war, and certainly looked the part. About 20 meters high, it had a sign on it that expressly forbid climbing the tower, but our guide told us that it was ok as long as we went up two at a time. An american aerospace engineer from SF, Tyler, volunteered to come along, and we scaled the tower all the way to the top. Man, that thing is bound to make headlines some day. “Two Tourists Killed in Deadly Watch Tower Collapse”. The railings on the top level have pretty much detached from the main structure, and are in places paper thin due to rampant corrosion. The stairway that circles the tower sags away from it under its own weight. Oh and then there’s the case of the missing floor boards on the top level, just some planks thrown over the abyss. If you’re ever there I thoroughly recommend the climb, and hey, you might even make the news!
After that we were once again separated from the group, who were put up for the night at some dinky rape rooms far from the shore, and driven to the sea side boulevard of Cat Ba town, where we were dropped off at a three star high-rise hotel and given a closet of a room with no windows. Fuck that, right? So I went down to the reception and demanded a better room, so after scratching their heads and looking at each other they gave us a brand spanking new sea view room with two wonderful double beds and a shower to die for. That, and the “deluxe” cabin on the boat, as well as the bubbly bottle, were worth the 20 USD we overpaid. Also, we had the whole evening to ourselves, and were fed as if for slaughter by the hotel, who obviously thought a bigger group would be arriving.
The hotel also arranged kayak rent at our request. We paid 8 USD per person for half a day (1pm to 5pm in our case) of kayaking, complete with scooter (my first ever scooter ride, can you believe it?) pickup and delivery. The kayaks we got were little better than at the bay we moored at the day before, but this time there were no limitations as to time and where we could go. We went to the Monkey Island, home of the legendary pirate Guybrush Threepwood. At first we found no monkeys, but no people either, so the beach was ours. Girly had a swim, and reported something I already suspected, namely that the water was about as “warm” as in the Gulf of Finland in the summer. I didn’t follow her shivering example. There were some goats far up on the cliffs, and our attempts to reach them failed, but then a group of western tourists came along from the depths of the island, with a local guide, whom the monkeys apparently recognised. They swarmed onto the beach, maybe eight or nine of them, and I had a brilliant idea of getting a small, half eaten baggy of cashew nuts I had in my messenger bag, and feeding them, imagining that it’d be like feeding squirrels. But no. The minute they saw the bag and heard the rustle they mounted an intensive rush attack, and only the stick and vigilance of the local guide stopped me from being violently separated from my nuts (and cashews)… Some british tourist said that most monkeys have rabies, and the guide agreed, so I decided to forego any feeding attempts in the future. Shaken, we decided to depart the accursed island.
We circled amongst the islands for a while, landing at another beach to switch places (I was heaviest so sat at the back, to better aid steering), until something wondrous happened. We were paddling along when suddenly a fish jumped out of the water right by our paddles. Then another, and another! Then one hit my paddle blade with a satisfying thwack, whee! Another one jumped right onto the kayak, and ended up in my lap! I caught it, it was maybe 8cm in length and 4cm tall, pretty flat, with a spike on its belly. I held it, dipping it in the water occasionally so that it didn’t suffocate, until girly took a picture me and my new scaly friend. I then let it go. I guess we paddled right into a large school of these flat little silver fish, and they mistook the droplets from our paddles for flies or some other tasty tidbits on the surface, and tried catching them? Don’t know, but it sure was fun.
We paddled back through a different channel between some islands, not really sure if that was the way to go, amidst a large floating village of fishermen, with dogs and bickering women, playing children and smells of food. The fishermen waved at us, looking up from their net mending and boat patching. The children screamed what were probably insults at us. The sun was setting, and the dogs were barking. It was a glorious end to a glorious day spent amidst a glorious archipelago. We were picked up by a guy on a scooter and rode off, the three of us, with me sandwiched in the middle. Lovely.
Next morning after another good breakfast it was time to leave. Our previous night at the hotel was marred by wifi that was apparently turned off for the night, and by hot water, that was apparently turned off for the night as well. Good thing we had a gloriously scalding, über long shower before that. We were picked up at 8am by the same pink bus, greeted our tour mates who spent the night at a crappy hotel with paper thin walls and shit beds, and were taken to the harbour. There we boarded our ship and slowly coasted to Halong City, enjoying the scenery and the sun from the top deck. We didn’t have a room reserved for the night, nor did we have a train/plane/bus ticket to anywhere, so we asked our snaky guide to drop us off “at the south station”, where we thought the buses to Vientiane, Laos, departed. He agreed, but also tried selling us 55$ (later coming down to 800k Dong) tickets, motivating it by claims that we’re not gonna get a ticket because they are all bought out in advance by scalpers. We politely declined, but still asked him to take us to the station. He once again agreed.
We were dropped off somewhere near the Opera house, about 3km from the south bus station, with the guide claiming all along that the bus station was “200 - 300 meters away”. What a fuckweed. Oh, and once we got there, having to take a taxi because we got lost along the way not knowing where it was, we found out that it was the wrong station! Time to catch another taxi, which took half an hour driving us to the other end of town in a traffic jam for over 200k Dong, (about 10$). To add insult to injury, or vice versa, I accidentally paid our driver with a 500k dong note, taking a hit for about 300k, or about 10€. Fuck. It was dark and I hadn’t eaten anything and was shaking from lack of sugar, ok? So lets drop it. At least we made it with 45 minutes to spare, the next bus was slated to leave at 19:00, and the ticket was only 500k! I could still afford it even despite the loss of cash at the cab! When asked whether it was one of those newer VIP buses the cashier didn’t answer. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I mean, it was still a sleeper, but one with only one floor, no “in-flight entertainment” or toilet. Still, 500k is nothing, so off we went! About an hour late. But hey, welcome to South East Asia.