Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay is famous for its thousands of beautiful karsts and has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site accordingly. Because it’s a major tourist destination the most typical way to get there is to book a cruise: you can choose between 1 day cruise, 2 day-1 night cruise or a 3 day-2 night cruise. Not wanting to deal with the hassle of recreating the “roughing it” version of this, I booked at 2D1N cruise at $75. Solidly middle range. There are more expensive and cheaper options, so you can really choose something to fit your purse.

(I made plans with my go-to guy for tourism in Hanoi, Tung, so if you’re going to be in Hanoi any time soon, look for him at the Hanoi Youth Hostel! He deserves all the good stuff in the world.)

My Ha Long Bay adventure started far too early on a Saturday morning when the bus almost forgot to pick me up from my hostel. I was the last tourist on, much to my mild embarrassment. And then the ennui of the 3-4 hour bus ride took over and I stopped caring.

People were much more awake and open to interaction, once we all got off the bus. I met M, an old lady from the American South who had been traveling around Southeast Asia. She was finishing up her trip while I was just starting. M was vivacious and proved to be one of those people with itchy feet like me: you can’t stop traveling once you start. I was happy to discover that M was going to be my roommate.

They piled us onto the boat, which actually matched the pictures fairly well, if on the small side. It was foggy and we worried we wouldn’t be able to see anything (since the entire point was to stare at the karsts), but it got easier once we were closer to them.

Our first stop in Ha Long Bay was the Surprising Cave, which has got to be a set up for all sorts of jokes. The biggest surprise for me was that I actually enjoyed our tour around the cave.

Our good-natured tour guide, Kevin, invited us to see all sorts of things in the rock formations, such as the Monkey, the Dragon, and the Kissing Couple. Our tour group mainly ribbed him for it, claiming we couldn’t see what he was talking about or arguing that it wasn’t a Dragon, it was an Elephant or perhaps the Alien from the Ridley Scott movie. About the only formation we could all see was the “Happy Finger” and the “Happy Hole” which… well.

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(Our tour-guide helpfully pointed out the hole with his green pointer. And the finger is in the left-hand bottom corner.)

After the cave, it was finally time to go kayaking. From research before my trip, I was most excited about this portion. I imagined you could kayak the entirety of Ha Long Bay, but the area is actually too big and too dangerous for that. I ended up partnered with this guy who said he could do all the rowing himself, so after some stubborn strokes that just got water all over my pants, I let him. Eventually, we both settled on not doing anything in the middle of the bay, simply enjoying the birds, the breeze, and the delicious sights.

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(These pictures are such crap compared to the real thing.)

We were soon back to our cruise boat, preparing for dinner. Many of the other cruise ships had settled in the same area and it was fun to watch them light up for the evening. There are party cruise options for Ha Long Bay and it was fun to guess which ones they were, based on the loudness of the party music or the overabundance of sparkly lights.

There was not much to do after dinner (which was frankly mediocre; even the Vietnamese food back in Seattle was so much better than this). The karaoke machine turned out to be broken. All at once I missed the ukulele I had left behind. People sat on the breezy deck, chatting, or tried their hand at squid fishing. (They eventually did see some squid, but caught none of them.)

M had a deck of cards, and we soon got into a game of Hearts with a German couple. We had to teach the German man from scratch, but the both of them turned out to be prodigious players, particularly the lady who spent most of the game smiling quietly and ducking every hand. I lost spectacularly.

I set an alarm clock for M and I to watch the sunrise over the bay, but when it came time to get out of bed, we both vetoed and kept sleeping. We decided that it would be quite foggy anyway, and there wouldn’t be much to see.

After breakfast, M and I were roped into another game of Hearts– this time, with the Australian couple who were on the third day of a cruise and quite bored of the karsts. The company kept mixing up the various itineraries for the 1D, 2D1N and 3D2N so that, unless your itineraries were exactly the same, we tourists didn’t all stay together. New people would show up on the boat, as if by magic– in fact, the Australian couple showed up in that way. M was doing a 3D2N so she was called away, and we gave her spot to another Hearts newbie, the Frenchman P.

Despite the fact that I was playing with complete newbies (in at least one case, I taught him the game), I again lost spectacularly after a few failed attempts at Shooting the Moon. I really need to rethink my Hearts strategy.

Our last activity was a Vietnamese cooking class, where they taught us how to make spring rolls. We were deep in the Hearts game at this point and a bit loathe to drop it. Having made many a spring roll with my mother, it was a distraction. We ate the spring rolls for lunch and they turned out to be the most delicious thing I’d eaten on the entire cruise.

All too soon, the cruise was over. The card games kept me away from the karsts more than I liked, but I had a great deal of fun anyway. We got off the boat and back on the bus to Hanoi.

[This post was originally published on March 30, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]

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