At 7:30 am i roll out of a bunk bed in Hanoi pulling Laura’s sleepy limbs with me. Good morning sunshine. By 8 am we are on a crammed bus with 20 new faces, hastily eating our stash of bananas, but more importantly, headed for Halong Bay.
For those of you that don’t know, Halong Bay was Vietnam’s first international trading post, a huge sea of blue and 1969 islands in the North of Vietnam. I imagine this could have been confusing, and perhaps the reason for the lack of international trade in the area now.. I’m not kidding about the 1969 islands though. In true scumbag fashion I’m reusing the facts and information that our guide unloaded to us anxiously, each period of silence an opportunity to demonstrate new knowledge. Ahow, if your eyes ever befall this know that I was listening and eating the banana at the same time. In FACT, Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 (same as the number of islands in Halong Bay)… now you know two facts about Vietnam. I am immediately increasing your repertoire of random global trivia and your chances of future game show success. No thank yous required for now. Anyways, after a 3 hour bus ride with the air conditioning unit dripping on me. Refusing to let me sleep everytime i get close… we reach the harbor at Halong Bay City. Tourists crowd here in small groups of 15 to 20, each awaiting his or her tour guide to push them towards the next location. I can’t blame them however. The sea is lined with at least 60 wooden ships. Each with its own threadbare ropes, white buoys that have evidently served their purposes many times, and orange lifevests that have faded after many days in the sun. As we board our ship, “THE HALONG WONDER” I’m convinced that this is where they filmed Pirates of The Caribbean.. or that we are about to get into some type of trouble. Pirates will certainly attack us in the next two days, or we will see Peter pan, or our boat will sink until its reaches its death next to some old treasure boat where sharks are circling. Something is up here. The horizon is covered in cliffs of different angles and segregated spaces, a heavy fog lingers at their peaks, and their is a disquieting silence in the air. This place is too unreal not to fantasize, and my mind is already setting the tone with ominous background music.
However, I leave my head as we are greeted with the huge smile of a small Vietnamese boy name Thine. Half my size he insists on taking my bag and ushering me to an indoor wooden cabin. A table set with folded napkins and a generous lunch buffet of fresh fish, tofu, vegetables, and rice served in family style wait patiently for us. Big bowls and big spoons are passed about in a directionless manner. Instantaneously, the place evolves into something more majestic than eerie.
On board this ship are 12 other new faces, we learn each other quickly as large mountains pass through the windows behind us. Dan a bearded on-his-way-to-be doctor from Idaho, youthful spirit with strong blue eyes. Two London guys, Otis and Jamie, fresh from teaching English in China for three months. An Austrian couple with a quiet character. A loud and factual Canadian. A louder and intensely masculine Israeli male and his newfound female friend whose name I never came to know. Another couple from Singapore and two European women of my mother’s age, old friends now traveling through southeast asia together. I like them already.
We hit up all the major to-dos in Halong Bay in single afternoon. Caving on an empty island, visiting a fishing village, and kayaking in the lonely sea before night befalls us.
For obvious reasons, namely my bad history with cameras and water, i reluctantly decided to be a responsible individual and leave my digital camera on board. I could not possibly fathom the criticism i would receive for losing two cameras while in Southeast asia.. So a simple disposable camera joined me in the kayak for the majority of these adventures. An evening fog and lack of flash wil certainly make for an interesting film roll… or very disappointing.. However, being in a smaller vessel amongst these large karsts only made the area seem more isolated and untouched. Like we were the first people navigating around these large islands, exploring the unknown.
Tonight we will sleep on deck, fresh beds and the gentle sway of the water beneath us. Early tomorrow we will wake up and head to Cat Ba Island…that is, if everything goes smoothly tonight. From what I can see from here, it looks like Jurassic Park awaits us.