My impression of the Vietnamese people who work in the tourism industry is like my impression of those in North India (see Delhi scam stories from first blog). They like to share falsehoods rather than that rare traveler gem – the truth. As in, “What will the weather be like at Halong Bay?” “Sunny and warm during the day, cool at night.” Both concepts were untrue – it was foggy, rainy, and warm at night. Thankfully, the lies ended there because the tour I took with the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel to Halong bay for 2 days and 3 nights was a whole new level of fun and relaxation amidst beautiful, albeit blanked out by fog, scenery.
The title of the tour was “rock long, rock hard” and when I saw an advertisement post-trip booking of bikini-ed twenty somethings toasting plastic cups to the camera, the thought, “I am too old for this” did cross my mind for the first time. At 7:30 a.m. roundup time for the group meeting, none of the 32 tourees were awake enough to think of toasting anything other than coffee. I befriended two Californians immediately – Dave and Alex – who are very friendly and easy to talk to. We chatted the whole way up about things other than “where are you going next and where have you been.” They both lived in Shanghai and were just in Hanoi for a short time.
The dock at Halong Bay was lots of tourists being herded around by guides or backpackers trying to make deals for their own trips around the bay. My situation was the former so I was a part of one of the herds making our way to a small boat and then the big boat. The big boat was three stories tall and only hinted at the traditional junks that used to sail Halong Bay. There was the dining room and bar (open until we close it, per Aaron our twenty-four year old guide) and then nice rooms ensuite on the other floors.
Our group was made up of Irish, Brits, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, American, German, Dutch, and one Latvian. There were a lot of students, but also computer programmers, a Marine liability attorney, ER doctors, financial consultants, engineers, and construction workers. Most were in Vietnam for more than 2 weeks, some traveling for a year with work visa programs in Australia (available to anyone under 30 from a Western country – Jess, roomie, I’m thinking of you on this one).
As a lone traveler, I made friends throughout the day: I jumped off the top of the boat into the cold water with the Latvian, I joked about the beer quality that a German bought on our kayak trip with a German, got photog tips from the American, shared career advice and stories with the Brit, and drank a lot with the Canadians, Aussies, and Irish.
There was swimming and kayaking after lunch. The swimming didn’t look too refreshing since the day was cold and rainy, but I joined about half the group and jumped 30 feet from the top of the boat into the light green water. (Later I found out there were HUGE jellyfish on the other side of the boat, thankfully I didn’t see these) It was scary to be at the top and I was psyching myself out by standing there, but then Latvia jumped in and I followed with a scream the whole way down. The impact was minimal and the water cold. I felt proud that I took the leap.
Still wet, we covered up a little and went in the kayaks. I paddled with Tom, the Vietnamese tour leader. He led our group around the large bluffs that dot the waters like gigantic gumdrops. We stopped at a fishing village to see the locals. Let me rephrase. We paddled past a fishing village because the village was made up of small houses on rafts and was a floating village. Each house was a green square with a roof, door and two windows on each side – like a child’s drawing. The house rested on a raft and tied up were smaller boats for quick transport and fishing. I had the thought that if you didn’t like your neighbory, you just moored to the other side of the bay. The biggest and most colorful building was the bar and disco. Tom shared that the villagers had lived there for 300 years and the children went to school for months at a time in Halong city. Looking at this life, again I was thankful for where I was born as I would get very claustrophobic and isolated in such a setting (not to mention, damp). Tom also shared that he asked the villagers if they found this life interesting or boring and they replied – interesting. At this time I’d wished I had a waterproof camera in the kayak so I could share pictures. I’d never seen anything like this village.
After our kayak rides, the night began with a delicious seafood dinner and then some beers and finally a drinking game. The boat workers set up one long table in the dining room and Aaron shared the rules of Kings Cup, which required three decks of cards spread out over the long table for each of us to pick when it’s our turn. I manned the stereo, hooked up to my iPod, and Florian, a German, manned the volume. We silently knew that this evening needed a soundtrack and I would provide it. My inner DJ had tonight as a stage.
The game is involved and complicated, but mixes the best part of drinking games: lots of drinking for prolonged periods, funny rules, a little competition, truth or dare, and “never have i ever.” One girl, Laura from Canada, was picked to do all sorts of dares and ended up bonging beer, doing a chaste strip tease (dancing, no clothes off – I picked the song “Lick” by Joi for this activity), and a body shot. She was a great sport. The evening got rowdier and rowdier and segued into a dance party with the song, provided by the Canadians, “I’m on a boat” by Andy Sandberg and T-Pain. I’ll just say, I may have gotten on a chair at this point and danced to this celebratory song of our current situation.
In the middle of the dance party there was a limbo contest. I pumped Black Eyed Peas, Jay-Z, and some 80s tunes during this activity. About three girls and two guys really showed up and flexed for the championship. I thought of my sister and wondered if she could’ve brought all the pain with her yoga moves to this show. My evening ended at about 2:30, but other’s danced longer and ended up swimming again. PARAGRAPH The next day there was silence at breakfast and cries of pain – everyone – including our leader was hung. We lost half our group to their shortened tour and the rest of us boarded another boat for Castaway island.
The weather continued to be cold, rainy, and gray-green. It was actually perfect for my planned activity that day on the island – napping. The occupied space of the island was actually a beach with several bamboo huts, an eat area, kitchen, and bathrooms. There were wakeboards and kayaks on the beach. I shared a hut with Brit, Killian, and Hannah and we all took laid down on the mattresses, covered ourselves with the duvets and slept the afternoon and our hangovers away. That night, I did not partake in the evening activities, which was a game of Centurion (100 shots of beer in 100 minutes – about 8-10 cans of beer in 1 hour 40 minutes). I played some cribbage with the Canadians, who also did not drink that night.
We left early in the morning for a day of travel back to Hanoi. I joined the Irish and Canadians that night to celebrate Hannah’s birthday at one of the only vegetarian restaurants in the city that her boyfriend found.