BootsnAll Travel Network

The Beauty and the Beast

The morning of my Halong Bay trip, I woke up before my alarm, as I often do when I know I need to wake up for something and am anticipating the alarm. I showered and had some time to watch a little TV before heading down for a quick breakfast of pho, or beef noodle soup, and waited for my pickup. In the lobby were two girls I hadn’t seen before, one having severe difficulty on the painfully slow guesthouse computer. I chatted with the other one, and we both realized we were all booked on the same Halong Bay trip, though I was only on for one night and two days, and they were on for two nights. Another couple came downstairs, and they were also checking out and going on our tour, and were also on the 2 night trip. Realizing this might be a chance to meet some people traveling in the same direction as me, I changed my trip to include the second night and paid the difference.Though we were told to be ready by 8, our pickup didn’t come until almost 9, a seemingly common occurence, as they tell everyone 8, but depending on where you are in the pickup, you might be last and almost an hour later. We grabbed our bags and set off with our guide to the bus parked a block away. Though it was early and we were all a bit tired, we chatted easily and were all clearly ready to get out of the city. There were fifteen people altogether on the bus, mostly couples but a few pairs of girls traveling together. I was the only solo traveler as far as I could tell. The bus ride to Halong Bay was long and boring, about 5 hours down a highway towards the coast, past non-descript towns and villages. Halfway there, we stopped at the “mandatory” rest stop, with an opportunity to buy food and use the bathroom, and also to buy souvenirs and trinkets. There were at least 10 other buses at this rest stop, and I scanned the crowd looking for Adam, hoping he might be on one of the tours. Kate and Katie, the two Kiwi girls from my guesthouse were talking with Emma and Vicki, sisters from London on a short holiday, so I joined them while we waited to get back on the bus. The bus ride continued to the pier, where we had to wait another 1/2 hour or so for our boat to be cleaned and made ready after the other group departed. About 3pm we boarded our boat, a big wooden behemoth with 8 bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, and a large dining room with 4 big tables and a bar. The roof held lounges and chairs, and after a quick introduction by our guide Bien about the schedule for the next couple of days, we went upstairs to lounge on the roof as we set sail.

Halong Bay looks remarkably similar to the west coast of Thailand, with huge limestorm karst formations jutting out of the ocean, with calm blue water, and dozens of tourist boats carting hundreds of people back and forth through the tiny picturesque islands. It was beautiful, and the big sails of the boats added to the picture postcard look of the bay. Bien called us down for a late lunch, which was a variety of stir frys and rice, with pineapple for dessert. Following lunch, we docked at one of the bigger islands to look at a large cave, which became a comedy of “look for the hidden face/animal/person” in the rock formations, with some of us seeing only some of them that Bien pointed out. I quickly surmised that Bien must have the patience of a saint and really like his job, because to go through this tour daily and still seem enthusiastic about it clearly took a different kind of person. The cave was huge though, and it took us almost an hour to walk through the whole thing. Following the cave, we boarded our boat for just a few minutes so it could cart us over to another island which held a temple on top. Some people chose to hike up to the top, but I was not in the mood for hiking nor for temple viewing, though I’m sure the view was terrific. Some of us stayed down and tried to swim around near a so-called beach, which was actually quite dirty and unappealing. Our short hour on the island was quickly over, and we boarded the boat once more and set off.

One thing that was noticeably annoying off the bat was the “one night/two day vs. two night/three day” schedule. Because some people on the boat were only on one night, they had more of a limited time to do things, and since the schedule was pretty strict, they set off in the bay to go kayaking, while the two nighters stayed on the boat. The organization of the whole thing didn’t make much sense to me, but apparently this was how every boat operated.So I stayed on the boat with Kate and Katie, and Arti and Dave, two Brits I thought were a couple until they told me otherwise. Emma and Vicki, the one nighters, set off to kayak for their given hour while we were allowed to get into the water and swim around near the boat.Following the swimming/kayaking, we were shown our rooms, of which I somehow got the “honeymoon suite,” a huge room upstairs, clearly because I was by myself and there were more people who needed two beds than one double. We continued sailing through the bays, and after a short while came to rest at our spot for the night, surrounded by small islands with calm water around us. More and more boats docked near us, this small bay a clear favorite among the captains because it was sheltered from the wind. There wasn’t much to do on the boat except relax, which was just fine with me, and we sat on the roof and enjoyed our first of a few beers and watched the sunset.

We were called down for dinner around 8, and though fairly similar to lunch, a variety of stir frys and rice, it was good fresh food. Bien did his best to entertain us, and brought out a small karaoke machine, a common sight in Asia. My worst nightmare of having to sing in public was put to rest, however, when Bien treated us to some songs, including my personal favorite, “Hello” by Lionel Richie. Bien informed us that he learned to speak English by learning English songs, and he clearly enjoyed singing and performing, so we let him get a bit carried away and listened to him sing for a while. It turns out it was Kates birthday as well, so we sang Happy Birthday to her. The day was fairly tiring however, and the crowd thinned out quickly nearing 10. Kate and Katie stayed up with another Kiwi couple, but everyone including me, went to bed. Though my room was right off the dining room, I quickly fell asleep with the fresh sea air coming in my window.

The next morning, following a somewhat lackluster breakfast, the one nighters set off to kayak, while the two nighters needed to switch to a small boat that would take us to Cat Bien National Park, where we would be spending our second night. We said goodbye to Emma and Vicki, who set off in their kayaks, and we grabbed our bags and boarded the smaller boat. The two nighters were me, Kate and Katie, Arti and Dave and the other Kiwi couple. After about an hour boat ride, we arrived at another pier, where we set off towards our hotel for the night. Bien checked us into our rooms and warned us to check out that everything worked before settling in. AFter using the toilet, I noticed water rushing everywhere all over the floor, and unable to stop it, called the reception, where a young girl came up to look at it. She couldn’t fix it, so I ended up having to switch rooms, where I got a sea view but weirdly, no windows that opened outside, only into the hallway. We had some free time on our hands before our hike through the National Park, so after walking through the town and not seeing anything of interest, came back to my room for some TV and a nap. Since it was hot out, Bien suggested we not hike until the afternoon, so around 3pm, we met in the lobby and boarded a small minibus that would drive us to the park.

AFter a short 15 minute drive along the coast, we arrived at a dirt road, where we set off into the park. It soon became clear that the hike was actually more a walk through the countryside, but it was nice to get out for some exercise, however hot it was. We had a short break at a family house with drinks, a nice farm with fruit trees and plenty of land surrounding the house, perfect for what I pictured were big BBQs. AFter our rest, we finished our hike, which was about two hours in total, through some rice paddies and back to the coast, where our bus was waiting for us at the end. We were lucky to be treated to a nice sunset off the coast, but the hike proved disappointing, as was Cat Bien town. We had a short bus ride back to town, and since dinner wouldn’t be until 8pm, we all went back to our rooms for some more rest.  It was kind of an uneventful day, but dinner on the roof of the hotel turned out to be the best meal we had in those three days, full of fresh seafood and tons of different dishes to try.We were all pretty tired though after being out in the sun all day, so after dinner we had another drink and then retired to our rooms for a good nights sleep.

The next morning, we boarded our boat again, and set off into the bay. One thing that was clearly an advantage to doing the three day trip was we had a half day on the bay to do whatever we wanted. We set off on the kayaks for a few hours, exploring the small islands and beaches on them, swimming and just playing around. It made the trip worthwhile, though I was disappointed in the stay on Cat Bien and the hike there. It would have been much nicer to just stay on the boat another night, though I didn’t see that option offered by any of the companies. But the day was short, since we needed to get back to Hanoi that day, and we set off a bit before noon towards the mainland. We ate at a hotel in Halong Bay city, where tons of other tour groups also were eating, and after our last meal, boarded our bus back to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi about 5pm, and said goodbye to the Kiwi couple who were staying at another hotel. We all checked back into our guesthouse, with Kate and Katie deciding to take the day train to Sapa the next day, and me, Arti and Dave heading to Hue the following night on the bus.

It was Arti’s birthday the next day, so we went out for some dinner at an Italian restaurant, offering buffet dinner with fresh salads and pizza and pastas, a nice change from the three straight days of Vietnamese food. Kate and Katie had an early bus, so they went home, while Arti, Dave and I headed off for a few drinks. A visit to Vietnam isn’t complete without trying their special brew, bia hoi, or fresh beer. On street corners everywhere but mainly in Hanoi, small beer vendors pour out the cheapest beer on the planet, about 2000 dong a glass, or $0.13. The beer is fresh and made without preservatives, and crowds of locals and tourists can be found sitting on tiny plastic stools drinking glass after glass. We found the bia hoi corner, where three different vendors faced off on a big corner, and settled for one that had some empty stools. I liked the taste of the beer, very hoppy and a little bitter, but the others didn’t like it so much, so we set off to find a bar that was open past the 11pm norm in Hanoi. I somehow managed to find the bar I had been to with Amanda and Julian a few nights previous, and we found some empty chairs in the balcony and had a few more drinks. Unlike the last time I was there, the bar owner closed up shop at 1am, so we set off for home, wishing Arti a real birthday now that is was the next day.

The following day was a fairly mundane day. Our overnight bus would leave at 6pm, so we had a few hours to kill before we had to leave. I set off to get some glasses made, since I had gotten recommendations from the Kiwi couple on a shop to go to. You can get very cheap prescription glasses made in Vietnam, and after finding a shop that had frames I liked, negotiated the price of $40 for two pairs of prescription sunglasses. While the frames were plastic and won’t last me forever, they were exactly what I needed for the rest of my travels, since I rarely wear my contacts and can’t wear normal sunglasses. The woman assured me they would be ready by 5, so I set off to take a few more pictures of Hanoi. I happened to run into Rachel and Kieran, the couple from Sapa I had hung out with. Unfortunately, they didn’t have Adam’s email, so though we were on the same route south, I realized it was a slim chance I would run into him again. We got some dinner and walked around a bit, and then I needed to run a few errands before picking up my glasses and going back to my guesthouse. They were flying home that night back to Oz, so I we wished each other good luck and after picking up my glasses, which came out fine, went back to meet Arti and Dave at the guesthouse.

We were picked up just before 6, and boarded the bus, part of what is called an open ticket. You buy a pass that will take you to all the major tourist places in Vietnam for about $20, insanely cheap. I bought my ticket separately, but it was still only $7. What we should have realized though, is that you sort of get what you pay for. While the bus was servicable, the trip ended up being a hellish comedy of crushed legs, lack of sleep and glaring lights around every corner. The driver passed other vehicles around blind corners and the chairs reclined to fallen domino proportions, and our long Western legs were pinned by the seats in front of us. At one point, the bus stopped at a small town and two other backpackers got one, for whom they had no seats as they had overbooked the bus. They were given plastic chairs in the isle to sit on, and I watched in disbelief as they tried to sleep, sliding straight off their chairs everytime the bus broke or veered around a corner. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle that, and suddenly realized I was lucky to get the seat I had. I felt bad however, and didn’t recline my seat all the way, as none of the other tourists did either. Because I was traveling alone, I sat next to a local Vietnamese woman  who could curl up into a small ball in her seat, and I tried in vain to get comfortable. Every so often, I glanced around and saw none of the tourists sleeping, eyes getting groggier, and though sleep came in small spurts, I knew I was awake more than asleep. The sun was starting to come up, and as morning approached, we screeched into a small town called Dong Ha, where we were herded off the bus for breakfast, about an hour away from Hue. As we sat down at the small restaurant, I glanced around and noticed everyone looked exhausted. Arti and Dave both confirmed they hadn’t slept, and we sat there in a state of bewilderment as to what we had just gone through during the night. I was looking forward to just getting to Hue, but as a man approached us about tours in the DMZ located in Dong Ha, I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any sleep anytime soon.

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-2 responses to “The Beauty and the Beast”

  1. Dear Kirsten, We are really enjoying your blog and thank you so much for the postcard! It’s hard to believe anyplace could be that crowded. We miss you and will be so glad when you get home. Glad you will be with your grandmother Christmas. We do worry about you when we read your letters! What an experience though–you’ll have a lot to tell us about when you get back.nrnrLove you, Aunt Betty and Uncle Morrie

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