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My Junk

 

While debating the merits of Laos vs. Vietnam and north Vietnam vs. the south, Ha Long Bay, in the northeastern Vietnam, pushed us towards the north. I recall talking to someone Vietnam while in Bangkok and this traveler, with a particular flair for the dramatic, proclaimed Ha Long Bay to be the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. Or maybe he wasn't exaggerating, as numerous posters in Ha Long harbor detailed how to vote for Ha Long Bay to become one of "The Seven Natural Wonders of the World." Which sparked two additional conversations. 1. What were 7 wonders of the ancient world? (Even with the help of our 3 dinner companions last night,we could only come up with 4/7...or so we thought. after consulting wikipedia, it appears we only correctly named 2). 2. How would the Ha Long Bay change with the influx of tourists that being named one of the 7 natural wonders of the world would surely entice? But I digress... 

Every hotel, guesthouse, and traveler's cafe in Hanoi offers day and overnight trips to Ha Long Bay. Our hotel offered several options from bare bones to deluxe. As our trip winds down, we have become increasingly less price conscious (yeah, about August rent...) and the deluxe 3 day 2 night option sounded pretty special. After some comparison shopping, we stuck with our original pick. 3 days, 2 nights in the bay, on a junk, with some kayaking to boot. Trip capped at 14 people max. with a day trip on the second day capped at 6. All for about the price of a nice hotel room in Chicago for one night. Here we go... 

Hop on the van outside our hotel for the 3.5 hour trip. It's early, but we're awake enough to hear our guide describe a trip that didn't very well resemble the one we wanted. A brief conference cleared the confusion and we were able to switch to the correct group upon arrival, no problem. 
We made the switch and boarded our junk (like a sailboat, except that the sails are now only for show). There are only 8 tourists on the boat, total. The boat has three levels: a sundeck on top, dining room below replete with white table clothes, and cabins on the bottom (8 in total). We pick rooms at random and head back to the dining room for lunch. We have "set sail" and through the windows we see the beautiful karsts rising out of the water in all directions. We sit with a nice couple from Australia, who, naturally, have been all over the world. They recommend Japan for our next ski "holiday". A seemingly harmless salad is set down, all by itself. Mmm, very good. I chew and turn my head to look out the window. I turn back to the table to find it filled with dishes. Fresh seafood, pork, beef, chicken, fruit. Easily enough food for two meals. Only when the staff sat down for their decidedly smaller lunch did we feel safe. Scrumptious meal, although we left half there despite our best efforts. Up to the sundeck for some sightseeing as we sailed to "the best of all the hundreds of caves in Ha Long Bay." We reached said cave about two hours later and it was, indeed, impressive. Also very crowded. Maybe it will be better if this remains only a UNESCO World Heritage sight and doesn't become one of the wonders of the world. 

Back to the boat for some fruit, swimming, and relaxation before dinner. 
There are fish farms underneath the houses. After catapulting into the water, I quickly notice it is very salty. This is a welcome development as I have never mastered the art of treading water. Fortunately the salt acts as a third arm (or something) and I can tread water well beyond my customary 1-2 minutes. Some rumors about jelly fish in the area but no sightings (more on this later). I convince Christine to jump off the top of the boat with me. It's only about 20-25 feet high, but enough time to realize you're falling before you hit the water. 

After watching the sunset, it is time for dinner. Surprisingly, I'm hungry again despite my large lunch...or maybe that's not surprising. This time we dine with a mother and daughter from Australia. Very enjoyable dinner companions. I didn't have to worry about anyone eating too much...just like lunch, we gave it a valiant effort but still left at least half the food sitting on the table. And this is good food. Food that I would pay $15-$20 per dish for. And there were about 7-8 dishes. For the four of us. 

After dinner, we retire to the sun/moondeck with a couple of Tigers. The tourist boats anchor in the same general area of the bay, but are far enough away that it doesn't feel cramped. No loud music. As we relax and watch the sky, our guide plays us ancient Vietnam music...from his cell phone (not as bad as it sounds). Turns out he has a great voice and agrees to sing us a few numbers (at which point Christine fell in love and...I don't want to talk about it). Actually, he was a very nice guy and we had a very candid conversation with him about his life in Vietnam. Despite the fact that he didn't start learning English until a few years ago, he speaks quite eloquently. 

Day 2 
Breakfast at 7. We eat with another mother and daughter, this time from Canada. O Canada. Breakfast is not quite as big as lunch and dinner, but still more than we can eat. We sail to a floating village, which is exactly what it sounds like. A small village floating on the water. There are many of them though out the bay, but this is one of the larger ones. Even our guide comments that it is a rather boring lifestyle. 

We jump into a kayak to get a closer look. Women in rowboats are seemingly everywhere, selling beer and Oreos and everything in between. We return to the boat after an hour. We wait for another boat to take us to the Cat Ba island. As Christine and I are the only two on board who signed up for the 2 night trip, we have this next boat to ourselves. About 6 crew members, one guide, and only the two of us. It was almost embarrassing. They would hardly let us lift a finger all day. We sailed for about 1.5 hours into some choppier water before docking at another small floating village. We kayaked for another 1.5 before a late lunch. I don't know if it was the choppy water or a little bug or what, but my stomach began to fail me at my time of greatest need. As dish after delectable dish was served, my spirits fell as I realized that my stomach was going to let me down. A tragic moment (although Christine gave it her best shot). Fortunately my queasiness cleared up quickly after lunch, in time for a couple hours of beach time at a semi-private beach (at least until another boat showed up filled with people). The crew brought down a tarp and put two mattresses on it. When the other tourists got off their jam-packed boat, they looked at us like we were crazy. We enjoy a few hours of reading and swimming before boarding again to meet up with our junk for the night. 

This time the junk is full of 12 new people. Representatives from Spain, England, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Made for a riveting and ongoing discussion of world events and politics. It is incredible about how little I know about the goings on of the rest of the world and how much they know about the USA. Turns out the rest of the world is as tired of hearing about the election as we are. The Kiwis (or New Zealanders, as I understand some New Zealander's don't appreciate the term Kiwi) report that the US election gets more coverage than their own, even though their election is before ours. 

Time for a swim. Renewed talk about jelly fish but I confidently tell the group that we didn't have any problems the night before. We hop in for a few minutes before the first jelly fish is spotted. We dutifully get out of the water, just in case. All clear. Back in the water. Until Will, a nine year old from England, starts to climb in and puts his foot on one. We decide maybe it's time to get out for good. I get a few stings on my hand on the way in, as do a few other people. Not too bad though. We watch from the boat as several more large jelly fish float by. Not large like the huge ones off the coast of Japan, but big enough. We try to warn other boats to no avail. 

The rest of the night and the next day were much like the first, except that I'm not going to regale you with the details. Hope you enjoy the pictures. We're back in Hanoi for 2 nights before heading to Malaysia to tackle 14,000 ft. of Mt. Kinabalu. 

Adam. 


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Xin Chao Travel Halong Bay
We are happy to send you our impressions on our excellent trip to Halong Bay with your company. The organization and monitoring of our trip was impeccable, thanks to our friendly and excellent guide Minh not forgetting the super driver Dzung.

Mardy Scott (Australia)
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