Even if people can’t find it in their hearts to fall in love with the traffic-clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City or the cheap bowls of noodles found down the alleyways in Hanoi, most will concede that Halong Bay, Vietnam, really is quite beautiful.
Though the city of Halong Bay is rumored to be quite touristy, overgrown and unappealing, most people don’t visit the area for what’s on land. Rather, they flock to Halong Bay for the junket tours that float among the islands that dot the bay.
While traveling in Vietnam, I had the chance to tour the bay by junk. These pirate-looking ships generally hold anywhere from a single couple to half a dozen people, depending on the boat and tour operator. Some junks are known as party boats, taking visitors out for a quick, one-night visit into the bay waters. Others are designed for multi-day luxury cruises for honeymooning couples. I imagine the beds in the honeymoon suites are much more comfortable than the bunk-style sleeping quarters on party boats.
I sailed with Indochina Junk, which falls somewhere between the two. I was the seventh wheel, onboard with three other couples, a guide, half a dozen cooks / housekeepers / ship hands and a captain. We met in the dining room, greeted with a clearly outlined introduction that included details about our itinerary and information about meals.
Upon conclusion to our orientation, our guide, Ahn, clasped his hands in front of his waist and bowed several times, grinning. “Are you happy?” he asked. We all nodded. “Chris, are you happy?” A guy around my age nodded. “Jo, are you happy?” I nodded.
Finally, we were free to go our separate ways.
Of the nearly 2,000 islands in Halong Bay, only about 300 of them have names. These sheer rocks, covered with luscious trees and foliage, rise out of nowhere in the sea. Apparently birds, snakes and monkeys live on them, but I can’t imagine that much else does.
As the junk floated among the islands, I sat on the top deck, my legs dangling over the edge of the boat, watching the world recede behind us. The warm, humid air sat heavy on my shoulders, and the dark green coloring of the islands reflected onto the rippling surface of the water. I felt like we were cruising through a waterlogged version of Jurassic Park.
The village “chief” met us, smiling with browning and rotted teeth. He poured each of us a small cup of lukewarm tea in a set of mismatched, chipped mugs and answered our questions about his home. A small wingless bug floated in my beverage. The second largest fishing village in the bay is only inhabited by 163 people, many of whom have never been to the mainland (particularly the women and children). A typhoon had torn through the bay just a few weeks before our arrival and the school was completely destroyed, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to rebuild it. Such a shame, I thought, that these children learn to swim and paddle a boat before they learn to read or write. But if they never leave this isolated village, then why bother?
As we floated in boats paddled by women in the village, I watched daily life on the water. Several small, colorful homes make up the floating village, which sits atop large plastic barrels. Dogs lounged on the porches; wet clothes hung from the eves above makeshift porches that surrounded the buildings.
Several hours later, I sat with my journal beneath the deck awning as the sun set behind the clouds. “How does one decide where to live? There’s a lot of ocean out here,” I wrote. “Do you just stop your boat and decide to build a house?”
Dinner was family-style and heaping. We chatted among each other, inquiring over travels and hobbies beyond the open water. As the last dish was cleared away, Ahn walked into the dining room and clasped his hands. “Are you happy?” he asked us as a group. “Are you happy?” Ahn turned toward a girl from L.A.
“Actually,” she said, “I’d like a cup of coffee.”
“You will be up all night,” Ahn said, turning on his heels.
We sat for a few moments looking at each other, unsure what to make of his comment, but after 20 minutes, we realized he really wasn’t coming back with a cup of coffee.
My cabin was comfortable, with a queen-sized bed and private bathroom. I turned the lights out, concerned I would stay awake from the scratching of the rats that apparently run among the walls of the larger party boats. Within moments I had fallen asleep, the lull of the boat rocking me into a deep sleep.
Despite rain, we set out in kayaks the next morning. I’d been kayaking in the Bahamas in calm, clear waters before, but the rough waters and inclement weather made the paddling tough, despite the fact that I was sharing a boat with Ahn, who kayaked several times a week.
He muscled our boat between the outcroppings as I feigned my attempt to help power the boat. Several times we stopped the kayak, rain pouring down, waiting for the others to catch up. “They are slow,” Ahn said. “They are weak.”
“No,” I insisted. “They are tired. We’ve been rowing for over an hour. Where are we going?”
“Yes, we will keep going,” Ahn said, then pushed off on our random route without an end. Nearly three hours later we pulled up on a beach … within eyeshot of where the boat had been sitting most of the morning. My arms burned. Sea kayaking is fun with a purpose. Paddling for the sake of paddling? Not so much.
That night, I snapped a photo of a rainbow as the sun set during a rainstorm.
The next morning, on our third and final day, I awoke to a bright sun and clear sky. The emerald foliage of the outcroppings was painted a surprising shade of brilliant shade of green, which reflected in the water like a flat mirror.
We hopped in the kayaks and paddled to a small island with a large cave. The opening on the island was clearly heavily trafficked; the fragile formations were broken and discolored.
“What does this look like?” Ahn asked. “Jonas, what does this look like?”
“A dragon?” Jonas answered uncertainly.
“Nope.” Ahn laughed. “Jonas, what does this look like?”
And so we moved through the cave, trying to guess Ahn’s made-up formations as quickly as possible so that we could get back in the sunshine. Four days in, and this was the first sun I’d seen in Vietnam.
Back on the boat, we were each given a survey about our experience. I had the option to rate the various components of my experience as Excellent, Good, Average and Poor. I waffled on a few options, uncertain how to handle the hair that clogged my shower or the fact that, though Ahn spoke English, he knew enough to do his job without being able to say much beyond the basics.
During our last lunch together, the seven of us exchanged contact information as we bit into fresh fruit and discussed tipping. Ahn walked up to the stairs into the dining room and stopped by my spot at the table. “Jo, I don’t like the answers on your survey,” he said as he handed the piece of paper back to me.
“This is a survey,” I said. “This is my opinion.” I felt heat rising up in my chest, very aware of the silence that had fallen over the table as everyone tried to busy themselves with the food on their plate.
“I am not happy,” he said.
“Are you asking me to change my answers?”
“I am not happy,” Ahn repeated.
Now aware that I was completely out of cultural bounds, I tried to handle the situation as calmly as possible.
“First of all, if you want to call me out, please ask to speak to me apart from everyone else. This is very uncomfortable for everyone at this table. Now, if you want me to change the answers on my survey, just tell me what you want me to write.”
Ahn laid the piece of paper on the table, and pointed out, one question at a time, which answers he deemed inappropriate.
Jaw tense, I packed my bags. Our junket pulled up to the dock. I said good-bye to my new friends. Ahn, having received his tips, was checking his clipboard for the next boat full of passengers to take out into Halong Bay.