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Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Dec 31 – Jan 2

Sometime in between hating Hanoi and loving it, I moved into a hostel so I could make some friends. It was a nice change to be around so many people again, but when it costs $8 to share a room with 12 people and $10 to have a nice room to yourself with your own bathroom, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to stay there longer than a couple of nights. When I moved into the hostel, I met some people who were going on a boat tour to Halong Bay for New Years. It seemed like it was going to be a small enough group and probably a nice way to spend the holidays, so I just signed up to join them without giving it much thought.

But by the time the tour was set to leave a few days later, the group had grown to 45 people! And the morning we were gathering to wait for the tour bus, I found myself in a crowded alley with a bunch of young, overenthusiastic Australians shouting about our 2-day drinking party in Halong Bay. Around us were a bunch of poor, humble locals going about their daily routines and giving our large group annoyed glances for being in the way. I could tell this was going to be the type of trip where once you get on the bus/boat, you don’t even feel like you’re in Vietnam anymore. Having coffee and baguettes on the little plastic stools with the locals seemed a lot more appealing.

I had already signed up for the tour though, so I figured I’d make the most of it. But when our tour guide marched into the street with a giant stack of brightly colored sombreros and said, “We all know it isn’t a party until we each have a funny hat,” my heart kinda sunk. I seemed to be the only one who wasn’t amused. In fact, I was kinda panicking. It felt like we were lining up for a carnival ride or a high school band trip. I started thinking of this American man I met at an airport who said he thought it was a bit too early for Westerners (Americans especially) to be considering Vietnam a tourist destination. I disagreed with him…but all of a sudden felt like I understood what he meant completely. I don’t know if it was just because there was such a stark contrast between the grinding poverty of some people in the streets and all the flashy youths prancing around on holiday with their shiny new $40 guidebooks, but I thought many of the tourists (and tour operators) in Vietnam came across as very inconsiderate and obnoxious. When the sweet girl from the hotel I’d been staying in the few nights before passed our group on the street, I hid my face so she wouldn’t see me.

To be honest, part of me was really relieved that I’d be spending the next few days not having to worry about planning anything. Restaurant meals, sleeping arrangements, transportation, and activities were all organized by the tour. This convenience is the reason some people spend their entire vacations going from one package tour to the next. But while it works quite well for some people, I already knew this was going to be my first and last one. All the spur of the moment decisions, random encounters, and awkward moments that inevitably occur on a daily basis are what make traveling so fun. And what’s the point of traveling half way around the world just to party with other people like yourself and act as if you haven’t left home?

The second we got on the bus, a girl (hungover from the night before) puked into her sombrero. She did this several times during the 3-hr trip. I was sitting on the bus next to an Australian guy holding the hostel’s mascot (a giant pink plastic donkey with crude sayings written all over it) and hearing him tell his buddies how wasted they were all going to get once they got on the boat. I think I was projecting negative vibes over to my bus seat partner, because when another hostel employee hopped on and said “Who is the loneliest, shyest person here who doesn’t have any friends?”, the guy next to me forced my hand up in the air. I had to stand up and say my name into the microphone. Then I was handed a bottle of rum and told to enjoy myself and pass it around. Not a bad deal, I suppose. I don’t mind being considered the loneliest, saddest person if they’re gonna give me free drinks. I started to think I’d probably need a lot of free rum to feel like this tour was a good investment.

Anyway, on the way to the boat dock, our bus stopped at the same place all the other tour buses stop. We could get some food, go to the restroom, and watch people make pottery and elaborate embroideries. All of it was mass produced and unoriginal, but it was still handmade (which was cool to watch).

When we got to the pier, our group was so big that we had to split up into 2 boats.

As our boats departed from the dock, I started to get more excited about the trip. The scenery was great.

And the boats were nice. I like boats.

And the food (which I was worried about) turned out to be pretty good. We had a few vegetarians on board and about four others who just didn’t like eating fish, so they got herded to the veggie table.

The limestone karsts jutting out of the water were beautiful.

And we passed by little floating villages with people paddling small boats selling beer, water, and snacks.

And thankfully we actually did do stuff other than drink – like kayak.

Some people went swimming.

But it was pretty cold outside!

I sat on the deck wearing my socks.

All in all, the trip did turn out to be pretty fun. The first night, our 2 boats joined up and we had a big New Years Eve party. I manged to drink a great deal of my free rum, but definitely didn’t drink as much as some. Everyone dressed up in their fanciest party clothes (mainly assorted ribbon and stickers) and danced.

After a bit of dancing, I ended up wandering to my room pretty early. I thought I would just have a quick rest, but I never emerged again.

The next morning, our two boats split up. The 1-day tour people were going back home. The 2-day tour people were going to Cat Ba Island. I ended up on the wrong boat somehow and didn’t realize it until the boats had already started pulling away. Our tour guide, Dat, had to call the boat back to pick me up. Oops.

I didn’t even know Cat Ba Island was on the itinerary, but I realized I had read about that place and wanted to go. It was nice and lush and green.

This was a place I could have spent a few more days. But since everyone was pretty much hungover, it was nice to have the day all planned and organized. In fact, it was effortless. They herded us onto the proper boat (well, I missed the announcement and almost managed to get lost somehow), once on shore we all piled into a bus, checked into our pre-arranged hotel, and ate a pre-arranged meal.

The food was made by a local family that has a deal with the tour company.

The trekking and rockclimbing trips start from their backyard (which is an amazing backyard, by the way).

Some people felt too ill to do the intense 4 hour hike we were about to do, so they just lounged around in hammocks. I was glad I didn’t feel too sick because the hiking was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

Our guide was a tough Vietnamese man leading the way with a machete. We hiked up and around all those hills in front of him. And he seemed to be making much of the trail as we went along.

Parts of the hike were kinda treacherous. And I could see why they were forbidding us to go on it if we didn’t have proper shoes. Flip flops wouldn’t have worked out very well.

Sometimes we struggled to climb over the spiky rocks, but our guide obviously had no problem skipping from one to the other.

Back at the hotel, we played cards. Only we didn’t have normal cards. The package someone bought looked like normal cards from the outside, but inside were all these narrow little things with pictures. We weren’t sure what to do with them, so we made our own drinking games. Again, it reminded me of high school. But it was still fun. Snap was probably the favorite….or maybe go fish. It went like this: “Do you have a little man wearing red and carrying a long stick?” “No. Go fish.” “Do you have a little man wearing red who is dancing with his arms in the air over something that looks like splattered blood?” “No. Go fish.”

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  1. Lela

     /  March 13, 2009

    Hi there! Your tour reminds me of the horrible tour I took when I had three days in Scotland. I really wanted to see the countryside and didn’t have enough money (or courage) to learn the English way of driving so I signed up for a tour. Scotland was so great but the tour was so awful that I spent the whole time trying to sneak off and see what I wanted to see instead of being herded around like a bunch of cows with an obnoxious tour guide who was trying to get people to eat haggis if they were the last one to get on the bus. I need to go back to Scotland so I can see it on my own terms! Love the sock picture by the way! The socks are better traveled than I am now!

  2. admin

     /  March 13, 2009

    Lela – I’ll go to Scotland with you sometime! I know a girl who’s in school there to major in knitwear. You would love her.

    Let’s go, let’s go!


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