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XXXVII - XXXVIII: Ha Long Way to Ha Long Bay

Enter the happy room

all seasons in one day 32 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

We left our backpacks at the hotel and jumped on the 4-hour minibus ride with only a daysack and a bottle of water each - so liberating! We were introduced to our guide for the trip, a self-declared comedian called Tinh who started his speech with a description of Hanoi's bridges and a few too many references to how beautiful they are "provided there are no more U.S. bombs dropped on them". He informed us about the "happy room", the odd Anglo-Viet term for a toilet stop, and finished with a 'hilarious' anti-vegetarian joke about eating cat, dog and monkey on the boat after he'd taken note of our dietary requests.

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At the halfway stop - a tactical commission-earning shop selling everything from cookies to giant marble statues - the weather turned nasty and as we neared Halong City the clouds became darker and the rain fell hard. Brilliant. We were herded into the waiting area with the hundreds of other tour groups while we waited for our boat to be prepared (there are over 600 boats operating in Halong Bay and it can get very congested, extra time should occasionally be budgeted for climbing across other boats to reach your own!), but there was now a very reluctant atmosphere in the crowd as the mist fell across the Bay and obscured the magnificent views. Tickets punched, we were welcomed onto our 'Fantasea' boat with refreshing moist flannels and a cup of juice, then dropped our bags in the room before lunch. We had a luxurious twin room with a brand new bathroom, air conditioning (turned on at night) and stunning views across the water. Fortunately the rain brought cooler temperatures and made the stay very comfortable.

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Our first mealtime was a farce. Tinh announced the imminent arrival of the food and then told all of the vegetarians (3 of us) to stand up and move to another table together, "to make things easier for the crew". The initial laughter turned into rage, particularly from the British girl from our hotel who was being asked to eat away from her boyfriend! The mob mentality triumphed but soured the mood, which was a shame because the food was incredible: a giant buffet-style spread on each table that included fried beancurd, tempura veg, tofu salad and mini omelette rolls. Felix and I befriended a Dutch couple, again from our hotel, and spent the first hour of cruising through the Bay exchanging travel plans and plotting revenge against our new dictator.

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The first stop on the tour was the Dau Go cave (the Cave of Wonders) and we got our first real taste of how busy the tourist scene is in the Bay. Tinh treated us to a 15 minute history speech outside while we all stared at our feet or at the hundreds of other boat passengers that were walking past with no lectures from their guides. I was especially distracted by my first sighting of a floating trader, a woman in a rowing boat completely full of snacks, drinks and cigarettes who would stealthily row up behind people stood on the jetty before thrusting a pack of Oreos at them. We rushed through the cave, desperate to get to the kayaking spot, but not before Tinh had pointed out the various animals and phallic shapes that could be seen if we let our imagination run free. At the cave exit is a very opportunistic gift shop asking for 50,000 dong for a small bottle of water! The kayaks were waiting for us at a floating pontoon in the middle of the bay nearby, and Tinh was very strict with our 40 minute time limit. Felix and I were the first on the water and set off at full steam. I had the crazy idea of trying to circumnavigate one of the smaller islands and it felt fitting that I should embark on something so suitably challenging on the 10th anniversary (ish) of my completion of the DW canoe race. We turned back after what must have been over 30 minutes of paddling, having realised that we had picked one of the biggest islands in the area and there was no sign of the end! The human-sized jellyfish were starting to freak me out a little too, so we sped back to the boat hoping we weren't too late (and working on various excuses if we were).

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Tinh met us with a red face, and in an attempt to avoid his lecture about how we'd let everyone down I abandoned Felix in the back of the kayak and ran back to the boat. The final stop was Tiptop Island, where a depressingly small beach and an alarmingly high hill gave people the choice of a swim or hike before sunset. Seeing the human soup in the 'swimming area', Felix and I decided to stay on board (much to Tinh's consternation) and spent the hour playing cards. Our anchor point for the night was in a small bay with only a handful of other boats, and after a huge buffet dinner with some very dodgy soup we stayed up chatting with the Dutch and the Belgians and slowly cleared the onboard beer fridge. No one took Tinh up on his offer of a karaoke evening, choosing instead to attempt squid fishing - made much harder by the traders and beggars that kept appearing out of the darkness! Soon the engine stopped for the night and we let the waves rock us to sleep.

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Predictably (I suppose) we were woken just minutes before our alarms by power-happy Tinh banging on everyone's doors. Fortunately breakfast was of the delicious and filling variety so there was minimal resistance when we were all asked to "check out" at 8.30am and put our bags in the restaurant so that the crew could prepare the rooms for their next guests. After paying off our bar tab I found most of the crew asleep in the newly vacated rooms, but decided not to mention this to my fellow passengers...

We set sail for Cat Ba Island, a beautifully peaceful journey through an empty stretch of water flanked either side by very impressive limestone cliffs and floating villages. We dropped off the 3-day passengers and said our goodbyes to Tinh who was more concerned about who had stolen his pens - we had been given questionnaires to fill in and he had not scored well. Despite the rain we spent the next two hours sat on the top deck under the canopy with our new friends, Rachel & Russell (the Brits from our hotel who had nearly been separated at dinner last night). We ordered tea from the bar and shared a pack of Oreos before discovering that lunch was being served at 11am! Our new guide thought I was joking about being vegetarian, so I had to share Rachel's non-meat alternatives (including a bowl of peanuts) before we disembarked back at Halong harbour. The bus back took us to another expensive tourist trap shop with very Vietnamese promotions:

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For Felix's last night in Vietnam we ended up having a giant pizza with several cheap beers, followed by a walk through the night market and a few hours spent taking light trail photos by the road. I was very sad to be losing my German travel buddy, but I made loose plans to hook up with Rach and Russ the next day when we would discuss the journey south.

Posted by WorldWideWill 18:46 Archived in Vietnam

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