Halong Has This Been Going On?

After only a day in Hanoi we were more than ready to leave the noise and exhaust behind in favor of the serenity and beauty of Halong Bay, a three hour van ride away.  Halong Bay, we discovered while walking through Hanoi, is in the running to be designated one of the new 7 Wonders of the World.  There was a huge display and booths set up near Hoa Keim Lake where a gaggle of professionally dressed young women tried to get us to vote for Halong Bay.  We smiled and told them we’d vote after we got back from our tour.

A slew of Junk boats in Halong Bay harbor awaiting the arrival of a slew of tourists.  Apparently there are over 800 licensed junk tour boats in Halong Bay.

Halong Bay is the most popular tour originating in Hanoi and one can choose from a one, two or three day package sold by a mindboggling number of travel agents.  After much research we opted for the three day (two night) tour and plunked down our dong with ODC Travel as it had come recommended by a friend of a friend who lives in Hanoi (thanks Christie!).

Elisabeth and Andi from Vienna, Austria.

Our merry band of travelers included Andi and Elisabeth, a young couple from Vienna, Austria, Rico and Francesca, from Germany and an older German man named Eggert who was traveling alone.  We felt badly that all six native German speakers were forced by the uni-linguistic Americans to speak our language, but they assured us that it was okay as they needed to practice their English.  At least the two young couples thought so.  Eggert didn’t say much.  He just smiled and drank copious amounts of beer.

View of the junk boat parking from the top of Surprising Cave

Kayaking in a lagoon in Halong Bay

Beach at sunset

The ship had twenty-two berths so with only seven of us (four berths) we had this huge junk boat all to ourselves.  We spent the first day kayaking, relaxing on the beach and visiting the touristy, but still pretty cool “Surprising Caves”.

Our new friends Duncan & Allie

While kayaking we ran into our friends Duncan and Allie from the UK whom we met in Luang Prabang, Laos.  We tied up with them for a bit and watched the sunset and made plans to meet up in Hoi An in a few days time.

We spent our first night on board the ship swimming, drinking and watching the amazing sunset.  Our guide, Bien, tried to break out the Karaoke machine, but we quickly squashed that notion.  Sorry Bien, but it wasn’t going to happen.

We could hear several Karakoke sessions going on from many of the other junk boats moored nearby.  Despite the young couples on our boat we all retired fairly early to our berths that were small, yet quite nice for junk boat accommodations.

The next day we took a hike to a remote fishing village on Cat Ba Island where we enjoyed local dishes served up by a rather austere looking Vietnamese woman (above).

Then we hiked further into the forest to visit the ruins of a resort that was never completed.  It was begun by a Frenchman married to a Vietnamese woman who lived on the land.  Apparently he did not grease the right palms and construction was shut down by the local government.  It seems even though the land was his and he could live on it and farm it for his own benefit, as soon as he built something commercial for profit (or potential profit) it was verboten.  Remember kids, you can’t own land in a communist country. In an ironic twist of capitalism at it’s best, the local government now makes money on the ruins of the resort as a tourist destination.

It’s too bad that the Frenchman wasn’t allowed to finish his project as it would have been much more exciting to sleep the second night in the forest near this remote fishing village.  As it was we headed to Cat Ba town which had little to offer and a hotel that was barely passable – even as a backpacker hotel.

Dusk in Cat Ba Town.  Tuyet Beo, the floating restaurant where we dinned on huge prawns

Franny and I being ferried over to the restaurant in a flimsy wooden boat of dubious seaworthiness.

Dang, a chef in a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, who was back in his hometown of Cat Ba to visit his parents for a few months.  His friends own Tuyet Beo and he was working the land side trying to bring in customers.  In this shot he is very excited to show us the king prawns we would be eating.

I had never seen prawns like this before so Franny took an instructional video on how to eat them.

Franabelle enjoying a Hanoi Beer.

The old ferryman who took us back to Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba Island at dawn

Our last day we relaxed on board our junk boat as we made our way back to Halong port.  For me the trip was definitely a highlight although the weather wasn’t the greatest and the steady stream of garbage floating by throughout the bay (including where we were supposed to swim!) was a sad as it was repulsive.

Our guide Bien being naughty.

Feeling guilty, I asked Bien if all the trash was coming from the tourist boats and he said no, that the filth all comes from the numerous fishing villages in Halong Bay.   I asked him how long had this environmental destruction been going on and why hasn’t the government stepped in to do something about it?  He said it had been going on for a long time, that it was indeed sad, but there is no regular trash collection for the fisher people so they can only dump it in the water.

It would seem that Halong Bay has a while to go before it becomes one of the new Wonders of the World.  The only wonder is how they continue to allow the destruction of this beautiful bay without doing anything about it.

Both Francescas and Rico lounging topside on our way back to Halong Bay

We got back to Hanoi around 5pm and, not needing another day there, we hopped on the 7pm overnight train to Hue.

The train was an experience in itself.   We purchased two “soft sleeper” berths for around $28 a piece.  There are three classes of ticket.  The cheapest option is just a regular train seat (not very comfortable for a twelve hour overnight journey).  Then there is a “hard sleeper” which is a bunk bed with pretty much no padding.  It’s kind of like a prison cell.  At least what I image a prison cell to be like since I’ve never been incarcerated before.  Then there is the “soft sleeper” which is the same prison cell bunk bed format, but with a two inch foam pad on top.  There are four beds to a cabin and not much room other than the beds.  There is a desk or table type thing though which takes up the majority of what little space is left between the two lower bunks.

The other two berths in our cabin were taken by an older Vietnamese man of about sixty five who spoke no English and a young Vietnamese woman in her late twenties who’s passable English helped connect all of us on our journey.  She was a dentist who’s husband was in med school in Boston and she was taking the train returning to her native Hue from Hanoi where she was getting her paperwork done for a scholarship she had won for further dental study in Brisbane, Australia.  She had a six month old son of whom she was extremely proud.   The older man, it turns out, fought for ARVN (the South Vietnam Army) with the US troops in the Vietnam War (or the “American War” as they understandably call it in Vietnam).  His wife is from the north though so he fancied himself the poster child of Vietnamese unification.

Our train cabin berthmates

We had a little party right there in our cabin with the man sharing some dried squid shavings (very popular beer snack in many parts of Asia) and Francesca and I contributing a bottle of Australian wine we had purchased in Hanoi.  The older man got a bit tipsy and started singing traditional Vietnamese folk songs much to the delight of dentist girl and another woman who had come into our cabin upon hearing the music.

At around 11pm the party had died down and we all curled up in our soft sleepers for what proved to be a fitful sleep.  When we woke up the final time we were just arriving in Hue.  Feeling as if we had just gotten beaten up, we staggered out of the train and across the tracks – no under/over pass – and out to a line of waiting taxis.

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