Our Vietnam Trip—Part III: Ha Long Bay
I was originally against a sidetrip to Ha Long Bay. After spending nearly 24 hours getting to Hanoi, my thinking went, why pick up so soon and go elsewhere? Shouldn’t we see what’s there first?
Then I saw what was there.
We bought our tickets through the much-recommended head offices of iTravel. I.e., we walked into an expat bar, up a back staircase, and into a crowded second-story room where two women worked behind desks stacked with paper. It looked like a model of shadiness and inefficiency but was in fact the opposite. Most members of the tour group were picked up at their hotel in the Old Quarter, but we we were staying at the home of friends on other side of town, so we were told the minibus would pick us up at the nearby Sheraton at 8:15 Monday morning. It didn’t. Patricia and I walked over to the Sheraton early to use its ATM—Who wants to be a Vietnamese millionaire? Withdraw US$50—and as we were debating which parking lot might be the right parking lot for the pickup, a pretty woman in business attire and clipboard approached us, asked if we were... and pointed to some long-ass western names on her clipboard...then she took us by cab to the minibus outside the iTravel offices. It was not only great customer service, it allowed us to see Monday morning rush hour traffic in Hanoi. We’d arrived late Friday night, and had tooled around Saturday and Sunday without really realizing that the insanity we were seeing was, in fact, light, weekend traffic. The slow taxicab ride back to the Old Quarter set us straight.
“Holy shit,” I said, staring out the window.
The pretty woman was not our guide (“I’m sorry, honey,” Patricia mock-consoled me). Our guide was a peppy young Vietnamese man who had majored in tourism at a local university, and who, after telling us a little about himself, began the trip by asking the 11 foreigners on board to talk a little about ourselves. This was the first tour-group tour Patricia and I had been on, and we exchanged wary glances, but the introductions were quick and painless. Among our companions: an Aussie man, his wife and mother, traveling around Southeast Asia for several months; two Dutch girls traveling around Southeast Asia for several months; and a Swiss couple traveling around Southeast Asia for several months. Patricia and I were in Vietnam for two weeks. Nothing like American vacation time.
From Hanoi to Hai Phong Harbor, the launch point for Ha Long Bay, is only 170 kilometers, or 105 miles, but it took nearly three hours to get there. The road was bumpy, and only two lanes, which, by general consent, the Vietnamese had turned into three lanes: two thin lanes on either side for motorbikes and bikes and pedestrians, and a main lane, straight down the middle, where larger vehicles, heading in both directions, played chicken with each other.
After leaving the city, we were soon driving past startling green rice fields tended by two or three Vietnamese wearing traditional garb and conical hats. It was a scene so quintessentially Vietnamese as to be almost embarrassing. It was like visiting America and seeing cowboys herding cattle, or visiting Holland and seeing Dutch girls in wooden shoes waving in front of windmills. You mean it’s really like this? Yes, it’s really like this.
We also drove past numerous thin, three-story buildings with colorful facades dotting the landscape. I’d seen plenty in Hanoi and assumed the design was a consequence of the city—you squeezed in where you could—but no squeezing was necessary in the countryside. These buildings weren’t even next to each other but sprouted as randomly as gopher heads popping out of holes: here, here, and over there. Only the facades of the buildings were painted, in bright pinks and purples and yellows, while the long, exposed sides kept their original cement gray. Our tour guide later told me that real estate in Vietnam cost more by the width. Thus the skinniness. Form may dictate content, but economics dictates form.
Our boat was called “The Calypso” and we spent a good deal of the 24 hours on board in its clean, dark-paneled dining room, tended by two Vietnamese men in white dress shirts and a Vietnamese woman in ao dai. All the tourists took a table and pretty much stuck with it: the Aussie held forth with the Europeans, a late-arriving Vietnamese family had their own table, while Patricia and I joined an American, Jonathan, a project manager with the International Red Cross in Indonesia, and his girlfriend, Noy, a restauranteur from Laos, who, though shy, corrected my mispronuciation of her country. (The “s” is silent: Lao as in wow.) She also became the fourth person, out of an eventual cast of thousands, to correct my Vietnamese pronunciaton for “thank you”: not cam ON but gam un! Or so it seemed.
Jonathan grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and, though he’d been living abroad for decades, still had that distinct Northeast obliteration of the letter “R.” He had met Noy during a biketrip through Laos when he stopped by her restaurant in Vientiane. I was peppering them with questions—How did they get together? How long had they been together? Did he know the Red Sox had won the World Series? Twice?—when, somewhere during dessert, people pointed at the window and we all rushed out onto the prow of the boat.
On the Oregon coast, there’s a famous rock 235 feet high just off the shore at Cannon Beach called Haystack Rock, and that’s what the islands in Ha Long Bay reminded me of. Except they were bigger, greener, and more numerous. That was the most amazing thing. On an overcast, sometimes misty day, we kept plowing the water and the islands kept appearing, in greater shapes and sizes. I went slack-jawed. “There are one thousand, nine hundred and sixty islands in Ha Long Bay,” our guide told me proudly. He said in 1994 Ha Long Bay was listed as a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO). He said now it was in the running for another, more prestigious honor (I forget which). He said its name meant Descending dragon. “Really?” I asked. “Long means dragon in Vietnamese?” Before I’d arrived I’d been curious if there were similarities between the Vietnamese and Chinese languages—since the Chinese had ruled Vietnam for a thousand years—and I’d already come across a few instances: male and female, nan and nu in Mandarin, are nam and nu in Vietnamese. Now long for dragon. Long is not only the Mandarin name for dragon, it’s the Mandarin name for both Bruce Lee (Lee Shao Long) and Jackie Chan (Chen Long). In Asia, it’s dragons forever.
After weighing anchor with 40 other tour boats (I counted the next morning), we took a smaller motorboat over to “Amazing Cave,” a stunning, three-chambered, well-lit attraction, made less attractive by the sheer number of people visiting. You go to Ha Long Bay not only for the beauty but to get away from the crowds of Hanoi, but the early part of our walk through Amazing Cave was as crowded as any walk through the Old Quarter. There was also the oddity of the penguin-shaped trash cans scattered throughout. “Why penguins?” Patricia wondered. “Why not something more native?” At the same time, the caves can’t help but bring the kid out in you, recalling, as they do, “Tom Sawyer” and pirate stories. You look around and think, “This would be a good place to be a pirate.” Then you think, “It probably was a good place to be a pirate.”
Back at the Calypso, we were given hot towels and an orange drink in the dining room, then met 10 minutes later by the side of the boat, where we all launched out into two-person kayaks and paddled over the bay, through a dark tunnel, and into the quiet of Monkey Island Bay. Longtime readers know, longtime knowers know, that the personalities of Patricia and myself, particularly on trips, tend to be divergent. She’s more of a Pollyanna while I’m a bit of a Grumpy Gus. Half full, half empty. Oh wow, this. Oh yeah, this. At home, too, whenever we drive somewhere, I drive, because I can’t bear the passive way she drives, and because she (mostly) doesn’t mind my more aggressive form of driving. But put us in a kayak together and this is what I heard from the front:
“What are you doing?”
“No, we’re supposed to go over there.”
“Are you even trying to steer?”
“What are you doing?”
Admittedly, I wasn’t, or we weren’t, the best steerers. I went for speed, then tried to compensate for direction, then overcompensated. We took the drunkard’s path to our destinations. “More exercise this way,” I said, seeing things half full for a change. Patricia, half empty, went unamused. But she loved Monkey Island, particularly when we paddled within spitting distance of a group of monkeys dangling from trees, one of whom jumped into the water and swam to shore. “I didn’t know monkeys could swim,” Patricia said, blissful. Then, as dusk fell, we followed the others back to the boat. Ours was the serpentine path. We barely beat the Vietnamese grandparents.
Dinner was great, and beautifully presented, and included shrimp dipped in a small side dish of salt, pepper and lime. P and Jonathan and Noy and I shared a bottle of wine, and afterwards we took our buzzes up on deck, sat on lounge chairs and gazed at the night sky and the island silhouettes surrounding us. The air was soft and warm. On the other boats in the bay you could hear karaoke being sung, and on our boat, below deck, several people laughed while fishing for squid. I was happy where we were. It felt just right.
The next morning, in fact, that was where I immediately went: up on deck, at 6:30 a.m., to write. I wasn’t alone. The Vietnamese family was already there. I should’ve taken this as an opportunity but I took it as an interruption.
“The Vietnamese,” I thought from the middle of their country. Vietnam responded accordingly. It began to rain on me.
Our second day, forecast as sunny, was like that, overcast and drizzly, and the planned excursion, a motorboat trip past a fishing village, was short and sad. How many tourist boats had the people in this fishing village seen that day, that week, that year? How soon do you despise the blank faces peering into and taking pictures of your lives?
But we mingled better that second day. I spoke briefly with the Dutch women, who hadn’t known each other before they began their trip, and who were heading next to southern China. The Aussie, Steve, who had lived in Shanghai and spoke some Chinese, gave them pointers. Steve was intriguing. On the first day, some passing fishing villagers were laughing and holding out their hands and pointing, and someone on the prow of the boat guessed at its meaning. Steve corrected them. “They’re making fun of my weight,” he said. But he said it so matter-of-factly, with no trace of animosity or self-pity, that it amounted to grace. Steve’s a teacher and a scholar, who, late into his 40s, is still working on his Ph.D. One gets the feeling he’s interested in too much to focus on one thing. He’s traveled the world, and spoke knowledgably about everything from the beauty of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to the idiocy of the personalities on FOX News. He became interested in the U.S. at an early age, he said, through the U.S. Civil War. We also talked Aussie movies and in general we all acted like it was the last day of school, even though we’d only been together for a day. Contact info, for whatever it was worth, was exchanged. Then we were back in port and heading to Hanoi again.
During our day on the boat, particularly up top or on the prow, I’d occassionally hear something that sounded like a helicopter—a sound and image that’s intrinsically tied with American memories of Vietnam. But I wasn’t hearing helicopters. I was hearing the chugging of long Vietnamese motorboats delivering supplies. Of course, these boats, too, were evocative. They looked like the boat Captain Willard takes upriver in “Apocalypse Now.” Plus these boats flew the Vietnamese flag, which, with its yellow star and red background flapping in the wind, is itself evocative. It was always oddly thrilling seeing it. It was like being on the other side of a big Other. “That’s right,” I’d think. “I’m here.”
The lovely Patrica, up on deck.
Getting away from it all.
Not our boat. More of a "Never get out of the boat" boat.