Halong Bay is big. Big enough to attract all sorts of clientele; and there is room for everybody. Well, almost, as long as you wait your turn, although multiple cruises are packed with a variety of tourists almost daily, so in that sense it is big enough. Big enough to be the massive tourist attraction that it now is.
How you determine whether an organised tour of the Bay: a one, two or three-day venue is entirely successful depends, I suppose, on what one is looking for. Is it quiet, serenity, contemplation, artistry, or partying – noise and getting absolutely wasted? The latter was the aim of the cruise I had booked. A cynical aim might be a touch too negative.
Do not get me wrong! I’m all for having fun and a good laugh as much as the next person, but excessive bingeing and its ramifications is not for me. Besides, you can party almost anywhere. Even in Hanoi’s countless bars, bizarre drinking games would be included. They are what helps the economy of a country such as Vietnam. Even Halong Bay, because it is now a resort destination, is suitable. Or is it?
Having climbed aboard one of the numerous ‘Halong Tours’ minibuses, and had my rucksack buried beneath a pile of others belonging mainly to the folks from the Hostel, it was off.
The Vietnamese tour leader introduced himself as ‘Spring,’ with a sparkly expression, which was encouraging.
Despite the biting chill, it felt pleasant as the boat chugged on, passing the tree-clad limestone islands. Their pervading grandeur complemented by gentle waters emanating a quiet contentment, renders activity-seeking almost meaningless and remains with you until the end.
Steve (not the hat-wearing one) asked if I’d like my photo taken with the rocks as a backdrop.
I handed over my camera.
My photos of Halong Bay, because the sun had bowed out to grey and cloud, do not do it justice. If you’d like to see shots that do, go to http://markonthemap.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/big-shots-halong-bay/
The green covered foam mats on the top deck, once you squashed onto one, immediately oozed rainwater. Most decided to brave the frigid temperatures and get themselves really wet. Jumping off the starboard side for a splash was not inviting – and I enjoy swimming. It was more entertaining watching the others react to the freezing depths, venting an immediate shivering “ooh! ooh!” as they emerged.
A Finnish girl looked particularly comical as she had enough of shivering, and “ah-ahd” back on deck after a couple of dips. Coming from a cold country, you would think she’d be used to such rigors.
Next came the kayaking part of the adventure. By the time I had vacillated about joining the ‘expedition,’ everyone else had a partner to kayak with – the extra manpower needed to steer one successfully – and paddled off, past a few islands, to an exciting cave of all places – or was it dreams?
I was left to man one kayak, and was carelessly given an oar with a paddle that had a sizeable piece broken off at one end.
I did not have a guide so I soon got lost, compounded by the difficult-to-steer kayak because of the broken paddle. I struggled to find the boat – like trying to find a needle in a haystack – as all the others that had docked nearby, looked the same.
By the time I had paddled round in circles several times, it was getting dark throwing me into a panic; ridiculously yelling: “Spring! Spring! Help! Help!” He and his colleagues who’d given me the kayak used a smaller boat to come and pick me up.
Incredibly relieved, he took me to see a floating village; “how the local people live.” It was a question of work, fish and eat. Then I got back on board.
After glancing at how the other half live, I quickly showered, Although the hot water supply was meagre to say the least, the food was outstanding, so I relaxed in the restaurant and bar area and enjoyed dinner.
I watched all the others: Brits, Finnish, Australian, New Zealanders, US, bar a Russian couple, buy their six shots which were needed to play drinking games organised by Josh, the US tour guide.
Playing at ‘silly buggers’ would be a more appropriate expression.
I came across another blog which has a post about Halong Bay and the drinking games. One of the comments said they are ‘awesome.’ If getting palatic is ‘awesome,’ I wonder what the commentator would think about something that really is?
Josh asked me if I’d like to withhold my passport and put the drinking money on a tab so that I could join in the fun.
I declined the offer, thinking there are better more resourceful ways of finding pleasure, rather than drinking away Vietnamese Dong.
Toni, the Dutch girl I shared a cabin with, popped in:
“It is a bit noisy. Even for me. I’m sure there is a cruise you could have joined where you could have read and stuff.”
She left to re-join the fun. I tried to get some sleep, and fell into a slumber, but not before hearing the party get underway: an extraordinary racket of voices, singing, and a thumping sound which felt as though the boat was being smashed to pieces.
The next day, I learned from an American woman, that I could have booked a cruise for half the price.
“Sixty-nine Dollars is the most expensive package available. You should say something about your farcical kayaking experience once you get back. You shouldn’t have been left alone on such a big area of water. You’ll know better next time.”