“In Vietnam we say this is good luck! Now nothing bad will happen to you and something good will come from it! It’s a good sign!”
I was pick-pocketed in my first few hours in Hanoi, credit cards & cash gone. (more on this later) It was a bit of a dramatic introduction to Hanoi. Quan, a very sweet guy from the Halong Bay Party Boat, had come to my hotel to talk to me about the trip and sign me up. I was frazzled and in the shock stage and his upbeat manner and positive attitude seemed to do the trick. Really? I thought to myself….I could shift into that thinking.
I had some reservations about booking an overnight trip on a “Party Boat” to begin with but once the pick pocketing happened there was nothing to do but go with the flow and see where it all would take me. Quan offered to sign me up for two nights on the boat and arranged for me to pay later when the new card arrived. It meant three days on a boat in Halong Bay spending hardly any money…that made sense. I was so grateful for the opportunity to leave Hanoi for a few days and relax.
Halong Bay, the Bay of the Descending Dragon, is one of the highlights of Northern Vietnam. It’s also a bit of a tourist trap. Parts of the bay are heavily used by tourist boats and are being destroyed by trash and oil in the water. It’s sad to see such a stark contrast against the natural beauty of the place. It’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new 7 Wonders of the world as of 2011. It has nearly 2,000 mostly inhibited limestone cliffs. The sheer number of cliffs makes the scenery unique and beautiful.
The scenery paired with the pop song Beautiful by Akon playing as we got on the boat gave me that funny feeling this could go one of two ways… really cheesy or really relaxing. There was a full sound system with a Sony Vaio lap top, a flat screen TV above the bar with Stereo speakers and a clock above the stairs shaped like a ships wheel.
The vibe from the staff and the crew trying to get this party started didn’t quite mix with the small group on our boat. There were about 12 people (instead of the usual 20 people) and it was a pretty mellow crowd. A very nice couple from the Basque country near Spain, a young English couple who had been backpacking for over a month and this was clearly the nicest place they had stayed in, two women from Australia and a group from Hong Kong. There really wasn’t a party to get started.
The first afternoon we explored the Sung Sot Caves, (the Amazing Caves) . They were fantastic, but again, pathways have been built and it has flashy neon lighting installed throughout the caves.
In the evening our tour guide brought out the rice wine and encouraged everyone do a shot to give us the traditional party boat welcome. We were all enjoying having a beer, chatting to each other and watching the sunset. A few people dove off the top of the boat and we were all happy to relax and go to bed early. Secretly, I was relieved no one wanted to do any karaoke.
The next day I woke up early to catch a sunrise. The rest of the day was spent kayaking around a beach close to the Cat Ba Island. The scenery was gorgeous and it was a day of just soaking up sun, paddling around, having lunch and being lazy. The weather was hot and humid and the scenery was peaceful and tranquil. The spot we were taken to wasn’t too crowded. Other boats were around but it was very clean and low key.
It was the third day as we were kayaking around the more populated areas I really saw the trash and the destruction of tourism. We were surrounded by at least 20 boats like ours, the water was thick with oil, and trash was floating all around, bottles, toilet paper rolls and wrappers. I was grateful for the opportunity to go to Halong Bay and spend a few days kayaking and relaxing on a boat through one of the natural wonders of the world. I also saw the amount of work that needs to be done to clean it up and stop further damage to the environment. Halong Bay seems to be in the heart of that paradox.