Happening Halong Bay

You Sing! You Sing! The karaoke microphone was thrust into Jim’s hand by the cheering crowd. Thick smoke circled the room, becoming increasingly worse as the passing tobacco bong was alternated by chain smoking cigarettes.. I sat silently, waiting to see what he would do. Singers we are not, but faced with such enthusiasm, it would be hard to resist.

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We were on a private island, on the far reaches of Halong Bay, in Northeast Vietnam. In Hanoi we had booked a typical junk tour, featuring one night on board, and one night on the island. It was just after Christmas and we were road weary and homesick after four months on the road, so as a treat to ourselves, we booked a second night on the island.

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We had zipped out of Hanoi, entering a more rural Vietnam on the four-hour trip to Tuan Chao Marina. The harbor was packed with boats, both junks and fishing boats, and we were a bit put off to find our boat was tied far off the dock, past many others. Sixth in line, to be exact, and the only way to get to it was to climb from boat to boat, negotiating the varying distances between boats and literally climbing from railing to railing.

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It was an exhausting journey, our fully loaded backpacks proving to be a huge hinderence as we clung to ropes, climbed on railings to jump to the next boat, and made our way down narrow corridors to repeat the procedure. One crossing was so wide between boats we needed to throw our backpacks onto the next deck and swing on ropes across. Not exactly what we thought we’d be experiencing on our “first class” tour. Alas, after over a month in Vietnam we knew nothing is at it seems.

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We finally arrived at our junk, sweating and irritated, but grateful for the cool, overcast conditions. The remainder of our passengers staggered on-board and we headed off into the magnificent bay.

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Halong Bay is an over 1553 square km area, made up of thousands of islands of limestone monoliths, rising out of the water like beacons. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, it is home to several floating villages, caves to explore, and a variety of water sports.

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Most tours offer the two-night option for prices varying widely from $70-130 per person. Some of the price variation is based on quality of the boat, but from what we found, it has more to do with  your bargaining skills! We ended up paying $190pp for round-trip transfers from Hanoi, all meals, one night on the junk and two nights in a bungalow on our private island. Not a bad deal. Apparently, having spent a month bargaining for positively everything in this country at least proved useful.

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Our boat was, as with nearly everything in Vietnam, NOT as advertised. It was fine, a decent en-suite room, but not the luxury craft shown in the travel agents brochure. Food was edible and the cave tour and kayaking were included, so all was not lost. Sailing the bay is astonishing. The limestone cliffs rose out of the mist, the sky and hills were several shades of purple, and the entire evening became a magnificent sight.

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Hang Dao Go cave is just one of several in the bay but offered the best stalagmite and stalactites. The caving was a fun distraction, but we were more fascinated to the view of the bay from the cave! Even though we enjoyed the cruise, the private island stop was our favorite. Incredibly relaxing. Incredibly scenic. It offered activities or complete relaxation. The first day was good fun. We played pool, we kayaked, we lazed on the beach. It was much too cold for swimming, but merely hanging out on the beach was a delight.

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After waving goodbye to the others, day two drifted into an epic day of doing nothing. We purchased a couple of bottles of wine from the restaurant and spent the day on the beanbag chairs on our balcony, drinking, listening to Jimmy Buffet, and playing cards. We spent hours talking, about our last four months on the road, and of the months still to come. We wrote in our journal. We read. We napped.

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That evening we wandered down the raised bamboo walkway to the restaurant for a lovely, and romantic dinner for two on the patio when we asked one of the young staff members if they enjoyed working in this remote spot. The next thing we knew, the manager was joining us for tequila shots and the rest of the gang pulled out the karaoke machine!

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What followed was several hours of drinking, singing, and attempting not to breath too much of the thick smoke. As a woman, I was not allowed to participate in the singing, but Jim joined in on a couple of duets. We staggered back to our bungalow late that evening, astonished and filled with gratitude. Once again, the magic of travel and the simple act of asking a stranger about their life, resulted in a memory of a lifetime.

We waved a sad goodbye to our new friends the next morning, knowing the odds were great our paths would never again cross, but also sure that we would never forget them.

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