I knew that wherever I went after Sapa would be a letdown. Halong Bay, at least, promised to be beautiful, with pristine beaches and hundreds of steep limestone rock formations jutting up out of the ocean. It was as good a place to go as any.
Fellow travelers echoed my guidebook’s advice that a group tour was the best way to see Halong Bay. They said if I tried to visit the area independently it would cost more and I would see less. Well, OK. But I felt myself grinding my teeth inadvertently as I booked the 3-day, 2-night tour. I had one day in Hanoi before the tour began and I used it to start the long process of working through all the photos I took in Sapa. Before I knew it I was on the bus to Halong Bay.
The eleven other people in my group turned out to be really friendly. Mostly English speakers: two girls from just south of London, a French couple, a Canadian and his German wife, a couple from Sydney, and three Americans who just graduated from GW law school – Ashley, Lindsey and Liz. All of them were in their twenties, so I was the geriatric – more than 10 years older than everyone else. Other groups had some senior citizens, too, but I just happened to get matched up with the kids.
After the four-hour bus ride we arrived at Halong Bay and took a little skiff took to the boat we’d sleep on that night.
The British girls – who I genuinely liked – then made the comment that in London they’d just been to an American-themed house party, where everyone came dressed garishly and acted loud and obnoxious. Laughs all around the table.
Later that night the entire group took our drinks to the top deck of the boat and the conversation turned to what it feels like to be an American as you walk through one of the Vietnamese war museums. Straining under the guilt pressing down on the three law students and me, I felt the need to point out that it’s very difficult to find a government that hasn’t done terrible things at one time or another – England was the bully of the world stage for hundreds of years before the U.S. took over, Australia’s record with its Aboriginal people is horrifying, and does anything really need to be said about Germany? I joked that polite little Canada is really the only country in the world with a clean record. “We only have three submarines so we can’t get into much trouble,” said the stereotypically low-key Canadian in our group.
Still, I have to admit it can be sobering to hear an international group candidly discuss their impressions of Americans. At about that point the three American law students started getting antsy to fire up the boat’s karaoke machine. We heard karaoke singing coming from a nearby boat, and Ashley, one of the students, shouted, “Either we get karaoke started here or I’m f-ing swimming over to that other boat!” I still can’t figure out how people get the crazy idea that Americans are uncouth and loud.
Very soon we were all in our boat’s main room listening to Lindsey belt out “Black Velvet.” Really, though, the law students were just trying to have a good time and – even though the more reserved non-Americans needed a little push to get going – most of them ended up joining in and having more fun because the American girls stirred things up. The fact that we were all drinking like sailors probably helped too.
The Vietnamese working on the boat jumped in to take turns with the karaoke, and they never seemed very happy about having to turn the machine back over to the guests. If our singing was as painful to them as theirs was to us, then I understand their reluctance.
From Cat Ba Island a boat took us to a small resort on nearby Monkey Island, where we spent our second night in bamboo huts.
“Yes, but trail very difficult,” the guide said, shaking his head at the hardships involved. “Very difficult. Very far to go. Maybe no see monkeys. Beach here very nice, better to stay.”
Ellen, one of the British girls, joined me in suspecting the guide might be protesting a little too much. “We want to see the monkeys,” we told him. Bluff called, the guide sighed and said he’d take us. After an easy 10-minute hike we were on the other side of the beach, happily taking photos of a bunch of monkeys. The monkeys seemed to like to tease the tourists – one grabbed my leg and another jumped on my back. I praised my good sense in getting a rabies shot before the trip.
Lacking a karaoke machine, our second night was much mellower than the first. We were told to be up early the next morning – apparently a typhoon was headed towards Halong Bay and they wanted to get us out of there as soon as possible. I missed my chance to photograph most of the lightning that kicked up around sunset, but I did manage to catch a quick burst over the water.
That night more storms rolled through and by morning the sky looked legitimately menacing. The waves were too high for the big boat to pick us up on the beach, so they had to ferry us out on smaller boats. We made it back to Cat Ba Island just fine, took a bus to the other side of the island, and waited in the rain for another boat that would take us to the mainland. When that boat arrived we had to walk down some concrete stairs to the boarding platform, and – here we go – as I started down the stairs I wiped out awkwardly, for no apparent reason, in front of the whole group. “That’s what you said would happen!” someone volunteered helpfully. Yep, at least I called it. I scraped my knee and ankle, leaving a tangible reminder of my first official spill on the Big Trip.
The typhoon picked up once we were on board and the captain ended up lashing our boat to a similar boat in order to gain some extra stability. At one point the wind and waves forced our double-boat to stop moving altogether and shelter in a protected cove, but eventually we made a final push and reached the mainland. We heard from other tourists that all Halong Bay tours had been cancelled, so it turns out our timing was lucky – if we’d started one day later our trip would have been cut short.
Back in Hanoi our group exchanged Facebook contact information and said our goodbyes. All things considered, not a bad tour. I looked forward to taking a couple of recovery days in Hanoi to catch up on my photo work and figure out my plan for making the jump to Laos.