Ha LongBay is a serious contender for one of the seven Wonders of the World.
Ha Long Bay - the view from the top.
The Kodak-moment waters stretching out from Ha Long City are filled with over 3000 surreal limestone islands of all sizes. Legend has it that long ago a dragon made the islands with its tail. Very few islands have ANY sort of development, and most simply rise vertically out of the water. The largest island, Cat Ba, is the second biggest in Vietnam and contains several small towns and villages.
Our itinerary called for a day cruising the bay, kayaking, a night spent on the boat, and more cruising the next day. When The Irish Three took off to Hanoi the second day, I would head to Cat Ba for my second night. Wishful thinking - don’t expect to get what you paid for, regardless of what your printed itinerary says. We arrived at the tourboat gridlock only to be informed that the boat was full and we would have to sleep on the island instead. Not a big deal for me because my second night would be on the boat, but a kick in the nuts for The Irish Three because they only had one night.
Views don't get much better than this.
No amount of arguing or showing that we paid to stay on the boat changed that. For the record, the tour company was AST, and it only gets worse from here.
We cruised right through the bay to a small island with a cave tour that every tour experiences. Stepping off the boat we were greeted with cheerful music that sounded like something out of Disneyland (really), and we half-expected to see some people in big Micky Mouse suits running around. After walking past about thirty gift shops, we walked into the cave - RaveCave, we called it. It was like the cave in The Matrix. From the wide, paved path, we had a great view of Techni-color stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone and petinas. Each feature was lit with an arbitrary neon-colored light. We called this place RaveCave for a reason. Nothing spectacular, and we finally walked past another forty gift shops to return to the boat.
We were then informed that the boat would be dropping us off at the island.
Dragonfly and MIGs
So soon? Yes. What about the kayaking? Maybe the following evening. The only two things that we had been excited about - staying on the boat and kayaking - were being refused. Assholes. We were pissed.
From the dock at Cat Ba it was a 30-minute bus ride to the town. That thirty minutes felt like we had entered JurassicPark. The island is nothing but mountainous peaks and canyons, covered in a dense layer of thick green. Limestone walls and caves are absolutely everywhere.
Our hotel in town was nothing special, and our room was filled with ants and fleas. Every provided tour meal was just like the last, cold and flavorless. That evening we went out to some bars with our tour guide Kenny and The German Five. In the first bar we went to, this little hole-in-the-wall dive bar, I ended up meeting one of the directors for The Real World.
It turned out he was from the Bay Area originally, and we ended up chatting for about half an hour. Very cool guy. Totally random encounter.
The next day I said goodbye to The Irish Three, as they had to fly out of Hanoi that evening. After dropping them off at the dock we went to a national park on Cat Ba and trekked to the top of a peak, where we climbed a 60ish foot lookout tour. The rusted bolts/stairs/supports inspired little confidence, but the view from the top over the island was spectacular. On the hike back down we came across a rare mountain crab (really), but that was the only wildlife we saw (no lemurs).
After a quick and tasteless lunch in town, we headed to the boat, where we’d be spending the evening after a short cruise.
Model of the Cu Chi Tunnels
I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were two UC Berkeley students and an Aussie on the boat, the first Americans I’d met in a while. Our kayaking adventure turned out to be a disappointing 30 minutes paddling around a bay before sunset - again, we were pissed, as that had been everybody’s primarly interest. We spent the evening hanging out with a Czech couple, swapping stories and listening to the Czech guy play guitar. I was supposed to bunk up with one of the German Five, but ended up sleeping in a different room after discovering several extra-large rats running around my bed. I bunked up with the Marta, the Aussie, who had an extra bed thankfully.
The next morning we did a quick hike to the top of Teapot (?) Island for a great view before returning to Ha Long City. I went back to Hanoi with the UCB Two and Marta, where we all shared a room in the Old Quarter. Marta and I explored the city a bit and went to a Water Puppet Theater - highly recommended - after grabbing a great dinner.
I spent the next day at the ArmyMuseum in Hanoi, which had some amazing exhibits and war machines.
Some of the highlights included models of the Cu Chi Tunnels, weapons dating back thousands of years, weaponry from the last century, several MIG fighter jets, a Dragonfly fighter, and countless tanks. What was particularly interesting was that every weapon, whether knife or sword or gun, was listed with a detailed description of that particular weapon’s history. “This rifle was used by Some Guy to kill x number of enemy soldiers in the year 19xx.” “This knife was used by Some Dude to stab General Someone in hand-to-hand combat.” Pretty crazy stuff.
After the museum I met up with Marta to say goodbye before she flies back to Korea to continue teaching, and then I met up with Tiffany to hang out for the evening. I met Tiffany and her boyfriend randomly in Nha Trang - her boyfriend turned out to be one of the divemasters on my boat. She’s from LA but has been working in Hanoi for an anti-human-trafficking NGO for the last 6 months. We grabbed a few beers and dinner before heading back to her apartment where she graciously let me crash on the couch.
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