Itâs some ungodly hour. 4.00am it turns out. Iâve been lying awake. In a boat cabin in the middle of Ha Long Bay this last half hour thinking I really ought to have a p*ss but the effortâs too much. Mike over to my right grunts and snores and sleeps the sleep of the deeply drunken. Wait! It awakens. It collapses out of bed. It staggers toward the toilet collapsing into, over and through everything and clattering every conceivable object a 6 feet square area can contain. I do-si-do around him to take my turn when he's done. âMorninâ mate?â. âGrunt!â. I return to my cotton sheets.
Mike, for reasons unknown opens the door to the cabin and vanishes in to the cold black night air. âUmm? Mike?â
. I listen attentively for the next 5 minutes to ensure I donât hear the sound of a 6 foot Polak rocker splashing into the Gulf of Tonkin. Thatâd make a noise. Right? I get up and close, but donât lock the cabin door. What more can I do. Sleep ends the moral debate about my obligations swifter than I can think âman overboard?â.
Itâs some ungodly hour. 6.00am it turns out. Iâm lying awake. In a boat cabin in the middle of Ha Long BayâŠ and I have to be in a f**king kayak in 30 minutes time. How rude. Major physical exertion without even a snifter of caffeine or a hint of breakfast to fuel the engine.
I quickly chomp some contraband Oreos purchased from the Pirate Ladies of Ha Long Bay last night. F**k! Mikeâs bed is still empty. Jeez, whereâs the vodka swillinâ fool got to?! I do a cursory tour of all accessible parts of the Junk boat that is our conveyance. Itâs not a fine tooth comb search but Iâm not convinced you need a fine tooth comb to find a 6 foot hung-over Polak who from all evidence to hand canât be wearing much more than his boxer shorts and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt.
The following possibilities shuffle into line in my fuggy early morning mind. Option 1) After I fell asleep he did indeed collapse over the edge into Ha Long Bay which would pretty much equate to death by now.
Dragon's Breath : the carved wooden head of our Junk boat.
Great! my third dead person in Vietnamese waters in 3 weeks. Iâm not kidding!
And he has a poor track record nearly drowning in the upper Mekong in Laos after fallen (p*ssed again off the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang). Option 2)
Given the demographics and composition of the boatâs population he could be in another personâs room having âgotten luckyâ
but (no offence to Mike's sexual prowess intended) at 4.00am at night? After all are happily tucked in bed long ago? In the state he was in?
Unlikely verging on impossible. But actually the only option Iâm willing to cling to until everyoneâs up and the theory can be scratched from a troublingly short list. F**k am I out of options already?!? âMiiiiike!â.
'Survivor' : Mike makes a dramatic reappearance after disappearing in the middle of the night :)
Itâs misty out there. Threateningly misty perhaps. A touch too much of certain James Herbert or Stephen King novels. The Fog. The Mist. Thomas Malloryâs Arthurian romances maybe? The âDragonâs Breathâ magical spells of the enchantress Morgana. Her enveloping mists raised from the seas, wreathing their way about this dragonâs bay. Rising amidst the rocky teeth and scales to seduce my friend in the night. Whereâs Merlin when you need him?!
Option 3???) Weeell, there was that other boat we just disengaged from a nocturnal mooring with? I guess, highly improbable though it is he could be - for reasons known only, and probably not even to himself - be aboard that boat somewhere? But why? How? And anyway, too late.
Samera and the hills.
Said boat rapidly recedes into the mist as we head away for our kayaking appointment.
âŠ to end this needless suspense. A call soon comes through to the boat, that a strangely, scantily attired man, not a member of a certain Ha Long Bay junk has just been found and is in need of collection by our captain. âPhewf!â. I was curiously unflapped and unmoved through this whole episode. I think you get used to general weirdness and cultivate an innate understanding of a fellow travellers capacity to survive any embarrassment and bodily harm (most of the time) without the need for you to lose your head.
With Mike lost at sea, I am coupled with Julian from Canada for a one hour kayaking session. Despite the hour of the morning, in fact probably because of the hour of the morning this is a profoundly beautiful way to greet the day.
Trek Crew : L->R Boris, Samera, Jordan, Aim (the guide), Charlie & Mike.
Total silence except for the cut and lapping of your paddles through the unbelievable calm waters surface. Closer to the Dragon. Beautiful from a distance. A terrifying beauty closer to hand. The karst cliffs rise now far, far above us into the sky. The water level still very low, the base cut deep by endless millennia of tidal water erosion. Man will probably long since have departed this planet by the time Time and Tide have finished their task of felling these near immortal giants. We paddle around, alone, to an enclosed alcove. Three karst peaks raise up to differing levels but despite their three tiered crowns, all are seductively lost to the mists that keep the horizon line disorientatingly hidden for themselves.
We paddle back.
Back on board HMS âsomething-or-otherâ looking out to the water a miraculous vision appears. It is Mike paddling happily into base in a solo kayak. Safely returned. Still slightly drunk maybe. He had quite a job, he relates, convincing the other boats captain that he was safe to put in a life jacket and send off into the ocean in a kayak. Allâs well that end well anâ all that jazz.
After a much needed breakfast its another scenic chunter along in our boat, all the way back to the relatively large and tourism-centred Cat Ba island that sits out here, the mother island of Ha Long Bay I guess you could say. On shore and whisked across the island in a mini-van bus, we will stay here today and tonight in one of the many, many tourist hotels that line the shore port promenade of the island.
The Ha Long Bay Gang L->R : Mike, Me, Samera, Charlie, Jordan, John, Clair & Boris.
Before we get there though, the days physical exertions are not yet played out. A two hour trek up into the hill tops is next on the menu whatever our state of fatigue or personal fitness. With hangovers a-plenty all round and a alarmingly high proportion of smokers (not I!) in the group the latter point, taken on average ainât that great!
But we manage somehow. Samera slipping and sliding in her rubber plimsoll shoes; Mike carrying his backpack, 3 kilo laptop (?!?) and hangover up the hill, Charlie sprinting ahead and me trying to be polite by creating a back marker link between all the young scamps blazing ahead and the only ever-so-slightly more senior members of the group, John & Claire who are getting more activity than they bargained for and lagging behind.
All the sweating and grunting and not insubstantial numbers of mosquitoes is worthwhile though as the views over the island scenery from the top are very captivating indeed!
Once back at the quayside and our hotel itâs lunch for all the exhausted adventurers. Jordan, Samara, Mike and Iâs physical strains are not to be curtailed it seems as our rooms are on the 5th floor and itâs a f**kinâ hard slog of 5 floors at that! Never mind. Iâm just thankful to be having a shower. My co-travellers are probably thankful that I am too! The rest of the day is to be left to our own devices entirely which suits me juuuust fine. Itâs a warmer day today (typical what with the flippinâ trek anâ all!) but till mostly a white-out in terms of the suns inability to burn through the Ha Long Bay grey.
Mike back on the booze 'n' fags :)
I stroll about the uninspiring town for a little time and then am content to pick a promenade-side cafĂ© and order Vietnamese sweet coffees whilst ploughing soporiphically through âSense and Sensibilityâ.
The sun does eventually win out at about 4 oâclock in the afternoon and I grab the opportunity with Mike to stroll 15 minutes to one of a couple of okay-ish beaches that rest in little alcove bays here abouts. As itâs the weekend and the sunâs come out to play, so do all the local Vietnamese kids and teenagers in vast numbers. Really vast numbers! Itâs quite a sight to behold. Not least because in all your time to be spent on Southeast Asian beaches itâs actually incredibly rare in my experience to come across an en masse beach grouping of âlocal peopleâ.
Aim : our trekking guide.
Iâm sure if fear or horrid locust-swarms of tourists usually keeps them away or an innate modesty that generally makes undesirable, if not prohibiting general scampering about in bikinis and SpeedosâŠ but these guys ânâ gals donât seem to mind. Which is a fabulous thing to witness. Lovers burying each other in the sand. Massive bowts of tug-âo-war and group skipping games. Pretty gals and dashing lads twirling into the (ice cold) waves and floating on rubber tubes. Games of football and volleyball underway as the sun slips slowly out of sight behind the cliff line.
Itâs been good good times in Ha Long Bay. I have enjoyed it and the pleasant change in weather and tone that have accompanied our experiences very much. And there is little more to relay.
The return the next day is just that. A return. Which means, in some ways, an end. Which is always cause for a little sadness. The Dragonâs Breath. Morganaâs lure. The misty isles. They call my mind still.
[ Ha Long Bay : Travel planning & tips ]
Package trips for 2 days & 1 night or 3 days & 2 nights are offered by just about anyone capable of printing a sign in Hanoi. The latter option is the most popular and probably sensible option although 2 âdaysâ will give you a good taster of the scenery and a night on the board ship. Despite vast tour agency competition, again, donât knock yourself out trying to get the âhow low can you goâ deal in town.
The prices can vary quite wildly but if you end up in the $45 ballpark you shouldnât need to look much further. Some people do get stung for waaay higher though, so be wary. You all pretty much end up on the same boats, doinâ the same stuff whatever they tell you. Mike and I were offered $45 with great ease and when we earnestly said âThatâs great but weâll just go check at one more place first and then come backâ
we instantly a received the usual âOh, you book now, special discount for youâ
and got it at $42 a head. More expensive âdeluxeâ tours are available with bigger, maybe quieter boats. But for twice the price and much more youâll just be getting half the fun and maybe slightly better food so why bother!
This is exceptionally good value for what you get.
Photography shoot by the sea.
All transports. All meals from lunch in Day 1 until lunch on Day 3 includedâŠ and they ainât that bad either. Your boat trips, site entrance fees, 1 hour kayaking, 2 hours trekking and 1 nights hotel accommodation on Cat Ba island. Canât say much fairer than that.
Drinks Beware! - This is one little discomfort I had been warned about, and in reality, itâs life. Not much getting away from it. In an attempt to maximise their profit line from their captive tourist audience the boat captains and staff do not openly permit you to bring onboard and consume your own alcoholic beverages. This is âcos all are available (beers, spirits and wine) and at least twice the reasonable asking price to purchase from them.
If caught opening your own supplies by staff including the infamous after dark âMan With the Torchâ you will be asked to pay a kind of ad hoc âimport taxâ of 10,000VND ($0.60, the price of your can of beer in the first place) to open your beer or a whopping $10 for a bottle of wine!!! In the same vein, purchasing food and especially drink off the entrepreneurial ladies on their little boats in the Bay is highly frowned upon competition, but you can negotiate beers & spirits for far better prices from them. Just be quick and subtle about it. Drink in your cabins; decant your drinks into other containers or do what our group generally did and just be nice and friendly with the more amenable staff on board and get your Captain on side and drunk.
As Mike and I specifically asked the Tour Operator we booked through the question as to whether this situation would arise on his boat and he said âdefinitely not!â then after explaining this and giving a business card to the captain saying âyour problemâs with them, not usâ our troubles were over.
But many people slip into unproductive anger and despond at this situation and it can spoil your good time. So just know that a tour operator who says âno problemâ
is probably just lying to keep you sweet and revert to all those Old Skool tactics from secondary school and concerts and be sneaky ânâ smart with your booze. ]