Between first being loaded onto the bus and our eventual arrival at the boat on which we would sleep, we passed through five sets of Vietnamese handlers, friends. It was an intricate network that shuffled budget travelers who wouldn’t pay the full price of a tour from step to step to fill empty–profitless–spaces to collect at least a minor fee.
Even at the harbor we could see the magnificent karst formations jutting out of the water. We were loaded onto the first boat with Vietnamese families and a set of harrassed Estonian girls. We retreated to the peace of the top deck, deserted in the midday sun, and admire the passing scenery from there.
Halong Bay is in the running for the seven natural wonders of the work, and as we cruised through it over the course of three days, I could really see why. I found the karsts captivating, especially those in the fading distance, an army of dark blue, slope-shouldered giants. Up close, one can see they’re covered in bushy green, and that only birds–hawks and crows and sparrows–call the rocks home.
After an unsatisfying lunch, the boat docked at a cave. We fell into line–“foreigners over here!”–and filed through the cavern. Mr. Wonka would have been proud: the cave was lit up in a rainbow of colors to best show off the stalactites and drip formations. I only wish there hadn’t been a water feature in the final pool.
After some confusion and shouting by one of the Estonian gals (at the crew, not me), we checked into our sleeping quarters for the night, a junk. The staff instructed us to go swimming, so into the warm green ocean we went. Our new shipmates were thirteen other 20somethings from Estonia, France, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Japan, and we made quite a merry party.
Dinner was as disappointing as lunch was (a common theme on this trip, so I’ll mention it only once more), but we followed it playing card games with our tablemates. A couple from Canada had six days left on their year-long, round-the-world journey. And you thought we were crazy.
Before breakfast we went kayaking and got to go right up to, and even under, those towering rocks. Then they fed us one egg and about five pieces of white toast each before taking us back to shore. On that miserable breakfast alone, we hiked up a mountain on Cat Ba Island. It was a fantastic view at the top, and at over 90 degrees and humid, it was too hot to be hungry anyway.
We stayed on the island that night: on the beach, I snoozed away the afternoon while Colin studied. We met the Canadian couple and a French couple for another night of games, much to the curious delight of the hotel staff.
We motored back to Halong City the next morning: one last chance to be amazed by the karsts. We were back to Hanoi that evening, and Colin was pleasantly surprised by his passport and China visa waiting on him.