Thursday, November 12, 2009
Part 3: Halong Bay
The currency in Vietnam is called dong. I defy even the most mature readers of this blog not to snicker at that. No? Ok, how about in context? Keep your hands on your dong at all times. It’s so hot my dong is sweaty. One dong is good, but a million dongs are better...
Anything? I could go on.
After a day of touring around Hanoi, Huy and the driver were scheduled to drive us out to Halong Bay. For a relative few number of dongs (anything?), we’d be spending the night on our own personal junkboat, with bedroom and a crew of six. But first, we had to get there.
The ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay is three and a half hours long. Which would be fine, except for that driving thing we talked about. Specifically, the driving like an asshole thing. And as every non-car owner like ourselves can attest, the only thing worse than being on the road with an asshole driver, is being in the backseat with one.
Remember how they used to depict driving in old black and white movies? Hands at 10 and 2, jerking the wheel back and forth to convey movement? And you’d always see that and say, who drives like that? Nobody drives like that!
The Vietnamese drive like that.
Their pathological need to pass each other on the highway means that you spend roughly 2 of the 3 ½ hours in the opposite lane, driving directly into head on traffic, in a never-ending game of chicken with a variety of diesel-fueled vehicles. And when we weren’t actually passing, we were checking to see if we should be passing.
But if the point of this trip was to see and experience things we’d never see in the States, this ride offered up some gems, including (but not limited to): a live calf roped to the back of a scooter, a massive gift shop emporium staffed entirely by victims of Agent Orange, and a coal mining town so completely covered in soot it would be invisible by night.
Along the way, Huy educated us about Halong Bay. In 1994, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added it to its list of World Heritage Sites, classifying it as one of the 33 most beautiful bays in the world…
Hold on. If you’re anything like me, you might stop Huy right there. What the hell is a World Heritage Site? Why such a weird number for a list? How many beautiful bays could there possibly be in the world? Will there be wine on the boat?
Basically, you can expect two things out of visiting a World Heritage Site: 1. It’s going to be mind-bogglingly, ridiculously, shockingly beautiful. 2. There will be a mind-boggling, ridiculous, shocking number of tourists there.
Which is why whipping out the extra dong for a private guide and driver is crucial in a place like Vietnam. The dock was TEEMING with tourists when we arrived. Hundreds of junkboats waited for gaggles of hillbillies (Europe and Australia have hillbillies, too) to finish rummaging through fanny packs and taking pictures of toilets before they could get going. Not us. Not with trusty Huy in charge.
The second we got to the dock, we hopped on the boat. The second we got on the boat, the boat departed. The second the boat departed, we got lunch. The second we got lunch, we were sipping wine. I’m telling you, there is no other way to do this touristy stuff.
A quick word about our boat. As I mentioned before, we had the entire thing to ourselves, which was a little ridiculous considering the vessel offered a huge upper deck with ten deck chairs, three guest rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a crew of six. We tried to compensate for our guilt by being extra nice to the crew, who couldn’t have understood us less if we had meowed our appreciation.
Once our junkboat headed into the bay, we started to understand what the hubbub is all about. I mean, you just can’t believe what you’re looking at. Describing the beauty of Halong Bay goes well beyond my meager capabilities as a writer. Every picture you take makes you think you should quit your day job and become a professional photographer.
The nerdified version of what Huy told us goes something like this: sometime after the Pleistocene, shifting tectonic plates caused a mountain to collapse and break apart into dense clusters of limestone islands. Each island, covered with thick jungle vegetation, juts out of a very shallow bay, which causes the water to be perfectly flat and calm.
I distinctly remember lying in a deckchair while Crissy napped under a cloudless sky, sipping a glass of wine, listening to the distant gurgle of other junkboats lazily chugging along, and the occasional whistle chirp from the soccer game the crew was watching on a small TV, thinking, “I’m about as off the grid as you can get right now.”
Thankfully, the government limits the number of boats that can go out each day, so it’s incredibly quiet as you glide through this seemingly never-ending maze of ancient geological handiwork. I took so many pictures in the first 10 minutes that I had to be reminded we were gonna be there all day and all night. It was about 3 in the afternoon.
Just before sunset, our boat docked at one of the islands. “We go on a small hike.” Huy informed us. A bottle of wine deep and armed with only shorts and flip-flops, we weren’t sure if this was the greatest idea. Huy assured us we’d be fine.
So we hopped off the boat and huffed up a stone staircase and entered the most gigantic cave I’ve ever seen in my life. As Crissy stood gawking and I fumbled with various low light settings on the camera, Huy told us we should keep moving.
He led us through a small passageway narrow enough for our inner claustrophobics to huff asthma inhalers and say, I think we’ve had just about enough of this nonsense.
And then we stepped into a cave the size of an airport terminal.
Let’s see, how can I describe this, other than tell you I was expecting to find woolly mammoth carcasses around every corner. Gargantuan stalagtites millions of years old poured from the ceiling like 10 ton icicles. The place was so gigantic it looked like something straight out of Epcot Center. I took so many pictures Huy wanted to punch me. About two of them came out.
After the caves, we took one more pit stop at a gorgeous little beach for a sunset dip, before our boat anchored for the night. Crissy and I relaxed on the deck of the boat, reading our books to the soothing creak of old wood and wet ropes. I could hear a crew member softly whistling to himself on a boat 100 yards away.
Soon after our second gigantic fresh seafood meal on the boat, Crissy and I retired for the night, stuffed, relaxed and happy.
We were so relaxed, in fact, that we slept in until 10 am, missing out on the last pit stop we were scheduled to make that morning. Apparently, the crew was too respectful of our sleep to wake us up. “I am sorry, we have to bring the boat back now,” Huy regretfully informed us.
“Not to worry, Huy,” we assured him. We saw plenty. And what we did see was worth every last dong.
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