Happy Birthday in Halong Bay
Today I fly from Da Nang to Hanoi. It’s about the same distance as the train I took from Saigon to Da Nang and, although the sleeping accommodations on the train weren’t bad, I just can’t look another Vietnamese train restroom in the eye. And while the train allowed me to see some of the countryside, I’ll see a bit more of the countryside during my plans for the next couple of days. The plane costs about the same as the sleeping car on the train so I’m only spending extra on the night in the hotel room. When you’re traveling long-term, you need to spoil yourself every once-in-a-while by taking the easy route.
After a quick flight on Vietjet (really good, no hassles), I check into the Moon View 2 Hotel which has been recommended by a couple I met in Da Nang. After a splash of water on my face, I head out to find some dinner. As I’ve been told that I must walk around the lake area, I walk the fifteen-minutes there, find an unexpectedly very expensive restaurant – $27 for dinner with a glass of wine in Vietnam is pretty expensive and would buy a week’s worth of food in Hoi An – and eat there, partially because it’s the night before my birthday and that certainly wouldn’t be an outrageous amount of money at home, and mostly because I’m too embarrassed to walk out after being escorted up to the sixth floor.
Dinner is lovely and I’m tired when I return to the hotel. I’d wanted to take a taxi back but, as I’ve heard that Hanoi taxi drivers are just as deceitful as Saigon taxis, attempting to not get cheated can be more exhausting than simply walking.
I wake up and check out of the hotel. ‘”What?” you say. “Didn’t you just check in?”
Well yes, I did. But today is special. Not only is it my birthday, but today I head to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay, to spend the night on a boat. In 2012, Halong Bay was named one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Apparently nature changed throughout the years and a re-election was needed (Isn’t nature, like wine, supposed to be more impressive with age?) It’s also a member of the Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World. (Word has it that the club meets once per month and is BYOB.)
I’ve packed an overnight bag and will leave my big one at the hotel to collect when I return. The bus arrives at 7:45 am and Tony, the guide from Imperial Cruises, meets me in the lobby. I’m the first on the bus and we spend the next hour driving around Hanoi, filling the bus. While it’s just me and him, Tony tells me that I’ve been upgraded from their three-star boat to the four-star one, but asks me not to mention it so as not to upset anyone.
At nearly 9:00am, we begin our three-and-a-half hour journey – including a bathroom stop at a large tourist outpost selling jewelry, food, bags, statues, and crafts made my ladies who sit in rows sewing the silk in front of you – to the port to meet our boat. I pass the time chatting with an American from Idaho (which I mistakenly call Iowa and which I’m sure is a major faux pas). As the bus holds people taking cruises of various lengths on two different boats, we’re instructed on what will happen when we arrive at the harbor. Iowa girl believes she’s taken a two night-cruise but is told that she’ll spend one night on the boat (a different one than mine) and another at a bungalow in a town within the Halong Bay area. The guide phones the office and puts her on the telephone with them. In the end, she ends up with the night on the boat and a night in a bungalow. Yes, Vietnam is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.
Eventually we arrive at the harbor and, after a little waiting (and a lot of sweating), we embark out boat. There are nineteen of us and we’re met by Alex (the Julie McCoy-like Cruise Director of our Halong Bay cruise). We sit in the dining room while Alex tells us the plan for the cruise as well as announcing to everyone that, A) I’ve been upgraded (wait, I thought that was our little secret) and, B) it’s Caroleeee’s birthday (he continues to pronounce it this way for much of the cruise).
I’m given the key to my cabin and, when I enter, am happy with the large bed, big windows, and shower that are in the tiny bathroom. (Many showers here in Vietnam are simply shower-heads in the middle of the bathroom which make it possible to shower, shit, shave and shampoo all at once, however flood the bathroom and make the toilet paper really soggy.) I change into my bathing suit and head up to the top deck where I find a few people sunning themselves while others make their best attempt at finding a shady spot. There are young couples from England, one is a combo English/German, some middle-aged ones from Australia, four young Norwegian guys who drink and laugh amongst themselves and two young American girls who I name the Mean Girls. One reminds me exactly of one of the girls in the movie Pitch Perfect and they seem to take an instant dislike of me. My attempts at saying hello are brushed off with an upturned snicker and a quick turn of the shoulder as they walk away and quietly say something to each other. And while they’ll speak to others, they refuse to talk to me. Really ladies, are you upset that you don’t hold the monopoly on being American here?
We soon anchor and are brought to a pier for forty five-minutes of kayaking. A sixteen year-old girl name Shohan who is traveling with her traditional Singaporean parents and aunt becomes my kayak partner as the rest of her family has chosen to forego kayaking and walk around the fishing village. She’s okay with that as she later tells me that she’s embarrassed by her noisy family. I explain that every sixteen year-old is embarrasses by their family and, sometimes, we adults take joy in embarrassing our younger family members (Some days, it’s the only fun we get.) Shohan has kayaked once and I give her the option of sitting in the front or back. She chooses the back which, if you’ve kayaked before, you’ll know is the steering position. Unfortunately, Shohan has no idea how to steer so I spend the next forty five-minutes teaching her how to steer and paddling my heart out trying to keep the boat from crashing into the rocks (we do so once).
After a beautiful, yet exhausting, kayak, we head back to the boat for some swimming time off the tender boat. We jump, dive, somersault and back-flip into the cool water, sharing some fun with the crew, before a quick shower, a beautiful sunset and dinner
We’re joined at dinner by Laura, a French woman who has taken the two-night cruise, which means that, until now, she was off doing her day-two activities. As I’m the other solo traveler, Laura sits across from me and we immediately hit it off. She lives in Paris but says she’s a New Yorker at heart and, after a visit, it’s her dream to live there. She doesn’t like that she has a French accent even after I tell her how sexy French is (I’m not hitting on her but man, a guy could tell me he had back hair, a lazy eye, and a terrible case of herpes and, if he said it in French, I’d be attracted).
The food is served family-style and there’s a lot of it. Local specialties just keep coming. The only extra charge is for drinks and, since I don’t have to drive, I enjoy a few. Alex and the crew have prepared a birthday celebration with a watermelon juice toast, flowers carved from fruits and vegetables, and a tea-light candle floating in blue water in a martini glass. (This might even beat out my birthday celebration two years prior which included trapeze school.) Karaoke is offered but everyone but Shohan’s family chooses to go up on deck to enjoy the night sky. Shohan’s family is downstairs singing Chinese karaoke. As breakfast is at 6:45am tomorrow, we say our goodnights fairly early and head off to sleep.Following breakfast and a morning sail through Halong Bay, we head off to explore the caves. We climb a hundred-or-so steps, dripping with sweat by the time we reach the top. As we enter the caves Alex explains some of the history – like many caves in Vietnam, they were used by the North Vietnamese to hide in during the war – and superstitions surrounding the shapes formed from hundreds of years of erosion. The caves are beautiful and feel less touristy than those at Marble Mountain. I find it interesting when Alex refers to The American War, as back home it’s called The Vietnam War. It makes sense coming from their viewpoint and I’d never before thought about it.
After an hour-and-a-half, we head back to the boat to relax and have an early lunch. Chatting with a few people up top, an Australian man mentions something about time back home, which leads me to explain how my home state of Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time. Immediately one of the Mean Girls chimes in, “They don’t do Martin Luther King Day either!”
Really? “Yes we do,” I respond, irritated.
“Well, they didn’t,” she replies.
“That’s right, nobody did. And yes, Arizona was the last state to adopt it.” What’s your point?
After an uncomfortable moment, she simply shuts up and we all head down to lunch.
By 1:00, we’re heading to the pier for the long bus ride back to Hanoi.
Tomorrow, visiting the Hanoi Hilton and meeting up with new friends.