Having navigated the stormy streets of Hanoi, we set out to chart the waters of one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions – the UNESCO world heritage site- Halong Bay.
Described as “thousands of limestone karsts” rising out of the water – Halong Bay didn’t initially resonate with me – because, well, I had no idea what a karst was. Only after a glimpse of what we would see, did things come into focus (top photo).
Aaah, rocks. Jutting out of the water. Roger that.
Now swelled to a foursome, our Team Canada: Rose, Juliana, Matt and I – met a fellow traveller in our Hanoi hotel, who, after sharing a morning chat, decided bravely to join our ranks as an honorary fifth member of Team Canada (while, of course, retaining full rights to his French citizenship) – OMAR: une photographeur extraordinaire, whose rarely seen a sight he hasn’t digitized:
We would be spending two nights and three days together, exploring the various limestone hills aboard a ship, or a Vietnamese junk that looked like this (not our exact ship. Unfortunately, all my photos are taken from our own, not towards it):
Assembled on board our shuttle to the coast, we realized that our group consisted of only our Canadian quintet plus two other travelers.
After a series of unfortunate events, Jon and Sara, who both hail from the UK, found themselves stuck with us – a loud clique of Canadians who sounded a lot like our unloved national bird, the Canada goose – as we sat in a circle, honking opinions at each other.
Sadly, I don’t think either of them had a chance.
Jon, who had stayed up the night before watching his soccer team – Arsenal – beat the other guys (two things: I call it soccer, because it’s my North American point of view. But, I fully admit, what we call football: throwing an oblong object that you also run down the field in your hands, kicking it only 1 out of every 3/4 times, on average, seems ridiculous.
Football (soccer) really is the better name for it. I think we could rename American football. Passball, maybe? Carry ball? Ok. Those names are terrible. But, someone can do it: I think we North Americans got lazy calling it football.
2nd thing: I forgot the other soccer team they were playing, and in no way mean to diminish the sport for what could be perceived as a flippant comment. I’m sorry to the English fans who are on the other side of that game, and may still be nursing a wound.)
The point of all this is that Jon, dazed by his near all-nighter, was already in a compromised position, and it was unfair to expect Sara, on her own, to mount a defense against our increasingly tight Canadian troupe.
So, I would say they did their best, scratching their heads on occasion, wondering if we were in fact Canadian since we defied our quiet, polite stereotypes more than a few times: the details of which you can read on their travel blog:
In the meantime, the other bonus of Jon’s sleep deprivation, was that upon arrival to our junk, the character who was waving at us as we got closer, probably made perfect sense to him:
To me, I thought: “I think I’d feel a lot more comfortable now if I’d eaten drugs”
After our initial welcome, the confusion continued, as our cohesiveness as Team Canada soon frayed. It started with the pronunciation of our guide’s name – 4 out of 5 of us thought it was pronounced – HOO-UNG while the remaining vote thought it was – KOO-UNG.
To make things worse, we only compared notes after we were back on the mainland. So, for the duration of our trip, our guide either thought the majority of us were thicker than the karsts outside our bedroom windows or generally had our act together.
While I’d prefer to think that the majority of us were right, the dissenting vote was held by Matt, who repeatedly proved his genius on itinerary times, meal times, event times, and more or less every other scheduled time or piece of information critical to our travel.
I applauded him for his keen abilities, staring at him with awe-like reverence like he was a wizard re-arranging molecules out of thin air to suit the situation. Matt, however, saw it differently:
“I JUST PAY ATTENTION!”, he would say again and again, after 3/4 of us were proved wrong again for screwing up the time.
As I said, an amazing ability, and given his accuracy on most facts: our guide, after hearing the majority of us call him HOO-UNG, probably firmly believed we were morons.
Thanks very much.
While we floated through the limestone islands, there were tons of chances to capture them in various configurations:
One of which, was to see them up close in two-person kayaks. One day we set out – went further out – then kept paddling out with no real goal in site.
When we asked – HOO-UNG/KOO-UNG (I’ll just call him “our guide” from now on) where we were going, he pointed into the distance, in between what I think were two hills and said:
The remaining kayakers looked at each other, after blinking repeatedly to remove sweat from their eyes. Then I silently wondered if burning muscles eventually did go numb, the trek past the horizon would be a cinch.
Eventually we made it to a destination. A beach, no less! And everyone flopped onto the sand. Before I settled on a towel, however, our guide called me over to show me a video he’d taken on his iPhone.
Sadly, it wasn’t THAT kind of video. Had it been, I’m convinced it would have been more pleasant. No, our guide, wanted to show me a video of a pig slaughtered at a wedding he was just at.
Transcendent cinema verite.
After the video ended, I grimly thanked him, went back to my towel on the beach and listened to the soft sound of rolling waves mixed with the high pitched screams of a pig in my ear for the next hour before we left.
On our way back in kayaks, the Halong Bay tourist wrapper began to peel off – in fact it may have already been in the water – because, we soon noticed tons of floating bottles, wrappers, and other bits and pieces all throughout our route back.
At one crucial moment, after passing a group of fishing boats, Rose was convinced she spotted evidence that we were also paddling in a toilet bowl.
Much like crop circles, we soon began to appreciate that Halong Bay may be better appreciated from a distance.
Regardless, I’ve got a short memory – and the area where our ship anchored looked fine, so I jumped in for a swim directly after our sweatfest, knowing full well that Rose had sanitizer on stand-by, and would have no compunction to demand a scouring pad and bathroom cleaner if eau de Halong proved too seductive.
The point was underlined that night, as our boat had a jetty off the side at night, allowing people to fish for squid.
Omar, who tried it out the first night, fell into a trance for four hours, after pulling in one, he continued until he’d caught half a dozen.
Intrigued, I followed him out the second night to see how it was done. As we had our poles in the water, smallish squid would circle them, which you could see underwater, along with enormous jellyfish that would float by:
Then, with the lure in the water, suddenly a volcano of black ink erupted out of the water, splashing the awning above my head. After uncovering my eyes from the explosion, lo and behold, there was a squid on the line:
We dumped our catch into a basket that stayed in the water, which soon started to look like a chemical vat as more and more garbage, foam and gas streaks passed through. I realized, Rose might not need to call in any more cleaning products, as I might wake in the morning with three layers of skin missing.
By morning, the good news was that my skin was still there, but the weather wasn’t. It had held up for the most part of the journey, but on our last day we visited a nearby floating fishing village, and it poured rain.
Yes, yes, I know you’re sad for us.
However, it turned out that the rain gave it an element of increasing unreality, as we passed house after house on pontoons, each one accessible to the other only by a boat, of which our captain was in skillful command, pushing the oars forward past families – who I’m sure had seen plenty of us before, which made me wonder if some people were just feigning interest (“put on those smiles everyone. They’re coming”) or were genuinely keen on seeing us.
I was joking with Matt, that I wondered if the families, hearing we were on the way, got out of their jeans, hid their satellite dishes, logged off their phones, got into their fishing gear and waited for the show to begin.
All of this, got me more interested as I learned that, from the impact of Halong Bay’s UNESCO designation, this fishing village also became a tourist attraction. With funds made from tourism, some of the money was put back into the community to build a school for kids. Then, I wondered: if more kids are educated, they may see other opportunities off the fishing village and this way of life may disappear, in which case, the tourist run may literally be filled with actors, impersonating the current residents to show people how things “used to be”.
All things, I thought, until we turned a corner and saw rows and rows of black buoys:
Underneath each one (if they’re lucky):
As I understood, some funds from their sale also helped out the fishing village. With two added money streams coming in: tourism and pearls – the fishermen, then, might no longer have to fish as intensely for their livelihood, and instead, maybe just for their own sustenance. In which case, the fishing village would just turn into a place where people choose to live remotely…with the constant appearance of tourists with cameras.
Bizarre. But there it was.
We then hopped onto one of the pearl pontoons to see how oysters are seeded with an irritant, which, we understood the oysters work over and over until, only a small percentage, turn into necklaces and earrings after five months underwater.
And then…You know that moment when it’s raining hard, and you slip under an awning or umbrella, but you end up even more drenched because you didn’t go far enough under, and were on the edge where the water is running off like a waterfall?
Well, that was basically a long preamble to say: that’s exactly what the entire sky decided to do: turn up the downpour.
Sara was intent on buying a pearl, but the shuttle boat was leaving. So our guide said to Jon and Sara: “We’ll come back for you”, leaving them on the pier.
I didn’t get a chance to say anything to them as we left, but the farther we pulled back from the pier, and the less I was able to seem them through the sheets of rain, I’d wished I did, because I was thinking we may never see them again (this was them, in happier times, before the downfall):
We settled in for our return to the mainland. But how did our two UK friends turn out? Were they left behind, forced to seed oysters, and fish until they earned enough money to get back to the mainland? Or convinced the next tour boat, by showing extreme signs of panic and distress, to “for godsake, bring us back”?
Did they perish or prevail? Stay tuned until my next installment when…
They made it. Of course they did.
I hate cliffhangers.
After our Halong Bay tour, Team Canada disbanded as Omar headed to China, Jon and Sara to Hanoi, and we continued South to our next spot: a cave system that was opened to the public in 2011 and meant to be really cool followed by yet another UNESCO heritage site.
Which makes me wonder, really, after a while, will there be anything that’s not heritage?
Ex: “Hi everyone. Now gather around. Okay. This building was a post office. Yes. Hard to believe, I know. But there was a time when people sent paper mail”
En tout cas. Talk to you soon.