Day 56: Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
We’re up at seven to pack and shovel eggs in our faces. A guide from the hostel walks us to a bus around the corner, and the bumpy ride rocks us to sleep–a couple lolling heads on a windowpane. The bus stops for a half hour break at a building constructed for the purpose of swindling tourists by way of overpriced coffee and expensive embroidered cloth sewn by blind people. Walking out empty handed, we play charades in the parking lot. Charades is a creative tactic to expand Flo’s English vocabulary. I mime out “cheapskate”.
Back on the bus, we discuss what to do once we arrive in Halong Bay. Our time is limited; we need to be back in Hanoi tomorrow evening to check on the the status of Flo’s passport. Cat Ba Island is supposedly a gorgeous isle less frequented by the hordes of visitors the UNESCO World Heritage Site receives daily. Camping on the beach! Sunset views! Kayaking! During a quick chat with the bus driver, it turns out that the commuting logistics would leave no time for sleep or sightseeing. No beach bonfires for us.
The bus drops us at the tourist centre on the wharf in Ha Long City, and there appears to be no way around it–we must follow the crowd. Signage directs us from the ticket counter to outside where a fleet of ghost-white wooden boats bob in the harbour. We’re ushered aboard to the lower deck, which has seating like a restaurant. Starving, we order fried noodles and scarf it as the vessel sails out to the islands of the infamous Ha Long Bay, the city skyline retreating into a void of grey clouds.
Every turn of the neck exposes a wider view of endless karst mountains rising from the sea, some with ninety degree cliffs, some standing on bedrock eaten away by the perpetual waves clawing at the granite.
Two thousand limestone islands smatter the horizon, tiny faded dots growing in size and shrinking in distance, layered between the aquatic moving mass of the South China Sea. Islets seem to float freely on the surface of the water, making the legend of Ha Long Bay seem not so far-fetched–in ye olde times, when Vietnam was fighting an aggressor, dragons were sent by an Emperor to help protect the country. The dragon and her children spat emeralds and jade at the water-borne attackers, and over time these jewels morphed into beautiful islands spread across the bay. Ha Long, or “descending dragon” Bay is in reference to the gem-drooling beasts who rushed in to the rescue.
Surrealism paints the landscape, each brushstroke a fleck of overcast sky, a steely ocean wave, a majestic limestone cliff. Dragons are the only logical answer for all the questions I have about this fantasy land.
Pulling into the harbour of a large island, it’s obvious the dozens of boats we dock amongst are from the same gene pool. The guide yells something about meeting back here in an hour.
Following the herd up a stone staircase along the mountainside into the mouth of a cave, multicoloured lights meet our eyes, cheapening the rocky cathedral. Our feet drag along the roped pathway and step on the heels of those in front of us. The lineup is an unbroken, thousand-headed snake that slithers through one opening and out another. The Sightseeing Serpent.
We are spoiled. Our cave-hunting history has ruined the effect of this one. It took a long time to get here, but minimal effort. No jungle trekking, no swimming through black underground rivers, no boulder-scrambling. Or is its charm spoiled by the masses of tourists and tacky disco lights? A sprinkler is set up in a rocky hollow, spouting water into a coin-filled pool. The cave-magic is tainted. We come through the other side and head down to wait on the wharf for the rest of the crew.
The boat sails through the enchanted archipelago maze, the most impressive islets being the smallest. Baby forests cover the surface of a rock so eroded at the base it seems that multiple natural law limbs are being bent and broken in order for it to support the boulder above it.
Our boat stops at a group of islands near a fishing village surrounded by bamboo boats and kayaks.
For a fee, you can rent a kayak to paddle around the bay for forty minutes. But backpacker budgets nudge our pockets, so we skip it to play charades on the dock and kick a ball around on the boat. An hour and a half later we head off towards the city. We’re the last ones on the top deck, hoods up, gazing silently at the rocky dots patterned between shady sky and steely sea. The rain stays suspended in its fluffy home. My heart slows. It’s quiet. Dragons. Just, dragons.
Night is sneaking up on daylight when our boat pulls into shore. We follow the dock to the street and turn right onto a sidewalk wide enough to drive on. A metal wall plastered with bright advertisements blocks the ocean from view. We walk along a two kilometre line-up of hotels–mile high monstrosities with neon signs and big revolving doors. We go in one and ask for a cheap room. The receptionist laughs. We continue trudging along the massive sidewalk until a real town emerges, with plastic-chair restaurants and dirt smeared hotels with normal doors. This is us. There’s a room with hot water and a view for ten bucks, no haggling required.
After showering, we melt into the soft mattress to watch made-for-tv movies. It’s a strong will that brings us to move our lazy bodies down the stairs and out into the empty streets to hunt for food. Nothing is promising aside from pho. We consider stocking up on chips and chocolate and crawling back into bed to continue the mediocre movie marathon. Instead, we slurp up noodle soup on the street and tell uncensored relationship stories, then head to our room to watch Jean Claude Vandamme in his worst performance of all time before falling asleep on Asia’s finest mattress cloud.