Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam is one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World, alongside other greats like Komodo National Park of Indonesia, Table Mountain of South Africa, and the Great Majestic Gorge of Your Mum.
I did a one-night, two-day tour, spending the night on a ship called Cristina. Here’s a photo of her:
Cute, huh? She was cheap and rough around the edges so presumably Cristina wasn’t her real name. She was probably born Georgie or Trish or some other trashy name like that.
As the boat set sail from Ha Long City and out into Ha Long Bay itself we ate a traditional Vietnamese lunch while getting acquainted with the people we happened to be sharing a table with. I was with a young couple from Watford, an Australian guy and a weird-faced German called Simon. The only reason I include his name is because it’s the only one I could remember five minutes after being told it. For those interested, the supposed traditional Vietnamese lunch included a lot of rice and vegetables and salad, a little chicken and pork and squid, and some tasty spring rolls.
The first activity of the afternoon was a walk around a cave. It was dull. That’s really all there is to stay about it, but if you want to have a proper description, here it is: we followed our tour guide off the boat and up the steps to the cave entrance. He tried to give us some details about the place but there wasn’t enough space for us all to cram around him and he didn’t have a microphone and the German-speaking guide 10 feet away did so that was sehr schlecht (scheiße). Then we marched single-file along the path inside the cave, doing the same thing a dozen other tours were doing. There were a lot of stalactites and stalagmites (as you’d expect from a cave). Oh, and a big red glowing rock in the shape of a penis, which was definitely the highlight.
Next up was kayaking. We paired up, always awkward for a solo traveller as you wait for the couples and the groups of four to pair up and head out. Then you’re left to look around at the other partnerless oddballs, and you make eye contact and nod a mutual head with the same unusual-faced German from earlier.. “So…us?” More nodding. We got in the kayak, grabbed an oar or whatever they’re called, then set out over the water.
Ha Long Bay isn’t really a place for kayakers and rafters; there are no level 5 rapids or giant rocks to swerve around as part of a crack team of experienced thrill seekers, which is a shame. Not because I love adventure sports myself, but because half of the people that made up our tour were over 40. I’d love to have heard the sweet old Australian ladies scream as they crashed along foamy rapids. Instead, weird-faced German Simon and I had to settle for gently poking the tip of our kayak into theirs. It was a mild dose of fun, like cycling through a big puddle or playing Scrabble.
Our third and final stop of the day was an hour at an islet with a beach and a short hiking trail to a lookout point. It was also every other boat’s third and final stop of the day so it was busy. The hiking trail was a set of steps etched into the hill and was crammed full of people. Hovering on a narrow step to let people down got really irritating really fast. The views were worth it though, and we were there just in time for sunset (no accident, presumably).
That night there was supposed to be karaoke, but nobody wanted to do it. Meals on the boat were free but we had to pay for drinks, and as anyone who’s ever been on a cruise will know, drinks are always massively overpriced. That meant that nobody got drunk enough to step forward and embarrass themselves with a shit rendition of Gangnam Style.
I found myself at a table with the same Watford couple from lunch and an Australian couple in their mid-thirties who I deduced had come to Vietnam to drink as much as possible and enjoy some quality time away from their newborn child. I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly like any of them, at least not to start with. Aussie Ben seemed intent on bullying the poor Vietnamese woman rowing between boats on the Bay selling cheap(er) drinks and snacks by continually telling her he wanted to buy something and then changing his mind. He also yelled random annoying things at her. “You’re sinking! Do you need a bucket? You’re sinking! You should go home! LADY, YOU ARE SINKING!” To be fair, it did look like she was taking on a lot of water.
I spent the night in Cristina‘s lower parts. It was pleasantly warm and comfortable and only a little moist. I wished I could’ve spent another night there. I reluctantly left those lovely lady parts early the next morning to watch the sun rise. It was a wildly optimistic move. I was expecting to stand at the prow of the ship looking out at a vista of Ha Long limestone isles watching the sun rise from the horizon with the promise of a glorious new day full of hope and wonder and shiny things. Instead, I stood at the prow of the ship looking out at a vista of Ha Long limestone isles trying to identify as many different shades of white as I could. I noticed Cloud Nine, Ghost Whisper, Snowy Summit, Cracked Alabaster and Morning Lactate before I got bored. Oh, and of course Disappointing Overcast Dawn.
About two-thirds of the people on the boat were doing another day’s touring, with a night in either a hotel or a private bungalow on one of the islands before heading back to mainland. I didn’t have time for that kind of luxury but I heard from people later on the trip who’d done it that it was freaking awesome. They got to wake up in a bungalow on their own private island and go for a dawn swim with no one else around, though I suspect they were exaggerating just a tad — those Vietnamese woman rowers were surely there, moored up, yelling “Pringles! One dollar! Vodka! Nine dollar!” and ruining the mood.
But for me, I had to get back to land and get on with the adventure. And so, to my cute but scabby one-night experience I say, “Bye Cristina!”