[I suddenly realized that I really should try and finish one trip’s worth of travel blog entries (Vietnam) before going on the next (Kuching for my second RWMF, next Thursday). Of course, I still only have 5 days blogged out of last August’s 17 day trip to London, Norway and Germany but Vietnam makes more sense as far as the art of the possible is concerned.]
For this day and the next, we’re on a tour to Ha Long Bay with Handspan Tours. After an early start, I drowse happily in the minibus, waking up intermittently to enjoy the bucolic countryside views and to steal Alec’s book every time he falls asleep (because for some reason I didn’t feel like reading my own). Of course, I soon fall asleep clutching it, wake up to find he’s stolen it back, and the whole cycle begins again.
The jetty is packed with pleasure boats parked at least five deep, and according to no discernable order or plan. We board one that will take us out to our eventual boat, the Dragon’s Pearl. Manoeuvring the boat out of the “berth” through all the others involves the sort of comedy hijinks that you thought only existed in the days of vaudeville or The Simple Life: Interns. The boats crash into each other gently but frequently, with crew members often using pure muscle power to push the boats out of a clinch. Tiny boats dart fearlessly in and out of the chaos, hoping to score a quick fruit sale to idle passengers. Our boat is in great shape, which is a relief after all the bangers we passed on the way, including more than a few names that I recognise from the other tour companies’ websites I surfed while trying to decide which tour to book.
We check into our clean wood-panelled room and report for lunch, which introduces us to the only disappointment of the tour: the food. It’s the sort of utterly bland, only nominally Oriental stuff that I haven’t tasted since we stopped for takeaway while driving through the English Midlands several years ago and I ordered Singapore Fried Rice for kicks. I assume it’s intended to cater to Western tastebuds, but it does both the country and Western tastebuds a huge disservice by doing so. I distract myself from the growing suspicion that I’m eating corrugated cardboard by running out frequently onto the deck to take pictures.
After lunch we make our first stop, at the Sung Sot “Amazing Cave”. Which, to be fair, is pretty amazing.
It’s quite dramatically lighted and has smoothened paths for people to walk along, but even if this detracts from the sort of raw “naturalness” that some people may want from a cave, it really still is spectacular.
Alec remarked that this picture makes him think of a mushroom cloud. Note the rather small people on the right for an idea of the scale of the place.
On the way out of the bay, we pass our first floating village. The next stop is Titop Island, which I think is the highest island in Ha Long Bay. You can climb to the top for a view of the karsts, which is okay but still inferior to drifting among them. The climb is straightforward but sweaty. Sodden with sweat halfway up, I suddenly remember doing a similar climb to my castle hostel in Bacharach, Germany – except with a backpack, and in the rain, and alone – and from then on it’s easy peasy.
There’s a swimming stop after this, but my eczema’s bad as it always is during any holiday where I spend a protracted amount of time in outdoor heat, and I’m wary of immersing raw skin where I don’t know how clean the water is. Later on, dinner features more mediocre food. Although our dinner companions are perfectly amiable, Alec’s beginning to feel the effects of yesterday’s street food on his digestive system and is a little under the weather, which affects my mood. (I become a ridiculous miserable wreck when anyone I love is ill and uncomfortable.)
After dinner, we sit on the empty top deck of the boat, which is anchored in the middle of Ha Long Bay for the night. As far as the eye can see, there are only the shadowy karsts, other boats in the distance with their lights reflected in the still water, and a clear sky full of stars.