Having spent three nights amid the chaos of Hanoi, we were looking forward to some relaxation on the peaceful waters of Halong Bay. After a quick breakfast with Ben, our travel companion and friend from college, we met our guide Cuong who would be escorting us on our roughly three and a half hour journey east to the coast. While we had spent the past three days dodging Hanoi’s notorious traffic on foot, we gained a new appreciation of the “anything goes” approach of Vietnam’s roadways as our van inched its way out of the city. Crossing the Red River — we left Hanoi behind, yet even as our view changed to rice paddies, we could not escape the constant honking from all manner of vehicles.
Having survived the drive, we found Halong Bay Harbor to be as congested and frenzied as the streets. Snaking our way through the throngs of tourists, we tried to keep pace with the porter who had whisked away our luggage. We boarded our launch at the base of a steep cement staircase. Pushing off from the sea wall, we motored among the multitude of boats guessing which junk would be our home for the next three days. Arriving at the Bai Tho 38 we dropped our bags in our respective cabins and made our way to the dinning room to meet out senior guide, coincidently also named Cuong, and the rest of the staff. Although the boat was designed to sleep eight guests, we discovered that we would be the only three on this trip accompanied by the nine staff.
As the crew pulled up anchor, we settled in for our first of what would become six strikingly similar, primarily seafood meals. Whether lunch or dinner, course after course emerged from a small open–air galley tucked beneath an overhang in the stern of the boat. Our waitress smiled proudly as she lay before us heaping piles of steamed clams and whole head prawns which she helped us to remove from their shells. We squeezed kaffir limes into a mixture of salt and chili peppers to create a quick dipping sauce for the simply prepared shellfish. One lunch we were treated to whole steamed crabs whose orange and pink shells reappeared at dinner as the serving dishes for crab cakes. A loud crackling sound signaled the arrival of the main course of one of our dinners as a whole, wok-fried white fish was presented sizzling under a pile of chilies and greens. Every meal included a plain starch, various vegetables, and, for reasons we were yet to discover, some form of squid. While the food may have varied in palatability, the dining room was never lacking in spectacular scenery, which was one reason for our trip.
Halong Bay is made up of approximately 2000 limestone islands covered in thick vegetation. Many of these islands have internal lagoons that are only accessible through narrow caves that have been formed as the limestone has eroded. While the main purpose of our trip was to explore these caves by kayak, we also had plenty of time to relax and soak in the sights of Halong Bay from our junk. The natural beauty of the islands was interspersed with small, floating fishing villages. Dogs and children leapt between loosely bound rafts supporting small one-room huts. Nets hung to dry along the rigging of the fishing boats waiting to make their nightly journey to the open ocean of the Gulf of Tonkin. Older women in the traditional Vietnamese conical hats would row to our boat selling a wide array of items ranging from eggs to Pringles. While tempted by a taste from home, we motored past, leaving them to wait for the next tourist boat. We sunbathed on deck looking forward to the 2-story plunge off the roof of the boat into the refreshing green water of the bay when we reached our next mooring. The salty water was a welcome refuge from the hot breezes and the unrelenting sun beating down from the cloudless, bright blue sky.
After washing off the salt and suntan lotion, we reconvened nightly on deck for Halida beers and Fun Snack Mix, a salty combination of pretzels, puffed rice, and wasabi peas. After dinner, we relived old college stories and listened to the raucous and multi-lingual karaoke from the larger neighboring boats that appeared to house as many as 30 guests. Later, we joined the crew at the stern for their nightly squid fishing. Plankton are drawn to a spotlight that is shown into the water and are soon followed by hungry squid. Lowering the line into the water, the fishing stick was jerked upwards with the hope of spearing an unlucky squid on the hook. Despite our enthusiastic efforts, we soon realized we were better suited to drinking Halidas than trying to catch tomorrow’s lunch. Thankfully the crew faired better, with one staff member catching three squid in quick succession.