Ha Long Bay or “descending dragon bay” was the most anticipated leg of our trip to Vietnam. We had watched travel channel TV show hosts like Anthony Bourdain and Samantha Brown cruise around the 2,000 mystical limestone islet formations… while sipping gourmet cocktails and explaining why the area is so sacred to the local floating fishing village people. The zone has UNESCO World Heritage status and claims 20 million years worth of karst formation creating a tropical oceanic and sea shore bio-system. Ha Long Bay is home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species. Legend says, the early Vietnamese people fought against invaders to settle the area. To assist in their defense, a family of dragons were sent by the gods for protection. The family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade, which formed the islets and a great wall against the invaders. After successfully destroying enemy ships, the dragons decided to live in the bay.
Sounds great, right? Christie spent several hours figuring out where to stay, how to avoid scams getting there and how to hide from the tourism craze. She quickly realized that the area is enormous with China to the north, Gulf of Tonkin south and Cat Ba Island to the west. Many tourist pay hundreds of dollars per day to tour the bay by boat. We found this option quite claustrophobic and expensive. Others, navigate the long bus-bus-boat-bus rides to Cat Ba Island. This option affords a static hotel with easy access to kayaking, rock-climbing, caves, etc. So, Cat Ba Island it was! We underestimated the weather situation big-time. While tourists scramble to visit the Vietnam mainland before the hot season in May, Ha Long Bay has peak visitation in October and November…. with December through February overcast and cool with low visibility.
Regardless of the foggy weather and annoying scams, we managed to connect and become friends with several good “farang” along the way. We first met Paul and Jack during an interesting bus/bus/boat/bus ride from Hanoi to Cat Bat Island via Hai Phong (3rd most populated city in Vietnam). Brett had to visit the restroom on the first part of the bus ride….. not realizing the driver had zero stops in the plan. So, he somewhat quietly asked the bus driver to stop. He flat out said no. Brett then asked again 30 minutes later. At this point, he was ready to explode. The driver and his accomplice kept waiving him off saying no until he finally yelled at them. Paul and Jack were observing the madness with several other onlookers in amazement. The driver dropped Brett off in the middle of the highway to pee along a building entrance gate. Locals were staring and laughing at him as the bus started to inch away before Brett got back to the bus. This is dirty Vietnam.
When we finally arrived at Cat Ba Island, we hung out with several “farang” including Paul and Jack. The place was Slo Pony Adventures, rock-climbing experts and pioneers in Vietnam adventure travel activities. Our roomy, but musky Duc Tuan hotel was just a block away. Paul and Jack were about our parents age and had met years before during a trekking adventure to Torres del Paine in Patagonia, Chile. Ever since, they would take guys vacations all around the world. It turns out that Jack got a huge kick out of Brett’s bathroom adventure earlier in the day. He teased him about carrying a pee bag for future emergencies. Jack had recently moved to New Mexico where he planned to retire. Paul happily lives in Maine. We would have never known that Cat Ba Island was a local hot spot for brothel-goers if they hadn’t been approached twice by the same pimp during their stay. They were very disturbed by the situation. In their own words, “we were the old guys lucky to have understanding wives. Good luck with your plans…safe travels!”
After several Hanoi beers and crappy french fries, we called it a night. We now had to decide which Slo Pony tour to sign up for. Pricing varied quite dramatically according to how many people join the group. We decided to do the kayaking trip since the rock climbing was only for a few hours and involved two or four climbs. Kayaking cost only $25 each and we were out all day. Our group was eight total people with four doing rock climbing and four kayaking. Kevin was one of our favorite travel buddies and was also on our ride from Hanoi. He was traveling solo (from Los Angeles) for three weeks and told us a million valuable stories about his previous world adventures. Nick & Dirk were super interesting and fun people. They were on holiday from Sydney, Australia and moving to London to pursue their aspirations around fine cuisine. Activities are usually made great with great people. This was the highlight of our Vietnam experience.
Kayaking was a combo of strenuous, relaxing, thought-provoking and educational. Our guide Matthew (from San Francisco) was super enthusiastic and immediately chatted it up. He explained the spiritual significance of Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. Slo Pony was recently bought by Buffalo tours and Matthew explained his big plans to spread their high standards of safety across Southeast Asia. Both of our guides put so much care into their work…. so much that they temporarily made us forget about the despicable Vietnamese people outside of our boat tour.
Our favorite meal was at “Mr. Zoom’s” around the corner from Slo Pony. Mr. Zoom’s is really a street vendor stall with four or five tables. A creepy Vietnamese man kept trying to give us massages and giggled each time we said no thank you. Nick and Dirk were weirded out and other travelers said the same man tried similar stuff the night before. Claire (one of our tour guides) was playful with the guy and had him demonstrating how to stretch her back.
We decided to leave Cat Ba early mostly due to the poor weather. The overall poor experience in Vietnam probably contributed to the move as well. Sa Pa was originally planned for after Ha Long Bay and was very high on our list. It is northwest of Hanoi and offers lush green rice-paddied hills and local tribes. The train ride is about 10 hours from Hanoi and heard that it had become super touristy. We imagined Vietnamese people dressing up in traditional garb like villagers to swindle dong from unknowing tourists. So, we flew straight to Luang Prabang after returning to Hanoi from Cat Ba island.
Good bye Vietscam! We will never see you again!
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Cat Ba Island, Vietnam