A day on Halong Bay

9/14/09

I left off in my last post at the part where I had just arrived in Halong City to start my two night Halong Bay boat trip.  I got out of our cramped van and then I waited with several other people (mostly couples, but some groups of 4-5) in a waiting room.  The building was right on the water so I knew it wouldn’t be too much longer before we got on the boat, and I was happy because the waiting area was like a restaurant converted into a Halong Bay Boat Trip waiting lobby with air conditioning!  I noticed that the two Vietnamese girls from Montreal, who were travelling with their aunts and rode down from Hanoi in the same van as me, were asked to board a little pontoon boat.  Just like when we got out of the van and nobody bothered to tell me to come along, I took matters into my own hands and asked a guy who looked official and he told me that I was supposed to join that group because I had been put on the same boat as them.  We took the pontoon boat, which they called a “tender”, out to our main boat which was floating maybe 500-700 yards off the shore.  Our boat had “Indochina Sails” painted on the side and looked marvelous.

These boats are billed as “traditional Chinese junks”.  The Chinese used to sail this style of boats along the Chinese coastline.  They’re all wood with two to four decks and also 2-4 sails on the top.  Obviously traditional junks would have been sail boats, but these replicas you take out into the Tonkin Sea (I think it’s part of the South China Sea) are outfitted with inboard diesel engines.  They have all the sails unfurled, but they’re just for the authentic look and don’t really have anything to do with powering or navigating the boat.  Still, they look really cool.

We boarded the boat after the tender pulled up next to this little doorway, and everyone went to a dining room on the middle floor.  Once everyone was there, which took two trips with the tender to bring all 18-20 guests out, we were told the itinerary and then given our room assignments.  I was assigned to room #102, which was the furthest forward room on the bottom deck’s starboard side.  I went downstairs to check out my room.  My big pack had already been put in my room by the staff and when I opened the door I was in love…  It was awesome!  It was pretty tight, but it’s a boat.  The room was completely wood paneled with two single beds, air conditioning, two full sized windows (not port holes) looking out on to the water, and a gorgeous tiled bathroom with a huge shower and actual walls around it instead of being a toilet/shower combo room like I’d gotten used to.

Fifteen minutes after going to my room everyone went back upstairs to the dining room and we were served a seafood lunch.  I felt a little awkward because everyone else on the boat was with someone and I was the only person travelling solo.  I picked a little two seat table right by a window so I could look out.  The boat was as nice as they’d billed it to be – a waiter rushed over and unfolded my linen napkin and put it in my lap for me, then he took my drink order.  I’m not a big fine of fine dining because I hate getting dressed up, but most of the people on the boat were in shorts or at least casual wear like me.  I enjoy seafood, but in America I’m more used to the deep fried or grilled variety where you can eat it easily with your fork.  I’ve had Alaskan snow crab legs dozens of time and I usually keep from ordering them because it’s more work then pleasure to break those bastards open for an hour to get 5 oz of meat, and I’ve had mussels and clams a couple of times but it isn’t something I would normally order.  In Asia, especially in coastal areas, their seafood is presented in a very different manner.  If you order a grilled, fried or baked fish it’ll most likely be served as a whole fish – eyes, tail, everything.  Shrimp usually still have the heads on ’em, and when you get crab you get the body part and are expected to maul it to get the meat and goo inside the body instead of just eating the leg meat like you’d most likely have in America.

I didn’t know the proper way to eat most of what I was served, but it all looked really nice and it tasted great.  I don’t remember everything because they’d bring out one little plate at a time and we had maybe 8 or 9 courses.  The first thing was peel and eat shrimp.  I’ve eaten them before, but usually they aren’t this enormous with beaks and antenna hanging 4-5″ off their heads.  The waiter nearest to me could see I was just staring at ’em so he came over and motioned that I was supposed to squeeze this lime into a little bowl with salt and some kind of jalepeno, then peel the shrimp and dip them in the mixture.  I felt better when he went over to the table closest to me and explained it to these two middle aged Australian guys.  I was served a whole crab and when I slowly got the nutcracker and started breaking open the big claw, the waiter came back and asked “you want me help?”  Sweet!  I shook my head, he put on some plastic gloves and went to work.  He pulled out all of the meat from all the legs and claws, then cracked open the body and pulled the meat out of there too.  After that came some clams or mussels and I had no problem pulling those out with my fork, then it got really exotic – french fries, steamed rice and some boiled weeds.  After the meal one of the Montreal-Vietnamese girls joked with me about how exotic and romantic the whole thing was until they plopped down the plate of crinkle fries.

While I was eating I introduced myself to the Australian guys sitting at the table in front of me.  Barney had long hair but was balding, and he’s been a nurse for 25 years.  Larry is tall with a beard and works “in the middle of nowhere” (450km from the closest town) doing analysis on underground water resources at an aquafer that supplies an iron ore mine.  Larry used to be a nurse at the same hospital as Barney that’s how he met.  They’re good buddies and only see each other about once a year now that Larry moved away to the middle of nowhere, so they decided to do Vietnam – actually just Hanoi and Halong Bay.  Barney is allergic to most seafood, so it was funny to watch them try to explain that over and over to the waiters each time a new dish was served.  After a while the waiters understood and they brought him some deep fried tofu!  Larry said, “Barn, if you get tired of tofu and whiskey maybe we’ll have to cook up one of the staff.”  Those guys cracked me up…

During our lunch we cruised out into the bay and I was taking photos out the window since I didn’t have anyone to talk to.

After the meal we boarded the tender again and went to see the “Surprise Cave”.  We climbed up something like 137 stairs and everyone was dripping with sweat by the top because it was very humid (not even close to Beijing or Saigon, but still nasty).  The tour guide told everyone to stay close but within 5 minutes everyone was on their own.  I walked through by myself because I lost track of the tour guide and Australians somewhere in the crowd on the way up the steps.  The cave was huge, not Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave huge, but surprisingly big compared to what I expected it to be.  The natural and artifical lighting made it look really neat, but it was hot (yeah, I know, caves should be cool but this one wasn’t).  I was sweating a lot just like everyone else, but I felt bad for the few groups with older people – the old Europeans that were probably in the mid-late 70’s looked like they were going to die in that cave.  Our guide had wanted us to stick together so nobody get left there, so I moved quickly because I didn’t want to be the last one and either left in the cave or holding up the group.  After just over an hour since arriving at the “Surprise Cave”, I climbed back out and was actually the 3rd person back on the pontoon.  Within 20 minutes everyone else made it back and we went back to our main boat again.

I was worn out from the cave hike so I opted to skip the next trip to Titov beach.  I stayed on the main boat along with the Vietnamese aunts and Larry the Australian.  While everyone else went to Titov Beach to climb a 450 step mountain or to swim, I took a shower, changed clothes and had a few beers on the sun deck.  Halong Bay is famous for tons of limestone karsts sticking out of the water, and it’s a UNESCO site.  I first saw it on The Amazing Race a few seasons ago and thought it was so beautiful that I wanted to go.  Halong Bay was the main reason I wanted to go to Vietnam.  I took pictures of the limestone karsts from the boat, and it was so peaceful and beautiful that it reminded me of the overwhelming feeling of awe I had at the Great Wall in MuTianYu just a little more than a week earlier.  For a while I was the only person on the top deck and it was so quiet, the sky was clear and the view was absolutely spectacular.  Similar to when I was at the wall I kept thinking, this is so beautiful and I’m so lucky to being experiencing it, but it would be twice as amazing if someone were here to share it with me.  I wish Jean had been there…

I watched the sunset from the top sun deck and about 2 hours after they left for the beach everyone everyone returned.  After another 45 minutes we all met in the dining room and had dinner.  Larry and Barney asked me to join their table but I didn’t want the seating to be awkward because they were at a two person table and all the four person tables were taken, so I told them I’d prefer to just buy them a drink after dinner and they were very agreeable to that plan.

Dinner was good, more seafood but easier to eat this time: 1 big shrimp, baked fish that was super tender, a stuffed crab shell that didn’t require cracking, some strange fruit that was ok, etc.  After that I talked to the Vietnamese-Canadien girl for about an hour.  We talked about the general stuff (what do you do, etc) and then about our brief experiences in Vietnam, and then she interrupted me and said she wanted to hear about “romantic things” instead of Vietnam, so I told her about meeting Jean and all of our travels together and about our wedding.

Eventually I said goodbye to the Vietnadien and then I joined the Australians on the top deck where we drank beer and whiskey until about 1:30am.  I was surprised that they’d heard of Maker’s Mark and that Barney was a big fan of Jim Beam.  We actually had a few Beam and Cokes.  We talked for a long time and I laughed my ass off.  Those guys are crazy!  Seriously.  At one point we were talking about gun control and they said you can only own rifles and pistols in Australia if you’re a farmer or have hunting licenses.  When Larry told me about his pistols I said “What in the hell do you hunt with a pistol?  Turtles?”  I say this because anything that can move faster than a turtle would be, at least in my experience and within my abilities, almost impossible to hit unless you were less than 5 feet from it.  Larry answered, “No mate, camels.”  “What?!  You hunt camels with a pistol in the Australian Outback?!”  “Yea, mate!  I shoot ’em from me car.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was laughing so hard mostly because it sounded like bullshit and thought they were just messing with me.  They went on and on about hunting ferrel dogs, cats and donkeys and said something about how they went camel and donkey hunting together last year and that they ran out of room for the legs in the back of Larry’s Land Cruiser so they had to tie them the the brush guard in the front.  We talked about brush guards for a while and them getting a Baja VW Bug stuck in a river once, then about my trips into Baja, and finally we came full circle and started talking about camel hunting and gun control again.  The second time around I think they knew I was skeptical about their story, so Barney left for a few minutes and came back with his camera.  I’m not kidding when I say this, but I have seen a picture of a 42 year old Australian nurse with long hair, standing in front of a Land Cruiser with two pistols crossed in front of his chest and two camel legs tied to the front bumper and sticking up in the air…  I almost pissed in my pants I was laughing so hard.  I couldn’t have had more fun that day.  Halong Bay, the beautiful landscape, great food and drinks with two Australian crazy men.  What an awesome world!

Once we called it a night I took a shower and hit the sack but it was hard to fall asleep at first because the water was slapping the boat under my room.

Here are the pictures from my first day on Halong Bay.  Also, in case you too are skeptical, Larry ended up giving me his business card and said to call him if I’m ever in Australia and he’ll take me camel hunting, AND he says he’ll email me the picture of Barney with the pistols in front of the legs.  I plan on posting that baby as soon as I get it.







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