We hit the road early, crammed into a minibus in the drizzle and smog with a group of typical twenty-something travellers. The Hanoi hinterlands are a mucky blend of industralization and manual agriculture. Rice paddies sprawl in the shadow of smokestacks, cattle graze next to the walls of manufacturing compounds. We alternated between gawking and dozing as we wound our way through towns and countryside bound for Halong City.
The harbour was a teeming mess of helpless looking tourists, high-strung guides, hawkers, and a handful of disinterested officials in varying degrees of uniform. Rows of junks were moored along the harbour wall, with more jostling to take their place. A steady stream of passengers gingerly stepped down to the waiting boats as crewmen smoked cigarettes and topped up from a raft laden with plastic fuel barrels. The water was a foul colour and littered with every imaginable human cast-off.
More boats continued to emerge from the mist. They all looked more or less the same: two stories, with cabins below and dining room above, a handful of deck chairs and potted plants on the roof, a weathered wooden dragon's head on the prow. Our guide later told us that the government has decreed that all new junks be painted white, but ours, like many others, was an ambiguous brown. "Halong Wonder," read the sign above the bow and guessing by its general age it probably was a bit of a wonder at one time. The boat had not aged well, although I suppose a floating hotel is really a perfect storm of two things that depreciate rapidly.
We were ushered aboard and seated for lunch as we set sail for our first stop. The "wooden stakes caves," are breathtaking, but the massive volume of visitors takes away from the experience. It was a bit like being on a very busy subway train, as we climbed the slope of the island to get the cave mouth. The inside was just as crowded, although the cavernous ceiling was lined with so many grand formations that there was no risk of them being obscured from view. I was reminded of the caves beneath Gibraltar, although here there was no admonition against touching the smooth crenelations and silky calcium deposits.
A tacky water fountain complemented the multi-coloured lights that illuminated this marvelous space, as the red and green dots of laser-pointers danced on the walls to point out formations of note. The air was oppressive, and the sound of a dozen tongues was amplified into a dull roar. We reached a point where the roof of the cave opened to the outside, light filtering down between overgrowth. Thinking of The Cave, in a moment of supreme affectation, I wanted to try and capture a shot of this, but the press of the mob was too great and risked being seperated from the group. It was a relief to see the sky again, even if it was foggy and overcast.
We returned to the boat and were shown to our cabin. Next stop kayaking. As we cruised through the islands, each a an obelisk of limestone and greenery rising abruptly from the water, my previous misgivings about taking this trip in bad weather evaporated. The fog added a certain magic to the islands, as only a handful were ever visible at once. It was easy to forget that dozens of boats were following exactly the same course as us, that there were probably several hundred tourists sitting on identical deck chairs within a mere square kilometre of us.
The boat moored alongside several others at a floating village that we suspected had probably been maintained partly for tourist purposes. Our guide was excited to tell us that the children attended a floating school. Judging from the junk traffic, I'd say we probably accounted for a solid half of their economy. Again we were ushered off the boat, down to a waiting pile of two-seater sea kayaks and dodgy life jackets. The alloted 30 minutes for kayaking weren't much, but my intrepid partner and I managed to do the rather limited circuit quite quickly, passing through tidal tunnels into a cove within an island and weaving between the houseboats of the floating village. A boy in a row boat nearly ran us down as I powered us across his path. Our presence seemed a bit of a necessary irritation for these people, given that the massive environmental impact of tourism in Halong Bay has begun to take its toll on local fauna. Later in the evening I would see a boat off our port side emptying a torrent of filth into the sea. I suppose it is only custom that prohibits passengers from shitting right off the deck.
After dinner, our guide seemed really keen to get us to sing karaoke, but nobody seemed to be interested and/or drinking. One of the Canadians, a kid from Winnepeg, had brought a guitar and began to play songs for the table. He had done a stint playing music in nursing homes, so his repertoire was rather upbeat and harmless. The crew watched us with bemusement as we enjoyed the wholesome sing-along. It was a bit of a dead scene, an awkward group, overly bright lights.
I offered to buy the crew a round of drinks. It took a bit of sign language to communicate this, as our guide's English didn't extend much past her Halong Bay script and it apparently doesn't happen all that often. The whole atmosphere changed. People left their chairs and began to mingle a little. I pulled up a seat at the crew table and had exchanged the kind of stilted small talk one can across a language barrier. I tried a hit from the traditional Vietnamese water pipe that I had seen groups of older men huddled around on the streets of Hanoi. The tobacco they use is called something along the lines of "the secret of Laos," because it comes from Laos and the government isn't apparently all that keen on it. We ended up in our room with the Winnepegers, playing drinking games with our smuggled Vietnamese vodka, and watching the lights of neighbouring boats bobbing gently in the night.
The fog was still there in the morning, blanketing the cove where we had dropped anchor. Eagles hovered low over the water in search of fish. We left the cove after breakfast, returning to the port. We passed a steady procession of boats bound for the places we'd just been, a boatload of Japanese tourists waved to us furiously as I stood on the deck trying to keep the fried eggs down. For the crew it was just another trip, like a bus route, and they were eager to have us out from under foot to prepare the boat for the next batch.
Again, apologies for the numerous typos, I'm writing this in notepad in a bar.