This waking up at 6:30 thing is starting to rustle my jimmies. The buffet breakfast on the eighth floor is really good though, a veritable cornucopia of breakfast meats, noodles and eggs are out and the view of Hanoi is pretty decent too.
Quite a few people up and going, not just Vietnamese businessmen sitting around us but the streets are bustling at a level bizarre for a Sunday morning; I suppose when your city effectively shuts down at midnight there isn’t much holding you back from waking up early and getting down to business.
We’re showered and fed and in front of our hotel at 7:15 as instructed but we wait a while for our ride. Eventually a minivan picks us up and runs us over to a little travel agency, we toss all our gear down on the floor and chill as a few more people show up. It seems to cater not just to us white folks but also to Japanese, a lot of the signs and brochures around are in Japanese and on a whiteboard there’s a handdrawn map of the area with a cute little anime girl putting her fist in the air and filling a speech balloon with kanji and hiragana.
A little after eight a bus rolls up, we throw our shit in the back and climb in. The boys grab two seats near the middle while I grab a coolguy seat in the far back. A half dozen of us are aboard but it’s absurdly optimistic to imagine we’ll have this much space the whole way and the bus spends the next hour+ creeping through the Old Quarter picking up groups from hostels and hotels until we’re bursting at the seams. I’ve got a couple of girls from Virginia in front of me, one clocks her head on the overhead storage on her way in, looks at me super-embarrassed but smiles so I just kind of grin and shrug. A three-generation German family smashes in the back with me and the seats ahead on the other side, the grandfather is next to me and he almost immediately falls asleep and stays that way for most of the trip. With every bump we hit for the next several hours his left elbow introduces itself to my ribs and/or guts. Oh, and there’s a crying baby. Sweet.
Two tour group employees are on board, the driver Mr. Tang and our English-speaking guide, Bay. “My name is easy to remember, I’m Bay and we’re going to the bay.” Bay cracks a few jokes as he tells us about Hanoi and our itinerary for the day, “Mr. Tang is very skillful, he never falls asleep while driving.” It’s a bit confusing because different groups on the bus have different itineraries – some are going for a day trip, we’re going for two days and others are going for three – but he goes through a list of things that at least some of us will be doing out in HLB, including caves, a beach swim, kayaking, a hike to the top of an island, the “Fighting Chicken” islands, some squid fishing, an oyster farm, all sorts of stuff that sounds cool. Our group politely applauds him and we buckle in for a rough ride.
The roads are pretty shit, full of construction, crazy traffic and where intact, bumpy as hell. Drisdelle and Murphy aren’t getting it too bad in the middle but at the back I’m getting tossed around and then German elbow-dropped on every bump. They don’t have it great either though, there’s a crying baby about six inches behind Murphy’s head and there’s a French couple ahead of them who’s decided they’ll kill the drive by having the girl read the entire Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam to the guy out loud. Verbatim. Not highlights. Reading the whole thing. At one point we pass next to a huge construction zone where a massive artsy metal gateway thing was being built; Bay opined that it was a waste of money. “Why build a something like that when the roads are this bad?”
At the halfway mark Bay tells us a bit about the region we’re passing through, a small province known for the best rubies in Asia – some of them are called “star rubies” because when you hold them up to the light a star shape will form from the light passing through. We’re turning off for a twenty-to-thirty minute break into a truckstop-type place but with a workshop for disabled people, carving statues, embroidery, things like that. Bay tells us the workers here are mostly orphans who were born with birth defects due to their parents being dosed with Agent Orange, the parents couldn’t care for them so the government has created a large number of these kinds of places around the country to give them a livelihood. Apparently over a million people in the country have been affected by it to some extent.
While I’m getting money out Murphy and Drisdelle sniff out a bar and get coffees with Bailey’s in them. $7 USD a piece, pretty much American prices. Drisdelle grabs a bottle of vodka for the boat. We all get some road snacks, they’re equally overpriced. The statues seem pretty reasonable though, huge things about the same size as us for what I think worked out to less than a thousand bucks and they’ll ship them pretty much anywhere in the world for $100-$200. We discuss getting some custom statues done involving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their nemesis Shredder but not sure what we’ve got in mind would get through customs.
Back on the bus Bay tells us some more about the region and some of the other highlights of northern Vietnam (incidentally places this travel agency organizes trips to), especially Sapa to the north of Hanoi which we’d heard of from other people. There are fifty-four ethnic groups in Vietnam, 86% are Viet but areas like Sapa are inhabited by “hill people” who have a distinct culture and speak their own language, but he mentions that they speak great English up there because they rely on tourism to make a living. He also tells us about a place called Ling Bing (?) to the south which is like Ha Long Bay but on land, instead of ~2000 islands there are about that many hills protruding out of the otherwise flat land, with lots of tunnels and caves to explore.
He then tells us a bit about the names behind the river in Hanoi, Ta Long, and the name of Ha Long Bay. Ta Long means “Flying Up Dragon” while Ha Long means “Descending Dragon”. HLB got its name from a legendary tale that took place during an era when Vietnam was a peaceful place without any enemies and nothing much in the way of defense until an army of invaders arrived from the sea. The emperor prayed to the heavens and a dragon came down. The dragon opened its mouth, birds came out and crashed into the water, each bird forming an island. The islands smashed the boats of the invaders and the people of Vietnam celebrated with ice-cold bottles of Saigon Green.
Bay asked us if we knew how many islands were in Ha Long Bay. “2000?” “Not exactly. There are 1,969 island in the bay. It is easy to remember because it’s the same year that Ho Chi Minh died.”
We reach the harbour and we can already see some of the iconic islands in the bay. The Virginians in front of us jump out near a hotel they’re apparently staying in, everyone else jumps out at a little warehouse-looking place facing the water and we’re the only three left on the bus. They run us a bit further down the shore, hustle us out with our gear and onto a little skiff.
Douchin’ it hard.
Our captain is using one hand to talk on his phone, one to smoke and is steering with his feet. Nice work. We run about twenty minutes out into the harbour to meet up with our main boat, I didn’t see the brochure but Murphy says none of the hundreds of boats out there look anything like what T-Money showed us. We pull up to a rough-looking “dragon boat” (quotations are finger quotes) and we board.
A pushy guy who’s apparently our tour guide on the boat tells us to put our bags down in the dining room, in ten minutes we can “check in” and get into our room. The way he’s talking to us it feels like a junior high school trip and he’s the teacher, very direct and strict, we’re doing this for x minutes then we’re doing this for y minutes and you need to be here and yadda yadda, especially when we get into the many, many rules involved with boating in Ha Long Bay. Apparently there’s a “tariff” on all drinks coming into the bay, if we bring a bottle of liquor on board we have to pay a $20 surcharge to the boat. $1 for a beer or a soft drink. I’m pretty sure this tariff talk is just bullshit and they’re just trying to gouge us with inflated drink prices, but we’d better keep Drisdelle’s sneaky vodka on the DL.
At least the scenery was nice. It started to drizzle a bit and the rainbows were coming out left and right. This one almost looked like we could reach out and grab it.
We get our room and once again Murphy insists it looks nothing like the brochure. It was depicted to be nicer than any hotel room we’d normally stay in but it looked more like a shitty Motel 6 I once stayed at in South Dakota. Two beds, one small and one large, I luck out on the sharing-the-bed rotation and get the single bed. Jonathan Murphy is a blanket-thieving son of a bitch, sorry Drisdelle.
Another feature of the room is the glass door to the bathroom, which faces the door out to the deck. It’s frosted but not really frosted sufficiently for a decent amount of privacy, so when you’re taking a piss it’s kind of like shadowpuppets with our gentleman parts. Leaving the main door open while another one of us is using the facilities is good entertainment.
Congregate back in the dining room and because of our seafood issues they sit us with a group of three young ladies, one of whom also has a seafood allergy. Turns out they’re exchange students from University of Melbourne, Abby is from Newfoundland and studying biology and stoked to meet fellow eastcoasters, McKenna is from Michigan studying film and no-seafood Ella is from Scotland and also studying biology. They’ve been in country a couple days and are heading south after HLB so we give them our tips for Hue, Nha Trang and Saigon. Drinking for 32+ hours straight in Saigon is highly recommended.
Sitting next to us is an older guy and fellow canuck named Bruce, hails from Canmore. Right from the first things he says to us we can tell he’s a character, he starts throwing out catchphrases and one-liners almost every other sentence. “Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug.” “If they don’t find you handsome they should at least find you handy.” I start talking hockey with him and he looks at Murphy and says “I might have to start calling you Scotty”, referring of course to Scott Hartnell.
A guy sitting next to Bruce agrees, turns out he’s from Philly and a Flyers fan.
After lunch we head up to the roof to get a better look at the joint and Bruce follows us up. The guy’s on fire, talking incessantly and dropping total non-sequiturs like “I’m not a doctor but I play one on JD” and suggesting we board the other boats, steal their women and throw the ugly ones overboard. This guy’s a piece of work. “Hey Bruce, do they call you Bruce the Moose back in Canmore?” “No, they call me The Legend.”
Our boat is approaching an island with a gazebo on top, a swimming beach and a pile of other boats, this must be our first stop…