Mythbusters: The Halong Bay Edition

Day 10 – Ah, Halong. The majesty and mystery of Halong Bay. Described as a place where towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Or how about this one, a scatter of islands, dotted with wind and wave-eroded grottoes, that is a vision of ethereal beauty. The nature-worshipper in me was fairly buzzing with excitement upon waking today. Let’s just say that the truth was more akin to this: a scatter of trash, crowded with boats and inconsiderate tourists, that is a cloudy vision of faded beauty. 

Before I go any further, let’s keep the magic alive for a little bit, shall we? Because the myth of Halong Bay is one that remains lovely, unmarred by the intrusion of one-thousand selfie sticks. Legend has it that in the beginning of Vietnam’s history, the country was threatened by Northern invaders, and many a foe (this trend seems to have persisted…). To help the Vietnamese people protect themselves from rapacious forces, the gods generously sent Vietnam a family of dragons as protection. These creatures flew to earth and spit out jewels and jade, which fell into the bay as mountainous islands, providing a natural barrier against enemies. The dragons weren’t sent a second too soon, and as these islands dropped into the sea, incoming invaders crashed into the dragon-wrought defenses. The war won and foes defeated, the dragons decided that, hey… the Earth is pretty cool. Why not settle down, snug as a bug in a rug, (or snug as a family of dragons in a bay) and keep protecting these silly little humans as they go about their mortal lives? And so the area earned its name from this neighborhood of mythical beings, and Halong Bay is loosely translated into The Bay of the Descending Dragon. Incredible, right? Mmm, well, if you’d like to preserve that awe, then read no further. The legend is, perhaps, the best thing about Halong Bay as it currently stands.

Let’s travel back to this morning when I was still bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and chirping in anticipation of finally feasting my eyes upon this world wonder. There was no time for sleeping in. We had to be up and at ’em to catch our ride to the bay. At 8am, a twenty-seater bus pulled up to our hotel. We quickly boarded (the streets of Hanoi wait for no one), and passed maybe seven other fellow tourists who would be joining us on the cruise. The back of the bus wide open, we happily settled into our seats for the three and a half hours of road ahead.

As we drove out of Hanoi, David, our tour guide for the cruise, spent half an hour briefing us on the planned itinerary. Then, hard pivot, and he started telling us a bunch of random trivia about Vietnam. Which was awesome. For example, Vietnam has the second largest scooter to person ratio in the world, (Taipei taking the top spot). Innnnteresting, and very easy to believe. But then he started talking about some of the more unusual proteins that Vietnamese enjoy in their diet, and my typically steel stomach started churning. What’s on the menu? Rat, snake, and…. cats and dogs. Tho David did say that dog is mostly only eaten during the Chinese New Year, as it’s meant to bring you luck in the year ahead. Also, they call cats little tigers… oh so cute, except for the whole eating the little tigers thing. Now, if he’d just been talking about these things, I would’ve been fine. But no. That wasn’t enough. He really wanted to paint a picture for us. So he pulled out his phone and started streaming videos of people eating live maggots, of Anthony Bourdain drinking snake blood and eating a snake heart (seconds after the snake had been gored in front of him). This was a really odd way to kick off a bumpy, multi-hour bus ride. Nausea was my unwelcome companion for the rest of the drive.

We did stop once at a tourist trap with plenty of price-hiked souvenirs for us to buy. Weirdly, at the entrance of this place, there were like ten Vietnamese employees lining the entrance, all working on a piece of hand embroidery. It had a bit of a sweat-shop feel, tho I don’t think it was? They were creating really intricate pieces, but we left without buying anything other than some refreshments to wash away the sour taste of David’s animal tales.

The came our last leg to Halong Bay. An hour and a half later, we arrived at a bustling dock where we all collected our luggage and boarded a small-ish motorboat. This ride took us to our ship, our junk, for the next few days. After finding our rooms and changing into comfortable clothing, we booked it to the deck for the highly anticipated sightseeing.

It was something else. Not what we’d expected, but still worthy of admiration. We were disappointed with the mugginess of the day. It’s not that it was cloudy, exactly, but the sky was a muted gray. Like if a blue sky has been given a black and white filter, and dimmed to a nondescript greyish blue. Smoggy and hard to see though it was, we were nonetheless thrilled when the first dragons came into sight. They were impressive, despite the fog, and on the railing of our boat we eagerly snapped pics (that all came out looking terrible), and smiled and hoped that maybe the fog would clear tomorrow. Alas. Had we only known that the fog would be the least of it.

On being summed for lunch, we returned to the dining room for lunch. David recapped our itinerary. First outing—beach time! And a hike up one of the mountains to get a full 360 view of the bay. Second outing—kayaking through an inlet. Sounds like a dream, don’t it? Here is the very sad reality of what we were actually in store for. The tiny island, when we pulled up to it, was crawling like an ants nest. Tourists as far as the eye can see. Sweaty, pushy, horrible tourists. We joined the mass, David leading the way, and started scaling the 400 some odd steps to the outcrop. It’s hardly hyperbole when I say that there was a person per step almost the entire route. With a stranger’s butt bobbing along in front of my face, and the buzzing of Italian and Chinese and French and English all around me, it was far from a tranquil moment. The muggy, hot weather wasn’t helping matters either. When we reached the top, there was a stunning view to reward our efforts. But in order to get a picture, you had to throw some ‘bows through other tourists, and we ended up with many an unplanned photobomb. I’m more than a bit agoraphobic, but even as rivulets of sweat poured down my face, I tried my best to enjoy the sight and put the buzzing mess of humans out of my mind.

A short five minutes was all most of us could tolerate, despite the view, and down we went past hundreds more people. Down, down, to the tiny strip of beach where more people crowded to try and get in some beach time. The area was dirty, the sand gross, the water looked icky and uninviting. Though Manny made a valiant effort to make the most of it, he soon joined Karen and me on our towels, trying to nap away the rest of this small nightmare. Luckily, I guess, we were only allowed an hour on this beach (gotta really pack in the number of visitors I guess, and time is money). David herded our group back to the motorboat, and we rode back in silence to the ship.

That was not the introduction to Halong Bay that I’d hoped for, and though it was only the first excursion, hope was fading fast that it would improve. It did not. The kayaking trip was better, yes, but not great. Yet again, the area we were in was crowded with other ships. The kayaks were not on our boat, but rented from a guy. In the water, we were told to go off and explore. David didn’t join us. As an autonomy junkie, this was fine, tho it would’ve been nice to learn a bit about the ecology of this area. Well, we did learn something just by observation. Because the water was teeming with JELLYFISH! Ok, fine, I’m exaggerating. It wasn’t exactly teeming with jellyfish, but there were a lot of them. A lot. Enough that going for a dip would probably result in a nasty sting, or two, or maybe three. These jellyfish had long trailing tentacles extending up to two feet behind them. So here’s where we learned that our beach dreams (other than that wretched, buoyed off, disaster we visited earlier) had officially been beached. There would be no swimming. Kayaking is the closest we’d get to these emerald waters.

Speaking of emerald waters… omg the trash! Floating water bottles, plastic bags, and even patches of oil-covered water were far from uncommon. This, along with the hordes of humans, and the jellyfish infested water, finally made me accept what I’d secretly known since our visit to Tourist Mountain. This would not be the trip I’d hoped for. Halong would be the opposite of Hoi An, and my expectations far exceeded the sad reality of this overexploited corner of the world. Le sigh. At least the sunset was beautiful. Karen and I watched from our kayaks as a bloodred sun dipped below the jade and jewel hills. I enjoyed this quiet moment with my sister, and my imagination served me well as I envisioned us being the only two people here, partaking in the company of dragons, and mother nature, and the setting sun. I’m afraid I may need to turn to my escapist imagination many more times before this trip to Halong Bay reaches its conclusion.

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