Fighting cocks or kissing puppies?

Our alarm went off at 6:45am so we could get up and get ready for our Halong Bay cruise. Unfortunately, we slept through it. Luckily, the phone rang at 7:30 and the friendly night receptionist was on the line checking to make sure we were on our way down to breakfast. We jumped out of bed, packed up our bags, and got ready in record time making it down to breakfast by 7:50 and stashing our big bags in the storage room. Our pickup was supposed to be there by 8:00, but we decided to try our luck and order food. As we took our last bite around 8:30, the staff called us over to get on the bus. Perfect timing!

We piled in to the V Spirit minibus and proceeded to pick up a few more passengers. Finally, when all 22 of us were there, we began the three and a half hour bumpy journey to Halong Bay. Our “tour guide” introduced herself as Nga/Swan, and proceed to clumsily confirm everyone’s reservations and give us some loose details about the itinerary. We stopped at a generic gift shop / restaurant along the way so the driver could eat something, and only few people were suckered into buying souvenirs at their grossly inflated prices. They did have a very clean toilet, which we have certainly learned to appreciate. Throughout the drive, we had made friends with a few other couples who were going to be on the cruise with us.

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We pulled up to Halong Bay around 1:30 to a new looking harbor building, situated amidst a lot of haphazard construction, which they claim will one day be a huge tourist development. In the marina, on the opposite side of the building, was a small boat which was waiting to take us out to the cruise ship. We arrived to the welcoming shouts of the smiling staff, and all 19 of us climbed aboard (6 couples and 7 singles). We received a “welcome drink” (lukewarm tea) and were given our room assignments. Our cabin was small, but clean and comfy, with an ensuite bathroom and shower. After settling in, we went back up to the second deck for a delicious lunch. With the Austrian Airlines fine dining experience a distant memory, we had forgotten what multi-course meals were like, and filled up quickly on the assortment of appetizers (tofu balls, fried fish, salad, french fries). Already full, we continued to indulge in a main course of tofu curry with veggies and rice as well as side dishes. Realizing that cruise = food, we felt like we were getting our money’s worth, and putting back on any weight we had lost.

Recovery from lunch involved hanging out on the sun deck and watching the beautiful scenery go by. The weather was overcast, but the karst formations sticking out of the water were beautiful. The name of Halong Bay translates to “Descending Dragon Bay”, and it was easy to imagine the rocks were a long dragon’s tail in the water. About half an hour later, Swan came to get us and we all went to change into bathing suites for our next activity – kayaking. A random boy pulled up in a small boat hauling a dozen kayaks, and in pairs we all hopped into kayaks. Can you guess who each of us chose as their partner? We followed one of the staff members through a low cave-like passageway and into a lagoon in the center of one of the rocks. As we all spread out to explore, he called out that we had one hour until the rising tide would block the passage back out. Surrounded by steep tree-lined cliffs towering above us, we felt dwarfed by the massive rock, and took a moment to look around and admire its beauty. We paddled back to the boat and were glad to give our arms a rest.

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Only a few minutes later, we hopped back on the small boat which ferried us to another island in the water that had a small beach. It was strikingly noticeable that the water in the bay is filled with garbage and has a layer of oily film floating on top. The beach itself looked kind of dirty and unappealing, especially on an overcast day. Behind the beach itself was a flight of stairs, which we scrambled up, and continued along the path at the top, all the way to the peak of the small mountain. The view was beautiful, and it was cool to see dozens of the boats sailing among the rocks. We watched the sunset, and since nobody was interested in swimming, we hung out for a few more minutes by the beach, and headed back to our ship.

Back on board, we sought refuge in our air conditioned cabin and freshened up for dinner. This time, we were prepared and paced ourselves through the numerous dishes – fried veggies, pumpkin soup, papaya salad, more tofu and veggie varieties, and something which caused a big fuss. The waiter, who was quite aware of all the special dietary requirements of each passenger, brought us a dish he said was carrot and zucchini rolled in egg with a butter cream sauce. We took one bite each and immediately looked at each other – it tasted like chicken. Upset, we called the waiters over and proceeded to ask each one if this was indeed vegetarian. Again and again, we were reassured that it was. Still not convinced, we asked our dining companions, a Canadian guy and a French couple, to taste it and tell us what they thought. Everyone agreed: this was certainly chicken. Frustrated, we asked to speak to the chef, and the head waiter readily agreed. Jordan followed him into the kitchen on the deck below, where the chef promised her it was indeed vegetarian and showed her all of the ingredients – egg, white bread, sugar, butter and vegetables. Still shocked, but impressed and definitely relieved, Jordan returned to the table, and the “it’s vegetarian” inside joke persisted throughout the night with every dish served.

As dessert was about to be served, the staff asked for everyone’s attention as the bartender stacked five glasses of decreasing size on top of one another. He mixed Baileys and Kahlua in the bottom glass, poured vodka and Blue Curasau over the top and lit the entire thing on fire. With the lights off, this looked very impressive, and he then poured mint liquor over the top, which changed the color of the flames from blue to orange. After extinguishing the fire, the head waiter called Felix up to the front and asked him to point out his wife. Happy to know the correct answer, Felix pointed to Jordan and she was asked to come up as well. They handed us the fancy drink and brought out a cake while singing “happy honeymoon to you”. While somewhat embarrassing, it was fun, and we were glad we had told them it was our honeymoon. Right after dinner, they turned on the karaoke machine, and many people took turns singing popular western hits. Felix along with the Canadian made a feeble attempt at squid fishing off the bow, which meant there would be no fried squid at breakfast. 😛 Tired from a long fun day, we turned in for the night.

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We awoke on Tuesday morning to another overcast day, but beautiful and tranquil nonetheless. Breakfast was a bit disappointing, consisting of cold eggs, fruit, muffins and stale coffee. Shortly after, we boarded the small boat and made our way over to the “amazing cave”. A massive cavern formed by erosion inside one of the limestone mountains jutting out of the bay, it was full of large stalactite and stalagmite formations which were interesting to see. We climbed a flight of stairs, in a long line of tourists (from the dozens of cruises who all have the same itinerary), and walked along the path through large “rooms”, sometimes looking down into deep holes and sometimes way up to the light coming in from the top. The walls were splashed with colorful neon lighting, and Swan pointed out various characters visible in the rock: turtle, monkey, Romeo & Juliet. Eventually, we exited the cave and the small boat took us back to our ship. After checking out of our cabins, we hung out on the sun deck watching the rock formations go by, discussing with the other passengers how sad it was that the water was so filthy. We all wondered what this place will look like 10 years from now. We passed by two karst formations near one another locally known as “fighting cocks”, but Jordan insisted that they were “kissing puppies”. Maybe beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

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To fill the gap between checkout and lunch, the itinerary included a fresh spring roll making workshop. The chef came out and quickly demonstrated how to make a fresh spring roll, and then we all stood around the dining room tables creating our own (vegetarians quarantined to the side, of course). Our spring rolls turned out very well – they looked and tasted good – and we look forward to making some for you soon. 🙂 Lunch followed, sitting with the Dutch couple this time, and included fried taro and egg balls (kind of like a fried cheese ball, but dense and slightly sweet), salad, tofu and vegetables with rice, tempura veggies and fried rice. Stuffed and by now back in the harbor, we said our goodbyes to the lovely staff and headed ashore for the 4 hour minibus ride back to Hanoi (stopping on the way at the bizarro twin of the rest stop on the way over – it took us a full 10 minutes to realize it wasn’t the same place… Kind of creepy).

The cruise was very enjoyable. It was the first time on our journey that we didn’t have to go searching for meals, and the food was plentiful and good. It was also so nice to sit around a table and have conversations with other people over the meals, which we often miss. We enjoyed how relaxing it was to be completely surrounded by nature and sleep on the water. Even though we felt that the locals don’t take good care of this treasure, it is very beautiful, and we hope that they start to clean it up and take better care of it so that future generations can enjoy it as we have.

Back in Hanoi, we stopped off at our favorite travel agent (Hanoi Red Tours – Ms. Oane) to book our onward bus journey to Laos, picked up our laundry, and returned to Posh Hotel to collect our big bags and check back in to our room. We got dinner at Lean and Green, a local vegetarian restaurant (lotus seed soup, crispy pancake, and noodles with tofu, $9), and strolled over to our favorite teen hangout for another ice cream popsicle ($0.75 and worth every penny). The next day, we ate breakfast, checked out of our room, and spent well over an hour at the international post office mailing ourselves 7kg worth of souvenirs ($60 via surface mail). We popped over to the fancy mall for lunch (noodle salad and weird rice mush on banana leaves, $4) and mochi dessert to make up for it ($2.50). Of course, we had to have another round in the massage chairs before stopping at Highlands for the last time to sip a coconut and grab tofu sandwiches to-go for dinner later on. We were about to start a long journey – 24hr bus ride to Luang Prabang, Laos without a toilet onboard. Although we had been preparing mentally for a few days, we were not looking forward to the longest bus ride of our lives.

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