Expectations are like fire. An alluring vision from afar, yet when in reach can be harmful and dangerous. As a human I can not help but carry expectations with me and grow them from hopeful seeds. Most of the time expectations do not meet up to their reality counterparts, yet sometimes it surpasses.
My experience in Ha Long Bay surpassed my hopes, by far. Which was funny because as it was happening I realized it was not what I had prepared in my head. I imagined sun, warmth, tanning on the boat, laying in the peaceful waters on a majestic ship soaking in the bay.
When we got to Hanoi, it was raining. Something I always forget it a possibility. Coming from tropical heat for the past month plus this caught me quite off guard. Our bus arrived on time at 7 am (which also caught me off guard haha) and we were standing, waiting for our shuttle to the bay which was included in the price of the trip.
A little disoriented we had the bus office call our shuttle service who then promptly arrived, with the heater on. Off we were, so far excited yet a little nervous the conditions would be damp and perhaps ruin our 3 days, 2 nights cruise.
On the way to Ha Long Bay we stopped at a marble store, where we joked about how many marble fountains we would take home with us. The brightest part of our pit stop – by far – were the super clean western toilets with toilet paper and everything. I almost shit myself I was so happy to see them, realizing shitting myself would have defeated the purpose, I kept my pants clean. Then we grabbed a quick and delicious white coffee (Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) and a ham and cheese sandwich to go. We had just gotten off the overnight bus from Hue, so hadn’t had real food in over 15 hours.
Finally we arrive at the main dock, which was just an absolute zoo. Hundreds of tourists and tour companies hoarding their guests to and from boats. We stood, in the rain and waited for our guide to lead us. Eventually we were led to the stairs which we were to scale with bags and all onto a small boat to take us to the big boat. My high maintenance came out when I jokingly complained under my breath to Sandra “um, where are guys who carry our bags?”
We motored through an array of boats, some magnificent and some old clunkers, we joked we’d be on the shittiest one of the bunch. Close. We had a teeny boat, when compared to others. From afar it looked old and run down, Sandra and I just looked at each other like “oh dear, what did we do?”
Once on the big boat it was small, quaint and really just a dining room. We were handed our keys and instructed to put our stuff in our rooms and meet back for lunch.
Our room was small but exceptionally clean. We had read reviews of the lower end boats having rats and stuff but luckily we had a very updated room which felt lush and cozy. A nice bathroom, but the door was just a curtain. Sandra, my travel buddy, and I have known each other for years and have been traveling for 2 weeks together, but really when is the point in a friendship where you can just poop a curtain away from one another?
Luckily that was never the case. We would handle business while the other was upstairs, but by the end of the 3rd day we most certainly were peeing with the curtain half closed. Boats are bonding times. Truly.
When we sat for lunch I was a bit apprehensive as the travelers belly of Cambodia is still a fright for me, I like to know my food is prepared clean and fresh. We were all so pleasantly surprised when they brought out the plates for everyone to eat, family style. 10 people per table, 2 tables, but they brought 2 plates of each dish per table. So it was soon split, 5 people to one plate. I was then obsessed with making sure I had enough when the first plates were brought, but then everyone had a nice laugh as they just didn’t stop bringing plates.
There must have been at least 10-15 plates PER SIDE of the table. Lunch included stuffed crab, grilled squid, fresh grilled prawns (with eyes and tentacles and everything ick), cucumber salad, a huge whole grilled fish, enormous plates of rice, beef and broccoli, egg fritata, kebobs, chicken curry and just so much I can’t even remember – I was stuffed, full.
Same for dinner, just always fed to the extreme. The first day we did a quick kayak trip and a hike up into the secret cave, which was HUGE. Nights are full of happy hour drinks and karaoke. We enjoyed a few people on the first night, but it was really over taken by a horribly obnoxious group of Germans who were loud and not interested in mingling with the others. They also decided to stay up til midnight or later drinking buckets of booze and partying in the little boat, which was parked outside our room of course. It gae us a rough night as we were meant to be up and at breakfast at 7 am sharp.
Day 2 I met with not enough sleep. I had slept so good once the noise died down. Not really sure what we had in store for the day as we heard 4 different itineraries from 4 different people for what the day held ahead. We were the only ones from our group that opted for 2 nights on the boat.
Sandra was having a coffee and I was having a fresh ginger and honey tea when a smaller boat was heading straight for our boat, at full speed. We stopped and just looked at it like “what do we do if it hits us?” The boat did hit us, but they had managed to slow down enough that it was just a friendly tap. The guy on the boat waved hello and said “let’s go!” so… that was our ride.
We were wisked away to a 2 hour private tour of the bay until we picked up 4 more Germans. Then we went on another kayaking tour through another cave and canyon, where I had to stop Sandra and just take it all in. For me, it was one of those moments where I was bursting with happiness. I can’t even describe how I felt. I wasn’t in need of anything, I was complete.
The water was calm and green. The rocks were tall and covered in greenery. We were our own power of movement against this incredible force of nature that is water. The water felt royal yet also a bit eerie. On shallow parts you could see beneath but as it got deeper I was convinced there was a 3,000 year old octopus lying below. It was that sort of mystic spirit which made me feel completely enamoured and innocent at the same time.
After that we had another amazing lunch on this even smaller boat – the kitchens are tiny but they crank out so much of the most amazing dishes. On the way back to our home boat, we stopped at a pearl farm which was interesting and disheartening at the same time. I know pearls come from oysters but to see them in masses and them altering nature to get more was a little sobering and took me away from the novelty of seeing an oyster farm.
To cut this blog short I’ll jump to the night where our 2nd group was a million times more friendly than the first. We ended up staying up quite late singing karaoke with this group. Letting ourselves go completely and every single one of our friends that we had made had just indulged in the beautiful experience we were all sharing, together.
We sang Abba all night long. We laughed and joked and talked about everything. The next day was the same as it was older couples primarily and not your average 20 year old backpacker who just wants to talk about how great their own trip is. Even the bus ride back was fun, still chatting and living off the high of our last night on the boat.
All in all it was incredible and I loved every minute of it. We had a great crew on board, Quan, a 20 year old Vietnamese guy who was tiny but the sweetest thing in life. We had to “pull” him up to sing a few times and he’d do the “oh no, not me, not me, okayyyy fine” thing then nailed his performances.
My heart is full of what an incredible time I had, Sandra had and our new friends had. Vietnam has been overall beyond words, but this was the cherry on top.
This was the drawer between our beds. A hammer, a hairdryer and something else. It took us a whole day and someone else on our boat to explain what the hammer was for… breaking the glass, in case we sank. But it became quite funny and after a few drinks, on our way to sleep out of the blue Sandra goes “well if anything happens tonight just grab the hammer, plug in the hair dryer and hope for the best.”