On the occasion of yet another long weekend in Vietnam, I decided to fly North to Halong Bay - The UNESCO World Heritage Site. Max is a colleague from the headquarters in Germany and based in Vietnam for a three-month short-term assignment. Him and I decided to pair up to visit this magnificent sight that is known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests. Our very ambitious initial plan was to combine Hanoi, Ninh Binh, and Halong Bay in three days only. This itinerary was proposed by another colleague of ours who had been through this journey about a month ago. When Max first told me about this plan, my immediate thought was that this was simply not doable. My normal travelling style requires that I visit fewer locations, but in much more depth. Quality over quantity!
A NEW WAY OF WORKING
Kamilé is a friend I met on my last trip in Hoi An. We met at a coffee place over an overpriced Ca Phe Sua Da and kept in touch ever since. Kamilé has a very interesting lifestyle. She used to work in London - as a UX/UI Designer, where she spent extensive hours trying to make a living in a very expensive city. She decided to leave the British capital to travel through South East Asia while continuing to remotely provide her services as a freelancer to her existing clients. Here she does not need as much money and, consequently, does not need to work as much to sustain an interesting lifestyle while travelling. She has the ability to work from anywhere she wishes while seeing some of the most breathtaking landscapes and still put more money in savings than if she were still in London. As Kamilé kept travelling North after Hoi An, and given my planned trip to Halong Bay, we decided to meet up in Hanoi and discover this area together with Max.
Getting from Hanoi to Halong Bay
There are many ways of getting to Halong Bay. The most logical one is to fly to the city of Hai Phong, given its geographic proximity to Cat Ba Island - where Halong Bay is located. Therefore, flying to Hai Phong definitely makes more sense than flying anywhere else. But, for some obscure reason, we still chose to fly to Hanoi instead, thinking we could fit a whole lot of sightseeing into a short three-day weekend. Needless to say, we hadn't quite thought it through before booking our tickets. Now that we were back on track with our streamlined agenda, we still flew to Hanoi on a late Friday night because the tickets were already booked. I landed and transferred to our hotel in the Hanoi Old Quater very late. While waiting for Max to land on a later flight, I managed to book a transfer to the Cat Ba ferry for 250 000 VND, ate a delicious bowl of Pho, and went straight to bed.
The next morning, the three of us met at 8:00am in the lobby and hopped on a bus to the coast. The four-hour commute only stopped once at the midpoint for a bio-break. As by chance, the refueling station was nothing other than a souvenir shop selling mostly gigantic porcelain vases among other interesting artifacts. It amazes me to see shops selling items that are so unpractical to carry around. Can someone explain to me how the hell can a tourist drag with him a two-meter high porcelain vase? I mean, what are the possible options that are available to us as customers? Carry it around and risk breaking it? Ship it home and have the delivery company break it? Break it before even purchasing it? Purchase it, not break it and realize it doesn't match with the theme of your apartment? I simply don't get it... But, then again, I might just not be in their target market.
Arriving at the drop-off point, the bus skipped the public ferry boarding point and continued about 10 minutes further where the private boats were. Of course, when we got out of the bus, the only options presented to us were to cross the bay for about 200 USD. Nonsense! How could this price possibly be reasonable for the locals? Then, it hit me... the bus purposely dropped us further to get a cut on the private boat ticket sales. We attempted to get the information out of the people around us regarding the departure times of the public ferry. Of course, all we got was that the only public ferry crosses the bay once per day at 8:00am. Yeah right! Thanks to the internet, we knew for a fact that there were several departures every day of the week, including one in the next half-hour. So, we walked back a few hundred meters to the public ferry ticket office and purchased a ticket for 80 000 VND (about 3 USD). Quite the difference, huh! It took us about an hour to cross the bay on stunning view before us. Max and I couldn't get enough of just looking around and letting ourselves being amazed by the dramatic beauty of the limestones pillars standing straight over calm emerald waters.
When we accosted on Cat Ba Island and got off the ferry, we soon came to the realization that there was no public transportation available for us to reach the main village on the opposite side of the island. Consequently, we had to hire a taxi and drove for about 30 minutes for the amount of 300 000 VND divided by three people. We are now at 380 000 VND on the counter for the total commute from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island and I am starting to wonder if it wouldn't have been more efficient to pay a little more and get to our destination faster. To be honest, this commute created a lot of non-value added time in commuting, especially on a short three-day long weekend. It's in such moments that I trying reminding myself that it's not about the destination... it's about the journey.
Sunset at the cannon fort
We finally reached our hotel, which we booked at the last minute from the ferry. We were starving from the very long commute since 8:00am the same day. There were not so many food options on the road from Hanoi to Cat Ba. As soon as we'd gone through the check in process, we immediately left our room in search of a bowl of Pho. After replenishing with the necessary nutrients which would bring us back to a good mood (I get very cranky when I'm hungry), we decided to head up the Cannon Fort to observe a beautiful sunset over the bay from the highest viewpoint on the island. The Cannon Fort sits on a peak 177 meters high, offering visitors a chance to see old bunkers and helicopter landing stations as well as stunning views of Cat Ba Island, its coast, and the limestone karsts in Lan Ha Bay offshore.
We could have walked about 30 minutes up the peak and sweat like pigs on the way there. Instead, we decided to book a taxi that stayed around for about two hours while we had coffee and fresh coconuts at the top. We had all the time we needed to enjoy the sunset, and the taxi driver could afford to nap for two hours on his backseat while getting paid. It was a win-win! As soon as the sun completely disappeared under the horizon, we ran back to our taxi before being completely eaten by mosquitos and headed back down to the cornice.
The rooftop garden cult
A colleague from our office in Germany who had visited Cat Ba a few months ago had told us about the Rooftop Garden. She described it as a cool terrace to hang out and enjoy dinner under the stars. It sounded like a cool plan to us, so we headed there for iced coconut coffee - a beverage that soon became a tradition throughout the weekend.
The venue was very cozy and we enjoyed it a lot. Although, something did not quite register in my mind with the people hanging out at this venue. When we arrived, the rooftop was almost empty. As time went by and the delicious coconut coffees kept coming, we observed backpackers in their early twenties coming one after the other with their unwashed hair and joining the same table where their group sat on the ground in their yoga pants. What struck me was that every time a new comer joined their group, they said hi to everyone at the table with lots of patting and neverending hugs. From the outside, it really looked like a so-called "chill party". To this unusual behavior, I thought: "How can backpackers could have had enough time to develop such strong relationships with a large group of people?" Only two scenario could explain such odd behaviors. It was either the unlikely possibility that they all knew each other for a a long time, or they were all part of a sex cult. Kamilé, Max and myself - with three coconut coffees down - decided to believe in the second scenario.
We were already relaxing for an hour when it was announced that a live band would start their performance in just a few minutes. I'm a sucker for live bands, so we decided to extend our relaxing evening to dinner with music. The band was an Israeli couple performing reggae music. The man playing the acoustic guitar looked like a mix of John Lennon and Howard Stern. Just the man's look on its own was entertaining enough, but the most memorable element of the evening was definitely the music genre the couple decided to exploit as a career. Don't get me wrong! I absolutely love Reggae music. But, in this case, it was a different experience. Let's just say that their lyrics were not so catchy, as they sounded more like they were reading facts out of a Wikipedia page. There was this one song that basically listed the statistics regarding the availability of drinkable water on the planet. After this quite interesting first set and a twenty-minute break, the band came back to the charge with a neverending (and highly racist, if you ask me) interlude - performed by the fake Lennon-Stern - immitating the Indian accent. I managed to find the interlude on the Assi Rose's (Lennon-Stern's real name) Youtube Channel. Not only this performance was distasteful, but there were people from the Indian Sub-Continent in the audience that most definitely felt very uncomfortable during the performance. To be honest, I would also feel the same way if I heard a foreign couple sign a song about my country titled "Off to India (No Bacteria)"!
On our way out of the Rooftop Garden, we stopped at a travel agency to book a day-trip to Halong Bay. The tour only costed 29 USD and included a full day on the boat with lunch, a visit of a fish market and pisciculture center, and kayaking. After sealing the deal, we asked the sales person at what time we needed to be there in the morning. While she was trying to figure out if it was better for them to pick us up on the way to the boat's departure point rather than us coming to them, she asked where our hotel was located. The conversation went a little something like this:
Her: "We can potentially pick you guys up in the morning. Where are you staying?"
Us: "We are just 5-minutes walking from here."
Her: "Really? Which hotel is it?"
Us: "It's called Cat Ba Santorini Homestay."
Her: "Ok... I've never heard of this hotel before. Is it new? What is the nightly rate?"
Us: "About 30 USD per night for a room with two double beds."
Her: "Wow! That's cheap? How long in advance did you book it?"
Us: "Oh we just booked it on the ferry this morning."
Her: "Really? Wow, you are so lucky!"
Me: "Not lucky! Smart!"
I always hated this expression "You're lucky". I constantly hear people saying how lucky others are. It has nothing to do with luck. What those people consider being a lucky situation comes with a price. They just don't happen to know how big the sacrifice is because they don't bother scratching deeper than the surface. In my case, I constantly hear people telling me how lucky I am of travelling all the time for work. It's not luck! I worked hard for it and am finally harvesting the fruit of my labor. Besides, they probably don't account for the fact that I have to wake up every morning thousands of kilometers away from my friends and family and miss every important life event. I did wondered how we manage to book a room at such cheap rate despite the local merchants' comments. It all came crystal clear the next morning when were got woken up by extensive construction work at 6:00am. Turns out we were not so lucky after all.
The Dane and the Dutch
It is 8:30 in the morning and we are sitting on the boat deck - cruising through the bay on our way to our first stop of the day at the pisciculture center. Agin, a stunning view surrounds us, so Max and I left our comfortable seats to contemplate the beauties of the region. Not five minutes had passed that my seat was already stolen despite the beach towel strategically placed on the leather. My seat was now occupied by a pretty blond "chick" (here, the word chick waa purposely curated) who couldnt care less of the reason for having a beach towel to be placed on a seat. As usual, I tried claiming my seat back with a subtile phrase which should have been understood by anyone with a remotely bright mind. But, not this time. This time, my "I hope my towel didn't bother you" just flew six feet over her head. Kamilé, with an act of good conscience, insisted that I let it go. The blond girl was named Sara. She was a beautiful 21 year-old Dane travelling with her very brave Dutch friend - Sonja. I know what you are thinking! It's mean to judge people by their appearance. You are absolutely right! But, trust me! I have a point. While listening to the Dane and the Dutch's conversation with a French couple, it became obvious who was the mastermind of the operation. It was eating me from the inside to hear Sara talk to the French couple about the most insignificant topics. Kamilé couldn't stop telling me "Don't!", while all I wanted to do was to interject and set the record straight between inaccurate French-English translations and stereotypical statements about world travel. I managed to contain myself, but it was hard.
We came to learn a bit more about Sonja and Sara over the weekend, as we kept bumping into them on Cat Ba island. Through countless smoothies and cups of Ca Phe Sua Da, it became apparent that the dynamic duo formed the perfect combination. One was the beauty that got the favors from weaker minds, and the other was the brain that did the talking and managed the logistics. While Sonja and i had eloquent conversations, it then came very clear that Sara probably always had it very easy with people constantly handing it over to her. That's probably why she claimed my seat as hers without even blinking once. Any man would be pleased to give up their seat to a hot piece of ass like hers. But, not me. Just like at that half-point resting area between Hanoi and Cat Ba, empty vases don't impress me.
Though, this incident did not ruin our day trip. We had so much fun with the group while having lunch on the boat, engaging in a jumping competition from the high deck into the emerald waters of the Tonkin Gulf, and kayaking through caves in the early afternoon. It was an awesome day and we were very happy to have managed to squeeze all these activities in our tight schedule. Despite her nonchalant attitude, Sara was still managed to surprise me with an analysis that turned out to be pretty accurate. She started calling me "Gold Boy", as this is the closest Danish-English translation she could come up with. Apparently, the Danes have a term for people who constantly seek for perfection. This is how she saw me and - to be honest - I couldn't disagree. She stated elements she observed in my behavior and simply extrapolated it to a series of guesses that turned out to be shockingly accurate. I might have misjudged her after all.
Red card IN STOPPAGE TIME
We ended the day with hotpot at a local sea food restaurant, followed by a billiard tournament at a bar close by. Max and I often play pool together at work during lunch time. It was time for us to see what hours of practice are worth on this paradise island. Not sure if it was my sobriety or the fact that most contestants were doped up on laughing gas, but we did manage to hold the pool table for two hours straight without even losing once. There is only so much pool one can play without getting bored from lack of competition. After two hours, we decides to give up the table and kick back on the front porsch while sharing a hookah. To be fair, we were also fed up with having everyone around us trying to force funky balloons down our lungs. It was clearly time to leave when we started noticing backpackers falling on the ground for a split-second from the dizziness of the laughing gas.
The next day, it was already time to leave and head back to Ho Chi Minh City. This time, we booked a full journey from Cat Ba to Hanoi including all necessary segments in one single price. We didn't want to repeat the inbound experience and risk missing our flight. It was just a few minutes before our bus left that I decided to try a local delicacy a friend recommended: squid cake. Only a few seconds that I started eating the fried cake that the travel agency's owner disturbed my snack time.
Him: "Excuse me, sir! What are you eating?"
Me: "Squid cake..."
Him: "No, no, no! Eat outside!"
The man had red carded me with only a few minutes to go before our ride came. And there I was sitting on the front porsch stairs eating my squid cake under the noon sun. Of course, Max and Kamilé showed no solidarity, as they stayed inside in the air conditioned room while laughing at me through the window. Was the cake worth the trouble? My pride will answer "Yes" to this question.