Virtual meanderings

@Halong Bay

Junk Boats, Halong Bay, Vietnam

        Junk boats did not dock directly at the pier. As you see on the photo they anchored nearby and tourist groups were brought onboard on regular motorboat. So were we. We then gathered in the junk’s main hall to get our cabins assigned. In the meantime our junk boat left the harbor and sailed into the bay, graciously gliding between hundreds of Ha Long Bay islets. We were served lunch.

Junk Boat - Dining Hall, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         My companions at the table were a French couple in their early forties (who turned out to not be a couple, but a male and a female friend on a holiday together), and girl from Singapore that carried around an expensive camera and shot photos with it. The four of us hit it off well and started chatting. On a side note, our whole group was 20-24 people – some elderly couples from Singapore, a Japanese guy, myself and some more Europeans, mostly French.

Cave, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         We were done with lunch when the junk boat docked at one of the biggest islets in the vicinity to visit its huge cave. Long ago Ha Long islets had been under the ocean level. While they were gradually rising from the ocean the waves had eaten up their soft rock, forming huge caverns. I guess many of the islets around also featured caves but size mattered – the bigger the islet, the bigger the cave. The bigger the cave, the better. Right? To enter inside, we first had to climb a steep staircase uphill. The entrance was about a hundred meters above the ocean level, offering a beautiful view far into the bay.

Halong bay, terrace view from a cave entrance

         After visiting the cave, the junk boat brought us to another place nearby that looked like a small fort in the Wild West – only in the ocean. The ‘fort’ was made of wood and floating metal barrels. It had a couple of wooden barracks – where kayaking gear was stored, as well as a small market place with stalls selling soft drinks, food and vegetables. Many other junk boats were docking there.  It was kayaking time.

       Kayaking @ Halong Bay


        Each kayak was for two and I ended up riding with the Singaporean girl (who was travelling on her own, too). I’d never kayaked before. She had – once. Our combined incompetence made this one of the most amusing experiences I’d had in some time. The two of us enjoyed ourselves immensely paddling around trying not to get into the way of passing junk boats. Just a short hour later when it was time to get out of the water, neither of us felt like it – but we had no choice, of course.

Halong Islets, Vietnam

            After kayaking, we got back on the junk boat. Then it sailed on towards another islet and stopped near its shore for the night. “Put on your swimming suits and jump from the top of the junk into the ocean” time! I am not a great swimmer, but I did not want to miss my chance to do something I’d never done – such as jumping into the water from the junk boat’s upper deck (six meters height). First time was scary.

Female ocean vendors, Halong Bay, Vietnam

         These Vietnamese women may look like pirates – especially when you see them heading towards your junk boat. They paddle with great stamina and energy and they move really fast. What they do is try to sell you stuff such as bottled water, soft drinks, snacks and alcohol. They are no different from their land counterparts. Any drinks you order on the junk boat are at a very big premium compared to the mainland, so you better came prepared – of course, hardly anyone did. Hence you may think that doing business with these ocean sirens will be a major rip-off. Not at all. I bought a bottle of drinking water and it was only double the price on the shore. These poor women probably don’t make much after paying everyone involved for the privilege of selling stuff into the ocean.

Halong Islets, Vietnam

         Lunch and dinner on the junk boat were included in the price – but the drinks were not (a tried and true strategy worldwide)! The problem with this particular Vietnamese implementation was that wine was ridiculously overpriced – so much so that no one at our table ordered any. We all pretended we don’t care about wine and while I am willing to give the girl from Singapore the benefit of the doubt, I am sure the French really wanted to have some wine.

After dinner we went on the top deck and tried fishing for squid. The best time for fishing squid is in the dark. Or so we were told. To attract the squid you needed to point a torch-light intto the water. We did, but we still caught none. Not the best time of the year to do it. Yet, while we waited in vain for Godot the Squid to bite the bate me and the French guy – a school teacher by the way –  enjoyed a good chat.

Just as I was having good fun, our Vietnamese guide came up to me and handled me his phone – to talk to his boss, he said. I was surprised, but I took the phone. On the other end of the line was some woman who spoke descent English. She said that I was the only person on the boat who was going for the three-day trip and that meant that tomorrow morning at 6pm a motor boat would pick me up and deliver me to Cat Ba island where to joining a new group with whom I would complete the trekking part of the trip. Oh, really?

If you read my earlier post, you’d remember that I had been delivered to Ha Long as a part of one group and was then – on the spot – told to join another group. Now – out of the blue again – I was being told to get up early as hell on the next morning to transfer to yet another group.

OK, from a logistical point of view the whole system worked great. The hostel acted like a middleman to the tour company. The company took care of transporting you to Halong Bay and back. Once at Halong, you were handed over to the independent junk boat operator. And now it was revealed to me that the trekking on Cat Ba island was controlled by yet another independent entity. It wasn’t really a single tour per se. Different actors were involved in this business model, maximizing the overall efficiency of the system. The only minor problem: one started feeling much more like a resource, and much less like a tourist/customer. Not good.

I told the woman that I did not want to be moved yet again to another group of people. Instead I asked to stay with the current group, do whatever they were supposed to do, and get a refund for the last day of the trip. She said that she would check and would call me back. I said fine. Some twenty minutes later she called back and said there was no problem. Fine.

Little did I know that new surprises awaited in the morning… again.

My cabin - Junk Boat, Halong Bay, Vietnam Also, I’d be grateful to know what this axe was doing next to the night lamp in my cabin…


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