The Pirates of Halong Bay
My tour bus driver has just been arrested…this was going to be one of those days. That’s what I’ve loved about Vietnam so far, its ability to throw a curve ball and sometimes you duck and miss it, other times it hits you square in the face. Today Niki and I joined a tour which we purchased through et-pumpkin to the majestic, mystical, mighty, magical and any other descriptive word starting with M, Halong Bay. About 3 hours from Hanoi, this world heritage listed site is known for its thousands of giant karsts and islands that dot this secluded bay. This was one of our honeymoon treats; however the local police had different ideas.
See, we were picked up in a mini van, yes a rather large minivan, but nevertheless a minivan. Unfortunately though the local police viewed our transport as a small bus rather than a large minivan and promptly arrested the bus driver for driving a “bus” through the old quarter of Hanoi. Apparently there are laws regarding this. So as a small army, *cough*, sorry police truck rocked up, a couple of guards got out and told the driver to drive down the road to the station and hand himself in. So he did. An hour later, not having even left Hanoi, we found ourselves still sitting in our large minivan watching our poor driver making dozens of phone calls, sorting out a bribe, *cough*, sorry a fine, being reprimanded for his mistaken confusion that his minibus was in fact a bus, with this all concluding with our driver jumping back in the van as if nothing happened and continuing along our way to Halong Bay.
The drive was pretty straight forward by Vietnamese standards, with a rest stop at the Humanity Centre. What, you’ve never heard of a Humanity Centre? Well, if you think it’s a place where good people, do good deeds, to help people in need, you would be absolutely wrong! It was a pottery and souvenir house, because “the only way to save humanity is to put a big arse statue in your garden”. I’m still not sure how we would get any of those statues home.
Arriving at the pier in Halong Bay to board our beautiful teak Junk was an exciting moment. I felt like I was a pirate boarding a mighty vessel to drink some rum and find me some loot. When I turned to Niki and went “arhhhhh me lady, heave the sails, stow the ropes, lock up the whores and get me some rum” she simply said “I’m not with you and walk away”. I dropped my head in disappointment; I hadn’t even shown her my eye patch yet!
We were joining the crew of the Halong Phoenix Cruiser, an opulent teak Junk big enough to fit about 25 people on board. We chose this boat as it was a good price at $100US per person, was small enough that it didn’t feel like a party boat yet big enough that you could have a good chat with people. Once we received the welcome spiel and our complementary fruity drink, we were assigned to our cabins. Our a/c cabin was honestly amazing, with beautiful teak furnishings, an oriental atmosphere, a marble bathroom and a big 4 pane window that opened onto the bay. This was truly the way to sail and I felt like I had just added a tick to my list of things to do before I die. Looking at the other boats sailing by, ours was easily the most impressive and elegant.
After lunch, which had never ending delicious food, Nic and I decided to go kayaking. Let me get this right out from the start:
Rule No. 3 of being married – Give your wife her own Kayak
Okay, so Nic and I have a rather turbulent history when it comes to Kayaking, some may even say explosive, the word apocalyptic also comes to mind. See a year before we went to Laos and kayaked down the Mekong in a double kayak. The person in front controls the pace, the person behind controls the steering, or something like that. In this simple setup is where it all falls apart us – both of us want to steer and both of us want to set the pace. In the confusion we go no where, paddles start flying all over the place, insults start getting thrown around, a misguided paddle hits my head, water gets thrown at Niki and inevitably we both sit there saying nothing, sulking and seething whilst we get closer and closer to hitting a whole heap of rocks. Needless to say Halong Bay was no different. However getting past our wedded bliss, the kayaking was truly mesmerizing and tranquil as you slowly passed local water villages, spiritual grottos and colourful birds fluttering around the karsts.
The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming and jumping off from the top level on the Junk, which isn’t for the faint hearted. I was living out every pirate and lost on a tropical island fantasy I’ve ever had. That is until I lost my balance as I was jumping from the top deck and landed sideways in the water. All I remember as I fell sideways was “shit, this wasn’t the way I was meant to die”. Nursing a few sore ribs, the evening finished off with Niki sipping a perfect G&T, and I a whisky and coke whilst lying on the sundeck watching the Milky Way go round. This was what travel was all about and I felt truly relaxed for the first time in a year. Moored under giant karsts, we went to sleep with the windows wide open and a soft breeze slowing rocking us to sleep.
If you get the chance, this is a MUST in Vietnam. We booked our tour through et-pumpkin; however Vietnam Ocean tours has some good deals and packages as well. Both their offices are located next to each other in Hanoi.