Tuesday, 24 August 2010

You've heard of snakes on a plane ... now for cockroaches on a boat!

Hanoi is a great city, however there is only so much smog and tooting one girl can take. So, what better way to take a break than to jump on a smelly, noisy, tooting tourist bus and head to Ha Long Bay, a beautiful UNESCO world heritage site in the north east of Vietnam. 

We purchased a three-day tour package which gave us one night sleeping on a Vietnamese junk boat (very aptly titled, but more on that soon) and one night in a three-star hotel on Ha Long Bay's largest island, Cat Ba. We were lucky to get a relatively small, friendly and wonderfully diverse group of passengers from the USA, Canada, England, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and Peru. A lot of the tours are designed for young backpackers and involve copious amounts of alcohol and 'hookups' which wasn't what we went to Ha Long Bay for - perhaps with the exception of Billy we were all delighted to have a such a low-key group!

Our accommodations were simple and by all appearances, fairly pleasant. The small group meant that there was plenty of space on the boat, even after factoring in the hundreds of cockroaches and the tribe of rats residing in our ceiling. I'm all for wildlife, but the thought of sharing my bed with a number of small, stealthy and exceptionally speedy cockroaches gave me the willies and you will not be at all surprised to hear that no blissful slumber was had that night. The rats in the ceiling were evidently delighted to have some human company and spent much time in the dead of night screeching at each other and having races across the length of the ceiling. That evening Billy was also evicted from the room due to alcohol-induced snoring, so between cockroach paranoia, rat races and pouring Billy out the door it wasn't a particularly satisfying night's sleep.

But, I digress. The trip itself was great - we saw some incredible places including Sung Sot cave: an enormous limestone cave that seemed to stretch on for miles. Despite the fact that the cave has been developed to accommodate large numbers of tourists, much of it seems to be well preserved and, for the most part, tastefully done. I did take exception however to the garish rubbish bins scattered throughout the cave complex. You would think that in a world heritage site considerable effort should be made to blend in any necessary man-made objects such as rubbish bins with the natural surroundings. Not in Vietnam. The rubbish bins were .... giant metal penguins. Classy. 

Late on Friday afternoon we moored around the back of a small island and jumped in some kayaks. We kayaked right around the island and returned to the boat for a swim in the beautiful emerald coloured water. It was incredibly warm and deep, so we decided to jump from the boat which was, in hindsight, better in theory than in practice. The boat was around eight or nine metres high, which doesn't sound like much until you're standing on the edge looking down clad only in a flimsy bikini. Myself, Kristin and two other English girls eventually worked up the courage to take the plunge, with Peter the Danish tourist on hand to photograph the event. I went feet first, got a sinus full of salt water and, for my troubles, ended up with my bikini top around my neck. I decided to go again, and this time tied everything tightly to ensure no unwanted public exposure. However, what I didn't factor in was the slippery deck. We had decided to jump as a group of four but as the other three girls leapt gracefully off the deck and into the emerald waters below, I slipped sideways and ended up tumbling off the boat in a most undignified manner. There were some unrepeatable and most unladylike utterances on my way down, but despite all this I emerged victorious, bikini intact. Job done. 

Our evening was lazy and relaxed, with drinks on the top deck after dinner until late into the night. The following day we moved on to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the archipelago. After checking into our hotel and having some lunch, we took a short boat ride out to the promising-sounding Monkey Island. We had visions of a large and beautiful island offering white sand, clear water, lush foliage and teeming with wildlife, and we were naturally disappointed when we were told we would have only around one hour on the island. 

As it transpired, Monkey Island is to idyllic paradise as Kim Jong Il is to world peace. We climbed off the boat and found ourselves standing on what was (to be fair) white sand. Unfortunately you couldn't really see this as most of it was either covered with Vietnamese tourists or trash. In approximately five seconds we went from excited to confused, confused to disappointed, disappointed to disgusted, and then finally just bemused. What possessed any self-respecting tour company to ferry passengers to this remote rubbish receptacle is beyond me - by the guide's own admission even most of the monkeys have upped and swam to other islands, which with short arms and legs like theirs would be no mean feat!

We walked the length of the beach, returned and pondered what to do with our remaining 58 minutes and thirty seconds. It was around this time we spotted a group of Vietnamese tourists crowded around a lone monkey in a tree near the water. We approached cautiously and, like the bona fide tourists we are, began to take pictures. At this point one particularly idiotic Vietnamese man decided to try and poke the monkey, or provoke him into doing something - goodness knows what. The monkey responded by baring its teeth, screeching and swinging wildly in the man's direction. I managed to get a mid-lunge photograph before emitting a pretty decent screech of my own and retreating rapidly to a safe distance. 

In short, Monkey Island wasn't what it cracked up to be. We saw two monkeys, enough rubbish to fill a tip and more tourists than Paris in the spring. Despite the dearth of monkeys on the island, the over-abundance of idiotic tourists ensures that the name 'Monkey Island' isn't entirely false advertising.

We returned to Cat Ba and had a lovely evening getting shoulder massages and manicures and watching a spectacular (and fortunately distant) electrical storm whilst sipping cocktails on the waterfront. The next day we re-boarded the Cockroach Express and headed back to Ha Long City via a lovely little floating village.

It might sound like our trip to Ha Long Bay was a bit of a disaster, however that isn't the case at all. Like anything in life you need to realise that sometimes things just won't be up to expectation - this tour was no different. The scenery was beautiful, the people were friendly, the weather was excellent and overall it was a fantastic three days. It's hard to put into words the beauty of the area, so I'll refrain from giving you a full history and instead leave the photographs to do the talking. Enjoy!

Inside the caves on a small row boat - so beautiful!

The boys on their boat with our guide

Inside the cave complex and my attempt at a panorama photo

Kristin and I on the row boat

From the 'what were they thinking' files

Stunning shoreline at Monkey Island

A particularly aggressive monkey lunging at an idiot tourist. Go monkey!

Our lodgings on the Cockroach Express

Jumping off the boat. Undignified fall not captured, thankfully.

Ha Long Bay - the view from our bedroom window. Spectacular!

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