As we know by now me and boats are not a marriage made in heaven so i'm somewhat relieved that our little tour of Halong Bay gets cancelled two days in a row thanks to an ENORMOUS TYPHOON. I'm happy to wait it out i'd much rather do kayaking and sunbathing in er sunshine! than be dragged round a grey swilling bay on a rocky boat with a bunch of green faced tourists. Finally on the tuesday the storm has passed and we take our bus transfer down to Halong City harbour and then our boat. Our guide on the bus takes care of formalities and asks who amongst us are “monks”
“Yeeees!“ says a wiry 32 year old Thinh – our tour guide …
“not eating the pork or the chicken..”
Oh he means vegetarian! ...I quite like the term “monks” though!
“My name is Thin but I say it short for “DestTINhy - because a snake bit me once but I survived." He explains. I wonder how many times he's made that comment to his groups...
When we arrive at the harbour we are divided into groups and some stay with Thinh but we are given Binh a chubby faced chap with dimples and short spiky hair.
He leans forward conspiratorially and raises his hands - pausing for dramatic effect. We crowd in, in anticipation– then he says:
“We are getting boat, we are checking , we are lunching, we kayaking.”
“I would have rather a tour guide that can speak English!" says Christine.
All the brochures show off the Halong Bay cruise ships as great mahogany varnished sailing junks with bright yellow sails traversing the emerald seas. Someone has taken the unilateral decision to paint them all white. They don't look nearly as pretty. Never mind - they have been “decked” out (sorry) with pot plants and the rooms are lovely. The beds are close together but the walls inside are a deep rich varnished wood with pristine cream sheets and maroon silk throw overs. There are loungers on the top deck and a restaurant and bar area below.
We have a welcome lunch of king prawns, squid in spicy sauce, deep fried pork, and various vegetable platters. The group consist of two tanned very good looking Italian boys from the Dolomites, a couple of English girls who speak in hushed and giggly northern accents and a Mongolian family - a husband and wife in their early thirties who have a 2 year old son who is very very cute and a great ice breaker.
No one has touched the plate of prawns – and although i've generally given seafood a miss on my travels I say i'll have one. Everyone watches me expectantly...
“they are prawns I think” says the Mongolian - “but I don't know how you undo them...”
Oh I see. Its funny the thinks you take for granted coming from a comfortable middle class background in London. Why should they know how to peel a prawn ?– surrounded by all those mountains in the middle of a desert. So it is left to me to demonstrate -ripping the head and the tail off then peeling back the shell that covers its body.
“I can't believe you are English Dominique” says Christine “You know how to peel a prawn...!”
Well I think food, ingredients and awareness of both has come a long way in Britain since the 1980s but the French never miss an opportunity to berate us on our terrible cooking. Having said that I did actually learn how to peel a prawn sitting on my nan's lap at my parents' flat in the South of France!
We are kayaking first – which fills me a little bit with dread. I sympathise with Helen from Doncaster – who is also nervous and wants to try and avoid doing it.
“Oh don't worry” I say, “ you'll probably just see me paddling around in a great big circle!”
We go in twos - so Christine and I share a boat – which is just as well because even though I and several of the others are complete beginniners we have been given absolutely no instruction on how to row the bloody thing.
I am in front (yes – clearly a mistake) and we are pushed out into the water. Christine instructs me in in school mistressy turns – paddle left, push forward, paddle right and eventually I begin to get the hang of it.
“I should have gone in front “ says Christine
“Its ok you can be my Cox and should instructions from the back” I say over my shoulder. The bay is filled with hundreds of boats and as we veer towards one I am shrieked at again:
“NO!" Says Christine exasperated. “Can you just stop paddling as its undoing the work i'm doing. Its easier if I just do it on my own..”
“ Or you could just explain to me what i'm doing wrong and tell me what I need to do “ I say.
I think its fair to say the old Entente Cordiale is becoming less well...cordial... the more days we spend together.
So she explains how I need to hold the oar near to the paddle and scoop under the water deep and pushing it out and eventurally we fall into some kind of rhthym.
Once I can relax into a bit, I begin to realise that kayaking is a beautiful way to see the landscape.
I'm so delighted we've waited for the sun to come out – there is nothing more dreary than a beach in the rain. And now that its shining its really gorgeous. The sea is heavy in salt and a deep milky green color. The strange lumpen shapes of the rocks that give Halong Bay its distinctive sky line rise up out of the water like so many jagged teeth and are bleached with white stripes from the limestone and chalk that typifies Karst formations. We follow our guide Binh who has jumped into a kayak along side us. One of the great karsts has eroded away leaving a little cave of light between its undercarriage and the water – so we can kayak through it into another secluded little bay. We come to a beach front where some boats have stopped and float silently up. Little brown monkeys with scrunched up red faces and bottoms sit tamely on the rocks, one nurses a baby.
We go back to the boat for our next stop on an island.
A walk around a cave followed by a swim and a climb.
After the beautiful natural phenomenon of the jewel cave in Western Australia this is a tad of a let down. It looks like they've concreted over most of the ceiling - as it hangs down in great puttyish dollops. Nevermind. By the time we get to the shoreline again the its 5pm and the sun is setting.
“Why are we going for a swim at night?” ask the Italians bemused.
All of the other boats have stopped here and everyone is cramming themselves into the sea. I decide not to join them.
Back on the boat and we have another good dinner and everyone makes for the top deck for a night cap. The big hazy moon is ringed with an amber halo and the Italian boys have bought a bottle of Vietnamese vodka for 140,000 dong ( around 4 quid) from a woman in a boat who has hauled it up to them in a fishing net. However the Mongolian has trumped that by bringing his own bottle of Mongolian vodka and insists that we all share it with him. He grabs a set of little green tea sized china cups and starts to pour a round. We are all given a shot each – Chingis (after Genghis) Khan vodka is an uber premium brand that uses wheat from the Mongolian steppes. I'm no vodka conoisser – I've always been slightly suspicious of clear liquids- but this one tastes like fire water , it punches the back of the throat and leaves me gasping. But it's also smooth and doesn't have that chemically after taste that cheaper spirits have. It is, shall we say, slightly better than the Vietnamese vodka that even when mixed with coke has a weird slightly malty sour aftertaste. The bottle goes around again for another shot and then we leave the couples to it.
The next day we visit Monkey Island for a swim. Unlike the previous stops this one is blissfully free of any other tour groups and we have the pale gold sands to ourselves. We swim in shallow sea water that is deliciously warm until monkeys are spotted running onto the beach. One of the girls rushes out of the water to guard our bags – they've been known to thieve.
They are incredibly tame. One strolls nonchalantly along beside me before stopping to sit on a rock, looking for all the world like a chav with an asbo. He picks up a plastic bottle, chews the top off and then spits it out fixing me with an insolent glare before sloping off no doubt to see if there are any handbags to snatch further down the beach.
Next stop is Cat Ba Island where we will be staying overnight. Cat Ba is Unesco protected site and has a national park that plays home to a huge number of different species including the Golden Headed Langur which is native to the park. The island is flanked by wooded limestone hills and the harbour is filled with fishermen casting nets for pearls and for shrimp. They jostle side by side with the cruise ship sailing junks on 2 and 3 day excursions like the one i'm on and next to single women on floating market stalls selling travellers essentials such as bottled water and packets of oreos.
The harbour shore line is built up - and the Vietnamese seem to be constantly building more of their stange and thin tall storeyed hotels. Seafood is popular here as a result - the squid and shrimp are fresh and a local speciality is the Sea Mantis -a rather sinister crab with a dark curved helmet shaped shell.
We go for a trek into the National Park; climbing the 200m to the top of the hill for views over the wooded limestone hills that rise in regular trangular peaks . Its incredibly peaceful – amazing how a beautiful natural view has the power to silence a group of people. That is - until a group of girls behind me decide to strike upa conversation about Holly oaks. Ah well.
Binh stops to explain some interesting details about the species we can see here:
"This is called Happy garden where there are many trees...”
“Did he say Cheese!!!???” exclaims a baffled woman from Croydon to my right.
“er no I think he probalby meant “trees” ' I say.
“Oh YES! Of course hahahahha!”
Binh has already confided in us:
“Please i'm sorry..but I would like to be a tour guide...you help me practise? I am still learning English...”
Well he's very sweet but call me picky I quite like my tour guides to already speak good English when I pay for them. As a result not many details about the island are imparted and when they are the entire group turns to me for a translation as I seem to have the dubious talent of being the only one that can deciphher his thick Vietnamese accent.
“You shecking, you come for luncshink, you schimming shoot”
“we have to go and check into our room, then come back for lunch and then change into our swim suit” - I translate for the group.
"ooooooh" says everyone.
What kind of one or two night experience you get on a boat on Halong Bay very much depends on how much you pay and what company you go with even though on the surface - it seems as if everyone is offering the same thing. Here the Pan Asian expression "same! same! but - different!" really comes into its own. Our guide has a a tenuous grasp of the English language at best- and there have been a couple of annoying moments - such as being asked to go for a swim at 5pm and having another group come onto our boat and take all our sun loungers for the morning journey to Catba. However i have heard a lot worse from other travellers - including rooms filled with engine fuel, boats only making swim stops at 8pm at night or 5am in the morning and even a demented kitchen chef threatening travellers with a butcher's knife when they dared to complain. On the whole our boat and the food was excellent. So make sure you book with a reputable company or via a good hotel - like the one we did - Little Hanoi Hostel.
Tomorrow the group head back to Hanoi but i remain on Catba island. I am getting up close and personal with this fantastic scenery and trying something i've never done before....rock climbing!