Within a few weeks of arriving in Vietnam I had the blessing of more than one day off work in a row. It would be the only time that this would happen naturally (that is, without twisting any arms) until February so I wanted to make the most of it. I asked everybody I knew (which at that point was not a lot of people) what their plans were for the Holiday but nobody’s off-time coincided with my own. It was two days before my holiday and I had become gloomily resigned to not doing anything. But then one of my roommates’ plans changed at the last minute.
On about 1 day’s notice we booked a trip to the legendary Ha Long Bay. Normally I would be more in favor of making my own way rather then going with an actual company, but this particular outing would require a boat. We don’t have a boat. So we went through a company called Ethnic Travel. Our 2-day trip cost us only $100 and it included of the following:
- We were picked up at our house and brought to the company’s office
- We were then taken all the way to the harbor at Ha Long Bay in a van
- We were then promptly taken out on the boat into the bay
- We were served multi-course, gourmet meals during our stay on the boat
- We slept on the boat at night
- We were able to kayak through the floating villages
- We kayaked to islands to go caving
- Oh yeah, and it was essentially our private boat for the weekend. There were 4 people total that were not part of the boat’s crew.
There was also an open bar. This however was not included in the $100. But luckily it’s Vietnam so everything is cheap. It seemed like we drank a lot but it ended up costing us south of 20 USD extra per person.
The drive was only a few hours. My roommate and I were on the van with a bunch of loud French people that sneered at me when I said I was American (whatever) and also a couple from Malaysia. It turned out that the French people were going on a longer trip so they were not on our boat. It was just us and the Malaysian couple, who turned out to be a lot of fun! It seemed to me that our trip is best divided into the following 3 parts:
Part 1: The Floating Villages
There are actual fishing communities that live in floating villages nestled between the giant rocks of Ha Long Bay. These are not nice houses. They were pretty 3rd world actually (sorry if that isn’t politically correct). Particularly ridiculous were their local grocery store and school. The school consisted of two small empty cabins floating side by side. Inside there was a chalkboard on the wall and that was it. It looked like an old photo of a schoolhouse in the 1800s except with less (no) furniture. The grocery store was a similarly small cabin stuffed to the point of overflowing with a wide array of non-perishable junk foods. We kayaked through the village and waved to the people. The children ran the length of the boats to follow us and get a closer look as we floated by. Honestly I felt kind of guilty treating these peoples’ lives as a spectacle. But I’m glad I saw it. It is pretty surreal that I could have lived my life so far on the same planet that they have been living theirs.
When we got back to the boat a little girl and her mother paddled up to the side of our boat with a rowboat full of the junk food from the local supermarket. I decided to buy some Oreos from them. The little girl spoke to any visitors that came through because her mother spoke no English. I asked how much for the Oreos and she told me the outrageous price of 100,000 VND (just under 5 USD, not expensive in America but by Vietnamese standards a total rip-off). I had to laugh at this little girl trying to hustle me over some Oreos. But at the same time, after seeing the way they lived, I would have felt kind of guilty pushing her price down too much. So I responded that I would give her 75,000 VND. “80” she replied. I laughed and agreed. It was kind of adorable – she couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and already a shrewd businesswoman.
She gave me the Oreos and I gave her the money. As I opened the box she counted the money. Then, irritated she shot her hand back out for more, signaling that I had short-changed her. We on the boat spent the next 5 minutes trying to walk her through the math of the bills I had paid her with. Eventually we convinced her that 50,000 + 20,000 + 10,000 = 80,000… (Okay, so maybe she’s not ready for Wharton, but she’s on her way)
Part 2: Inked by a Squid
After dinner that night we were sharing a bottle of wine, beneath the stars. Some of the crew told us that you could often catch squid in Ha Long Bay. I got very excited to hear this but they told me that you could only catch squid on nights where there is no moon. The moonlight keeps them far below the surface. Unfortunately, that night was a full moon.
But that wasn’t about to stop us… apparently. The men that worked the boat had a system. They would wait for the moon to be covered by a passing cloud and then get to work for the minute or so that they had before the moon reappeared. One of them would cover the bright, white light on the side of the boat with a red bucket, which sent out an eerie red light into the water. Apparently squid are suckers for red light. One of us would dangle a small piece of bait in the water with a low-tech fishing rod and keep a look out for the creatures. The third man in this operation would stand watch with a net at the end of a long pole. When one of us spotted a squid that had made its way up from the depths he would do his best to snatch it out of the water with the net.
It took us a few hours but we caught quite a few this way. One of them sprayed me with ink as it thrashed around in the net so now I have a big, black blotch on one of my 3 pairs of shorts. The stain is a good conversation started though. And besides, I think that I was on the winning end of the exchange (between me and the squid) though because within the next 30 minutes, I was eating that squid.
Every squid that was caught was dumped into a big blue bucket and eventually brought into the boat’s kitchen. First they popped the squids’ ink capsules. These looked like small black marbles on their underside. The squeezed them and they would pop like grapes, turning the water in the bucket black instantly. But once they were washed off they were thrown into a pot and boiled.
Then we ate them. I will say this: it was not as weird as I expected. It was tough and rubbery. I ate one of their tails and called it a night. It seemed to me that the squid anatomy could only get more complicated and disgusting as I moved closer to the head. I really just wanted to be able to say that I ate it.
Part 3: The Caves of Ha Long Bay
The next morning I set my alarm for 5:00am so that I could take some pictures of the sunrise. Watching my door swing open that morning was something else. I think that I had sort of forgotten exactly where I was once I went into my room for the night. But it came rushing back to me when I saw the giant green rocks and the bright pink sky of the Vietnamese sunrise. I waited a while for the humidity-induced fog on my camera lens clear away, snapped some pictures and then went back to sleep.
I woke back up in a couple hours ready to go to the caves. It was still very early in the morning at that point. The first cave we went to was called ‘Virgin Cave.’ Since we were anchored close by, it took us about 20 minutes to paddle over and penetrate the giant crevice (see what I did there?). What looked like a tiny opening from our vantage point on the boat had turned into a gaping maw by the time we arrived on the small rocky beach.
I could describe it to you… or you could just watch this:
There was a second cave that we were supposed to go to but the tide was too high so we went back to the boat and headed home.
ANYWAY, below are some of my favorite photos that I snapped during my couple days there. Check out how small the boats are next to the giant rocks.