Vietnam days 16-18: Stumbling into Paradise

(Photos from Wikipedia until I can get mine put up on Flickr.)

Vietnam has been kind to us so far. By pure dumb luck, and for the price of a Herald Square hotel room, we just spent a weekend on our own private island. The trip involved kayaking, solitude, and views so sublime they're on the UNESCO preservation list.

Natacha has wanted to visit Halong Bay ever since spotting it in a travel magazine while planning our honeymoon a few years back. It's a bay full of thousands of tiny, uninhabited, sheer islands (limestone karsts, actually) amongst emerald water. If it hasn't been the setting for a james bond speedboat chase, it should be. (UPDATE: It has.)

there are hundreds of tours offered in the area, where you take a boat for a day and two nights and view the islands, swim on some beach for an hour, etc. But somewhere Natch saw the word "kayak" in relation to the area and that's what we set our sights on.

Our research showed us that there was one reputable agency that had kayak tours, good guides, and we later found out, "the good kayaks" in the area. We signed up with them, knowing that we'd be sharing the trip with 6-8 other kayakers, even thought it was a bit pricier than the dozens-of people-on-a-big-junk tours. We didn't care. We love kayaking and this seemed like a great way to get up close to these amazing structures in a way the big boats couldn't.

So we pry ourselves our of our bed at Hanoi's lavish $20-a-night Golden Buffalo hotel(!) to make it on time for our 6 AM pickup, to discover that we were the only folks on the trip. Which means essentially a private car to the ferry. Then a private taxi to the other boat. Such luxury!

After 4 hours of private transpo, we arrived bleary-eyed and loagy to Cat Ba island the largest island in the Bay and our departure point for the tour. the company came to pick us up in a tour boat--a BIG one, in which we were the only passengers. On the way, we saw a series of floating villages, where people live in houses on pontoons and operate cottage-industry fisheries or oyster farms. they all have guard dogs, too. None of whom get walked, but who I imagine get to pee wherver they like.

After picking up the "good" kayaks, we made it to where we were staying. Which was a small karst. i.e. an island. The place consisted of a dining hut, a relaxing hut, a shower/toilet hut, and off to the side, five or six guest huts. and we were the only guests. Like it was our private island getaway.

And the VIEW. just water and dramatic karst islands, and the odd fishing boat. nothing else. NO ONE else. Lucky? Yes. And, as Don adams used to say, loving it.

By day, we kayaked around these UNESCO-listed wonders, buzzed another floating villages, entered caves and paddled through lagoons. by night, we ate huge meals of fresh fish (like caught-next-door fresh) and slugged rice whiskey with the staff. The best cooked oysters and the bar-none freshest crab i've ever eaten.

The tide moved in and out so quickly that we could walk to the karst across from us in the morning, and by afternoon we would kayak around it & past it to other sights.

We kayaked across emerald waters to hidden lagoons, past floating fishing villages where guard dogs chased us to the end of their pontoon but didn't dare jump in the water (thus saving us any ugly No Country For Old Men dog-chase scenes).

We ate with the three guys who cooked the food and took care around the island. They kept trying to feed us fresh oysters and mussels (picked up from a floating next-door neighbor) after we'd stuffed ourselves at dinner. One of them was a park ranger, one of them didn't speak, and the third guy, and 24-year-old pistol named Lam (which means "dragon," we're told), kept trying to get us drunk on rice whiskey. On the second night, we pulled out our last little bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich and tried to share it. They hated the taste and sheepishly poured their shares back into our glasses, which I couldn't really bitch about. "We like Baileys," Lam told us.

But the real surprise? Going swimming at night to discover that the water has bio-luminiscent plankton. Each swimming stroke bequeathed dazzling below-surface light trails and tinkerbell-like sparkles.

We loved it so much that we asked to stay a second night. Turns out we had the place to ourselves that night too. It's an amazing thing to wake up in the morning and look out on your beach.

After two days, we got another "private" boat back to Cat Ba and stayed in a hotel overlooking the harbor. More boats and floating villages. Turns out we ate something that didn't agree with us on the island (my money's on the funny-smelling potato soup), so we spent most of the time laying in bed, walking to the rain-drenched outdoor market, and looking for new books to read. I scraped up a Sue Grafton thriller (note: not so thrilling) and some Michael Connally book I haven't cracked open yet. But I still think back on our little private island, and the cinema-worthy scenery, and the lights in the water, and I hope I will for a long time to come.