Best Kind of Lost

Best Kind of Lost

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To Junk or Not To Junk

by Noelle
December 1 – 3

 

The junk boat phenomenon in Halong Bay creates inner turmoil for all northern Vietnam travelers. If you’re in Hanoi (or really, anywhere in Vietnam), you can hardly pass a tourist office that doesn’t tout 2 – 3 day trips to the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site (and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Halong Bay.

So….

To junk or not to junk…that is the question.

View from Titop copy

After careful deliberation, we decided to take the metaphorical plunge and hit the bay. To be clear, all boats – run-down, mid-range and luxury – are dubbed “junk boats” and by law, are painted white. This means the bay is littered with outwardly identical vessels cruising a similar route between the more than 1,960 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Halong literally means “descending dragon.” According to legend, the gods sent a family of dragons to protect Vietnam against invaders during an attack. As they descended, they spit fire and emeralds that decimated the battleship fleet and created a protective wall of emeralds…fast forward thousands of years and you have the incredible limestone islands that currently dot the horizon. Oh, and the dragons totally dominated.

Dave and I opted for the A-Class Opera cruise, and joined 30 eager sea-worthy (we hoped) travelers as we set out to see what all the fuss was about. We definitely weren’t disappointed. The first day already saw us skipping the organized activities in lieu of lounging, books in hand, on the sunny deck. After a welcome party with fresh fruit and wine overlooking the spectacular seascape, we were sold – hook, line and sinker.

A-Class Opera junk boat

Our junk boat. You can’t have it.

Happy husband.

Happy husband strolling the deck.

dontmindifido.

dontmindifido.

A toast! To awesome.

A toast! To awesome.

Perched on the stern. Or aft. Whatever.

Perched on the port side. Or starboard. Whatever.

A sunset stop at Titop island gave 360 views of the bay (after a short hike up to the lookout point) as the sun sank behind the jagged karsts. We strolled the beach with our feet in the (freezing!) water, watching the more adventurous strip down to their suits and take a dive. Back on the boat, we dined on fresh crab and fish, vegetables, chicken curry and rice until we were stuffed.

safety first.

safety first.

View back on the bay from the lookout point.

View back on the beach and bay from the lookout point.

Sunset views from Titop Island

Sunset views from Titop

Our overeager boat director made it his business to make everyone feel sufficiently awkward by insisting guests to stand up and wave to one another (what is this, Carnival Cruiselines? Not that I’m knocking a place that invites you to binge eat and lay around as ex-Broadway dancers help shove piña coladas down your throat, but did we really need the joke about the couple here celebrating their 30 wedding anniversary practicing private tai chi in their bedroom? No, we certainly did not.), and sharing personal information –including your closely guarded room numbers (the private tai chi session could be found in room 320) – for the whole group.

Post dinner the first evening, Dave exercised his fine-tuned bartering skills with the most ferocious “street” vendor yet – the woman manning the oars on the floating mini-market. After he secured two bottles of prohibition wine (shhhh, don’t tell the weird cruise director) from our bedroom window at a rock bottom price (EDITOR’S NOTE: Since personal space and privacy seem optional in this corner of the world, why wouldn’t she just row up within two feet of our closed bedroom window yelling “Hello, buy something! Buy something from me!”), we cracked open our own vintage and took to the balcony to sit peacefully in the calm evening air. Hours later, the waves rocked us to sleep as we cozied up in our cabin.

The best I could do with her ninja-like nighttime rowing moves.

The best I could do with her ninja-like nighttime rowing moves.

The next day found us exploring some of the floating villages, kayaking through natural caves, visiting the bay’s pearl farm and spending more time on deck as we took in another beautiful sunset and bountiful dinner.

A glimpse of one of the floating villages. This year, due to destruction from the storms, the government is forcing the 1,600 folks who inhabit these fishing villages (year-round) to move inland. The locals are terrified as ALL they know is life on the water...it's really sad.

A glimpse of one of the floating villages. This year, due to destruction from the storms, the government is forcing the 1,600 folks who inhabit these fishing villages (year-round) to move inland. The locals are terrified as ALL they know is life on the water…it’s really sad.

An example of one of the floating fish markets. They sell to the boats that cruise the bay.

An example of one of the floating fish markets. They sell their fresh produce to the boats that cruise the bay.

Kayaking through the bays and under the karsts.

Kayaking through the bays and under the islets.

The lush karsts surrounded us - if you were lucky, you could spot some of the playful indigenous monkeys, swinging between the trees.

The lush karsts surrounded us – if you were lucky, you could spot some of the playful indigenous monkeys, swinging between the trees.

A visit to the floating pearl farm. Where we understood every third word about how they are cultivated or harvested. But look - PEARLS!

A visit to the floating pearl farm. Where we understood every third word about how they are cultivated or harvested. But look – PEARLS!

Incoherence aside, it is pretty cool that they've built a floating pearl farm in the middle of paradise. If something goes awry, there may be a resume in the mail postmarked as follows:  To: Shiny Pearl Farm, Halong Bay

Incoherence aside, it is pretty cool that they’ve built a floating pearl farm in the middle of paradise. If something goes awry when we get home in May, there may be a resume in the mail postmarked as follows:
To: Shiny
Pearl Farm,
Halong Bay

Oh heeeeeey.

Oh heeeeeey.

Sigh

Sigh

more sunset. because.

more sunset. because.

On our final morning, we made a visit to one of the larger caves in the bay, Song Sot Cave, which was slightly cheesy (the neon lit cavern and line of westerners immediately triggered my anti-touristy-stuff alarm). However, the dimensions of the cave truly were impressive and it was cool to imagine being the first to stumble upon the natural vastness all those years ago.

Song Sot Cave

Song Sot Cave. You can grasp the scale via the tiny tourist bodies on the left.

We shall call this stone formation "lucky turtle" and encourage tourists to rub its head and leave money as an offering. Because if you build it, they will come.

We shall call this stone formation “lucky turtle” and encourage tourists to rub its head and leave money as an offering. Because if you build it, they will come.

Posing for a pic at the entrance of the cave. Because, you know, there were hundreds of tourists available to take one.

Posing for a pic at the entrance of the cave. Because, you know, there were hundreds of people available to take one.

Final moments of relaxing  before they dragged our kicking, screaming bodies from the boat. I'm pretty sure we're allowed back in Halong Bay or a 50 mile radius. At least that's what the restraining order "says."

Final moments of relaxing before they dragged our kicking, screaming bodies from the boat. I’m pretty sure we’re not allowed back in Halong Bay or a 50 mile radius. At least that’s what the restraining order “says.”

To recap: the food was incredible, the atmosphere was romantic and the sunsets left us breathless. So if you ask us?

Junk on, fair readers. Junk on.

The beautiful Halong Bay

The beautiful Halong Bay

What do you think?

Please keep your comments polite and on-topic.


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