Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: Beaches and Barges

It was a pleasure, and perhaps a necessity, to leave the ubiquitous busyness of Hanoi for quieter climes. Ha Long Bay (literally translated as "descending dragon bay") offered such an opportunity, although I wouldn't exactly say that it was particularly quiet or solitary. Ha Long Bay did offer some silence, but the footprint of excessive tourism was everywhere. It was, however, void of the excessive honking and smog that I came to know so well in Hanoi, so it was a step in the right direction. Either way, Ha Long Bay offered a great peek of what Vietnam is all about, both good and bad. Today, I'll just be focusing on Ha Long Bay, as I've only got an evening here in Battambang, Cambodia to put this together, but perhaps next time I'll find some more time and cover several cities. As I previously mentioned, uncertainty is one of the finer parts of travel, and I don't intend to establish a routine that would nullify all the glory that uncertainty carries along with it.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist attractions that Vietnam has to offer, and it's safe to say that most travellers nowadays have this place within their scopes. It's a massive area consisting of approximately 2,000 islands with some of the bluest blues and greenest greens around. Not surprisingly, they managed to tie Ho Chi Minh into Ha Long Bay by conveniently claiming that there are 1969 islands, which happens to be the death year of Uncle Ho. Even with geological phenomena, the Vietnamese find a way to show some reverence for Ho Chi Minh. Ha Long Bay is considered to be one of the "seven natural wonders of the world," right alongside Jeju Island (Part II). Ha Long Bay is spectacular, but unfortunately I don't think it will be that way much longer. A revolving door of tourism has essentially put a fast forward button on the lifespan of this precious area. In my opinion, the tourism goals of Vietnam appear to be rather short sighted in order to cash in quickly, which isn't altogether surprising considering their economic position. Nonetheless, it's heartbreaking, especially considering that I'm ultimately contributing to its decline. There lies the traveller's paradox - You want to see these places before they're ruined, but in the process you're actually ruining them. At the end of the day, all you can do is try to travel consciously and responsibly despite the overall efforts put forward by the respective country. 


To explore this vast area, we employed the services of a worn down white ship that slowly but surely chugged through the clear waters. This river barge came complete with our own room, a nifty little lounge set-up on the second floor, and my personal favourite, the rooftop - equipped with some broken down reclining chairs and unbeatable photo opportunities. We spent our first night actually sleeping on the ship as our boat rolled back and forth with the waves in a little inlet. Bri and I met an absolutely fantastic couple from the Netherlands (Robin and Ilona) on board and we ended up diving into some great conversation on the top deck. All the while, the Vietnamese captain of our ship confidently steered ahead with his feet. The photo below should explain that a little better. 


While the boat was more than I could have asked for, a better way to discover Ha Long Bay is surely with an intimate kayaking excursion. That's exactly the opportunity that was afforded to us, so we embraced our inner Canadian and off we paddled. It was rather humorous to watch some of the older couples from countries not named Canada who never quite figured out how to get a rhythm going. Luckily, the affection we have for lakes in Canada ensures that we're well suited for aquatic activities. Both Bri and I relished the beauty of it all, but no matter how far we paddled we couldn't ever seem to quite escape the sight of another boat packed full of eager tourists. Nonetheless, it was one of the first experiences to truly solidify the feeling that we had begun this grand escapade through Southeast Asia that we'd been planning for so long. We snapped a few photos in our water-proof camera case along the way. 


We spent the second leg of our journey through Ha Long Bay on Cat Ba Island. It's the largest island in Ha Long Bay, and a tourist hub of sorts in the region. Bri and I were accompanied by some new people on Cat Ba, which is always a positive. Our first stop after landing on the island was at Cat Ba National Park, which covers roughly half of the island. We hiked for about an hour to reach the summit of a moderate mountain in the national park that offered some pleasant views, as any good summit should. This summit was unique in the fact that it had an old, rusty, rickety watchtower on it. Yes, I climbed it, but in retrospect I don't think it was the safest structure I'd ever witnessed. If presented with another opportunity like that, I'll likely pass (as my parents are surely delighted to hear), seeing as my heart was beating fairly quickly and I could almost hear the structure creaking. I'm sure my mom is cringing while reading this, but not to worry, as I clearly survived those adrenaline filled moments and lived to tell the tale. Besides, standards of safety are a little different here in Southeast Asia, so, in essence, it was an attempt to acclimatize myself to this new and foreign land. Yup, that's the story we'll go with.


What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? I've quickly learned during my travels through Vietnam and Cambodia that safety is defined a little differently. The general idea is that if you manage to injure yourself, then you've got nobody to blame but yourself, which is generally true. However, in North America there is a tendency to look for someone else to blame immediately, essentially denying responsibility for your idiocy (hence the phenomenon known as "suing somebody"). Bottom line, this is not the West, and I hope it stays that way.

Monkey Island is a short distance from Cat Ba Island by ferry and definitely worth visiting, even for just a few hours. If you're looking to stay longer than that time period, then there's a rather overpriced resort located on the island that can surely help you out. We were accompanied by some of our new found friends, namely a friendly girl named Monique from New Zealand, and Tim and Loes, a lovely Dutch couple. Together, we enjoyed the warm sands and views of mischievous monkeys. Honestly though, it makes total sense why this place is called Monkey Island, as the monkeys put on quite a show. Bri even managed to get a picture of one drinking a beer. That's the stuff that dreams are made of.


 Interestingly, the sights I witnessed on the ferry between Cat Ba and Monkey Island actually caught my eyes a little more. Floating cities of merchants and fishermen bounced up and down in the wake of our ferry boat. I'm literally referring to an enormous population of people, families and all, who live in these sprawling shanty towns upon the waves. I've never seen anything like it before, and I may not ever again.


Honourable Mentions

Despite the touristy vibe, Cat Ba Island provided a great night out for the group of us...or perhaps it was because of that touristy vibe. After all, we did end up at an established Kiwi bar in the main district. Included on the menu were 1 dollar massages, as well as 1 dollar pedicures and manicures. Peculiar indeed, but whatever works I suppose. Surprisingly, everything closed down fairly early, so after briefly considering Karaoke, we called it a night. Bri and I certainly had enough Karaoke in Korea to last a lifetime.

Sung Sot Cave (literally "surprising cave") is probably worth giving a quick mention to. It's one of the most popular in Ha Long Bay and is quite large and impressive. Personally, I saw a handful of caves in Korea, and now maybe I've lost a little interest in the whole cave experience. Perhaps it's because of my lack of hardened knowledge, but all caves tend to look the same to me, or at least similar. There was one part that did look unique to me, though. Our tour guide described it as a "finger," but you can be the judge. They even illuminated this rock with lights to make sure a passerby would notice it, or at least that's my theory. I've graduated from my adolescent immaturity, but something about this structure seems to betray the notion that it's just a finger.


I've battled some mighty poor Cambodian wireless internet to put this post together, but finally it appears the conclusion can be written. As much as I try to keep these posts relatively short, I never seem able to totally adhere to that. I believe that's largely because I find it utterly boring to talk about sights and places I've visited without at least inserting a little opinion into the matter. In some sense, that's why people read my blog, or if they strongly disagree with me, then it's the reason they don't. Either way, it's fine by me, but I'll continue to write when I get moments along the way because it's what keeps my curiosity fired up and my eyes always on the lookout for something hidden. So I'll continue to write, unless future wireless connections have contrary ideas. 

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