The Love Boat
Trip Start Aug 12, 2009
7Trip End Sep 06, 2009
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Where I stayed
Halong means descending dragon because the 1079 limestone islets in the bay look like a dragon coming down from the heavens. The scenery was heavenly indeed.
I left Hanoi that morning under a blanket of rain. Pauline feared there might be flooding in certain areas so I decided to get a taxi to the pick up point instead of taking my last xe om ride with Hoa, as planned. I was sad that I didn't get to say goodbye to him. Hoa will definitely go down as one of my cherished memories of Vietnam.
After a four hour bus ride with a tour guide who could give any cheesy American comic a run for his money, we descended upon tourist-ville. The bay was littered with tourists all about to board any one of the awaiting junks - all of them (junks not tourists) looking like beautiful oak stained sculptures decorated with intricate carvings of dragon heads at the stern (or the bow, whichever is the front) and sails that announced you were now in Asia. These were not the typical canvass sails you normally see on western sailboats. These majestic sails reminded me of paper fans, opened to reveal a scenic painting on the inside. You know the fans I'm talking about. The ones tourists often pick up as souvenirs when they visit Chinatown.
Son, or Thai Son (Tyson) or Mountain (his name means mountain), our comical tour guide led us through the chaos toward the dock to board our junk. We walked along the dock passing one fantastical junk after another until we got the the end of the dock. All that was left was a crappy little dingy! My mind went all static-ky, like a TV with bad reception. Did I get scammed again?!! (The last scam was in India. On our first day there we unwittingly purchased a one way flight to Kashmir from Delhi to stay on a houseboat that didn't move.)
Once all the travelers were on the dingy Son explained that since our junk, the Marguerite, was too big, she had to stay out in deeper waters
What a sight she was went the dingy pulled closer to her. She was slightly hidden from view behind a couple of other junks, like a coy mistress in hiding. But when the dingy curved around the other junk Marguerite was in full view. I was in awe, like an geeky kid who gets to see the pretty cheerleader naked. Marguerite was true beauty with her sails opened like a flamboyant peacock (though peacocks with fans are males). I was giddy with excitement!
The interior of The Marguerite did not disappoint her admirers. The main deck where we all dined was dressed to impressed - white linens against polished oak. As the sun flashed its spotlight on her, she shone like beauty queen. She was splendid and only three months old.
We enjoyed a fruit drink as our rooms were being assigned. Mine was on the main deck and shared a common wall with the dining room. Once I walked in I was like a kid in a candy store (except that's not really a good analogy cuz I don't like candy, but you know what I mean). My room had the same motif as the dining room - gleaming oak walls and ceiling, a glass shower, a comfortable bed dressed in more white linen and brocade cushions carefully strewn across the bedding
Over the intercom Son announced that lunch would be served. It was a six course meal of seafood, vegetables, rice and more seafood. Drinks, however, were not included. Not even water. Son had said that lunch was just a light meal, that dinner was the main family meal in Vietnamese culture and that there would be a more elaborate spread. I turned to my fellow traveler from Holland and told him I felt utterly spoiled. I was definitely not used to this kind of travel. True to his word, dinner was magnificent - the crab soup, steamed fish, clams, squid cake, garlic vegetables, shrimp cocktail was scrumptious.
After lunch we went to visit the Amazing Cave of stalactites and stalacmites. Two French women in the last century got credit for discovering it, but it had been known to the Vietnamese for years. They just weren' t interested in it because no fish could be caught in the cave. Fishermen had little to do with entering a cave for pleasure. (The French had too much free time on their hands.) In fact, it was the Chinese who discovered the cave before the French. They left their mark inside in the form of Chinese characters that read something like West Cave, but they sailed away without a word to anyone about it
Among the sights inside the cave was a stalacmite called penis rock (you can guess why) and a carving of a turtle. Turtles are revered in Vietnam as they are symbols of longevity. Money was left on the turtle to bring the giver good luck and long life. Outside the cave was a magnificent view of the bay with its giant inhabitable islets protruding through the water. It was so mythical. Once outside the cave we went kayaking around these gentle giants. Some islets formed tunnels that we were able row through. It was very peaceful until the other tourists arrived.
After kayaking we reboarded the Marguerite and went swimming with her. The staff all joined in the fun. They showed us how to jump off the side of the junk into the water. I jumped off the first deck. Then went up to the second deck and suddenly had a fear of heights. I stood there, hesitated for a good 15 minutes with everyone cheering me on. Cong, one of the junk staff offered his hand, but I declined. Finally, after much hesitation I jumped off. Splash! What was I afraid of?
Karaoke and dancing followed dinner but I was interested in neither. Instead I went up to the top deck with a few others to star gaze
I was interrupted by Cong. He sat down on the other half of my chair and initiated a conversation in Vietnamese. I struggled to follow him but in the end got the gist of it. He's a very nice looking Vietnamese man - well built with gentle eyes. We exchanged our life stories briefly. He told me he's been separated from his wife for three years. She lives in Saigon. They have a four year old boy who lives with his mother-in-law. He had been working on the junk for eight months and finds it very dull. All the staff are men and there's nothing exciting to do. He asked what I was doing after Halong Bay. I had made no definite plans but was thinking of heading to Cat Ba Island. He asked why I was traveling alone and isn't boring to be alone? He then asked if he could accompany me on the rest of my travels. I said no, that I prefer to travel alone. He said it can't be much fun to always be alone. I said that it was. He was very persistent in his persuasion nearly to the point of annoyance.
I sensed a deep sadness in his eyes and a desperation in his voice. I felt bad for him because this was it. This was his life. If he wasn't onThe Marguerite then he would be at some other no end job. Unless you have money, life can be very difficult in Vietnam. But working on the luxurious junk was far more desirable than vending goods on street corners, or so it seems.
When the traveling idea didn't work Cong asked if I was not afraid of sleeping alone, because there are ghosts in my room. If I allowed him to stay the night with me he woud chase those ghosts away and keep me safe. My sympathy fell to pity. He was so sad, so lonely, so desperate and so wanted me to save him or at least entertain him for the evening. I was relieved when our conversation ended. I simply told him that I no longer wanted to talk about that. He respectfully walked away and went to karoake.
The next morning I transferred to another junk that was heading for Cat Ba. Cong made his last attempt to get me to change my mind as I boarded the other boat. I smiled a sincere smile and shook my head. I waved goodbye to him from the other junk and swallowed the lump in my throat.