Halong to stay

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Friday, December 14, 2007

Arriving in Halong I passed numerous small hotels, but decided to check online for any recommendations. I found that many people come here to visit the bay, which turns out to be a UNESCO world natural heritage site much like the Bacuit archipelago. I found references to a 'hotel alley' in Halong, where most people stay; what none of these references made clear, presumably because conventional backpacking types aren't aware of it, is that this alley is barely in Halong at all. I was half convinced I'd misunderstood my directions when I found myself crossing a huge bridge over the bay and passing a sign with 'Halong' written on it with a big red line through it. There was a woman on the pavement at the far side, so I showed her my scrap of paper with 'Vuon Dau Street' written on it, and she pointed me to the next, small, easily missable exit. Even having confirmation that this was the right way it still didn't look very promising, and I stayed in the first place I found, bargaining the rate from 10 to 8USD.

When, after washing and changing, I was taken by the owner on his scooter to the internet cafe 2km further down the road, I finally found the tourist zone. I decided, based on reviews on the web, that it would be worth staying in Halong for a day or two and organising a trip of somekind into the bay. With no guide book, this was surprisingly tricky at first, as almost all references I found were for trips beginning and ending in Hanoi, and generally involving words like 'luxury' and 'deluxe'. However, since trips tend to need booking in advance or early in the morning, and there was no chance of me being informed enough for that, I knew I'd have the whole day to sort my life out. This was fortunate, as I discovered that evening that even after 16months on the road I am not immune to the sun, and succumbed to a most unpleasant bout of headaches, ichiness and vomiting that I have learnt to recognise as heat exhaustion.

During my day off I managed to get the lie of the land, and established that by turning up at the tourist wharf 3km from my hotel before 8am, I could buy a ticket for a 6hour tour for 40,000dong, (2.6USD). Even with the national park entry ticket at 30,000VND this seemed a bargain after reading up about tours for 130USD and upwards. Winner.

The tour on the Phuong Hang junk was extremely pleasant. From a cool and cloudy start, the weather progressively improved throughout the day. I managed to befriend the Vietnamese tourists sharing the boat, one of whom, Cuong, spoke good enough English to translate for me when necessary. I'd been given to understand by almost every traveller I've met that the Vietnamese are schemeing robbing bastards to a man; but in four days I've been guided, shared morning vodka (the Vietnamese use firewater to wake up) and daytime wine, shared food on this boat and received innumerable smiles and waves and goodwill. It's true that the asking price is almost always double, triple and on one occasion 25 times the conventional price, but it's also true that most people will be reasonable pretty quickly, unlike the Chinese, who stick to their guns. This is more like the friendly cheek of Egyptians; 'that's tourist price' ; 'well, I want egyptian price'; 'really? oh, ok'. It's just business.

We cruised around the bay, enjoying being among thousands of limestone islands, black, white and green 'jewels' emerging sheer from the sea and eroded into random shapes that the locals give fanciful names to; 'look- that one is a dog sitting', 'a cat! look! a cat!' , these two are a fish, see that's the head, the mouth...' You can always see what they mean, and it livens up the tour to be looking for recognisable shapes in the rock. We stopped at two grottos, where huge contiguous caves full of stalactites and stalagmites had formed. After the Philippines, it was a shock to rediscover how organised tourism can be- the caves had multi-coloured strip-lights to liven up the rock formations and throw rainbow shadows. There was paved walkway and souvenir vendors at the exit. It was... interesting.
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