Sunday, July 28, 2013

Halong Bay cruise: review

Fastest raffle win ever, yesterday: tickets bought from cute little Sea Scouts outside dairy, walk home, phone rings, "You've won!" I don't want to seem churlish, so I'll say it's only slightly a shame that it was a fishing hamper, with two rods, backpack, tackle box filled with assorted hooks, weights and lures, and a hurricane lamp (at least that will be a useful addition to the disaster kit, for the next tornado/earthquake/eruption). Because, unfortunately, I don't fish.
I fished in my youth with moderate success, and have been on boats while others fished, also with moderate success, but it's not something I do any more. The last time I dropped bait into the water was in Vietnam with World Expeditions last year, in Halong Bay at night, off the back of the boat we were staying on. We were after squid, apparently. 'Apparently' because nobody caught anything or even saw movement in the circle of torchlight on the dark water - though there are worse things to do after a long and sociable dinner than sit in the warm night and dangle a line overboard.
The Halong Bay boat operation is a huge and pretty slick tourism phenomenon: a great fleet of vaguely junk-like big wooden boats all now roughly painted white in a token gesture towards cleaning the bay, disgorge and reload their passengers with military organisation. Our boat, the romantically-named Bhaya 3, was all dark varnish, airy spaces and billowing white curtains. I liked my room with its french doors, veranda and big bed, though it would have been cramped with two people and their suitcases.
The set-up is that you're loaded, the boats set en masse off into the islands which are dramatically scenic; there's a buffet lunch and a visit to a floating village where assorted schoolchildren sit in a tiny classroom reading aloud and studiously ignoring the succession of Westerners peering in and pointing cameras at them, and where workers poke pearl seeds into oysters. Back at the boat, the sensory treat of a massage on a private deck is rather compromised by diesel fumes rising from the engines below. Dinner, fishing, bed, and then in the morning, tai chi on the top deck (eager Westerners rising early for the authentic experience and then feeling silly when they find themselves copying the instructor as he adjusts his tunic buttons). A flit of the totally for-show sails, a visit to a cave with coloured lighting picking out the stalagmites, the phallus naturally a glowing orange, and then it's brunch as you head back to port so the ships can go through the process all over again.
It's a spectacular place to visit, and if you're short of time, this is the way to do it - but far better would be to take several days and go further into the islands. You might even catch an actual fish.

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