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Auditioning to be a castaway

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 26 October 2010 | Views [721]

The terrible accommodation we suffered through is on the far right.

The terrible accommodation we suffered through is on the far right.

Waking to the view of Halong Bay's karst mountains required repeated pinches to ensure I wasn't still dreaming. Finding out the switch for the air conditioner was just outside the door made me realise I'm always dreaming. The Belgium couple had endured the company of a generator all night but I felt no guilt as darkness and heat had required no power source.

We were roused at 730am for breakfast without any explanation why another day had to start so early. If such a view was not worthy of a lie in, I'll never know what is. We were the last ones to breakfast as showing up on time would have been too much of a shock to people also struggling to understand why a relaxing day had begun with the crack of a whip. Looking around at the bleary eyes meant that no one had requested such an early start.

Luckily we were free to relax and doze on the top deck as the junk cruised quietly amongst topography less out of place in Middle Earth. The sea continually ate away at the bottom of the limestone pillars and caves lead through to untouched inlets of mystery and wonder. With the volume of traffic, it wouldn't have been surprising if the entire area was a graveyard of human garbage, but the waters remained largely unspoiled. Even bird life was abundant as egrets fished at the waters edge while birds of prey circled above.

With sheer faces of solid rock, it was amazing to see the extent of fauna each outcrop contained. Somehow life had not only managed to take a precarious foot hold in adverse conditions, it had thoroughly prospered. The world around us was a two tone 'licorice all-sorts' with green seas, the grey of the rock bottom beyond the limits of even the most tenacious plants, the green tops where foliage had found root and the grey skies above still refusing to break.

Overcast skies meant savings on sunscreen and made the day's only activity much more bearable. It was a 20km bike ride on flat roads to a village on Cat Ba island. That was beyond the abilities of some, and after seeing the condition of the bikes, I thought it would be beyond the abilities of most. Uma's foot still gave her grief, paling into comparison with what the hard seats did to your ass.

Living life as a tourist attraction must be unusual with a the constant procession of gawking foreigners photographing you as you take a piss on your neighbours fence. Tour operators apparently pay for the privilege of pedalling through town and a cold beer would never be turned down upon arrival no matter what the price. Some money must filter through as the abundance of food crops didn't explain how the village could afford a radio tower, modern housing and other luxuries of the 21st century. Had the ride itself not been so pleasant, I would have complained that the once mud brick village was just like most towns I had passed through in Vietnam, without the traffic.

There was little to complain about during the whole three days and our next stop on the cruise epitomised that. A 100 metre stretch of sand projected about 20 metres out from a huge vertical cliff face that towered above. A foam jetty floated out a further 50 metres meaning that nothing polluted the warm clear waters that lapped against the beach. The jetty promised much and delivered little as there was more gaps than boards and the movement inherent in its design brought on a epidemic of motion sickness.

That was quickly forgotten when we discovered that of the handful of bungalows, we had scored the penthouse. Furthest from the jetty and jutting out over the water, our pine wood palace had a bed as wide as it was long and a view that made the mornings dream view seem dreary and dull. Guilt was finally felt when we realised we were the only ones from our group that was staying on the island. The Belgium couple were not given a choice with their accommodation and were staying in a hotel in Cat Ba Town, while an American couple were joining them even though they had paid $40 more for another night on a boat.

Once everyone else departed with our guilty feelings, we went kayaking with the same degree of application and success as the previous day. Smaller beaches dotted the surrounding karsts, yet only one was close enough for us to reach seeing as individual effort seemed to cancel out the endeavours of the other. The romantic castaway connotations were somewhat lessened by seeing that such coves gave rubbish a place to land where cliff faces offered none.

For the remainder of the afternoon, I contemplated my contribution to human impact in the area over a few red wines from my balcony. My responsibility seemed to lessen in direct correlation with the wine bottle till I felt that witnessing the natural wonder and beauty was the best thing that I could possibly do for the place. Had another bottle been available I would have been able to convince myself that the area had spent eons perfecting itself in preparation for my presence.

Thankfully, I had only brought one bottle from Hanoi as an even earlier breakfast the next morning would have required some form of time travel to see us make it there on schedule. Eating before any part of your body is functioning other than morning glory is never a good idea. Even less so when we were taken out to rejoin our group on a semi submerged raft of prayers.

That short trip was followed by another short bus ride to the other side of the island, and from there, a last cruise back to Halong City. The clouds finally cleared and added further gloss to the trip by demonstrating that sunlight had little bearing on the beauty of the environment. It was absolutely amazing whether it was bathed in sunlight or darkened by dull skies.

As the icing on an already delectable cake, the last leg of the trip justified the early rises. The bus driver back to Hanoi must have thought tourists were expendable as he drove like he wanted to make sure we were too shit scared to ever come back for more. Having spent most of the trip sleep deprived, it was a blessing to wake up to the same smiling hotel receptionist and not a team of doctors.

Tags: boat, sailing, scenery

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