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Dalama Adventures Tale of two corporate types ditching their jobs and traveling the world for 14 months... check out all photos, blogs & interesting tid bits at http://www.dalama.net

Two Days on a Junk

VIETNAM | Monday, 30 July 2007 | Views [1416]

With our time limited to only a week now in Hanoi, we decide to forego the train and biking adventure up to Sapa, that would literally take us more time in travel time than actual adventure biking time.   Instead, we spend a couple of days on the water of Halong Bay, aboard an old boat - commonly called a "Junk" here in Asia.  Some of the Junks are quite classic looking, with beautiful sails and refinished wood siding.  Most of the Junks, however, are literally that... "junk."  You really can't be sure of the condition your boat might be in.  Even people we've spoken with who have paid the exorbitant rate of over $100/day per person, ended up on a similar type of boat that we were on (we only paid $40/pp for our two day, one night cruise).  The Junks are equipped to take about 16 passengers on overnight journeys, with 8 cabins that have tiny bathrooms onboard, some rooms with AC.  We knew it would be touristy, but Halong Bay is supposed to be the one natural wonder in Vietnam not to be missed.
It takes us 3.5 hours by mini-van to get to the city of Halong.  Along the way, our driver makes the obligatory stop offs at the doo-dads souvenir junk shops where the parking lot is full up with tourist mini-vans.  Lucky for us, we run into Jafra and Jet.  It was good to know that the fake Sinh Cafe had followed through and provided transportation to them, and they're also en route for their Junk adventure.  We also are happy to see our Israeli friends from Cambodia, Daniel and Esouf.  It's funny how we keep running into some of the same people that we've shared some fun experiences with along the backpacker train in South East Asia.  We all safely arrive the harbor in Halong Bay, where we're each dealt our fate on different Junk boats for the next two days and one night.  All the boats are crammed into the small dock area, and it's one big "bumper boat" fest.  Each boat skipper is clearly not concerned that they're ramming alongside other boats.  We board our boat, a weathered wooden double-decker Junk with a sun deck and chairs on the roof. It's really nothing special, but for $40/pp for the overnight trip, meals, A/C cabin with private bath, we really can't complain.  Especially as the nice French family that's also on our boat paid $100/pp for their stay on the same boat, and were promised one of the slick VIP boats.  Two hours later we finally maneuver our way out of the boat congestion, into the majestic bay.  The water is emerald green and large karsts (large limestone rocks rising from the sea) blanketed with lush green plant life rise from the water like hundreds of Lock-Ness monsters.  It reminds us of the South West seas off Thailand, but here there are far more karsts jutting up throughout the bay.  For two days we sail, kayak and swim in these pristine waters.  We visit caves and floating fish farms.  We pass floating fishing villages along the way... and yes, they are literally villages- neighborhoods on floating plastic jugs, little shanty houses, many having pet dogs running around the wood plank perimeter of their house. It's pretty magical being out here on the water at night... it's a beautiful warm, full moon evening with tons of stars speckling the sky, with a light breeze to keep us at that 'perfect body temperature.'  Halong Bay is definitely a must-see for travelers passing through Hanoi.  
Despite the beauty, however, Vietnam has not yet mastered the concept of mass tourism at the level that might leave western travelers a bit less stressed with the boat tour experience.  While many countries with more developed tourism infrastructure, like Thailand, have learned to pace visits to sites, and regulate volume of tourist traffic in one place at one time, Vietnam falls more into the "mass Chinese group tourism" category.  For example, all the boats arrive, en masse, at the same sites at the same time.  There are hundreds of Junks out on the water, and it feels like they all cram into the same dock or mooring at the same time, letting everyone off the boat simultaneously.  It's mass chaos, and a mad dash of people, shouting, and snapping cameras everywhere, with no respect for personal space... everyone trampling over each other in the sticky heat.  Some big western guy with tiny shorts and no shirt, dripping with sweat body slams me from behind... yuck, I'm now coated with his slime.  
The boat crew is very regimented and strict about what you can and can't do... I think they have great fear of being fired, in an economy where not everyone has jobs, they are highly motivated to follow orders.  Thou must swim on the chosen side of your boat, and must not swim away, or mingle in the waters with other passengers on the sister boat (same boat company) next to yours.  Thou must be back in 60 minutes from kayaking - yeah right, who has a watch out here on holiday?  Thou must not eat or drink personal stash of food and beverage brought on board, "it is strictly prohibited," read memos tackily taped to the dining area tables... should thou violate this rule, thou must pay the boat crew for the privilege to eat and drink the things thou bought and brought onboard.  
And if you thought being out on the boat, on the beautiful, peaceful Halong Bay would keep away the touts, think again, you're in Vietnam.  First it's the pearl saleswoman on the boat, who also doubles as the cook.  "You like my pearls, you buy my pearls," she calls out?  The coolest touts by far are the floating wet-bars with snacks galore... women floating in rotting wooden tug boats paddle out with 2x4 planks, to sell their goods on the side of each Junk boat.  It's very tempting to buy from them, as their goods are less than 1/2 the price of those sold onboard... but lest we get caught with purchased goods onboard, the fine will cost more than the goods themselves.  They strictly enforce these rules, and make us feel like children.  Friends of ours tell us they were publicly scolded by their crew in front of other passengers because they came back slightly late from their kayaking trip.  Another couple got scolded for returning their kayak late, with no sympathy for the fact that their kayak had capsized and they had to drag the boat back to the floating kayak rental docks with no assistance.  They are told by their boat crew that they should have rather just left the kayak out in the water to sink, as it didn't belong to the boat company.  God forbid if these passengers had drowned.  There's a general lack, or shall I say disregard for passenger safety, or properly maintained equipment, and probably no reason to, as I'm sure no lawsuit would hold water here.  Our crew was a bit more relaxed, allowing us to jump from the top sun deck of the boat into the water.  We even got a random stop-off to swim on the last day, but made sure we only swam on the left side of the boat.  Our boating passengers are also fairly laid back, and we all opt to avoid evening karaoke in exchange for peaceful evening out on the rooftop deck.  
In the morning, the clock turns 9:00 a.m., we cruise the 50M distance to the shore of Cat Ba Island to drop off passengers and take on new ones.   Hundreds of boats have waited until the 9:00 a.m. chime to quickly speed toward the island and crunch each other together around a 100M long dock.  The boat crews build plank walkways between each boat deck to manually shuffle passengers through a dangerous maze of chutes and ladders, balancing on railings and jumping from boat to boat, until each person has finally reached their point of arrival.  Mass chaos again subsides by 11:00 a.m. and we resume our cruise through the majestic channels of the bay, back to Hanoi.  Our peaceful glide on the Bay has come to an end far too quickly, but was definitely worth the effort and adventure.

Tags: Adventures


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