Friday, February 12
If there's anything that makes you appreciate the rock-hard mattresses of Vietnam's favorite hostels, it's sleeping on a set of chairs. That's how Miki and I spent the hours between 3 AM and 7 AM. After a quick six hours on the sleeper bus from Sapa, we hopped into an over-priced cab through the empty streets of Hanoi. The hotel we booked our Ha Long Bay cruise was closed, so the security guard, who was asleep in the dark lobby on a cot, let us in. We set up shop in the back of the hotel behind the kitchen, each using three chairs as a bed. I was certain I wouldn't be able to sleep, but after sitting in the dark for a minute, felt my eyelids droop. Before I knew it I was passed out on the hard chairs, only waking up after the security guard left for the night at 5 AM. I guess when you're that tired you'll sleep anywhere. After the kind hotel owners served Miki and I Lipton tea (the Vietnamese have a thing for Lipton tea) and bananas, Josh and his brother Jake arrived. It was great to see Josh - I think the last time we saw each other was graduation. I introduced them to Miki and the four of chatted for the next thirty minutes (because buses never leave on time in Vietnam).
The three hour bus ride, broken up by a pit stop at a tourist trap that sold five dollar Pringles (that's expensive, you should know. You can get Pringles for a dollar here), we arrived at Ha Long Bay. The islands themselves are a geographical phenomenon but the town on the shore is almost like a ghost town. It's kind of reminiscent of those stretches of resorts in Mexico with crisp white, brown shuttered hotels and many unfinished buildings due to a lack of funding. The difference between these empty resorts and the crammed city of Hanoi was astonishing. In the distance, the islands of Halong Bay rose like misshapen green teeth from the gums of the sea . We got off the bus and, naturally, had to wait another thirty minutes to board the cruise boat. Josh and Jake spent the half-hour trying to guess which junky booze cruise ship was ours. We knew not to go too cheap with the boats, so hoped ours wasn't as sketchy as some of these self titled "party boats" were. Thankfully, our middle-of-the-road ship was perfectly appropriate for its price, with rooms on the bottom floor, a dining room and four rooms on the second floor, and a sun deck on top with two more rooms. Since the kind folks at the hotel promised us an upper-deck room, Miki, Josh, Jake and I lucked out. The rooms were cramped and smelled musty, but were clean and had the nicest shower we'd seen thus far. In a cruel twist of fate, these lovely showers were also ice-cold.
In all, the cruise was my favorite part of Vietnam so far. Not only is Ha Long Bay absolutely incredible (see above pictures), but we befriended four Brits, and an Irish girl. For someone who hates beer, I drank an entire beer - and thoroughly enjoyed it - that's how much fun I was having. I should note that the cruise crew loves upbeat club music. Even though our boat was incredibly mellow and one couple had their small children with them, our cruise staff still blasted the dance music. I haven't heard that much Avicii since Sammy pre games on football Saturdays. Josh and I made the best of it and pretended we were at Rick's. After a tasty lunch on the boat and some incredible views from the sun deck, we made our way, along with every other boat at sea, to an island where we climbed stairs like herded cattle to a series of extremely underwhelming caves. The limestone itself was beautiful and had grooves and ridges that made it look like art, but the caves were so packed with tourists and guides pointing out so called "faces" in the stone, that it was pretty tough to enjoy the beauty. Like anything that has been turned to a tourist Mecca, the caves were disappointing and the view mediocre compared to some of the spectacular vistas we would see later on the sun deck. We returned to the boat for some additional cruising and that's where the fun really started. Josh, Jake, Miki and I chatted with three girls - Sophie and Maddie from England and Charlene from Ireland who were traveling together for a few weeks. The had just arrived from Shanghai and were heading down to Ho Chi Minh City after spending a few days on the bay. They were fascinated by American culture (none of them having been to the country themselves) and we all laughed together over beers, enjoying each other's company thoroughly. Jake decided to be the token daredevil and jump off the sun deck roof when Timmy, our "cruise director" informed us we could swim for the next couple of hours. The sun was starting to set and it was getting chilly, so I initially opted out. What started off as Jake being gutsy, turned into a spectacle as Maddie and Sophie climbed over the banister to jump. Maddie chickened out and spent a good twenty minutes standing terrified while our fellow shipmates ogled and egged her on. Eventually, I decided to change into my swimsuit and try to coax a nervous Maddie to jump. It worked and she jumped in after me, though while I was mid-air I couldn't help thinking about the jellyfish I had seen earlier from my window. Thankfully, there were none hanging around our boat at that time. The best, however, was the sunset. Incredibly stunning with oranges and pinks that dipped behind the jagged islands of Ha Long Bay.
Dinner and a freezing shower were followed by free beer (as a result of the mutiny, as Josh called it. The reason I titled this blog the not-so-boozy cruise: We were promised 40 L of beer when we all paid - this didn't happen, and our cruise director blamed it on the factory being closed for Tet (no one bought that). Long story short, they gave us each 2 free beers after dinner to compensate after a German complained and showed a picture of her itinerary. Can't keep the Germans from their beer!) drinking games I haven't played since freshman year of college and lots of chatting and getting to know each other. We all forced ourselves to stay up, even though, by eight PM, we were all wiped. At ten, we called it a night after a long conversation about fraternities and sororities where Jake gave a passionate rant about his distaste for fraternities (the Brits were so curious as they don't have such groups at their universities).. Tomorrow, after kayaking and lunch, it's back to Hanoi where Miki and I catch a Sunday morning flight to Laos! More on that tomorrow..