12 May 2008

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

There are 84 million people living in Vietnam, six million in Hanoi alone. In Hanoi are 3 million motorbikes and 1 million cars. Twenty seven people die every day in Hanoi solely due to motorbike accidents.

Women also tend to marry very young in this country; 16 – 18 years of age. Only 2 children are suggested per married couple and when one works for the government, if they have more than two children, they will lose their job. Men will also divorce or leave a woman if they don’t produce a son. This is a big problem in Vietnam my guide tells me. Parents want a son as the sons take care of aging parents.

Ha Long Bay

Far away from the business of the city I had planned an excursion to one of the natural wonders of the world snuggled on the northern coast of Vietnam: Ha Long Bay. This magical place harbors an intricate maze of tall limestone monoliths not unlike the few along the Oregon Coast.

My new traveling companions and I were each a little suspect about the content, quality, and organization of the tour we each planning the trip in different ways: through a travel agent on the street, a cheap hotel concierge, and in secret with a hotel employee who took the booking commission herself. So far our excursion was going well in spite of activities we each hadn’t known about but were enjoying including hiking, kayaking, swimming, and visiting an island. The second day we took a bus to the top of Cat Ba Island to get on our overnight boat but it wasn’t there. Not wanting to chance waiting another two hours on the dock for lack of organization as we had the day prior, two of the others pestered our young guide to call for the boat verses us simply waiting and waiting. He learns quickly that the boat has issues due to low water. It’s either a low or a high water issue here due to tides and high or low season which we were entering. The group doesn’t really believe him as we’d think nationals would know how to deal with the wet and dry season transitions inherently. The guide says we need a ferry such as we took the day before to get to the boat; this ‘ferry’ being a flat raft of sorts with bench seating and a 2-stroke motor. Much to our surprise and within ten minutes he has secured one – the same guy as yesterday. This guy literally banks on low water. We crawl down some rocks to clamber into his rig and we’re off.

Only the boats we think we’re to board keep moving away from us much quicker than we can approach. Our guide decides that those weren’t our boats. He keeps directing the ferry guy as if the boat will be around the next corner, or the next – the corner being the next monolith. We’re traveling quite far now and this isn’t the safest boat I’ve been on. Its planks are old weathered wood, the shifter barely peeks out from the deck and is put through the gears with the foot of our caption who sits a foot away me, the boat heavy and seeming near capacity with we six tourists, our guide, and the driver. We ride so close to the water I fear that if something should happen we haven’t much leeway ‘till we’re waterlogged. I start to get comfortable with the idea that some pieces of luggage will inadvertently fall in, including one of mine.

We speak to each other in glances wondering how our over-night boat will find us if we keep moving as the limestone peaks are very maze like. The sun is starting to set providing beautiful shadows and skies yet we go and go until we can see Ha Long City on the horizon and we start to feel angry that the guide might be taking us back to shore; its been 45 minutes now since leaving the island.

Only our over-night boat is close and sitting with a bunch a people on it who are very interested to see us, the entire population of the boat standing to one side to watch our arrival. Our guide turns to us with a smug look of confidence mixed with a grin of relief. He has found our boat. We think they must be full for the night and fear they’ll turn us away leaving us stuck on this tiny raft of a boat.

The boat also appears to be listing to one side and not floating. Sure enough it is stuck!

As we start to board this boat much taller than we, a perturbed European woman asks me directly, “Why you so late?!” If she only knew I think to myself speechless at her inquiry. Turns out these people were to have arrived on Cat Ba in the morning, but their boat got stuck and they’d been sitting all day! Our tour didn’t sound so bad after learning this. Most of the people spill onto our little ferry – where we six (with our guide and captain as eight) were at capacity of the small craft, at least 16 now boarded. Some of their ride will be in the dark and I don’t envy their likely fear.

After cleaning up in our private five star bunks and dining with white linens and French wine, our small group gathered on the top deck watching the moon rise enjoying orange slices and chocolate from my last emergency bar. I meet many people from all over the world on my travels and though our faith and governments often disagree, we always seem to like one another and treat each other with respect and joy of living -the “Why you so late”-woman not withstanding!. One quip about those hiking wax embalmed chocolate bars: they are awesome! The chocolate is very truffle like and the wax keeps them clean in your suitcase. An emergency it wasn’t but turned into celebration as our marooned boat started to float as the tide came in, the boat later motoring to a secluded lagoon for a sunrise surprise.

spied while in our 2-stroke ferry.. but what is the woman doing?

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