The Bittersweet Taste of Ha Long Bay

The Bittersweet Taste of Ha Long Bay

‘Heaven on Earth’.
‘Beautiful, truly breath taking’.
‘One of the best places on the planet’.
‘Scam City, this place is a hole’.
‘Ha Long nightmare’.
‘Disgusting, don’t waste your time’.
If the great barometer of public opinion Trip Advisor is to be believed then Ha Long Bay is an enigma, both a glorious wonder of the world and a dangerous cesspool.
Ha Long Bay horror stories abound and taking a tour, handing over your cash, your independence,your very soul to one of the hundreds of slippery tour operators that ply their invisible wares on the streets of Hanoi takes nerve. To me, the Ha Long Bay package tour seemed as authentic a travel experience as any, an inside look at a bona fide 21st century tourist trap, a chance to take a good long look at what happens to an ancient, sacred place when everybody wants a piece of it.
With my tour booked I fantasised that I might find myself on a barely floating Alcatraz infested with vermin, at the mercy of a sadistic crew and surrounded by carcinogenic water that would peel the skin from my bones if I dared to enter it. It might even rain. But as I board the bus that will take me from Hanoi to the wharf at Tuan Chau in Ha Long all fears disperse. Based on the demographic of my fellow Ha Long Bay trippers I know two things; I needn’t worry about being comfortable(octogenarians need soft beds) and I’ve got a very good deal.
After a five hour bus ride as claustrophobic and maddening as insomnia, Ha Long Bay Marina City, a monstrous development that dominates the small island of Tuan Chau, engulfs us. Finished apartments sit empty and featureless like stacked plastic food containers all around the bay while the ones still under construction flaunt their ugly metal skeleton insides.
Behind white sheet fencing hides a golf course, designer shopping, and soon, a mega casino. The gateway to an ancient wonder of the world turned into a fully-realised tourist theme park. Crawling through the building site I see four men in suits flanking a bride wearing a pristine white veil and dragging the long train of her dress in the red dirt of the unfinished road, hot and unhappy.
‘Please, wear your life jacket and your name tag around your neck. That way, you fall in, not my problem’, the guide laughs as we board the ferry, flashing a wide smile that disappears too quickly for there to be any real amusement at its source. An English woman has a question so waves her hand in the air, flapping it up and down like she’s trying to hail a taxi, shouting ‘woo-hoo’. The guide slides up beside her, that smile again, ‘yes, madam?
My cabin is nicer than most of the hotel rooms I’ve stayed in in Vietnam and the simple creature comforts of a proper duvet, a mirror over the sink and an impossibly fluffy white towel give me a thrill of pleasure, intensified by the realisation that I have a flushing toilet and a hot shower all to myself. The disturbing question of where it all flushes away to only momentarily fazes me as I slowly wash my hands with vanilla-smelling soap, running the hot tap the whole time.
Nobody’s up on the front deck of the boat when I get there which is no surprise because it’s drizzling and the deck is slippery. It’s spring which means it’s foggy and cold, just like back home in England.The mist is so low and heavy I feel the weight of it in my lungs and the chill of it settling on my skin in a slick layer of damp – pneumonia weather. I’m the only one on the boat not wearing a water proof jacket and yet I’m the only one who’s outside.
I can’t hear the other guests out here and the quiet is deliciously eerie. Islands sprinkled with green foliage appear for me out of the depthless grey mist, jutting out of water that’s as dark and still as black ice. The islands were honoured with names by ancient fisherman, names like Stone Dog andMonster Face which seemed strange to me before I saw them but I suppose it’s human nature to want to give a thing with personality a name.
My itinerary doesn’t allow for time spent contemplating this supremely weird landscape and humanity’s minute and impermanent place in it so I go to the deck and join the rest of the group for kayaking. Predictably, nobody wants to kayak apart from an Irishman who speaks in jokes, an Italian woman who is irritated that she has to leave her glass of wine behind, and me. The guide responds to this reluctance to water sport by calling the rest of the group, most of whom are in their seventies, lazy. That smile again.
Cold rain, dirty water, a monkey eating a bag of crisps, we splash around in the water as everyone else takes a ride on a small boat through a few uninspiring caves – an excursion that looks from a distance like the most depressing school trip ever.
Night falls while most of us are showering or napping and soon it’s time to eat. ‘I can’t eat anything with cucumber of coriander in it’, a woman loudly tells a member of the crew, a definitive statement he seems to find baffling. Can’t? ‘These prawns are cold’, another man complains after looking at them for five minutes before slowly peeling one while sighing at the great inconvenience. A silent agreement diffuses itself across the table like poisonous gas, yes, we are unanimously dissatisfied with our food, only we’re all still eating and I’m definitely enjoying mine.
The bar staff are beautifully unaware of standard measures and judge by eye how much liquor is enough to give their cocktails a kick. Three Tom Collins and I’m done, put to shame by a French couple who are onto their fourth bottle of wine. I listen politely to a cheerful Australian man who explains the best way to cook squid, rave about a five star restaurant he found in Hanoi and invites me to stay at his home in Darwin, should I ever got to Australia. He tells me I’m the same age as his son. How old does he think I am?
My eyes are sore and I’m yawning ten times a minute but as everyone else makes their drunken Irish exit I try to stay up on deck, lost in the silence of the endless darkness, starry sky above,unfathomable void below. The staff want to clean up so they can go to bed and start putting plastic covers on all the other chairs so I take the hint. It’s freezing anyway.
On the way back to my cabin I accidentally step into the doorway of the crew quarters just next door. Four sets of bunk beds sleeping twelve people are crammed into a space the same size as my cabin for two. Every bunk has the same mean plastic mattress but a different backpack out of which spill t-shirts, jeans, the tangled wires of headphones, cigarettes and lighters, the usual teenage boy stuff that is enough to make me wonder, for the very first time, about how life is for the crew on this boat. Do they live here throughout the season? Are they paid well? How old are they anyway?Questions I form but know I’ll never ask.  
The next morning I leave the safety of the pack, who are taking a coach all the way back to theirHanoi hotel lobbies, with a sense of relief and attempt to make my own way south. I managed to skip the ubiquitous ‘floating village’ trip, a morning spent photographing fishing communities who once thrived in the waters around Ha Long Bay but are now facing forced resettlement on dry land thanks to the pollution caused by tourists. A disturbing irony happily ignored.
I take a taxi to a dingy bus station where I’m pointedly ignored and forced to pay three times more than usual for a bottle of water that just about manages to wash the bittersweet taste of the last two days from my mouth.
Already Ha Long Bay feels like another planet visited in a previous lifetime, an ancient landscape created by dragons from heaven where I had my own hot shower, a flushing toilet and fluffy white towels.

About Toni Marie Ford

Toni Marie Ford is a freelance travel writer, cinema lover and slow travel enthusiast from the UK who has been enjoying a nomadic lifestyle since early 2014. Visit her blog, www.worldandshe.com, or follow her on twitter @worldandshe.

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