We woke up Friday morning around 7 to get ready. We were being picked up around 8 by a tour company that we had arranged a 2 day 1 night cruise of Bai Tu Long bay. We got in the van and picked up another couple who are a 10 month trip throughout the entire region. They started in Nepal 8 months ago. I asked them what we were doing wrong that they had so long to travel. They said: “You probably have jobs to go back to.”
The travel company we booked with is called Ethnic Travel. They advertise low-impact tourism in the region, and an authentic glimpse into the everyday life of Vietnamese people. Our tour guide was Xu, a short women from an area called Sapa. Technically not Vietnamese, she is a member of one of the 53 minority groups that exist in the Northern part of the country. Her English was spectacular and she really made the trip work.
The first leg of the tour was an extrememly uneventful bus ride from Ha Noi to the docks at the bay which took about 5 hours. We did pass through Ha Long Bay and got to see the crazy limestone cliff formations in the water. Where we are going has them also, but they are not as big or pronounced as they are in Ha Long. According to the legends, Ha Long is the mother dragon and Bai Tu Long is the baby dragon. This also means that Ha Long is much is packed with tourists unlike Bai Tu Long bay. Ha Long is a UNESCO world heritage site and named one of the natural wonders of the world.
We reached the docks and boarded our junk boat. I’m not making fun of it, that’s what its called. We were soon off on our way through the bay; flanked on each side and at all times by scenery fit for a movie. And no joke, we are the only tourists around…well non-Vietnamese tourists that is.
We eventually parked the junk at an Oyster farm at the island of Hang Te. We got off the boat and kayaked around the island, dodging giant jelly fish as we went. We had a fresh lunch of rice, steamed fish, salted peanuts, these potato balls of infinite delicious, mango and rambutan (a furry little fruit that looks like something out of a science fiction movie), and poached shrimp. We swam a bit in the water and did some back flips off the boat, again trying to be cautious of the jellies before shoving off for our final destination of Quan Lan, one of the larger barrier islands of the geographic region.
We took a tuk-tuk from the dock to a typical Vietnamese home owned by a 73 year old retired fisherman. He and his wife did not speak a liick of English, but they were kind and smiled and shook hands. The house had (at least) 5 bed rooms and before you start picturing a palatial beach house let me stop you. The bedrooms were no frills affairs, a bed frame with a bamboo mattress, a fan than that worked when the electricity was on (from 6-10 only). The bathrooms were single rooms with toilet, sink, and shower head all right there; you could literally shi-vacuate and shower at the same time…come to think of it that actually might be a frill.
The house only had two common rooms, one was devoted to the Buddhist altar, and the other devoted to the Western altar (TV). The kitchen is outside and is little more than a coveted pavillion. Dinner is usually served around 5pm every day, after which the family listens to music or watched a movie, and then goes to bed by 8 or 9.
Part of trip package was a cooking class during the home stay, so after we got to the house and rinsed off a bit, we got to work makings prong rolls. Erin and Danielle chopped up carrots and onions and stuffs while one of the old man’s daughters went to town on a slab of pork with a cleaver. An egg was cracked in the mixture to give it some viscosity and the six of us sat down with sheath of rice paper and rolled fatties till there was none left. The spring rolls were then deep fried in a pan full of oil over burning coal.
The complement of dinner was served: rice, poached shrimp, another amazing potato dish, pickled cabbage, fried shrimp (was wa fantastic in a sauce called Ngoc Mam), and sweet green bananas. After we ate, Xu talked a bit about the customs around marriage and family in Vietnam, and we shuttled off to bed.
Earlier in the evening a loud speaker had come on, evidently informing the population of the Islas that there would be no electricity that evening, and instantly a bunch of generators started up. The fan in our room thankfully ran through the night to help keep us cool, and the air was further cooled by a down pour that lasted through the night.
The next morning we got up at 630 and came down for a breakfast of noodle soup with shrimp and morning glory; we also polished off some more green bananas. We said good by to our hosts and mounted some bicycles for a 9km bike ride up the island through the farm lands. We picked peanuts (solving that mystery), saw some buffaloes, and again regaled at our surroundings. About halfway through the ride we stopped at a beach and cooled off. A few minutes later we arrived at the dock in the northern end of the island, which was more of a slippery rock slope down to the boat.
We sailed through the rain for but until a break in the weather afforded the chance for a swim. So you know backflips and swan dives ensued and then we got the idea that it would be fun to climb half way up the mast and jump off from there…so we did. Lunch was served: rice, beef with morning glory, steamed fishes, those potato ball crack goodness thingers, Chinese cabbage, bananas, salted peanuts, and pumelos (giant grapefruit)…served with the commiserate garlic soy sauce and hot chili sauce.
The tour ended with a hike up to the top of one of the limestone cliffs for sweeping views of Bai Tu Long and Ha Long bays and photo ops…because you know I hadn’t been sweaty, rained on, or wet in 46 minutes. We disembarked, collapsed into the van with the AC pumping, and drive back to Ha Noi happy people.
– the docks
– we made spring rolls hooray
– our bed for the night