After leaving Hanoi, our three and a half hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, provided us with a picturesque view of the landscape and the many people who tended the farms and animals along the way. However, my serene feelings became severely blunted, after witnessing the body of an old man and his mangled scooter, lying without dignity beside the road, in the middle of a bridge. I couldn’t help thinking about the children and grandchildren that might be awaiting their beloved grandfather’s return. Nothing seems more of a waste and tragedy, than a road accident.
My mood began to lighten a little as we arrived at the dock, not far from Ha Long City. Here we gathered our gear for the porters and crew, who then transferred us by Tender to a beautiful looking old Junk called the Marguerite. I remember trying to act in a nonchalant way, as another crew member escorted us to our very luxurious room, with ocean views on both sides, as if we always lived in such a grandiose manner. However, I couldn’t sustain my princely pretentiousness, as we enthusiastically accepted our complimentary drink and the five course lunch. I quickly gave up all of my ridiculous pretences, as we began to meet the other guests on the boat, who seemed just as impressed by the lavish surroundings.
Once we got under way, we began to receive our first glimpses of the famed Ha Long Bay scenery. All around us, jagged limestone monoliths, partially covered in jungle, rose straight out of the water, which provided a splendid contrast of milky white against the emerald green of the sea and the clear blue sky.
That afternoon the crew herded us aboard a smaller craft and ferried us to the Surprise Cave, which despite the crowding of tourists, provided us with some interesting experiences. Choked by the multitudes, we felt relieved once we made it back into the sunshine and jumped at the opportunity to go kayaking beneath the cliffs.
On our arrival back at the Marguerite, we discovered a competition, whereby the contestants must brave a jump from the first, then second and then finally, from the third floor of the junk. Obviously, we needed to ‘show up’ all of the Europeans and win the day for Australia. Who wouldn’t want the winning cocktail and the recognition one received, for winning the as yet, unrecognised world championship of junk diving?
Oh my dear Lord … when I finally stood atop of our craft, the watery world below seemed to be an awfully long way down. Finally, I found my courage and launched myself into the air; flying un-majestically, off the roof of a rocking Marguerite; legs and arms flailing to hopefully soften the expected pain of the landing. Instead of a prolonged fall, I hit the water almost simultaneously and suffered the shock, as I plunged under the surface.
Surprised, I found myself in water that felt as hot as a winter bath and apart from my ungraceful fall, it was almost an impossibility to sink, because the water contained so much salt. After our initial shock, we continued our attempted gold medal performances for most of the afternoon, assuming that the amassing jellyfish populations were all harmless. Apparently one species of the jellies, didn’t sting, whereas the other kind could be extremely dangerous. Good timing with the advice guy!
That night, as we waited in the dining room for the evening feast, all of the lights went out. In the darkness we spotted candles bobbing along, as a procession of crew members approached, presenting us with a decretive cake, a beautifully carved watermelon and a dozen red roses for our anniversary. Wow … The sweet girls at May De Ville did it again.
The next day we boarded a smaller boat, for a trip to a pearl farm in a very heavy downpour. The staff there, soon lost interest in us when we wouldn’t buy any pearls. Fortunately, the day turned into a stunner, so we launched some kayaks and began paddling through tight caves with hanging stalactites … and to our considerable delight, after moments in complete darkness, we discovered amazing hidden coves and wonderfully idyllic lagoons.
After this, we enjoyed some more swimming from our launch, until one of the two French guys in our group, jumped from the water, yelling that he’d spotted one of the dangerous jellyfish nearby. We all rushed from the water and hung out over the edge of the boat for a look at the killer. Soon after, my wife began to laugh and three grown men cringed into silence. The perpetrator turned out to be a plastic bag, which eventually became a humorous topic of conversation for us all, heightened by a decent Chilean white wine and a delicious lunch. Katie relished the moment, by suggesting that the Frenchies and I looked like the three Musketeers, courageously clinging to each other by the boat’s rail; cowered by the horrors of a submerged shopping bag. Yeah, very funny.
That afternoon, we went to a small white sandy beach for some more swimming, before returning to the Marguerite for a round or two of G and T’s. The competitions continued that evening, with everyone wanting to be the first to catch a fish from the back of the Junk. Unfortunately, due to copious amounts of medicinal alcohol, the only living thing that got caught was a poor woman in a row-boat, who was trying to sell us some of her wares. She was more than a little annoyed and didn’t seem to accept my story of a wayward cast, or my sincere apologies.
Our last day on the boat consisted of a visit to a little floating village with a population of about one thousand, seven hundred and something souls. This small community even boasted a floating school and a bank. As we prepared to leave the Marguerite, Katie and I received handshakes and hugs from the entire crew of our junk; genuine friendships formed in a matter of days, such is the nature of the North Vietnamese.
That afternoon we bounced our way back to Hanoi, accompanied by the retelling of many tales about our luxurious and enjoyable adventures. On arrival, we felt like we just needed to soak up more of the Ha Long Bay memories over a pleasant dinner, but further adventure awaited and prevented us this intended extravagance. We rushed to gather our remaining gear and headed off to the station for the overnight train. Despite our tiredness, we felt excitement at the prospect of visiting Danang and the old port town of Hoi An.