Vietnam Day 3: Halong

Today we had a day trip to Halong Bay bright and early.

Breakfast was amazing as always, Oriental Suites Hotel really knocks it out of the park for breakfast.

Our bus was a bit late, but we were the last ones on practically, then it was off for about 4 hours out to Halong.

We had a really interesting guide today, a guy named Huy that went by “Johnny” as well, which was good because the Poles with us said that Huy sounds like something you shouldn’t say in polite company? The group was a mix of all kinds of people. We had people from Poland, Indian Americans, Singaporeans, Italians, and us.

Huy talked a bit about topics my Dad was worried about specifically, like animosity towards Americans and French, even among the older generation who lived it. He told us there isn’t any animosity left; that he thinks that’s partly to do with the country being overwhelmingly Buddhist, but also because there is an understanding that most people fighting in Vietnam didn’t want to be there. I think it helps that they also won. He told us some heartwarming stories about reconciliation. And about how the north planted many landmines, and Bill Clinton’s administration pledged a lot of money to help clean it up. He asked if Chuck fought in the war, which he didn’t, barely avoiding the draft like my father by a year. I think he’s right too, we haven’t had any looks or been treated with anything but either good will or disinterest, and Chuck bought his camo backpack from Army Surplus. Perhaps the only time anyone takes much notice of us is when we cross the street. “Oh god, here come some Americans, better take it slow past them, they might randomly get spooked and stop in the middle of the road!”

But those landminds still claim lives every year, and between them and Agent Orange, Vietnam has a far above average 6% disability rate. The government has set up a program to help employ those people by offering subsidies to business hiring disabled people, so most stops we make there are signs advertising that certain products were made by the disabled. Our guide told us this after we’d passed the tourist trap so that we didn’t feel bad, he tried to impart that because the government helped, that we didn’t need to buy anything out of guilt. And he was very proud of his countries 4% unemployment rate. From what we’re seen Vietnam seems quite industrious.

And we did stop at a tourist trap midway. Twenty minutes for a bathroom break is more than I wanted to spend because each minute sitting there was a minute not out at Halong Bay, with our time already pretty short there.

When we arrived, like Ha Noi, Halong was covered in a fairly thick haze that is common this time of year. Apparently January and February are very foggy, and we were told it was good we didn’t come at that time of the year. When it’s not hazy, its usually during typhoon season, and they get hit quite often with the early part of those typhoons as they build up on their way out towards the Philippines.

We boarded and grabbed a table for lunch, and while we unmoored and left the harbor lunch was served. Around us a fleet of other boats also left. A lot of these tours are very similar stopping at the same place. They’ve been commoditized for easy re-packaging. I had bought our tour through Scorpion Tours, and they had pictures where it looked like their own boats, but the boat we got on was run by another company, and had another name. In the end they’re all the same, so I’m glad I didn’t spend top dollar. The food was a bit underwhelming, but there was lots of it.

Halong bay is made up of about 1960 islands, half of which are not named. They’re “karst” formations which come from a pockets of limestone mixed with other sediments. The limestone is from long dead coral, and in this case the other sediments were clay and mud. At some point the sea retreated, or the tectonic plates shifted in a way that pushed the mixture up out of the water, and then rain and wind eroded the softer materials leaving pillars of limestone. The rainwater dissolves some of the limestone and often creates stunning caves with stalactites and stalagmites. But in general they just look fantastical. Add in the haze and they take on a slightly whimsical feel.

Our first stop was a “floating village” though I don’t think it’s very authentic anymore. Throughout Southeast Asia there are a number of these ethnic minorities that live nearly their entire lives on the water as nomad fishers. The islands here provided protection to one such group. Now it’s a bunch of fishing boats, though it’s not clear if people live on them anymore or not. There is also a floating platform that is definitely recent from which row boats and kayaks for the more adventurous.

Chuck and Pam were a bit apprehensive about how wet the kayaks would be, but decided to do what we were doing, so we took a pair of 2-man kayaks and paddled around. We had 45 minutes and checked out a pass through in the rock that lead to another protected bay. We had seen the others going to a closer pass through but wanted to avoid the crowds. On the other side there was just us four, and one other woman on her own. It was quiet. We took our time a bit while Pam and Chuck went off on their own, and after a bit we followed. We still had a fair amount of time, so we circled back and went through the pass that we had skipped initially. Everyone really enjoyed this.

When we got back to our table there were trinkets to buy. Some cheap pearls mostly. It was later explained to us are made by taking a piece of mother of pearl from a Mississippi oyster and grinding it into a bead, and then placed inside a local pearl oyster which over the course of 6 months puts a thin layer of its own pearl around it making it look like a perfect round pearl. They’ve also figured out how to mill some coral into black and red beads. Pam bought some earrings and few other things.

Our next stop was a cave, though it wasn’t anything like Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize, it was made for mass consumption with handrails and a completely paved walkway with colored lights all throughout. Our guide didn’t have much to say other than that locals would hide out in these caves when big storms or typhoons would come, after which point he started cloudwatching. This one looks like a couple dancing, this one looks like an elephant. To me it’s pointless, but everyone else seemed to get a kick out of it.

And then the trip was basically over, all too short. We began motoring back towards the harbor at sunset with the islands backlit through layers of mist giving them a depth. A bit of sun shining on the water cut by a longboat out fishing. It was very scenic. We just kind of sat around and watched the sunset while everything passed by.

The ride back to the hotel I mostly just read my book. I’m on the 5th book of The Expanse series right now and finding this one maybe the best so far, maybe better than the 1st. One nice thing about reading ebooks in my phone is I can easily read during the night.

We had to make another tourist trap stop. Huy explained this one was notorious for being visited by Chinese tourists looking to drop 20k on a new huge table. He was really very negative about Chinese tourists and how they travel that kind of surprised me. We quickly grabbed some food, just some springrolls and goldfish crackers. And we just barely had time for that. Then Huy pulled me aside to tell me that the travel agent still needs to be paid $90. And that’s true, we only paid half up front, and I realize we haven’t been charged the second half. Well shit, I’m already shorter on cash than I expected having to pay for the suit in cash. I kind of figured they’d just charge my card, but then again that also isn’t working. I kind of wish they had just asked me for a new one. But hey, here we are.

So out of the $540 USD I brought, $90 for the tour today, $250 for the suit, this isn’t going to last much longer. ATM fees here we come! I wish I’d brought more like the $600 I had originally planned to bring, plus $300 I had planned to spend on a suit. All of this reminds me of Turkey when I had blown through all my cash in the first couple days on that sailing cruise.

Back at the hotel I rushed to the room and got my remaining cash for the suit before the tailor arrived around 9pm (when we had our massage scheduled). I wanted to try on the suit when the tailor arrived, but Jenn hadn’t realized the tailor would be coming to our room and had started a shower, so she was kinda stuck in the bathroom. My suit fit great. Perfect. Looked wonderful, he had fixed the bit of puckering that was happening under my right arm with the vest. I can feel that it’s half canvased coming down to the top button. I had wanted full canvased but they didn’t do that, and good luck finding anyone that does. It was $250 for a half canvased 3-piece suit in a wool-silk blend, which is an excellent deal. Supposedly silk blend is difficult to pull off too.

The suit I got is a dark grey with a blue tint to it out of wool/silk (which so appropriate given it’s from Asia) with a blue paisley lining. I had it made in 3 piece with 2 button jacket and 5 button vest. I forgot to do what I’ve done in the past and requested no seat pockets, but whatever. The suit is a bit more conservative than my Cornflower Blue suit I had originally bought for the wedding but had to replace with a Tux in the end. That suit was done in a wool-linen blend with very aggressive cut; short and slim, very much the current style. But it’s a bit casual in its color and cut, and my other is a tuxedo. This suit was to be more something I could wear for any occasion and to be a bit more timeless. Hopefully I can keep this shape for most of my life so I can keep wearing it. I’m 31 now and about 10lbs over my normal weight. I wish I’d had some photos taken when I had it on.

Chuck swung by my room right as I was done and tried on his shirts and wasn’t happen. They were tight along the back and so tight at the collar he couldn’t button the top button. It was the whole point of getting custom shirts was to get those correct. I paid my part and left them to figure it out. This left Jenn still stuck in the bathroom until Chuck was done hashing things out with the tailor.

I went and got my massage, and the masseuse was sick. She wasn’t especially good either. But at $25 an hour it was a steal. I made sure I showered immediately in case she was contagious though.

I went to Pam’s room after the massage because Jenn had messaged me that’s where she was. Apparently Chuck had told the guy off but had accepted the shirts for $25 and had gone up to his massage 10 minutes after me. He figures he’ll wear them casually without a tie.

The hotel had seen Pam’s bday was really close, so they had a cake waiting for her when we got back and sung her happy bday. I had been upstairs so I missed it all, but wow this hotel has the best service I’ve ever seen. We had a bit of cake and then retired to our rooms.

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