Christmas Day in Halong Bay

Thursday, 25-12-2014. Day 127.

Three Days on Ha long Bay. Part Two.

We spent three days floating around Ha Long bay on a junk with Sam's childhood friend and her family. It's an adventure we like to call ...

Ha Long We Gonna Be On This Boat?

When the morning came around, it was Christmas, a day when children the world over wake up early so they can find out what sort of surprises await them. We, too, got up early (for our 7:30 a.m. breakfast) and got a few surprises of our own.

Christmas Day Surprises

Christmas Day in Ha Long Bay.

Christmas Day in Ha Long Bay.

Surprise No. 1: Surprise Amazing Cave

After breakfast we all filed back onto the shuttle boat and shuttled our way across the bay to a dock that marked the entrance of the Surprise Amazing Cave. As we stood there in front of the sign that proclaimed this attraction one of the seven wonders of nature, Peter gathered us around and asked us who we thought discovered this cave.

There are only seven wonders of nature. Hard to believe, but there it is.

There are only seven wonders of nature. Hard to believe, but there it is.

Everyone stood there, shifting uncomfortably and looking at each other without saying anything. Asking an open-ended question to a group of people is a habit a lot of tour guides (especially in Asia) have—maybe they learn it at guide school. It's really annoying. If I knew the answer to this question, I wouldn't be on your tour.

The silence hung over the group oppressively. Someone had to throw themselves onto the sacrificial question pyre, and that someone might as well be me.

I said, "Local fishermen!"

He said, "That's a good answer ... but it is not correct. It was discovered by the French who named it Surprise Amazing Cave."

See how annoying that is?

Anyway, after that was all straightened out, we hiked up a long set of steps and into the Surprise Amazing Cave. Very shortly after we entered, we learned why the French who discovered it named it the Surprise Amazing Cave.

Yes, this is how the chamber is lit. Subtle.

Yes, this is how the chamber is lit. Subtle.

So there you go. There's also a dragon on the ceiling and a lucky turtle (well, it sort of looks like a turtle) on the floor. And, true to custom (remember, people love turtles here, and not just to eat), the turtle rock's head was rubbed smooth and people would throwing dong all around it as they passed by.

At the end of the day, the turtle goes home and wonders how to spend his dong.

At the end of the day, the turtle goes home and wonders how to spend his dong.

The path through the different chambers of the cave was pretty long and we spent a fair amount  of time walking through it. Eventually we walked down a long pier to catch the shuttle boat back to the Garden Bay 1. We weren't the only group visiting the cave that morning, and there was a lot of tourist traffic here.

As we walked down the pier, we passed a number of boats that were floating shops. There was all sorts of stuff for sale from these boats, but the most fascinating shop belonged to one woman sold all manner of sea life—and only sea life.

Floating fish market.

Floating fish market.

Only now do I wonder who this woman was selling to. Tourists? We weren't in the market for any fish. Maybe if we bought some the boat's chef would have cooked it for dinner, but I somehow doubt it. We couldn't even get him to make us a bowl of pho.

Surprise No. 2: A Swimming Trip to the Beach

So let's say your tourist guide says, "We're going to go swimming at the beach." What do you think that entails? Perhaps a trip to the beach? Yeah, me too. And that's what he said.

I could have done without the trip, but Jackie really wanted to go swimming (ever since she taught herself in Bali, that's all she's wanted to do). So we headed out with a few other people on a trip to the beach. I had no interest in swimming, instead content to stand on the beach as my daughters splashed around in Ha Long Bay. That was the plan, anyway.

So we puttered out to the middle of the bay on the shuttle boat when the captain suddenly cut the engine, still a good distance from shore. Peter strips down to his skivvies and jumps into the water. Everyone who wants to swim follows him in and starts padding for the beach.

Everyone, except Jackie. I looked across the water toward the beach and shook my head. No way could Jackie make that. She could swim, sure, but not well. The captain said he'd maneuver the boat closer. And he did, but it wasn't that much closer. I told Jackie there was no way she'd make it to the beach.

She knew it was true, but didn't want to admit it. She started to cry.

This is what they meant by "a trip to the beach."

This is what they meant by "a trip to the beach."

I blew out a big breath of air, cut loose with a few profanities, stripped down to my skivvies (big props to my Ex Officio boxer briefs), and jumped into the chilly waters of Ha Long Bay.

After maneuvering Jackie into the water (she didn't want to jump in), it was quickly apparent that she was going to need a floatation device if she wanted to swim to the beach. So we got her outfitted with a life jacket and together we swam to the beach, then everyone turned around and swam back.

I didn't enjoy the swim. Along the bottom of the bay there are countless oyster beds and coral reefs I stepped over ad I helped steer Jackie to the beach. The water isn't exactly clean, either. During our swim, we went by floating bits of Styrofoam, a can or two, candy bar wrappers, and even a 10,000 dong note.

Once we got back to the boat, I realized that I shredded the skin on the bottom of my left foot. I was bleeding all over the shuttle boat, and, while I didn't know it at the time, during the shenanigans of getting Jackie out of the boat, I broke my toe. Surprise!

After we got back to the Garden Bay 1, I took a hot shower and did my best to clean out the cuts on the bottom of my foot. One thing I can say about the showers on the boat: there was a good amount of hot water. As I bandaged things up (always carry a first aid kit) I notived I had shards of coral or whatever embedded in my foot. Terrific.

Surprise No. 3: Your Guided Kayak Tour Becomes Self-Guided

And then it was time for the next activity ... kayaking. So we shuffled back onto the shuttle boat and took a quick jaunt to another pier where we climbed into kayaks (Jackie and me in one; Frankie and Sam in the other) and paddled off to a quiet part of the bay to wait for Peter to show us where to go.

Notable was the fact that we weren't given life jackets. When asked, Peter said we wouldn't need them. Curiously, the other tour groups on the water with us all wore life jackets. That said, the water was pretty shallow (as we were about to discover).

Jackie taking a break from paddling.

Jackie taking a break from paddling.

Everything was going fine until about 15 minutes into the trip when some of the kayakers became grounded in a shallow arch. It took a considerable amount of pushing and heaving with the paddles to get thorough this area. Then, it happened again, and the water was so shallow, Peter had to get out of his kayak and push everyone though a cave and into a quiet bay.

Samantha and Frankie, kayakers.

Samantha and Frankie, kayakers.

This wouldn't have been so bad, except Peter was pushing everyone through the cave, so we had no idea where to go. we were a bunch of kayakers, jsut padding around asking, "What are we supposed to do now? Maybe we should go back?"

So we went back. And  Peter had to push us back through the cave on the return trip, too, and this is where the group got spread out and eventually separated. Both Sam and I got hung up on shallows a few times on the way back, so we had to figure out how to get back to the pier with the kayak landing on our own. We made it, but not without a little confusion and one slight wrong turn. At least I did get to say, "Not between the boats! Didn't you see Indiana Jones!?"

(Later we found out that one of the crew was supposed to follow behind the group to help people who got stuck, but he didn't feel like going.)

The End of the Day

After we got back, soaking wet and miserable, we went to our cabin to change into something dry. My left foot really hurt, and this was when I noticed that the little toe had developed a deep purple bruise. Sam looked at it and said, "I hate to tell you this, but that's a broken toe."

The crew was putting on a fruit cutting demonstration in the dining area (it was supposed to be on the top deck, but it had started to rain a little). The kids went over to give it a try while the adults chatted and played some cards.

Dinner was served shortly after, and when that was over, we were shown the 75-minute Top Gear special about that one time the boys went to Vietnam. So we got to watch three drunken old white guys drive motorbikes through Vietnam. You can see the full episode here.

I was in a bit of pain, so I decided to go to bed before they reached Hué.

Notable Statistics:

  • iPadographers: 1
  • Broken bones: 1
  • Hours in a kayak: 2
  • Near collisions with other boats: 1 (that we saw)

is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. He also drinks coffee.

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Christmas Day in Halong Bay
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