Ha Long Bay was high on our sightseeing checklist for Vietnam. In the year we visited, it happened to reach Lonely Planet’s top spot for destination of the year, and, to my surprise, didn’t disappoint. I usually don’t get my hopes up for visiting somewhere widely recommended, because I tend to await expectations going unmet. I’ve found ‘No.1’ activities around the globe to be overrun by tourists or inexplicably famed in contrast to lesser known, equally beautiful, sites nearby. That said, I can’t help but abide by the overwhelming body of advice claiming that Ha Long is not to be missed.
Amidst the swathes and swathes of other gap-yearers, travellers, and tourists we snagged a two-day/one-night boat-tour of the bay from Hanoi. There are bazillions of these on offer, so be careful to check out a few and scope some comparisons – most seem pretty much identical but some have more of a booze-cruise vibe whilst others charge extra for certain perks: luxury accommodation or freebies, like food, thrown in (we clearly conducted v serious research and ended up on a tour where we had to pay for water… Do Ryanair do boats now?).
I’d expected the bay to be overrun by ships, but it’s actually huge enough that each takes a pathway to its own small space, giving the ambience of a private, remote, escape. One of the few activities besides grabbing a beer or cocktail and chilling on the deck, was kayaking, for which everyone went in pairs. This worked out as the most amateur of amateur Olympics , with a different Nationality represented by each boat: Joe and I lagged second-to-last whilst a tall fit Swedish couple took the lead. When a boat capsized because three young men were being prats this, of course, turned out to be the kayak of the only other Brits, and rather than responding we agreed that rowing slowly enough might mean we wouldn’t have to help. Sure enough, the Germans reached them first, and then the Austrians. By the time we and a couple of Spanish gals our age had dawdled over there was little to do but stare and make the occasional unhelpful comment. (They got back up, eventually, and still beat us back to the boat for sunset.)
I still vividly remember the image of swimming in Ha Long Bay, three years on. A lot of folk we’d befriended on deck had been brave enough to bomb into the water, whilst I’d slipped my flipflops off and feebly climbed the ladder down. I stayed in a lil longer than everyone else, and just floated, peacefully, on my back, until it was almost pitch black. Only one (probably watery) cocktail within, I felt tipsy-calm. In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this site, my mind isn’t the quietest place, and one of my lifelong struggles is trying to get it to slow, for a second, and relax. It’s rare moments like this floating, here, that I achieve that, and wonder what I was obsessing over. I remember staring out at those receding limestone rocks that seemed to go on forever, and pondering how big the planet really is. I felt so far away from home and the narrow future I’m always afraid I’m confined to, and for a few special hours I realised my options might, actually, be vast. I cherish the times I acknowledge how little I know about life and what’s going to happen next, so paddling in an expanse of water that really makes me notice my size inside the outside world works magic.
My small size – literally – even came in handy the next day, when I met one of those other moments I cherish: ‘duck’-instructing caves. Finally: an advantage to being 5ft2.