If you go to north Vietnam, most would say you’d be missing out to not see Ha Long Bay. I’d agree. The area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Essentially every tour company sells a package, and you can do a day trip cruise or a multi-day cruise where you sleep overnight on a boat in the bay. “Cruise” essentially means fancy boat ride — most options aren’t going to have casinos and bowling alleys. But they often have meals included, English-speaking guides, and activities like kayaking. Can’t I just rent a kayak and paddle around? I wondered before I came. Not really. The bay is massive, nearly 1,000 square miles, and to kayak exclusively would be like opting to look at a single brick in a pyramid. Interesting, but missing the point.
While many take a bus from Hanoi to Ha Long city and catch a boat there, the waters nearby can be quite crowded. I wanted something a little different. So I took a bus to Cat Ba island, the largest island in the Cat Ba archipelago, and signed up for a two day, one night cruise with Cat Ba Ventures.
The trip started on a “junk boat,” a wooden boat used primarily for tourists that won’t exist much longer because it is difficult to repair wood over and over, so new boats must be made of steel*. We began in Lan Ha Bay, a lesser-known but similarly beautiful series of islands. The main difference, according to our tour guide, Duke, is that Ha Long Bay is supported by more tourism dollars because it’s managed by a different city. Lan Ha, on the other hand, is part of Haiphong, which has invested less in tourism.
Along the bay there are fishing villages, homes hanging laundry, dogs keeping watch to ward off anyone who might try to pirate caged fish. Sometimes men live far from their families. Sometimes families live on the boats, the kids boating to land if there is a school nearby, or staying full time in a military school.
There are hundreds of islands here and only the largest have names. They are made of limestone and granite, eroded by sea water, leaving tall karsts shrouded in thick bushes and trees. It is the kind of place where you understand how humans could only prosper in communities, no single man able to carve a home in a wilderness so dense.
Before lunch, we stop for a swim. There are no sharks or crocodiles here, but Duke warns us to watch our feet if we approach a nearby beach. The coral and oysters are sharp.
“What about the jellyfish?” I ask. They hurt, he says, but they won’t kill you.
I jumped from the second floor, and the water was cool but not frigid. The other swimmers and I swam toward a nearby beach, but the ground was rocky and sharp, so rather than going ashore, we turned back. On the way back, I swear I see a jellyfish and splash, swimming backward, before eventually making it to the boat. Probably just seaweed, I tell myself. I climb out of the water. Behind me, that jellyfish that I’d convinced myself I’d imagined stings another shipmate. Her wrist reddens but she’s OK.
The meals onboard are delicious, with several types of fish for the meat eaters, many types of vegetables for the vegetarians. We all share anyway, reaching our chopsticks across the table, asking for dishes to be passed. It’s the longest I’ve spent sitting and eating that I can remember, the challenge of eating small dishes out of a bowl with chopsticks slowing us down, tourists from Spain and Austria and Germany and the U.S.
The water is super salty, and I sit in my wet clothes, the saline making my skin itch. We cruise to a quiet part of Ha Long Bay, passing fisherman steering rowboats with their feet. It’s so their hands are free to catch fish and squid, Duke explains. I try to ask — who learns to do this? How long does it take them to learn? But the questions don’t land.
A while later, we drop anchor and climb into kayaks. Duke and I are in a boat together. He steers and I paddle us through cave arches into small lagoons. Mostly we are quiet, but he tells me about his sister who lives in the United States, how he is paying back his family for his education, that they ask him when he will get married but that’s not something he wants right now.
Back on the boat, we meet up with the ship that will take us the rest of the way and house us overnight. I take a shower as quickly as possible and then watch the sun go down, no glorious array of colors but a slow dimming to blue and then dark, the islands turning to silhouettes in the distance.
At dinner, I cast myself as the curious extrovert and ask questions that get the table talking. Do you think men and women can be friends? What’s something people do that really annoys you? How much money would it take for you to do a job you hated for the next five years? At 8:30, I climb into my room and fall immediately asleep.
I’m up at 5 a.m. and get some work done while waiting for the sun to rise. When it does, it’s a misty, unglamorous morning, so I head back to my room until it clears a little more and head to breakfast. Afterward, we go kayaking to more beautiful lagoons and caves, and we have a chance to go swimming before lunch but most decline. Then we head back to Cat Ba.
That’s where I am now. I booked a different hotel — cheaper, and so far, nicer — for the night. The group from the boat that is still on the island for the night is going out for beers a little later. Tomorrow I’d planned to hike around Cat Ba National Park, but the weather doesn’t look great, so we’ll see. After that, I’m headed to Haiphong, Seattle’s sister city, to get the lay of the land before heading south.
*did a quick Google but unable to confirm accuracy with certainty
Thoughts beyond the itinerary
Travel is a pretty new thing to me. Before my mom died (2015) I’d only ever traveled abroad to the UK to visit Mark’s family. I’d been to a few states — Oregon, Utah, California (where I visited my dad). We didn’t really have family “vacations” to new places. My first flight was to a funeral.
This year I started traveling regularly. I went to eight different countries (all very briefly) in 2018, all thanks to travel writing and press trips (wherein hotels, cruises, or tourism boards pay a writer’s expenses to visit their location in order to get placement in one of the writer’s regular publications; the writer hopes to get a good story that someone will buy, to make the time away from their desk worth it.)
I have all kinds of mixed feelings about this. Growing up I couldn’t imagine a future in which I’d have the ability to travel out of the country often. I didn’t do a student exchange because it seemed too expensive to consider. Even road trips seemed to have an unwritten price tag: the money you were willing to front for a necessary tune up, the disaster you can afford to absorb should things go awry on the way.
So I’m hesitant to evangelize travel. I’m not sure there’s some mythical understanding of the world that can’t be obtained in another way. I don’t think you (or I) “have” to travel. My mom used to say she’d never wanted to travel abroad because there was so much to see in the United States. She wasn’t wrong. But I have also loved seeing new places, stingrays and sea urchins in Jamaica, cenotes in Mexico, fjords in Norway. The landscapes often stick with me, a way of understanding the long, long history of the earth and the very small place I fit in it.
Then there’s the question of what we mean when we say travel: Does traveling to foreign resorts and laying on the beach count as “travel”? Is lugging a backpack from hostel to hostel more “authentic” — especially if it means you’re on a budget, bringing little to the economies you’re touring? How can you be sure to interact with locals in a way that isn’t exploitative, particularly in a place where the income is much different to yours? Or is exploitation inherent in exchanging money for a peek into a culture different from your own?
I don’t have answers, just questions upon questions upon questions.
I’m also sensitive to the fact that cheap, readily available travel — the kind of travel that has made it possible for me to do what I’m doing — is unequivocally contributing to global warming. My $600 flight has costs beyond the ticket price. And yet I question whether a higher price point would be the best solution to the problem. Is the world better if fewer people can afford to see the vastness of it?
Or maybe what I’m trying to say is: In Ha Long Bay, we saw trash. Was it “a lot” of trash? I don’t know. It’s the kind of trash that maybe came from local boats (which is against the law), or maybe came from the tide pulling trash into the waters (the ocean can’t determine where the border of a World Heritage site begins and ends.) Our guide, Duke, quietly fished plastic out of the water. The trash we could reach, my partner and I pulled into our kayaks.
Here is what I do know: To see the beautiful places — and people — of the world is to unintentionally change them. To add more tourist ships to the waters, to raise prices for lodging, to turn signs from the local language to English, to see more styrofoam and plastic bags caught on the rocks of places we would very much like to protect.
We’ll need to do better than retrieving a bottled water or two.